Lifetime Best Buddies

by

John Wright

 

A little over three years ago I wrote an article titled, "Love and Life." It was about my wife and me learning that she had a brain tumor, and how that frightening reality brought to the surface just how important our love relationship was in my life. Today I am writing about my best friend, Morrie Shaffer, and how our lives have interwoven and how much we have meant to each other through over fifty years. Morrie was diagnosed with stage four mesothelioma a few months ago. The median life expectancy for people with his stage of that disease is about seventeen months, even with chemotherapy. You can realize how devastating this is for Morrie and his darling wife Sue, not to mention their children and other family members. Yes, it is devastating for me too, and that feels like an absurd understatement.

As I sit here composing my thoughts I realize that I have to be careful to stay on track to let all of you know how wonderful life has been as a result of our friendship. It would be easy to feel sorry for myself, and I do, but the real reason for writing this article is to let you know the depth of our friendship and some of the life events we have shared. It is also to honor Morrie, who has been far more than a brother for almost all of my life. Actually, it is impossible to describe the depth of our friendship and loyalty to each other, as neither of us has ever known of any other guys with such a deep and lasting friendship. Thus, our life experiences and deep friendship with each other must, at the least, be described as indeed rare.

We first met outside our junior high school at a marching band practice. We both had trombones and were both rather new to playing music. I was twelve and Morrie was thirteen. Now that was a very long time ago Ö think 1956. Well, our meeting was coincidence but it was enough to establish that we would become friends. Thus began our shared time together, though Morrie quickly dropped the trombone stuff. Teenagers tend to have a lot of fun, most of it physical, like overnight camping with other guys, and some of it unmentionable, especially to parents. Letís just say we had a great and exciting if sometimes dangerous life.

Morrie and I were alike in some skills and different in others. What was most interesting was that we were impressed with each otherís particular skills as we were complementary. In the world of things mechanical we were a matched set and that shared skill set provided much fun from the early days all the way up to the present time. Of course, we had other shared interests, in particular food and girls. No surprise there!

As we became older teenagers we worked on our friends cars with much success. I remember converting a 1950 black Packard into a true "pimpmobile" with a full exterior sunvisor, fender skirts and a red interior with nothing but red, black and chrome with red lights. It was a ball! Of course, neither of us was able to afford to buy a car, but we got to ride with our friends, and those wild experiences will forever remain unknown to the rest of the world. Ah, well Ö We used to walk a lot and use public transportation to get around town most of the time Ö to pool halls and other places of, uh, high repute? We also had a memorable night at the movies with some friends and a few bottles of cheap wine. Yes, getting blitzed was part of the fun.

It is well remembered between us that our mothers both thought the other friend was the source of all trouble and questionable behaviors. Uh, huh Ö they missed the point. We were both hell raisers. We were adept at taking turns figuring out what hijinks to do next. (Much later in life our moms became contented with our obvious deep friendship, for we had appeared to settle down as responsible spouses and parents.) I must give us credit in one area Ö we didnít do things to hurt other people, for we both had a golden rule value system. Well Ö candor demands I tell you that a few of our pranks did piss off some people, but our transgressions were minor. We were never intentionally hurtful to anyone.

At roughly the same time during high school Morrie and I found our first true loves. We started spending less time with each other for, as any lucky young man knows, something rather more compelling was taking up our time. I remember my girl and I seeing Morrie and his girl at places like the Teen Canteen, which was a dance environment. Life was good. Everything mattered. Even an individual cigarette was important, for we were not flush with cash.

 

Morrie was particularly skilled playing pinball machines Ö the ones that paid off secretly as that activity was illegal. Thus, I was impressed by his survival instinct, for he managed to make money that way. For the record, jobs that paid decent money were almost non-existent in our town, particularly for teenagers. At one point I did work for a supermarket chain and that pay was decent for someone of high school age. Of course, parental demands regarding how the earnings would be directed pretty much wiped out my interest in working any job. Morrie also worked at a variety of jobs from the time he was very young, as he had to float his own boat. Life was not easy for Morrie as a young person as family money was limited.

