This past summer I read Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, after hearing Bill Kaufman recommend it. I was never into Science Fiction, and the few Bradbury stories I had to read in High School English Class, never did much for me. (Although “All Summer in a Day” is still the saddest story I have ever read) So I was surprised and somewhat blown away at the novel. It is one of the most elegiac, and melancholy books I have read in some time. For those that haven’t read it, Bradbury writes of his youth growing up in Waukegan, Illinois, evoking what it was like to be a 12 year old boy, caught between childhood, and a coming adulthood, realizing for the first time that he is simultaneously alive, and mortal. Hard to believe I could enjoy a bittersweet tale like that 😉
In one heart wrenching chapter he tells of his best friend, John Huff, moving to far away Racine, Wisconsin, and the pain and loss he felt. I think most of us have experienced something similar in life. That first time when they come to realize that loss of a friend, and the first of many changes in life as they grow and move on. In my own past on 20 Prospect it was Mike Ward, and not John Huff that moved away.
Mike moved onto Prospect Avenue when I was in about 4th or 5th Grade. He lived in an upstairs apartment across the street with his Mom and Stepdad. Like all new kids on the block, at first he was teased by the local kids. Being an only child, he played alone at first, and didn’t reach out to us right away. One day, after he went inside from playing matchbox cars in his driveway, we ran across the street and messed up the little roads he had made in the driveway gravel. He saw us and came running out of the house chasing us. Being the youngest and slowest kid, he caught me as I leapt over the pricker bushes into my yard, horse collaring me, as the rest got away. Him being 3 years older than me, he thankfully didn’t give me the pounding I deserved.
For reasons I won’t get into here, I had a falling out with the kids down the street, and not long after that day Mike and I became fast friends the way that only pre-teen boys can. He had been born in Baltimore, and moved to Batavia not long before I met him. He was into sports more than any other kid I knew, and he was the reason I began to follow sports with a religious zeal.
Being an only kid, he had some awesome toys, and many days were spent playing with his AFX slot car racetrack, his Electric Football, Coleco Rod Hockey, and Mattel Intellivision, but don’t think we spent all our time indoors. We played wiffle ball in the yard, football and street hockey in the street in front of our house. We organized our own little leagues, and wore different caps, and jerseys as we played out seasons and playoffs. We kept track of wins and losses, and made little championship trophies. Being 3 years older, he usually won, but I can still remember the thrill of hitting a grand slam over the hedges in his front yard, onto Mr. Jankowski’s front porch, and hitting their cat. I finished the running the bases before Mr. Jankowski, whom I would later work with at Graham Mfg. one summer in college, came out, and shouted over the hedges in his polish accent. We would mimic him for years “All right boyz. I tink dats enuf, boyz!”
By the time I was in 6th Grade, Mike had moved. His folks had bought a place over on Soccio Street. His moving was every bit as sad a day for me, as Bradbury describes losing John Huff. While he was only a mile away, at our age it may as well have been a different city. We still got together on occasion to play, but it didn’t last long. The bigger move came in the fall when he moved up from the Junior High into the Senior High. Now the 3 year gap between us became a chasm. A 10th grader, and a 7th grader move in entirely different worlds. By the time I went off to Notre Dame, he was already a Senior at BHS and was preparing for college. I saw him once or twice more during my High School years, as he was attending St. John Fisher to study Computer Science, but aside from some short, awkward conversation, our friendship was over.
I have often wondered what became of him. Perhaps he still lives in Batavia, just around the corner. Or maybe life took him far away, like it did to me. I like to think he’s out there somewhere, with a family of his own, and a son that loves sports as much as we did, living a parallel existence to my own. Time is a funny thing. It changes us in so many ways, and yet in others we remain forever the kid we were at 12. I think that is what Bradbury was feeling when he wrote Dandelion Wine. I know it’s what I’m feeling as I write these memories.