I can’t recall the last time I saw you.
Maybe it was those first couple of years after I moved away from Cherry and came back during the summers to stay with my grandparents across the street from your house when we saw each other.
Maybe we bumped into each other at your Dad’s Gulf station when I came there with my Grandpa Hahn. Do you remember that old Coca-Cola machine your Dad had inside, the kind you had to pull the bottle of Coke or Orange Fanta out from the metal jaws that held onto it? And right next to it was that old candy vending machine with the red knobs you pulled to release a bag of Planter’s Peanuts, an Oh Henry bar, Life Savers, Chuckles or whatever else you wanted from that machine. For me, it was a bag of those salted Planter’s Peanuts which always seemed to taste better with Orange Fanta.
Maybe we ran into each other those hot summer nights when Cherry had their Celebration Days or maybe when my Grandpa and my Uncle Herman rented that building across the road from your Dad’s station.
After my Grandpa died in 1973, my Uncle Herman in 1982, and my Grandma in 1986, I never made it back to Cherry again until December 2005 when I visited my cousin Alan, Lois and my Aunt Eileen. That was the first time I had stepped back into that house across the street from your childhood home in over 30 years.
I did read about you in the paper a few times when you raced those midget racers at Tommy’s Speedway east of LaSalle. I guess you were a pretty good racer because I can recall reading that you won a couple of races.
You were one of my childhood friends and school friends along with Larry Corpus, Valerie Schellhorn, Kim Moss, Randy Corr, and Tommy Templeton. Larry died of leukemia not long after my Mom moved my brother and I to Oglesby. I don’t remember if I cried when I found out he died; I guess when you are only eight years old you don’t know much about mourning.
Kim was in my homeroom at LaSalle-Peru Township High School, but she didn’t remember me. She was not the same sweet girl I remembered. I never saw Valerie again after I moved away. I might have only been eight at the time, but I had this big crush on her. I never saw Randy Corr after we moved away. I might have run into Tommy, but I am not too sure.
So why, when I learned yesterday that you had been killed in a three-truck accident on Rt. 80 while you were helping a truck driver whose truck had broken down, did I take your death so hard?
Sure, there have been people (other than family members) I have known over the years who have died—some very, very close like my friend Tony Innis back in 1985; others not so close like Scott Duguid in 1982 (I knew him through my friend Chris Vasquez) as well as Rick Ajster and Chris Etschied two kids that I went to high school with (they died while I was serving in the Air Force), but I still knew them well enough to feel sad when I heard they had died.
But Bill, your death really hit me hard.
I guess it’s because you were one of the first friends I had in life and even though we only knew each other for a few years that was a special time. Even now, hearing your name reminds me of growing up in Cherry, my grandparents, going to your Dad’s gas station, and of course the beginning of my life.
I am sorry we never got to meet again. That would have been nice. And I am sorry for your family who’s missing you so much now.
What I have now are just the memories of us growing up and wondering how many times did we cross that street to play with each other?
The memories that I do have are fixed in time—like a bookmark in a period so long ago. There are no snapshots of you and I as kids—at least none that I know of—and when I try to imagine what you look like, I only have this image of a skinny seven-year-old boy wearing glasses in my mind. Maybe somewhere in all my stuff, in a storage unit back home there’s a class photo of us when we were in the First Grade at Cherry Grade School.
Until I heard the news of your death I hadn’t thought about you for years; and yet, as soon as I read your name in the online news article, I was transported back in time 40 years ago to a much simpler and innocent time. And maybe that’s why I am taking your death so hard now because I am reminded of those times.
On the other hand, maybe it’s just something about my own mortality and permanence and the soul searching I’ve been doing the past couple of months—with my mom’s battle with cancer, my fiancée and I expecting our first child, and turning 50—that has made the death of someone I knew as a child that much harder to deal with.
And perhaps, I am also taking this quite hard because there’s that much deeper feeling of loss to be denied the chance to bump into you again some day.
Goodbye my childhood friend.