Reflections on My October Friend
Reprinted from the October issue of PineStraw magazine.
He's my oldest friend and might be the closest thing I know to a Renaissance man: an expert fly-fisherman and serious outdoorsman, a crack businessman, a devoted husband and father, a student of history and philosophy, serious oenophile, respectable golfer, skilled guitarist, even a beloved Sunday School teacher.
Not to mention one competitive SOB.
That's probably why I love him so much, my old friend Pat McDaid. True friendship, Aristotle said, is like one soul in two bodies. We've been needling and comforting each other, sharing life's unanticipated ups and downs for nigh on 40 years, almost since the late summer day my family moved to the north side of Greensboro and I wandered through a honeysuckle hedge and discovered a scrawny kid about my age shooting hoops at the end of his driveway. He looked like the Irish leprechaun on the Lucky Charms TV commercial.
"Hey," he said to me, "want to play horse?"
"Sure," I said, not knowing a single soul in the neighborhood.
So we played. I don't remember who won. Pat probably won. He had a better jump shot than me, though I was half a head taller. Even before proper introductions were made we played a second game, then went down to his basement to shoot a game of pool. We were both going into ninth grade, and hormones - mine at least - were raging. Without any warning, his pretty kid sister Susie sauntered downstairs in search of her bathing suit, dressed only in her flowered underwear.
My blood jumped. Her jaw dropped. She shrieked back up the steps promising to murder her brother.
"That's just my sister Susie," Pat nonchalantly explained with a laugh.
Pat in fact had two other sisters, one older (Jane), and another even younger (Carol). His mom was a nice but formal lady, and his dad - Big Pat - was a super-friendly Irishman who owned the major electrical supply in town. The family attended Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church. "My dad hopes I'll be a priest someday," my new friend confided over Chinese checkers one rainy afternoon at my house.
Not long after this, Pat's grandmother was visiting and I was invited to Sunday lunch, with sweet little Carol, the youngest, seated next to me. The blessing had barely ended when Carol broke wind with gusto. Every head swiveled in our direction.
Her mother wasn't amused: "Carol, dear, what does a proper young lady say?"
Carol thought for a moment and grinned. "Oh, right. Safeties!" The table broke up.
Pat and I laughed about that for years. We were in each other's houses and lives constantly after this, playing board games or shooting hoops or quarterbacking fierce neighborhood pick-up games against each other that always went way past dark. I was Sonny Jurgensen, he was Fran Tarkenton. Pat threw a tighter spiral but I could throw the ball farther. We argued passionately about every team, every sport, every season, every player.
When a second October arrived, we went dove hunting out at my father's childhood friend Henry Tucker's farm out on New Garden Road, and Pat, a better shot, bagged twice as many doves as I did, probably because I always hated killing anything.
There were really only three areas in which my best friend simply couldn't top me. To this day I call them the three G's - for guitar, golf and God.
Because I started early and studied classical guitar for a time and wound up teaching at Mr. Weinstein's music shop on weekends, I enjoyed a big head-start on Pat's growing interest in music.
I began playing golf in earnest around age 9 after swim practice at the Bur-Mil Club, punching around the cute little par-3 course half a million times before my dad permitted me to step up to Green Valley Golf Club. By the time Pat and I started playing the "goat tracks" around town in high school, I regularly shot in the mid to high 70s, at least 10 strokes better than my best friend. He was more interested in running track, anyway, and lettered in cross-country.
Not surprisingly, he introduced my older brother Dickie and me to camping and fishing at an early stage of life and encouraged us to follow Scouting all the way to Eagle rank. The night I received my Eagle at the Guilford Friends Meeting House, my pal Pat showed up to needle me and show his support. After that, we camped and fished and hiked all over the Blue Ridge in each other's company.
In high school, we both made the Queensmen, a folk group from the senior choir. I loaned him one of my guitars, taught him a few chords, and soon he'd bought his own guitar and was off and running. Pat was in Key Club and ran track, I was president of Interact Club and played golf. He could outrun me, but I still murdered him at golf.
In college at Chapel Hill, Pat became something of a rebel, grew his hair and protested the war, becoming a priest no longer an option. Big Pat, I suspect, was none too happy. Down at East Carolina, I also grew my hair and wrote for the school paper and would have enlisted in the Air Force had my poor eyesight not kept me out. We still saw each other occasionally on football weekends, but every year we seemed to drift further apart, politically and socially. Even so, when my girlfriend since high school was murdered up in the mountains, Pat showed up at her funeral to lend me support.
Boys of October
I moved to Atlanta and worked for the newspaper's Sunday magazine. Pat went to work for Big Pat and married a girl who had a rock band. During one trip home to Greensboro, he invited me over to the tiny house he and his wife shared. It was a tough time for my old friend. Pat and his dad had officially parted ways. I never quite got the whole story. When Big Pat was sober, you'd never met a nicer guy. But when he wasn't, his son Pat was the easiest moving target and his biggest disappointment. Sometimes he fired him and later failed to remember it.
