Perhaps I can accomplish my purpose in this section by the use of illustrative vignettes. What I want to do is to show you how I was slowly able to reset some of my defaults about religion (remember, I was taught to disparage or denigrate other religious beliefs as well as the believers), and race (remember I was raised in the South) by increasing my consciousness of the world and struggling to be honest in my appraisal of myself, and by learning to live more openly. As I write, I realize just how much of a "work in progress" I am.
In high school my best friend was Bill Tyler, a slender, white blond (who unlike me got tan), gentle, very athletic, college-bound boy who happened to enjoy lots of the same people and activities that I did. We were inseparable at school, in the high school social club that we started, after school and on weekends riding horses at a local stable, and lazily floating along Beargrass Creek on Indian Summer afternoons fishing for catfish, or adventuring out to a distillery pond in nearby Bardstown where the catfish thrived on a diet of spent distillers grains insuring that their fillets were the sweetest and most tender in the world. Together we cleaned our catch in his mom's kitchen sink, being careful as we removed the skin and mud vein, and then dipped the fillets in milk and cornmeal where they deep-fried in lard until golden brown. We also fashioned hush puppies which bubbled in the cast iron pan alongside the fish, and then we sat down to gorge ourselves on our sumptuous, fresh-caught repast, washed down with sweet iced tea made by Bill's mom and kept ice cold in a dented galvanized pitcher in her refrigerator
Bill and I shared everything and kept no secrets from each other. We talked about life and death and jobs and the future and what we wanted for wives and later for families and jobs. I was going to be a doctor and Bill wanted to be an engineer (he did, I didn't). We double-dated and fumblingly explored the mysteries of adolescent sexuality at the local drive-in movie. We shared burgers and fries and shakes with and without our dates at Mammy's, the local drive-in restaurant and teen hangout. We went to movies together by ourselves or with dates, and we donned our midnight blue, wool ball caps to watch adult league fast-pitch softball games at Bonnycastle Field under the lights, on summer evenings so hot and humid that we were almost overwhelmed by the smells of stale beer and sawdust and uniforms stiffened with man-sweat.
I loved basketball, but Bill adored baseball and was a good pitcher. I didn't really like the game all that much, was scared of having my glasses broken by an errant pitch or foul ball, but he wanted me to join him on varsity, and urged me try out as a pitcher (there was a serious shortage) since I could throw a straight fast ball with fair accuracy. But he said if I was going to be attractive to the coach, I'd have to learn to throw a curve. So he spent hours working to improve my arm motion, my grip, and catching (sometimes chasing) my pitches because he wanted so much for me to play with him on the team. In turn, I agreed to catch his pitches which always arrived with a whack and stung my hand right through the thickly padded catchers mitt. But I didn't care because I want to help him be better--just like he wanted me to be. He made the team; I didn't.
Bill was from a blue collar family. His mother did piece work somewhere and his father was a high school graduate who, following in his father's footsteps, had worked all his adult life as night watchman at Brown Forman Distillery in downtown Louisville. Bill's house was on a small (75 x 100) lot and of very modest size; the Johnson house (four bedrooms and two baths) was located on almost two acres. None of these dissimilarities made an iota of difference to either Bill or to me because what we felt for each other, and shared, blurred all other distinctions. We were buddies: he was "Puss" and I was "Chubbs."
Bill taught me about friendship, loyalty, support, camaraderie, sportsmanship; about how to have a deep relationship with another person; about the importance of physical conditioning and discipline in sports. We both made images from the same clouds, were soaked by the same sudden spring thunderstorms, enjoyed our mini-camp-outs and picnics in the same leaf-scented woods accented by the peeling bark of sycamore trees; we both smelled the same creek-side algae and mud, swatted the same 'skeeters,' and shared the same excitement when our red and white fishing bobbers jumped and caused circular ripples that suggested that a lunker was nibbling our dough balls beneath the pollen speckled, murky waters of a pond or creek.
We tasted the same hamburgers and belched the same greasy onion ring burps, tried our hands at smoking pipes and cigarettes and at chewing Beechnut tobacco. We tried to like coffee and tasted beer together and learned how to drain a coke or a quart bottle of chocolate milk in one long swig by opening our throats and just letting the fluid flow down (punctuated by mighty belches, and usually followed gales of laughter) . We played hours of "burn out" in which we each tried to throw a baseball harder than the other, "burning out" our opponent's hand (he won). Some particularly dreary days we'd listened to 45's that we both enjoyed, hum or sing along, or pretend we were dancing with a hot young coed in bobby sox and loafers. We even took up and taught each other the intricacies of chess, going so far as to copy opening moves illustrated in the daily Courier-Journal. We rode bikes and drove cars, took endless walks, window shopped, and simply enjoyed each others' company in quiet moments of reverie and peaceful contemplation.
I witnessed Bill sick with grief when his grandmother died, feeling the same anguish of loss I's had felt when my grandfather passed away. In the spring of 1954, in front of Memorial Auditorium, we both felt the same mixture of elation and sorrow at graduation when we parted company knowing that we were about to begin different lives in different places and might never see each other again. Our tears and prolonged handshake and embrace were witness to all that. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm also certain that, as our individual lives became increasingly complicated and stressful, we used our imaginations to remember and revisit and repeat the same halcyon days and unfettered adventures that we had earlier relished as "men-in-the-making."
I saw Bill once more, in 1961, before he died at an early age, when he and his new wife attended my ordination ceremony, much against the doctrines of his church. He was my friend, you see, and that's all that ever mattered to us both. He was a Catholic; I was a Protestant. But for us, the more important appellation did not designate religious affiliation. Rather, it was when---as we were both standing with arms around each others shoulders, both dressed in khakis, T-shirts, and dirty sneakers, both holding fishing rods or worn ball gloves and grinning at the camera like shit-eating dogs--I called him "Puss" and he called me "Chubbs."
A welcome to readers
As a resident of this planet for more than four fifths of a century, I have enjoyed both successes and disappointments in a wide variety of vocations, avocations, and life experiences. This blog satisfies my desire to share some thoughts and observations--trenchant and prosaic--with those who are searching for diversions which are interesting, poignant and occasionally funny. I also plan to share recommendations about good/great movies I've watched and books and articles which I've found particularly mind-opening, entertaining, instructive. In addition, I can't pass up the opportunity to reflect publicly on how I am experiencing the so-called Golden Years. Write anytime: