Monday, August 14, 2006

Birthday story
A few months before I turned four years old, my family moved into a new house in a new neighborhood. Most of the families in the neighborhood were about the same, WWII vets with young families. The dads all worked for the same employer, the Atomic Energy Commission. The moms were all stay at home moms. The kids formed into packs according to age and sex and owned all of the yards and went to the same school.

As we were moving in, I was excited to discover that the family moving in across the street had a boy my age. His name was Billy Curran. I was amazed to discover that Billy had a birthday coming up just a few days before my own. At four, it's easy to be amazed and I had never met anyone else with a birthday in August (August itself being a new concept to me).

As I mentioned, the neighborhood was a new one. All around us were vacant lots, houses under construction, and holes in the ground where there would soon be houses under construction. Our mothers sternly warned us to stay away from the dangerous construction sites and Billy and I wasted no time in heading over to those same really cool construction sites.

Billy and I grew up together. The next year we went to the same kindergarten at the Methodist church and our mothers took turns driving us. We went to the same school and walked together most days. We were in the same Cub Scout troop (my mom was the den mother). We went trick-or-treating together on Halloween every year. Billy was a lovable goofball. He was an occasional class clown. He was the kid who crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue for the class picture.

Billy was also a tough little guy who occasionally had to knock a bully off of me. He had a heart. When I had a concussion from a tricycle accident, he gave me his Etch-a-Sketch. When a friend cut his foot wading in an irrigation canal--another place we were forbidden to play--Billy picked him up and carried him a block to his home and patiently explained to his mother what had happened.

Me and Billy in the third grade

Billy was never my absolute best friend, but he was never my enemy. We never fought; he was my most constant friend. That might have changed as we got older, but I moved to Alaska after the seventh grade. The changes in interests and new social structures that inevitably come with adolescence and junior high didn't have a chance to work on us. The only Billy I ever knew was the unchanging Billy of grade school. I last saw him when I passed through town for a wedding three years later. We were sixteen.

Thirty years later, I became reacquainted with David Neiwert, another veteran of the old neighborhood. David lived a block over from Billy and I and didn't arrive in the neighborhood till we were all in the fifth grade. Since David mostly remembered Billy from high school, he knew him as Bill. When I got back together with David, he told me that Bill had died the day before. Little Billy grew up to be an alcoholic who managed to drink himself to death at age forty-five.

Something strange happens when we hear that someone from our past has died. Suddenly, we want to see them, even though we might not have given them a thought for years--even thirty years. As long as we suspect someone might still be out there, they remain in an eternal state of hold. We haven't seen them and we might never see them, but we theoretically could see them if we really wanted to. They are available to us; we still have the opportunity to see them (with an unknown amount of effort). That's often enough to satisfy us. But when we find out they're gone, the opportunity is forever closed to us. That's an intolerable state.

Today would have been Billy’s fiftieth birthday. The eternal Billy of my memory should still be out there waiting for me to call him tonight and say, "fifty, eh? How did that ever happen?" We should be able to have a laugh and make an insincere promise to stay in touch.

Billy, dammit, why did you ever stop being the goofy kid of my memory and become a grown-up Bill faced with grown-up temptations and grown-up frustrations? Why aren't you still sitting by the little canal, watching the water-skippers, and hoping we don't get caught by our mothers? Why aren’t you waiting for my phone call?

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