Growing up on Staten Island, my best friend Erik and I made the hills above our homes come alive with the sounds of battle. Some days we would don blue felt campaign hats and strap holsters containing cap-laden six guns around our waists and clamber up the steep slopes of the high rolling saddle back hills to the west called the Haystack, in search of Rebels as we re-fought the Civil War. Most days we would shoulder our Mattel tommy guns, fasten World War Two surplus canvas belts adorned with canteen holders and magazine pouches about our hips and go kill Germans from 5 to 8 pm on weeknights.
On weekends we would battle enemy forces all day long. Erik and I would traipse for miles through the hills and backwoods, laden with our toy implements of war. There was a series of undeveloped high ridges up there so we rarely encountered a street or a yard once we crossed the street I lived on, Trossach Road, and got onto the Haystack.
Usually we didn't see anyone or if we did,we skirted round them furtively. I remember how annoyed I was when a man walking about up there came across us unexpectedly before we saw him and avoided him and, spotting the modern aspect of our toy weaponry, he thought he was playing along with us by saying that he had spotted some "Russians" back a half-mile and we should "go check them out." This was even before the Vietnam war, and the nation's enemies were traditionally Germans or Japanese (or maybe Chinese in Korea), not Russians. World War Two was a mere 15 years past, Vietnam from here is a distant memory compared to that.
Erik was a swell best friend. As a boy, he had a lot of similar interests. If we weren't ensuring allied victory in the hills of Staten Island we were together literally wiping the floors in our respective bedrooms with Japanese or German soldiers. We each had a few hundred little green plastic Army men, bought at the drugstore for 99 cents a bagful. They were the enemy. We also each had a few dozen painted lead soldiers, bought at the dime store for 19 cents each. They were the Allied soldiers, These lead soldiers, now called pod foots for their distinctive feet which enable them to stand, are now collectibles but back then they were our all-powerful American army and they always wiped out those little green Army men.
We read comics together, built model airplanes, had sleepovers sometimes and even had an occasional youthful fistfight. But then I moved away and lost touch with Erik. I knew he got into the Air Force Academy but didn't like it so he transferred to Wagner College on Staten Island. After that there were four decades where . . . nothing.
Until a year and a half ago where through the magic of Facebook we re-connected. Through instant messaging in quick order I caught up with him and he with me. He is a successful administrator and he is also a pilot, fulfilling a life-long dream of his. He has a wonderful family with several bright and capable children. He came to DC a year ago and I had breakfast with him at his hotel, where I met his wonderful wife Jane, an accomplished woman in her own write. We all had a great conversation, and I could tell that Jane learned a tiny bit more about Erik's childhood by listening to our animated talk.
I haven't been good about keeping up with Erik since then. There's always time to rekindle a little bit later, right?
This morning I received a Facebook message from Erik, wishing me the best and wanting me to be aware of the news. It included a link to a news article. My heart sank. The code in the article's link included the identifying words "plane wreck."
Erik was seriously hurt when a plane he was aboard went down on August 19th on Long Island. Neither of the other two occupants of the plane, including Jane, survived. Erik is still in the hospital, suffering through painful burn surgery, gradually getting better, as I glean from the memorial website set up by his and Jane's children. The bandages finally same off his fingers last night, allowing him use of a keyboard, hence the message to me and, undoubtedly, many other unknowing but not uncaring friends.
I am so sorry Erik's loss. I can't imagine how he feels but his lost ones are in my thoughts and prayers. I am so glad that Erik gave me the opportunity of meeting Jane, I could tell from our brief encounter that she was a special person and that the two of them were very much in love. Get better, Erik.
The hills of Staten Island, those wooded ridges ranging westward from Trossach Road all the way to Wagner College, which a long time ago rang with the youthful shouts of boyish triumphs, sit still and silent now.