By Brian M. Howle
After recounting the joy and adventure of my days as a lifeguard over the last four issues, I began my annual fight with my memories of other summers past. The fight consists of me trying not to recall the events of certain summers in my childhood, because to this day they still put a shiver up my spine.
The single worst day of any summer found me spending the week with my best childhood friend, “T” B. Gamble, Jr.. Named after his father, Troy, somewhere along the line the nickname “T’ came into being and stayed with him throughout his school years. For all practical purposes, we could just as easily have been joined at the hip. Wherever you saw one, you usually saw the other. We were always on the same teams (circumstances otherwise would produce bouts of pouting and false bravado), in the same patrol in Scouts, chasing the guy driving the milk truck together (in our daily raid on weaseling some free half-pints of chocolate milk), and bugging our parents to drive us out to the country club so we could take in a relaxing dip in the pool or cheat our way through 9 holes of golf. We were inseparable.
In the late ‘50s and very early ‘60s, our parents bought lots at Litchfield Beach, not far from each other. After the houses were built, it was just like it was back in Andrews – just a hundred yards or so from each other’s home. We took our first swimming lessons together from a lifeguard named Eddie at the original Litchfield Inn. Countless hours were spent mastering the art of body surfing in the ocean and sculpting massive, Atalaya-like castles in the sand; countless more were spent on our dock on the canal, slowly pulling up lines of string weighted down with scraps of meat and fishing weights as famished blue crabs hung on for dear life with one claw, while stuffing shreds of meat into their mouths with the other. They would react suddenly upon seeing the blue sky break through the murky marsh water, but not before we would skillfully swoop them up with the submerged net that was stealthily positioned nearby. Nights consisted of putt-putt golf, trampolines, skeeball and anything else we could think of to lessen the weighty burden of loose change from our parents. All in all, life was good.
In the late ‘60s, I entered a radio station contest that would award the winner with ten gallons of ice cream from an ice cream shop at Coastal Mall in Conway. Held early in the school year and requiring the writing of a poem about ice cream, my mother and teachers suggested it just might be up my alley. The big day came, and everyone was listening to mighty WKYB AM radio when the winner was announced. And sure enough, I had won.
Now all I had to do was go to Conway, present my letter of verification, and walk out with ten gallons of whatever combination of flavors my little heart desired. Only problem was, I wasn’t old enough to drive at night.
And so, fall turned to winter, winter to spring – still no ice cream. But with the arrival of summer’s beckoning call to the beach, my frozen dairy dilemma was soon to be resolved. “T” had invited several friends, including myself, to spend a week or so at his beach house. Which spoke volumes about the tolerance of “T”’s parents. Being responsible for multiples of our little clique was a real faith-testing challenge – but Mr. & Mrs. Gamble rose to the test on countless occasions. It was there in “My Blue Heaven,” the Gamble’s beach house, where someone actually remembered something from school earlier that year – a science experiment. The actual experiment was designed to show how gases – in this case, carbon dioxide – could be used as propellants, and how the various elements and chemicals react. Well, it didn’t take long for us to figure out that if you took a two liter bottle (which in those days was glass) and put a little vinegar in it, then stuffed a tissue down in the neck with your finger to leave a small receptacle for a few tablespoons of baking soda, then screw the metal cap back on real tight and then shake it up and throw it – Viola!
You had your basic bomb.
We did it for the loud boom (which reverberated against houses from one end of the beach to the other in the dead of night); “T”’s folks pointed out the lethal shards of glass (which we overlooked, since we only did this at night and couldn’t see that part of the experiment) and put an end to our scientific pursuits.
One day the subject of my waiting ice cream came up, and something about a prize deadline. Mr. Gamble overheard the conversation and offered to drive us to Conway to collect my bounty. Curtains swayed and loose papers fluttered in the ensuing breeze created by our breakneck dash to Mr. Gamble’s burgundy Fairlane. Drunk with anticipation, we sang and laughed and generally made Mr. Gamble’s attempt at concentrating on driving a real chore. But as usual, he never complained about our rowdy loudness.
