A few years ago, there was a television program (quickly cancelled due to low viewership) which at its inception appealed to me due to its title, “Men of a Certain Age.” It was hyped as a heartwarming account of a group of friends (men, of course) who, having reached that mid-life crisis stage of their lives, experienced all sorts of emotional conflicts which can make a middle-aged person rethink priorities as they adjust from a fast-paced youth-oriented lifestyle to a more…um…sedate, mature outlook on events. At the time, I was a “man of a certain age” myself. I watched a couple of the early episodes looking for portrayals of familiar experiences where I could sigh, “Oh, yes, I felt that way when it happened to me, too,” but, alas, I had forgotten that this was television emanating from that “cesspool of iniquity, Hollywood” (to quote more than one preacher,) and the only events I saw made me feel like a voyeur peeking through a window. Heavy handed, crude, rude, vulgar, shallow, misrepresentative…all these descriptions would apply to most prime-time sitcoms and dramas anyway, but especially to “Men of a Certain Age.” And it was cancelled. Good riddance.
However, “Men of a Certain Age” did acknowledge one fact, and that is that people with their individual personalities, priorities, preferences, and peculiarities do in fact change, or evolve, as the years begin to pile up. Your top priority for today may not even be on the radar scope ten years from now, and concerns that did not exist when you were a youth become life and death struggles in later years.
This evolution of thought and development accounts for why our taste in people also changes in time. I have heard it said more than once that a person who lives this life with five good friends is a blessed person indeed. Not just good acquaintances, but real friends. Someone gave a good definition of a friend a few years ago, and I think it still applies. To wit: “A friend is someone you can think out loud in front of without fear of condemnation.” So, a friend is someone with whom you can be totally honest in your opinions and observations. It doesn’t mean your friend will always agree or approve, but he/she will stick with you regardless.
I have discovered as my time has continued on this earth an addendum to the five good friends rule, however. As one proceeds through life and hopefully has an inner circle of five good friends, the membership in that blessed group of five on whom you depend will change. Many times, it is not due to a falling out or misunderstanding, but to the events of life itself.
In the early years after Shirley and I were married, I had several good friends in our church in Baytown, but two were especially close. David and Vernon were cousins of mine as well, and to top it off we all worked for my dad’s company, so we spent a lot of time together. In addition, our church had a softball team which played other churches in the area. David, Vernon, and I were key members (modestly speaking) of the team…especially since I kept the balls, bats, bases, and other hardware for the games at my house. Shirley and I lived on Aron Street in Baytown, and next to us was a vacant lot. Many an evening went by with David, Vernon, and I practicing our pitching and catching in that vacant yard. Vernon was our first line pitcher, David the backup, and I was the team’s catcher. This was a fast pitch league (slow pitch, or as we called it, wimp ball hadn’t been invented yet,) and we spent hours working on curve balls, sinker balls, fast balls. Vernon was an outstanding pitcher with a four-pitch repertoire, where David knew only one pitch…as hard as he could throw it. Vernon was steady on the mound, but occasionally we would let David start a game. He would do fine until he got in trouble. When he started to sweat and his eyes got as big as saucers you knew no one was safe from his wild pitches. The first adjustment to my friends group occurred in 1967 when David was killed in an industrial accident at Rohm and Haas in Deer Park. He was all of 25 years old. It wasn’t too long after David’s death that Vernon began to show the first signs of muscular sclerosis, the disease which would eventually take his life several years later. Those early years were good years…we were strong, young, athletic, and we were constantly busy and constantly moving. I describe all this because recently after a church service I listened as a couple of young men discussed their exercise routine at the YMCA and various sports, and I realized that none of it appealed to me at all. One might say I prefer a more benign form of health care. The last time the young men of the church assembled and played softball, I did not play because it was too hot. Forty years ago, I would have been in the middle of them.
Throughout the years I have been blessed with many different members of my group of five, and for fear of offending someone, I can’t mention everyone one whom I have considered a dear friend. I will, however, mention long-time friends Buddy, George, and Juan. Buddy tried to kill us while we were hunting in Wyoming when he told me to drive through a creek that wasn’t deep (but it was), George almost killed my wife when he tried to back his motorhome off a cliff, only to be saved by a lone tree, and Juan laughed at me while we were on a hunting trip when I threw a flaming stove out of a tent and also when I shot a hole in our tent with my Remington ADL 7mm magnum rifle (it WAS funny!). But through it all, they were in my group of five. Buddy, Georgie, and Juan have passed on, and I still miss their comradeship.
Shirley and I have been blessed over the years to have attended several wonderful churches, and one of the greatest assets of a great church is its membership. The church we recently attended for nearly ten years was such a church. The people were tremendously friendly and caring, and from the first day we walked into the building, we felt at home. Of course, it was the senior bracket into which Shirley and I fell. A few months after we began attending, one of the old…elder…more experienced men made the suggestion that some of us old guys should meet at a restaurant somewhere for breakfast and fellowship. Sure enough, we did so, and it was the beginning of a grand tradition. For eleven years now, we have met every Friday at a local restaurant and sat at the same table. Just like other groups, the membership has changed over the eleven years; some have gone to their eternal rewards, and other have taken their places. We have been known to sit there for two hours solving all the problems of the world. Unfortunately, no one listens to us, but we have the answers anyway. These guys have become very important to me. Each one has been through the fire, experienced loss and tragedy, and survived to tell the tale. When we speak on a subject, we speak usually from experience, not just opinion. We are an eclectic blend of personalities, and I would be more specific about each one, but I know some of their wives will read this, and I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. But Leonard and Nathan, both of whom have passed on, and Jerry, Mike, John, Mel, Steve, and Chuck were or are a joy to be with…knowledgeable, experienced, funny, quick-witted, and yet with a deep spirituality and appreciation of the blessings of God. Being with them has been good for me.
I have been blessed with a wonderful family. My wife, children, grandchildren (I have a daughter-in-law, but I consider her another daughter), and even all my in-laws form a base of support that has kept me through the years. But I have been doubly blessed in that I have had friends throughout the years who have served as sports buddies, counseling buddies, comforting buddies, and spiritual buddies. They have defined the true meaning of “friend.”