Friendship 50

Friendship 50

September, 2012
     Fifty years ago was an eventful time.  A significant milestone in human flight was marked when John Glenn, future United States Senator from Ohio, became the first American to orbit the earth. He flew aboard a capsule he named “Friendship 7.” His flight was brief – a scant three orbits of the earth and just under five hours duration – yet marked a special milestone, nonetheless.
      In Cuba, the Soviets were secretly building missile sites capable of delivering nuclear weapons deep into the American heartland.  When they were discovered, thanks to U-2 flyover photography, the United States and Soviet Union briefly brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war. 

     I remember those events rather well.  And 50 years ago last week, I turned six years old.  It was to be an eventful year for me, too.

     Two days later — I was still feeling all special and full of myself, the big birthday boy, the oldest of four (soon enough to be six) children, about to start his education — I began the first grade at a parochial Catholic School just north of Chicago, at Saint Isaac Jogues.  I soon found out that I wasn’t special at all. There were hundreds of us, all dressed alike in clean school uniforms. There were three (or four) first grade classes: all of the other students were six already.  “You only just turned six?”

     And I learned about teasing.  I was shy and a stutterer, which naturally come together and grow worse under stress.  I remember only one friend from those days, a girl who lived two doors down from us in our humble tract home neighborhood. Her name was Suzie Sharington and I guess you could say she was my girlfriend – insofar as she was my friend and she was a girl.  The entire previous year we’d walked the three blocks to kindergarten together.  Since we were both shy we sought each other’s company during the daily recess periods – rather than the “normal” thing to do, which would be (I guess) for me to tear around the playground with other boys.  Understandably, we were teased for that too.
     A bigger change was soon in store for me.  My dad found and accepted a new job, some 90 miles away, on the north side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  This required a relocation of the entire family brood.  My parents found and purchased a 3-bedroom house in a quiet family-based neighborhood, just across the city limits in the village of Brown Deer.  We moved there between Christmas and New Year.

Very soon after we’d settled in a couple of neighbor boys came over to greet me. That was Kevin Shepardson and Greg Cole. Kevin was such an old man, already in the 2nd grade. Greg was a few years younger than Kev, only in kindergarten. They were wonderfully welcoming. I don’t really recall what we did, but we spent a lot of time together right from the start. 

 It was a crucial couple of friends, for me. And perhaps they never knew how important it was for me to have two close reliable friends right away. I was a lad with a wicked stammer, who had just moved to a new school in the middle of first grade. I didn’t know what to expect, but I do know that the first week or so at my new parochial Catholic School – Our Lady of Good Hope – found me needing fresh undies after I had “moistened” them a few times. At least we didn’t wear uniforms there. 

The lots of the Cole and Shepardson family homes abutted the back of our lot, fenceless like everyone else’s. The Coles had two more rambunctious boys, younger than Greg; Kevin was the middle child of another three child family, sandwiched between two sisters.We became fast friends. They didn’t tease me, and I took to Kevin as my “older brother”, admiring his almost unlimited imagination. Kevin could have us playing our imagined scenes from some alien invaders movie, secret agent escapades, and – most memorably – sporting events. Greg was not “into” sports as much, and his family moved a few years later to Thiensville – which seemed like a million miles away, but was probably only five or ten.

Kevin and I played out imaginary Major League Baseball games, with a cutoff broomstick and tennis balls. Amazing, but it was a big deal to us when a family in the neighborhood got a new broom; if the old one had a sturdy handle, we’d get it sawed off and the end sanded smooth… it was our new “bat.” A game was played usually by three people, sometimes two, and we’d literally play out an entire game – serving double duty as announcers for the game as the drama unfolded.

We played out NFL games, sometimes just two of us, running imaginary plays and literally tackling ourselves. We’d often ‘broadcast’ the games, with Kevin announcing “Starr hands to Taylor”, as I dove to the grass in the Shepardson’s back yard. Sometimes Pat (now Bob) Petrie, would sit on the sidelines and “announce the game.” My recollection is that some games were recorded onto reel-to-reel tape for playback later.

