Editor’s note: This column is being reprinted from Sept. 13, 2006. Among the many things Jack was good at was letting friends know how much they meant to him. This example is sure to make tears well in your eyes. Be prepared.
“If you can do it, I can do it,” Courtney Smyth told me Saturday morning.
“I can do it, if you can do it,” I replied.
We were at Asbury United Methodist Church in Portland for a memorial service for Al Conkling, Courtney’s dad and my friend for more than 50 years.
At her request, I’d agreed to read a letter I wrote to Al in June. I did.
And, with your indulgence, I’ll share it here.
If you knew Al, you’ll understand. If you didn’t, you’ll wish you had known him.
“I was looking at a photograph the other day of our first grade class. It was a pretty motley crew: You, me, Neil, Ogborn, Ruth Ann, Raymond Murphy, Doug Lewis, John Thomas, Virginia Hiatt, Bill Lykins, and a bunch of others.
“But something struck me.
“You were at least a head taller than anyone else in the class. OK, maybe not a big deal. But there, when you’re a first grader, you’re aware of the big guys. Some of them turn out to be bullies.
“You were just the opposite. In all our years, I never saw you use your size to your advantage. Instead, you were a protector. You were the guy that the little guy always wanted to have at his side, as his friend.
“I’ve been honored to know you as my friend now for more than 50 years. And, I guess, I still think of you as a protector, a bodyguard, now and then.
“Indulge me a little bit while I plunge into some nostalgia.
“It’s the fall of 1962, and we’re in ninth grade biology with the inimitable Billy Norris. A pretty good teacher, but not particularly consistent. As usual, the big assignment was assembling an insect collection. Now, focus in on the night before the collection was due. We’re at your house on Commerce Street. I’d been there before for a sleep-over in grade school and still remember the Penn Central train waking me in the night. You slept through. You were used to it. But on that night in ninth grade, I truly needed a friend, and a protector.
“You see, while I was a procrastinator and a bit of a wimp, you took life in your teeth and charged ahead. As a result, the night before the deadline, I was scrambling to finish my bug collection, while you had bugs to spare. And you shared them. Without your help, I’m not sure I would have passed ninth grade biology. Certainly, my grade would have been lower by far.
“You weren’t playing the protector role a few years later when we were hauled before the police.
“Maybe you don’t remember the incident, but I sure do.
“It was a winter afternoon and a bunch of us were wandering home from high school. Someone suggested throwing snowballs at passing cars. Not a smart idea, of course. A few were tossed, and suddenly a car pulled over. A red-faced driver jumped out and ordered us to march down to the police station, saying he would meet us there.
“Good kids, in spite of the snowballs, we did what we were told. My memory is foggy on who was there. I know you and I and Randy Poole were part of the posse. But I think there was at least one, maybe two, more.
“At the police station, Chuck Privett was on duty. He seemed more interested in impressing the guy who complained than in arresting us, so we got a lecture. For me, the memorable moment, was when Chuck looked at Poolie and, referring to Randy’s mom, said, “What am I going to tell Audrey?” Randy broke down in tears.
“Needless to say, we weren’t arrested. And we didn’t throw snowballs at cars anymore, at least not on Meridian Street where we could get caught.
“You weren’t playing the protector role in a third memory that comes to mind, either.
“In fact, you put us both at risk. But it was a helluva good ride.
“It was later in high school, when you had the Model A Ford that was a never-ending restoration project. It must have been a day when school was canceled because of snow. The country kids couldn’t get in, but you could drive around town just fine. So the two of us set out in the Model A with the specific intent of spinning donuts on the ice.
“We ended up at the Portland Pool parking lot, safely out of view of police and with minimal risk of running into anyone else. It was a blast. The high center of gravity of the Model A made it feel as if we could flip over at any time.
“Then there was one memorable slide. The A was moving of its own accord. Ahead, there was a flagpole on the left and a boulder-sized monument on the right.
“I’ll never be sure if you had any real control over the steering. We’d been sliding all over the place. But you somehow managed to guide the A between the rock and the flagpole as if you were threading a needle.
“Not surprisingly, that was the last spin of the day.
“I’ll always be grateful that you brought us through it. And what I’ll remember is that I trusted your hands on the wheel. It’s tough to be the passenger in situations like that, especially for us control freaks. But in that case, I was comfortable.
“I knew that if anyone could steer us between that steel pole and that hunk of granite, it was you.
“Right now, I figure you’re being steered by others more than you’re able to steer yourself. That happens.
“Maybe this time around you’re the Model A and your doctors have to get you between that damned steel pole and that unforgiving hunk of granite.
“I trusted you when you were at the wheel, and I hope you’ll trust them to steer the right course.
“We’ll be thinking about you this weekend, that tall, gawky, gentle, clumsy, ornery, thoughtful, protective guy. A brother to us all.
“With great affection,