Shillington, PA, a suburb of Reading. Governor Mifflin Apartments, the development where we lived during that stretch, looked every bit of the year we moved in, 1973: long brick buildings in the style of colonial mansions (set along cleverly named thruways with names like Colonial Drive and Mansion Drive...ahem), at each end of which were three floors of four apartments each. First-floor communal laundry rooms and halls of storage lockers tied the two ends together.
The central playground where we kids spent most of our time would terrify the safety-conscious parent of today, but in the 70s it was perfectly fine to have metal monkey bars, a metal swing set, a metal sliding board and a metal merry-go-round all baking in the summer sun on a canvas of macadam and surrounded by chicken wire fence. We seared our skin, scraped knees and elbows regularly, lost teeth, got mildly impaled by bare ends of chicken wire, cracked skulls and more, but we all came out of it OK. Builds character, right? There was even half a basketball court and a volleyball court in the back of the playground. Ever play volleyball on macadam surrounded by chicken wire fence?
Behind the playground was a small wooded area, with a path that led down to a little creek. It was a great place for us kids to build forts, climb trees, learn how to curse and how to smoke cigarettes and how to throw a punch. We were Tarzan swinging through the jungle; we'd make little ramps and jump our bikes over the creek in our best Evel Knievel impersonation; we'd make small fires and watch dead leaves burn. If we were really lucky, some of the bigger kids would join us and tell us stories about how the world worked, but more often than not they'd just be there to chase us away so could use the woods for whatever the bigger kids did there (coming of age lessons I wouldn't be old enough to learn until after my family moved back to Lancaster).
There was, as there always is in each chapter of your life, a cast of characters, but 40 years on the names and faces grow hazy. Friends like Mike Magaro, who is one of the few whose last name I can remember because when we referred to him it was always as if his full name were one word: Mikemagaro. There was an Indian girl, Shefali; a kid about year older also named Brian (I spell mine with a "y," but that wasn't the differentiator at that age - he was "Big Brian" and I was "Little Bryan"); Harry, who was always unfindable when we played hide-and-go-seek in the storage lockers; Adriene, the girl I walked home from school with each day and was my first grade "crush." There was my first bully, Barry Winkler, who would chase us smaller kids around with rocks or his BB gun and relentlessly picked on me, sending me home in tears more times than I can count. There was my first best friend, Steve Yoder.
Steve Yoder and I became friends in the second grade, and it was in my runnings around with Steve that I did many of the things already listed. I taught myself how to ride a bike thanks to Steve letting me ride his before I actually had one of my own. We'd spend hours playing air hockey at Steve's apartment, throw a football or baseball around on a weekend afternoon (or gather other kids and try to get a game of kickball going). We had dinners with each other's families. Typical best-friend stuff.
After third grade, my family made the move back to Lancaster. Soon, a new cast of characters replaced that Shillington crew, and as I got older memories of Shillington faded deeper into the background - never completely forgotten, but rarely thought of. Not quite a year ago, I was digging through a box of some old school papers and other scribblings from my youth. I had always written stories, back as far as kindergarten, and I was fortunate to have some teachers along the way - specifically, in Shillington, my first grade teacher, Miss Londeen, and third grade teacher, Mrs. Voigt, - who actively encouraged my writing and creativity. Hidden in this box were stories I wrote back then, often using myself and my friends as the characters.
It made me a bit nostalgic, and I decided I was going to try to see if I could find any of the folks I would have known back in Shillington online. I fired up Facebook, and the first name I thought to look for was my old friend Steve Yoder. Well, in this area of the country, Yoders are as common as Smiths, and Steves are all over the place. At least a hundred Steve Yoders popped up. OK, let's see...what if I did a search for what would have been my graduating class had I stayed in Shillington? Sure enough, there is a group page for Governor Mifflin School District Class of 1985! I figured this must be paydirt! Would I recognize any names? If I joined the group, would anyone remember me from my three-year stint at the beginning of that class's journey through school?
I began to scroll through the page, and stopped about five posts in. It was a link to Steve Yoder's obituary. Steve had been killed in an automobile accident in May of 2011.
I had not spoken with or even seen Steve Yoder in nearly 40 years; I had barely thought of Steve in that time either, save for brief bouts of nostalgia. Yet, it was like being punched in the gut. The first best friend I ever had in life had reached the end of his, more than a year before I had stumbled across this link to his obituary. There would be no "hey, remember me?" No getting together for a beer after 40 years. No finding an old friend.
That pretty much put the immediate brakes on my nostalgic search. I didn't want to to know who else might be gone. I tried to join the group's page, but it seems that group has been inactive for some time - no one appears to be moderating the page and my request to join is still languishing there. Somehow appropriate.
That night, I sat quietly in my living room, with no TV or music, and raised a toast to my friend. I don't know where we go when we're done here - the traditional concepts of Heaven and Hell seem far too cut and dried to me, yet I'd like to believe there is something more, some better place. Wherever that is, I hope that when my time to go there comes, I will finally get the chance to meet up once again with my old friend for some air hockey or to toss a baseball around. Until then, I wish him peace. And, I have had reinforced in me that it is worth it to take the time to tell those you consider friends - good friends, best friends - how much you value their friendship. You never know when someone you'd least expect to be gone, will be.