20 Years Ago Today...

My legs were stretched in anticipation of the next throw. I was split like a wishbone ready to be wished on. For a lingering second my balance was that of a Olympic gymnast; I could hold an iron cross if I had to. Bobby carefully evaluated his final throw. He would win now and he knew it. It wasn't skill that he'd win with though not by a long shot it was his knife; a gorgeous, slim beauty: Swiss steel, with a 5 inch blade, weighted for perfect balance by melted down lead from old fishing sinkers.
"This is it, Frankie," he audibly ached, his legs now at their muscular limits. "I'm gonna split your pants right up the middle!" he assured me and then threw. The knife tumbled point over butt and, as it landed, the blade disappeared smoothly into the summer lawn, proudly displaying its gleaming white pearl handle that I loved so much.

"AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH," I screamed, reaching to tag the knife, only to fall to the ground making the sound I had secretly rehearsed for use when and if I ever fell off a 100 foot cliff.

"I could of split you in half on the first throw if I wanted to, man," Bobby arrogantly laughed, "copping" his usual attitude. Sometimes he was so audacious that you would get the impression that even though he drank beer from the same beer can as you, his mouthful would always be stronger. But there was no doubt about it, with this knife he was the best.
"That's the last time I play "Split" with you. Forget this game, man," I said defiantly. "Let's get something' to drink." We slapped each other's hands, never looking at each other's eyes, and went inside my house to drink Cool Aid and watch the summer slowly move on. And what a lousy summer it was turning out to be.

I had a real honest to goodness strikeout streak that summer vacation time, let me tell ya. I couldn't hit a baseball for nothing. You could throw any pitch you had in your arsenal and I'd sure-as- shootin' miss it clean as a whistle. I still remember that cold feeling when the guys were choosing up sides and how I gradually became the last one to be picked for a game. I hated baseball that summer, and that wasn't all. I couldn't even flip baseball cards! I lost my whole collection of Yankees and Dodgers. I was in a definite slump at everything. I even wrecked my brand new black 3 speed, with the built in metal carrier, while playing Demolition Derby at the park. The image of my father viewing the remains of the Christmas present he had so thoughtfully picked out, while silently looking to the sky and muttering inaudible sounds, will forever be painted on my mind. On top of all this I was falling in love with Sonja Berner who was in my homeroom class. And she was nothing less than an absolute jerk!

The summer had turned into a horror movie with me as the star. Things just had to change. The weather was even against me. A few rainy days might have been a nice cool change, but the summer heat just got hotter and hotter and the days crept on. I even wanted to go back to school! It was bad. It was really, really bad.

In August Billy, my best friend from up the block, Bobby, and I were having a dirt bomb fight in the sump across from my house. Sumps were always great places to fool around in: large rectangular chain link enclosed open spaces, filled with trees and an ample supply of dirt that waited to soak up the overflowing rain water of the suburban community. And on that day I finally began to feel my luck changing because Billy's red flannel lined blue jeans were much more dirt brown than Levi blue; my scatter shots were really hitting on target. Throughout the day Bobby had held his own pretty much, but as we began to leave he got hung up on the sump's spiny barbed wire fence and had to wait on the top until we could give him a hand and get him down. Bobby, being his normally impatient self, avoided our help, screamed a "Banzai!", and fell to the street like a de-stringed puppet, ripping his red lumberjack shirt and a bit of shoulder skin. He never noticed his white pearl handle knife silently fall to the ground and become instantly concealed by foot high August grass. I saw it fall. But I said nothing.

Later that day I came back, fumbled through the grass, found it, and took the blade home to keep. "How could I be such a degenerate?", I wondered out loud. I guess I knew I could never ever afford a knife like that. I definitely knew I could never balance it so skillfully as Bobby had. I just wanted it. I darn well knew I could never keep it. But I took it anyway.

I threw the knife all that night and all the next day and cut every tree that got in my way. I kept playing with it until I knew its secret ways like a close friend's annoying bad habits. Using the cellar wall for a target, or a tree, or anything that could withstand the puncture of its blade, I became all the heroes I had ever seen in the movies or on TV. It was truly a great one of a kind beauty. I never had so much fun.
For two whole weeks this covert ritual continued until I made my first mistake. Like a fool I showed the blade to Mikie Stewart. He lived a couple of houses down from Bobby and must have opened his big mouth to him about seeing me with it.

