Pillow fights and fire fights: A salute to an old friend leaving for war

November 1, 2012 

When I was 13 years old, I lost the most important pillow fight of my life.

I had recently moved to a new town and had one entire friend, “Lefty.” The fourth or fifth time we ever hung out, we grew bored with video games and set our sights on another form of simulated violence. We agreed on parameters — 10 rounds, one pillow per person, no shots to the groin — and squared off.

It was clear within seconds that I was overmatched. Lefty, a physical presence always more the granite to my dough, pinned me in such a way as to leave his arms free to wield both pillows and my head free to absorb their blows. I tried to forfeit. “You win!” “KO!” “I’m throwing in the towel!” “TKO!” “I quit!”

Finally he let up.

“That’s the end of the first round,” Lefty said. He smiled. “Round two. Ding.”

The assault resumed.

He beat the tar out of me, or, if not tar, beat as many things out of a boy as two pillows are capable, including tears, snot and shame. Livid, I did what any kid with one friend would do: I told him I hated him and waited in the corner, hoping he would apologize. He never did.

Later, when my mom picked me up, I left with an unspoken message from Lefty: “I’m not going to let you quit.”

In the 12 or so years of being best friends since then, he hasn’t, nor have I him.

We’ve grown up in tandem, one’s personality complementing the other. He got me to stop worrying so much and drink my first beer already; I nudged him in the direction of “Yes, it would be funny to wear Bagger Vance outfits for the lumberyard golf outing.”

We’ve played sports, seen concerts, gone on trips. We’ve slogged through summer jobs, gotten in trouble, taken our lumps. Through thick, through thin, we’ve had each other: Part in support, part in motivation.

When we finished school, we landed in different cities, both of us having trouble finding work. I took up bartending for a little while, then joined a newspaper; Lefty took a few jobs, then joined the service.

This weekend, my best friend is getting deployed to a high-conflict area in the Middle East. There will be more than just pillows at play. War has been a reality for most of our friendship, but it’s never been a reality. I’ve understood what many people with family overseas have had to go through, but I’ve never understood. Now, I’m starting to. And I’m kind of lost.

There’s fear and worry, as the chance exists that Lefty won’t return, that the back he’s had for all these years could go unguarded. I think about all the things we still need to do — speak at each other’s weddings, give baseball lessons to each other’s kids, gripe about our receding hairlines — and wince that we might not.

But then there’s pride. My friend is one of America’s finest. The guy who was able to break my pinky throwing a football is going to be keeping the country safe. I have tremendous respect for all the service members out there, and I’m proud that the guy I grew up with is one of them.

With all these emotions, I always end up coming back to that pillow fight. The man deploying this weekend wouldn’t let me quit and won’t let his comrades, either. I worry, but when it comes down to it, if there’s somebody out there fighting for America, I want it to be him.

Be safe, Lefty. There’s plenty more rounds left on the card.

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