We were friends before the war.
Sitting inside a restaurant this week — a lifetime, miles and dreams removed from where we began — we trade war stories.
Sunlight spills through a window as we turn the pages of memories in our minds. At times, I fight back tears.
It is a bittersweet meeting with my boyhood friend, my homey — Ricky. We hadn’t talked in decades, until a month ago when my telephone rang and the husky caller asked to speak with “John Fountain.”
“This is John,” I answered.
“John, this is Ricky, Ricky Morris from Komensky…”
I was excited and shocked, almost speechless. I was also filled, in one sense, with disbelief and with joy in another. We reminisced about life and times in our old West Side neighborhood on South Komensky Avenue.
Like me, Ricky had lost touch with the boys on the block. Also called North Lawndale or K-Town, back then it was among the nation’s poorest communities.
Except way back when we were poor, life seemed less cruel. And hopelessness and murder were not so abundant.
Ricky told me he has often thought about the boys we grew up playing baseball with, or sharing our penny candy and bubble gum with, or playing alley ball on a spoke-less bicycle rim nailed to a light pole. Boys with whom we figured we someday would grow old.
Except most are MIA now. The war seems to have claimed them.
Whether it was the war that began after the saturation of our community with drugs sometime following the fires that singed our neighborhood in 1968, exploding with news of Dr. King’s assassination. Or the wars between street gangs that in time filled our streets with murderous carnage. Or the subsequent flight of the black middle class that left us — the poorest of the poor — behind as refugees.
When we have gone back looking for survivors, most often Ricky and I have encountered a dead end and the reality that so many boys we once knew succumbed to violence, to drugs and alcohol, or to a consuming brand of poverty as devastating as an atomic bomb.
And yet, somehow, we managed to escape.
Ricky’s desire to reconnect with the lost boys — and a subsequent Internet search — turned me up, he told me. After reconnecting, we texted and became Facebook friends. Then he wrote to say he would be in town soon. We vowed to meet up, having not seen each other in 30 years.
Clean-shaven and wearing a straw fedora and shades, and still slender, Ricky emerged. We shook hands and hugged.
We ordered a large pizza and a salad for two, then filled each other in on the missing years. Ricky is still full of life, still contemplative, still loves martial arts — still Ricky.
He talked of buying a home and his dream car in Oregon, of his career. But mostly he talked about his wife and children, about his desire to live, to fulfill his “purpose.”
The more he talked the more it was as if I was staring at the mirror image of me. The more he talked, a part of me wanted to scream, “Yes! Thank God, we made it!”
But a part of me felt like crying.
As 54-year-old black men, we both realize that the root of our success and survival is not mystical or magical. It is something more practical and yet undeniably pivotal: our decisions.
Still, we mourn for our lost brothers.
Inside the restaurant, Ricky and I talked for hours in a long overdue reunion, as two friends before the war — and always.