YOUNG OR OLD, LIFE OFFERS NO GUARANTEES.
I was skating on the sideway across the street when a woman stopped me. She was a pretty woman but her face looked serious and, for a few minutes, I was afraid I’d done something wrong.
She asked if I could go to her house and meet Johnny, her little boy. She told me her family had recently moved to Pine Bluff because their tiny community didn’t have any doctors. I couldn’t think of any reason not to meet her son and besides, her house was directly across the street from my house.
Walking beside her, I listen as she talked about Johnny not being able to skate or go to school because he had a crippling disease. The soft-spoken woman seemed tearful when she mentioned Johnny had recently been in the hospital for his second operation. Because her son was new to the neighborhood…he didn’t have friends or anyone to play with. She thanked me for wanting to meet her son.
When we went inside the house, a handsome young boy was sitting in bed, dressed in his pajamas, and playing with a set of metal soldiers. Yes, Johnny was handsome except for the patch he wore on his right eye. He told me he was seven years old which meant he was one year older than me. At first, Johnny seemed shy, but as soon as I began asking questions about “the battle” being fought on the large wooden board in front of him and wondering why “the enemy” soldiers appeared to be winning…. Johnny and I became instant friends. Before I left his house that day, I promised to visit him the next afternoon, after school.
Over quite-a-few weeks, I read stories to Johnny and also shared my new writing skills. Sometimes, I took my small blackboard and chalk to Johnny’s house so I could teach Johnny to read and write…even draw.
That’s when Johnny told me that doctors had removed his right eye because it was “dying.” When he lifted the patch to show me the empty space where his eye had been, I was horrified…and quickly changed the subject.
Johnny’s unnamed disease kept him from enjoying normal activities…like playing outside, going to school, or attending church. After someone gave him a small radio and a complete set of metal soldiers…World War II became his world.
The year was 1944 and World War II was on everyone’s mind. Newspapers wrote of nothing else and WWII updates were all one could listen to on the radio. Just like Johnny, I had a great fascination with WWII so we had plenty to talk about. And, sing about!
Listening to the radio, Johnny and I had learned all the words to such war songs as “Over There” and “From the halls of Montezuma” and “Anchors Away” and so many more. Johnny had a great singing voice so we spent many afternoons playing with his soldiers and singing our favorite wartime songs.
The afternoon I learned that Johnny was going back in the hospital for yet another operation….I was worried. His mother wouldn’t tell the reasons for this operation but I’ll always believe she knew Johnny’s young life was at stake. Not fully-understanding tragedy or loss…I spent our last afternoon together….challenging Johnny to a singing match. Song after song, each of us sang one of our favorites. The rule was: the first one to forget the lyrics…lost the match. I chose to sing “When Johnny comes marching home again…” and was doing a great job until I forget one of the lines of the song….which meant I lost the match! We laughed at my mistake… ate the apple pie his mother had made…then I went home. (Johnny never knew I intentionally “forgot” the lyrics. He was my friend and, facing another operation, needed to feel like “a winner.”)
Four days later, Johnny’s mother knocked on our door. Crying as if her heart had broken, she told me that Johnny had died, that the operation had failed. She handed me a paper bag that contained Johnny’s metal soldiers, gave me an emotional hug, turned, and left our house and our lives.
I’ll never forget her last words. “Johnny won’t be coming home again. He loved you, his only friend, and would want you to have his team of soldiers.”
Some loves are only meant to be with us... a few days, a few weeks, or a few years. But…such memorable loves will occupy a place in our hearts…always.