My best friend in third grade was a ginger-haired, freckley kid named Rob Fairchild.
Even at nine years old, Rob had a swagger of someone who expected success. He won at every sport he played, and was one of the best golfers for his age in the state. He was a straight-A student who finished his homework each afternoon before getting off the school bus, and whose diorama book report on Charlotte’s Web was something the teachers raved about for years after the fact.
He was a good-looking kid, a kind of a 1970s, bowl-cut version of Ronnie Howard, whom you could easily imagine yelling “Hey Kool-Aid!” in those ads than ran between our after-school cartoons.
The teachers loved Rob. The parents admired him. The girls wanted to do the Hokey Pokey with him at the Skate Inn every Saturday afternoon. The boys liked Rob as much as you could possibly like someone who towered over you in every measurable way.
“Sure,” they’d say, eyes twitching around the schoolyard to see where he might be lurking. “Rob’s pretty cool.”
We didn’t have a term for it back in third grade, but Rob was an Alpha Male. Years later, he applied all that charisma and confidence toward becoming a successful entrepreneur. He patented a bath towel with a Velcro strip that make it easier to wrap around your waist. He called the invention The Belly Hugger. Rob sold millions of Belly Huggers on late-night television and became a minor celebrity in the process. I understand he now has his own island now somewhere near the Caymans.
Rob and I had little in common in third grade. I was a “B” student whose mind wandered into a world of talking cars and space adventures at the first mention of multiplication tables. I played soccer, which in those days was the sport of choice for kids not coordinated enough to throw and catch. I also took piano lessons, which was not real high on the coolness meter back in elementary school.
We were best friends mostly because our dads had management jobs for the same company, and we were the only two kids our age in the still-developing neighborhood between the local golf course and the lake. Nevertheless, Rob and I shared a bond. We used leftover lumber from the home construction sites to build a network of little forts in the woods that surrounded our houses. We stockpiled pine cones to hurl at Rob’s sister on the rare occasions she tried to play with us. We fished, we swam, we rode our bikes and we built rock dams in the creek beds. We often played until sundown and then got yelled at by our moms for tracking red clay into the house. It was a Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn kind of life, and it didn’t seem to matter that Rob could already drive a golf ball 120 yards while I was lucky to get mine past the ladies’ tees.
Things were different between us at school. Rob was aloof and standoff-ish around me. During recess, he was more interested in playing sports than Kick The Can or tag with me and all the motor skill-challenged kids. Then he got mean, heckling me when it was my turn at the plate in kickball, teasing me when a teacher caught me not paying attention in class. Of course, he managed to do all this in a disarming, Opie Taylor sort of way that made the teachers want to do little more than squeeze his freckley little cheeks.
I didn’t get it. Rob and I were best friends back in the neighborhood. We were “blood brothers,” like Bo and Luke Duke. Why would he turn on me in front of the other kids? Many times I wrote the friendship off, certain that Rob Fairchild wanted nothing to do with me, and I with him.
Every afternoon after school, however, my phone would ring. Even before picking up, I knew it was Rob.
“Whatcha doing?” he would ask.
“Nothing,” I’d say, still miffed about the latest schoolyard indignity.
“Come up to the house,” he’d say. “I just found my dad’s Playboy.”
Or something to that effect. I usually went because there wasn’t much else to do but watch a re-run of “Happy Days” or play with my Star Wars figures. And each time I went to Rob’s house, it was good times again: exploring the woods, jumping our bikes off rickety ramps, snagging lumber from a construction site to build our latest fort. Rob and I, to borrow a phrase from America’s most beloved simpleton, were like peas and carrots again.
But the school days were bad, and I tired of my friend’s split personality. The sensible thing would be to ask him to stop being such a jerk. But you just didn’t do that in the Boy World. It was much better, I felt, to conspire against him and plan his eventual demise.
The summer of 1980 was a troubling time. There were hostages in Iran. The oil crisis was looming. Dudley Moore and Burt Reynolds were considered major box-office attractions.
It was also the summer I declared war on Rob Fairchild. It started with a phone call.
“Watcha doing?” Rob asked.
“Come up to the house. I got a new tetherball set.”
A pause. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘no.’”
