My First Best Friend

“Hey – you like to read, so tell you what. I’ll start checking out two books you want and let you have them for the week.”

Those words uttered in November of 1973 were magical to this shy eleven-year-old word nerd. The two of us felt like we were Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin conducting clandestine maneuvers in our school library.

———

I knew how to read before I crossed the threshold into Mrs. Chambers’ first-grade classroom in 1968 and memorized that poem about “A wise old owl….” A children’s Bible story book, a multitude of Little Golden Books, and Harold and the Purple Crayon were my pre-school pre-primers that Momma used to teach me to read.

First grade introduced me to Fun with Dick and Jane. But, y’all, I finished my “Fun” with Dick and Jane and Sally and Mother and Father and Spot and Puff in a couple nights instead of the several weeks that Mrs. Chambers expected.

But let me tell you, no one ever saw a happier little four-eyed fella than when the bookmobile pulled up in front of the school. To the seven-year-old version of yours truly, stepping into the book mobile might as well have been stepping through the pearly gates into glory. I was in heaven…where to start?!

In 1970, my classmates and I were no longer in the wood schoolhouse with shiny wood floors; instead, we were joined by several new classmates as Maplesville School integrated in the newly-constructed elementary wing of the brick schoolhouse with shiny not-wood floors.

Along with the new school came access to an honest-to-goodness school library and the manager of the treasures therein, Mrs. Fulford.

The day I pulled Bambi off the shelf – the actual novel by Felix Salten, not a Disney picture book – Mrs. Fulford pulled me to the side. “I don’t think you’re quite ready for that one, Steven,” she whispered.

“Oh, yes, ma’am. I am. I’ve heard of Bambi so this is the book I want this week.”

“Maybe, but I don’t know. Do this for me,” she said opening the book to a random page. “Start by making a fist.”

Now, I might have been a little peeved with Mrs. Fulford, but no way was I about to box this lady to get her to let me check out that book!

Of course, that’s not at all what she had in mind.

She pointed to a page. “Start with this sentence and read to the bottom of the page. Every time you come to a word you don’t know put up one finger from your fist.”

I made it to the bottom of the page and lifted only one finger. Having met the criteria of the Five-Finger Rule, I was greeted with her bemused smile. “Look at you. You take this book to the desk, check it out, and enjoy it this week.”

I did just that.

———

Sixth grade rolled around and I was still reading anything I could get my hands on; by then, Mrs. Fulford was letting us check out two books at a time for the week.

I was pretty much a loner all the way through elementary school…being introverted has a way of making a person that way.

I had a few buddies during those years, but nobody that I thought of as a best friend.

I wasn’t a Scout, didn’t play sports, and didn’t attend church. Unless it was at school, I never saw any of my classmates.

But in sixth grade, things started to look up.

My desk was near the back of the room, and Tommy’s was directly across from mine in the row to the left.

Tommy and I were about as opposite as two boys could be.

He was good at playing just about any kind of ball and he liked to go hunting…I played ball in the patch in front of the house sometimes and shot my BB rifle in the back yard sometimes. Truth be told, I would rather have been reading or playing Mouse Trap.

Anyway, as the year started and the first semester progressed, Tommy and I told each other jokes as only eleven-year-olds can and we talked about songs and tv shows we both liked.

I helped him figure out how to do arithmetic problems he had trouble with, and he appreciated that.

He knew what a bookworm I had been throughout elementary school and still was.

Shortly after Halloween, Tommy had a brilliant brainstorm.

“Hey – you like to read, so tell you what. I’ll start checking out two books you want and let you have them for the week.”

Those words uttered in November of 1973 were magical to this shy eleven-year-old word nerd. The two of us felt like we were Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin conducting clandestine maneuvers in our school library.

Mrs. Fulford would see me with three or four books…”Remember, two books a week, Steven.”

“Yes, ma’am. I remember.”

Tommy would walk over and stand next to me in front of the bookshelf.

“Gimme two,” he’d whisper out of the side of his mouth while playing like he was looking for a book. I’d put two of the books I had in my hand on a shelf in front of me and walk over to another bookcase. He’d pick up those two and walk them up to the desk.

Shoot…those men from U.N.C.L.E. had nothin’ on us.

Our ruse went on until we got out of school for Christmas.

Tommy didn’t come back to school in January.

My first best friend died two days before Christmas as the result of a tragic accident.

Four-and-a-half decades have passed, and I’ve lost too many more friends before their time…Terry, Glenda, Barbara, Wes, Al, Ruth, Paul, Merri…and the list goes on.

I love and appreciate those friends who have gone on as well as those who are still around. My life is brighter because of them.

But I’m especially grateful to the boy who was my first best friend.

So…thank you, Tommy, and…hey… in case you’re wondering, I still like to read.

Steve Latham – May 9, 2017

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