Friends worth more than good memories


Mark Bell - Guest Columnist



Pardon me while I wander through the past a bit. Jeff Brock was my friend and now I can’t help being sad for a while.

To be honest, our friendship was a longtime ago. Don’t misunderstand what I mean by that. It’s not that we were no longer friendly, but life has a way of putting distance between people.

Although we lived and worked in the same small town all our adult lives, other than an occasional professional encounter, we hadn’t shared any real part of our lives — anything much more than the typical, “Hey! How ya’ doin’, buddy?” pleasantry — since we were kids.

Maybe that’s why my mourning feels as if it’s doubled; one for the man I knew who died last week and another for the realization only now of a rare friendship lost long ago. It’s not as though none of my childhood friends had never passed away before, but Jeff’s death caused me to think about all the others in my life who never left but still became absent along the way.

Naturally some of that is deliberate – and it’s a two-way street. That kind of regret is more easily solved. But then there are those who seem as though they are there, but are really not. Deep regret is found in all those opportunities we take for granted until they disappear one by one in the eternal lateness of the hour.

Indeed, the worst part of losing this particular old friend is the realization that both of us had pretty much, physically-speaking at least, gone the same direction most of our lives. We went off to school and after growing up maybe a little, came back here for the opportunity to work — as odd as that sounds now.

It’s not like we hadn’t seen one another since graduating a generation ago. We just never found reason to spend time together anymore. What we shared as kids no longer worked and I guess we just had no place else to go together. So where I have to go now is back to where we were because it’s the only true thing I’ve got left with which to honor him.

Sharing memories is not a bad thing, and it’s not a sad thing either. I would not dare to guess what his were. They might have been a tad embarrassing. (For me, probably. Not him. He was far less foolish a youngster than I have ever been.)

My memories of Jeff are with his mom, Eula, who was my first-grade teacher; his dad, Hiram, who was the first mayor of anywhere I ever knew; his brother Hi, who always found a way to laugh at my jokes even when they were probably just stupid; and their nice big house on Ivy Hill with what seemed to be a bigger tree house up the hill in the back that I fell out of once.

I remember going to church together, where my dad would preach and my mom would play (the piano) – and most every Sunday School class too, especially that day I got thrown out for flapping a rubber bat in front of a projector screen.

Of course the teacher thought it was soooo not funny at all. Jeff told me he got in all sorts of trouble because of it when all he did was laugh. I got sent to my dad’s church office and he never said anything other than I knew better than to interrupt others by being silly so just sit there on the couch alone and be ashamed of myself.

Then there was the time Jeff and I were trying to survive the unique torture that was hazing from the Boy Scouts in the early 1970s. (Looking back on that now, I can say that my high school band hazing was a heck of a lot worse.)

Lots of memories like that can pile up while attending school together for nine years — from Mary George Ward’s kindergarten to the last year at Harlan

Junior high (when there actually was such a thing) and we sat next to each other in Alfretta Watts’ science class where, among other daily cut-ups, we would count the number of spitballs we could put on the wall clock each day before she noticed.

That’s also where he gave me a laughing fit once by saying “The Bug Tussle Beagle” when she asked us all which newspaper we liked to read. Even now that makes me laugh, but back then I got so uncontrollably tickled Mrs. Teacher told me to get hold of myself or I could leave the room.

During those years we took multiple bus trips to now-forgotten places and shared the joys of occasionally finding girls along for those rides who were fun to aggravate, among other things.

There were the experiences of having sleepovers, mostly at his place, and having to endure his endless teasing at David Davies’ junior high basketball practices because I was much too short, a little slow and not good enough of a shot to make up for it. (“Practicing up for next year?” was his usual barb.)

No other friend in my life had a mountain cabin on a private lake. He would generously invite groups of us guys up a lot of times over the summers. (Actually, I think it was as much his mom’s idea.)

There was the time I was fishing off their dock and instead of a bluegill, I caught Roy McNeil. With Zebco reel in hand, I was showing fluid casting technique to Jimmy Allison. We might have been about 11. Either the second or third time I tossed it back, showing Jimmy yet again how to release the trigger while also throwing it forward, the pole just stopped dead with a jerk — followed immediately by a piercing scream.

We spun around. Roy also turned and there was the hook caught in his upper lip with the line extending directly to the rod in my right hand. The elder Hiram Brock came running to extract the thing and take Roy to the house where Jeff’s mom could fix him up. (Fortunately the barb had not penetrated, at least that’s the way I remember it.)

My last visit to there was for a small 10-year reunion of some from the Class of ‘79 (of which I was not officially a part even though all my former classmates would always invite me). The property remained a very pretty place and pretty much the same, but everything was just different.

Jeff and I had gotten together once while he was attending UK. It was right after Fran Curci had been fired, so Jeff wasn’t sure what was going to happen yet with Jerry Claiborne’s version of the football team but he was going to work toward law school. So we did one of those “Good to see you again!” moments and parted company for what turned out to be years until he came back to town and joined his dad’s law practice.

Our last conversation was this past November at the Tri-City Chamber awards dinner when we got to catch up a little, especially about our families. He got to know my daughter having seen her several times over speeding tickets.

He was very glad to know she had grown up enough to have outgrown that problem. She had also been a decent center on her high school basketball team, so they also had that in common. And we talked about our sons.

He was gracious, curious, kind as usual and seemed more than a little tired that night. I just wanted to talk to him again away from work. I wish now I could have shared some of this feeling because none of us has a contract for tomorrow’s sunrise.

And like flowers displayed in the sun, friends are not made or even met, but grown and cultivated over time. Without regular attention, their beauty gets lost in the weeds.

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Mark Bell

Guest Columnist

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