"Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul." -- Seneca
Go back 47 years. Two teenage boys cheerfully navigate a small path that leads to a limestone pit in the woods surrounding their central Florida hometown. They had been here before, and its isolation made it a great place to target shoot with their rifles. The oldest of the two was named Ricky. A sophomore at the local community college, he had recently been accepted by the University of Florida in the ROTC program that coming fall. Approaching a barbwire fence that surrounded the pit, Ricky leaned his rifle on it, then carefully climbed to the other side. Once safely over, he reached for the barrel of his gun to pull it over to him on the other side. He was never careless with firearms. He was always careful. But not on this one day. Not in this one instant. The sound of rifle shot echoed through the live oak trees that bordered the fence.
I was 15 years old and about ready to start my first year of high school when my father's work necessitated a move to that central Florida town. I was excited at the prospects of making new friends and was prepared to make the best of it. I was in for a rude awakening. The town had finally decided to integrate its two white and Black high schools. Jamming them all into the formerly all-white school, the plan was to build a new second high school which would open the following year. To accommodate the overflow, there was a split-schedule: half the students went in the morning, the other half went in the afternoon. No lunch period, no study halls, no P.E. and no clubs. Racial tensions were rife: The Black students were angry that they had "lost" their high school while the white kids got to keep theirs. Into this cauldron, I reported for my first class.
I found myself to be the ultimate outsider. The Black students hung together. The white students hung together. Neither group let me in. It was tribe against tribe and no time to welcome new members. Then one day, a serious kid named Ricky walked up to me just as our history class was ending and said: "Do you like to bowl?"
Ricky was himself a bit of an outsider. He was in band and fit that stereotype of the nerd. Although very different in many ways, we shared a love of "Star Trek" and bowling. I had my first friend when I really needed one. Gradually Ricky and I stopped hanging out as my schoolwork, new friends and part-time job took precedence. When I heard of his death several years later, I was shocked. I wanted to go to his funeral and tell his mom how important Ricky had been to me. Then I got busy. I didn't go. I didn't call her. The years passed.
Getting older means you start to say farewell to a growing list of people who were important to you. Thinking of Ricky, I asked myself: Was I a good friend to you? Did I ever tell you how important you were to me that first year of high school, when you reached out to a new kid in town?
"Friendship is unnecessary," the author C.S. Lewis wrote, "like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself. ... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival." And when the past comes to visit me, and the memories of a skinny band student enter my mind, I feel gratitude for his visit. A kid named Ricky helped a struggling high school student survive and find his way. Better late than never, old friend.
Sey Young is a local businessman, father and longtime resident of Bentonville. Email him at [email protected].