The following is the story of my life, beginning with a dreadful event which deeply affected me but then continuing through the ways in which other people helped me slowly change so that I could continue to remember that painful event but move forward with my life.
Billy and I were bosom buddies. When we were born, our mothers shared a hospital room. Billy was born about three hours before I was, and he always bragged about being older. Our families lived next door to each other in a Kansas City suburb.
So, from our earliest times we knew each other. As babies in our strollers we were pushed together. We celebrated our first birthday together. Of course, neither of us remembered that later. Our earliest memories were of sitting on the carpet playing with each other. We had blocks and other toys in each house, and I don’t think either one of us ever claimed ownership of the toys.
Billy had bright ginger hair, a face-full of freckles, and stunning green eyes. My hair was a mousy brown like my eyes, and I had no freckles. I envied him his freckles. When we stood together in front of a mirror, I always thought he was much better looking.
I remember early on playing in the sprinklers in our back yards on hot summer days. We giggled and laughed as we ran through the streams of water. One of us discovered the fun of standing directly over the sprinkler as it sprayed on our privates.
I remember also the two of us standing at the toilet and letting our little streams duel into the bowl. Of course, sometimes we missed, which annoyed our mothers, but with age we got more accurate.
When we were two, we went to a playgroup three mornings a week where we were supposed to learn to play with other children. But, according to our mothers, we played almost exclusively with each other. As my mother once said, we were “joined at the hip.” On those days, after going to one of our homes for lunch, we were supposed to take naps together on one of the “big beds.” Unfortunately, we kept each other awake and almost never slept. So, after a brief experiment with communal napping, we were separated into our own homes to nap.
When one of us got a cold, he had to stay indoors and not play with his buddy. That was a difficult, boring time for both of us. Somehow, it just wasn’t the same playing alone with our toys. When were again allowed to be together, the first thing we did was hug and hug.
We received identical tricycles for our third birthdays, and we were ecstatic. Now we were mobile. We ran races in our driveways. We built little ramps and obstacle courses with our blocks. We lived on a very quiet cul-de-sac, so when we were a bit older, we moved our activities into the street. Our mothers objected, but we did it anyway.
Of course, my memories of these early days are rather foggy. I learned much of this from my mother and from family photos when I was older. Our parents made videos of us which we would watch together, laughing and rolling in a heap on the floor.
I remember that our friendship was very physical. We wrestled together; we hugged; we kissed. Many warm days found us just rolling together in our yards, full of life and joy and love.
And of course, sometimes when we were alone, we played with our weewees, aka penises. We’d pull down our pants and wave them at each other. Diapers were an obstacle of course, and that may have been the reason we potty trained so early. From waving our weewees around we began to fondle each other, and we learned how good that felt. Fortunately for us, our parents never caught us, although they may well have suspected.
The fall after we turned four, we were sent to PreK at the nearby elementary school. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we stayed all day until the big kids went home. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we went home just before lunch.
On the long days, we took our lunches with us. After lunch and a recess which never seemed long enough, we were supposed to get out our blankets and nap. The teachers soon learned that Billy and I had to be separated at naptime. Even when we were apart, we tried to communicate. Mom told me later that the teachers had thought about putting us in separate classes, but they believed we would be heartbroken. They were right.
Billy’s brother, Wally, was born that year. He didn’t affect us much except that, if we were at Billy’s house and Wally was sleeping, we had to keep quiet. As a result, we spent more time at my house.
Despite our exclusivity, we finally learned we had to share with other kids. While we were always together, other kids played with us. In addition to blocks and trucks and Legos, we loved the dress-up corner, so for Christmas that year we both asked Santa for dress-up clothes. Like everything else, we shared the clothes. We could be doctors or pirates, train engineers or cowboys, even princesses or fairies. When we put on the “girls’ clothes”, nobody at home made fun of us, but it was a different story at school, and we soon learned to leave those clothes for play at home.
By kindergarten, our days were more organized. We had to sit at tables and work at making numbers and letters. We had to start reading, although neither of us wanted to. I guess we were typical kindergarten boys who wanted to move around all the time. Sitting still was hard for us. We did enjoy drawing pictures and coloring. We knew exactly what we were drawing, but when we looked at the pictures a year or two later, neither of us could figure out what they were about.
Behind our houses there was a strip of woods. It was big enough so we couldn’t see through the trees to the next street, but it was probably not as huge as we thought. There was a stream flowing gently through the woods, and we loved to play around it. We’d build little rock dams; we’d try to catch frogs; we’d often wade in it and go home sopping wet. We also played our dress-up games in the woods. Sometimes we’d build a “house” out of tree branches and pretend we were cowboys and Indians. Our mothers didn’t like us playing Indians because they said it was “disrespectful,” whatever that meant, but we did it in the woods anyway. After all, it didn’t take much to dress up as an Indian, just a bare top and a cloth band with a feather or two which we found in the woods.
