Saturday, June 27, 2009

Toby and I

Memory snubs time and colors things in vivid hues!
by Charlie Leck

My best friend back in those childhood days of the late 40s and early 50s, even though he was two years younger than I, was Toby. It was a tight friendship in those years and then lasted, though a bit less tight, through most of high school.

Memories of Toby leak back in to my life now, in these elderly years, more than 50 plus years since I saw him last. A classmate writes that she and her husband are friends with Toby and his wife and that she sees them often. He sends a greeting through her and all kinds of memories of being pals is stirred up way back there in the shadowed recesses of my mind.

I write out a draft about those days and, when I proof it, I wonder if I have written fact or fiction. In a book I wrote many years ago, I said: “My mind remembers things in great detail – the names of the Brothers Karamazov and the name of Buffalo Bill’s horse and childhood rhymes my mother sang to me – but it cannot withstand the current storm that torments it.”

When I try to remember "things" from so many years ago with precision and clarity, a mild storm kicks up in my mind and timing and fact begin to swirl a bit and muddle up somewhat.

Yet, I remember Toby as if it were yesterday. We became young pals in the post war years of the late 40s. The boys had come home from war and our parents had celebrated that return together. They gathered in the Chester House, an old and massive inn built in the early 1800s. My home was just across the street and I crawled out on to a porch roof, outside my bedroom window, and sat listening to them sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again – Hurrah! Hurrah!”

I would have been only 5 years old then, or just short of it, but the remembrance of sitting out there on the porch roof, in the dark night, alone, is very vivid. The war colored my earliest years and the stories of war and heroism in war hung on all the moments of life for a number of years after the boys came marching home.

Toby and I began playing war games together in the fields up behind his home when I was 10 or so. Some pre-war construction had begun up there and the war had halted it. Great mounds of piled dirt remained and also some deep holes from which it had been dug. With war helmets upon our heads, canteens of water hanging from our belts and toy war rifles in hand, we made the charge up long, long hills that rose out of the jungles somewhere in the South Pacific. We had been commanded to take the hill from the Japs and hold it until relief troops came. By shear surprise we captured the hill all right, but holding it became another matter. Japanese reinforcements attacked us long before our boys were due to arrive.

We stood our ground, however, and we held them off for days and then finally heard the singing of the Marine Hymn as our own brave troops approached from down the hill and routed the enemy. The stars and stripes remained in place, where we had planted it, and our permanent control of “Chester Hill” was established.

It was only days later that we found ourselves in the poppy covered fields of France and Brussels, leading the advance toward Germany. Our assignment was to move on Berlin and to crush Hitler’s military mechanisms. We had survived the beaches of Normandy and advanced through the confused German lines into the heart of Europe. Nothing could stand in our way. In the little cemetery north of the Congregational Church we fought many a brave and victorious battle over the forces of evil and hate.

Two guys, linked so closely on the battlefields of hell, had to become good buddies. In those war years, I was clearly in command and the senior officer of the two of us. However, as the war games faded from our favor and we began to prefer the sports fields just a few blocks from our respective homes, things began to change and control passed to Toby. He was the supreme athlete. Even very early on, one could see his native, bred-in talent. On that big sports field we threw baseballs together or flung footballs to each other for hours on end. Whenever we could, we organized games of hardball or tackle.

Sometime in the early 50s, with me having only one year of remaining eligibility, one of the town’s service clubs (the Lions, I think) put together a Little League team. Toby’s dad became our coach and 3 other teams from Mendham and Brookside also joined the league.

Toby and I were as linked as heroes and leaders of this Little League adventure as we were on the mounded battle fields to the west. We took on all comers in that one year of little league and destroyed them unmercifully. There were no ten run rules back then and it was not unusual to defeat a team by 20 runs or more. We, both he and I, must have batted in the 500 or 600 percent categories. When Toby wasn’t pitching he played first base. When I wasn’t on the mound, I was over at third. How many hundreds of balls, from games and practices, I must have thrown over to him. Nothing within reach got by him. He dug balls out of the dirt and he leaped high to catch those over-energetic throws. He was a master with the glove.

I remember so well that day – I was 12 and he was 10 or, perhaps, just turned 11, when we were beaten in a regional Little League Championship game by a big city team. The game was close, but they were too much for us. Toby and I were utterly heartbroken and couldn’t look at each other for fear of seeing the grief in the other’s eyes. Back then, leagues formed all-star teams to go to these Little League World Series qualifying events. Nearly all our starting teammates were from our team in the little town of Chester – at least 7 of the 9 – and that lack of strength from the other teams in the league cost us dearly in the end.

