It was 50 years ago this month that a group of eighth-grade kids from a small town in southwest Wisconsin closed out their basketball season with a double-overtime win. After the game, we posed for a photo taken by our coach.
Last September, I was down in Arizona, helping my parents get ready for a move into assisted living. The biggest chore was going through my mother’s desks and closets. I found some things that baffled me: a box of 1,000 paper clips, dozens of empty picture frames, instruction manuals for long-dead appliances. But some of the stash was memorable: my German great-grandfather’s naturalization document, a letter from the Baltimore Orioles inviting my dad to spring training in 1957, a framed needlepoint created by my grandmother. And photos, hundreds of them, including the one of that basketball team from 1971.
I had a copy back home in my scrapbook, but I took this one and mailed it to my best friend from those days, also named Dave, who was on the team. A month after I got home, Dave called me and said he had been in the hospital for a week with COVID-19. It had been touch and go, but he pulled through. I emailed another buddy and teammate, Gerard, to let him know. Dave, who lives in Lancaster, already had the photo, so he sent the copy I’d retrieved in Arizona up to Gerard in Onalaska.
We were a tight trio back in those days in Potosi, on the mighty Mississippi. On the one hand, you couldn’t find a more disparate small-town grouping. My folks were both college graduates and my father was the superintendent of the school district. Dave’s dad was a trucker and his mom ran a saloon. Gerard was a farm kid. Yet we bonded over a love of guitars — for a time we had our own garage band–and played together on that eighth-grade team. We weren’t very good, but in that last game against first-place West Grant, we put it all together. My job was to rebound and block shots. Dave scored some key baskets with his patented fast-break move, coming to a dead stop in the lane to drop in an easy set shot. I can still remember Gerard dribbling out the final seconds, blond hair flying, his face red with exertion. In the locker room it was like we’d won the state title.
After high school we went our separate ways, as teenage friends often do. Today, Dave runs his own trucking business, although after his illness he’s more inclined than ever to sell his fleet and retire. Gerard is wrapping up a career in the IT world. I retired from government work two years ago, but radio, my first profession, lured me back in and I’m still on the air. The three of us haven’t been able to get together for a long time, but recent events have shown us that we should rectify that situation, and soon.
When we do, the stories will fill the hours. Growing up in that town in those days was about as good as it could get, although we didn’t realize it at the time. No doubt kids who were raised in Rice Lake and Barron and Cumberland have the same kind of feelings about their youth. With us, our summer days were filled with riding our bikes, playing baseball, shooting buckets, fishing and swimming in the river, hanging out at Brunner’s Store with a bottle of pop. School days were a blur of classes and basketball practices, horsing around at lunch and sneaking in a card game during study hall. And, of course, endless speculation about the mysteries of these things called “girls.”
Now, two of us are grandfathers. We couldn’t sink a jump shot if our lives depended on it. We’ve been through marriage and divorce and careers and houses. Two of us found the loves of our lives as we entered middle age. And one of these days, we’ll tell the stories and then get out the guitars and head to the garage, and the music will be sweet indeed.