Monday, February 27, 2012

24 Hours

Life changes in a blink. Now, I have not truly experienced a blink in the past 24 hours, but I've lost another friend, two friends, truly. And our reservations for a house on Anna Maria Island, that I secured in December, went up in a puff of foreclosure smoke.

The last will take care of itself. Some solution will come of this mess. It's just a bother when I don't want to be bothered.

But losing two more friends is hard. I loved them both. Both fill me with great memories of my youth and fill me with want for old friendships.

This mostly about my childhood memories with Rick. But first I have to honor Richard Willis. Dick was a great man. A real man. He loved life and was a generous and friendly person. He was a great friend of my fathers and of mine. I spent a lot of time with the Willis family and it was a great experience for me. Dick loved fast boats and skiing. He'd take us all over the lake in his wooden Chris Craft boats. They were show pieces and always the fastest boats on the lake. He taught me about taking care of your stuff. He prided himself on things "lasting." I can hear him now telling me, "Yeah, its held up." But always it held up because he took good care of it.

I would hang out at their cottage a lot. I learned early on that getting a great meal from Gay or a ski behind his boat would cost me some labor. I always liked working with Dick and hearing his stories so I was glad to help him out. It never ended. On one of my last visits with Dick, he had me plant a bush by the side door in late fall. He could no longer do it himself.

Dick was a consumate story teller. He knew everyone and seemed to remember everything. Duke takes after him a lot. He always had a story about someone and they were all very entertaining. He was generous to a fault if you were fair with him. But he expected you to treat him right. If you didn't look out.

In the end, Dick was the most positive dying man one could imagine. As the news got worse, while I'm sure he had private moments of fear and despair, he never showed a moment of that to the outside world. He was positive and friendly to the very end. He was always glad to see me and asking about my family.

When he first told me his prostate cancer had returned, I felt like he was describing a cold and there was nothing to fret about. He made me feel like it was just another day in his life. When the news turned grimmer and he had to face some dire facts, he was still positive. He was positively beaming when he told me what a great life he had had. He had no regrets. He and Gay had lived a full and wonderful life together and he had four great kids. Their life had been filled with adventures and fun and lots of turmoil as well. But clearly he felt fulfilled and satisfied with a life well lived. God bless his soul and bless his family who he loved so fully. We've lost a good man, a real man.
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Rick Bienz was my childhood friend. As kids in grade school, we did everything together. Played in the creeks, hiked the woods, climbed the fence to sneak into the reservoir, fished, made wine, tried to smoke balsa wood, made gunpowder, hydrogen balloons, UFOs, broke shit, fixed nothing, and as we grew up we did all the things older friends did. Drank to excess, chased girls, drove fast and engaged in too many activities I really can't admit to. Most with less creativity and more thrill seeking than in our youth.

When my mom died, his mom was a huge influence over me. She made the best vegetable soup and chili. I ate there all the time it seemed. We were inseparable as kids. He lived a bike ride away. As I posted earlier, if you read McCammon's "Boys Life" you'll understand my life as a kid growing up in Washington C.H. with Rick Bienz. It was full of adventure and imagination, complete with a "Cat Lady" whose old house was filled with Cats and was once filled with politicians. She was reputed to be the lover of a President and was involved in the Tea Pot Dome scandal. (You'll have to look it up.) So we had great imaginary fears of that house and of her. I remember we finally got up the nerve to go to her house on Halloween one year, mostly becuase it was the scariest thing we could think to do. She turned out not to be scary at all. Of course.

We soaped lots of windows, threw eggs at cars passing by on Route 35, hung dummies from trees over the street and laid them by the road as if they were dead bodies. We made skate boards out of boards and skates, and go carts out of mower engines. We played Capture the Flag and other outdoor games with scores of people from around the county who somehow found my backyard as their summer playpen. More than a few young romances sprung up and a few fights over my sister.

I spent a lot of Christmas Days at the Bienz house. At our house, once we opened presents, Dad would often leave to check on patients. So I would go to Bienz's. They always had an open house. So Rick and I would go and break his new toys (and mine), watch TV, eat food, play pool and watch the adults talk and enjoy the wonder of the day and the company of each other. As an adult, we adopted that tradition in Cincinnati and had open houses at our house on Christmas Day.

