When nothing else currently rocks my neurons, I look back in history for interesting tidbits. I grew up next door to Richard Allen Cooper, known in junior high as RAC. He was cherubic in looks, curly blonde hair, rosey cheeks, short, a little squeezy, and short. He seemed cute and cuddly and harmless. I knew better.
We were inseparable in elementary school as I recall. I went on a bus to St. Louis Catholic School about two miles away as memory serves me. He walked one block down our street, Dorset Drive, to the Virginia Hills Elementary School, the public school I longed to attend. Not that I disliked St. Louis; it was fine. But I straddled a unified identity by having a foot in each kid world. Finally in sixth grade I went to public school, walking the two blocks with a joyous energy that my neighbor friends had lost years before. I was psyched up to put on something other than a white shirt, bow tie, and navy blue pants. I could ride my bike to school, and I didn’t have to go to Mass every Friday morning. I could finally be in the inner circle of my homeboys.
Sadly, I was underwhelmed by how slow and stupid some of my buddies were. Charlie Young, for instance, was so out of control and dumb that he had to ride a little bus to another school five miles away. He compensated for his academic deficits by being a cool smoker and cusser who had sexy girlfriends all the time. He got a Z-28 in high school that was mesmerizing. You wouldn’t know how dumb he was as he streaked by in a green and white flash. And he lied well about any and all topics. None of this mattered at sixth grade recess as we huddled for touch football or basketball or kickball. How smart or civilized you were in class did not come directly into play out there. Anyway, Timmy O’ Brian had gone to St. Louis before he drove a car into the neighbor’s house in the middle of the night. He was fourteen and drunk. Later he was known as “Cack”. The nickname was amazingly prescient since he acted like a crackhead before the substance “Crack” was even invented. I suspect that a lot of the nightmare kids that grew up in our neighborhood of 300 cookie cutter houses had been badly abused by dads who drank. Charlie and Timmy were only two of dozens.
Richard had a knack of blending in with anyone. His charming appearance was disarming. I hung with him and met a lot of people, mostly pretty girls, that I would not have if left to my own devices. It was with Richard that I was pulled over by a cop and taken to the police station for having most of a case of beer in my car without anyone being of age. Actually it was just Richard and me and the beer. We were 16. My dad came to the police station to vouch for us. He acted very offended, but when we got home Richard and I drank the beer in my front yard. I’m not sure what the lesson was.
As everyone else grew and matured in some way, Richard did not grow much or become academic. (Years later he asked me how to read, like it was something he’d been meaning to get around to but things came up.) He found his thing with drugs, pot in particular. He began selling nickel and dime baggies for his older brother Michael. Then it was ounces, and then pounds. I recall once driving with him across a shopping center parking lot, Rose Hill to be precise, in broad daylight passing off a kilo to a guy in another car like it was a game of tag. Even if a cop had witnessed the activity, I doubt he would have thought anything of it. Who would be so stupid to run a significant drug deal in public like that?
What lingers in my mind, however, is how we parted, the small deaths that killed a childhood friendship. I recall vividly a scene in Richard’s driveway where he was replacing a mutual friend’s clutch. The fellow trusted Richard with his Volkswagen bug and the main parts for a clutch replacement. However, as Richard and Johnny, the co-mechanic, got into the clutch, throw out bearing, and pressure plate, Richard decided that the pressure plate and throwout bearing were fine. He sent Johnny to the auto parts store to return the unused parts and kept the money. “What he don’t know won’t hurt him, huh,huh, huh.” He reassembled the pieces and collected his fee for “fixing” the clutch.
I’ll never forget the look on Dwight’s face when he tore into Richard’s driveway in that same Volkswagen a week later. He was animated and hyper with anger. He confronted Richard and told him how his clutch had burned up. How he had it towed to a real mechanic who did what Richard lied about doing. And then he said something like “Tell me why I shouldn’t pound your face in, you lyin’ thief!” The next line is what began the process of friendship unwinding and yieilding to truth. Richard looked at Dwight and said very earnestly, “Man, I didn’t want to, ya know, but Johnny said to do it.” My guts turned sour. The adrenaline of the implied violence turned to apple cider vinegar pudding in my stomach. I couldn’t believe that he lied on our mutual friend, who was pretty much a follower.
Off flew Dwight to cofront a mostly innocent Johnny. I went inside to reconsider my parents’ condemnations of my bosom buddy as a “slippery lying bastard”. Oh, there were more days ahead certainly. But that day was the beginning of the end. Eventually the cord that held all the happy memory beads in place broke and the many memories bounced chaotically all over. And I could see the dark sides to many of the funny, cool, popular moments that smelled of summer nights and stolen strawberries, snowball fights, and forts in the autumn woods. They no longer connected in any sort of order.