The Rhythm of the Boys
A cold night. Close to the cigar-bar fire pit, maybe too close, our clothes quickly smelling like campfire.
I was with my best friend, another Steve. I have known him since the third grade, a bit more than 60 years. I was best man at his wedding though I can confirm that only because of the pictures in their wedding album. We partied hard the night before and so I remember nothing of the ceremony.
In our younger years we shared adventures, many of which do not belong in a FāVS column.
He was a road warrior for decades, traveling the world, mostly living in London. I would meet him in one place or another for quick vacations or weekend getaways. He lived a jet-set life until retiring shortly after the 2008 recession.
The pandemic has cut down on our visits. But I get to Bend when I can. He and his wife have had some health challenges and I never miss an opportunity to visit.
So, last week we were sitting next to the fire pit at one of the last remaining cigar bars in Oregon, puffing on some fine smokes and drinking, me with my Scotch, he with his Irish whiskey, both neat. We told stories, shared our various health crises, and laughed. A lot. Like always.
There has been a familiar, recognizable rhythm to the lives of my male friends, a rhythm that goes back 50 years. I belong to a poker group that has been meeting regularly since high school. The cast has changed from time to time, but the core group has been amazingly stable. My visit with Steve reminded me of the life rhythms described by those games over so many years.
In high school, poker talk was all about girls, the girls we wanted to date or the girls we were dating, the hookups, the breakups, the youthful passions. And we laughed – a lot.
In our college years, poker talk was still all girls, the girls we were dating or sleeping with or living with or getting ready to marry. The passions were cooler, perhaps. We were a bit more thoughtful. And there was uncertainty to our future… the Vietnam War most obviously. And we laughed – a lot.
In our late 20s, our tone changed a bit. The girls were now our wives and the stories much tamer, mostly the good or the rocky pieces-parts of marriage, the trips, the fun. We talked about jobs and career paths, roads taken or avoided. We all worked hard and played hard. And we laughed – a lot.
Girls, still our concern in our 30s, but the girls we talked about were our daughters. We talked about sons, too, of course. All our children were smart, attractive, clever, full of piss and vinegar and ready to rumble. Some of us were experiencing loss and tragedy for the first time. A dying parent. An unexpected divorce. But we laughed – a lot.
In our 40s, the girls we talked about were now familiar to everyone, our wives or long-term girlfriends or the new girlfriends of the divorced guys. We had experienced love. But there was always a broken heart at the table. We still talked about kids, but now it was about college choices. We laughed – a lot.
In our 50s, talk began to turn, more sober and when it came to girls or women, more respectful. There were a few more girlfriends following divorces that ranged from friendly to open warfare. Some of us had new spouses. The girls we remembered were the stuff of nostalgia now, stories recounting amazing conquests from high school and college and equally dramatic rejections. For the first time, we started paying serious attention to health issues. There were aches and pains, the first faint signs of inevitable mortality. The tragedies were greater. Loss of parents. Even more devastating, the loss of a child. Still, we laughed – a lot.
In the last decade, our 60s, the old stories had not changed much except those girls of the past had grown ever more beautiful, the bikinis ever smaller, the passions ever greater. Our wives were now old friends. Daughters had moved on to their own lives. Sons, too. Kid talk was all about grandchildren. They were, of course, smart, attractive, clever, full of piss and vinegar and ready to rumble. Health issues now dominated the conversation. Who had a knee replaced? Whose hip was acting up? How is your blood pressure? Have you tried this medication? The poker games did not run into the early morning anymore. We were done at 11. Less drinking, less smoking. But we laughed – a lot.
We are in our early 70s now. Girls exist only in those oft-repeated stories, now more poignant than salacious. We still talk lovingly of wives and children and grandchildren and retirement and all the things we can do now or all the things we cannot do because of declining health. We talk of arthritis, knee replacements, heart attacks, and worse. Mortality is catching up and we all know it, feel it. But at my last poker game just before the pandemic, we laughed – a lot.
I suspect the rhythm of our lives, collectively, is no different than that of our fathers and grandfathers. Names and times change, but the issues we have dealt with over 50 years are universal and timeless. Earlier generations lived the same technicolor lives, experienced the same triumphs and tragedies, the same loves, the same passions.
Near the end of his life, as he lay dying in a nursing home, my dad’s two surviving childhood friends came for a last visit. He had known them for nearly 70 years, and they knew he would be gone in a few days. One was nearly deaf, the other mostly blind. I left the room to give them some personal time. Sitting outside in the hall, I could hear a growing noise from the room, sounds that seemed to signal some disturbance. And then I heard the laughter. Walking back in, I saw those three old men doubled over, tears streaming down their faces, my dad laughing as hard as I had ever seen. For that moment they were vibrant, seemingly youthful again, full of that old piss and vinegar.
Our poker games were suspended for the pandemic. I expect they will start up again soon enough. I will be there even though it requires a day-long drive. I cannot wait to hear those old stories again. To catch up with my old friends. To laugh, just as Steve and I laughed during our evening at the cigar bar.
That is the constant in the rhythm of the boys, my generation and those that came before and those generations to follow. As the inescapable dark approaches, we still laugh. A lot.
(Note: This column is about the rhythm of boys. Girls and women have their own rhythm, mysteries to men. I cannot write of that rhythm, of course, but expect there may be some reading this who will give it a try.)
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