We went to dirt track races with Bobby Moore, skiied and swam at Rocky Fork Lake, and always prided ourselves on being the first to ice skate in the winter. We always fell through the ice, but dammit, we were the first to get out on the ponds and skate on ice that litterally would roll under our weight. We played ice hockey on the ponds and skated down the creeks, dodging logs and sticks and falling through where there were weak spots. We played in the snowdrifts created in the ditch behind our house, burrowing through snow 10' deep, creating tunnels and rooms.

In Summer we played army and shot BB Guns in the ditch. It was "Combat." We'd shoot hornets when we found a hornets nest in the ground and usually would end up pouring gasoline on the nest and setting it on fire. We'd set up our army men in the sand box and pick them off one at a time. We'd play on the wood pile with the smoking trash can at the head of the pile and pretend it was a train engine, taking us who knows where. We'd climb all over the pile, jumping on and off and scrambling around like great adventurers. We'd build forts in the woods. Snow forts in the snow. We'd climb up into our tree house and have adventure after imaginary adventure. Robinson Crusoe all over again.

We'd fight all the time. In fifth grade we competed to see who got to be Bobby Grushon's boyfriend. Rick won. I don't know. She'd been my girlfriend since second grade. She obviously liked him better. We'd fight from time to time. Wrestle and smash each other's face into the ground. Then get up and be friends. I don't remember what the hell we fought for. I think it was like two dogs who fight for superiority. It was an even battle. We got in trouble on the playground. I think once we picked on Jay Simison. Maybe twice. I've always felt bad about that. We got into big trouble the one time. We called the Merit Boys the MooIts. Someone else started it, but Rick and I loved to get them mad at us. Once, I ran into a pole as I was chased by one of the Merits who was going to kick my scrawny little ass. It cost me five stitches.

We became good friends with Mr. Gwiazdowski. He lived across the street from me. He was our sixth grade teacher. He loved teaching and loved the guys. He knew his role at school. He taught us soccer, let us build a high jump pit, helped us build a hockey rink out of the parking area next to the school and convinced the other teachers to park further away in the worst of the winter weather. Rick and I would help him shave his head on his front porch. He loved hockey and took a bunch of us to a hockey game in Dayton. We had a friend that came from a big hockey family, the Shaltry's. Mike and Steve. Mike was our age, Steve was older. So they taught us all how to play, how to handle a stick. We ignored most of the rules. We all had figure skates. They had hockey skates.

Later we began boxing over at Haugens. As well as always playing pool. Rick had a bad shoulder. I had the longer arms. So I would keep hitting him in his shoulder until I could see he was flinching, then fake a punch to his shoulder and hit him square in the jaw. He hated me for that.

We had a party one night at Haugens. Barb and Vern were out of town. It was a good crowd. Rick was in the back room with some chick. Can't recall who. We thought we cleaned up well. Some friends who stopped by offered to take the trash and dump it for us. They did. Right in someone's yard. They looked in the bag, found some receipts and called the cops. The County Sheriff, who had no real jurisdiction over the location of the party, called Haugen in the next day. Haugen tried to deny he had a party. . . The Sheriff knew who Bienz was with in the bedroom. Haugen confessed. But all he demanded was that Marc apologize to the family that ended up with our trash.

Oh my! The memories do roll along.

As friends sometimes do, we grew apart. It's a shame. We were quite different in many ways as we got older. Those differences weren't so important. But we never lived close together again. And as happens in life, you settle in with new friends, new activities, kids come along and your life changes direction. But I will always love Rick and I think he always loved me. We had too much history to let us lose what we had. He was like a twin brother. But not identical by any means.

I imagine Rick is up in heaven right now telling some wild tales. Most probably aren't true, but the truth is, he has enough fantastic true stories that he doesn't need to exaggerate. He leaves behind a loving woman and a grieving family. I hope he and Gene are playing ping pong as I speak.

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