When we parted in 1973 I was sixteen. Since fourth grade we had been best friends. But in 1972 my family moved to Florida. So we were reduced to sending each other occasional letters. In truth it was a bit traumatic for me to leave Tom and my life in upstate New York behind. But it was also a pleasure to get Tom down to Florida for a week or so in the summer of 1973 and let him check out my new subtropical digs. As I sent him back home on the Greyhound bus for a long journey back to the Triple Cities I wondered if I would ever see him again. He was my one remaining tenuous thread to that part of my past.
My fear was well founded. In those pre-Internet days it was easy for friends to lose touch. We were both rapidly turning into adults and being catapulted into a dubious future. I sent him a couple letters when he was in college but then he disappeared. After college I moved to the Washington area (where I still reside) and I effectively disappeared. But always in the back of my mind was the question “Where’s Tom?” Where was the guy who filled my youth with such creativity, enthusiasm and adventure? Would I ever see him again? The prospects looked bleak. On occasion I searched for him. When I went on business trips I looked for his name in the phone books. Once I spent a couple hours in the Martin Luther King Library in Washington D.C. going through their stacks of phone books from various cities looking for his name. No luck.
The situation finally changed in the mid 1990s when the World Wide Web emerged. Through the web I found online telephone listings. To my surprise I found his name in our home city of Binghamton, New York. The name turned out to be his father. Fortunately his father forwarded my letter to him.
We traded emails warily and sporadically. It was clear that the adult Tom was not quite the same teen I once knew. Nor was I quite the same person either. While we had a great youthful friendship, there were some unhealed and tender spots in our relationship. There were issues to be worked out between us. We groped our way through them, sometimes opening old wounds. Fortunately we did not lose touch with each other altogether. Over the course of many years and many emails we reconnected and worked through our issues. Despite the years we still appeared to have a lot in common.
Still 32 years is a very long time. When life finally took me to Portland, Oregon where he lived I knew that we could at last reconnect. But for me it was still an open question whether after so many years we could renew a friendship that was so rich during our youth. We are both middle aged now, with families, burdens and aging parents. I approached our reunion with both excitement and nervousness.
Tom’s flaming red hair is now white. My hair is peppered with gray. We are both not quite the skinny things we were in our teens. Life had scarred us and challenged us. Our youthful faces now have middle aged cares and concerns. I did not even recognize his voice on the phone. Who was this person? When we met in the lobby of my hotel I did a bit of a double take. I suspect he did the same thing with me. We both wear glasses now. Our hair is now shorter. But his infectious laugh and the lines around his eyes – those were instantly familiar.
The changes age had wreaked on us turned out to be superficial. Like two tuning forks struck at the same time we had spent 32 years apart on our own life adventures yet we were still remarkably similar people. Life challenged us in different ways. Yet here we were 32 years later with amazingly congruent interests, opinions and philosophies. One would expect that someone who spent his career living in the challenging and unforgiving advertising domain might naturally be a Republican. But Tom is not. Like me he is a flaming liberal. When we weren’t talking about times and people past, we were dallying in the present political situation. Once more I felt the harmony. We were still synchronized.
And we are both married with children. My daughter is older than his boys. (The older informed me over and over again he was “six and three quarters.”) His house in the burbs is comparable to mine. He drives a Toyota Prius. I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid. He expresses his creativity in art. I express mine in writing. We compared family histories. His family had their significant challenges as had mine. Our passion for the space program though remains undiminished. Even our taste in music is similar.
But most remarkable of all is that we connected on a new emotional level too. My wife sometimes remarks that I have few male friends. I say that is because so few of them are people of any depth. I have little patience for men whose conversation revolves largely around booze, broads and sports. Tom is a man deeply in touch with his feelings and who, like me, has learned to deeply care about other people. He knows how to express genuine empathy and warmth. Perhaps this is because we have so much history together or had shared some of our painful stories via email. But we know each other on a very deep level and could connect on that level too. It is a wonderful intimacy.
When tempted to generalize, which I do often, I see three general tracks in life for people. People either overcome adversity, are overcome by it, or float through life in a steady state, arguably alive but not growing in any meaningful direction, except possibly from side to side. Arguably both Tom and I had a lot of adversity to overcome, although I suspect Tom had more of it to deal with than I did. He has seen members of his own family unable to surmount (so far anyhow) their life challenges, as I have mine. To me it is quite remarkable when someone is dealt a tough hand in life yet manages to excel anyhow. Unquestionably though Tom has succeeded. As the pieces of Tom’s unique story fell into place I was filled with a sense of awe that he surmounted it all. And now here he is at midlife, incredibly busy and challenged but living a purpose driven life. The wonderful zoo of his life includes a lovely wife and two boys under age seven. Where many would have fallen into a lifelong depression or have given up, he managed to move through life’s landmines. Occasionally he stepped on them yet he survived his minefield scarred but ultimately triumphant. The result is a man who is a joy to know as an adult: full of complexity, richness, ideas, creativity, passion and eloquence. He is a privilege to know as an adult.
It still strikes me as odd that though thirty years and three thousand miles separate us we are still so alike. We truly are two tuning forks putting out nearly identical pitches after all these years. We both feel better for reconnecting. I think we both look forward to renewing a rich friendship that will hopefully carry us through the rest of our lives.
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