Kevin and I became a formidable two-man football team — I suppose because of all the “practice” we had together — often competing against Tom Davis and Dave Welch. I do recall that once or twice each winter, after an exceptionally deep snowfall, we’d play a football game we dubbed “The Snow Bowl”, some imaginary hugely important game on the level of the Super Bowl (which wasn’t so big back then). These games I’m sure are recorded somewhere; I can recall Petrie announcing “That’s a circus catch.” They are aging somewhere, in someone’s attic, lying there to be discovered many decades hence as the supreme mystery of the 1960s.

Kevin had me believing that his back yard could be Lambeau Field – “frozen tundra” and all – that my yard could be Fenway Park complete with Green Monster, or Wrigley field, with ivy covered walls. Each of us impersonated any one of countless professional athletes each year.It was Kevin, with his free-spirit imagination, who came up with character role playing. He did an amazing Juan Marichal, the San Francisco Giant with the acrobatic high leg kick. There we’d be – pretending we were at Candlestick Park or Wrigley field – and me pretending to be “Sweet Swinging” Billy Williams. One time the broom stick in my hand met the tennis ball perfectly square, and Kevin – off balance from the high leg kick and release – was struck by a line drive right in the neck. Good thing it was only a tennis ball. After a moment, when we realized he was quite OK, we decided that an ambulance should come onto the field and take him away, where upon it was “announced” that he Marichal was in critical but stable condition. Or maybe he “died”; the crowd was stunned.

Oh, I could be Oscar Robertson, “The Big O”, making one-handed free throws in front of thousands of nasty yelling patrons in the Boston Garden. “Bullet” Bob Gibson, throwing so hard the ball whooshed by the batter like BBs. Base stealer Lou Brock, since I could emulate his hook slide.  Gale Sayers, taking a pitch out or receiving a kick, then slicing and dancing through a befuddled defense.

Kevin could pose like Hammerin’ Hank Aaron – even though we’d lost much of our affection for him and the Braves when they moved to Atlanta – smacking a home run.

By the way, all those players I listed were black athletes. We were already very post-racial in the late ‘60s.

We also “did” white players. I recall being Gaylord Perry, trying to figure out how to get saliva onto the ball. One time I snuck a wad of Vaseline® inside my cap and managed to surreptitiously smudge the ball before several pitches.When the weather was too cold, or wet, we’d be in his bedroom or mine, creating whole baseball or football games from the random roles of dice or turn of cards – keeping official scorecards and announcing the game into his reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Kevin taught me to talk like Donald Duck. I was never nearly as good as he was, but it was a skill I continued to work on. I was briefly popular on campus in 1976 when “One Hit Wonder” Rick Dees went to number 1 with “Disco Duck.” This also came in handy for entertaining my own three sons when they were quite young.

Kevin’s imagination knew no bounds. He had me pretending to be a Catholic priest, dressing in vestments for mass, consecrating bread and wine and praying out loud in Latin, as if I knew what I was saying. On one thing I didn’t copy him: his imagination and infatuation with weather and broadcasting. But I admired that ability to dream and have a commitment, no matter how silly it might seem to others.

Kevin helped me overcome my shyness and accepted me as I was: a short, skinny kid who often stuttered to the point of making others uncomfortable. He demonstrated at a young age a kindness that was unfamiliar to me outside of family.

And then suddenly, far too suddenly it seemed, the Shepardsons were gone — in 1971 I think. Off to the Arizona desert, to some town I’d never heard of: Lake Havasu City. I managed to drive my Chevy Corvair out there about four years later for a few days to visit. I think his dad had already been quite ill. A short time later his dad died, far, far too young. I felt horrible for Kevin and his family. I still do, when I think of Gilbert. Gil was a good friend to my parents; he and (Kevin’s mom) Dottie welcomed them the same way Kevin welcomed me. Acorns don’t often fall far from their trees.

In the years since, Kevin has done more than I have to keep in touch. I’ve bounced around a bit, living in various other states — Arkansas, Tennessee and Washington — before settling in Colorado. Eventually I’d get around to telling Kevin where I was, and then he’d proceed to carry most of the communication duty.

I’ve been blessed with 50 years of friendship with Kevin, most of it conducted over many miles. I’m grateful for that and what he’s modeled for me from the very beginning: wild imagination, unfettered friendship, kindness and patience.

     Here’s to you Kevin, and to our friendship. Friendship-50.

Joe Girard © 2012
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