I’m not sure exactly what this post has to do with ethics. Obligation, perhaps. Still, I have to write it.
Yesterday, I learned that Greg Davidson had died. The news thrust me into the heart of some intense and strange hybrid of “Stand By Me,” “Animal House,” “Mister Roberts,” and “The Sandlot.” I hadn’t seen or talked to Greg for 41 years, since the day he sold me my first car, a red Nova that I paid for with cash, using my bank account started for me by my Dad when I was a baby. Wiped it out, too. But that’s not why Greg Davidson was important in my life.
I met Greg in the 7th Grade, when we were both 12. He was the first un-self-consciously cool kid I ever met, and one of the few people I have known had this distinction. (I will embarrass him by saying this, but my son is one of them too.) If you can picture the character of Chris (River Phoenix) in “Stand by Me,” that was Greg—athletic, physically graceful, blond, with a buzz cut, relatively quiet, and a natural leader. He was, essentially, a man in attitude and conduct long before the rest of us (some of us are still working at it)—he won the affections of my 6th grade crush, Margie, and formed a famous, much admired steady couple with her that lasted well into high school.
He was smart, but defiant in a puckish and courageous way: this was the early Sixties, and we all regarded the regimentation of school as an insult. Greg undermined that, regularly, and at considerable personal cost, by waging clever, chaotic war against authority that he considered an affront to human dignity—the equivalent of Mr.Roberts throwing the Captain’s palm tree into the drink. One of my favorites was when he tweaked a pompous high school English teacher who chafed under the nick-name Greg had devised for him—“Tweety Bird”—because it caught on, and because it was so dead-on accurate. Greg went to the trouble of making stationery with a small picture of the Warner Brothers avian in the corner, distributed it, and that week poor Mr. Hendrickson received an assigned essay from every student on Tweety paper. Greg denied that he had anything to do with the plot, but accompanied his denials with Otter’s iconic wink to Dean Wormer, so he left no doubt who Mr. H’s true tormenter was, not there was any doubt.
The teacher did not take it well.
Greg and I traveled in different company, for the most part—mine was a world of theater, the school newspapers, music, the chess team, submissive and compliant relationships with teachers and quiet weekends at home. Greg, on the other hand was normal, like the kids who owned the cars in “American Graffiti.” But we shared a love of baseball, and Greg, for whatever reason, made it clear without expressing it that he liked and respected me, and joined me in organizing, approximately from the 7th grade through the end of high school, regular pick-up baseball games all summer long, mostly staffed by the academically obsessed, uncoordinated, socially backward, goofy, nerdy wise-asses that comprised my friends, and Greg.
We all, I think, held him in awe, both because he deigned to spend so much time with us, but also because he did so as a coach and leader without ever being oppressive or obnoxious about it. My summers growing up, and so many vivid stories, anecdotes and memories, are dominated by those crazy games on lazy summer days, and the quiet charisma of Greg Davidson. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that my self-esteem and sense of worth was bolstered by the simple fact that this boy I admired so much was willing to tolerate me.
Greg had some of the Gordy (the narrator in “Stand By Me”) character in him too. His older brother (ironically named Gordy) was all-everything at Arlington High, and Greg’s teachers tended to treat him as a poor copy–not quite as big, athletic, smart or successful. I always suspected his parents did the same, though I don’t know. Greg never mentioned it or complained: it was he who took over his Dad’s auto dealership and remained in Arlington for all these years. As I would have expected of him, he jumped into adulthood as soon as he could, marrying in college, had kids quickly, and was still married to his lovely and loving wife Cindy on the day he died. In 1962, that didn’t seem like such an accomplishment, but as we all know now, it sure as hell is.
I doubt that Greg knew that I admired him, or that he ever considered that he had an important place in my young life. For one thing, I was one of many whom he affected this way: Jay Sylva, my long-time friend who called me yesterday with the news, was one of them too. For another, Greg and I never had an explicit, serious conversation in all the years we spent time together. Guys didn’t do that then; still don’t, most of the time. Although I have regaled Grace with Greg-centered stories over the years, I didn’t realize how important Greg was to me, and how I had completely neglected to tell him, until the moment I knew he was gone. I wish I had told him. I wish I had just said, “Thanks for treating me like I mattered. It meant a lot.”
Three memorable lines from “Stand By Me” keep coming back since I learned about Greg. The first: “It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant.”
The second, as the Writer reflects on the death of his friend Chris: “Although I hadn’t seen him in more than ten years, I know I’ll miss him forever.”
And finally, this, the last line in the Stephen King novella, and the last line of substance in the film, seen only as the Writer, the grown up Gordie (played by Richard Dreyfus) , types the words:
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
Bye, Greg. Thanks, buddy.
I owe you.