Think Tank

Friendship Force

Celebrating the Fourth with old and dear friends


It was a steamy hot day when we left Atlanta headed southbound for St. Petersburg, Fla., just south of Tampa. Some 450 miles and eight hours later, we arrived in this retirement community off the Gulf of Mexico.

We made the junket to visit two of our best friends, Ron and Charlene, who actually live in the West End in Atlanta but are temporarily living in St. Petersburg while Charlene wraps up a consulting assignment.

The two have been our friends since 1974 when Ron and I began working for a new community college. Although I've left, Ron has remained at this working-class junior college, where he is now professor of English. Over the years he has taught himself all one needs to know about the Internet and PCs. He regularly integrates his knowledge of computer technology into his classes.

Like many other teachers, Ron feels he's underappreciated. He works harder than most. And though his students value him for his nurturing nature, he doesn't get much respect from his colleagues. Just recently his heart was broken when he lost out to another professor in his pursuit of a distinguished professor post in the area of educational technology at his institution.

Ron and I have engaged in friendly competition throughout our lives: I created a website in support of a class I recently taught. He was inspired to do the same for his classes. Twenty years ago, he bought a home in historic West End on Oglethorpe Avenue. I purchased one in West End on Atwood Street. Though we both have moved from our "starter" homes, we still live within a mile of each other in predominately black, working-class neighborhoods.

All this friendly fire, save the website construction stuff, has been mostly fun and personal. On occasion, however, our influence on each other has yielded results of a more serious nature. For example, I've always worked out fanatically, have never smoked, and only drink a glass or so of good Chardonnay with a plate of garlic-grilled salmon I cook on my gourmet smoker and cooker.

Ten years ago, Ron's diet and health were a mess. He smoked like a chimney. Ate red meat like it was going extinct and never lifted his hands for more than grabbing a jug of cheap wine that he gulped down like a boisterous sailor. Ron has now changed his life for the better. He eats only fish. He vowed to stop smoking if I won my political election in 1987 -- a commitment he honored. And today he works out religiously, having taken his wife, Charlene, on a "bicycle ride to hell" just last week in the scorching Florida sun.

"You all don't realize how lucky you are to have spread your kids out over a 13-year period," advises Charlene. Ron's eyes light up like a little boy's when he plays with my 6-year-old in the pool or talks with her at night on his condo deck about how similar birds are to prehistoric dinosaurs. The two of them were a sight to behold looking over the causeway toward St. Pete's Beach for a Fourth of July fireworks display that never occurred. God decided instead to send torrential rains, roaring thunder and a lightning display more enchanting and omnipotent than could possibly be conjured by man.

As Ron and Charlene approach 50, they're noticeably lonely. Their two sons, both products of the Atlanta School System, are both out of the house. Ironically, on one evening of our visit, Ron decided to call his oldest son, who is now completing a Ph.D. at Harvard University in some esoteric area in biochemical engineering, for a heart-to-heart talk. Ron said nothing to me about the conversation, but I don't think it went that well. Afterward, he drank more than usual.

Unfortunately, Ron and Charlene will soon be losing their youngest son, too. "Egg," what we affectionately call him, just finished graduate school at Florida State University and will soon be receiving an assignment in Africa as a member of the Peace Corps.

Sometimes it's difficult for those of us who are parents to let go, to free our children to make for themselves decisions that will ultimately lead to happiness or ruin.

We love Ron and Charlene, and a long time ago ran out of the capacity to recall all the little reasons why. It was they who, 19 years ago when our first daughter was born, slipped by our home (in a rare Atlanta snowstorm) during the dawn of day and left a beautiful bouquet of flowers on our front porch, welcoming my daughter into the world. They send great notes, just when you need your spirits lifted. Ron's one of a few friends who regularly sends me e-mail messages saying which columns he likes (or dislikes).

As we prepared to share dinner this past Fourth of July, Ron led the prayer. He gave thanks for our many blessings and acknowledged how much we have learned from each other over the years. Charlene commented afterward, "I just don't understand why racism has to exist. Why can't all of our country get along like we do?"

Oh, I almost forgot to say. Ron and Charlene are white.

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Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published Jul 19, 1997 |