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The American Neighborhood - Looking Ahead

IT was Richard calling. And I knew.

His father, John Biffl, when a boy, would appear at the periphery of our old neighborhood. He was from another part of the city. From time to time, in the summer, he would visit his sister on the next block. He was frail. Heh-hehs punctuated his good-humored talking.

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It was a hunting and fishing culture then. Working class. Mostly German and Polish. Football and baseball scrimmages alternated with rod-casting practice. John and I were musicians. And we read books.

The neighborhood was in the East Side hinterlands of industrial Detroit. Railroad sidings, lumberyards, and fenced machinery yards a half mile deep were interspersed among fields with ponds in the spring; rabbits and ring-necked pheasants escaped our archery.

The immediate neighborhood had been the Lambert family's farm back to Civil War days. Great-Grandpa Lambert would sit on the porch and tell us where the well had been, and about the Indians that filed by with deerkills. My father found arrowheads when tilling our garden. Nearby, at Seven Mile and Van Dyke, had been an Indian trading post. After I had moved away the movie house there began showing adult movies. Dad joined the protest demonstration. Quite a change since John's visits, when the theater was used for ecumenical Good Friday observances; a religious urgency would overcome the whole community at this time of year and erupt in Easter services and family dinners.

John and I met up again in our high school, half way between our neighborhoods. The men's chorus. Dance committee. We took chemistry and physics a year early. Solid geometry. He was Yugoslavian. The most beautiful girl on his street was Swedish, a carpenter's daughter. Old-country compulsions ran through our families: John's mother made enough holiday cookies to feed a hundred.

Our friends were black, Bulgarian, Southern; Catholic, Baptist, Jehovah's Witness.

We were all at the periphery of the American neighborhood.

John was elected president of our class.

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Some went into education, interior design, medicine. But most of our graduates, the many with engineering talents, were hired by the auto companies, then the nation's premier industry. John went to Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula to study metallurgy.

I went to John and Sue's wedding in Florida, where John headed a manufacturing company. I last talked to him in Buffalo, where he owned a company.

Sue had put a note in the Christmas card that he wasn't doing well. I called and he told me of the past year's bout with illness, the experimental treatments, the decision to face what came. The plant had to be sold and leased back, to cover a difficult business year. We went through the yearly update on our children's progress. His holdout point was a son's approaching wedding in Denver. The quiet realism, the heh-hehs as we touched on a half century of recollections. But John was looking ahead.

When we were boys, crayfish would build turrets in the mud as the spring ponds receded. Polliwogs shimmered agitatedly in the shallows. We would try to save them: We would scoop them up in cans and deposit them in the deeper ponds and ditches so they would have a better chance to complete their life cycle.

Pizzas from Vesuvio's, a cream ginger ale from Vernor's, at the Belle Isle pool. Double dates, dances, and singles outings of long drives in my '41 Plymouth coupe. Meg and a dozen hearts broken. Football games. Concerts in the auditorium.

American graffiti.

During the 500 years since 1492, have a billion persons found themselves at the periphery of the New World? They have felt the discomfort of outsiders, then the instant recognition, the acceptance of a friend.

John and I shared 10 percent of that half-millennium. We talked for 40 minutes, our 10 percent at full recall.

He was tiring.

"I love you, John," I said to close.

"I love you too, Richard," were his parting words.

Sue told me later that he held on until after the wedding. Workers from the plant stayed with him for the few hours she was away by air.

America. Have I 500 friends so close as this, that what we share continues irrevocable?

The Lenten season had been a hushed time, punctuated by stamp presses and not by gunfire. The sunrise service was followed by breakfast in the church basement, a few blocks from the site of the old Indian trading post.

Friends had their own churches, their own special menus from strange foreign worlds for the obligatory family dinner. This over, we young people would gather in the evening. What joy!

Our generation found each other at the edge of this strangeness. We discovered our own new world. We helped each other through the awkwardnesses of youth. We shared a presence exempt from time, distance, event. Our neighborhoods multiplied, expanded.

Death, history, has no hold on America. Looking back confirms that America's most distinctive quality is becoming.

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