Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Friendship

Happy Fourth of July 2011!

Independence Day this year made me reflect on the freedom, and value, of friendship.

"Make new friends, but keep the old; one's silver and the others are gold."

These are the words to a song learned at Central Avenue Elementary school in 1971, the year my thirty five year old mom received her early death sentence; melanoma in her lymph system. I was in 3rd grade.

My mom encouraged me to build lasting friendships. She had a very loving heart and I sensed the compassion she had for my young friends. It made it natural for me to like them.

Perhaps she encouraged me to make friends because she anticipated our family might, like others who experience the death of a young parent, implode after her death, leaving me and my siblings and our family on separate islands. Friends can't replace family, but good friends can fill the lost family void.

"A person someone is fond of and knows well", according to Webster's Dictionary, is a friend.

In the past two months, I had the unique fortune of spending separate time with three friends who are in my earliest photos with people other than family; Fred, Nayan, and Ross. The photos date from preschool to early elementary school.

Here's my infant brother Judson and my buddy Fred and me in 1967 at his family's beach house. Fred and I were five. In May Fred treated me to lunch near his Manhattan office where he's a Tax Attorney. I was scheduled to moderate a panel of New Media experts a few blocks from his office that evening.

During one of my college summers working at Lazard Frères’, Fred had a job with a Manhattan law firm, and we split my step mother's apartment on 97th street. Fred and I would occasionally connect for meals, movie premiers, and other NYC summer spectacles like concerts in the park and on the pier.

Summers with Fred were common as our grandparents had homes in adjoining Jersey Shore towns. His town had a beach with sand bars and no crowds, so wave riding was exceptional. We spent hours, sometimes days, riding waves on floats and body surfing.

Following 8th grade, we even rode our bikes to these towns, about 70 miles from Madison, to stay with our grandparents for the week when Bruno Sammartino was scheduled to wrestle Superstar Billy Graham at the Asbury Park Arena. We lampooned the pro wrestlers and bought tickets to attend. However, Hurricane Belle hit the Jersey Coast canceling the match. We saw Bruce Springsteen walking the pier when we redeemed our tickets.

Starting when we were real little, every summer we'd visit Fred's family's shore cottage in Beach Haven, NJ twice; first to help prep it for summer renters and then to close it over labor day weekend. Nightly excursions to Hartman's Amusement Park, wave riding, eating ice cream, crabbing, husking corn for a nickel an ear, and house improvement projects stay in my Beach Haven memory. The Campbell family also offered this spot for a memorable high school retreat.

Being around Fred and his easy disposition taps these great memories and their associated good feelings. Fred also asked me to deliver the Newark Star Ledger to his neighborhood accounts when he was away. It was a beautiful neighborhood, probably the most affluent in Madison.

Here's a recent shot of Fred.

I also carried Nayan's "Grit" Newspaper route when he was away. His route was mostly around our neighborhood, but also went to one of the more economically challenged streets in Madison. One time I delivered Fred's and Nayan's routes in the same week. Comparing those two streets was like looking at two different worlds, yet they were about 1 mile apart.

Nayan warned me about a young boy at one of his stops. Jamie watched cartoons all day while rocking on his hands. He did not like to be disturbed. Nayan told me to avoid eye contact, or Jamie might come after me like an angry dog. This got my attention. I stared at Jamie's floor the whole time.

Jamie grew into an excellent football player and wrestler. He was my teammate, but remained troubled. Chris Jilleba, a star running back, connected with him more than others. Recently I learned our wrestling coach asked me to practice with Jamie, despite my outweighing Jamie by about 50 pounds, to check a new kid's mental models.

The new kid refused to wrestle Jamie because, he claimed, Jamie was crazy. He said he was afraid of being hurt. I learned later coach felt the real reason the new kid refused was because he did not want to wrestle a black kid, like Jamie. I was proud coach chose me to prove Jamie's skin tone had no affect on me, and he was safe, at least in practice. In life, his demons never left.

Jamie died in prison. He was a convicted rapist.

And here's Nayan and me, circa 1966. We're both 4 years old.

In early June I attended Nayan's father's funeral. His father was a physician, a patriarch, and the coolest dad in our neighborhood. He hailed from one of Morris County's most esteemed black families. His brother James was a dentist.

Nayan's father graduated a year ahead of my parents from Madison High where he was a four time class president and a star tennis and basketball player, and captain. He graduated from Hobart as an undergrad and was a two time All American in lacrosse. He attended Medical School in Philadelphia.

Despite being embraced by Madison High in the early 1950's, George and other black students were refused service at a Madison eatery due to their skin tone. While protesting, the owner spat in his face. George was also forced to sit in the back row of the balcony at the Madison Movie Theater and his wife, a native of India, was refused an Ivy League Master's Degree because she was married to a black man.

Later, Nayan's Grandpa was refused the right to buy an office building bordering Madison and Morristown intended to house his sons' professional dentist and doctor practices to serve families from both communities.

