Yesterday, sitting in my recliner on a Sunday afternoon, half-awake, my cell phone rang. It was Jimmy. I knew he had just been released from OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City. I jumped from my chair and ran outside because my phone has lousy reception inside the house.
I sat down on the diving board next to the pool and remembered another pool, bigger and typically filled with screaming kids, the pool where I was baptized, at Green Valley Bible Camp near Rogers, Arkansas on a hot July day in 1972. Jimmy and I talked like the old friends we are. We haven’t stayed in touch like we should over the years, but we melt back into conversation like warm butter on hot corn.
We talked about his Dad, William, who is buried beneath a headstone that reads,”A great man has fallen” II Sam, a reference to 2nd Samuel in the Bible, which was sounded out by his brother-in-law as “A great man has fallen aye aye sam.” In the face of grim news Jimmy still laughed like he did in the old days, when we were young and smart and knew things.
We talked of the old days and how we used to hang out and talk, listen to The Stranger by Billy Joel and drink Dr. Pepper. I fell in love with Olivia Newton-John watching the movie Grease, Jimmy at my side, at the Southroads Mall Theater in Tulsa one summer day in 1978. Last night, I discovered Grease playing on television and watched a good part of it thinking about Jimmy. I told Jimmy it was his sister Gail who finally gave me the courage to walk down the aisle and make that commitment to Christ in baptism. With a tired voice, Jimmy said he didn’t know that, but he was going to tell his sister, and that she probably didn’t know what she had done. How many of us really do?
I write because I love to write and because for me it’s like breathing. I remember the first moment of recollection when I realized storytelling inhabited my soul. Riding on a bus to Arkansas to that same church camp, two of my buddies next to me on the bus seats, Jim and Tim, sat listening as I told them an extemporaneous story fabricated from details I saw through the bus window in the Ozark hills. I was born as a storyteller on that bus and I was born in that pool, a few days later, a story begun and a second birth, writ from places once dark, Jimmy by my side, helping to light the lamp in those dark places with that easy laugh and gentle humor.
I hung up the phone and went inside, and my wife asked me if I was alright. I said, “mmmmm…yea, I’m ok.” She hugged me a long time as I blinked away tears, I miss my friend, even though we haven’t spent a lot of time together recently, we share the same roots, the same folks, the same places, the same families, the same rivers and pools and canoes, all under a summer sky lit by stars and hope of a brighter day. And so I went to my files and pulled a letter I wrote to my son several years ago, a letter about friends, about my buddy Jim who is battling now, fighting the good fight, bags packed, but hopeful, still laughing, still making me laugh after all these years.
So I’m posting part of that letter to my son, the section about my friend Jimmy whose name graces my daily prayers now. Grace, blessings and love to my friend Jimmy along with a peace that passes understanding…bt
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a great movie not because those two were charming thieves. It’s a great movie because it’s a love story between two men, and how they loved each other mano-a-mano, and died together in a blaze of gunfire. What better way to die than to go out with your best friend, fill both hands with six-shooters, and charge into the sunset screaming toward a hailstorm of bullets. At it’s essence, a love story, not Robert Redford and Katherine Ross, but rather, Redford and Paul Newman.
Maybe that’s what is so great about watching that movie. Guys really struggle to keep lifelong friends…and these two guys, even though they robbed trains and burros carrying currency, stayed together the entire journey. Girls are naturals at friendship. Guys, not so much. So, my son, I wanted to tell you about how my friends have affected and shaped my life.
At the age of four, my burr head nestled in the first strange pillow of my youth at Jimmy’s house, next to the grain co-op and railroad tracks and the Dewey Church of Christ across the street. The church has moved, the grain co-op no longer there, and my four-year old buddy Jimmy, like me and the other friends of my youth, grew up and left like wind-blown grain from the co-op behind their house, bound for distant places, fresh towns, more fertile soil. Some have scattered like biblical sown seed, drifting into the dark crevasses of broken sidewalks, onto stony right of ways, pushing down roots, flanked by thistle and stone, lacking water, nourishment, sunlight. But my buddy Jimmy hopped a train and left town like the grain in those box cars. I stayed, and drifted into the crevasses of the comfortable, the betrodden familiar sidewalk of my youthful community.
