My Realizations The Autobiography of Julian Lee  /  COPYRIGHT 2009 JULIAN LEE
Back to Main Page
My First Friend

I saw a poster once that said "We don't remember days or hours. We remember moments." I remember the moment I first saw John Buckley, the boy next door after our move to Ingersoll Avenue. There was an overgrown hedge between our two back yards, with our yard set lower than his yard which was raised up, at its highest plane, to perhaps the top of my head. In Feng Shui terms, the Buckley house and yard, at more elevation, had command over the Mickunas home. Indeed, Mr. Buckley, a smug banker with short-cropped black hair, had a better job than my father and his Irish wife was a red haired beauty.

Through the hedge I saw someone moving in that back yard. I raised my head and spied tossled red hair moving about. It was a boy about my age. Did he live right next door?! Amazement!

How often people choose to move to a new home without even knowing what sort of neighbors they will have -- and yet the neighbors, whether for good or ill, will dominate the experience. I lucked out here. My father and mother had probably intended to enlarge our world by moving to Ingersoll, and it was already happening the first day. John was cavorting about in the yard and I am sure he was, in fact, trying to get a look at the new neighbors himself.

When I caught glimpse of him, the motion he made was as if throwing something. Boys love to throw things. One of us hailed the other, and we quite naturally exchanged names. He may have come to the little gate that linked our two yards through the hedge. There was no formality about it, just the natural chemistry of two boys loving to make friends and expand their world. I was delighted it had been so easy. Just a "Hello. My name is..."

John was totally Irish. Red hair. Freckles. And his blue eyes had that dark ring around the iris called a limbal ring. They make the eyes very striking. It turned out that he was the only boy in a flock of girls, and each one of his sisters -- Chris, Kate, Maureen, and Angie -- had those same blue eyes and rings. They were all striking beauties. I thought it would be a swell thing to have older sisters. But John was as if suffocated by it. He was really beset with all these females, his soul crying out for a male friend and the expression of boyish interests. And there I was. So the attraction between us was natural, liberating, and strong.

From then on there was that kind of pull, or vague excitement, that "John is over there. Perhaps we could meet up. Perhaps we could do things?" One day "Ding dong," young John came to our door. "Curt! You have a visitor"was what my mother likely called out. Out the door was I, ready for this adventure. I remember it was a sunny day, probably in June. But the  sun seemed more wonderful than before.

The details are sketchy in my mind, but it went quite naturally. We talked. He showed me things. I remember quite vividly that John had what he called a "Junk Box." In his Junk Box he collected items a boy finds interesting. A lock. A few odd tools. Some wires or guts of some radio. A little electric drill. Some "monster" cards -- cards you could buy at the Rexall for .5 cents (came with gum) that featured art renderings of grotesque creatures with absurd slogans. But mostly the mechanical and technical bric-a-brac White peoples create incessantly as they rearrange matter in pursuit of some grail of "no more troubles." I felt vaguely incompetent that I had no junk box of my own. I recall I tried to find some container to fill, but such items were rare in our boy-loaded home. My junk box never measured up to John's and I soon fell out of  regulation. But often when we would go places, exploring, he would bring along his Junk Box. And perhaps find some new item for it.

It was immediately apparent John was interested in rocks and minerals, and I guess it's likely he brought one along to show me when we first met. After not much time I was into his house for short spells, and he into mine. He had a rather spare bedroom. A bed, a dresser, and a low table. On the low table he had a collection of interesting rocks, each laid out in an orderly fashion and each having a label identifying it, which he had written himself.  It was like a museum display. Now finally he had somebody to witness and enjoy his collection. The stones were in many colors, all different. I was vaguely fascinated, but it was more knowing that John cared about them, so I thus expressed a bit of interest whenever I saw them. I have that nature. If I'm not that keen on a topic but I know the other cares about it, I think it's gracious to show interest. I was that way at 7.

The rock collection was one of those interests that, perhaps, his parents had cultivated in a boy who lacked friends. I think he had his own interest, yes, but I think it had also been contrived in him by his parents, the way a husbandman contrives to graft one peach variety onto the rootstock of another. "It would be good if our John had a healthy interest such as in minerals. Maybe then he will become a geologist some day." I think his parents probably did not like that his passion for playing with his new playmate was something bigger and more wild than his sedate rocks on a plank in his room.

Our initial boy-impulses when we got together were to penetrate new realms, such as climbing over a neighbor's fence, or climbing some new tree, or walking to Bauder's drug store (probably taboo for him) to buy some candy. Perhaps we could stick a finger into the change dispensers of the pay phones around there and get lucky with some free money? But how soon these conquests get old. We had to have new range...
It  turned out that John was in my same grade, in the other 2nd grade group. Our school, Saint Augustines, had about 60 kids in each grade level, and they would divide that into two classes under two different teachers. So I wasn't actually "with" him during school but only might see him on the playground. But here, it turned out, that even at the age of 7 I had a bit of a politician's heart and could be disloyal. I am realizing that only now as I write. For you see conflict developed between John and I over the next couple of years, and I never really understood what was the source of it. But writing about it now, I think I know. I didn't seek him out at school. There were so many other students to get to know. And some more cool than others. He was a bit of an outsider in school, perhaps, because of his red hair, freckles, and somewhat buck-toothy look.
With the insulating distance of the two-class split, I had failed to assure John of my friendship. He probably saw me playing with other boys, walking home with them, and was hurt. 

