My best friend in high school died over the holiday. He was my age.
I hadn’t spoken to him since May of 2005 and I distinctly remember the phone call.
Frank apparently died alone in his apartment in Florida and was found two days later as a result of a health and welfare check. I hate that he went that way.
I don’t know what took his life.
I met Frank in late August of 1977 when he plunked down in front of me in homeroom our Freshman year in high school. We were arranged alphabetically and this is just the way it turned out. We struck up a friendship that lasted on and off for decades.
To say Frank was something of a free spirit misses the mark – he was a total goof off with a heart of gold. He had a wonderful habit of getting into scrapes due to his adventurous spirit. I could tell many, many stories of the fun we had but I will just recount one for now.
Back in 1980, the airlines were having fare wars. Frank, always flush with cash from his father’s Air Force inheritance, decided we (around the six of us who were close to him) should have dinner some night in Washington DC.
Of course we lived in the Cleveland area. Frank put down the cash and bought the tickets.
Now, none of us really felt our parents would be up to what Frank had planned so he did something deliciously sneaky – he had us going to the airport from school, taking the 5 p.m. flight to Reagan National, landing at 545, taking a cab to Hogate’s (seafood) on the Potomac (my idea), having a two hour dinner, then taking a cab back to the airport to catch an 815 p.m. flight to Cleveland that would get us home by 9 p.m., our parents none the wiser for the cover story was we went to the movies.
I begged off as we grew closer to the date. I just couldn’t imagine the grief I would catch from my father if I got caught. Knowing my dad, well, I had enough of his volcanic temper growing up and didn’t want to poke the bear anymore.
Alas, Frank being Frank, he could not keep his secret to himself. After all, he had scored some major savings on these tickets AND scheduled the whole thing to wrap up in less than six hours on a weekday. You had to hand it to him.
As an aside, Frank also had another idea, based on two of his favorite movies ‘The Gumball Rally’and ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ for a race from the Cleveland area to Kentucky and back. Calling it ‘The O-K Stogie Race,’ the gimmick was, once in Kentucky, you had to buy a pack of smokes with the state’s revenue sticker on them to prove you crossed the Ohio River. Then, the first person back to Mentor, Ohio with the sticker was the winner.
It was quintessential Frank.
So on the day of the flight, Frank shows up in school with the tickets sticking out of his shirt pocket, loudly telling everyone “we’re going tonight to DC for dinner,” Frank attracted the attention of a few teachers who didn’t believe he was really doing this and one sorta-priest who did.
I will only refer to this ‘pastoral counselor’ as Mark for that was his first name. Anyway, Mark alerted the Dean of Discipline (the former football coach and a really nice guy) and Frank was called down to his office where he was relieved of his tickets because in loco parentis and all that.
I mean, there were a few things Frank hadn’t considered: what if the plane was delayed for some reason? We’d need another cover story. What if we were delayed overnight? What if, God forbid, the plane went down and our parents had to learn about our fate from the local TV news crews?
Stuff like that.
Well Frank came back from the Dean’s office to a class we shared and looking at his face I knew right away what happened.
“Father Mark and Mr. Ward took my tickets away,” Frank sulked.
Well even though I was no longer on the flying itinerary, I couldn’t stand to see Frank this way so I did so. . .so. . . um, I did something in retrospect I’m not proud of but at the time seemed like great fun.
I pumped Frank up with indignation. I reminded him that those tickets were his property and what he did outside of the school on his own time was his own business. I could see Frank getting worked up.
“They had NO legal right to do that,” I told Frank. “Do you want the card of my mom’s lawyer?”
Well by the time I was through with him, ‘Fighting Frank’ stormed back in the Dean’s office
demanding the return of his property. All that resulted was a shouting match, Frank not getting his tickets, and a possible detention, I really don’t remember.
Lest you think this shattered Frank, it didn’t. He would proudly re-tell of the shouting match for years afterwards. All I did was put a little starch in his shorts. It wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last because, well, if you can’t play asshole with your friends sometimes, what’s the point?
It wasn’t really the Dean that was this issue here. It was the smarminess of ‘Father Mark’ that galled us.
Mark wasn’t quite through with us yet, but it wouldn’t go the way he wanted. First, Frank’s mom, after having her usual fuss and feathers explosion, quickly forgave her son with no apparent punishment.
Then the next week at the football game, I played my card.
Before the game, I went up to Father Mark and remonstrated with him about what a low thing he did by ruining our fun and taking Frank’s plane tickets. Mark sneered.
“You know, you’re name was on one of those tickets,” Mark said. “What if I were to tell your father about this?”
“OK father, he’s right up there six rows from the top on the corner in the brown coat; can’t miss him,” I said. And walked away knowing a delicious feeling of triumph I would rarely experience in life.
See, when I finally told dad about the abortive dinner flight, he simply said “sounds like fun; I would have let you go.”
I remember feeling light-headed and wondering if this was some kind of Twilight Zone family. Seriously, you could have knocked me over with a feather (and I’m pretty fat). Had I known this, I would have been the one to take Frank’s tickets for safeguarding until the end of the day.
The whole idea was pure Frank and he had a million of them. We were young and full of ourselves and looking for adventure where we could find it. I remember those days and the things we dared to do that we wouldn’t now and I think we’re poorer for it.
But Frank was the pied piper of the adventure and scheme. I know my high school experience would have been far, far duller without him as a friend.
In the end I lost him when he had to choose between his firefighter friends and me over some stupid shit having to do with hard feelings over a fantasy football club. Frank tried to make peace between me and them but couldn’t do it. After that last phone call, we never spoke again.
A big part of the reason was my stubbornness and self-justification that I was right and had a right to be aggrieved. And then, 11 years later and thanks to Facebook, we had a chance to reconnect.
We almost did, but we didn’t. I tried to friend him on Facebook but he never accepted and I didn’t really push it, thinking he was still between the rock and the hard place I had put him in a decade before. I had hoped he would come to the class reunion. He didn’t. I had no idea that my window for reconciliation was going to be so short.
So, of course, I feel like an asshole, as usual.
Frank’s family is planning a memorial service up in Ohio in the coming days. Many if not all of the people involved in the fantasy football group that I used to so enjoy being a part of will be there. And I think they still despise me, so I don’t know what to do. I don’t do well in public gatherings and old animosities don’t help.
But I want to say goodbye to my friend somehow. We went through too much for me not to pay respects. I know it sounds hokey, but a part of my past and a part of me died too. In the weeks since Frank’s death I keep remembering all the shit we would get into and all the fun we would have.
He was the best man at my second wedding.
Wherever you are Frank, I hope you can forgive me. If it takes all the Ativan in my storehouse to make it through, I will be at your service. But I want to know where you’re buried because I want to make it more personal than a memorial service. Whether you’re remains are in Ohio or Florida, I need some time there to say a prayer for you, just the two of us.
It’s the least I can do.