If you’ve heard this story before, don’t stop me,
because I’d like to hear it again.
~~ Groucho Marx ~~
My old friend Al Bello was, to say the least, one-of-a-kind and among my oldest friends. We met in 7th grade dishing out our own brand of trouble to our teachers and others. Al was among my small circle of class clowns, birds of a feather.
In our quest for attention, we were especially brutal to our music teacher, Miss Morgan. I’ve come to realize, the attention we sought was our misguided attempt to make up for other things lacking in our lives. No excuses though. In hindsight I regret how we treated her and by the time I wanted to apologize she was gone. She was a fine, gifted woman and her story deserves a place of its own here in this blog.*
Over a period of 45-years Al and I lived our lives separated by time and distance. He stayed in Maryland while I moved west. We managed from time to time to reconnect, only very occasionally, via phone calls. I had spoken to Al several years ago when I learned he was suffering with COPD. He was the same guy, the same sarcasm and still the jokester I remembered from our times together so long ago. Despite all those years of separation and little contact I remember thinking: losing him would be a bitter pill to swallow.
Al’s life had not been an easy or a privileged one. He and his wife Mary deserve a lot of credit. They enjoyed a long marriage, more than 40-years together, and Al kept the same job throughout. To my way of thinking, that says a lot. Al was a good man and I know my mother, in my absence after joining the Air Force, appreciated Mary and Al’s occasional visits. She told me so and mentioned how much she liked them and enjoyed their company.
I could share many stories about our little group of misfits. Here are just two.
Jeff Van Blargan was a mutual friend when growing up. Al lived across the street from the Van Blargan home. We often played touch football during the fall and Jeff could run like a race horse. He was a great athlete and would have been an outstanding wide receiver given the opportunity. I have to add too, boys being boys, Jeff’s copious supply of sisters were a big plus. Everyone of them attractive and me with an eye on one in particular.
The three of us decided one day to visit the nearby campus of the University of Maryland. It was a memorable Friday, May 1st, 1970. I was 17. We found ourselves in the midst of some of the most heated uprisings on the campus protesting President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. Ours was among the more than 450 campuses across the country where students, wanting to prove their relevance, expressed their outrage over war, politics, politicians, etc. We were there (as I suspect many others were), not as political activists… hardly, but just to see the action and to have a good time. What else were a small pack of lone wolves to do on a Friday night?
Now into its 4th day this one had been full of skirmishes between students and authority. Demonstrators vandalized the Administration building and occupied the ROTC offices. Rocks, bricks and bottles were thrown and fires set around the campus. The main artery through College Park was blocked the entire day. It was written, the protests were bigger and probably more raucous than what was going on at Ohio’s Kent State.
I’ll never forget standing at the top of the long, sloping hill near the school’s Memorial Chapel. Down below, across Chapel Field more than 100 yards away, stood National Guardsmen lined shoulder to shoulder facing our direction. There had to be at least a hundred of them, likely more. They were armed and dressed for combat with fatigues, helmets and wooden riot batons. Some had dogs. As the time for a campus curfew approached, the long green line began its march toward us. Their mission was to clear the campus. It was, a sight to behold, an intimidating one to say the least. At about that time we came to realize they meant business, and now… what to do?
Soon they fired tear gas and the three of us took refuge inside a campus building. We watched through glass doors as masked guardsmen with rifles walked through the gas-clouded area. Eerie, even a bit frightening!
After the air had cleared for whatever reason — which today remains a mystery — I decided to leave the security and companionship of my two friends. On my own I was going to hightail it home. We were all rightfully afraid of being arrested, maybe worse. I don’t recall the exact circumstances when we parted ways, but I soon found myself alone, among the enemy in controlled territory,
Wishing I was anywhere but there, I made my way along the trees and twisting paths of the campus to the main road. Then I headed south on the sidewalk along the west side of U.S. Route 1. It was long after the curfew had gone into effect. There were guardsmen and police from numerous jurisdictions. State police, Prince George’s County, campus and other agencies were everywhere! It was like a war zone, with debris and trash littered along my path. I pressed ahead, rarely looking up, keeping my gaze to the ground with a deliberate pace. They obviously me me, I literally brushed shoulders with a few but, for some reason, maybe because I was alone, despite the curfew, they let me pass by. I’m reminded of a scene from the movie that would come out later that year. It’s still a personal favorite, Dustin Hoffman‘s Little Big Man. It’s when the blind Indian Chief “Old Lodge Skins” miraculously escapes notice of the attacking Calvary as he’s led through the melee by Jack Crabb. I was the modern-day Lodge Skins!
Jeff and Al as it turned out weren’t as lucky. News reports indicated about 25 people were arrested that night, 50 were injured. The Washington Post called the protest “the largest and most violent in the university’s history.” I learned the next day, while following my steps a few minutes behind, my friends found themselves in the back of a police van. Three days later, in what would be one of the most enduring events of the anti-war movement, the shootings at Kent State took place. Four dead in Oh-hi-oh. The protest at Maryland would continue for another week.
Truth be known, my friends and I were pretty pathetic in those days. We were young, rudderless, restless boys anxiously growing into men. Eventually some of us became soldiers.
Fast forward into the next year. Using Al’s car we drove Jeff down to Ft Bragg, North Carolina. Jeff had been home on leave. and was now a paratrooper in the Army’s elite 82nd Airborne. I don’t remember fully appreciating his accomplishment in those days, jumping out of airplanes and all. But Jeff and the soldiers of the 82nd, were considered the most highly trained light infantry division in the world. As I’ve often said: We had the world by the tail, and didn’t even know it.
Nor do I remember a lot about that trip to Ft. Bragg but I do recall a little about our return. After dropping Jeff off and saying goodbye I was behind the wheel for the first leg of our five hour drive home. I hadn’t driven more than a few miles when on a lonely two-lane road I was pulled over by the flashing blue light of a police car. It was around midnight when Al and I were escorted unceremoniously before a Fayettville Magistrate. The fine was $24 for the speeding ticket. Quickly comparing notes with Al, I told the judge I didn’t have the money, to which he replied, matter-of-factly, “Okay then, go to jail.” Well to say the least that got our attention! Literally as I was being escorted down the hall to the Gray Bar Hotel, with Al following close behind in a near panic state of mind, we realized we barely had enough money.
We asked for the Magistrate’s pardon, counted out the cash and paid the fine. It left us with scarcely enough for gas. We were literally running on fumes when we arrived home that morning. It would be my first speeding ticket of many that followed. By the end of the year I was in Air Force Basic Training.
In the summer of 2016, after those many years of separation, I finally reunited with Al. With mutual friend Steve Chiddo we spent several hours visiting him at the Washington Adventist Hospital in Tacoma Park, MD. Now burdened with a diagnosis of lung cancer Al still appeared to be in good spirits. Of course, we were all hopeful he’d win the battle, rebound and remain with us for years to come. But… it wasn’t to be. Al died almost a year ago, February 4th 2017.
Among my closest companions from those days, more than 50 years ago, Al is the first to pass away. And with this loss of my old friend, it is but another stark, undeniable reminder of how short life really is and how truly blessed I am to have old friends and old stories yet to tell.
We miss you Al.
Don’t be dismayed at good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes,
is certain for those who are friends.
~~ Richard Bach ~~