Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Pardon me if this is not as well constructed, as coherent, as my regular posts.

Begin here: Bill's was the house where I didn't have to knock. And, if he wasn't home, I'd come in, sit at the kitchen table and talk to his mother instead. At some point, I started calling his folks "Mom" and "Dad" as a joke, because I was over there so often, but, after awhile, I just called them that because it felt comfortable and right. He did the same with my folks. Bill was family.

My dad was the assistant manager at the mine. Bill's dad worked on the trains that moved the ore. Now, on one level, this meant that my dad was an MIT graduate and I'm not sure his dad finished high school, but that had no real significance. None of us ever thought like that, and shame on us if we had.

No, the significance of that was that his dad was a shift worker and mine worked 8-to-5, which, in turn, meant that his family ate dinner at 5 o'clock and mine ate at 6:30.

For a pair of hollow-legged junior high kids, that meant, if we played our cards right, we could eat at Bill's house and then walk over to my house and have dinner again. It worked pretty well until our mothers began comparing notes.

Bill and I were best friends, but we weren't inseparable. It wasn't that kind of friendship. It was more than that.

Looking back, I'm not sure what we had in common except that we liked each other. I think that's what made our friendship so solid. There were no reasons why we were so close. We simply wanted to be friends. There was never anyone in my life I liked as much as I liked Bill, and there was never anyone who had my back the way he did. He was Sundance to my Butch.

Bill was in chorus, he played trumpet in the band and, after I'd graduated and left town, he played in a rock band with my little brother. I was a guitarslinger in college and played in an Irish band later, but it was all for show. Music never rose to the level of importance in my life that it did in Bill's.

But I enjoyed singing and Bill and I sang, mostly walking home from town in the dark, from streetlamp to streetlamp under the overhanging maples. We sang Irish folk songs like "Courting in the Kitchen" and especially "The Rocky Road to Dublin," since each verse of the latter can be done in one breath if you are very careful and walk at the right pace. And we sang, "When I Woke Up This Morning (You Were On My Mind)" and other pop tunes.

People along our route knew when we were going by, but they didn't seem to mind. I guess we didn't sound so bad.

Bill wasn't into the bar scene and very rarely came to the bar in town, despite the fact that it was the only place open after six o'clock and was a hangout even for those under the 18 drinking age. I was down there a lot, but not with Bill. I never nagged him about it. It wasn't his deal. I don't think we ever got drunk together, either. And that was okay. Bill wasn't into it.

When we first started hanging out together, we'd go out in the woods and shoot BB guns, but we outgrew that soon enough and began to center our lives around the pool table in my basement. I don't know how many games of pool we shot -- eight ball and rotation and Kelly and straight pool and such -- but we got pretty good at it. We also got pretty good at hashing out the world's problems as we shot.

At his house, we listened to the stereo. We knew all of Bill Cosby's routines by heart, and spun Herb Alpert's records until they nearly wore out. Bill's older sister ignored us, which is what older sisters do, and I think his younger sister had a crush on me for about an hour and a half. Long enough to accidentally bounce a rock off my head and embarrass herself to pieces. She was awfully cute, but also awfully young, and eventually married the little brother of a friend. Nice pair of kids and I think they're still together. Hope so.

Bill's dad lay on the couch after dinner and we left him alone. He worked hard and deserved his own time, and he wasn't much of a conversationalist to begin with. Didn't effect the way I felt about him, or the way he felt about me, as it turned out.

Once there was a forest fire along the railroad tracks, caused by a broken spark arrestor that had spewed sparks into the woods for a couple of miles. I was just 16, but Bill wasn't, yet, so I got to leave school to go help fight the fire. We filled our Indian tanks and climbed up on the locomotive to be taken from the crossroads down to the scene of the fire, and Bill's dad was on the crew that took us there. He didn't say anything to me, but he gave me a quick wink and a grin. He was proud of me for being there, and I was proud of his approval.

A couple of years later, I was home for Easter and walked over to Bill's house. He wasn't there, but his mother told me he'd gone downtown to find his little sister. I was walking in that direction when the forest ranger swung by in his pickup and said, "Peterson! Get in!" There was a fire, and he was empowered to impress anyone over 16 to help put it out.

I climbed in the back and we drove another half mile before we came across Bill, his little sister and her boyfriend. "Gebo! Get in!" the Ranger barked at Bill, then looked at the boyfriend. "Iaquinta, how old are you?" But he wasn't old enough to be impressed, and was left behind. I shouted to Mary Faith to call my folks and let them know where I was headed.

