I don't think I've ever told you about my friend, Warren. I grew up in the Bronx (as if I expect you all to know exactly where that is), and when I was young I had a friend named Warren Lincoln. He was an only child, and lived with his parents in a tiny apartment near ours. My parents had yanked me out of parochial school by that time, but Warren's family and mine attended the same church on Sunday. Warren was a couple of months older than me, which is a huge amount of time when you're twelve. He was blond and handsome and daring (much more so than I) and worldly and he seemed so much older and of course I idolized him. We became best buds as soon as we met.
We were going to be pilots, Warren and me. He had an unfair advantage: An uncle who owned a plane in Prince Edward Island, Canada where Warren spent two weeks every summer. So even though my dad had been a pilot, once, it was Warren who was getting to fly while I was stuck on the ground. The bastard! I was so jealous.
We used to cut school and trek out to LaGuardia Airport, back when the outside observation decks were open. We just stand and watch the airliners come and go. Then we'd arrogantly roam around the cavernous general aviation hangar as if we owned the place, unchallenged because people incorrectly assumed we were the children of some important customer. I was scared and cautious and fearful of being found out and thrown out, but Warren would readily climb into the cockpit of any of the numerous business jets and wag the ailerons and rudder at me. He was cocky, that boy, I'll give him that.
When LaGuardia was using runway 31 and sending planes out to the northwest, which was, like, all of the time, they'd come right over our Fordham Hill neighborhood. On warm summer days, Warren and I would lie on the grass in a nearby park, staring up at the sky and the endless parade of jets and prop-planes, as well as helicopters traversing up and down the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. With his aviation-band portable radio by our ears, we'd listen to the conversations of the pilots as they passed overhead. We quickly got so we could tell a Boeing 727-100 from a dash-200, with much eye-rolling and sarcastic comments from our normal friends who really could not have cared less about this Air Canada DC-9 or that Eastern Airlines Lockheed Electra.
Teenage years can be tough, and they certainly were for Warren. It was with him that I got drunk the first time, on Boone's Farm Apple Wine, which to this day just mentioning it can make me nauseous. And it was with him I smoked my first joint. Neither of these were first times for him. I never really did get into drugs. For one thing I didn't smoke cigarettes and pot is unimaginably harsh, even through a bong. Other drugs, well...the control-freak in me could never embrace the letting-go necessary to really enjoy the high. I did learn to enjoy a bit o' the drink tho! And to be honest with you, all these years later I'm not sure which is worse.
Anyway, back to my teens. Warren got much more into drinking and drugs than I did, and somewhere along the line he lost sight of the prize. We drifted apart in high school, preferring to hang with different crowds. Long story short, he died of a drug/alcohol overdose at age 22, his potential unfulfilled.
I did grow up to be a pilot, eventually flying sightseers in helicopters around New York City. Occasionally, some big-spenders would spring for an extra-long trip that completely circled the island of Manhattan and took me up over the old Bronx neighborhood. I used to look down and think about the two innocent, carefree kids with big dreams lying down there on the grass, enviously watching the planes fly over. No worries and big dreams. It was incredibly sad. And I used to wonder how and why it is that some kids let themselves be so distracted...let their dreams get derailed and let their lives get screwed up by drugs? I'd ask myself other questions too, mostly the unanswerable kind about the meaning of life and stuff that nobody can explain. Was I just lucky and Warren not? Did his parents not pray for him as hard as mind did for me?
Leaving New York this past Monday, the Delta Airlines 757 departed from LaGuardia's runway 31 and climbed out into a clear blue sky over the South Bronx. I looked down and sure enough, again I could see the old neighborhood...the apartment house we lived in adjacent to New York University...the places Warren and I hung out and watch jets such as this one fly over. It doesn't seem like that long ago but indeed forty years have passed. I pondered my own childhood, and at the same time thought about an 18 year-old nephew who is currently going through a similar rough period as Warren. Time marches on; nothing changes. I'm not sure what, if anything, I can do to influence the outcome this time, but I just hope it ends up better than last.