Fireside Chat

I LEAD OFF the discussion. “Friends do for friends, right?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Charlie starts.

Get this. We are sitting around this roaring campfire in the woods up near Talcott Notch. It’s a warm night and insect spray is keeping the bugs off. Our faces are blazing and our backs are cold. Five of us stare into the flames together, me and my four friends. We are unlike, like I mean different! It’s not an encounter session…maybe it is. We’re here to talk out something.

Two rules; we stare nowhere but at the moving flames while we’re talking, and everyone must have something to say.

I better back up a bit. It comes down to an argument we had back in March. That day we’re in Joe’s Bar on Center Street in Waterbury tossing Bud’s and Sam’s and maybe a few boilermakers. Hand to mouth we’re munching chips or cashews or popcorn at one of Joe’s seriously distressed tables. The surface is covered with bottles, most being empty. We’re a bunch of old farts being loud.

To understand this group and where we are you have to get to know the guys. First me. I’m Donnie. I make things happen. I’m headstrong with a bit of a temper. I might know almost as much as I think I do, depending on who you listen to.

So Charlie’s got a load on and throws out the thing that grabs me. “Why are we friends?”

“Why are we friends? You shitting me?” I say to him.

“No law says we have to be,” Charlie says.

“You got no string tied to your ass,” I say back.

I get this sudden thing, like a brickbat to the side of the head. It’s something I’d been mulling for months, but it didn’t have a home until that moment. We’re not alike in any way, shape or form, so why do we stick together? I hold up my hands and wave everybody down.

“Hey, gang, Charlie wonders why we are friends.”

Everybody in the small group debates the point and we get nowhere, as usual, but nobody says no when I offer to head up a special session of the self-styled Raucous Bunch in a place where they’ll have no choice but to think about it. I don’t want asshole answers.

Now it’s July and here we are, camping…and drinking…and munching. Food seems to be part of every social conversation. Maybe food is a catalyst in the nature of friendships, something to do with your hands while you’re thinking, I dunno. Well, if you’re Italian, ha ha.

I plan to test the theory tonight by the fire. Some time ago I gave them all homework, a sheet of paper, a list in fact. Here’s how I figure it will shake out. I’ve had a spotty life, but I’m good with me. I like me. Sometimes I disappoint me, but I rationalize, who doesn’t?

Charlie, the one who kicked this off in my head went to college and graduated an engineer. He stuck with it and had a successful career. That’s in engineering. In marriage, he stunk. He got a girl and had some kids, but the idea of a permanent relationship went south five times before he gave up and decided single fit him best. By then his divorce decrees said he had to pay for seven kids until they became adults. That’s all past him now.  The last one turned eighteen a month ago. He’s pragmatic about it.

Al is short and bull-like and isn’t that smart like a thinker, but he’s the tenacious one. He ended up a laborer, what’d he care? He wins arguments by sticking to what he knows and never rises to a new idea. Still, he’s a sweetheart of a guy and nobody denies that. He married, but didn’t have any kids. His wife died three years ago.

John is quiet and studious when you compare him to the rowdy gang we generally are together so I wonder how he got to be part of the Raucous Bunch. I scratch my head on that one. He told us once he wanted to be a Minister, but life got in his way—didn’t it for all of us—and he became a Librarian his whole life instead. He had the same job when he retired. Advancement didn’t appeal.

Finally we come to Ralph. He’s our big guy, three hundred pounds of mostly muscle gone to seed through inactivity. He worked in the Waterbury school system and from what I heard, when he bellowed, the kids listened. He made them look up to him, so he did well.

There you have it. The Raucous Five, and except for me—I’d been camping for years—the others met at the campground shorn of their natural habitat. I’m thinking I picked it right.

So I ask the question and Charlie already wants to pick a fight.

I say, “Go ahead. You opened you big mouth, BUT what?”

He looks at me. “Rule number one, stare at the fire, Charlie.” His gaze goes back. Now he’s talking to all of us. There’s method in this madness.

“Okay, Donnie, you’re right and you’re wrong. Suppose I turned you in to the police because I was trying to be a friend.”

“Let’s roundtable first.” I look at Al.

“Yeah. Charlie, you’re not being a friend if you rat on a friend.” Al does what I think he’s going to. He’s sticking to the tried and true. He’s honest because he can’t think of a good way to not be. I like honesty, but there are all shades of it.

“Maybe a friend you rat on isn’t a friend.”

John speaks up. “What drew you to him to begin with?”

Ralph moves in his chair. It threatens to collapse and dump him. I’m taking a bet in my head on that. Before John can answer he joins. “Twenty-five years I taught grammar school kids and I saw every kind of conflict, including friendships that came and went. You can’t figure it. It’s chemistry.”

I break in. “The major problem is kids become big people and all people change as they go.”

“Right,” Ralph says, “they grow up, they grow down, they grow sideways, and what’s the cause? Other people, other circumstances, other places and how people react to them. It’s up here where all that happens.” He taps his noggin.

Charlie glances at Ralph and returns to studying the flames. “You know; I like this,” I say. I reach into the nearby woodpile and toss a good sized stick across the burning center. Sparks leap for the sky and everybody’s eyes follow them up and watch them die.

John says, “You like what?”

“Thinking. We don’t do much at Joe’s place.”

We’re silent for a time.

“You guys check out the thing I gave you?” They turn to look at me. They’re going to crack wise, but before they do they get this look and they glance at each other and nod.

“Yeah, thanks. A list of all the values people live by…or should. I thought you were blowing smoke up my butt, but you opened my eyes,” Charlie says. “You want to tell us what you had in mind, Donnie?”

“Sure. I’ve been thinking about our group for awhile and I started wondering about it. Wasn’t till Charlie made his offhand comment a few months back that it gelled with me and I figured I ought to go for some answers. That’s when I grabbed for the brass ring and spilled it to the group and here we are.”

They’re all ears.

“First, friends do for friends. We know this, but did we know that each one of us comes to that conclusion from different places. What is a friend to Al, to John, to Charlie? Ralph may have a different take on what’s a friend to him. See?

I see cloudy confusion.

“Or…maybe there’s nothing to see.”

I deadpan so they can’t read me.

“This sheet I took off the Internet from some guy named Blackwell, on values we live with. I looked it over and shortened all the garbage he spouted to what I figured were the real meanings of what he tried to say. I left one out.”

Nobody looks at the fire now. They pull out the sheet I gave them from front and back pants pockets, one from a shirt pocket, and they study the list in the firelight.

I’m seeing what I want to see so I feel smug, kind of. “What value did I leave out?”

“Tell us,” they say.

“Sure. It’s friendship. Friends are people who sustain us by accepting us as we are.”

The light dawns. So easy you could trip over it. Of course it’s a value!

Charlie says, “You dragged us out to your goddamned campsite in the wilderness to tell us this?”

I make it heartfelt because I feel it in my gut. “You guys, you’re what I have and I’m for you. Isn’t it nice to know why a bunch of guys who wouldn’t look at any of us on the street turned into buddies? You think you’d remember if we’re screaming at each other in Joe’s place?”

The guys sit and think a bit.

“So it’s written on the inside of your brains?”

Nods and, “Yeah.” We share a special moment.

Then Charlie says to the boys, “Let’s grab this old bastard and toss him in the lake.” They get out of their chairs and go for me.

Friends…so nice to be appreciated!