A New Friendship Begins
It was the summer of nineteen forty-seven and I was fourteen years old. I thought I had the world by the tail back then. I was going to start high school in the fall. To me, it was the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life.
I had no idea the changes that were coming my way would begin before I ever set foot in Braxton High. Those changes would shake my hold on the world and alter who I was forever.
It began one Saturday when I went out to mow the lawn. Inoticed a U-haul truck parked in the driveway next door. The house had been empty ever since the Carter’s retired and moved to Florida a few months before.
As I finished mowing,I went around back to put the mower back in the shed. I heard the sound of a basketball being bounced. As I looked over the fence I saw a guy who appeared to be about my age shooting hoops next door.
“Hey, I’m Danny Maness, your next door neighbor. You’re pretty good with that basketball. Where are you from?”
He was just slightly taller than me, with a muscular build and dirty blond hair cut in a crew cut. The thing I noticed most about him was that his ears seemed to stick out too far from his head.
“Thanks. I’m Spencer Larsen. We just moved here from Cleveland.” He smiled broadly.
“What brings you from a big city like Cleveland to a little place like Braxton?” I was amazed that anyone in his right mind would purposely move to a small southern town like ours.
Other than the factory, we had one stoplight, a gas station, a beauty parlor, a mom and pop grocery store and a min-mall. If you blinked going under the stoplight you missed the whole town.
“My dad is the new plant manager at Stallings. He was transferred down here; so I guess you could say I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“My daddy used to work at Stallings. He was a supervisor in the Packing department.”
“Oh yeah? So where’s he work now?”
“He died two years ago in a car wreck.” I replied.
“Sorry to hear about your dad man; that must have been tough.”
“Yeah, my daddy and I were real close. We did everything together. He was the best. I miss him a lot.”
After an awkward moment of silence, I changed the subject to lighten the conversation. I didn’t want this new guy feeling sorry for me.
“Well I hope you’re into fishing Spence, because there ain’t much else to do around this hick town.”
“I’ve never been fishing, but I guess if that’s all there is to do then maybe I’ll learn,” he grinned.
“I reckon you could come with me and my buddies sometime if ya have a mind to try it. We got a place we like to go. There’s good brim fishing and plenty of big mouth bass too.”
“I ‘reckon’ I’d be up for that,” Spencer said with a grin. I knew he was making fun of my southern drawl, but in a friendly way.
I was glad he hadn’t asked more questions about the accident that killed my dad. It was a bad time for my family. Even though I never talked about it much, the memory of that day is still burned into my brain.
It was just a normal summer evening. We ate supper, and daddy went bowling like he did every Wednesday night with some of the guys from work.
When I heard the car drive up in front of the house about ten o’clock, I figured it was dad. I laid my comic book down and got up to go ask him how he did that night. They were in league playoffs and it they won, they’d be going to the state championship.
I was just coming down the stairs when I heard Mama scream, “No! Please God. Not Frank!” She started to sink to the floor but was caught by Rev. Phillips and helped to a chair.
Sheriff Dixson stood by my mother looking very solemn. “If there’s anything I can do”… his voice trailed away. “I’m really sorry.”
Reverend Phillips held both my mother’s hands in his and spoke softly,
“Frank was a good Christian man and in a time like this, you can take comfort in knowing he knew the Lord. He’s in a good place. “
I stood there in that surreal moment feeling panic wash over me like a suffocating avalanche; knocking the breath right out of me.
“He’s in a good place? His place is with us,” I screamed.
The minister just looked at me and said, “God’s will is not always ours Danny. We have to pray for understanding in this sad time. The Lord will help heal this terrible wound and comfort you in the days to come.”
I wanted to tell Rev. Phillips to shut up and get out. It was only the respect I had for my mother that kept me from speaking at that moment.
Sheriff Dixson explained that daddy was only four miles from home when a man who had been drinking crossed the centerline and hit my father’s car head on as he came around the curve.
“’Frank was killed instantly. He never knew what hit him.” Sheriff Dixson said, as though hearing that should make it somehow easier for us to accept his death.
