FriendshipIf you were here—if you can stretch memory back to 1984 or 85—you might remember a blonde kid and a brown one riding bikes around the courthouse in Enterprise, dashing into the bookstore for cookies, then out again to ride endlessly around the courthouse square and the Bookloft block. Rain, snow, it didn’t matter. The two boys were both new to town, but they knew each other and the language of bike.
Judy and I had opened the Bookloft in 1976, had a nine year old blonde son named Matt, and had just brought Basu (who now goes by “Que”—one of so many changes for the people in this story) here from Calcutta, India. His English consisted of a couple of nursery rhymes, but he learned to go up and down the rope tow at Fergi and around town on that bike within weeks.
The blonde kid was Aaron McNamee, son of Paula and Gerry McNamee. They’d come into the bookstore from time to time when they were living on Cricket Flat, out of Elgin, and I remember spending time with them at the Flora School auction (how and why these odd bits of memory stick and others flee?) and then Paula took a job as Dr. Driver’s nurse, they moved to Enterprise, and Aaron and Basu became fast friends.
(Another memory—the Bengali word for “I” turns out to be “Amee,” and soon both boys would come in and say “Amee want cookie” in chorus.)
We all became friends. We skied together, rode bikes together, went to the Gold Room together, ate at each others’ houses…. And then, almost as quickly as we had all come together, we drifted apart. Aaron and Basu ended up in different grades and on different Little League teams. Paula and Gerry split up. Gerry went from vocational counseling to electrician’s helper at Banes, bought the old cheese factory and fashioned it into an apartment for him and Aaron, then struggled along until sometime in the early 90s when he decided to go back and pick up a teaching credential at Eastern.
The college quickly grabbed him up to teach their own students. For over a dozen years he was one of the most popular teachers on campus—for freshmen struggling with English composition and for foreign students struggling with the language and culture. He came back to the county to teach a couple of Fishtrap classes. He traveled to Pacific Islands and to Chile to teach and learn—he was a one-man ambassador for the college and for English language and literature.
I knew that this cancer thing had been eating at Gerry for a couple of years, had a nice email exchange or two—he was upbeat and involved in his teaching, reading, and traveling—but I can whip myself now for not making a few special trips that 65 miles to see him these last months.
That’s gone. On Sunday Gerry’s long-time partner, Sandy Sorrels, hosted a wake at her 10 Depot Restaurant in La Grande. I went, and as I sat at a table with Gerry’s oldest son, Dylan, the memories of that strong friendship over a few years in our younger lives came flooding back.
I remember the February Wednesday that Gerry came into my office at 10 o’clock in the morning. “Get your skates,” he said, and off we went to Wallowa Lake. For an hour or two we were the only people alive. No cars, no people, an inch of hoar frost on the ice. We skated from the foot to the snag on the east shore and back—swoosh, swoosh, skates cut through the frost and the ice rumbled and cracked with the cold and our weight. It remains one of the best days of my life.
Or the time I confided that I was doing some writing. Gerry agreed to look at an essay on Matt and Little League baseball that I planned to send to the Oregonian. Gerry read it, liked it, commented thoughtfully, and the Oregonian’s old Northwest Magazine published it. The first $100 I ever got for a piece of writing. Gerry my best critical reader ever.
Or the day shortly after Basu got his red mountain bike. He and Aaron and Gerry and I—maybe there were others, but that’s who I remember—rode up Hurricane Creek until we were too deep in snow and slush to go on. But what a ride down! Glissading on bicycle tires, giggles, laughs, and two young boys who’d kept up with their dads on a great adventure.
There’s more for me of course. And maybe for you. You might remember Gerry loading your tee at Fergi, Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth, scarf wrapped tightly around that big smile. Or him fixing your washing machine at Banes. Or you or your kid taking a class from him at Eastern (no tenure, no PhD, just one of the most loved profs on campus).
Aaron told someone yesterday that life is “beautiful and sad”—and I can’t think of a better way to describe friendship. Beautiful when we have it—even though we might not recognize it at the time; sad—and beautiful—in memory when it’s gone.