As the months went on we would get together, being right next door, and we would do things. In that time it was common for good friends to spend the night in each other's homes. I had slept in the homes of Fred Schissel, Danny Schupp, and Jim Wesenberg by then. But it didn't happen with my neighbor friend. I had a vague feeling that I was not welcomed in the Buckley home. It was more the absence of signs. His mother didn't come around if I was there. She never fixed us a snack or lunch. Nobody spoke to me but John. It is possible that his parents did not consider me a high-class enough friend, and did not want to encourage the friendship. My father would have had a much lower salary than his, and my folks had acquired a place in a neighborhood that was above their class. In truth there was a lot of class-consciousness among the White families of my classmates. Everybody sniffs out the true financial class of the others.

Boys with not enough to do
Plus I was a bit wild compared to their sister-smothered rock tending son. As time went on, when together, we did edgier things and went further afield. I was Huck Finn to his Tom Sawyer. Construction projects were getting started in our neighborhood. A giant, circular old folks home was being built on one corner lot near us, which would be over 10 stories high. I found a young fellow could explore the construction site off hours and find all sorts of interesting things, like propane burners left burning for heat, or odd and interesting building supplies.  You could gaze upon soon-to-be elevator shafts, or go up onto a 4th floor and get a magnificent new view of your neighborhood and town, all unseen and hidden like some Mission Impossible character. I remember bringing John to one of these discovered places -- just one block away -- and having a vague feeling I was corrupting him.

Yet John had a certain wild streak of his own, I gathered, even a mean streak.
Even at the beginning John seemed to be roiling beneath the surface with discontent. He seemed angry at his family, and especially his sisters. I had a paper route by the 4th grade that took me all around my area early in the morning, Sundays, starting around 3 am. Strange to ponder this! One time I invited John to go along with me on my route, and he came. Another construction site was going on 2 blocks away, and I brought him into the site that cold fall day to show him the all-night burners. We had fun burning up various items. Nearby were some deep pits dug right where the sidewalk ran, probably involved with plumbing installation. There were orange blinking warning stands -- the kind you see on roads when men are working. They were there to keep people from falling into these pits. I recall striking one with something in a vandal way, really just expressing male energy that had few outlets, perhaps from curiosity to test it's build, see what it's made of. John suddenly did things up bigger by smashing the light off one, then kicking the other into the pit. I remember that  was a bit much to me and I felt bad about it. We got out of there. I realized that I had influenced him. Overly much. Perhaps he was wanting to show something to me? "I can be bad. I can be brave."

I was too fascinated with other friends while I was, it seemed, all John had. Now around the 4th grade I was noticing a cooling from him.While John probably wondered why I didn't pal up with him more at school, I wondered why he didn't call me more, and was not invited into his house any more. It might have been his parents wisely protecting their passel of girls from too much Mickunas boy contact. Thinking of it now I realize that I was letting John be my "fallback friend," the guy I hung out with as filler, not the guy I keened to spend time with -- like Billy Riley, Danny Schupp, or Fred Shissel. And perhaps he was figuring that out. Thus developed a relational story I was to repeat in my life: Having someone who obviously liked me, who was giving themselves to me, being cool to them until they felt a hurt and turned on me, then caring, but not being able to get back what was there before.

At some point these nameless tensions between us erupted into a physical fight. It started as verbal, giving slights to each other. It probably went something like this:

Me on my side of the yard:

"So I guess we're  not friends any more?"

John: "Guess not! I couldn't care less! 

(Using a phrase he learned from his sisters.)

Stay out of my yard!"
Me, venturing into his yard at that challenge. John comes toward me, gives  me a push, we grapple...

We went at each other physically -- the first and only time -- right in his front yard as dinner time approached one summer. It was right in front of their family solarium, on our side of the house, where his father characteristically sat and watched television. And as we briefly grappled there, angry and sweaty about who knows what -- I saw his father standing in the window watching us. And he was smiling.

He was glad to see his son fighting, developing manhood. And perhaps he was glad to see him fighting ME, because perhaps all along they had viewed me as a bad influence and father wanted to see this repudiation, or perhaps see his son get me off his mind and out of his system. When I turned and saw his father watching us approvingly, I stopped and retreated. Partly it was not wanting to be seen by an adult -- especially his father -- if I'm doing any naughty thing, obviously. But partly I was rattled by the scene. That his father wanted him to fight and approved. What was happening, I realized, was senseless and tragic and this father is a JERK! I would not give him that satisfaction of watching us. I can see now that this was his father-wisdom. But my mind flashed on this calculus: "This is not a happy event, fool. When did you ever encourage our FRIENDSHIP? Now you want to witness this personal moment between me and your son, but you've never even said "hello" to me you bastard. This is not for you." So I turned and went back to our yard. It was just too much. To this day I think had his father not been standing there in the Television Room watching us like a TV show, we would have had a decent fight and then, as with all boys I ever fought with, we would have immediately been blood friends.

