Today was an inordinately sad day for me. It wasn’t for all day, not even most of the day, but the feeling was different than many other sadnesses I’ve felt. I learned today that a man who I’ve been friends with since before I have actual memories passed away. A friend with whom I grew up and spent most of my childhood. My best friend for the better part of my first twenty years on this planet. The guy I enlisted in the U.S. Navy with in 1966 on the buddy system. He apparently had a heart attack and he also, apparently, was living alone as his body was not found for (I’ve been told) “some time.”
We were no longer really friends in the sense that we did things together or even talked; I hadn’t seen him in probably twenty years, but I had remained close to his younger brother, Bob, whose wedding I had performed and whose son was named after me and is my Godson. I heard about it first from his youngest brother, Chuck, in a Facebook message. Chuck lives in Kansas and I haven’t actually seen him in more than twenty years, but we’ve been FB friends for a while and I do believe I’m thought of as extended family. Jim wasn’t a Facebook kind of a guy. Unfortunately, a lot of people my age have never become comfortable with computers, let alone social media of any kind.
Still, Jim was so much a part of my life growing up, there’s no way I could forget his role in it. I used to go with him every Sunday to Saint Genevieve’s in Panorama City. Most of the time he would just grab a pamphlet in the vestibule to prove to his parents he had actually been in the building, then we would go off and play somewhere. There were also times when I had no choice but to attend Mass and I learned all the proper moves to make; holy water, genuflection, grace at meals when I had dinner at his house. I could even recite Hail Marys and Our Fathers if called upon to do so. I almost still can, just like I can almost still read Hebrew after four years of Hebrew school that culminated in my Bar Mitzvah. In all the years we lived with our parents, he always tried to find his way to our house for Friday dinner. He didn’t much care for fish and my father was a butcher at the Grand Central Market.
Back in the mid to late fifties, there was a yearly Carnival that took place in Panorama City, near the intersection where Parthenia peels off to the west from Van Nuys Boulevard. They always had a shooting gallery where real .22 caliber rounds were used and Jim and I would root through the sawdust on the ground in front of the counter where the rifles lay to find unspent bullets people had dropped. We always managed to find a couple or more. After all, we were kids and that was our job.
We would take those bullets to the tennis courts at what was then called Hazeltine Park and “aim” them at the houses on the other side of Costello Avenue, to the northwest. Then we would smack them with a hammer. Great fun was had by all until another friend and I were doing the same thing in his backyard and a piece of shrapnel barely missed taking out his eye, leaving a nice gash in his eyebrow. That was kind of the end of that.
We did lots of crazy-ass things, which I can only assume lots of kids do. We once put our hands on top of the entrance to a red ant colony just to see what would happen. That was a shocker, as I recall. We used to put lady finger firecrackers in oranges — remember, this was in the middle of the San Fernando Valley in the fifties; there were orange trees everywhere — and throw them like grenades. My first lesson, though I hardly realized it at the time, in physics came from the realization that wrapping the firecrackers in duct tape increased the explosive power of those little things. We were just trying to keep them from being so diluted by the orange juice they wouldn’t explode.
Years later, when we were around 14 or 15, my family had moved a few miles away and Jim used to come and visit for a day or two at a time. Two doors to the west they were still constructing the new location of the temple where I had become Bar Mitzvah and one of the walls was unfinished, with horizontal rebar sticking out of the ends. We bent the rebar and made it into a ladder so we could climb up on the roof of the building and run around on it. We played a game for a while where one guy would get a BB pistol and the other guy would get a head start. The idea was to aim for clothing but I’m certain Jim caught one in the ear once. Another damper to our childhood fun.
I could go on. The more I write, the more I remember things we did, and the more stories I could retell, but I’ll save that for another day. I’d rather take one last moment and relate why I feel so melancholy and how important this loss is to me. It’s true we hadn’t talked in something like twenty years. As we grew our lives went in very different directions. The last time I saw him was in his home in Glendale, AZ. He was married, working as a contractor, I believe, and they had at least a dozen cats in their house. I was able to spend a few hours with him during an evening I was in Phoenix on business. We talked a bit about old times. We were in our late forties and not yet disposed to reminisce too much. I would hear about him occasionally from Bob or his wife, Bonnie, but it wasn’t much and life kept moving along.
His death, though, leaves a special hole in my past, the kind of hole most of us end up having more of than we’d like. My grief is only marginally for him, more so for his family, but in large part for myself. It’s the same kind of hole others who played a larger-than-life role in my past have left as well, even if they were nowhere near as close to me as Jim had been. One that comes to mind is Richard M. Nixon. I despised that man and spent many years fighting to end the war in Vietnam when he was President. He played, although indirectly, a huge role in the years I came of age that I nearly wept when I learned of his death. Not because of him — I wouldn’t dream of weeping over his death — but I grieved for the passing, the irrevocable disappearance of my young adulthood and all that was attached to it. Before he died, I had something to hang on to; an artifact of that part of my life. With his passing, it was gone.
The hole I feel with Jim’s death is far more devastating and just a little difficult to deal with. Much like Nixon, as long as he was alive, we had our past and our years of friendship. There was always the possibility we’d see each other again and have some laughs, maybe a beer or two. Now that possibility is forever gone. I have often written about death. It fascinates me. In the meantime, however, life goes on and I will too. I’m surely not the only person to experience these feelings. I just wanted to get them out and say a few words about, and in honor of, someone who was very special to me.
So, via con dios, Jimmy. You will forever live in my heart. We had too many good times and meant far too much to each other for me to just let your passing pass. I will someday join you, as will we all. For now, I’ll content myself with remembering our friendship and take the most from it until it’s my time.