After high school Morrie joined the Navy and I went off to college. We were lucky to see each other on the occasional holiday. Our lives went separate ways, as is so typical for young people. Imagine my surprise when Morrie showed up at my parents house three days after Christmas in 1963 to tell me he had just gotten married to his high school sweetheart that afternoon. He didnít know I was in town and so he didnít think to let me know in advance. He was simply visiting my parents to share his good news. Well, I had a surprise for him too. I was about to get married, the very same day, about one hour after he told me about his marriage. Now that really was a unique coincidence! I suspect neither of us got much sleep that night.

After college I learned Morrie was stationed in Norfolk, VA. We decided I would drive from Wilmington, DE down to Norfolk to visit. Morrie and his wife had an apartment, which was convenient since he was still in the Navy. That visit was the first time we did saltwater fishing. The weather was rainy and windy but the fishing was very productive. His wife fried a lot of fish that night and the whole occasion was great.

In 1970 Morrie was working in the town of Altoona, PA. My wife and I visited and soon after Morrie came to Wilmington to look for a job so we could be closer. Well, he succeeded and thus began many years of us doing many fun things. One of my fondest memories was of us getting steamed blue crabs for the first time without knowing how to shell them. We had a big paper bag filled with crabs; some newspaper and a pair of vice grip pliers to smash them open. Whee! They were great! So was the six pack of pint cans of Budweiser beer.

Of course, life isn't always nice. We had ample opportunities to help and to support each other as buddies during normal times of need and problem times. I canít remember how many times we helped each other move. We were there for each other, all the time. I could write about literally dozens of events where Morrie was there for me, using his skills and his imagination to make things happen right and quickly. It is still that way. One of our greatest joys is and has always been in working together. We read each otherís minds and just somehow know what to do, and we both draw on our individual knowledge to come up with ideas that work very well.

As was common in the 1970ís and later, divorces happened, followed by later marriages, so we finally got to be best man for each other, as it turns out multiple times when we move forward to the present time. During the decade of the 70ís we had more fun and more problems than I would ever have imagined possible, and we were there for each other to share joys and sorrows. I donít know what I would have done without Morrieís wonderful friendship. He simply made life great.

One of the funniest things that ever happened was when Morrie helped me move my ex into a second floor apartment. The two of us had to move a piano up a flight of stairs and somehow get it around a corner into the apartment. That damn piano was very heavy, there were only the two of us on the bottom side, and we had a rope going through a door hole above to help us pull and push at the same time. As we sweated and struggled, about half way up the stairs Morrie almost made me lose it laughing. He said, "I know weíre best friends but Iím just letting you know this is the last time I help you move that bitch anywhere!"

We were a bit wild in our behaviors. We would go out at night and find the most scurvy bars with pool tables and proceed to play the locals, quite successfully. A lot of beer got consumed. Now and then weíd just have to test one of our cars to see how fast we really could go. And so we did, without speeding tickets. Lucky us. And we helped the economy in the Philadelphia area more than once with visits to strip clubs. My, were they open and fun in those days. Iíll say no more about that.

I do recall one less than pleasant experience at a bar with a pool table. We were sitting at the bar and first one person and then three others entered the bar and proceeded to have a chair throwing bloody fight. While the blood flew and the bartender grabbed his baseball bat I turned to Morrie and told him that I was too old for that shit! I believe I was in my mid-thirties.

Morrie and I had a code of behavior that was always supportive of each other and when necessary totally silent. Our male code of silence did not allow talking about certain of our wilder experiences with anyone else. We knew from experience and shared values that we could trust each other completely. So it was from early years all the way to now.

