The good friend….

It came as quite a shock to Zachary. For years, since their carefree fraternity days in a small mid-western college, little or nothing had been spoken between Zach and Travis about politics or even party affiliation.

Even though they had gone their separate ways, both career wise and in actual distance, they had always managed to get together at least once a year, sometimes with family in tow, but more often just a guys’ meet up. They picked a different part of the country each year for these “catch-ups”, as they like to refer to them. It was a time to refresh, to put the stress of work and family on hold and just enjoy whatever issued forth. Like the grudge tennis matches, until time and age inevitably took its toll. And what started as macho runs, eventually morphed into jogs, which in turn morphed into casual walks. Finally, just sightseeing itself was the main event. No matter, they were together again, just like the good old campus days.

At first they reminisced about those times, when responsibility only meant getting to class on time or pulling an “all-nighter’ for an impending exam. They talked about girls they dated, games they played, nights of revelry with fellow frat members and how quickly it all had passed. Then, as the years began to pile up, the talk veered more toward their current lives and real responsibilities. Both Zach and Travis each had two children, a girl and a boy, who were remarkably close in age, with the girls being the oldest.

But there were as many differences as similarities in their lives. Travis went on for a graduate degree and a career in education. Zachary went into the service and then a career in industrial sales. Travis had been much less fortunate in early marriage when his first wife, the mother of his children, ended her own life. Postpartum depression had gained an ugly grip on Elizabeth and refused to relent. This, coupled with some serious past issues with her strident and emotionless father, became too overwhelming for her to bear. One day, she drove two hours into a mountain region and put a hose from the tailpipe into the passenger compartment of the car. It was over all too quickly. Zach had introduced them in college and was as close to Elizabeth as Travis in those early days. It was difficult for Zach to imagine what thoughts must have transpired in her mind in the two hours it took to find that place, knowing all that time she would never see those two lovely children again, or them her.

Travis somehow survived this and became a Rock of Gibraltar for those kids. You know those T-shirts that men wear, saying “World’s Greatest Dad”? Travis literally lived that out. In the interim was another short marriage for Travis ending in an amicable divorce. And then, just like a story book ending, Caroline entered his life. As if picked by a guardian angel, Caroline was the soul-mate sent to soothe Travis’ troubled heart. It’s been that way for many years since.

For his part, Zachary’s life since school had been foreseeable. Always the pragmatic type, he felt an obligation to his country and went immediately from graduation to Naval Officer Candidate School. The resulting culture shock of leaving a fraternity house atmosphere (think “Animal House”) to the boot camp environment of OCS in one weekend was difficult, as one might expect. After that first grueling day, he cried silently in his bunk that night, at times even cursing his mother for giving him birth. But he prevailed, got his commission and served 4 years on active duty before starting his civilian career. Later, as was his bent, he served in church offices, civic groups, and even a two-year stint as PTA President while his kids were young.

As mentioned, during all these life experiences, Zach and Travis still managed to get together on a regular basis. And again, they rarely talked about politics and their allegiances. Until that day, Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. In their next sojourn, just a month and a half after this tragic event, the subject could no longer be ignored. Travis, after hearing Zachary exclaim his pride over how America had reacted to this barbaric act, shot back with his view that he could not abide all the rah, rah, USA rhetoric that was flooding the airways, at least most of them. It came as quite a shock to Zachary. With all the naiveté of a first grader, Zachary had just had his first realization that there was a not-so-small contingent of Americans who had disdain for their country even in its greatest crisis since Pearl Harbor. And here it was, being served to him on a platter of anti-American grandiloquence from none other than his life-long friend. Not one for confrontations, Zachary let the words and the emotions they conjured up simmer, and an enjoyable weekend with the wives went on as planned.

But lightning had struck. Two things jumped out at Zachary as he later processed the encounter. First, his recognition that he had a serious vulnerability. A susceptibility to believe most people thought like him, at least the ones in his intimate circle of family and friends. Later revelations by family members would also confirm the gullibility of this impression. Secondly, he was being forced to examine his own beliefs and whether his own country was somehow complicit in what had happened to it. He asked himself; was he little more than a martinet, marching along to a patriotic tune played by a country with a sordid, much less honored, past? Must one need to forgive his country before he could honor it? Personally, he felt like he had done both.

Still, this inner conflict cropped up occasionally in the intervening years since 9/11. Every time Zach tried to resolve it, variations of one doctrine arose: That it’s a world full of risk, fraught with danger and evil of all kinds and in all quarters. That man could govern himself with laws and moral codes and rise above the evil is noble, albeit pretty much counter to human inclinations as a group. Ironically though, those same laws and moral codes, imposed on us collectively, are what preserves one’s individualism. A group of flawed but intellectual men understood that. From this very concept was the United States of America conceived. Subsequent leaders, like the founders, were also flawed. Blacks and Native Americans can all too easily attest to this. But there’s a certain truth to manifest destiny and it can be an irresistible force.

However, among all the angst came a notion that this country was destined for greatness. This was manifested in the volumes of immigrants who crowded our shores to partake in the freedoms and opportunities afforded here. America overcame its initial mistakes and became the beacon of light for oppressed people everywhere. America is far from perfect. But if a person is into finding fault with countries of the world, good luck. The list is long, horrific, and goes back millenniums before we were a glint in eyes of our founding brothers. As for America lending support to other countries of the world who deserve the same chance at freedom from tyranny, well, guilty as charged.

Zachary and Travis continue to have their annual catch-ups. They still have a good time and reminisce constantly. Predictably, much of the banter nowadays revolves around physical ailments and used-to-be’s, but it’s still fun. However, at least for Zachary, there exists a sad philosophical distance between them that was never there before. But that’s good too. For Zach also realizes that differences are every bit as important as agreements, and he’d much rather have a friend than a clone.