It was way back in the preceding century. Way back in another lifetime when I was a public school social studies teacher, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded me a grant to study the essays of Michel de Montaigne. In the summer of 1994 I became familiar with a truly unique and most wonderful place in Washington State, Whitman College.
For those of you interested in old cars, listen up. Whitman College is in Walla Walla, located in a rain shadow desert of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which simply doesn't allow enough humidity for things to rust. You can find that 1957 Chevy, or that '65 Mustang, or the Studebaker your heart longs for sitting in someone's back yard there, looking like the day it rolled off the assembly line.
Chief among the many things I learnt from studying Montaigne's essays was that he had what he considered one true friend. She was a female which - due to the nature of the time in which they lived - lent an aura of possible promiscuousness to their relationship.
But Montaigne maintained that a true friend is so special as to only occur once every 300 years, and he considered himself lucky to be alive during the time that a true friend appeared.
So it was that in the summer of 1994 I got to thinking about friendship, associations and the gift of true friendship. And I realized that I was lucky in the same way as was Montaigne to have a true friend, a fellow teacher at Conyers Middle School. She was, too, a female by the name of Miriam Rivenbark McNeely - since happily remarried - who chose to serve as a true friend in my life. Many an afternoon I joined with others on Miriam's back porch near Olde Towne Conyers and fellowshipped together; we regaled each other with stories from the classroom and beyond, rekindling the zest for returning to school the next day to keep building the future for our nation.
Our family had moved into our home on Farmington Lane in 1988. Not long afterward my cousin, Fred Harwell, who lives just a few houses down the street, began including me in his life. Nowadays, mostly on Fridays, Fred and I find time to visit familiar haunts for lunch. Sometimes we explore new venues, which is how I came to find that great burger at Cosmo Joe's on the Bypass at Dearing.
At any rate, it's simply not possible to explain how precious every minute is I spend in the company of this true friend, my "cuz" Fred Harwell, with whom I have shared some of the most intimate details of my existence on this little planet.
Someone said that you know you're in the company of a real friend if conversation falls silent, and the silence is not uncomfortable. Well, "cuz" and I don't have to talk all the time, and it's just OK. That tells me I'm a lucky man, indeed, to have one of those friends that come along only every 300 years.
At other times I sit and think, although sometimes I just sit. On those days when I think, oftentimes I become so vexed that I want to spew venom to anyone within earshot. I've learned to sit myself down at the computer and fire off an e-mail to my pilot friend up in Cherokee County, who, for reasons known only to himself and God Almighty, has made room in his heart for this old man. My Lake Arrowhead buddy generally responds with succinct language which forces me to get my head out of the sand in order to resume a mostly normal or, at the very least, professional demeanor.
That friend, Fred Lambert, was in retail sales once upon a time. But his heart led him to loose the bonds of earth, so one fine day this man put everything on the line and learned to fly. Got his commercial license, hired on with a regional airline, and today serves in that company's chief pilot's office. In that capacity, he has counseled, nurtured and grown good old-fashioned common sense into literally hundreds of young men and women who similarly sought to follow their hearts into the sky in order to put out their hands and touch the face of God.
Fred Lambert and I became friends when the course of our jobs in the airline business caused our paths to cross. More than a few times he's stopped me from sending e-mails on up the corporate ladder, any of which most likely would have registered me as unemployed. This man has continued to enfold me in the warmth of his friendship and wisdom, for nearly a decade now, and I treasure his every e-mail.
At other times, however, I get so irritated with the way things are going that I need either a swift kick in the fanny, or a whop upside the head with a baseball bat, or a face-to-face talk with someone a whole lot smarter than me.
In those moments, I'm blessed that the man I call my "second daddy" is still alive and well down in Brooklet. I've been known to jump in the pickup and head to share a cigar or three and solve the problems of the world with him.
Thirty-something years ago Coach Fred Shaver hired me as a totally wet-behind-the-ears assistant football coach, and I joined his staff at Southeast Bulloch High as he went about winning his second consecutive state title in three straight years in the finals. I learned everything anyone ever needs to know about coaching from Fred Shaver - and even more about life and love - and what it takes to be a good and decent man.
So there are times when I have to go back to Brooklet to get a quick refresher course in why I ought to keep on trying to put one foot in front of the other for at least one more day.
I've lost count of the times I'd have quit trying were it not for the advice of my true friend, my "second daddy," a man among men: Fred Shaver.
There's yet another man whom I consider a true friend, a person to whom I can confide every last vestige of that which I consider truly important, in my life. He's a teacher of English up in Knoxville, at the University of Tennessee, by the name of Bill Larsen. We met in the summer 1989 at Notre Dame, where we studied Blaise Pascal under the tutelage of the wondrous Tom Morris. Bill and I still talk via e-mail after lo these many 18 years as if we were still debating in a little study room at the Hesburgh Library, or sweltering in the second floor lobby of Badin Hall.
Another friend from those Notre Dame days, the late Fred Jamroz, passed just recently. Fred, the fourth "Phred" in my life, was a longtime teacher and high school football coach in Michigan. He taught me the three cardinal rules of golf which - to this very day - enable me to play a round with anyone from the greenest to the greatest.
That's right. If Tiger Woods asked me to join him for a practice round at Augusta National, I could do it if I followed the advice of my late buddy Fred Jamroz: drive the fairway; hit the green in regulation; never three-putt.
And there's a golden man who lives in Lawrence, Kansas, by the name of Tom Stidham. Tom was my band director at Georgia Southern from 1969 to 1973, guilty of introducing me to that long-legged, gorgeous baton twirler who became my wife.
Stidham, every bit as good a person as any of the afore-mentioned, still works at the University of Kansas. Literally thousands of kids have played under his baton, and the world is a better place for his having been here.
Montaigne was either wrong, or else I am the luckiest man who ever lived on this planet. I have four Freds, a Bill, a Tom and a Miriam that I can count as true friends.
And, great as are these friends, the greatest has been my helpmate of these nearly 34 years. My wife, Louise, surely deserved better than the cards she was dealt when she married me. Yet, beyond whatever we mortals define as love, this saint among women embodies whatever is defined as "friend."
Louise has exhibited sympathy, empathy, honesty, understanding, and - above all - truth, for lo these 34 years.
I'm a lucky man. I know who'll be carrying my casket down the aisle. I hope it'll be a winter day so they won't have to sweat. But, regardless, I know whose hands will be on the handles.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.