In the month-long, sleep-away summer camp I was sent to each year, another kid picked on me once. Once. After leaving the lunch hall he jumped on top of me and then all of a sudden, I could stand again. I didn't know what happened and looked around. Ten feet away, there was Dave pummeling the shit out of the kid who'd been trying to make my August even more miserable than all the swimming instructors could manage. I was a Protected Puppy, and through Dave (moreso than his brother -- 12 days my junior and also there at camp) I was accepted by the older kids which gave me standing with my peers.
Once on a visit to Philly when I was a teenager, Dave, his brother and I all had girls with us. Dave had a driver's license, a lead foot, and a Datsun wagon. I was the odd boy out so I got stuck in the back of the wagon with a hot redhead who my cousins said was a skank. Who cared? I was 14, she was 16 and willing. For some reason there was a bowling ball in the back. Dave drove down Old Gulph Road at around 60mph and would jerk the wheel, causing the bowling ball to slam into me as I was kissing Shari during our -- or rather, my -- awkward attempts at digital manipulation1. She clearly knew what she was doing.
Visits to Philly were great. While my same-aged cousin was at times too cool for me, Dave knew his reigning position and left it at that. Unlike everyone else in both families, Dave was the only one who didn't razz me for not liking or caring about (American) football, despite his love for the Philadelphia Iggles. He could even convince me to play a pick-up game with the other kids. Maybe it was because I'd managed to work up some interest in hockey and was a die-hard Philly Flyer fan, starting in 1973 when they were best known as the Broad Street Bullies, not a single one of those guys possessing front teeth.
We'd go out to Front Street for the drag races. Dave would even race that stupid Datsun wagon against tricked-out Camaros brought in tow from New Jersey. And win. Wild stuff for a kid stuck with a bicycle in suburban hell.
There was a game we'd all play whenever he was driving. It didn't have a name. Someone would point and just say a noun. It was something that was visible from the car. "Can." You'd look in the direction the person who'd said that was pointing and see the object. This was a game of one-upsmanship, though what qualified as "better" wasn't always quite clear.
All this shit we'd see lying in the road, the odder the better. And driving home from Front Street one night, I'd scored heavy points in the game with an object I no longer remember. Dave immediately trumped me.
Eleven seconds later I saw that US Navy cruiser in the harbour. Dave was cooler than me. Cooler still, because he then corrected me: it was a battleship. He howled with laughter.
We didn't keep in touch as time went on. I'd get some filtered news from his brother and my mother. Alcohol was a serious problem, but I didn't know much about the rest, only that things weren't going so well.
Dave and his brother taught me to ski when I was 15. We had to drive almost two hours to get to the slopes. His brother called shotgun (natch) and I was stuck in the back of the car on cop watch. It was my job to look behind us for the helicopters with their speed cameras and detectors.
Once we arrived at the slopes, Dave picked my skis for me at the rental shop and we headed for a medium mountain. "I need to go take a lesson," I told him. "Bullshit. We'll teach you. It's easy," he replied. Up the lift I went.
I managed not to kill myself getting off the lift at the top. That hill looked like the plummet into the abyss. "No fucking way!" I screamed. "Fuck yeah!" said Dave and he pushed me. I was going downhill. I was picking up speed and drifting off to the side toward a grove of trees. I stuck my arm out snagged a tree and spun around it a couple times as my momentum wore off. After that I'd figured out how to steer.
Unfortunately I hadn't learned how to brake. I was flying down the hill and, as if by magic, the other skiers were peeling left and right, getting out of my way, as if out of a movie. Except for one girl. She was on the ground and putting her skis back on after having taken a fall. I couldn't slow down, I couldn't twist, and as she stood up, I slammed into her. We both went flying. After that I figured out how to brake.
When I got to the bottom of the hill Dave was pissing himself laughing, but egged on by him, I got on the with him, went to the top and had fun skiing back down. Until we went to a different hill: "Highly advanced". That fucker.
Excessive drinking. Attempts to dry out. "He's doing much better," my mother would tell me at some point. But cool as he was, talking on the phone was awkward. We didn't have much to talk about so I just didn't call. Seeing him was another thing, and if I was in Philly I wanted to see him. After all, this is the guy who took me at 15 to Doc's with their $3 pitchers of beer and got me rat-ass wasted, taking me home three hours before my family's four-hour drive back home.
As years went on, I didn't see him so much. He often missed visits or was unavailable. Usually it was good news. "He's doing better." "He's now the head sous chef at $FancyFamousRestaurant." If he did show up we'd talk a bit about cooking and he was inevitably more knowledgeable than me even though I was in a cooking school long before he'd been.
I finally saw him last October at his father's funeral. Time and his father's death had clearly taken a massive toll on him. He was still gangly, still wore a bunch of rings, was still über-cool. But I could see the pain; I'd been through the same. I guess there was more than I'd realised.
He was always the coolest. He had a lot of demons. They've gone quiet.
1 At the end of the night, Shari gave me a final kiss and told me "wrong hole", exposing me at a very early age to the world of "kinky". Once we dropped her off, Dave knew well about what I'd only just been introduced to and made fun of me the rest of the night as we cruised City Line doing crossed Chinese Fire Drills with girls from Bryn Mawr.
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