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I’ve had a bunch of different stories bouncing around in my head for the last few weeks… And in a good many of them, one person figures prominently… It’s kind of weird, because I’m an army brat. I became very used to the fact that I might only know a person for a few months at a time, but for fourteen years, I considered him to be my best friend. The guy you could tell anything to, the cat who was always around when you need someone. I could tell you a hundred stories about the stunts we pulled, and I may do that… But for now, he needs a proper introduction. Jonny D., Faster Than The World. FTTW…. Here’s Jonny….
We were seven years old when we met. My parents had just signed me up to play soccer, something I was vehemently against. I had no desire to play soccer, much less any organized sport. It didn’t matter how much I was against it, though. My father decided that I was pasty and pudgy and badly in need of a haircut. I guess he figured he could get two out of three fixed in one fell swoop. He signed me up. He went out and picked up my uniform and tried to surprise me with the whole thing. After he saw the look of horror on my face, he tossed the uniform on my bed and left the room without saying anything else.
My mom worked her magic on me the next day. I was helping her make dinner when she dropped the bomb. Something about how I had opportunities that my old man never had as a child. Traveling to foreign countries, seeing the world. Color TV. All the comic books I could read. Playing soccer…. Something that my father had wanted to do as a child, but because his father hadn’t been as supportive as he was, something he’d never been able to do. She laid it on thick. So thick it made my teeth hurt. I knew what she up to, but I told her I’d give it a shot anyway. It obviously meant something to the two of them for them to double team me like this. And it couldn’t go as badly as the whole church fiasco.
The coaches came by after a little bit, clipboards in hand and trailing a giant mesh bag of balls. They talked to us for a while about the importance of winning (it wasn’t) and the importance of trying (it was), the standard “I’m talking to kids below ten” rhetoric. And then they split us up into teams of two to watch us play a practice game. I was placed on the red team, with the other three fat kids on the field. The coaches yelled out where we should go, based on what positions we’d be playing, gently guiding us to our assigned spots with shouts of “No, to your left” and “You, move to the middle… No, the other middle”.
Somehow, perhaps as a cruel joke, I was made a winger. Left, to be precise. Let’s get one thing straight, the wing is a position for a kid with stamina. A kid who can run all damn day, come home, eat dinner and run all damn night. It’s an offensive and slightly defensive position, meaning you can play a good deal of the field. I wasn’t huge, but I knew that there was no way I could run all the time. I was at least twenty pounds overweight, I read a lot, and I did way too many things that didn’t involve running… Or jumping…. Or anything that wasn’t sitting on my fat ass. Hell, the only running I did back then was away from fights, and I wasn’t very good at that, either.
The coach blew a whistle and the game started. We all scrambled, each one of us trying to get a grasp on the ball and our position on the field. Thirty kids, bouncing a ball back and forth over center field, most of us with no clue as to what was going on. After a few minutes, one of the opposing team, got the ball and was headed downfield, directly at me. It was my job to stop him and get the ball back to the midfielders. I ran as fast as my pudgy little legs would carry me. I went low, dropping my legs to the left, hoping to make contact with the ball and praying that I wouldn’t end up flat on my ass. Somehow, I did hit the ball… and his legs. I made had managed to kick the ball further downfield and knock him ass over tea kettle all in one go. His legs shot out, went over his head, and he landed flat on his face. The ball bounced away as I scrambled to get to my feet. The other kid still wasn’t moving.
I walked over to him, knowing somewhere deep down, that I’d killed him and that I was going to jail. I was going to grow up in jail, and get tattoos and have to stick people with a shiv just so I wouldn’t get beat up. He started to stir, and I saw the blood flowing down his chin and neck. Yep, it was jail for sure. I’d have to kill people for my bread and butter, but at least I wouldn’t have to play soccer anymore. The other kid started to find his feet as I stood next to him, offering my hand and helping him up.
“Shit.” he said, shaking his head, blood flying off in small droplets. I started. It was the first time I’d ever heard a non-adult use that word. “You okay ?” I asked. He nodded his head. The coaches came running over as soon as they saw the blood and started helping him off the field. I followed as closely as I dared, a little frightened that the coaches would be pissed off at me for flattening him or that the kid would end up taking a swing at me later. He still looked a little dazed as they led him to the sidelines. They sat him down and one of the coaches gave him his handkerchief. The other one told him to tilt his head back and they both went back to the game.
I sat down next to him and offered the most somber apology my seven year old mind could come up with. “I’m really sorry,” I said. “It’s okay,” he said. The sentiment barely registered with me. It was okay ? If someone else had done to me what I’d done to him, I’d have come up swinging and clobbered anyone who was in my line of sight. “You sure?” I asked. “Just a bloody nose,” he said, “and I should have gone to the right, anyway.” He smiled a bit and I could see some of the blood on his teeth. “My name’s Finn,” I said. “I’m Jonny,” he replied.
He was definitely thinner than I was. A large mop of curly brown hair that he parted to the side and glasses remarkably close to mine. He looked remarkably frail at that moment and I started to feel really bad for clobbering a kid I outweighed by twenty pounds or so. Still, he had taken the hit like a champ, no tears, no yelling, no crying for his momma. Wish I could say I would have done the same, but had it been me, I would have beaten him up with tears streaming down my face, calling for my mother the entire time.
Jonny’s dad introduced himself to my parents, and they continued to talk as Jonny and I sat and watched the group of kids running around the field. He and I started talking. It turned out we went to the same school. We liked a lot of the same TV shows. We both liked firecrackers. Ninjas. Cartoons. Godzilla. Kung fu movies. It turned out that we actually had a lot in common.
Our parents would hang out and talk at almost all our practices, one part keeping Jonny’s dad awake in case I clobbered him again and one part keeping my parents from fighting and causing a scene in front of all the kids I was playing with. Eventually my mother offered to watch Jonny after school, so his dad didn’t have to worry about him burning down the house or setting the yard on fire with an errant firecracker. We’d walk back to my house after school, playing out scenes we’d seen in karate movies and talking about who’d win in a fight between Superman and Batman. We’d draw comic books and watch cartoons and do horrible things to Adventure People in the alleyway behind my house.
He was the coolest guy I knew and the best friend I could ask for.