A friend is dying. Of cancer. Different than mine but cancer all the same. Why him and not me? For him, the darkness deepens and soon, night will fall. Yet last year I had cancer. Through the Grace of God and the brilliance of my physicians, I was cured. For me the sun is rising. Not setting. There is much to be done. Family and friends to love. Novels to write. Mountains to climb. The Lord has restored my spirit and my strength. But not his. Why? I don’t know.
I’ve only seen him twice in the last 35 years so it isn’t as if he were present in my life. But he was a major presence in my life a long, long time ago when we grew up together in our small Southern town. Having sleep-overs. Making cinnamon toast. Playing with Matchbox cars. We both collected them although he had more than I did. But, I had more cool places to build the small roads so we could play with the little cars which were all of an inch or so long.
Then junior high. Squirting each other with water pistols in the hallways. Sneaking those first cigarettes. Thinking almost all the adults we knew were stupid. (Turns out we were right.) Studying our Latin. “Et tu, Brute?”
Going to visit his grandmother. Sailing on his father’s boat. The night my sister graduated from high school, a big spaghetti dinner for her, the family. As for us, all of 11, we each dressed as an Italian waiter; my cousin took a grease pencil and painted mustaches on our faces.
A few years pass. High school: we fool around. With each other. We share the secret that can never be told. Two guys. Fear stops us after a few times. We never said the word. Queer. Never discussed it. Ever. Who could stand the burden of knowing more? Yet we both knew that somehow we were different from other guys. And the difference wasn’t good. We could never tell anyone.
The last two years of high school we slowly drift apart. My mother has died — from cancer. I’m drunk most of the time. Yet neither of us ever betrays the secret. Never. Not ever. We keep the secret that can never be told until the telling of it no longer matters. In that time and place, the trust we placed in each other was profound. I only realize it now.
Age twelve: we begin Boy Scouts together. The years pass and we grow older, become Eagle Scouts, become the two leaders of the troop. We are the only ones who can wear the old Smokey Bear Boy Scout hats. And we do. And then to scout camp each summer. A responsibility — for each year we are always an ‘honor troop’. We remain so.
On each late afternoon before dinner: Retreat. We march the troop. Faces scrubbed and hair combed. Long lines of scouts from different troops formed up around the large quadrangle with the flag pole in the middle.
Calling the troop to attention then turning to him and saluting, “sir, troop all present and accounted for.”
“Troop, parade rest!”
Then both of us stand at parade rest in front of the other scouts in our troop. Almost forty of us, each one of us perfectly dressed in our uniforms, down to the lines in the knee socks we wore. Kerchiefs knotted perfectly. At the edges of our sight, dusk begins to fall.
He nods at me.
“Troop, attention to the colors.”
The notes of a bugle sound. The American flag is slowly lowered by two honor scouts from another troop. Only honor scouts could be trusted with the colors. They gather the flag, step back and slowly, patiently, correctly, fold the colors. We can do this perfectly as well. We’re Boy Scouts. We know exactly how to treat the flag.
The notes of the bugle fade away. We stand in the hazy light of dusk in summertime, the sun slowly setting over the lake. So to the mess hall for dinner. But first to our tables, to stand behind our chairs and bow our heads. Someone says Grace. That seemed right. We knew about God and our duty.
Each Tuesday night at the troop meeting, the two of us up front, everyone in the troop faces the flag; each one of us raising our right hands, thumb and little finger touching, the other three fingers straight:
On my honor
I will do my best
To my duty to God
And my country
And to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times
To keep myself physically strong
And morally straight
The irony of the last words for a gay man has escaped me until now. As if that has anything to do with morals.
At the mess hall we eat dinner, stack our plates, wipe our tables down. Afterwards we all run back to our campsite and change out of our uniforms. We only wear them at Retreat. Playing, running, laughing. Buying a Mountain Dew at the canteen. Telling stories. Playing skits. And singing. Boy Scouts used to sing then.
Trail to Eagle, trail to Eagle,
marching all the way
First the Star and then the Life
Will on your bosom shine, keep shining……
We both loved that song. We had stayed the course. Our Eagle Scout medals gleamed on the upper left pocket of our uniform shirts. We were so proud. And then, on the fourth night of our week-long camp, the special ‘tap out’ night, when one or two scouts from each troop have their right shoulders tapped with an arrow.
Soon they will be able to wear the narrow white sash which only my friend and I can wear on that night. A narrow white sash with a long arrow embroidered in red. We are both honor scouts, members of the Order of the Arrow. I’m sure others are envious. We were, before we were ‘tapped out’. Honor scouts were the ones who did the work. Who took responsibility. Who could be trusted to always do the right thing.
On the other nights at camp, across our uniform shirts, each of us wore a long sash covered with merit badges. His mother had sewed all my badges onto my sash. My mother didn’t live long enough to see me in my green uniform with my Eagle Scout medal.
The last night of scout camp: the entire troop around a campfire, singing, laughing, bragging, telling the stories from the week. Who ate the most. Who swam the longest. Who stayed up the latest. Who is the shortest guy in the troop, the tallest. Always me. About 10:00 pm now, its getting very dark.
The troop falls silent as a distant bugler begins to sound “Taps”. As the last note fades, we are still. Moments pass, then me and him begin to sing very quietly, the troop following us. We are singing “Taps.” The last song of the day.
Day is done
Gone the sun
From the hills
From the lakes
From the sky
All is well
God is nigh.
And so my old friend, Brian, farewell.
I wrote this post on the evening of August 19th, 2010. The next day, August 20th, my friend Anne emailed me around noontime. Brian had died at 2:00 a.m. that morning, she wrote.