It seemed as though each school year was more regimenting than the year before. In first grade, we were finally put into separate classes. We both cried and cried inconsolably ‒ on the way to school, in school, and on the way home again. Our classmates called us babies, but we didn’t care. It was as though someone had severed the cord that bound us. After about a month and after many promises that we would behave in class, we were put back together and never separated again.
Second grade found us learning about Pilgrims and Indians, whom we were instructed to call Native Americans. We were told it was a more respectful term, and we learned that the native people were called “Indians” because the early explorers thought they had landed in India. (We still played “Cowboys and Indians” in the woods. “Cowboys and Native Americans” just didn’t work for us.) In school, we didn’t spend a lot of time on the Pilgrims. After all, we lived in Missouri, so much of the year was spent on westward migration and the early history of our state.
That year, the school organized an after-school chess club which met twice a week. Billy and I knew how to play checkers and some easy card games which we played on rainy days, but we hadn’t yet learned about chess, so our parents signed us up. It was slow going at first, but we practiced with each other on days when the club didn’t meet, and we soon progressed way ahead of our classmates. Eventually, none of the others wanted to play with us, so we just played with each other, which suited us fine.
That summer we learned about chess notation, and soon we were learning from books and online. We both liked the idea that we had to learn how to plan way ahead and not only plan our moves but anticipate the other player’s moves.
In the fall, even though we were in third grade, we were put in the fourth-grade chess group. On the first day, we were already outplaying the fourth graders. The chess instructor also had a group of fifth graders in the intermediate school, so he asked our parents if we could play in that. Since the intermediate school was on the same campus as the elementary school, all we had to do was walk over. We were a little awed by the “big kids” at first, but soon they were awed by us as we beat them time after time.
Third grade was noteworthy for being the first grade when we could walk together to school, which was only three blocks away. We loved scuffling through the fallen leaves, some of which were the color of Billy’s hair. It was also the first year when we could read interesting, fun chapter books. We had read chapter books in second grade, but they had never seemed interesting. They were too much work.
As soon as the snow melted in the spring, Billy and I were back in the woods, playing our imaginary games or fiddling with the stream. That year, thanks to our reading, we became very interested in pirates. Of course, in Missouri there wasn’t much interest in pirates, except river prates on the Mississippi, but we found books and watched videos and studied anything we could find about pirates.
The day before our May birthdays was warm and sunny. It was the first day that year when we felt comfortable with our shirts off. We were, as usual, in the woods playing pirates. In our game that day, I ran off with the treasure chest we were supposed to be burying, while Billy chased after me, waving his plastic sword in the air and yelling, “Come back with that chest you scurvy rascal!” I was laughing as I leaped over the stream and raced towards my house, which was the goal. I heard him leap the stream behind me, and then I heard, “Ahhhhhhhhh!”
I turned around, expecting that he had probably slipped jumping over the stream and bruised his knee. What I saw, was far different. He was lying in an awkward posture on his side. Then I saw the blood. He was impaled on his sword, which was sticking in his stomach and had come through his back. I ran back to him where he was writhing on the ground moaning, “Help me! Help!” Instantly I knew there was nothing I could do except tell him I was going for help and run to my house.
I think panic gave me extra speed that day, but it still seemed forever before I got to the house. I burst into the kitchen, where my mother was doing some baking, and blurted out, “Billy’s hurt bad! There’s blood all over the place! I think he’s gonna die!”
Mom quickly turned off the oven and ran with me towards the woods. When she got there, she knelt beside him saying, “Oh, Billy. Billy. Billy.”
He looked up at her, and I’ll never forget that look as he asked, “Am I gonna die?”
“No Billy. We’ll take care of you, but I have to go call the ambulance.” She told me to stay with Billy while she ran back to the house.
I sat next to Billy, holding his hand and telling him that he would be okay, that the doctors would help him. I couldn’t help but stare at the blood which was still seeping out of him.
It seemed to take forever before I heard the ambulance, and another forever before the EMTs arrived in the woods with a stretcher. I wondered why they didn’t pull the sword out, but quickly and gently they loaded Billy onto the stretcher and carried him to the ambulance.
I turned to my mom, sobbing. She just held me, but I knew that she was crying too. Neither of us said a word as we slowly walked back to the house, went in, and sat at the kitchen table.
Finally, I said, “I wanna go to the hospital.”
“I know, Tyler,” she said, “but we’d just be in the way right now.”
Dad came home, and Mom told him what happened. She put dinner on the table, but I didn’t eat anything. I noticed that Mom and Dad didn’t eat much either. I asked them what they thought the doctors were doing to help Billy. They had no idea.
Then the phone rang. I didn’t know whether that was a good sign or a bad sign. Mom went into the living room to answer it. I started to go, but Dad held me back. I strained to hear what Mom was saying, but I couldn’t make it out.
Finally, she came back to the kitchen. Tears were streaming down her face, and I knew before she said anything.
She sat down beside me, put her hand on my arm, and said, “That was Billy’s mom. Billy died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”