These stories were shared at his eulogy. It was the first I'd heard them. Character kept our parents from spoiling our young perspectives. Our friendship was color blind until we were old enough to realize others were not as fortunate as us.

In the 1950's and '60's discriminatory acts were commonplace. Thanks to people like our parents, most of us did not experience the level of overt discrimination they experienced, and we have the freedom to choose our friends, and careers.

I did experience one overt incident worth mentioning. I was coaching at Penn State in 1987. During a staff meeting it was suggested a gifted black NJ All State player named Darren be given a chance at quarterback. Coach Paterno stated "Pennsylvania is not ready for a black quarterback".

At the time, Randall Cunningham was a starting black quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. One assistant coach was outraged by the comment, and challenged the legend. Joe blew him off. Since then, Penn State has started many accomplished black quarterbacks, but the comment reflects the public and private dichotomies inherent in racism.

Dr. George was quiet around me, but always fun and pleasant. He was a great observer. I sensed he trusted me and my parents. Thus, he allowed Nayan and me to be first friends. Every day, I'd visit their compound where Nayan's grandparents and his step great grandmother lived in another house.

They all treated me like family. His grandfather called me Mathis. His great grandmother taught me how to play piano. She also founded the Community House, intended to help children like Jamie, living in neglect and abject poverty, to experience positive life options.

Dr. George was also forgiving and perceptive. The eatery owner who spit in his face became his patient and Dr. George treated him until his death bed when, in tears, the man begged for forgiveness.

In 1966 Dr. George served the Navy as a physician in Long Beach, California. After he and the family moved, I remember sitting in my backyard, staring at their house, hoping for Nayan's return.

We were inseparable as preschoolers and I was very happy when he returned two years later. From 1968 until my family moved in 1977 every day with Nayan was filled with sports, building forts, music, and laughter. When we visit today, there's a natural bond and connective ease.

Dr. George was also an accomplished artist and passed this creativity to his children. Nayan is a successful music producer and owns a recording Studio in NJ where I plan to produce some of my audio programs.

Here's a recent shot of Nayan.

And here's Ross, with his brother Malcolm and Judson on the chair, and me camping with our families at Cape Cod circa 1968.

Camping on Cape Cod with the Ross's family was another highlight. From 1964 until 1971 we'd make the annual pilgrimage to Truro's North of Highlands Campground. It was kid and dog heaven; a walkable distance to incredible surf and beach action, balsa wood airplane challenges, visits to Army Navy and loaded candy stores, lobsters, beach bond fires, and laughter. My parents relaxed at Cape Cod and the normal tensions eased. It was also nice having a friend available in the adjoining campsite.

Ross and I enjoyed airplanes and laughing. Amazingly, despite living over 3,000 miles apart, our professional pursuits are aligned.

In late June, I facilitated a program for a client in Tacoma and had some time on the last day to visit Seattle. I'd recruited the northwest for Brown football players as a coach and at the time was offered a job coaching linebackers with Don James, then legendary coach at the University of Washington. The area holds fond memories for me.

So, I tracked Ross down at Microsoft where he's gained a national reputation as an innovative director; able to maintain unheard of high retention levels amongst gifted technical employees while exceeding performance expectations.

Despite not seeing each other for over 30 years, our conversation was easy and we talked for two straight hours about how he practices tools I teach, apply, and measure with clients. We are collaborating on an article.

And here's Ross's current self portrait.


When I travel, I search the travel area for old friends and contact them. It's like opening a present and seeing how the games and bonds we shared as children evolved into careers and common interests.

It also gives me a chance to place unique experiences in perspective, to appreciate and learn from exposure to great people and great times, and to realize some appearances can be misleading.

In the process, I imagine the goal is to integrate our stories, so we can make sense of our childhoods so they can help us grow into our potential as adults.

Good luck on your journey in opening your friendship presents.

Please keep me posted on your progress.

2 comments:

Anayalator said...

There's a certain comfort in an old friend much like that of your old robe u won't throw out or favorite T-shirt. A sense of familiarity like it just knows you and has seen you through all the ups and downs of life...When you gain weight or lose weight you still wear that old robe or T-shirt, You have been a great lifetime friend & I always appreciate you and your family & all the fond memories of our childhood in the old neighborhood growing up. It's funny how people at times in life go away to college or move away, but it always comes back around full circle with your true friends. That's because it''s a lifetime bond. Much like the documentary I saw on ESPN about Larry Byrd & Earvin 'Magic' Johnson. Great Job Matt!

Herb said...

How well I remember Madison in that period (Drew Class of '67). In an incubator of relationships that spanned so many lines (on campus) and the dreaded barber shop and other racist places so close by. As a boy from New York City, Madison was like another world. I too know and appreciate
the value of your friendships Matt, and hope your journies place us in close proximity down the road (Newport Creamery when we return from Florida? ;-}