Regardless of your age, there is an innocence lost with your first experience of death. It is no less of a loss than the actual death itself. Pieces of your soul are taken, never to be returned to you. When I was eight years old, my best friend was killed in a tragic accident. Though over forty years have passed since that day in 1964, at times it's all still fresh.
Buddy was doing what most nine-year-olds did back in the 60s after school on a beautiful spring day. He was riding his bike to the grocery shop, which is the old term for a convenience store. He had a basket full of empty glass Coke bottles that he planned on redeeming for the deposit money. Two cents a bottle was a fortune to a nine-year-old in those days. Most likely Buddy was daydreaming of the candy he would buy with his Coke bottle windfall when he crossed Spring Road and into the path of an oncoming utility truck.
Being that his was the first death I had ever encountered, Buddy was also the first dead body I ever saw. They laid him out at his grandmother's home. I remember someone pulling a footstool up to the casket in order for me to step up and view him. He wore a navy blue suit with a red rose in his lapel. I thought it rather odd, as I had never seen Buddy in a suit before. Personally, I thought his Cub Scout uniform would have been more appropriate. He was so proud to be a Scout. The telltale bruises from his accident were noticeably visible on his face. But they were diminished by his trademark freckles. I was encouraged to touch his hand, but chose not to. It's one thing to see death. But touching death was definitely out of the question.
The wise decision was made by my parents that I should not attend the funeral services for Buddy. They felt enough trauma had been inflicted upon me just by the event of his death alone. Why they didn't think of that before dragging me into his grandmother's parlor is beyond me. Buddy was buried in a small cemetery next door to our elementary school. I can't explain why but for some reason that brought me comfort. For many years after his death, even into my adulthood every time I passed by that cemetery I would always say hello to him. I haven't been by that cemetery in more years than I care to remember. Now I find this sense of urgency to return there is overwhelming. Upon reflection, I've discovered how much I really do have a need to thank Buddy.
Buddy was a red-haired, freckle-faced, big-eared, goofy-smiling kind of boy. Comic strips should have been written about him. The two of us became best friends on the day he moved in next door. Buddy didn't have much of a choice since the majority of kids in our neighborhood were of the female gender.
Buddy became the leader and teacher of our dynamic duo. I was thrilled to be his shadow. Under his tutelage I acquired many skills that are mandatory to childhood. He was responsible for teaching me how to use a slingshot, how to catch toads, how to climb trees (even though he broke both arms in one fall while doing so), and how to ride a two-wheeler. He was firm in his belief that training wheels were for babies. He also taught me why sometimes it's better to be the Indian when playing Cowboys and Indians. Indians get to smear mud on their faces as war paint. Cowboys do not.
On more than one occasion Buddy had to defend our friendship. The playground bullies were bountiful and merciless at our school. Buddy was taunted and teased for having a girl as his best friend. That was breaking the rules. The cost was great to him. He was never chosen in "first-ups" for dodge ball. In fact he was all but excluded from most of the playground sports. The bullies would send him to the girls' side of the playground and dare him to cross back onto their turf. This was usually followed by a loud chorus of, "Buddy and Tina sittin' in a tree - k.i.s.s.i.n.g." Through all of this, as well as a few physical skirmishes, his friendship never wavered. He stood his ground. He followed his heart. And the happy ending is that eventually the bullies grew tired of picking on Buddy and decided to drop the entire issue. Of course, that was also about the time that Nancy Dunn put one over the fence in kickball, and they all had a new respect for the girls on the playground.
I can only imagine what kind of man Buddy would have grown up to be. I would like to think that we'd still be thick as thieves. Perhaps our families would vacation together. And our kids would be best of friends. We'd trade stories of our youth about catching lightning bugs and putting them in a mayonnaise jar, or playing in the sprinkler on a hot July day, or defending our forts against the cowboys and the bullies. But Buddy had to leave. And he left me in charge of sharing our stories.
Buddy was barely nine years old when he died. Nine years is just not a lot of time in which to make your mark on life. Not too many nine-year-olds can leave behind legacies. He was denied all the things that I took for granted as I grew up. Birthday parties, Christmas presents, first dates, high school graduation, getting married, having children - the list goes on. But Buddy made a mark on my life. And I will carry him as part of my legacy. He will not be forgotten.
Athena Strickland is a native Georgian who draws her greatest inspiration from family and friends. Having waited until her late forties to start college, she prides herself on being one of the oldest "juniors" on campus at Kennesaw State Univeristy, where she is currently seeking a degree in Communications.