By Bill McFadyen
We only saw each other when he was working. The friendship‘s beginning was a product of where I did business when our boat needed servicing.
I only knew his first name and am unsure he knew mine at all. He sported long braids; I had male pattern baldness. I vacationed on the lake front; he lived somewhere in town. Still, he was obviously popular at his workplace. The store owners from whom he drew his salary displayed total trust in his ambassadorship of their business.
A few years into our casual familiarity, I started going on the post-repair test drives. We talked about sports and my kids and how meaningful were my lake friendships. We did not talk too much about him. (I never considered that until just now.)
A new boating season rolled around after a winter of inactivity. On a day I visited their store to buy a new part for my boat, I asked the proprietor if I could speak to my buddy about the installation. The owners were always pretty happy people when I would go there. I do not know how much of that was innate and how much of that was because they had a virtual sales monopoly. This day however, the mom of the Mom and Pop store looked at me forlornly. She proceeded to tell me a heartbreaking story of how my braided acquaintance had been arrested and how a substantial jail sentence was pending. It somehow involved narcotics. She was in obvious mourning.
When she and I spoke of it again a year or so later, she said that he did receive that substantial jail time in a Federal facility. He was incarcerated all the way across the country in California. Her husband and she were making plans to go and visit him in prison. I was struck by that—about how she was not abandoning this fellow from another race and another part of town who had apparently been living a double life while on her payroll doing something she certainly viewed abhorrently.
So I asked if she had a mailing address. She retreated into her office for only a moment, returning with a small slip of paper. She handed it to me. Subsequently, I did what comes fairly easily for me – I wrote a page and I sent it to him. In a California prison. With his prisoner ID number in the address line. Then, I went about my normal day.
What came back was poignant. He had beautiful handwriting, a flowing cursive. He obviously wrote his paper beside my letter. Every paragraph of mine was answered by him with an attempt to convey normalcy; all of it written, no doubt, in some confined area of a federal prison 3,000 miles way.
So I wrote another one. Then another and another. Always from his beautifully legible hand came back a response. Earnestly simple. Always answering my every point. Always with his prisoner ID number on the return address on the envelope.
The notes became less stilted in time. More personal. Increasingly philosophical in nature. After a couple of years came this in the closing paragraph of his then most-recent letter:
“From day one, you have never wavered, always the same. You have always treated me like somebody. Here I am a complete stranger. I slipped and fell. Never once did you kick me when I was down but extended your hand open by showing me love. You helped to put a band aid on my broken spirit to help heal it…”
Five years now, we have been pen pals. According to the terms of his sentencing, we were to be pen pals five years more.
He eventually transferred from California to Kansas. Then in 2015, he was housed in Georgia. Today, he is in minimum security in South Carolina. In March of this year, he went back to court. How or why I do not know, but in that hearing some federal judge, who I now love without knowing, reduced the sentence by 60 months.
I have a date for a day in late October of this year to buy four Melvin burgers in the heart of downtown Elizabethtown. My friend, Doug, will have to get permission for a long lunch break that day from Mom and Pop, who have already promised him his old job back. Like writing a letter, buying a hamburger for me is a very little thing. Yet, from that same letter mentioned earlier, Doug closed with this:
“…I never knew or understood how just the littlest things can mean so much.”
I will have my two with mustard, chili and slaw. I feel sure that after all this time Doug will want his all the way.