I took in a deep breath.
“Because,” I said. “I don’t want to.”
He let out a little gasp, as if this were the first time anyone dared defy him. Then he hung up.
Oh, it was on after that. Rob and I recruited foot soldiers from around the neighborhood for the inevitable showdown. I got Marcus McLaughlin, a soon-to-be-second-grader whose chief skill was screaming at an intolerably high pitch. Curt got Aoki, whose family just moved in from Japan and who spoke about three words of English.
Marcus and I struck first, trashing a fort in the woods behind Rob’s house. Then Rob and Aoki ambushed us with a brutal pine cone attack. Then we had a wrestling match near the creek bed, which ended with Rob hurling a large rock at me and Marcus as our moms called us home.
It was a high point in the campaign, to be sure. But to claim total victory, I wanted to beat my enemy at something he held dear. Rob played 18 holes of golf almost every day that summer, usually with boys much older than him. He was becoming something of a local legend, and he almost won his age group in a statewide tournament that year. If I was to bring Rob down, it would have to be on the links.
I was under no illusion that I could do that myself, of course. But I had a friend, a ringer, whom I knew Rob despised and couldn’t resist playing. I set up a four-hole tournament between Rob and Jason Payne, with the prize being a packet of orange Titleist balls. My ace-in-the-hole was a little rule that, for every cuss word one of the players uttered during the event, a shot would be added to their score. Rob’s cussing addiction was well-known by then, even by the adults. I was confident he couldn’t play four holes without swearing.
I was right, sort of. He said, “God-dangit,” after teeing off on the third hole, which cost him a stroke and the match. There was a hot argument at the final green over whether or not this qualified as a true cuss word before Rob pinned my friend to the ground, grabbed the tournament prize and ran home.
Furious, I marched over to the Fairchild residence to retrieve my golf balls.
“You know, Rob won the tournament fair and square,” Mrs. Fairchild said when she answered the door.
“Yes ma’am,” I replied.
“He’s upstairs crying right now. He’s very upset.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“I’m giving you your balls back because I don’t want any more trouble between you boys. You used to be such good friends.”
“Yes ma’am. I know.”
I felt bad about the tournament. If I could have articulated it in my soon-to-be fourth grade mind, I would have said the whole thing made me feel petty and foolish. I had taken things too far, and I thought that maybe it was time to make peace with Rob Fairchild. Beside, another school year was looming around the corner, and I soon would be in the same room with him seven hours a day.
A week or so after the tournament, I bumped into Rob at the swimming pool, waiting his turn to go off the high dive. He sat on a concrete bench, making little white marks on the armrest with a spare golf tee.
“That’s pretty neat,” I remarked. “I didn’t know you could draw with a golf tee.”
“That’s because you’re stupid,” he said. Then he climbed the diving board and made the coolest back flip anybody had ever seen.
A few hours later, I was at home, watching an old episode of “F-Troop,” when the phone rang.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Wanna go see a movie?”
I paused before answering. “What’s playing?”
“Herbie Goes Bananas.”
In those pre-cable, pre-Internet, pre-everything days, you didn’t turn down an invitation to a movie, even from your nemesis. It just wasn’t done. Besides, I had always liked ol’ Herbie and had seen multiple advertisements about the new movie on TV. For a night, anyway, Rob and I could be friends.
“Okay,” I said.
Sitting in the front row of a theater watching a movie about the Love Bug breaking up a counterfeiting ring in Mexico might not seem like quality entertainment to you, but to a nine-year-old boy in 1980 it was about the most exotic thing imaginable. Rob and I ate our Sweet Tarts and chewed our Lemonheads, and there was no mention of our three-month war as we took in the talents of Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman. Afterward, Rob and I sneaked into The Blues Brothers and got to watch the scene where the National Guard and about 50,000 Chicago police chase down Jake and Elwood. The car crashes, we both agreed, were top-notch.
“Whatcha doing tomorrow?” Rob asked before his mom dropped me off at my house.
“I dunno,” I said. “Watching TV, I guess.”
“Come over to my place. I got a new Sea Monkeys set.”
I pause for a moment, suspecting that we were falling back into a familiar routine.
“Okay,” I finally said, “that sounds cool.”