“Great. I meant what I said about hoping our paths cross while we’re on the road…We have way more in common than we have differences. I look forward to it.” These are the last words I ever expect to hear from someone I’ve known for forty years. They sound so cheerful. They came after he had, without any sense of irony, accused me of sanctimony, dismissed not only the product of my writing but the entire critical thought process that leads to it, completely contradicted himself on a major point of motive, and described how giving he is of his time to disparate people all over the world while taking extraordinary steps to “learn” from all he calls his friends. I had the audacity to take issue with a fact-free meme about the economic impact of the last presidential administration. What an ass, I was. I mean, why couldn’t I just go along with it instead? This is life in the 21st century.
I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to “lose” a friendship over something some idiot put on social media. These things happen every day, and my point here is not to lament or mourn it or to cry out for help. No, there is a case to be made that what I lost here is completely inconsequential. I will never see another Tweet he doesn’t really believe but thought funny. I will never see another demonstrably false feed and wonder what drives this particular person to send it along the information superhighway for other, possibly less discerning eyes. I will never have to wonder many things that will only take up my time and might have—before I took this opportunity to think it through clearly—colored my memories.
Of course, it is my fault. No one ever has to respond to the internet. I don’t have to respond even to the above. I didn’t (until this—but as he also pointed out, no one reads this anyway). I wanted to. I desperately wanted to. I wanted justice. I wanted to point out the hypocrisy and moralizing. But there is no justice to be found in social media squabbles, even with someone one has known for many years. That is because when you are engaging on those media, you are no longer dealing with people as they really are…or at least how they would be were you face to face. It is entirely possible that what you read on the feed is who they really are. That is the exciting and terrifying part of what so draws us to these platforms. It is what brings about the downfall of politicians and the Nazi next door. But that Nazi didn’t seig heil you on the front porch with a cup of coffee in his other hand as a way of saying “good morning” yesterday. If you want to know what people really think, get them drunk…or read their pages. The democratization of information on the web grants the possibility of great knowledge, but it also emboldens a lack of civility and false sense of anonymity I often find astounding.
In elementary school, my friend and I were inseparable. Back before helicopter parents existed, we hiked alone in the foothills of the Rockies. We wandered aimlessly over many of the 18,000 acres of the military base where our fathers had important roles, his father slightly more important in the chain of command than mine. We talked about flying fighter planes. We designed airplanes and dreamed about seeing our creations fly. We built a tramway between two rock spires forty feet above the ground and argued over who would be first to ride it. Then we decided to let GI Joe or the Six Million Dollar Man or Stretch Armstrong be the first—and I think only—passenger of our ingenuity. We built model airplanes. We built dams in a wash by the baseball fields, then let the water dig great canyons downstream after those dams were destroyed in huge battles of imagined heroes and superheroes. We talked about girls’ breasts.
Later, when both of our fathers were on different assignments in the UK, my mother sent me to London to stay with his family during spring break. His father was then an important person in the embassy, and his mother was dragged into all that entailed. His older sister, probably away at boarding school as is the fashion in Britain, had no time for her junior high brother and his friend even if she might have been around. London was our city for a week, unsupervised. We did whatever we liked. We jumped the Tube and busses, most of the time without tickets, to go where we wanted to go. We went to Heathrow to watch the Concorde take off and land. We sailed a model boat in Hyde Park. We saw “For Your Eyes Only,” a title that promised more than it delivered, in the West End cinema where the world premiere had been only weeks before. And we blew up models with fireworks as they zoomed down a zipline we rigged from a third-floor window to the back garden below. As I recall, we might have heard about that one after his mom was counseled by a posh Knightsbridge neighbor lady. I’m certain we talked about girls’ breasts, perhaps even the poshness of the neighbor lady’s breasts.