Bill and I spent about six hours on that fire and it was a great benefit. We weren't all that useful as firefighters, but it gave us an opportunity to be together and talk.

A year or so later, I saw him again. He was a pallbearer at my little brother's funeral. He was incredibly uncomfortable, so deep in his own pain that he could barely deal with the notion of having to play a public role in a very difficult moment for our entire town. I have nothing to say about that, except that there are debts that cannot be repaid.I already respected him. I already loved him. This just reminded me of why.

My next substantial time with Bill, after Tony's death, was at a bar in town with him, and my then-wife, and the Kyer sisters and a husband and a boyfriend of theirs. It was one of the best nights of drinking and talking I've ever experienced. Cathy and Cheryl were girls that every guy in high school had a crush on, but this was 10 years later and we could relax. For one thing, besides being incredibly cute, they were our buddies. For another, they'd chosen really good guys.It was a terrific night of nostalgia and philosophy and good vibes. If you asked me to freeze my life in a 12-hour period to be relived endlessly, that might well be the moment.

What I remember was that we began to talk about Tony, and about another departed friend, Jim Terry, a classmate of mine. We talked about Tony and Jim for a few minutes, and then one of the Kyer sisters stopped us. I don't remember which of them it was. "I can't talk about this anymore," she said. We were such close friends that there were things we all understood that were too painful to pursue.And yet we were such close friends that we could talk until we reached that critical point. And, at this moment, that was where we were.

I saw Bill again at a kind of homecoming that we have, given that our community is too small to try to rally individual classes for reunions. It was a fine conversation, with Bill and our friend Crandall, whose story is worth a whole other post. At that moment, we were three friends and it was worth anything in the world to be there then.

Shortly thereafter, my mother admitted that maintaining a large house designed for nine people was ineffective for one person and finally sold out. I went up to help with clearing out the old family home, after half a century.

It was my last moment in Star Lake as a resident, and so, as was only right, when we were done, I went to see Bill.  I gave him the eight-ball from that pool table over which we'd spent so many hours. We misted up, we hugged. We sat and talked for awhile.

But we knew that I was leaving town. This was it.I gave him one last hug and then drove out of town.

That was five years ago. This year, on Christmas day, Bill had a stroke. And then he died.

I love Bill Gebo. I always will. He is the best friend I have ever had, and there is nothing more to be said.

I know what it means to lose a brother, and Bill was as close to Tony as I was.

And so it is appropriate for me to say that I have now, once more, lost a brother.


Anonymous said...

A touching reminiscence, Mike.

Jerry Fisher

Jason3525 said...

I'm sorry for you loss, Mike. Sounds like a great guy and a great friend.

Sherwood Harrington said...

"Pardon me if this is not as well constructed, as coherent, as my regular posts."

Not to worry.

I'm sorry for the loss, Mike, but happy for you that you had such a friend. A wonderful reminiscence, thank you.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

The way his friendship enriches your life comes through wonderfully. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Jean said...

I so understand that kind of friendship.

We have a belief. If a person dies on a 'good' (auspicious?) day, his soul will attain peace. When my Grandfather left us on Sivarathri day, we were told that it is a 'good death'. I'm sure Christmas season also falls under that category... I don't know if this comment is appropriate, do pardon me if it isn't.

Mike said...

Thanks, Jean -- good thoughts from any tradition are always welcome. And I'm sure that, whatever happens next and however one qualifies for it, he's in fine shape! There are many, like me, who wish we lived close enough to have been with his family this week. He was a terrific friend to many of us.

ronnie said...

Oh Mike, my sincere sympathy.

Such friends are rarer that diamonds and worth their weight in them. I'm so sorry for your loss, but thank you for a tribute that I know Bill would have been extraordinarily proud to have read.

Any of us should be so lucky as to be remembered so warmly.

Constance Gebo Daily said...

Mike, your tribute to my younger brother, Bill Gebo, and the treasured friendship that you both shared was outstanding. Reading it has been a balm for my own mourning heart. I just received a hard copy of your blog today in the mail from Bill's widow. I'm Constance Gebo Daily, the eldest sister, who had already graduated and moved away from home by the time you and Bill became best friends. I live in Rockford, IL am on facebook and would really enjoy getting in contact with you. How is that possible? Yes, Mary Faith is still married to Frank.

Mike said...

Connie, you were held up as the absent angel -- probably a benefit of being so far away! I suppose we met at Regine's wedding, but that was a busy day. I think, though, that you were enough older that your little brother held you in awe.

I'll bet you knew that!