I had two “best friends” growing up. I met my friend Charlie in kindergarten; I think our friendship began one day when we had a footrace home from school to his house, which happened to be on the way home to my house (sort of). We kept having that race and others, and things took off from there. I remember one day in first grade Charlie told me about this kid he knew named Clinton from the other first grade class in our school. One day after that we were all playing together during recess. I remember Clinton was wearing a banana-yellow shirt with a picture of the Fonz on it, and the word “Aaaaaayyy!” across the top. I decided anybody with a shirt that cool was probably all right.
The next year we were all in the same second grade class, and I suspect the higher-ups at Lundgren elementary regretted that move for years after. From that moment on, except for some occasional disputes, we were tight. We all remain in contact today, not necessarily each other’s closest confidants or friends these days, but still up on each other’s lives and still eager to catch up when our schedules give us the rare chance. When you form tight friendships that last from early grade school through high school and beyond, time and distance don’t dissolve those bonds easily. No matter where we go in life, there are only a precious few who know what it was like to grow up when and where we did.
We were all precocious in our own ways. I guess the thing that strikes me most about our common experience growing up is that we were always looking for some way to entertain ourselves. Which makes us like any other kids growing up, I guess. But for the most part we had to come up with our entertainment and views of the world on our own; we had very few experiences or inspirations handed down to us from older kids we knew. Clinton and Charlie both had some older friends, but for the most part when the three of us were together it was just the three of us. Generally speaking, we had few older friends or siblings to teach us the ways of the world about girls, school, music, drugs and alcohol, bad hairstyles, and so on. So we learned on our own, some of us more than others.
I have often wondered how our lives might have been different had a tragedy not occurred when we were in second or third grade. Clinton had an older brother named Martin, who was in eighth grade at the time. One afternoon just before Halloween, Martin and a friend of his were messing around with a handgun that belonged to Clinton’s parents. Nobody knows for sure what happened, but it seems the gun went off and shot Martin’s friend in the chest, killing him. For whatever reason, probably panic, Martin then shot himself.
I’m sorry to say I never met Martin. It all happened just before I started going over to Clinton’s house to play. For many years, and probably to this very day, Clinton’s parents kept a photo of Martin in the living room, probably his seventh or eighth grade picture. Every time I was there I looked at it and wondered what Martin was like. He was six years older than we were, so it’s not like he would have been hanging out with us much, or possibly at all. But I can’t help but believe Martin, who was by all accounts an extremely bright kid, would have changed our lives by his mere presence, especially as we got to high school.
Obviously, any impact Martin would have had on my life or Charlie’s life is nothing compared to the loss suffered by Clinton, who lost his brother. I hope me discussing it in this way doesn’t trivialize that loss. I’m sure there is pain there today for Clinton and his parents, whom I think the world of, but I also have to say they seem to have moved on as best they could. I never got the sense that time had stopped when I spent time at their house, which was relatively frequent. I think having a son like Clinton helped his parents a lot. As for Clinton, he was very young when it happened. I suspect it would have been more difficult for him had Martin been a little closer to his own age, which isn’t to say it wasn’t difficult. I think they all just coped and did the best they could.
Of course, the premise that having older mentors is beneficial, be they siblings or friends, may depend on whether you are looking at it from the point of view of the parent or the child. As a parent, do I really want a more worldly person exposing my kids to the ways of the world before they may be ready? Even if the exposure isn’t premature, do I really want my kids to be social early-adopters, the most sophisticated kids in the class about the realities on the path before them? I don’t necessarily want them to be social laggards, but there are certain lumps that get taken from being ahead of the curve, too.
I suppose it all depends on the kids involved. Good kids send and receive good messages most of the time. But even good kids and people do bad things, or at least things their parents may wish they weren’t doing yet. It’s all part of growing up. I guess as a parent I would wish for my kids to have a sage adviser who helps them get through the tough times, makes them just worldly enough to be in the know without being in harms way, and generally gives them another voice they trust and window to the world. If a few bad things come through that window in the process, well, kids will be kids.
You just hope the mistakes aren’t life-changing.
To this day I sometimes think about Martin, a boy I never met.