Smiley The Terrible

One friend.  Just one.  Sometimes that’s all we need.  Just one, in a lifetime of people that pass through.

In 1981, I moved from Roanoke, VA to South Salem, NY.  Entering 6th grade, I was scared and nervous.  I was an okay student, but I had some minor disabilities in the form of attention deficit with a touch of hyperactivity.  When we moved that May, our new house wasn’t finished yet, but we sold the prior house so we had to rent a home for about three months.  For a month and a half, I went to an elementary school in Chappaqua, NY.  For about three weeks in July, we moved in with my Aunt and Uncle in Brookfield, CT, on the shores of Candlewood Lake.  Finally, in the beginning of August we moved to our new home in a small residential neighborhood in the bottom southwest corner of NY state.  If you walked through the woods about 1/2 a mile, you would be in Connecticut.

Within days of moving in, I met the Eds.  Two boys, my age and in the same grade, both named Ed.  All three of us had a love of comic books, so the first day we met, we were trading comics left and right.  Both of them played soccer, but I wasn’t interested in the game having done horrible a year prior.

I had a very difficult time making friends at my new school.  I had a southern accent, and it quickly became apparent I was a little different.  As well, I stupidly asked a question in 6th grade math when talking about rocks.  “Are rocks alive?” branded me for a few months as the village idiot.  And a month into school, when we could run for town positions, I decided to run for town clerk.  I had to give a speech at an assembly, and after uttering the words “My name is Kevin Ohlandt, and I’m running for town clerk”, most of the school was heard repeating these words when I would walk by.  My reaction was fierce!  I started talking back to those who taunted and teased me, and threats of “kicking my ass” soon followed.  It became a vicious cycle of taunt & tease, react, threats, and then me backing down and often crying or running away from the situation.

The two Eds though, they never joined the crowd.  After school, I would often hang out with them, usually exploring the vast amount of woods behind our houses.  Sometimes a bunch of neighborhood kids would play football or baseball, or in the summer, very large games of Flashlight Tag at night.  We would ride our bikes, go to new houses being built, or throw rocks on a frozen pond in the winter.  Eddie and I would walk to the bus stop almost every day.

As sixth grade led to junior high school, things got progressively worse for me.  Instead of battling one school, it was now four rolled into one.  More enemies.  Fights happened, usually with my “ass getting kicked”, but I still reacted without thinking.  Before too long, I was the one starting things.  But through it all, every day, I would sit at lunch eating with the two Eds and some other kids.  After school, more of the same.

During 7th and 8th grade, with my obnoxious big mouth and instigating tactics, I was often told to sit at the front of the bus.  Usually one of the Eds would sit with me.  He was called Eddie by most.  Eddie was the tallest of the three of us.  He was a gentle soul, always smiling.  He could be quiet and reserved at times, but for the most part we would talk and joke around.  I nicknamed him Smiley the Terrible.  I can’t for the life of me remember the context of the nickname, but terrible is the last adjective I would ever use to think of Eddie.

In 9th grade, still in Junior High School in our district, Eddie would share stories he wrote.  For a 14-15 year old, he wrote some very intelligent, well thought-out stories.  It was better than a lot of the stuff I had to read at school!  His imagination knew no bounds, even getting into some physics stuff before our time.

Things started to change when we entered high school.  Our interests changed.  The two Eds were heavily involved in soccer or other sports, and our four years of shared CCD classes ended after we were all confirmed.  I was still into comic books, even working at a comic book store over the border in Connecticut on Saturdays.  As friends tend to do at different points in our lives, we drifted apart.  I was very involved in youth groups and church activities, but that was in Connecticut.  We still talked, all three of us, but the conversations were more about what was going on or what girls we liked.

When I was in 11th grade, in 1987, I participated in a large church retreat called Emmaus.  For first-time participants, we were called candidates.  Emmaus was essentially an unconditional love fest retreat from Friday evening to Sunday evening.  Prior attendees, both teenagers and adults, would work the retreat.  As part of Emmaus, parents were encouraged to reach out to their teenager’s friends to write letters  to the candidates.  I received letters from the two Eds.  Eddie wrote the following:

Many people used to ask me why I was your friend.  “Why not?” was my usual response.  Perhaps they understood, perhaps they didn’t.

