Last Saturday there was an engagement party for my old friend Matt, whom I originally got to know in first grade some 28 years ago. The party was thrown by his parents, Jim and Ruth - the latter of whom I was reminded that Matt gets his delightfully high-pitched cackle from.
There are four of us who remain friends after meeting in first grade at Newby Elementary school in McMinnville: Matt, Paul, Ned and myself. But we weren't always pals, I'm afraid.
I remember in Ms. Watson’s second grade class having to resolve a tense, nearly-violent confrontation with Matt over an Avon neck chain. This was the end of the 1970s, and there were actually still Avon Ladies who came door to door selling cosmetics and jewelry. My mom had let the Avon Lady into the house a couple of times, and I became fixated on having this particular gold neck chain with an arrowhead pendant. But the problem was that Matt already had that very neck chain. Granted, my memory may be more melodramatic than reality, but I definitely recall of being held against the wall like a mafia shakedown, handfuls of my shirt clenched in Matt’s fists, and forced to promise not to get the same neck chain, or at least not the same pendant. (I think I’m writing this post just so I can write ‘neck chain’ as many times as possible.) I pondered many other possible pendant options, but none of them seemed quite right, so I ruled out the neck chain altogether and instead for Christmas asked for and received my first bottle of cologne, a line intended for boys called “Rookie”. My dad still kids me about wearing Avon Rookie cologne.
Later, in our fifth and sixth grade years, I remember Matt playing center on our school basketball team. Today he’s not exceptionally tall, only about 5’8”. But he was virtually that tall then and with big muscles. He was like the Shaq of McMinnville 12 year olds. I remember a kind of broken-record offense in our games, where Matt would shoot, miss, and get the rebound. Shoot, miss, get the rebound. Lather, rinse, repeat.
In junior high, I drifted apart from Matt and my old Newby Elementary friends. But in high school Matt, Paul, Ned and I were part of a larger group of friends that has stayed amazingly close and in touch over the years. Along with us Newby alumni there were Joel, Nathan and Pete from Adams Elementary, Rosie and Brooke from Columbus, as well as Brandi and Andrew from Memorial.
Saturday’s engagement party took place at Michelbook Country Club in McMinnville, which had an aura of exclusiveness when I was growing up, but whose worn oak, fluorescent lights and golf plaques seemed less intimidating today. It was actually kind of a dump. More importantly, though, it was fun too see old friends again, as well as to meet Jen, Matt’s fiancee. Driving home, I thought of our different paths, some longer than others but always tethered back to each other.
Paul and Joel are high school teachers, Joel married with two kids. Rosie is ascending her software company and a budding writer. She’s married to Paul, who is also an accomplished rock and jazz drummer when he's not preparing the young minds at our old alma mater. Nathan is an architect in Hawaii married with a kid on the way. Brandi works in sales and is married with an adorable new dog. Andrew’s now a dentist and kayak enthusiast living in McMinnville. Pete works in online tech support by day and is a budding theater/film composer by night. Ned similarly moonlights, working at a nonprofit educational research organization and in his spare time publishing and packaging his own CD and DVD archival collections of music, film and other pop culture. He also did the music for a short film that’s been accepted to Sundance. Brooke is an amazingly talented artist living in Albuquerque. And Matt is a successful pharmaceutical salesman in Orange County who races motorcycles competitively.
The motorcycles are just one indication of Matt’s thrill-seeking personality. We all have stories of car rides with Matt behind the wheel that put the fear of God in us, all to the soundtrack of his trademark cackle. In high school, we often acted out a kind of small town high school version of Animal House, and Matt was definitely the John Belushi character, ready to raise hell. Sometimes it’s still weird to see him so professional in his business casual wear, shaking hands respectfully. But the 18-year-old I remember standing drunk in his tidy-whitey briefs and a cowboy hat will always remain alive in spirit.
Reading what I've written so far, the missing part of the picture is how Matt can befriend anyone. I remember about 14 years ago I was taking a year off from college and living in Washington, DC with some members of a punk rock band. Matt flew out and stayed with us for a few days (while plotting to rendez-vous with a pretty young Pennsylvanian woman he'd met). The night we came in from the airport, my roommates were having a party in which every guest seemed to be dressed in black. Matt showed up in his cowboy boots and blazer with elbow patches, and proceeded to become the life of the party. For months after he left, my roommates would ask about him.