Once upon a time, when we were small, Dennis and I met at the end of our driveways. I will tell you that story. For now though, let me just say that we lived across the street from one another, on a street shaped like the curved part of a capital D. The top of our street met an avenue that led downhill to where it met the bottom of our street. The avenue was a well-traveled throughway to two larger, busier avenues and without sidewalks. Even the monsignor of the local parish was known for his liberal use of the gas pedal in his comings and goings up and down this avenue.
With that, our mothers came to think of us as brothers and each of them as our second mom. Dennis though had two real older brothers—Tommy and Mickey. In 1958, a Japanese film premiered entitled Skinny and Fatty. It was about two boys that become inseparable friends. In the film, Skinny is the leader and mentor. Fatty follows him wherever he goes and does whatever Skinny asks. Mickey christened us Fatty and Skinny because Dennis had a bit of baby fat and he was the leader, bringing me along.
Dennis didn’t like the Fatty label. He struggled to lose that baby fat throughout his schooldays. Nevertheless, he loved his brother Mickey without question. I recall seeing Dennis cry just twice. The second time was the Christmas morning that Mickey had passed away.
The first time though was after basketball tryouts at Austintown middle school. Dennis’s dad had come to pick us up in his blue Honda Civic. Sitting behind Mr. Voytko, I could see Mr Voytko’s eyes in the rearview mirror waiting for Dennis to say something. Dennis put his head back on the rear seat rest beside me, a tear had come from his left eye. Nothing was said; nothing needed to be said.
He loved basketball and wanted to make that team. Anybody that had played Dennis in basketball knew that Dennis was competitive. When Dennis drove the baseline, he did so with his hips and his elbows before arriving to the bucket for a layup or short jumper. Dennis learned it from his big brother Tommy. And Tom had been the center of the “Mighty” Falcons basketball team of 1969.
Mr. Voytko had taken Dennis up and around the Steel Valley to see those games. Dennis drilled into me the Mighty Falcon lineup: Tom Voytko, Ace Fedorovich, Eric Smith, Howie Ames, Lou Papay, and — Dennis always added, Earle Pfund, off the bench. Dennis drilled into me that the 6th man is important. The bench is important. Is it any wonder that Dennis had a strong and not shy opinion about the importance of unions generally and of the UAW in particular?
I could go on and on about how we spent those endless days of childhood, Dennis honing his strategic and mathematical capacities via Risk, chess, and a homegrown baseball simulation game with little more than dice, a pencil, and a pad of paper.
I could go on about Dennis getting my first job and our working together in high school, about Dennis managing our post-schooldays softball team, about college road trips, about Dennis choosing me to be his best man at his wedding with his beloved Debbie, about births and deaths, and about the other stuff of life.
But, there is a time for everything and yet no time at all.
Besides, I promised to tell you something about that day Dennis and I first met. It was a long time ago and when I look over to where we met, which I do most every day, I see Dennis and envision that day. Yet, what I’m about to relate you is, let’s say, directionally true.
One day, when Dennis was around four, I was riding my red tricycle in circles in the driveway near our garage. I saw a bigger boy sitting on his is larger black tricycle at the end of the driveway across the street. He had his arms crossed resting up on his handlebars, his chin resting on his arms. He was smiling, I thought, at me.
I peddled to the end of our driveway, and he, Dennis, continued to smile. I don’t recall what exactly was said or if names were exchanged. But it wasn’t long before Dennis and I were peddling our tricycles up the street, Dennis leading the way, me at his side.
Apparently, he had been thinking this over while watching me ride around in circles. He had been smiling in anticipation of the gift we were about to receive.
As we pedaled up the street, to the top of the stem of the D, so to speak, Dennis, described his vision. He told me why hills went down and how this would be our very own Soap Box Derby on tricycles. I followed his lead.
Dennis – a logician, said that there would be two ways to do this. We could either go as slow as possible. In which case, we would likely not tumble off our tricycles when we got to the bottom. However (Dennis – a statistician), this would increase the likelihood that we would meet a car; or, rather, one would meet us.
Dennis – again, a strategist, didn’t mention that he reckoned that the slower we were going, the more likely that his nana or uncle, who lived about halfway along the avenue, would be able to “clothesline” us off our trikes and drag us back to meet our makers.
No, he thought the better course was to go as fast as possible. It would be more fun and when the avenue flattens out near the bottom, we could use our feet to somehow slow down.
And so we arrived at the top and like a jet that hits its mark on the runway, off we went, Dennis leading the way!
Dennis pedaled as fast as he could for as long as he could until his feet came off the pedals and up toward the air—me and mine close behind.
Everything happened so fast. I recall no cars—good choice, Dennis! In a flash it seemed the avenue flattened, Dennis’s feet went to the pavement, then mine, and we turned, a bit wobbly, back onto our street. Dennis began talking about how we’d do it the next time…
I’m not sure just where our mothers were when we departed. But as we pedaled along the bottom of our street and came around the bend, there they were.
There was just the once.
We proceeded to learn a few things that we needed to know and had perhaps forgotten. We could have been killed. Our big brothers weren’t even allowed out of their yards at our age. And, our yards ended here. And here.
Dennis – leader and negotiator, asked about this part of our street that connected our driveways. Could we cross that when we wanted to play together?
And that, for as long as we were children, was always alright.
Dennis, I love you, my brother. Rest in peace.