Eddie went on to write about some other things, but he concluded with this:

I’m glad you are my friend just because you are.

I received many letters from friends and family that weekend, but this was one of the ones that touched me the most.  No matter what, even if I embarrassed him with my actions, Eddie was committed to being my friend.  I had other friends, but it’s rare to have a friend that goes back years as a kid with disabilities.

Towards the end of our Senior year, Eddie and I talked a bit more.  Perhaps it was nostalgia creeping in as we prepared to embark on the next chapter of our sheltered lives, or maybe we found common ground.  Whatever it was, it culminated at a party at my house a month after graduation.  My parents were away, and my two older brothers and I had a huge party.  The two Eds came, and I remember the three of us talking in my backyard.  We made a toast to the past and to the future.  To my recollection, it was the last time all three of us were together.

After a year of trying to “find myself”, I moved to Pennsylvania with my parents and attended community college.  The first few years there were very rough for me.  Transition and I have never been good friends.  In the Fall of 1992 I would transfer to Cabrini College in Radnor, PA as a junior.  The summer before, I had the coolest job ever.  I was an editor for a magazine called Comics Values Monthly.  The owner of the comic book store I worked for back in 1985 started this magazine a year later after he closed the shop.  I continued to work for him throughout high school.  In 1991, his magazine was really taking off, and I offered to help.  Once a month, I would go up to Connecticut and New York during weekends and submit freelance work I did for the magazine throughout the month.  I went over to Eddie’s house one night during the summer, and we chatted a bit.  He was attending Washington College in Chestertown, MD.

On October 16th, 1992, a friend was driving me to a party.  A wicked storm came in, thunder and lightning all over the place.  As we were driving, I felt something.  I knew something happened.  My heart felt a sudden emptiness, a vacancy.  I didn’t know what it was, and it scared the hell out of me.  All I knew was that someone, somewhere, that I was once close to died.  I knew it in my conscious mind and I was sad.  By the time we got to the party, I put it out of my mind and had the kind of fun you can only have in college!

The next day, I felt a need to go home.  I was at Cabrini for a month and a half, and it was a whirlwind of studies, partying, working on the school newspaper, and working for the magazine.  I needed a break.  My parents had gone away that weekend, so I had the house to myself.  Early that Sunday morning, I received a phone call.  It was the other Ed’s mother.  I will never forget the words.  “I hate to tell you this, Eddie died Friday night.”

Eddie became involved in theater at Washington College.  While working on lighting for an upcoming play, he was electrocuted.  He died instantly.  The horrible loss I felt that Friday evening, over 100 miles away from Chestertown, MD, was Eddie passing away.  I found out later it was the exact same time of his death.

The next few days were a blur.  The following Wednesday was Eddie’s funeral.  I was unable to attend the wake the night before.  In Pennsylvania, it was raining non-stop.  I left very early, at 5:30am in the morning.  As I drove along the Delaware River on the New Jersey side, I put a tape on of U2’s Unforgettable Fire.  The title track of the album was playing and I felt Eddie’s loss more than I had at any other moment.  After the song finished, I put on a tape by a singer called Michael W. Smith.  He is a Christian singer who had some moderate mainstream success in the early 1990s.  He had just come out with a new album, and one of the songs was called “Friends”.  Another singer released this song years prior, and the first time I heard it was on my Emmaus weekend back in 1987.  As the song played driving up to Eddie’s funeral, I thought of his letter and the words he wrote.

Packing up the dreams God planted, in the fertile soil of you.  Can’t believe the hopes He’s granted, means a chapter in your life is through.  But we’ll keep you close as always.  It won’t even seem you’ve gone.  Cause our hearts, in big and small ways, will keep the love that keeps us strong.  And friends are friends forever, if the Lord’s the Lord of them.  And a friend will not say never, and the welcome will not end.  Though it’s hard to let you go, in the Father’s hands we know, that a lifetime’s not too long to live as friends.”

While the words gave me comfort, I was also angry.  How could God strike someone down in the prime of his youth.  22 years old.  He had a whole lifetime ahead of him.  I regretted losing touch with him over the years.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but he inspired me to write.  He got me to take a journalism class in high school, and his many stories spurred my own creativity.  But somewhere along the way, the focus shifted between us.  When I was in high school, I was very involved in theater, whether it was bit parts in plays, or helping to be stage manager during our high school’s variety shows.  This extended into community college for many years as well.  Even after college, I still got parts at my old community college.  But this evolved into writing.  Eddie went from writing to theater.  He was one of those guys who really didn’t have a hateful bone in his body.

