This is a story of thanks. Meant for a week during which being thankful registers a little deeper. (Or at least we pay closer attention to those for whom we’re grateful.) It’s a story of six old teammates of mine: Gabby, Cheese, Frog, Tim, Mike, and Audie. Together as Northfield Marauders, we played for Vermont’s 1985 Division III state runner-up soccer team. And quite honestly, that’s where the sports connection ends. Three months of a unified goal. (A time in which each of us achieved a physical condition we can fantasize over today.) But just as we survived an ass-kicking in that championship game without much enduring pain, we’ve survived 24 years of comings, goings, discoveries, and disappointments, and find ourselves on the other side of 40 now. Friendships fully intact. And for that I’m grateful.
Some background: Frog — we came up with nicknames that stuck — is the superintendent of one of the finest golf courses in New England. Cheese is a high-school teacher in Montpelier, and runs a painting business on the side. Tim owns and manages an auto-repair shop in our hometown of Northfield, Vermont. Mike is an airline pilot, and Audie is a major in the Air Force, based in Guam. Gabby calls himself a “lifestyle educator.” Best we can tell, he advises people with serious health concerns — obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes — on ways to achieve healthier lives before relying entirely on pharmaceuticals to change their bodies’ chemistry. A noble enterprise if you ask me.
With Cheesey motivating and Frog making arrangements near his parents’ new home in Myrtle Beach, we put together — and actually executed — a plan to gather for a weekend in October to collectively celebrate turning 40 this year. No wives allowed, no children. And no excuses ... not even living on an island in the middle of nowhere. While boys will be boys, and men should behave like men, there are times in life — stages, I guess — when men acting like boys is healthy. And for three days on the coast of South Carolina, we acted like boys.
The combination of sunshine, golf, cold beer, and midget wrestling will go a long way toward extending one’s life. Despite an ailing back that limited me to “designated putter” duties at Indigo Creek Golf Club, the steady, prolonged laughter of our gathering was unmatched in my adult life. And I say that with as happy a marriage — and the two most rewarding, delightful daughters — a man can claim. This was just prolonged, steady laughter ... of a different kind.
Our oldest friends, you see, serve as soul mechanics. (Tim will appreciate this.) We tend to adjust priorities as we age, hopefully intelligently. Influences — like, say, a wife and children — enter our lives that make the days, weeks, and months less about who we are or who we were, and more about how we can best contribute to a larger cause. And this a good adjustment, a nice shift of gears (again for you, Tim) in the human condition. But old friends provide a realignment for the soul. In the right setting (a beach will always do) and with enough time (a long weekend will suffice), friends from our formative years remind us that we are, fundamentally, products of our youth. Take yourself too seriously at age 40, and a friend from your 17th year will quickly have you back on track. You may have 200 airmen under your command, but not one of them knows the difference your van made in high school. We know, Audie.
Among the memories I’ll carry from Myrtle Beach — beyond the tallest pair of boots I’ve ever seen — is the remarkable consistency in happiness among seven men who have traveled in so many different directions. Each of us is happily married, six of us the parents of healthy children, with Gabby’s wife due in February. I’m not sure what the odds are of such a confluence, particularly among a group from a town so very small. I’ve lived near (and worked with) people for much of the 22 years since I left Northfield for college who don’t know me the way these six men do, distance be damned. We keep making friends, if we’re lucky, throughout adulthood. But the older you get, the harder it is to find a good soul mechanic.
I’m eternally grateful for mine.