Once at the ice cream parlor, a small crisis developed when I showed the scooper-in-charge my little letter of verification. He scratched his head, mumbled “Be right back” and disappeared to the back of the store. A few minutes later, he returned with the owner. Or rather, the new owner. The shop had changed hands since the contest, and legally, I don’t think they were obliged to give me as much as a cone. But the guy was decent enough to honor my winnings, herding us behind the counter to get a good view of our choices. And our choices needed to be perfect, as the prize only came in five gallon containers. Mr. Gamble had the foresight to bring a couple of plastic coolers along, so we packed one with five gallons of vanilla and the other with five gallons of strawberry, and then poured four or five bags of ice over them.
Mr. Gamble made the ol’ Fairlane blow out some carbon on our journey back to the beach, as I nervously watched my winnings slowly melting away. When we reached the house, another frantic dash created another ensuing breeze as we raced for the freezer. All told, only a cup or two had melted, and we reveled in our victory, clanging spoons and bowls as we danced on the counter top in the kitchen. A brace of teenage boys unleashed without constraints upon ten gallons of ice cream – must be a gastrointestinal specialist’s dream come true. We celebrated late into the night, then – bloated on lactose – we retired to our bedroom suite to review the day as we listened to an unending eight-track tape of The Beatles’ White Album. A small, contented smile crossed my lips as I drifted off to sleep to the verses of “Bungalow Bill” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.
The music played throughout the night, weaving in and out of my dreams, which were pretty intense due to the sugar coma that I was in. And then, in the middle of “Dear Prudence,” I heard my very best friend in the whole world; barely audible, seemingly distant and displaced, but crying. And not the normal, “I fell off my bike” cry, either. It was haunting in its cascade, which regenerated itself deeper and louder with each cycle.
Suddenly, I awoke to find Jimmy Moody, one of the other friends, shaking me violently and, trying to scream at me without really being loud. My eyes were open and I could see his lips moving, but the music and the echoes of the screams were still clouding my ability to distinguish anything as I fought to wake up. I think I asked, “What?” once, and the second time my friend spoke, all the sounds came swirling to a stop; all the light focused on his face; and all the words became clear.
“Mr. Gamble is dead”, he enunciated loudly through clenched teeth, trying not to be heard by those outside the room.
“What?” I repeated, as the clarity of the horrible realization gave way to a new wave of confusion and disbelief. “What do you mean? We just had ice cream”.
“No, he got up this morning and was driving back to Andrews when he had a heart attack. He pulled off the road and stopped his car, but he died before the ambulance could get there,” Jimmy quietly said as he saw my reaction beginning to set in.
Now fully awake and alert, my mind began to separate the mesh of sounds that had seeped into my dreams. The music was still playing; car doors were being slammed outside as “T”’s mother returned with our school principal, Mr. Rowell, to break the tragic news to him, as his screams of pain and loss echoed upon hearing those words – now everything gelled to unscramble the confusion.
Jimmy left to attend to something else after he was content that I was awake and aware. I remember sitting there for a few minutes, trying to cope with this life lesson and my sense of grief, for my friend – and myself – physically unable to move. Tears and light trembling abounded, and my sense of awareness was there, but nothing moved. Not my head, my arms, my legs, nothing.
And then I heard my very best friend ask, “Where’s Brian?”.
At his side in an instant, we hugged and cried and screamed out our own loss of innocence. Then his mother and Mr. Rowell came over and whispered something to him. He asked me to drive his car back to Andrews, because he was leaving with his mom right away, and it would be a few minutes before we could clean up and pack before locking the house on our way out.
There were a lot things I thought about on that drive back home. Most of them still reside within my active reminders, the ones that usually go off whenever I’m losing sight of what really matters.
“T” made a promise to himself – and to his father – to become a doctor on that day. He made it his life’s mission. And he did.
Not only did he become a doctor, who began with family practice back in our little hometown when he first graduated med school, but he became a heart specialist.
Now some forty-odd years later, he partnered in a successful family practice in Columbia, where he treated the love of my life and our sixteen-year-old son on a regular basis at the time. He now works in Kingstree with the Williamsburg Regional Hospital, as an administrator.
So on those rough, “poor me” days when I find my surroundings to be intolerable, when my opinions of others become vocal, when I just flat out become a pain in the rear, I think about my friend, “T,” and his lot in life.
And then I usually call my dad and put aside my selfishness.
(Note: Since this was written, the extra 35 years that I got to spend with my dad – that my friend did not get to have with his – came to an end in August of 2004. And one of the first calls I received – and without a doubt, the most meaningful to me – was from my friend, “T”.)
The previous article orginally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, August 12, 1999.