I was about 13 when I took charge of Toby and brought him with me on a trip to Manhattan. Someone dropped us off at the Lakawanna-Erie Railroad Station in Gladstone. It was pretty exciting to be going off on an adventure like this on our own. Our ultimate goal was an electronics store in the downtown section of Manhattan where I would buy a tape recorder. What a big deal! All by ourselves! And, tape recorders were nothing like you might remember them from the last decade or so. Back then, they were massive machines with big reels of tape, perhaps 8 inches in diameter, that spun through a record-and-play devise. The train deposited us in Hoboken. I was feeling very much like a big deal because I had taken this trip a number of times with my big sister, who worked in the Woolworth Building in the downtown area. I knew exactly what I was doing. Toby was in awe when we headed for the Barclay Street Ferry and boarded it for the trip across the river. We stood outside, on the deck of the big, bulky boat, looking forward toward our destination. The massive skyscrapers – the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building – stood out in front of us. We must have both been wide-eyed and amazed. We went to the Woolworth Building first and called on my sister in her office. She introduced us to her boss and both of them made a very big deal about this trip we were taking on our own.

Dear sister bought us both lunch in the cafeteria on the main floor of the building and then she pointed us in the direction of the big electronics store. I checked to make sure the cash from my parents was safely in my pocket. It was. Of course, the trip into the city was only a minor part of the adventure. Following my purchase, we had to get this awkward device home to New Jersey and rush hour was approaching. The machine must have weighed close to 50 pounds and the two of us had to take turns carrying it and lugging it down the canyoned streets toward the Fulton Street Market and the departing ferry boats. Then, of course, we had to climb up in the train with it and it took some working together to pull the feat off.

How I remember the days playing with that stupid recording machine – talking and singing into it and laughing and giggling at everything we did. Naturally, and as you might expect, we tired of the activity quickly and the machine sat then for years unused and unadmired as faster, lighter, sleeker and less expensive products hit the market (times don’t change all that much).

I went on to high school two years before Toby and, because of my mother’s serious illness, pretty much said farewell to sports. I had too many responsibilities at home, helping my dad in his general store and caring for my mother. We had one more year of team play when I joined the high school baseball team in my senior year (my mother was extremely ill and my father insisted I had to go play). It was joyous to have one more year on a team with Toby.

High School seemed to tug the two of us apart; yet, Toby and I kept up our friendship to some degree. When he got to high school, I was nearly ready to drive. We spent a lot of time in that old Ford that brother John gave me. We dated together and went on numerous adventures.

On a dark night, when Toby and I had been roaming around in that 51’ Ford, we had a bit of a disaster that I think cost Toby dearly. He’d become a huge football star very early in high school. All the experts agreed that he had a sparkling future. The big time colleges and universities were watching him closely. He was going to set records by the bushels at good old Roxbury High School. Except, on this dark night, Toby wanted to go to a dance at the Presbyterian Church and I had to get home to tend to some chores. So, I pulled up on the side of Main Street, out there across the street from the big, white church. Toby sprang out and raced around the back of my car, heading across to the church and the dance. I put my sweet, blue Ford into gear and took off. I was already in my house when I heard the sirens racing up Main Street – an ambulance and a police car went by.

One of Toby’s legs was shattered pretty good by the car that hit him. Significant surgery was performed on him that night and eventually a steel plate was planted in his leg. The big time schools stopped following him after the accident; yet, he recovered and heroically went on to star in football at East Stroudsburg State. He set all kinds of records there and entered their sports Hall of Fame.

I went off to the Midwest and established permanence there. Toby and I drifted apart and never saw each other again after 1959. I checked on his sports career for a while and then, as these things go, I established other friends and interests that distracted me from childhood things.

Toby and I were pretty close there for a spell. I’ve had good buddies over the years and some with whom I’ve built pretty close relationships; but, I never had a buddy like Toby. We could climb important hills together and hold our ground against all kinds of odds. Together we dealt awesome defeat to Brookside and Mendham (1 and 2). We saw frightening movies together in the old Borough Hall on Saturday afternoons. We played hundreds of games of table tennis in the old church basement. He kissed a bunch of girls in the backseat of my car.

For years after I hauled my butt out of Chester and away from the east coast, I couldn’t figure out what was missing in my life. Sure, we had started drifting apart before my departure, but it made no difference. What was missing from my life, and what has been missing from it now for well over 50 years, was my buddy Toby. I survived it and, as a matter of fact, never even gave much thought to it, but it was still something special that was missing.

He’s done well. It’s good to hear he’s so successful and has such a neat family. I’m proud of him. I’ve done okay, too. Maybe, together, we could have conquered some pretty incredible worlds. There were plenty more hills to take and hold and lots of potential victories.

The images of youth, hyperbolic as they might be, are so absolutely wondrous in these latter years of life. I’ll never forget Toby. He was an important part of my life.

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