Doc died several months ago, and unless I tell you about him, I can’t really write well about much else.
A strange thought in this sense: Doc was not my best friend. He was a good friend – the kind you make in third grade and who drops in at important moments the rest of your life.
Strange too in this. Doc was a born conservative-capitalist. I’m the original liberal-writer. We ought ever to have been in a red-guy blue-guy standoff. We never were.
Doc in sixth grade. 1960. Our small town of 4,000 on the Illinois prairie.
Canvas delivery bags stuffed with tight rolls of The Champaign-Urbana News Gazette drape both shoulders like crossed bandoliers. A black, chopped-back Schwinn carries an oversized basket with dozens more papers.
He stands astride that bike and there is an air of Steve McQueen cool even then. Doc is a locus of balanced and confident points. Crisp short-sleeved madras shirt, one roll on each sleeve, dark sunglasses. With a broad smile, he clicks the coin changer on his belt. Doc has 58 subscribers – the largest route in town — and today it’s collection day. I get it. The papers pay for the bike, the shirt, the shades and they help make Doc who he is. He smiles. Life is good. He knows the deal. Accepts it. Hell, leans hard into it. It’s him. It’s real.
I too run a paper route on the other side of town. Twenty-seven subscribers. Split with my sister. Mom takes us around on Sunday mornings. It is my fervent wish to ditch this cursed manual labor soon so I can do what I’m made for: writing for newspapers, not carrying them. I am miserable.
That’s what makes me. I’m the book smart guy. Doc is the street smart guy. Somehow we know we can learn from each other.
Eighth-grade dance in the gym. Chubby Checkers. “Twist and Shout.” I press against the wall, looking at a huddle of girls my age who used to be friends who are somehow something else now. And that something else paralyzes me with awkwardness,
Doc has a big brother and is confident about these things. He knows stuff. He slides next to me at the wall.
“You just go up to them and ask,” Doc tells me. “They want to dance, and Nancy, Ruth or Carol will even dance close.”*
I swallow, put my chin down, cross the room. I dance close. My head spins.
“Holy crap!” I say to Doc as we walk home in the evening. “It worked!”
We share a sense of mischief. As a choir boy, Doc conspired with Jerry, my best friend. Together, they skunk-up the priest’s censer with too much incense and as he swings it one Sunday the gathering is covered in a dense cloud as the little cherubs chuckle and choke.
Older, in junior high, we wake up the town with firecrackers. In October, we are the window rattlers. In January, we hitch behind cars and steal rides on snow-slick roads. Always, Doc, Jerry and I share conspiratorial smiles at these antics. They’re Huck. I’m Tom.
Cut to a scouting event when we’re thirteen – a jamboree where we compete with other regional troops to see who can start fires faster, build signal towers taller. I trash talk a rival scout and suddenly, I’m seized by my arm with such force my legs start to noodle. The guy is bigger than me but what has me rattled is the fierceness of his bullying. He is going to hurt me. I’m helpless.
Suddenly, the bully disappears and there’s Doc standing over the bully he just pushed to the ground. Doc utters the classic:
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
The bully stays down and Doc and I walk back to our home camp, me feeling gratefulness and shame in the same moment.
Circa 1963 and I pay Doc back in other currency. We can drive to the University of Illinois now. I introduce him to French New Wave cinema. The best of Fellini. Lots of Italian movies. Sophia Loren. Marcello Mastroianni. Doc becomes a life-long convert to foreign films.
And in an unlikely role, I make the more talented Doc look good on the football field. We play second string in the backfield. My one and only skill is throwing a ball accurately over very short distances.
We have a play – a flat pass – where our ends go long and suck back the linebackers. Doc then takes two steps past the line of scrimmage and flares right. I hit him with a short pass and he makes ten to 20 yards.
This is clockwork. This is magic. There are two types of time in life. One unfolds in normal rhythm when you rehearse on a stage or practice on a field.
The other is when you are live with an audience or playing sports in front of a crowd. Some trick of the amygdala senses you are watched by your tribe and the moments slow down and are coated in gold and glory. You sense them differently as if you are watching yourself. Doc and I had those moment together.
We run the flat pass without fail – except for once when my pocket collapses. Ahead I see it — “the hole” – a parting in the defense through which I can run all the way if I move now. I do not and am sacked.
Doc just slaps me on the shoulder and smiles. “Shoulda run it,” he says. I never get the chance again in football, but “the hole” and my hesitancy is a life lesson. In writing, in business, in life, from that point on. I sense the hole? I rush through it without pause.
Doc does the same. He meets the love of his life in college – and marries Pat without delay. He tells me at a Christmas party senior year that marriage is the best thing.
Our instincts acquired as young kids in our small town serve us well and both Doc and I do well as adults.
We graduate college. Doc enlists in the Navy. Does a Vietnam tour. Learns Farsi. Liaises with Iranian military officers. Does a stint off ‘Nam. Leaves as a captain eight years later. Signs on with a medical supply company. Rises to CEO. Raises a wonderful family.
I move east to big city newspapers. I cover riots and civil upheaval and pull off some good investigative work. I win some awards. I write some books. I marry and also raise a wonderful family. I run some big name corporate ops.
We really only meet again at our 20th class reunion and keep in touch from that point on. Email and social media can be a curse but it was not for us. We renew the friendship and after two decades we meet one day in person. He picks me up at the curb and when he drives up, I swear it’s Doc back in the day – sitting on his cool bike.
“Careful closing the door,” Doc says as I clamber into his car. “She’s an old girl but I love her.”
“I know what it is, Doc,” I tell him as I carefully ease into the classic 1998 993, the last of the great air-cooled Porsches. He flashes that smile.
This is a down time for me. The Great Recession landed hard on my career briefly and I’m working in Dallas away from home turf.
It is a lonely time. I see no holes opening up. Doc steps in and we renew our friendship at a critical time.
“You remember the flat pass? “ Doc asks 45 years after I threw the last one. “The Illini Theater and Fellini?”
Other old friends step in to this new old circle and we laugh out loud over our old year book.
It saves me.
I move back east in 2010 and in 2011 I lose Jerry, my best friend, and head back to our small town for his memorial service. Doc and Pat fly in as well. I hold up okay until after the family greeting line when Jerry’s younger sister Beth tells me, “Frumpy, you two were such great friends. It was such a joy watching you two get into all those antics and grow into young men together.”
I smile and walk away but after five steps I’m overwhelmed with emotions. Grief breaks off from my shoulders like a glacier calving and I reel sideways using the wall as support.
Doc and Pat are there for me, holding me and hugging me, guiding me to a pew where I sob uncontrollably. They comfort me and bring me back to balance.
Long ago, when I was a young man, seeking to be a writer, I clipped out a passage from Harper’s that contained this:
There are two voices, and the first says, “Write!”
And the second voice says, “For Whom?” . . .
And the first voice says, “For the dead whom thou didst love.”
— John Berryman, 1968, quoting Kierkegaard, who in turn is quoting Hamann.
I carried it in my billfold for a number of years and in some way it helped buoy my writer spirit as I covered small time zoning boards and sewer line crises.
But as I grew and actually became a writer, I discarded it, thinking I was pretentious. I knew little of Berryman, less of Kierkegaard and nothing of Hamann. I was not writing about the dead – I was writing about the living and putting bad people in prison.
Writing about the dead who though didst love? Really, I did not understand the quote at all.
But I do now Doc, I surely do. And I thank you for that last lesson, Doc. Thank you for living your good life, sir. I was so honored by your friendship.