I don’t remember what the word for cool was in the 1940’s. It is hard to believe that such an adjective could exist in the same lexicon with words then in use that were so devoid of irony, so smarmy and enthusiastic as neat or swell – the memory of which engenders a slight embarrassment. We were just kids. Our vocabulary was sparse.
I do know the way my friend John B carried himself in the world is best described as cool. He could blow bubbles with his own spit. He could say a full sentence in one elongated burp, and punctuate the speech of others with well-timed farts. I looked forward to being old enough to drive, but he’d replaced the handlebars of his bicycle with a car’s steering wheel. He rode that bike, pretending to switch gears with a sophisticated air, reducing the act of adult car-driving to an absurdity. He was genetically designed to make fun of grown- ups and the world they lived in, parodying the mannerisms, diction, gait of his parents, my parents, our teachers.
Once he lured me into the headmaster’s office when the headmaster was away for the day. He sat down in the headmaster’s chair, put his feet up on the headmaster’s desk, lighted one of the headmaster’s cigars, made several telephone calls on the headmaster’s phone and then dictated a letter to me, his obedient secretary, to my parents about what a great student Steve Davenport was – which I was emphatically not. Even then, still so young, he had the clown’s ability to marry laughter with sadness by seldom laughing himself. No such word as neat or swell would ever escape his lips unlinked to irony.
And he was fearless. Riding the roller coaster at Playland I’d crunch myself down, hanging on tight, holding my breath, but he’d squirm from under the restraining bar and stand up. He’d wait ‘till just before the car was at its dizzy making highest point, then pretending to be a travel guide, he’d point to an imaginary historic place in the landscape and yell the ridiculous story of what had happened there over the clatter and roar while my stomach was in my throat and the car dived down to the lowest point. Years later, he became a naval airman, flying jets from aircraft carriers, one of the most dangerous professions in the world.
I don’t know what he saw in me to make me his best friend. When I tried to be cool, I succeeded only in looking stupid, and I was easily frightened – especially of getting into fights – which is why I got into lots of them. I understood – because experience taught me – that when you are more frightened than all the others of getting into a fight is when all the others are eager to fight you. The understanding wasn’t any help. I continued to be afraid and to be beat up, de-pantsed several times in the presence of girls, humiliated, as uncool as you can get – until at last under John’s insistent urging, I began to start fights. Sometimes I’d make up the provocation and then swing. Other times, I’d swing first and then tell why. After a while, the only fights I got into were the ones I started. He’d made me safe and I loved him for it.
Up until the time I went away to college, and he joined the navy, we were inseparable. Long before we had our driver’s license, we made a midget automobile together, which we crashed on its very first run. So, when we felt like bombing around, we’d steal my father’s 1936 Ford coupe (very cool with its rumble seat) from where he’d leave it at the railroad station to commute to New York City. My father caught us as we returned the car too late one day, just as he got off his train, and he told us he preferred “a better sense of honor.” “But,” John explained with perfect logic, “a sense of honor would have prevented us from the pleasure of driving around in your car.” My father, seemed surprised for a few seconds, then trying and failing, not to giggle, he forgot all about assigning a punishment.
Later, when we did get our driver’s license, we bought a thoroughly trashed Model A convertible coupe (even cooler), overhauled it to make it like new, and suddenly very popular, accompanied by the prettiest girls, we bombed around in it, masters of our universe.
What fun we had in that Model A! Late at night, as an after-party, we’d drive it, crammed with kids sitting on laps and standing on the running boards, to Todd’s Point, a public beach which was closed at sunset. Our two favorite pastimes there were skinny dipping and – John’s idea, of course – engaging in interesting intellectual conversations with couples we’d find making love in the bushes. “Excuse me, but I’ve lost my watch. Can you tell me what time it is?” As John explained, this was not as dangerous as it sounded. “Anybody who wants to chase us has to put his pants on first.”
One night, a police patrol car came by. We scattered, hiding in the bushes and the bath house, and the cops started to chase us on foot, while John circled back behind them and turned their siren on. Hearing that wail, I laughed so hard it was hard to keep on running. Later John explained, “I couldn’t resist.” In that more innocent era, there was nothing to be afraid of. I’m sure it didn’t even occur to the policemen to touch their guns. They were having as much fun as we were.
The siren throbbed and screeched and the cops ran back to turn it off; then they got smart and, instead of chasing us, got in the Model A and waited for us. We trooped back and gave ourselves in. They told us to drive directly to the Greenwich Police Station where they’d put us in jail, and to make sure that’s where we went, they drove right behind us, occasionally turning the siren on. I’m sure they were laughing. The jail was not frightening either. After all, this was Greenwich, Ct, where even prisoners’ accommodations are luxurious. They kept us there just long enough to make us wonder if there was some big punishment coming, then they sent us home.
John and I went off to college and saw each other only on vacation, until, after his sophomore year, he quit college and joined the Navy and then we saw each other only once in a while. He earned his wings in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. I joined the Navy Reserve Officer’s Candidate program in college (while the Korean war was going on) and went aboard a ship, based in Norfolk, VA as an ensign shortly after graduating from college. About a year later, his squadron flew to Norfolk to join an aircraft carrier in preparation for a lengthy operation. He visited me aboard my ship. During that visit he received a signal that the operation had been cancelled because of hurricane damage to the aircraft carrier, and I saw his relief flood into his expression and realized he was scared. John B was capable of fear!
Soon after this, he did me one more favor: I was scheduled to get married shortly after my ship returned to port after a long operation. There wasn’t time to get the blood sample from the Wasserman test, required then for a marriage license, to Boston via ordinary mail. John flew it there for me in his jet. How cool is that? When I asked him how he wangled that “assignment,” he said, “Don’t ask.”
A few months later, home on leave, visiting John’s mother I asked after him. “We’ve just been to another funeral together,” she said. Not long after that, when John’s required time was up, he did not sign up for some more years as he’d originally planned. He resigned from the Navy.
Much later, not long before my father died, he asked after John. I confessed we’d lost track of each other. My father was clearly disappointed in me. “We should keep track of our good friends,” he said. “there are only so many in a lifetime.”
Still, way went on to way, and I didn’t keep track.
Now, I’m afraid to type John’s name into my browser. Like me, he’d be in his eighties, and I might learn that, like many of my friends, he’s gone.
That wouldn’t be cool at all.