As I was writing this, I decided to Google Eddie and Washington College.  I knew he had been electrocuted while working on lighting.  But I didn’t realize he was working on a particular chandelier in the auditorium as part of his drama thesis.  Something about this gnawed at me.  Being the packrat I am, I tend to keep everything.  When I pulled out Eddie’s old Emmaus letter, I remembered he wrote me a letter when he was at Washington College.  There was something about a light in the letter.  I pulled it out of the dusty bin, and read it…

There’s a neat light in the theater that I was shown my freshman year here, it’s kinda like a night light, but it isn’t.  It’s really peaceful though and if you ever get a chance to get down here, I’ll show you it.

I wish I would have taken him up on his offer.  It’s been 23 years since Eddie died.  Whenever I used to go up to our old town, I would always make it a point to visit him at his grave.  In the year after he passed, sometimes I would spend hours there, talking to him, or just thinking, or praying.  I haven’t been up in that area in a long, long time.  The last time I was there, I was married and had my son for quite a while.  Gone were the days of my youth.  This was before I knew of my son’s disabilities and the battles ahead.  Before a blog even entered my mind.  I was just a dad, struggling with myself during those transition years.

A couple years after I moved to Delaware, I played hookie from work one day.  I went for a long drive, not sure where I was going.  I just went where my car took me.  I found myself in Maryland, in a place called Chestertown.  I drove past an old college, but I didn’t make the connection.  This was where Eddie breathed his last.  Even after I left this town and the beautiful river that went into the Chesapeake Bay, I didn’t know.  It wasn’t until years later when Facebook took off and I reconnected with old friends, that I found out.  Someone said Washington College when talking about Eddie, and my answer about why I found myself at Washington College was answered.  I suppose my subconscious knew.

I think about Eddie from time to time.  If I hear mention of Chestertown or Washington College, his smiling face appears in my mind.  Recently, a friend of mine was telling me about how her daughter goes to Washington College, and I started thinking about Eddie again.  I wanted to write about him, and honor my friend.  My friend who was there for me when so many others weren’t.  When peers were saying why and he didn’t care.  Everyone needs a friend like that.  Everyone needs that one person they can turn to, no matter how bad it is, and just knowing they care makes all the difference.

Sometimes I wonder about how I find the things I do with this blog.  How I find the strength to keep going, to put something up on here every day.  The little things, like looking for an answer to a question, never finding it, but the seeking opens up a door to something else.  I’ve written before about how another person in my life gave me inspiration when I first started this journey.  We have no idea how much the departed can impact us, how they push us in certain directions if we are open to it.  If we listen.  Sometimes, when I write, I go back and read it months later and wonder where I got those words.  I like to think Eddie, and others gone before and since, are guiding me under the watchful eye of God, who I have never given enough credit for the wonderful things in my life: my wife, my son, my friends, my family.  The sunset that stretches across the sky at night on my way home from work.  The moments of absolute stillness when you feel like you are one with the world.  The nights when you are alone with nothing but the stars and you get lost in the vastness of it all.  That’s all God.  Something I need to remember.

It was so long ago, when my friend was in my life.  But he is still here, in my heart and even in my words.  He reminds me that God is still a part of my life, even when I don’t think He is there.  Part of the reason I stand up for children with disabilities is because long ago, Eddie stood up for me.  Eddie may be gone from this world, but he still burns brightly in my mind.  A light that he found, an unforgettable fire.

Flashback: September, 1986.  The three of us go to a movie in New Canaan, CT.  It’s a movie about a group of friends who have a moment in their lives when they have to make a journey to find a dead body.  But like most things in life, it doesn’t go the way they planned.

I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve.  Jesus, does anyone?

I cry every time I see the end of Stand By Me now.  Every single time.  I think of Eddie, and what he meant to me, and still does.  Thank you Stephen King, for writing those words in your original short story called “The Body”, adapted into Stand By Me.  Just seventeen words to encapsulate a time when one person made a difference.