On my birthday, I thought of an old friend born a day earlier than me. From the sixth grade onward, Gary and I attended classes together at a small town school in western Oklahoma. We had both come from even smaller communities that had lost their school due to diminished enrollment, me by the fifth grade and him by the sixth. We both had one parent who had taught at a closed school and now taught at our school. I was a newly-minted townie, and Gary lived with his parents on a South Canadian River ranch about twenty miles from town.
We were good friends on and off through school. I can remember at least one fight that neither of us won; at least, that's my story. There were probably others, and there were many times when we watched each others back after we were old enough to drive, drink, and raise hell. Anyone who has attended a Saturday night VFW dance or has been an out-of-towner in a pool hall or bar knows what I mean.
We drifted apart after high school. I went to college for five years. Gary tried several colleges. He spent one semester at my school. I nearly flunked that one trying to keep up with him. There was a major difference in the way we went to college. He was amply funded by his mom while I was paying my own way by working. When Vietnam heated up, Gary joined the Army, Special Forces, and as I learned much, much later, spent most of his tour with the Hmong mountain folk in Laos at a time when our president was saying we have no troops in Laos.
Years later, we reconnected and along with another high school classmate, spent hours reminiscing. At that time, Gary was a college department head in southwest Missouri. His wife was Japanese and a Buddist. He'd met her while in the Army. Several years ago, Gary died. His wife had passed a year or so before that. Although not a Buddist himself, Gary requested a Buddist funeral. I found the ceremony pleasant, if one is allowed to describe a funeral that way. His ashes were interred with those of his wife at a Wyandotte Indian cemetery.
On my birthday, my thoughts of this old friend was from a certain time, the summer wedged in between high school and college. That day was oven-baked, much like today. I'd just returned from three months of trailing ripening wheat from Texas to South Dakota working on a harvesting crew. Gary and I met by chance on the main street of a nearby town. We dodged into a drugstore to talk. The darkened chill of the air-conditioned drugstore was a welcome reprieve from the hellish heat outside. I ordered a glass of lime-coke from the fountain bar and chose a table strategically placed under a quietly circling ceiling fan. On the way to the table Gary detoured by the Wurlitzer. We sat in rickety wire chairs, our elbows on a matching glass-topped table, spouting newly-graduated gusto and bravado while one of his selections played in the background. It was the most popular song that summer. I can almost hear the music now.