Seesaws and High Times
When I met Lance, we were both outside of the In crowd. We were both new to The Country School (TCS) and a little too odd for the inner circles. I was on the outside because I didn’t belong to a country club. Lance was in a country club, be he was still on the outside because his parents were outcasts for some reason.
Truth be told, I know why they were on the outside. It is hard to say it, though. Lance was my closest friend from age 11 to 15, but I always felt uncomfortable about his home life.
My mother met his mom before I did. Lance’s mom wore dark glasses on cloudy days. When at home she kept the curtains drawn during the day. She functioned well enough to take care of Lance, to make his lunch, to get the shopping done and to do the necessities of parenting, but she drank white wine by the gallon.
Lance seemed to take it in stride. His father was an international pilot for Pan Am, so some weeks Lance was pretty much on his own in the evenings. And when getting ready for school in the morning. He would dress how he pleased, grab his sack lunch, and head to school.
But wildflowers still grow and are still beautiful, even if they are unrefined compared to hot house roses. My home was short on money, but long on love and watch care. Lance’s had plenty of love, but the watch care was more occasional.
What drew Lance and I together was our sense of adventure and our outsider status. The cool kids didn’t invite us into much during free times at TCS, a private day school in Madison. At lunch time in warm weather we would sit on the seesaw and eat our meals and talk about stupid things, or about cars, or about girls.
Lance was skinny, and I was muscular. Lance was tall, and I was average. I could arm wrestle the toughest kids in the class, but Lance didn’t even try. And when we sat on the seesaw in the normal arrangement, I was sitting on the ground and Lance was high in the air with his spindly legs dangling like spaghetti.
Lance had the same lunch every day. Well, not exactly. His mother bought a pack of Frito-Lay chip assortment, a container of Snack Pack pudding, a bag of apples, a loaf of white bread, Jif peanut butter, and Welches grape jelly every week. She had a pile of brown bags. I think Lance put the lunches together while she made the sandwich. And every day Lance had a squashed PB&J, an apple, a pudding, and one of three different varieties of chips.
Many days I envied Lance. Like when I had a cold meatloaf sandwich on Branola bread. Or the time I had a baked bean sandwich. But sometimes Lance envied the variety. So I was happy to trade my Balogna and cheese for his PB&J on white. But I’d never trade my tuna salad, not even for his pudding.
I seldom had chips of any kind. If I did, they were State Line potato chips out of the big bag. My mother wouldn’t buy the individual bags, no matter how many times I asked. Too expensive, she said. She would buy pudding in the Snack Pack sometimes, though. She liked the butterscotch, so she’d buy one pack of that and one chocolate for me. That only happened about once a month, so I’d have pudding four days a month or thereabout.
Lance didn’t have a love of the outdoors. He could ride his bike to school if he missed the bus, and he liked to swipe cigarettes from his mother and take them into the woods, but he wasn’t great at climbing trees or balancing on logs, or exploring old stone walls, or chasing snakes. But he learned.
In my family, I was the oldest by many years. Lance was the only child of a second marriage, but he had three older sisters. The girls had a lot of drama in their lives it seemed to me. One ran away or something. They had boyfriends and jobs, and I think one went to college. By the time I was a frequent visitor to Lance’s house, they had left. I never knew why. Perhaps they grew up. I don’t even recall their names. All I remember is that they loved Fleetwood Mac. Lance got their old posters.
Lance and I had different tastes in music. He got his love of Fleetwood Mac from his sisters and I had about three different genres of music that I loved, none of which was Fleetwood Mac. I liked ELO and James Taylor and John Denver. He hated all three. He liked Black Sabbath while I preferred Led Zeppelin. He loved Pink Floyd and the Who. I’d rather hear ZZ Top.
I often invited Lance over to my house during the warmer weather. We would set up my pup tent in the yard and take our sleeping bags out there. We seldom slept much, though. We’d play cards, talk about cars, and make up games that involved climbing or racing. We’d sneak around the neighborhood and hide when cars come down the street. We thought we were being very naughty, but we really didn’t get into much mischief.
One fun game that we made up was putting strange things in the middle of Route 1 and then hiding to watch what happened. It was usually after midnight and we’d put a long stick or branch in the road, or a pile of apples or something. One time I got hold of a road flare and put it dead center in the road. We laughed as cars slowed to a stop, their occupants looking all around for the cops. It was a great joke. Until a police car pulled up.
Or maybe that was the most fun of all. He stopped near the flare, which had almost burned away and seemed to use his radio. Then he shined his spotlight around the sides of the road. We thought he was looking for us, but he was probably looking for someone in distress, like a car off the road or something. Then he got out and walked over to the flare. We were laying in the grass of a yard behind a hedge. There was nowhere to run, so we just laid still, like a deer in the headlights.
Eventually the cop kicked the flare off to the side of the road and drove away, like he had somewhere else to be. Afte we were sure he had left, I ran and got the flare, to put out the flame. It wouldn’t go out and was white hot. I finally tried pressing the flame directly into the pavement. There was a bang, like a firecracker, and the flame went out, leaving me with a numb hand from the shock wave. That made us laugh, and then we ran back to the tent.
Lance and I got together often in the summer, either at his house our mine, and stayed over, spending the night wandering and the morning sleeping. We thought we were radical. By the time we were in the eighth grade, Lance would get cigarettes and the occasional beer. A few times he got hold of a joint and we would act even sillier.
When eighth grade was over, Lance went back to public school while I went to a different private school. We spent a lot of time together that summer, mostly at his house. In September that year, besides starting high school, I moved. My mother and step-father separated for a year, and we moved over to Beach Park. It gave us new places to explore at night when Lance came to my house on his bike or moped.
We spent less time on crazy antics in those later visits. We were more apt to discuss music or mess with fireworks. One time we planned a business. I had found a wholesale catalog for stereo equipment, and we planned a Hi-Fi business among our peers and their audiophile older siblings. It was probably a stinker of an idea, but we thought we would be rich and have the best stereo equipment money could buy.
We had no money to test the theory out, however, so it went nowhere. I was in my mid-40s before I could buy the Marantz system that I had ogled when I was fifteen. I kept it about five years before passing it on. I didn’t use it very much, but I finally scratched the itch.
At the end of 1978 after about three-and-a-half years of being close friends, I moved back to Old Saybrook. From there it was a toll call to or from Madison. That was also about the time Lance went a little more wild than I could comprehend. He took his dad’s sports car out and totaled it. He didn’t even have his license yet. Later he took the family car for a joyride and totaled that, too. The police didn’t do much, but he saw the back seat of the cop cars up close.
We talked a few times, and he told me about his escapades. And maybe I was fortunate not to be involved in his car wrecks, drug use, drunken joy rides and such. He was a little too wild for me. I got into my own scrapes, but I avoided run-ins with the police. Or maybe it was just that Old Saybrook police ignored my stupid kid tricks because my step-father was on the force.
I’ve forgotten the year, but I looked him up with Google once. I found an old profile on MySpace. There were pictures of his kids, I think a boy and a girl. But there were also several notes of condolence. I traced them back and found out he had recently lost his son. Looked like the boy, 18 or 19, had died in a motorcycle wreck.
Yes, I know that I should have offered my condolences, too. And maybe I could have been of some comfort, I don’t know. But I couldn’t think what to say or how to open the conversation. I was in Maine; he was in Georgia or Florida. I couldn’t stop by, put my hand on his shoulder and let him tell me all about his boy. That’s what I should have done, either literally or electronically. But I didn’t. And I’m sorry.