Thursday, June 28, 2012
My Friend Rick
Rick (Photo source: 1954 “Maroon”, the Menominee H.S. Yearbook)
Several weeks ago I got an e-mail from a classmate that my friend Rick had died from cancer at age 74. It came as a shock. When I’d last heard some news about Rick a year ago, he was doing fine. Though we hadn’t seen each other for many years, we were close friends in high school, and I still picture Rick as I knew him then. He was one of the most enjoyable kids I knew as a teenager – warm, laid back, funny, and completely easy to get along with. He was the sort of person you could always count on to be supportive and to stand up for you – a really good friend. I’m sad that we lost contact over the years.
I met Rick in the seventh grade at Menominee High. Most kids went home for lunch, but those who lived too far away ate at the school cafeteria. That included kids who were bussed in from Menominee County and those who had gone to Grant School on the north edge of the city. My former grade school friends who lived nearer all walked home, but our family lived out in the country so I was a caf eater too. I soon found myself hanging out with the Grant School kids, mainly Rick, Bob A., Alan (Sonny) K., John (Fronz) F., Eugene (Bur-Deen) B., Bob (Gus) G., and Dickie M. In September we started playing touch football every day on the school’s north lawn. Bob was the top quarterback, and Rick, one of the bigger kids, was his prime receiver. When the snow arrived in November, we moved into the high school gym to play basketball, and it became our No. 1 priority in life. When the noon hour bell rang we raced down the halls to be first in the cafeteria line so we could get out on the floor as quickly as possible. As we grew older, our games took on a more competitive flavor. The varsity coach’s office was up on the balcony overlooking the gym, and he’d watch us a bit every now and then. He suggested that Rick try out for the varsity, though Rick didn’t opt to do so.
When we were juniors our group played in the annual Junior-Senior Intramural game. We got trounced in the game, but we vowed to reverse that outcome as seniors. We came back excitedly the next year, but the Juniors fielded an unusually strong team. They pulled out to a sizeable lead in the fourth quarter, and, facing probable defeat, our team was about to collapse. Rick, however, began playing like a teenage Michael Jordan. While everybody else was really tired, Rick’s adrenalin was flowing, and he’d charge in, intercept a pass from the other team, and race down the floor for a layup. He must have done that five or six times in the waning minutes of the game, and we squeaked out a narrow one-point victory. I still have a sense of awe when I think about Rick’s determination and his amazing athletic effort.
The city built its first tennis courts at the airport and at Roosevelt School when we were in tenth grade, and we all went to Lauerman’s and bought wood rackets. I’d played golf up till then, but my brother Steven, four years younger than me, had started to beat me regularly, and I decided it was time to change sports. We played at the airport courts every day after school and on the weekends. Nobody had any extra money and tennis balls were five times more expensive than they are today. We used each can as long as the balls had any bounce to them at all, literally until the white covers wore through and we could see the black rubber interior. Rick and I were among the more enthusiastic and dedicated players, and, when the school formed a varsity tennis team, we played #2 and #3 singles. We enjoyed winning records during our junior and senior seasons, though we never were able to beat our arch-rival, Marinette High. One spring day in our senior year the Hi-Y Club took a field trip out of town, and, lying to teachers that we’d gone on the field trip, Rick, Sonny, Mickey B., and I skipped school and played tennis for eight straight hours. It was the only time I ever dared to play hooky.
