Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

About Mike

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.

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October 7, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, geek, Ohio, Science, science fiction, writing | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Time and place, shared.

A couple weeks ago, Jenn and I were talking about my then-upcoming 20-year high school reunion.

So, she asked me, if my three or four closest Lake High School friends – and the only people from that point in my life whom she has really met – weren’t going to be there, who was I going to hang out with?

I had no answer. And this kind of sat funny in my stomach and brain the rest of the night, so I let it wander around in my head the next morning when I went running.

Why am I going, exactly, I wondered. I’ve generally stayed in touch with those closest of my high school friends, and even the ones who aren’t nearby it seems like I still get to see every couple years. Online, I’ve casually kept up with a few others and renewed a few acquaintances.

I didn’t go to the 5-year or the 10-year reunion, and the 15-year get-together was just a bring-the-kids super-casual cookout behind the old elementary school.

This one, though, I’d been looking forward to since it was announced, which I guess isn’t all that surprising, since I’m frequently nostalgic and a regular fare for the taxi drivers down on Sentimental Street. (See Ranger, Night.) And while I find it relatively easy to think generally favorably of high school the further I get from those years, I also know that many of the best moments were spent with friends who weren’t coming to the reunion. (And yes, I do vividly remember the sucktacular times as well, but they seem to matter less and less.)

Part of it, I think, is that where I grew up, the place I always called home even when I lived a thousand miles away for most of a decade, is a big part of who I am. Maybe it’s partly because once I started first grade, my family never moved from our house south of Hartville, and I spent my entire childhood in Lake Local Schools. Even as I’ve gotten older and the world has gotten bigger, the easier it seems to be to connect with those people who shared this particular corner of it for awhile.

And there were at least a couple people coming to the reunion who I knew I wanted to see, even though I had no clue whether those catch-ups would be five minutes of stilted small talk or the hours-flying-by sort of conversations that are awesome and fun.

What I wound up telling myself while I was out running that morning was this: Don’t be left wondering.

I’d much rather be there, I told myself, than not go and then wonder if I should have. If it sucks, it sucks, but I find that sort of thing far easier to put behind me than a case of the Coulda Shoulda Wouldas.

So this past Friday morning, I squeezed in one more work-week interview in the morning, and then I generally fidgeted about the house and get ready for the overnight trip to Salt Fork State Park.

Not long after lunch, I hit the road.

To get myself in the proper state of mind along the way, I’d piled the passenger seat with CDs loaded for an All-Eighties drive.

The soundtrack for the drive south (GORGEOUS afternoon), radio loud and the windows open the whole way:

Selections from Journey: Greatest Hits (Digression – Other than being fascinated by their video game, I can’t say I was actually a Journey fan in the 1980s. Yes, I knew their music, but I never owned an album or recorded a Journey song off the radio or MTV. It was only during a Spring Break trip to visit Adam in 1991 that I realized how much Journey I’d absorbed in the 1980s and how strongly it pulled me back to those years.) – Any Way You Want It, Faithfully, Ask the Lonely, Separate Ways, and (duh) Don’t Stop Believing, which was cued up for my initial acceleration onto I-77 southbound.

Selections from U2: Rattle & Hum (because I couldn’t find my Joshua Tree CD) – Desire, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Pride (In the Name of Love)

Selections from John’s Homemade Late-Night Solo-Driving CD No. 1: The Buggles: Video Killed the Radio Star, Pet Shop Boys: Always on My Mind, New Order: True Faith, The Kinks: Come Dancing, The Hooters: And We Danced.

The drive flew by, and when that last song ended, I had just exited the interstate for the two-lane state route to Salt Fork, so I just shut the soundtrack down and thought.

I got to the resort a little after 3 p.m., with not quite three hours until the reunion was scheduled to start. Put my stuff in the room, walked around a little bit, considered taking a swim, didn’t, and then plopped in a rocking chair looking out over the pool and kind of zoned and maybe half-dozed for awhile.

I never stopped wondering what to expect.

Walking back to the room, I ran into the first of my former classmates in a stairway, and the minute or two we spent saying hello eased my mind somewhat.

I went out and sat on the balcony which faced a grassy hillside and the woods just beyond. After a bit, a deer came out of the woods and was eating the grass along the treeline about 100 yards away.

A little later, people on the balcony above me started throwing corn chips and bread to a buck and two does which had come right up to the building and were close enough to my porch that I could see their ribs and whiskers and hear them crunching as they ate.

Every so often, I would walk to the exit near my room and look out at the cluster of picnic tables for the reunion and see if anyone was out there. I can’t exactly say why I was nervous, but it still seemed a very real possibility that the whole night would be a stutter-step of short, uncomfortable reintroductions and me wondering why the hell I was here anyway.

A few minutes past six, I decided to head out. There were a few people out there now, though I couldn’t recognize anyone from a distance. I made a beeline for the bar, because I knew I could use a beer here. And while I was standing there, I spotted a guy I was great friends with for a couple years coming toward me, grinning. And just like that, I got the feeling that the night was going to be OK.

And it was OK plus infinity over dinner and beer and music and drinks and the next almost nine hours. (Incidentally, I thought it was incredibly fitting for our Class of 1989 to have a “don’t-dress-up-we’re-having-ribs” kind of reunion. It just fit well.)

The specifics of these people and moments and talks are not what matters here, because nobody’s recollections will be the same, and we’ll all attach our own significance or lack thereof for better or worse.

What I’m keeping is this: Twenty years out of high school, we’re all in such different places, not just geographically, but socially, vocationally, politically, mentally, emotionally, and parentally, and yet this one slice of a single day was a great reminder that we once lived and breathed in the same time and space, and that even if we didn’t occupy specific moments in each others’ lives, having a small corner of the universe in common is not an unimportant thing.

It was after three a.m. by the time I got back to my room, and I decided to have a glass of ice water and sit on the steps outside and kind of exhale and wind down. The picnic table area was in darkness, and the place was mostly still.

Exhausted as I was, I had trouble falling asleep and staying there.

I was up and showering at 7:30 a.m., and I brewed a bland cup of room coffee to take on a walk around the lodge and scout out breakfast. I hadn’t figured on running into anyone, really, given the late night most of us had, but I bumped into a classmate and her husband, and the three of us wound up eating together in the restaurant and talking about school and life and kids and home (they still live in the same area, too). That we weren’t even close when we were growing up was wonderfully irrelevant.

After breakfast, I walked around a little more, ran into a couple more people here and there, chatted and said goodbyes.

For all the nerves I’d had less than 24 hours before, I was finding it kind of tough to leave.

I packed up my stuff, checked out, and sat back on one of the lobby couches overlooking the pool and had parting conversations with people as they came through, even spending a long time talking to a few people I hadn’t gotten a chance to say hi to the night before.

A little after 11 a.m., I walked out the side door to the parking lot, got in my car and headed home, windows down, late summer air swirling.

The plan for the drive back was to ease the mental adjustment by shifting the soundtrack back toward the present.

But you know what?

I put Journey in again and turned it up as loud as it would go.

September 7, 2009 Posted by | 1980s, Current Affairs, eighties, Music, Ohio, Travel, writing | , , , , , | 3 Comments

   

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