I learned later that the drunk who hit him only had minor injuries and probably wouldn’t even serve time for what he did.
In the weeks following the funeral I had to be the strong one. I was sure Daddy would want me to be. People kept saying I should let my grief out and cry, but I told them I was fine.
Looking back, the truth of the matter was; I was afraid if I started crying I might not ever stop.
I guess you could say I grew up a lot in the two years after my dad died. I took on chores around the house he used to do. I fixed things that needed fixing, painted the garage, trimmed the hedges and kept the yard neatly mowed.
A few days after meeting Spence I introduced him to the guys I hung out with, Mike Freeman and Joey Campbell.
Mike was dubbed the one in our group to be a “girl magnet” once we got to Braxton High. He had jet-black hair that fell on his forehead, blue eyes that were the color of a Robin’s eggs; and dimples on each cheek that popped out of no where when he smiled.
He lived on the far side of town by the railroad tracks. It was considered to be the poorest section of Baxton. The houses over there were pretty run down. His was no different from most of them. Besides needing a new coat of paint, the windows needed replacing. Two of them were cracked and one was broken out completely. A piece of plastic had been tacked over it to keep rain out.
On the front porch sat two old yard chairs with the stringing hanging loose. I wondered why they were even there. There wasn’t much of a view to sit out there and look at. The house faced the train tracks and several abandoned factory buildings.
Mike’s house, along with others in that area,were built as company houses for employees who worked at the once booming textile plant nearby. It didn’t matter to me like it did to some other people in town. Mike was my friend and where he lived or how much money his folks had, or didn’t have, seemed kind of a lame way to judge someone’s worth as a human being.
I think Mike liked me because I accepted him just like he was. I never threw up the things I had to him, or put him down for what he didn’t have. I guess in a way, I looked up to Mike. He had a confidence about him that I wished I could have for myself. Besides that quality, he had a way with the girls that mystified me, and made me a little jealous.
One day, while all of us were getting a root beer float at the corner drug store we asked him how he got the attention of the girls without even saying anything.
“Eye contact boys; you have to make eye contact with ‘em. Give a look that says; I like what I’m seeing. It gets ‘em every time! “
We each took turns trying to mimic ‘the look’, but Mike just shook his head. “It’s about attitude guys. You either got it or you don’t.”
I looked over at Joey still practicing while looking at his reflection in the mirror over the counter and said, “Give it up pudgy, it ain’t never going to happen.”
Joey was short and a little over weight. He had bright red hair, a face dotted with about a million freckles, and he had just gotten braces on his teeth. It was unlikely he’d have girls swooning all over him, even if he did manage to master the look Mike tried to teach us.
I’d tried to arch my brow and let a slow smile creep across my lips, while saying “I like what I see” with my eyes, Spence said it looked more like I’d eaten something that didn’t set good on my stomach. I gave up after that.
“Yeah well, girls like good looking guys so maybe that look thing works for you Mike; but I don’t think it’s going to help us any,” remarked Spence.
“Looks are over rated man. What girls really like is a guy with savvy and a great car. I got the savvy and my dad owns a car lot, so I’m in like Flynn!” Joey replied while slurping his soda.
“Savvy? You got savvy? What is that exactly? Do you even know?” Mike punched him on the arm.
“Savvy. S-a-v-v-y , smart-ass. It means I know what girls wanna hear from guys.” Joey said in rebuttal.
“Are you gonna rely on your savvy while you’re waiting to be old enough to drive one of those cars off your dad’s lot? Huh?” laughed Mike.
“Yeah Joey, what’s your pickup line gonna be? Hey sweet ass ya got there. Or maybe, Hey I’m Joey, and I wanna squeeze them big luscious boobs of yours baby,” I said.
Joey just gave us a disgruntled shrug, “Go ahead poke fun at me, but I got savvy you stupid Shitheads.”
Joey knew the teasing was in fun. We were all close friends. We knew if it came to needing help, we covered each other’s back.