Friday, February 22, 2013

You Pick Your Friends?

I just had a weird realization. You know that cliche "You can't pick your family, but you can pick your friends"?

That popped into my head tonight, and I realized it's not entirely true. Some of the best friends I've had (and still have) I didn't pick. It's like they just showed up one day and stuck around for some reason.

Out of four of the men I consider my "best friends", one I ended up sitting next to in 6th grade. My family had just moved from Germany to San Antonio, Texas before Thanksgiving in 1985. He started taking my pens apart and combining the colors. Somehow, 28 years later, we're still friends. We were best friends through middle school and high school. In 1997, I took a week of leave from my ship in San Diego to drive up to visit him at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho. My chain of command tried to cancel my leave. I fought hard to keep it. I can remember a time in high school when we got to school and decided "screw this!" so we  thought we'd walk out the back and go home for a day off. The school's "rent a cop" caught up to us in his golf cart and escorted us back. We waited for him to get busy, and left another way. Another time his dad caught us skipping school at his girlfriend's house (his wife of a long time now). His dad followed us back to school. We went to one class (our favorite teacher) then left again.

We had adjoining paper routes through 6th-8th grades. We would get up like 0200 on Saturday and Sunday and roll our papers and throw our routes together before the sun came up. I don't remember ever taking a day off, but when he took vacation, he trusted me to throw his routes for him. Coincidentally  my house was on his paper route.

Another friend I met in the Navy. I was standing pier watch. Usually, each ship sends one person. For whatever reason that day in approximately September 1995, my ship had two. We started talking. Later, after the 1996 Persian Gulf deployment, we moved off the ship and split an apartment with another friend. The other friend didn't work out, but the other two of us are still very close friends. We live near each other. I rode into work and home with him today.

Another close friend I somehow got linked with through the friend I met on that pier watch. The friend I know from that pier watch was a computer geek. He got me into computers (my specialty was electronics). The third friend started to get into computers through my other friend. Today, we're still in touch. He runs an Exchange Server with Microsoft Lync, so even though he's in Colorado and I'm in Virginia/New Jersey, we can chat every day as time permits.

A fourth friend was a year behind me. The way my high school did things, we had a 2 hour "4th period". During that time were 4 30 minute lunch periods. Depending on which lunch you had, you ended up with an hour of class, a half hour of pretty much wasted time, and an hour of lunch. I forget which class I had, but it bored the crap out of me. I volunteered for something called "Key Club". It was an outreach of Kiwanis Club. I didn't care much about it, but it saved me from a half hour of useless boredom. I met a good friend there. He was a year behind me (I was a sophomore; he was a freshman). We hit it off really good. He was stationed at Tinker AFB during the Oklahoma City bombing. I was home on leave between ships. He called that morning in April, '95, telling me to turn on the news. I asked "Which channel?" He said it didn't matter. I saw the aftermath of the bombing, and said something like "Holy crap!". He said "Yeah. I need a ride to the airport. I've been recalled.". I gave him that ride. 3 weeks later, he came back for a weekend, and I gave him a ride 8 hours back to OKC, during which an hour or so of screwing around in Ft Worth saved us from encountering a tornado that hit I-35 about the time we would have been there. I got to see the aftermath of the bombing, and got a tour of Tinker AFB.

While he was an Air Force cop, friend #4 got his private pilot's licence. He went to Las Vegas for Red Flag in '98. I drove up to meet him there, where he rented a plane and we did some flying. The first time I drove up, we flew to a resort near Hoover Dam, and did a flyover of the dam. That was freaking cool! (I recreated it in Microsoft Flight Sim). The next time, we flew back to San Diego for an overnight (yeah, I drove from SD to LV to fly back to SD. But it was fun.)

When he left the Air Force, he got a job as a flight attendant. Ever now and again, since I worked for Lockheed Martin in New Jersey at the time, he'd fly up. I took a day off, and he got me a "buddy pass" somewhere. We went to Boston a few times. We even sat in the "Bullfinch Pub", where "Cheers" was filmed. That's when I learned that Air Force dudes just can't drink like professionals. When I first met my wife, she was willing to pick us up in Philly, meaning we could have gotten piss drunk on our trip to Boston. My friend wimped out, except for some Sam Adams Cherry Wheat at the airport. Yeah, Boston has that benefit.

He worked his way up to pilot in his airline. Now he's in the left seat. I still say it's too bad pilots don't get the job perk of being able to take friends for joyrides.

I don't remember "choosing" any of these guys as friends, but I'd walk into battle with any of them, knowing my back was covered. I'd share my deepest fears and darkest secrets, and trust them to call bullshit on me or assure me I'm not the only one facing that. Through years and miles between us, somehow I've remained in touch with them.

Bon Jovi had a song while I was in high school called "Blood on Blood". Lyrics from that song I loved were:

Through the years and miles between us
It's been a long and lonely ride
But if I got that call in the dead of the night
I'd be right by your side

I believe that song predates my first driver's license.

I think a strong part of manhood is having that bond. I broke my arm on the job in 1998 after I got out of the Navy. Friends 2 and 3 were still in. Friend 2 was on duty, but told his duty section leader "My friend is in the hospital. I'm going. You need to figure out who will cover me". That could have lead to what we called Captain's Mast. It's a risk he was willing to take. They knew his character well enough, and nothing else happened. But he would have accepted it. He stayed in the hospital with me all day until I was released, then drove me home. Then he went to pick up my car that got left on the job site. Hard to drive stick with your right arm freshly broken.

Friend 3 didn't leave me on my own during that period. A couple of weekends until I could drive again, he rode his motorcycle over to my apartment, then drove my car to take me out to computer shows and other cool things (I miss those late '90's computer shows in San Diego).

I recently watched the mini-series "Band of Brothers". It occurred to me that for whatever reason, there is an unspoken, almost un-definable bond between men that have been in the military. While I have been in a war zone, I have not been in a war or combat situation, although of course I trained for it for years. I guess the bond comes from the fact that at some point, anybody wearing a uniform had to at some level of consciousness or other face the fact that he (or she now) may not come home, and decide that was acceptable. I made that decision, as have countless others.

During Band of Brothers, something really hit me hard at the end. I know from the first episode that Winters and Nixon were both 2LTs in Airborne. I saw their careers sort of parallel through the series, with Winters coming out as a Major, and Nixon a Captain. I could tell they were friends. What I didn't realize what that the two men were friends PRIOR TO the Airborne. I don't know why, but that made a huge difference to my understanding.

At the end of the series, when the actor playing Maj. Winters narrated what happened to the rest of the men from Easy Company, he got on Lewis Nixon. He said "My friend Lew died in 1995". Through that narration, I put the context together that the men knew each other prior to the Airborne. And something about that made me tear up. We're all dysfunctional on some level. But the fact that another man will look through our periods of assholeness and failure and say "I'm going to remain loyal to that guy. That is my friend." should probably make us all weep with gratitude.

I'm planning to watch the series again before I give it back to my friend who loaned it to me. If nothing else, to pick up on these nuances. Plus, it's a really good show. I should have watched it prior.

As I leave, I should ask this. The men you consider your closest friends; the men you'd feel safe going into a fight with; the men who would risk their jobs and livelihoods to save your ass; or you would risk your job or livelihood to save theirs; guys who, if they called bullshit on you, you'd listen; did you pick them? Or did they just somehow show up and decide they like you and refuse to leave?

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