Finding Peter

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[Lenny is on the left. Peter is happy to be in Pennsylvania]

It was here in the Adirondack Mountains that I walked up to the wall of a ranger cabin.  It was a far off December night, when my heart and body were young.  I had a flashlight in my shaking hand, and read by the dim light that the air temperature was -28 F.  I didn’t go back to the car.  I didn’t go back to a cabin.  I went back to the lean-to where my brother, Chris and a few friends were camping.  None of us had any down clothing or down sleeping bags.  We simply put the two bags we each carried together and pulled in the extra dry clothes for additional insulation.  Chris tied a tarp over the opening.  At least ten candles were lit.  You’d be surprised how those candles added warmth.  In our shelter, it was a comfortable -15 F. We were in our early teenage years.  I wouldn’t dream about camping in such temperatures now, not at my age.  Not when I know what cold can do.  What did I know in 1960?

One of my friends who slept near me in two sleeping bags that night was Peter.

A year earlier, in the summer of 1959, several boys, somehow got permission from their parents and set out from Owego, NY to visit one of the boy’s grandparents seventy-three miles away in Lake Winola, Pennsylvania.  I was the leader of the trip since it was to my grandparents house we were heading.  I remember spending one night in a pasture next to a small pond and amid cow pies scattered all over the field.  It was my duty to ask permission to camp there, so I knocked on the farmhouse and the old guy looked at me, my friends standing along the road with overloaded bikes and then looked out at the field.  He thought about it for about thirty seconds and then said: “Hell, I don’t care.  Just don’t burn the field down.”

One of those boys who rode his heavy one-speed Schwinn along the empty road was Peter.

In the high school library, if you knew the room well enough, you could squeeze between a gap in the stacks and discover a small space where there a few chairs.  All hidden behind the shelves…out of sight of those pouring over their homework or the latest copy of Hot Rod Magazine.  A few of the boys knew of this spot.  During the times when we would sign out of our study hall and go to the library, we would, one by one, push through the small opening and sit in the chairs.  Did we talk about what girl we thought was “easy”?  No.  Did we smoke? No.  Did we cause any trouble, fight or destroy books?  Again, no.  We would sit and discuss philosophical things like truth and beauty and life.  And, we would talk about the far off war in Viet Nam.  The librarian, Miss Grimes knew we were there and she left us alone.

The guy who led the discussions about such topics was my friend, Peter.

A few years later, this small group of boys had grown up a little.  There was Lenny, Greg, myself and Peter.  We were sitting in a house one evening telling stories and planning on something big.  I fell asleep on the sofa.  When I awoke, it was morning.  I realized my father would have checked my bed as he did for all of us over the years.  I would have been found missing!  I panicked and ran down Front Street, snuck in the front door and smelled coffee.  My father was up.  I could also hear the water running in the bathroom where he shaved.  Did he not check my bed yet?  I tore off my jeans and shirt and got into bed.  Less than a minute later, my father opened the door and saw that I was “fast asleep”.

The sofa I leapt from that morning was Peter’s.

One night, in Barry’s Restaurant in Owego, I was sitting with my childhood girlfriend trying to keep her from breaking up with me.  Peter came in and we sat and talked for a few hours.  He said good-night and then he left.

That was the last time I saw him.  We, who had such adventures that youth is meant to have, fell out of touch save for a brief telephone conversation a few years later when Greg, Roger Watkins and I discovered his phone number.  He was living in Batavia.  In Owego, we decided to drive up to see him.  We ran out of gas on the bridge just beyond the Treadway.  We walked home, never making it to Batavia.

Pater stayed away.  He “went under the radar” as they say.   It was like he rose like the mists of the Susquehanna on an autumn morning, rising and then dissipating into the humid air.

We all moved on with our lives.  I remained close to Greg and we would often discuss the fate of our “hero”, Peter.  He had become such stuff of legends that it was hard to distinguish the real from the dream.

Decades went by like some insane video player was stuck on Fast Forward.  But something loomed in the future for us all, all of those who walked the halls of OFA and watched the bonfires and went to sock hops (and got a hand autographed by Dion), saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and watched JFK’s funeral and went to our classmates funerals when they came home from Viet Nam…to their home in Evergreen Cemetery or St. Patrick’s or Tioga Cemetery.

Yes, there was something that many of us never gave much thought to, until we began to reach our early 60’s.

We were making plans to celebrate our 50th high school reunion!  Half a century separating us today from the pink cheeks and taffeta gowns of our prom, the Cookie Jar, the roller skating in Tioga Center and the Dick Clark Show which came to Johnson City more than once.  Many of my classmates and teachers are passed on now…but a great many of us remain…looking at our 70th birthdays coming in a few years like a spider walking on our arm.

Some of my classmates were absent from our growing data-base of email and physical addresses.

One of those whose job it was to seek out those who had not responded to the mailings or were simply “unknown”, came to me and asked if I would be willing to check out some leads on Peter.  I agreed.

I made the phone call, punching the keypad of what I hoped was the correct number.

A woman answered.  She asked who was calling.  I told her who I was.  She called to a man who took the phone.  It was the voice of a teenage boy with forty-nine years of life layered on.  I was speaking to Peter for the first time since 1966.

Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, he will not be able to attend the reunion.

But that’s okay.  I found my long-lost companion.

It was my friend, Peter.

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[In a pasture among the cow pies. 1959]

 

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