“Old Friends, Old Friends”

Sunday, May 5, 2019

“Old Friends, Old Friends”

(Author’s note:  My best friend from Auburn lost his fight against cancer this past Saturday.  Even though I haven’t contributed anything new in a long, long time, I am reposting this old column from six years ago, which I also reposted on the occasion of his mother’s death two years ago.)

One spring afternoon in the mid-eighties, having previously seen the invitation painted on the cafeteria windows, I began walking from my class at Haley Center over to Foy Union to sign up for the College Bowl academic competition.  As I started toward Foy, I noticed a fellow of large stature (who naturally stood out from the crowd) about thirty feet in front of me walking in the same general direction.  Oblivious to me behind him, he crossed Thatch Avenue and headed for the back entrance to the cafeteria, the exact same route I was choosing.  I had the strange feeling I was following him, even though there was a long way to go and many different turns on my way.

The fellow in front entered the cafeteria and turned to go past the backed-up, stacked-up rows of used trays and dishes on the cafeteria conveyor belt, once again seemingly anticipating the direction I was heading.  He turned down the corridor leading to the elevator, again the same way I was headed.  By this time I think that fellow started to feel like somebody was stalking him for some reason.  We both got on the elevator together, both got off on the third floor, and both walked into the small former storage closet that housed the AU College Bowl team, both feeling a little awkward at having made this dance all the way through the bowels of Foy Union.

That’s how I met Bill Jones, the person I call my “best friend from Auburn” and one of the best friends ever in my life.  During our concurrent time on the Plains, we spent many, many days together on College Bowl road trips and at Auburn football games, and way, way too much time in front of the pinball machines and video games in the Foy Union game room.  When I couldn’t make it home all the way to Florida for nonbreak holidays such as Easter, Bill took me to his home in Montgomery, where I became the proud owners of a second set of parents. (I love you, Mr. and Mrs. Jones!)

Our college careers diverged somewhat: I went straight through and got two degrees in accounting at Auburn; Bill continued at AU and finished up a math degree a year later.  I went into accounting and Bill started in software development.  We both moved around different places in the Southeast, always staying in touch and sharing the triumphs and challenges of young single life.

Our social and political philosophies also diverged, I becoming more conservative than ever and Bill leaning much the other way.  Even our interest in and identification with Auburn (both the institution and the football program) would wax and wane, usually at completely different times.

But our lives also criss-crossed so many ways.  We were roommates for a while when I was between jobs (both of us just happened to end up in Atlanta at that time, for different reasons).  Later on, we were even groomsmen in each other’s weddings within the space of a month (not planned, just happened that way).  And through the years we always shared that bond of being Auburn men, no matter the extent to which we self-identified as such at any particular time.

Recently, I was out of work for a year and a half, all through Auburn’s 2010 National Championship run.  Bill and I had both ended up in Atlanta for a second time, again under totally separate circumstances.  So, we got together to watch almost every AU football game that season, with him keeping up my naturally pessimistic spirits during my mostly fruitless job search.  When we each got “snowed in” for the BCS Championship, we kept in touch the whole game via text messages and celebrated by phone after that kick went though the uprights.  We both observed that that season was the first time in a while that either of us had strongly felt a part of the Auburn Family.

Later, I was the one with the job, while Bill was “in transition,” as they say.  On top of that, Bill had a couple of health problems from which he is recovering.  Through all of these struggles, Bill maintains the positive (enough) attitude that has always marked him in his own challenges.

In 2013, I broke my fibula playing Rugby with guys a half and a third my age. (“That’s what you get,” said more than one acquaintance, including my beloved bride.)  With my right foot in a cast, I could not operate an automobile for the hour-and-a-half commute to my job.  Bill knew I needed face-time at the office and offered to take me into work two days a week just for gas money.  As Bill’s home was between my home and my office, he basically took on double the time of my own commute, plus, due to the timing of our ride, more time in the snarled Atlanta traffic than I usually spent (well, at least we had some good company).

With me and my crutches and him with his cane, I started to nickname us the “Gimp Brothers” (but then I remembered that scene from Pulp Fiction…).  I thought back to our salad days of yore when two young guys with a world of possibilities in front of them would ride around singing along to the car cassette player or would be hollering and cheering during amazing AU comebacks like the 1987 Iron Bowl and the 1990 FSU fumble-rooskie game.  Those two invincible guys back in the past could never picture the “sorry” state in which we now found ourselves—surprisingly still hanging out with each other but beat up physically (and a little bit mentally) by life.

(I must interrupt these reflections on my friend Bill to tell you of an even more wonderful blessing bestowed upon me.  My wife Eileen, a teacher, was SO looking forward to her week off for winter break in February.  These breaks in the school year are her own personal time to recharge and take care of things.  Bill could not transport me and my cast during the particular week Eileen was off.  Knowing how important getting into the office was to me, this woman effectively gave up her precious break and dragged me into work the whole week, many days killing time—HER time—during my workday on my office’s side of town.  Add to that the days she took off to cart me to work several other weeks, all the personal care she gave me during my time of limitation, and you see why I will always say I have the best wife in the whole world.)

Now, this column isn’t just a well-deserved paean to my friend nor is it a mere warm-and-fuzzy piece about our shared Auburn heritage.  No, this is a reflection on an amazing fact that I discovered the hard way (the only way I learn anything):  no matter who you are, life is just too freaking hard to make it well—really well—on your own.  If we are truly going to flourish the way God intends us to flourish, we all need the “human touch” of our friends and family.  In turn, we help our own loved ones flourish with their lives.

That doesn’t mean that we relate to everyone we know in the same way.  Sometimes, out of respect (of one kind or another), one must keep some distance from certain others; the important thing is that the folks who are currently apart must know that whenever one really needs the other, that temporary gulf will be bridged faster than Bo Jackson could hit the sideline and score.

Everyone meets great friends at whatever college they attend.  I’d like to think the friends we pick up at our time at Auburn are ones of a special type.  As diverse as we Auburn folks are, we already share many things in common that go beyond the eleven young men for whom we scream on autumn weekends—if not the Auburn Creed, specifically, then the values and outlook on life that the Creed represents.

So, people, I leave you with this: value the friends you have gained in your lifetime, especially those you found at Auburn.  If you haven’t spoken to one in a long time, pick up the freaking phone, burn some rollover minutes and call them up.  It doesn’t have to be for a reason.  Let’s face it, the clock only runs in one direction, and anything can happen at any time.  For the one thing I have learned from my forty-seven years of walking this earth is that, after all is said and done, the only thing you really have in this world is your friends and family—I mean, that’s all you have.

Michael Val

(who believes “in the human touch, which cultivates sympathy with my fellow men and mutual helpfulness and brings happiness for all.”)

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