In tenth grade Rick and I took Mr. Chambers’ biology class together. Mr. Chambers had come to Menominee from Missouri, and he had a thick mid-south accent that none of us could quite make out. The class’s high point of the year involved dissecting a frog. Mr. Chambers talked about it all year long. Because the school science budget was limited, we worked as lab partners, each duo sharing a single frog. Rick and I paired up to work together. We named our frog Marilyn after Marilyn Monroe. The dissection proceeded slowly and precisely under Mr. Chambers’ instruction, spread across an entire week. Halfway through the second class session Mr. Chambers, sounding like his mouth was full of marbles, gave some instruction that neither Rick nor I understood. I thought he said it was time to remove the frog’s back. Rick didn’t hear anything like that, but he agreeably went along with my opinion. Mr. Chambers walked down our aisle just as I’d scraped the last piece of the frog’s back from its torso. Unfortunately I’d scraped off various organ parts, veins, and arteries along with the frog’s surface flesh. Mr. Chambers took one look and began shouting at us at the top of his voice. We still didn’t know what he was saying, but it was clear that I had made a major error. The upshot was that I had destroyed our invaluable frog, and we were doomed to sit twiddling our thumbs for the rest of the week while all our classmates completed their assignments. Rick was chagrined, but, true to form, he didn’t say an unkind word.
Kids turned sixteen in the tenth grade, and that meant obtaining driver’s licenses, the most important mark of status in Menominee’s teenage car culture. If you’ve ever seen the movie American Graffitti, with its high school students cruising around town, drag-racing, hanging out at the drive-in, etc., you have a good picture of our small town youth. My friend Bob A. was the only tenth-grader to have his own car, a Model A Ford coupe with a rumble seat. He’d take us all out – Rick, Sonny, Fronz, me, Mickey B. and a couple of others – on a near-nightly basis, packing three boys in the front seat, two in the crawl-space behind, and another three in the rumble seat. We’d cruise the loop, explore Menekaunee, watch drive-in movies from behind the fence, even ride around in the city dump. Gas cost 19.9 cents a gallon at the Zephyr station at the foot of the Interstate Bridge, and Bob would solicit donations of a nickel or a dime from each passenger in order to finance the trip. One night on a back street Rick dropped a dime between the seats, and we all got out of the car to look for it. Just then a police car drove up, and the patrolman, convinced that we were hiding bottles of beer, did a meticulous search of every inch of the car’s interior and the rumble seat in an effort to find the evidence. Finally he believed our story that we’d been looking for a dime and let us go.
By the end of tenth grade we’d started to discover girls, and driving around with a car filled only with males came to an end. Nobody in Rick’s gang had their own car, so he, Sonny, Fronz, and Mickey devised their own creative solution. In the absence of automobile transportation, they started spending weekend nights riding the city bus around the “loop” which circled through the twin cities of Menominee and Marinette. The whole route took nearly an hour, then would repeat itself ad infinitum. The guys would pay their ten cent fare in the early evening and ride around till ten or eleven p.m. While this seemed odd to me, if not illegal, I joined the group one Friday night, and it turned out to be hilarious. Rather than silencing or expelling his passengers, the bus driver enjoyed having a bunch of noisy teenagers in the back of the bus, and he entered into the joking around. The most exciting times came, of course, when a couple of teenage girls got on, preferably from Marinette. Lots of flirtation and silliness.
By our senior year kids had started partying and drinking beer on weekends. I’m not sure just how it got started, but, probably because of some of our Birch Creek chums who played basketball with us, Rick and his gang started going out on Saturday nights to country wedding dances in various rural locations in Menominee County. It seemed like somebody got married every weekend in the county, and these were wide open events that didn’t require invitations or ID’s. There would always be a polka band, and Rick and colleagues became adept polka dancers. Someone volunteered each time to be the designated driver, and the beer flowed freely regardless of age. Rick invited me to come along many times, but I was always too inhibited. It’s one of many adolescent choices that I wish I could do over.
Suddenly we all graduated. I saw Rick a couple of times in the summers after that, but then we lost touch. I learned from his obituary that Rick was married over fifty years and worked for Wisconsin Public Service for 27 years. Not surprisingly, he coached youth basketball and Little League baseball in Menominee, and he enjoyed U.P. pursuits like hunting and fishing, cooking, woodworking, and spending time at their cabin with family and friends. Rick was survived by his wife Carolyn, two sons, three daughters, and numerous grandchildren It sounded to me like he enjoyed a rich and satisfying life. I should have expected that from him, and learning about it made me feel better.