John's parents suddenly moved him away in, I think, the 4th grade, to a town named Flagstaff, Arizona. I think it was because of a job promotion for his father, who was a banker. It is coming back to me now that John wrote some sort of goodbye letter to me. And I paid it inadequate heed. Then he wrote me a couple of letters from there. He said it was wonderful there and there were all manner of amazing stones to be found in Arizona. I think I wrote him back once, but basically I was letting him go.

In the end John Buckley was one of those missed opportunities of mine, because I could have been a much better friend than I was, and I could have kept the friendship alive as we grew to manhood, and I failed at that. John viewed me as a leader. He would often adopt phrases I used, even points of view. He was in many ways an ideal friend. He had been often hungry for my companionship, and I ignored it.

The cosmic pieces fell in place a bit more one summer around 1975 when we were eighteen. John returned from the west in a fast car like an Impala or convertible Plymouth, with a friend. He was on a w
ild ride roaming the Midwest with a friend of his, an affable longhaired guy with wire-rimmed glasses. They would blast good rock music and they both were smoking weed. It was just like that midwestern Top Forty hit song: "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo." There was a certain kind of radio song I considered "midwestern music" today, and another was "Indiana Wants Me." Another was "I Fought the Law And The Law Won."  They feature basically masculine characters doing basically masculine things and getting into trouble, and they sounded best behind the wheel of some high-powered Chevy Impala or power car, flying down a midwestern highway with a girl strongly on your mind. A little summer rainshower with the sun bursting through spectrally, with patches of pure blue sky -- made these songs all the more perfect.

John was now living one of those songs, and living every young man's dream, grabbing hold of Life. He seemed like a young man finally running from his family, or maybe even running from the law. What I felt though, as perceptibly as a warm gust of wind, was a young man keeping his manly soul alive. Like a living manifestation of Jim Morrison belting "Break On Through To The Other Side." The freedom he had grasped, at least on this trip, called to me. He said that he was working construction back in Arizona. He was literally a contractor building quality homes in Arizona. That amazed me no end. John? The timid rock hound doing a skilled and burly man's job? I was a befuddled at how manly he had become. I vaguely recollect that he also had a daughter and a troubled relation with the mother. I drove briefly with he and his friend and they cranked up the music, like Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" and such, joyously drinking up the rock attitude from their 8-Track player. 

I guess they camped out in their car while visiting Des Moines. On his wild ride back to Des Moines John found that I had become a guitarist, singer, and religious fanatic. There again, during this time, I kept myself at distance from him, not really claiming him as a good friend. By that time I was a confirmed Puritan when it came to drugs  and alcohol, and truth is, I looked down on anybody who drank, smoked weed, or used any drugs whatsoever. I didn't want to be associated with them closely. I feared all that. I was "the guy who knew better, the guy who was a head of the curve." This disposition helped make me impassive to John and his buddy during their visit. I felt I was beyond him on the ladder of knowledge, and felt merely sad at the spectacle of his reefer and rock-fueled Midwestern Flight.

Yet there it all was again. He was overly awed by my guitar mastery and singing voice, and the fact that I hung out with strange characters in strange places talking about strange philosophy. John was always over-awed by me. Now I see. 
It was during this time, during his visit, that it became clear to me that John had always admired me. John expressed admiration for my musical abilities, seeming surprised by it. He was surprised at the odd people I was hanging out with. (Ruth Moffett and her household, see other chapter on her.) He conveyed to me a sense of homage.
Only in old age did I realize: "Few of my friends have ever had true fondness or admiration for me" and I also realized "That John, he was actually a very cool guy, and had a deep heart" and also "I would have liked to have known his mind better than I did" and also "We could have had a spectacular lifelong friendship. I might have learned construction from him. I could have been a friend..."

We had parted with that rocky fight between us. But in that trip John Buckley was putting that behind, and reclaiming me. I am pretty sure he broached the idea that I could come with them if I was free.  From loyalty that was basic to him he had made this pilgrimage back to his roots, and to find me. He had made it bravely, in a beater car. That summer John was living that myth we can see and feel when listening to Paul Simon's wonderful song "America." Yet my obsessions were more important than being a proper friend.  It was only in my old age, thinking back  on John's wild and confident ride to the midwest -- a wild ride partly to find me, his old friend -- that I realized:

--I should have spent all my time with him while he was there.

--That kind of loyalty and appreciation is rare in this world.

--Thru his loyal heart I might have really lived.

--What adventures we would have had, over how many years.

--You Fool! Why didn't you, in fact, go with him!