The boys had names like Woody, Zeke, Ron and Mark, in the fifties. Their moms stayed home with so many brothers and sisters, or they worked child-friendly schedules as crossing guards or cafeteria ladies. Dads came home late. The boys wore tee shirts and dungarees.
There were four seasons, one after another and then all over again. But somehow it was always hot or cold. The houses and apartments they lived in were small; the boys stayed outside. Some days they would hop the truck that took them to fields where they picked shade grown tobacco all day long. On another day they might float down the Connecticut River in barrels, or sit on a front stoop playing the knife game as they splayed out their hands on a table, stabbing the space between each finger with increasing speed and, hopefully, sustained accuracy.
In the sixties, life was Marlboro Reds, by the carton, by the day. It was police academies and rifle tournaments in faraway places, like Alabama during the Wallace era. It was women. It was bottles of whiskey on the nightstand and alarm clocks that rang and rang and rang. It was still the boys.
They played house in the seventies. Wives and babies. Me and my best friend, Kel.
In the eighties, you couldn't tell them they were no longer the boys. You could try--many did--but chances are you would've been too small, or too weak, or too oblivious to get your point across. There are some truths a boy can't hear until he's ready, and the only thing screaming will do is ensure that the neighbors figure it all out long before he does.
By the nineties, most of them got it. Then they sat back with the knowledge and watched TV. Separated by time and place and space, they'd gather every so often on a neatly manicured 1/4 acre at Zeke's place to talk about picking tobacco, or the knife game, or things I could never know. Because what I know is about six paragraphs, and this:
My best friend's dad died this weekend. Mark was a boyish 63. He taught his middle daughter how to be the funniest person I ever met. He taught her to keep things inside. He taught her sister to be a peacemaker and her brother, a protector. He taught me to ride a bike.
No legacy is pure. His is bound up in a haze of Hartford summers, in cigarette smoke and misted recall, emerging as three bright eyed children and one soul he's probably meeting again, just now.
There's little more than a half a century between the front stoop and now. The river and now. The tobacco fields and now. They were a group of boys who couldn't see beyond the low New England skyline. But there were lives there, waiting.
And now it's our turn.