Boyhood Pals, Manly Friends

TIM BAKER

April 19, 1993|By TIM BAKER

Forty years ago, he sat next to me in the 5th grade. The two of us were the only new boys in the class. We went on to become close friends through high school and college. We were ushers in each other's weddings.

After that, we kept up. But he lived in the city, and I didn't. Over the years, our friendship slowly slid into sporadic lunches and an occasional ball game. Then last week, we spent five days skiing out west together.

He's a stronger and more experienced skier. But I managed to keep up with him most of the time. When I didn't, he'd slow down and wait for me. The steeper expert slopes excited him. But they intimidated me, and so he suggested we stay off them until I felt more confident.

When we finally tried the more difficult runs, I promptly fell. He climbed back up the trail to make sure I was OK. While I got to my feet, he gathered my skis, poles and hat that lay scattered all around me. ''Looks like you're holding a yard sale,'' he said. We both laughed at the old joke.

The season was almost over, and we had the slopes largely to ourselves. At the end of each run, a chair lift carried us back up the mountain. We sat beside each other, shoulder to shoulder. Ahead of us ran the moving line of empty chairs. We glided up through evergreens and aspens, dropped down into snow-covered valleys, and then climbed again straight up to the top.

While we rode, we talked. He told me about his business, and I told him about my writing. We discussed our families and friends. Then we chatted about our children. Some of them will soon graduate from college. Imagine! Remember what we were like at that age? We shook our heads, laughed, and started swapping stories.

An alternating pattern developed. Going down, we skied fast with only a few short stops. The runs whipped by in silence. Then at the bottom of the trail, we'd hop on the chair lift. Riding back up, we'd start talking again.

Men achieve intimacy in different ways than women. We often do it side by side. Hunters connect while walking through the woods. Sailors, while hauling on a halyard. Skiers can do it flying down the slopes and then sitting beside each other on a chair lift.

Men feel more comfortable if we can communicate while doing something next to each other rather than while sitting face-to-face. Someone might suspect that this is actually how we avoid intimacy. But the quality of the experience I shared with my friend last week didn't suffer from the lack of a more direct encounter.

Someone else might say that this is how we prevent a male power struggle. But my friend and I have never felt competitive with each other. As boys, we happily sailed together under his command. As teen-agers, we both played on our high school lacrosse team, which I captained. Now I am delighted to let a better skier lead me down the steepest trails.

Contemporary stereotypes distort and demean men's relationships with other men. In fact, when we go off together, most of us are not the heavy-drinking macho womanizers you see deplored and parodied on television. Instead we seek and give mutual support.

Last week, my friend and I skied together as a pair, a team. We kept an eye on each other, watching out for falls and accidents. We compromised and accommodated each other. We didn't race. Neither of us wanted anything to disturb our camaraderie on the slopes or our closeness on the chair lifts.

Gradually, our talks expanded. Like everyone else, we've both gone through some tough times. I asked him how he handled them. While he told me, I watched his face.

He is someone I have known almost as long as I can remember. Years ago, we accompanied each other through adolescence. Across my mind sweep memories of two playful boys, two hot-shot teen-agers, two young college men full of themselves.

Now his hair has turned gray, and jagged lines crease his face. But the things I always liked about him have not changed. He is still sweet and kind. He is concerned about his community, his city, his country. He cares about his family and his friends. And, fortunately, he still cares about me.

These manly qualities adorned both the boy with whom I grew up and the friend with whom I skied last week. Those qualities and that friend are blessings to have beside me on any journey in my life.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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