Although the friends of my youth found passage out of town, we’ve never abandoned our connection, our friendship has remained like grain growing along a hard beaten path. We’ve explored, practiced careers, married, loved, fathered, struggled, exulted and mourned, yet we still share the same soil, a shared beginning, a place of fertile possibility, filled with wonder and joy, and a marvelous windswept legacy, spiritual aunts, uncles, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, cheering us on, blessing us, keeping us.
Jimmy is a great friend and we attended Green Valley Bible Camp in Rogers, AR when I was twelve years old. I was baptized in the large outdoor swimming pool at the camp, walking down the aisle of an outdoor covered gathering place filled with kids and metals chairs as Just As I Am rang in my ears. It was the first time I ever tasted Mountain Dew in the big green returnable bottles, ice-cold from the bottom of a metal ice chest. I thought it was the best drink ever. And we sang at the top of the hill in the clearing with a view of the stars chilled by the evening cool and the passion of young voices singing How Shall the Young Secure Their Hearts. But not all the music we grooved to was blessed by the canon of the church. Jimmy brought a small black tape recorder and on it he had recorded hit songs from 1972 like, Take it Easy by the Eagles and Lean on Me by Bill Withers and Will it Go Round in Circles by Billy Preston. It’s poetic that I only came to realize twenty years later that Withers and Preston are African-American and we were high top Converse wearing white kids from the bread basket of America, and I thought Preston was singing Willie go round in circles… I wish I still had that playlist. It was the first remembrance I had of listening to my own music…or at least my own through my friend Jimmy.
He moved to Sioux City, Iowa about 7th grade, his Dad was President of a meat-packing company there, and then the family moved back to Jenks, Oklahoma when Jimmy was a high school junior. I loved his family. He was the youngest and he had two older brothers and two older sisters. I floated down the Illinois River with the Burns family when I was a 7th grader and somehow, Jimmy and I managed to float down the Illinois River every year together through my Senior year in high school. I remember getting a canoe stuck in roaring rapids on the outside of a bank and it was trapped by the current against a large tree that had washed up against the river bank. We managed to escape and hiked to the highway, knocked on a door and borrowed a phone and called the canoe rental company. They arrived with a power boat and it took that power boat and about ten men to extricate the canoe. We were lucky. We jumped off the metal trussed bridge that spanned the river. We talked about God…about Church…about the Bible…without the filter of an adult listening in…we felt grown up.
I still talk to Jim occasionally. A couple of years ago, Jim’s Dad passed away. His name was Bill and he was a tall friendly intelligent genial man who also happened to be an Elder at the Dewey Church during the time we met at the Dewey High School while Dad was contracting the construction the Church building we are in now just north of the high school. There’s a picture of Bill Burns and a few others with shovels breaking ground on the new building in 1968. When Bill died, I attended the funeral at the Jenks Church and I’ll always remember David talking about his Dad with such grace and gentle humor and love. But the thing I remember most was walking down the aisle and sitting down in the section next to the Burns family. Jimmy glanced over and saw me and his eyes glistened with tears….and he just looked at me and nodded his head and smiled at me through wet eyes. I knew exactly what he was saying. “Hey old friend…I’m glad you are here.” Afterwards we hugged and he invited me to dinner and we ate and laughed and told stories…it didn’t seem like a funeral at all…it was a celebration of a life.
These are the days of your youth when you will never again have such abundant friendships with so little responsibility to earn a living. You still have to garner an education…but one day you’ll understand that you had this great gift. Make the most of your friendships and avoid friends who don’t have your best interests at heart. Darryl Tippens wrote in his book Pilgrim Heart, “Soul-friendships are rare today because they are costly. Most of all they require our time, as they are only sustainable with frequent contact. Friendships on auto-pilot waste away.” It’ll get more difficult as you get older, you marry, you have children…life happens and men struggle to maintain the easy intimacy of college friendships through our busy lives of seemingly more important career and life’s work. But I think you’ll find the effort worthwhile and the extra time spent staying in touch whether reunions, driving, email or simply a text message will grow more and more meaningful through the years.
Proverbs 18:24 There are “friends” who destroy each other, but a real friend sticks closer than a brother.
I love you, Dad