Then we began to grow up. We went to service academies just as we had planned, though we went to different ones. We flew fighters just as we had planned—the same kind—but we were never assigned together. We were on different career paths. I continued. He went to the Guard or Reserve. I don’t know which, maybe both. We never had a professional relationship as adults. We had rare personal contact. We married. We had kids. We’ve never met each other’s spouses or children. I’ve been married for 27 years. He found God or never lost Him. I don’t know. We didn’t talk about those kinds of things, the kinds of things that really matter in the being of a person. I find no comfort in the concept of the supernatural after years of trying hard to take hold of it. He wouldn’t know any of that. I retired from the military. He did too eventually. He’s a deep conservative. Maybe. Those memes and that social media platform? Just entertainment. He says he doesn’t talk politics or religion with people he likes, though he enjoys conversations about both. It’s hard to understand. We’re both still professional pilots. So much in common…
Those words from him above are the end of a rebuke. They followed a statement that someone as “multi-dimensional” as I claim to be ought to understand why someone I’ve known for forty years would rather talk about my family than our varying worldviews. It sounds so rational on the surface. Who could argue it? In reality, it ignores almost everything. The truth is we haven’t really known each other for forty years. We knew each other for perhaps five. After that, we have no idea who the other really became. Sure, we could get together and say, “how’s the family?” Those answers, though, are meaningless without the context of what makes us who we are. The experiences that lead him to place God as his number one priority and those that lead me to rank no deity on any list of important things in my life are the bases of an understanding about who we are. My long disentanglement with a party I no longer recognize in ideology or principle and his ability to either remain or have them finally come home to him are part of a story that explains how we approach everything we do in our very different worlds. These things that make up our being are precisely the things that must be understood before we can have any discussion, especially about family. How we relate to the world is how we relate to family. It’s how that family then relates to the world. These things must be understood lest we be doomed to rest on the false comfort of an imagined forty-year history. These are the very things that define whether we have anything of substance in common at all. And so, if one is unwilling to confront those parts of us in honest conversation, the best we can ever hope for is to have meaningless banter about superficialities. I do that all the time in my current profession as I’m paired for days of travel with someone I’ve never met. I have no intention of doing so as the basis of any kind of real relationship. Our time is too short to engage in such a façade.
The truth is, I didn’t lose a forty-year friendship. Part of what I lost is being confronted, in text and on screens, with the ideations of someone I haven’t known for a very, very long time. That is only a loss if one decides to let it be. The friendship, built on the wanderlust and dreams of youth, that existed during a five-year period will be there for as long as I have faculties to recall it. I will always do so with deep fondness, but it is only a small part of what made me who I am. It’s a shame not to be able to share the rest of it with someone who took part in it, but I cannot control the interests of others. I may wish it otherwise, but I am convinced of the surety of the statement and the futility of attempting to alter it. And so I go on, trying to live a life with meaning—in the way only humans are capable of doing—and trying to fill it with those who want to impact that life in a meaningful way. Our paths may cross sometime on the road, but I cannot look forward to it. Nothing fills me with a greater sense of purposelessness than reminiscing in the absence of any underlying interest or greater context in how I became the man—husband, father, son, and brother—I continue to strive to be. My time—and his—is far more valuable than to waste it only on stories of Stretch Armstrong’s daring or Barrie Ann’s ample bosom. What an empty pursuit that would be.
We have “unfollowed” each other. He doesn’t email, and though my number was on every one of the numerous Christmas letters he received from me over the years, he was “blunt” in his assessment of those letters. I have no reason to believe they survived first contact with any reader in his house. These things do not anger me. There are writers whose work I cannot stomach. Still, I’d give a lot to talk to Falkner and try to understand what made him tick.
Though I’m not angered, this incident has clearly affected me. I’m saddened by the lack of interest in doing the grunt work of sorting our differences. I’m saddened by the state of an internet that once showed such promise for humankind. The promise is still there, but the likelihood of using it to its full capabilities as a place to pursue fact, truth, science, and knowledge in the absence of judgement about race, gender, sexuality, identity, creed, nationality, etc., well, that’s all gone. I’m saddened by the nonchalance with which so many can pass off so much lacking any value for the betterment of our species. I’m saddened by the culture that says the one who points out the inaccuracies is the one deserving of derision. I’m saddened so many believe there is a place for derision where speech and truth are at stake. Mostly I’m saddened that someone I used to know implied he had no interest in really knowing me in the present. That’s a hard one to take; in the end, that is what is lost. It is never the friendship one had that one loses, it is only ever the friendship that might still have been. And while that part feels tragic, there will always be London and those years that were, on balance, far too few.
Farewell, my friend. You were then and therefore, in my memory, always remain so.