Man, we did some serious and fun traveling together with our wives, and a lot of fishing. To be honest, Morrie enjoyed the fishing more than I did. I enjoyed his company. Of course, Dramamine, beer and Slim Jims at 7:00 A.M. were great! The traveling covered many events from eastern Canada to Baja Mexico and Florida to Hawaii, plenty of time enjoying California and we even traveled up to the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, Washington. We had a ball, time after time. We even shared a fine Caribbean cruise with close friends Linda and Joe to celebrate our respective wedding anniversaries. And lest I forget, Marie and I had a fine vacation with Sue and Morrie in Paris that unfortunately was not so fine for Morrie as he had a terrible cold. Thatís not too bad for two boys of modest means originating from a run down steel and coal town in western PA.

Our only regrets as we grew older were in the fact that we were growing older and less able to do some of the physical things we did while young. Along about the age of sixty we started referring to each other as old men, for bit by bit our abilities lessened. Morrie developed Type I diabetes, and that really cooled his jets. Yet Morrie and his wife Sue are and have been diligent in making sure the diabetes is controlled. He is a very lucky man to have Sue as his wife, for many reasons.

Morrie always had an instinct for making and saving money. When Sue and he decided to try flea marketing for additional income early in their relationship they made a resounding success. Morrie took up jewelry repair and sales among other things. Sue sold everything imaginable to the public and that allowed Morrie to concentrate on the jewelry work and to avoid dealing with most of the lesser intelligent members of the public. That was good, for Morrieís patience is good only up to a certain point. To his eternal credit Morrie was/is a first class salesman and pitchman. He is assertive, direct in his approach and very convincing. What a guy!

That reminds me to mention something you all might be wondering about. Did we ever get pissed off with each other? You bet we did. It wasnít often but now and then we did not see eye to eye on some things. The most important part was that we could be angry, express ourselves candidly and then simply drop the anger and get back to having fun. I think that is a fine proof of our mutual respect and unwillingness to let differences of opinion get in the way of our time together. We simply worked things out, every time.

Most recently, Morrie and Sue and my significant other, Janet, and I visited Las Vegas for a retailers show for flea market inventory. We had a great time. It was so good that Janet and I got engaged (we are now very happily married, and yes, Morrie was my Best Man and Sue was Janetís Maid of Honor). We just happened to find a terrific diamond ring at an unbelievable price Ö and Morrie got the jeweler to reduce the price even more by another $100. At that time we knew nothing about Morrieís illness. He simply got tired easily and coughed at night in bed. We figured he was having side effects from an antibiotic he was taking at that time. Little did we know that his asbestos exposure almost fifty years earlier while he was in the Navy had finally presented itself in the form of advanced mesothelioma.

Well, here we are in the present, and the situation with Morrieís health is not at all good. It is ironic that both of us can talk now about having done everything we ever wanted to do, multiple times, for we know we donít have much time left to share. We have no regrets for how we lived our lives. We survived a lot of bad times that balanced out some of the good times. We both look at death now from a common viewpoint. When it comes, it comes. Just donít let it be unnecessarily long or painful. We have no interest, nor did we ever, with trying to see how long we could live. We focused on doing what we wanted to do, with the understanding that life ends for everyone anyway. Quality of life in enjoyment was and is far more important to us than longevity. Sixty some fun years trumps eighty years of limited pleasures.

I will feel lost without Morrie when he does die, assuming he dies before me (one never knows). Yes, many of us will miss him terribly, but he has been such a big presence in my life for so long that I cannot imagine not being able to talk with him or be with him. I do know that as my clock runs down I do not feel any fear or discomfort about my eventual death. We both had our tickets punched plenty of times in many different ways, and aging and death are okay. We both are tired. I may have few or many years left to live, but living them without Morrie in my life will make them sad years. There is no replacing Morrie. He is one of a kind and I was and am the lucky one to have known him and to be his best friend. Morrie has let me know he feels the same way about me. It canít get better than that!

Let this article end with the most relevant proclamation about life from Morrie when we were young Ö"Donít let the meatloaf!"