I first met Paul in fifth grade, about when he began smoking, drinking and messing with women.
Well, that came a few years later, but I did meet Paul in fifth grade, where we became instant friends, although it would have been hard to find two more unlikely pals.
He was a country kid, from McHenry County, where he learned to hunt a variety of varmints and to lay trap lines to catch the minks that he planned to make into a fur coat for his mother. He should have planned for a rabbit coat.
I was the city kid, from St. Tim's Parish near Devon and Western avenues where playground choices came down to the alley full of dog droppings swarming with flies or the abandoned "Victory Garden" in the corner vacant lot where the only harvests were clunkers, broken bottles and dandelions.
Paul was big; I was the runt. He was affable; I was timid. He laughed easily and often; I worried. Where I held back, he rushed ahead. Then he waited for me to catch up. He was a Cubs fan; I was a Sox fan.
We met in 1951, after both of our families moved to Northfield. My family's move was part of the post-World War II urban exodus. Paul's family was moving to an enclave of Luxembourg kinfolks, where the street was named after his extended family — the Happs.
The 1950s were the best time to grow up. Few self-destructive choices bedeviling today's kids. We simply went out to play; no scheduled play dates, no organized sports and no craft lessons. Our imaginations, not adults, were our event planners.
Our playground was The Creek, a sluggish rivulet, just wide and deep enough to float a discarded metal tub for mixing concrete that we splendidly christened Queen of the River. Not clean enough to support game fish, The Creek did provide a splendid crop of blood-sucking leeches that we picked off our legs, proud of our imagined intrepidity. Often we stretched out on its shaded banks under the summer sun to conduct learned conversations on important philosophical questions. Such as: Why do we have to go to school?
Getting lost in a cornfield — the horizon, sense of direction and landmarks disappearing amid corn stalks — was a harmless adrenaline rush for us. What we often did was innocently called mischief. No backyard garden was safe from our reach. Of necessity, we perfected the art of running, fast. I still can see Paul from my hiding place in the bushes, arms pumping, silhouetted in the winter moonlight, darting across an empty field, as he fled an angry motorist whose car I had thumped with a snowball.
Together, Paul and I eventually crossed the bridge between the last taste of innocence and the first taste of life and reality. Paul led the way across this swaying, dangerous span, occasionally looking back to chide me for hanging back and to assure me that everything would be OK.
Clearly, I wouldn't be the same person today if Paul had not befriended me.
There's a lovely movie called "Stand by Me" about four boys whose friendship is solidified by their mutual challenges. It is a bittersweet story of friends and their high adventure; jeez, it could have been Paul and me.
You would have thought that the movie's boys would be friends for life. But as they grew older, they gradually drifted apart — as Paul and I did. Then one evening, about a year ago, one of Paul's daughters called with the shocking news that he probably wouldn't survive the night. He had rampaging cancer, and I never knew. My wife, Barbara, and I rushed to his bedside, where I evoked a smile from a dying man by fondly recounting stories of our youthful funny business. Before I left, I managed to utter a tearful something about his being the best friend anyone could ever have. He gave me a smiling thumb up. Everything would be OK. That night he died.
"Stand by Me" ended with this memorable line from one of the now-grown boys about one of his friends who had recently died: "Although I haven't seen him in more than 10 years I know I'll miss him forever. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jeez, does anybody?"
I'll miss Paul forever.
From the award-winning documentary, "Playing For Change: Peace Through Music", comes the first of many "songs around the world" being released independently. Featured is a cover of the Ben E. King classic by musicians around the world adding their part to the song as it travelled the globe.