I’m having a hard time trying to find the words for what I’m feeling. Maybe I’m not sure what I feel. It’s odd thinking back on my childhood, to all of the crazy pranks, misdeeds, insights, breakthrough moments, times when I was sure that I was not the same kid I was just the day before. So many of those times I shared with one person. My neighbor growing up. Rick.
We moved to Merrillville, Indiana (back then we had a Gary address – Merrillville had not yet incorporated) in 1962. Rick and his family lived right next door. He was my earliest friend. We raised each other as much as anyone. We went to school together and played together and got into trouble together. We ate at each other’s houses, spent nights together, had our first girlfriends around the same time. There weren’t many milestones in my early life that I didn’t share with Rick.
We went to Catholic school – Saints Peter and Paul. It was less than two miles away, so in about second grade we walked to school. Every day. When our big brothers were still going to Peter and Paul, we walked with them. They sort of watched over us. When we grew up a little, and our older siblings went to high school, we took charge of my little brother Dan. Day after day, year after year – we walked to school together. All the way through our sophomore year in high school.
We had many of the same teachers at Peter and Paul. We learned cursive together, shared homework assignments and stories of our wacky teachers. We developed some silly games like finding a can to kick all the way to school, hiding our cans in bushes near the campus, then kicking the same can all the way home. For weeks at a time.
Rick’s family had 5 kids (modest for Catholic standards back in the day). We had 7. And some of us matched up pretty closely in age. We always had a game of something going on and many of the players were from our two families. They were much more athletic than us. Rick taught me how to throw a baseball and how to bat, how to throw a spiral and how to tackle. He taught me how to shoot a basketball and how to dribble. While I never got very good at any of these, I couldn’t have been a regular kid at all in our neighborhood if not for Rick and his brothers.
We were altar boys together and even got smacked around by Father Wood after mass when we weren't holding our hands properly and couldn’t say the prayers in Latin the way we were supposed to.
Because we lived close enough to walk home for lunch, we were drug mules - only it was candy we smuggled back to Saints Peter and Paul from Ameling's Sundries - a little store that sold penny candy. It was like something out of the Andy Griffith Show. Little old Mom and Pop behind the candy counter counting out flying saucers, and Snaps and licorice and Necco Wafers and Smarties. Wooden floor worn down smooth. Little tingly bell over the door announcing customers. It was at the corner of 57th and Harrison I think. How many times did Rick and I walk into that store ready to get our own sugar fix?
We had tin can telephones from his bedroom to our kitchen. My big sisters used to tease him mercilessly, giving him cherry bellies until he got too big and strong to hold down.
I was just talking about Rick the other day to my wife. He taught me to drive a stick. It was in his dad's old black Ford pickup truck. It had a three speed on the column. He taught me the hardest thing first. Stopping on a hill and then starting up again. It was on Harrison Street on an incline at a RR crossing. What a right of passage. That was one of the last times I saw him.
While I did not keep up with him at all since my family moved away from that area after my Sophomore year - I am such an jerk about keeping up with old friends - I knew Rick longer than anyone. All of these images of him are rushing back to me. Playing soccer in the back yard or kickball or football or cream-the-kid with the ball. Snowball fights. Kick-the-can at night. Camp fires in Maysack's Woods, where once we nearly burned the forest down. They had a great basketball hoop over their garage. We could play there anytime we wanted - even if they weren't around. He was with me once when we were walking back to school at lunchtime and I was bitten by a dog. He went with me to Sister Anastasia's office where they patched up my hand. When I look at my hand I can see the scar. I always will.
They had a great TV antenna and could get UHF (we only had 4 stations including Educational TV which we would never watch). So we spent a lot of time watching TV in their basement. We regularly watched The Three Stooges after school. We played pool and ping pong. He and his older brothers - mostly Gene, who was in my brother John's class - turned me on to the best music. Stuff my folks would never let me listen to. Hendrix and the Who, Alice Cooper and Steppenwolf.
He was weird about his hair. He would comb it straight down and wear a hat to school because he was all self-conscious about how frizzy it was - but he wanted it long. It was the 60's after all. I remember getting into a fight with this guy named Danny Smith in their backyard over a snowball fight. Probably the only real fistfight I'd ever been in. After the fight was over, Rick sort of comforted me. Told me what a dick Danny Ford was.
We talked about everything from girls to music to sports. We shared every thought unselfconsciously. Every dream.
Rick is gone now. I got an email from a mutual old friend. He left and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I am so sad that I didn't make the effort over the years to catch up with him. I can't say I'll miss him since I haven't talked with him in probably 30 years. But I'll miss the idea of Rick being out there. My best old childhood friend. Besides my own family, I don't know I've spent so much time with any other person.
I don’t pretend to know that much about life after death. But I hope that in some way Old Rick knows what he meant to me and to all of us he left behind.
Good bye old friend.