I found out yesterday that my childhood friend Mike Darrow died recently.
My family had just moved to Lake Township in the summer of 1976, so when I started first grade, I didn’t know any kids other than the handful who lived on my own street. Mike was one of the first friends I made at my new school and remained one of my very best friends for the next four years or so.
He taught me how to play chess – and I never beat him.
He showed me how to recognize the monarch butterfly caterpillars munching on milkweed plants in the field at the end of our street, and how to identify their cocoons.
One summer, we spent a week away from our parents at Camp Tippecanoe, hiking and swimming and making fun of girls and trying to catch snakes and salamanders.
Mike was also probably the most fearless and independent kid I knew, but not at all in a show-off way. It was just that nothing – heights, snakes, spiders, darkness – seemed to rattle him. Once, while we were visiting Mohican State Park (I think) with his parents, Mike spotted a couple climbable trees at the river’s edge: They were on opposite banks, but their branches meshed in an arch over the water, and Mike just knew he could scale one and descend the other, safely crossing the river.
And he was right.
On another state park trip, we watched him inch ever so patiently onto a teetering, half-submerged log along a lake shore, trying to catch a turtle sunning itself way out on the far branches.
He’s all through Collect All 21, of course, one of the very few kids whose enthusiasm for Star Wars reached the same insane level as mine. Mike was the inspiration for invisible alien saxophone playing, playground Hoth re-creations, and the use of “Deese!” as an enthusiastic exclamation short for “Decent!”
There really is something incredible and impactful about an elementary-school friendship, I think, even if it doesn’t last or evolve, simply because for many of us, these are the times when we take those first steps into discovering who we are and what gets us hyper and what bores us and what we think is hilarious and what keeps us up late at night wondering.
Somewhere in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Mike and I grew apart. It wasn’t until late in high school that I really talked to him again. Fittingly, it was over Star Wars: He had figured out how to grab screen captures from a VCR onto the fancy new Apple Macintoshes in the art room mezzanine, and we spent a few afternoons watching the trilogy and collecting images from my cable-recorded VHS tape.
Two decades later, in the summer of 2008, I wanted to give Mike a copy of Collect All 21, and thanks to his sister, we met up at a local Borders. We spent almost three hours talking about science fiction and Japanese stories and giant robots and cartoons and literature and fossil hunting and exploring the woods and swamps near his house when we were kids.
That afternoon led to this surprise not long afterward, and another geeky phone call, which was the last time I spoke with him.
In the big picture, I knew Mike for something like barely 11 percent of his whole life, mostly an awfully long time ago in a haze of sunny days and field hikes and spaceships and sleepovers and action figures.
And though my memories are undoubtedly imperfect, I’m glad they’re still here. And I’m lucky I had a friend like Mike who made them happen.