I have this friend. We’ve known each other for, oh–something like just over four decades and did a lot of backpacking together for both fun and as an escape from our normal technical work days. My job was to build and debug some of the computer systems he designed, but when I woke up one morning near the end of a very hot and hard trail and something didn’t feel right inside my chest and I had no idea what was happening, my single source of solace, was that I was with a man I both trusted and knew to be one of the brightest and wisest guy’s I knew. He was (appropriately) obvious with his affection for me and I knew if my situation turned urgent, I could hardly imagine a better friend to be with.
We met at my first real, adult scale job. He was one of the celebrated computer engineers at our company when I was a young get-er-done technician in the R&D lab. I got to build whatever our brain trust designed. Something about our personalities meshed and a very long and diverse friendship took root.
We pranked each other. He got on with almost everyone but no one likes everyone and there was one combination of personalities that, like the positive and negative sides of a car battery that should never have direct access to each other, my friend and this other engineer could almost not be in the same room with each other without sparks flying. So of course, my peers in the lab and I looked for ways to set them off. In a true, ‘what are friends for’ spirit of fun, I took the occasion of our lab being moved from one building to another to sneak into both their offices and commingle the box tags that the movers were to use to both their boxes to their new offices. I proudly went back to the lab and alerted my peers to make sure they were present early on the day of our arrival at our new office so they too could enjoy the fireworks as our esteemed engineers began to unpack and discover the confusion and short-circuited pyrotechnics of the two of them getting their own stuff back from each other. There were accusations, There was some yelling, There was tossing of boxes. There was drama and there were the cabal of lab techs taking it all in and laughing.
We backpacked together. We jury-rigged broken camping gear, consumed lots and lots of firewood talking about stuff into the late-dark sky hours and fought nasty surprise weather together. We dodged at least one bear (whoops – excuse us sir as we quietly retreat) and mastered the art of ground navigation with a compass and topographical map.
So, yes, he was nearby when I discovered the downsides of letting your body run low on salt, yea – salt (which is another story you don’t want to learn about first hand – turns out that we really do need this stuff). I was sure glad he was with me because I was close to not being able to get myself out of the wild and back to civilization.
I was nearby when a wind came along while he and I were part-way up Half Dome in Yosemite. This wind rolled both of us across the north face of the monument where the rangers put up a cable walkway part of the year. The cables were there this day but no walkway, so we tried to free climb the cables. He decided that he wouldn’t continue to the top but waited for me while I pressed on – scared to death, but unwilling to give up because it was Half Dome and I might never get another chance to view the world from the top Later around a campfire we reviewed and laughed at the day’s mental meals – the new experiences we would never forget. I can still recall being up there alone and crawling to the pointed edge to look straight down at the tallest cliff I’d ever seen and, yes, being way to scared to stand up in this wind. Brrr, the memory chills me to this day, but it left me with bragging rights when I spidered my way back down to join my friend who congratulated me on the accomplishment of still being alive.
For a couple of key years when I was less than 22 years old, I grew up often sleeping on what became a family heirloom couch that he and his family still have. Each morning, his young children would mob the room to wake me up and beg me to make french toast using a recipe that their parents never heard of (somehow their mom never thought of adding vanilla extract and melted butter) and their mom decided to just let this become the signature reasons for keeping me around so we could continue making a great breakfast time memories with the kids. I took my time playing with kids and grew to love them. To this day I love reminding them of how I used to be able to throw them around like, well, like little kids.
It was him who leaned on my to go get a real 4 year college degree and I finally took his advice. After college, I found myself wanting a particular type of job to take my career to the first step of a direction that I wanted. Somehow, I was not surprise when, unprompted, my phone rang one day and it was him offering me a job that fit the bill exactly and jump started my new career.
By far, the best fun we had was telling each other life stories and laughing around all those camp fires. Our friendship sometimes felt as big and barely controlled as some of our fires.
A while back, he called to let me know he was passing near my home town and asked if doing lunch made sense. I never miss the chance to spend some time with him and we did a catch up on life, family news and, of course, reviewed several of our favorite stories. We quickly passed the hugs and hand shakes at seeing each other again and got on with the business of loud laughing and disturbing all the other diners nearby.
We corrected each other’s memories and reminded each other of stories long forgotten. He also told me that over the years, his family still can’t have french toast for breakfast without reviewing the memories of when Gary was hanging around.
I thank both the God of small boys for sticking with me as I became a man and the friend he sent to serve up all the rich mental meals we enjoyed together.