S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In this column “Learn to Swim,” Park reviews the book Learn to Swim and thinks about lifelong friendships.
I haven’t written a book review since college, but a gem like Joe Haeger’s Learn to Swim deserves mention. It struck a chord with me because it’s a paean to friendship, and friends have been critical to my life in ways my family rarely was. I don’t say that to be dismissive of my parents; to the contrary, I think they did a great job raising my three brothers and I to take care of our own asses and not run to blood every time the shit came down. I’ve watched untold friends (male and female) surrender their souls to marriage over the years, and the ones who’ve suffered the most chose mates from large, clingy families who are always in each other’s business. It’s why I advise young people to marry orphans or, failing that, find someone like my second wife, an only child whose parents committed suicide. (They jumped off the same bridge a year apart, a vain attempt to spare her feelings.)
Not surprisingly, she didn’t end up as buddy material herself; otherwise I’ve collected a large assortment of friends over the years. Learn to Swim is about the most important of those, the kid or kids we grew up with. Remember those characters? They’re part and parcel of your origin story, the witnesses to the experiences that forged you. Am I funny? Am I cool? Am I brave? It was your best friend’s company that answered those questions for you, not your siblings. Because he or she knew you, and if you bumped into them today they still would. This is what Haeger had growing up, a pal he calls “My Life Long Friend.”
It’s evident early on that “Life Long” is no candidate for a “Long Life.” It’s where the tension in the narrative lies. Will he make it? Does he have a shot? Can he turn the ship around in time? Our snatches of him in the decade covered here—from ages ten to twenty—reveal a kid checking all the wrong boxes for survival: intense, alienated, sensitive, talented, defiant, directionless, as eager for risk as he is for substances … friendship can’t change that script and even the young Haeger seems to sense that. Instead he just hopes against hope for his buddy, and the magic of Learn to Swim is the way he gets us hoping, too.
He accomplishes this with short, tight stanzas appropriate to our faded childhood Polaroids, the way long ago events coalesce into a snapshot or two. We watch as he and “Life Long” first meet, then begin the slow, stealthy dance of friendship, that trial and error period where you learn about the other kid first and—by extension—the larger world around you. Fifth to twelfth grades are crucial years in any child’s life and—even when these two are in different schools—you feel them reaching out to each other, groping for the trust and support we all need at that juncture. When an unexpected tragedy strikes the teenage Haeger, it’s “Life Long” who hugs him harder than anyone ever had.
Which shouldn’t surprise the reader. Because whatever his other failings, it’s clear that “Life Long” listens to his friend. This is apparent as the book progresses, the way an aside from months before is played back to the speaker later. I’m often asked why, as a relative hermit, I have as many friends as I do.
“Easy,” I respond. “I listen.”
It was a lost art before the Tech Age; now you’re lucky if the person across from you has the attention span of a puppy. (Will future books on friends, for instance, just be a series of text messages?) These snatches of “Life Long’s” nature are all Haeger provides the reader; it’s up to you to construct his friend from the glimpses. For that to work (much less be worth the work) the friendship has to resonate. Are these the same ups and downs you experienced with childhood pals? Is that how you felt in your first tight spot together, or when you finally grew up and apart? I knew the author had succeeded when I laid down Learn to Swim and “Life Long” felt like my buddy.
Weeks later he still does … I even find myself missing him. I can’t remember when a book touched me that deeply. Anyone who has an old friend worth remembering (which, I hope, is most of us) will love this honest, beautifully written memoir.
* * * * *
And speaking of old friends … last January I attended a reunion dinner with a dozen junior high buddies. It took place in Burlingame, California, the town where I grew up, and it amazes me how anyone ever says “no” to such events. God knows I didn’t want to stash my dog in a kennel or drive a thousand miles in winter for the sake of a dinner. (Well, I guess any sane person would have flown.)
But finding out what’s happened to old friends is irresistible to me. It always has been. What’s more, at this point in life you don’t need a whole day with someone; a quick ten-minute overview is enough. Some of these characters I hadn’t seen since we attended William S. Crocker Junior High fifty-five years ago. I’ve heard about them in the interim, of course, but we went our separate ways as adults. They were mostly rich kids, raised to privilege and expectations, while I was just a poseur passing through. My dad wanted his kids to get the best education possible so he’d built us a beautiful home (swimming pool included) in Hillsborough, the sort of beatific idyll where Bing Crosby lived up the street. (Two years later the IRS took the house and everything in it, but that’s another story.) In the meanwhile it was all gravy to my younger brothers and I … what’s not to like when your school is nestled beside a golf course and everyone around you has money in their pockets? A week after we moved in, and the day before I was scheduled to begin seventh grade, I was playing wiffle ball with my brothers and a few neighborhood kids in the cul-de-sac beneath our house. My brother Joe hit a long fly and I turned, raced back to snag it and promptly ran face first into my neighbor’s mailbox. The impact with the metal concussed me and the flag cut a groove in my face that stretched from my left eye to my lip. I was face down on the street, trying to process what had happened, the blood pooling beneath me, when I heard my brother Ben:
“DAD!” he was screaming. “DAD, WILSON IS DEAD!”
The next thing I remember is coming to in the front seat of my father’s Buick; he was holding a bloody towel to my face. I reached up and took it from him, noticed he was driving.
Or flying, as the case may be … I may not have gone that fast in a car since. He was weaving in and out of traffic and running stop signs on El Camino Real. This was a guy who’d never forgiven the Air Force for making him a ball turret gunner instead of a pilot.
“Dad!” I gasped. “Am I gonna be okay? There’s blood everywhere!”
He glanced over at me. “Always a lot of blood with head wounds, Wilson,” he told me. “And you’ll be okay. You don’t look it, but you’re one tough hombre.”
“Come on. Remember the spinal meningitis?”
“And what about the encephalitis right after it?”
“Either of those could have killed or paralyzed you, son, even left you deaf, dumb or blind afterwards. Next to them … this is nothing!”
“Yeah, a stitch or two and you’ll be as good as new.”
In the meanwhile he’s risking both our lives in a fiery death race to the hospital. God, I loved that man, even as I knew he was bullshitting me about the stitches. I didn’t count them later, but one side of my face had to be cinched to the other and I had two black eyes, a broken nose and a forehead like a melon my first day at Crocker Junior High.
Along with being the tallest and skinniest kid in the school. There was no place to hide so it was a good thing I was doped up on pain pills (instead of speaking to me, my classmates gasped and shrunk back). At lunchtime I was sitting by myself, trying to get a chicken sandwich down without puking, when a long shadow fell over me. I glanced up to see a boy tapping a magazine against his leg. My first thought is that it was a copy of Teen Beat and he was on the cover … that’s how good-looking he was.
“Jesus, kid,” I slurred. “Anyone ever tell you that you look like Ricky Nelson?”
He laughed. Opened the magazine and showed it to me. It was a Movie Monsters rag with a picture of Frankenstein on the front.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Anyone ever tell you that ya’ look like this guy!?”
His name was Tom Canby, and that was the moment he became My Life Long Friend.