Eventually Pat found a great mentor and became an outstanding manufacturer's rep, a born salesman, a true rainmaker.
I was pleased to be in Pat's second marriage to his beautiful wife Terry, as an usher who could still kick his butt at golf and play the guitar better. (Not that I was competitive or anything.) By then I was living in Maine with a wife, two sprouts and a very demanding job that often took me around the world.
But irrespective of time, give us five minutes together, we were boys of October trying to outdo each other in the dusk. Pat's passion for guitars developed into a full-blown addiction. He built a special guitar room at his house and even recorded some outstanding original compositions. He'd also taken up fly-fishing with a vengeance and had purchased land in the mountains where he planned to build a cabin - something my father and I had long talked of doing.
One day Pat went to check on his father and found Big Pat unconscious on the floor of his childhood home. His sisters were living elsewhere with busy lives of their own. Didn't surprise me in the least that Pat became his father's primary caregiver, his steadfast keeper as the disease deepened and took its toll.
As best friends do, we talked fairly regularly on the phone - he from his car somewhere on the highway, me from my office over the barn on the coast of Maine - about politics, books, our fathers, wives and children, you name it - the only friend I ever shared so much with.
His daughter Emily and my son Jack were born the same year. We went on family vacations together and took rowdy guys-only golf trips to Ireland and England, where Pat's game suddenly equaled mine. I had to work much too hard, in fact, to beat the little SOB. We were in Ireland together one fine autumn evening where we happened upon a gorgeous stag in the dusk when he began telling me about the youth Sunday School class he'd agreed to teach at Christ Methodist Church, the church around the corner from my childhood home.
"I look at these kids and I think, 'That was us at one time,'" he said. "I wish there were things someone had honestly told us about life - how you'll go through hard times but that's OK and even vital in order to think and ask the right questions."
So, in the end, he became a priest of sorts - albeit an innovative Methodist youth Sunday School teacher. During one of my frequent trips home, I sat in on one of Pat's Sunday classes and was deeply impressed, but hardly surprised, by the way he wove challenging questions and powerful spiritual insights into his class discussion.
Last October, during our 40th high school reunion, a former classmate pulled me aside and asked if Pat and I were still best of chums. She remembered how the two of us once played a school pep rally dressed up like moonshining rednecks and were competitive in everything. "By the way," she added, "I loved your book about fly-fishing with your daughter across America. I just watched the movie."
The book she meant is called "Faithful Travelers," which indeed was made into a nice little cable film a few years ago. I'd been fly-fishing in Maine for almost two decades. But after he took up the sport, Pat flatly outdid me by joining an elite fishing club and becoming an expert at stalking wild trout. When I told her this she laughed.
"You two never stop, do you?"
"Nope. And unfortunately I can't even kick his ass in golf, guitar and the great outdoors anymore."
"Did you know," she added seriously, "that he's also a fantastic Sunday School teacher? He's taught the high school kids at our church forever. He's like a legend to some parents and kids."
Evolving to the End
I had to smile at this, thinking how boyhood rivalry had grown beautifully into seasoned wisdom. St. Augustine was a such an effective spokesman for Christianity, after all was said and done, because he'd led such a rowdy younger life. And even Jesus seemed to see the potential in fishermen.
A few days after the reunion, Pat invited me to meet him at his "secret" fishing club in the hills. Soon we were thigh-deep in a cold rushing Blue Ridge stream, lost in the pageant-fire of another October, though hardly boys and in the autumn of our own days now, as always talking about everything from our two recent college graduates to the state of a world that always seems to be hovering over the abyss.
At one point, I asked him what it is about his long-running Sunday School gig that keeps him doing it year after year.
He thought a moment and smiled, making a beautiful roll-cast to an emerald pool. "I've probably committed every mistake imaginable and survived all sorts of disappointment and I'm not afraid to share what I've learned from it.
"In that respect, I suppose, I'm a crusty Christian. I've got a lot of battle scars but faith endures, and I find there is still truth in asking questions. So I stir things up a bit - just like Opti the Mystic did in his class. Life has taught me that a spiritual life - a belief in something larger and more mysterious than all of this - is critical. If you don't ask, you don't learn. If you don't learn, you don't evolve and become who you're meant to be." He glanced at me up the stream and added wryly, "You know who told me that, don't you?"
I knew before he said it. He meant my father. Two October friends, one soul.
When I said this, he laughed.
"No, dumb-ass. You said that to me years ago. We do the same thing. The difference between us is - you write it, I talk it."
Making a cast, I tried to think of what to say.
"Yeah, but I can still whip your ass at golf if I have to."
"Dream on, old buddy. By the way, you're scaring the fish."
I moseyed up the stream to fish by myself for a while, grateful for my October friend.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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