I have no idea why I have spending so much time thinking about my oldest friends. I miss them. I feel sad for their tragic last years. Here I stand, the survivor. Alone with the memories that only we shared. It is up to me to remember them. I cherish the many experiences we shared. The reasons we became friends. Laughter and hugs. The important moments of our lives.
My oldest friend lived next door. Archie and I grew up in a housing project build on the edge of town away from everybody else. Massena, NY. Is a small border town with Canada. Its claim to fame is its longstanding ALCOA plant which will be closing the end of the year. It was also a short boom town in the 50’s for workers who came to build the St. Lawrence Seaway.
My family shared a duplex with Archie’s family. We could communicate through the furnace room by tapping on our common wall. Our respective kitchens were off our furnace rooms. My family did not have a phone. Archie’s family had a party line.
Archie was one of seven children. He was number four. We were a little gang. Archie, me, my brother, Dick, Sally, Penny and Clifford. We played in the area woods and surrounding farmland. Picked wild strawberries. Built our camps in the summer woods and our igloo-like snow camps in the winter. Good times. Played marbles. Hide and seek starting from the one tree in our yard.
Neither of our families had a car so we walked everywhere we went even in our freezing winters. We walked to the local theater for the Saturday matinee. Cartoon, superman serial, movies. For 25 cents we had it all plus popcorn. On the way home we played the adventure movies.
I went to a Catholic school through the fifth grade. Then the school started charging tuition. My parents could not afford it. So, I was sent to public school. The nearest school was about 2 miles from home. It was a neighborhood school. No buses. Our problem was that we did not live in the neighborhood like the other kids. Archie and I walked together. And we walked home for lunch, too.
Dick, Sally, Penny and Clifford were lucky as a grade school was built across the street from our house and all they had to do was walk across the street. The school had five grades. No room for us. Archie and I walked. Up the hill away from the project. Down by my parish church. By a street of nice houses. Up a steep hill. Down the railroad tracks. Up the short street to school and our sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Hourehan.
Archie had sandy hair and brown eyes. He was intense. Just like me. He was taller than me. He eventually grew into five-ten. He has a small strawberry mark on his left cheek. He wore glasses. We were easy together. Like we had always known each other. We had since we were three.
Archie was the first boy to kiss me. It was more a complaint from me that he hadn’t kissed me. So, he did. That took care of that.
Our classes and our lives gradually took different paths. Archie left Massena and so did I. He married, had two children and was living in Texas. Some where along the way he realized he was gay.
I was living here in Albuquerque with my family when I got his call. It always makes me sad when I think about it. He had AIDs. He had AIDs before the availability of those lifesaving drugs. He had gone home to Massena to die. We talked. After all those years we picked up where we had left off. He was my friend.
A few weeks later I received a call from Paul, Archie’s partner. It was a very sad time for me. Archie had died. He was the only friend who really knew how we had lived.
Archie and I had high aspirations in our youth. The world was full of hope. Little did we know just how poor we were. How ill equipped we were to live our lives.
I talked with Mrs. Akey, Archie’s mother. She said Archie didn’t know his place. He was too big for his britches. She made me so angry. Archie like most other people was merely trying to make a better life. He should have been praised for that. He just didn’t have the tools that so many other people had to succeed.
I was lucky. I loved to read. I owned only one book when I was growing up, Little Women. The message to young girls in Little Women is totally missed in the charming movies we see today. If you are a little girl and have only one book, Little Women is a good one to have. It was enough for me along with the public library. I loved learning. I was fortunate to have more tools to make a better life than Archie had. And I am grateful for my life. I feel it is my responsibility to have a successful life for Archie. To all those who think housing project kids will never amount to much, I say you are wrong. Look around you.
Some say I have a good attitude. I have struggled through the treatments of three different cancers, but I am really a plodder, doing what I am told until they are done with me. I am not good or bad in any way. Nor should a cancer patient ever be labeled as such. Anyone who has cancer does the best they can. Now I am thinking of my two best friends in nursing school and their very sad cancer stories. Stories for another time. For now, I would like to think about the happy times Archie and I had in our youth