It’s a pleasant July evening, only a year or two ago. I have just finished a little speech I had to give when a man walks up to me. “Jim?”
I clap on the smile a radio guy claps on when he’s doing an appearance and somebody wants to meet him. “Hi!”
The man extends his hand to shake mine. A moment passes. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
I had met Tim when he started attending my school in fifth grade. I don’t remember when I first met Alan. I may have known Randy since kindergarten. We played football, basketball, and softball at recess and we often sat together in the cafeteria, and although each of us moved within a larger circle of friends, the four of us had a bond.
Alan lived in a small subdivision on the edge of town where the houses backed up to farmland. One night in the summer between sixth and seventh grade, we decided to go camping in the woods behind Alan’s house. We rounded up a couple of pup tents, sleeping bags, flashlights, and a stash of 12-year-old-kid food—plus a radio, provided by me. And late on a Friday afternoon, we carried our load into the woods.
We had trouble finding a good spot for a campsite, or at least that’s what we told ourselves. It’s just as likely that we found the woods, which were pretty thick, to be a bit less than hospitable. So we set up our tents in a cleared hay field just beyond the trees. We wanted very badly to build a fire, but Alan’s parents had told him that was out of the question. Fortunately, it was the height of hot summertime, so staying warm that night wasn’t going to be a problem. (Alan’s parents knew that warmth is not the main reason 12-year-old boys are interested in fire anyway.)
After we set up our campsite, we went exploring. I expect that we also brought a ball and gloves, or maybe a football to toss. As evening turned into night and it got too dark to risk one of us failing to catch the ball, we started talking: about sports, about school, about our friends, and eventually, about girls we liked. This was a big step for guys our age. Each of us knew that the others were interested in girls in the general sense, but singling out specific ones was risky. If you didn’t trust your friends to keep your secret, it was likely to get onto the grapevine, and then everyone would know.
We didn’t fall asleep until very, very, very late that night. I remember hearing the overnight jock on WLS, a guy I had never heard before. Because the radio was on the whole time, some songs we heard that night will remind me of it forever after: “Lean on Me” and “How Do You Do,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Where Is the Love.”
I woke up early on Saturday morning and crawled out of the tent to take a leak, wondering if the guys in the other tent were awake yet. It couldn’t have been much past 6AM before everybody was up, and we decided pretty quickly that we’d had enough camping. We folded up the tents, packed our stuff, and went back to Alan’s house to get some breakfast.
And the years passed.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
He introduces himself, tells me about his job, about his family, grown children and a grandbaby on the way. The conversation lasts only a minute or two. As we part, I picture pup tents in a field and 12-year-olds telling secrets. I hear a radio that stayed on all night. And I think about how long ago it was, but how close it still seems.