The very next day Bobby came looking for me at my house and accused me of stealing his knife. I denied everything. I told him I had one just like it and I'd even show it to him us being friends and all. So together, with Bobby violently pushing me through the screened doorway, we went into my house. I gratefully let my mother delay him with "How are you-s" and obligatory Italian food offerings I knew he couldn't turn down. So while Bobby munched on day old pastries, I scurried to my room and quickly rubbed red crayon on the knife's handle "cleverly" thinking it would disguise its appropriated condition. Moments later footsteps, belonging to a 150 pound six grader, resounded on the uncarpeted stairs that lead to my second floor bedroom. Bobby stood stoically in the doorway and filled its space with his bullish stockyard frame.

"Here's the knife. It's kind of old and a little beat up and it does look kind of like yours," I said, shrinking into the corner of my room blindly staring at him. All my mind's eye could see was a small boy, me, jumping out the second story bedroom window and escaping to the safety of the street never to return.

In an instant Bobby recognized the blade and found his initials that he had thoughtfully scribed into the Swiss steel for just such a devious occasion. The crayon mark on the bone-white handle would have been laughable if not for the seriousness of the situation. For a long time he dumbly stared at the knife and its newly dulled gleam. It was completely destroyed. I don't remember what happened after that. He didn't punched me out or anything and he could have...he should have. The whole scene is just a blank. I think we both just grew up a little that day...

Dallas Airport:

"We stop over here Billy so leave your stuff on the plane. We won't have much time. Do you think we'll find him before we have to leave? We've only got twenty minutes or so and this place is pretty big."

"No problem. He said he was gonna meet us at the airport lounge, remember? I've been in that place before anyway. Don't worry, we'll see 'em. Let's go."

Billy hurried through the detectors while I had Customs go through my camera bag by hand. I lit a Salem for all the inquisitive eyes rubbernecking my disturbance. After the usual buffoonery, the Customs officer, strutting her cop like accoutrements, waved me through. As usual, Billy hadn't waited for me so I ran walked through a seemingly never ending cloud of cowboy hats to catch up with him. The stopover was only to be twenty or thirty minutes, just enough time to say hello and see how we had collectively aged: who was fat, who was bald, who was happy. Who were we now that so much time had passed? Twenty years. Where did it go?

"FRANKIE! BILLY! OVER HERE!" As he screamed our names, Bobby's grey blue eyes sparkled and lit up the darkened brown bar. On seeing us, he involuntarily transcended the quiet, subdued airport grog house and was instantly back in that special grammar school gym class the three of us had been in together--probably the greatest time of our lives. If anyone in the bar had said anything about Bob's sudden vocal outburst there would have been an old-time Texas barroom brawl New York style. It was just Bobby's way. He hadn't changed much since we had last seen him. He'd still stand up to anyone. And now he called himself a Texan. The name fit him like glove.

As the stares died down we roughly hugged each other, ordered some beers, and spilled some news: Billy was off to San Diego for good this time. California girls looked great after the divorce he went through. And me, well, I was going to hack out New York for awhile; if not for the duration. As for Bobby, his wife had just had a baby and he began telling all the usual baby type stories to us so unusual for him.
What little time we had passed quickly so we loudly grabbed our glasses, toasted a "one for all", feigned smashing them on the barroom floor and then walked out like the Three Musketeers we had always wanted to be. The bartender just looked up and figured we were nuts.
"Bobby," I said, reaching into my camera bag, "Here's a little something' for the kid, okay?"

"Thanks man. You didn't have to get anything..."

"Hey, thank you for driving all the way down to this zoo for ten minutes. Forget about it. Who knows when I'll get out here again." I shook his hand and then Billy took his turn and did the same. We caught some last looks and then Billy and I rushed to our awaiting plane. We laughed at each other as we saw Bobby push some ten gallon topped three piece suit out of the way so he could give us his final wave goodbye. Boy was Texas in for a lot of trouble.

Dallas County: 35 minutes later

"Hey, honey? Frankie gave the baby a gift. You remember him, right?"

"Yeah. He was one of your kindergarten buddies wasn't he. Well, that was pretty nice of him. I hope it's not another rattle though. We've got eight or ten of them now already...and they're all from your friends," she said laughing and hugging him. "Well, open it up. Let's see what it is."
As the powder blue baby wrapping paper fell to the floor and settled aside the torn streams of discarded metallic blue ribbon, a small white handled knife, with a strange wax red mark on its side, fell into the air catching a gleam from an orange window stream of Texas sunshine. And for a moment a big man's tears began to well.

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