“A true friend is someone who thinks you’re a good egg even though he knows you’re slightly cracked.” — Bernard Meltzer
I was put in mind of my friend Elgin this morning when I heard the unmistakable sound of an old Volkswagen Beetle going by. Elgin and I met in 1966, my junior year of high school. He was a massive six-three, a formidable football player, grew up in wealthy family, had his own horse, a new VW Beetle, hunted, drank whiskey, and hung out with other football players and their cheerleader girlfriends.
I was not massive, did not play football, did not have a horse or car, grew up in a middle-class family, and hung out with social outcasts who wanted to be artists or poets or actors or musicians.
Elgin and I attended a high school with two thousand students and were never in the same class. Thus our paths rarely crossed. I had watched Elgin play linebacker and offensive lineman on our championship football team and seen him hanging out with a mob of jocks at lunch, so I knew who he was, but he did not know me until our junior year when I landed the role of Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.
Bye Bye Birdie was inspired by the historical moment when Elvis Presley went into the Army. Conrad is a fictional version of Elvis. The play takes place the week before Conrad enters military service. For a farewell publicity stunt, he and his managers descend upon a small town where Conrad will kiss some lucky high school girl, the event to be televised on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The play is frequently performed by high schools because the chorus can accommodate vast numbers of kids, and the play is largely about teenagers. At our high school in 1966, however, most people considered Drama the domain of girls and homos, as gay males were referred to in those days. I was on the basketball and soccer teams, had a girlfriend, and many people knew I was not a homo, but I was in plays, which made me at least an honorary homo. Because of this endemic homophobia, we had plenty of girls in the chorus, but almost no boys.
However, we had an ambitious choreographer who enlisted a dozen female dancers to give the musical numbers extra pizzazz. As it happened, several of those dancers were also pompom girls and cheerleaders with jock boyfriends. Our ambitious choreographer wanted male dancers who could lift those female dancers—lift them and twirl them and fill out the scenes in which crowds of teenagers cheered for Conrad Birdie.
So she asked those dancers to enlist their jock boyfriends to be the lifters, which meant those jocks would have to be in a play. At first only one football player agreed to venture into homo territory. But eventually ten of the stars of our championship team were in the play, and two of them, Elgin and Eric, were assigned to pick me up and carry me around the stage on their mighty shoulders while dozens of cute girls pretended to be in love with me.
Elgin and Eric were so strong that when they picked me up, all one hundred and fifty pounds of me, I felt both tiny and grateful I was not playing football with the likes of Elgin trying to tackle me. And as it happened, Elgin had a blast being in the play, lifting beautiful girl dancers and tiny actors.
By the time the play was over, Elgin and I were friends, not best friends or even close friends, but friends. Thereafter, he often attended rehearsals of other plays I was in, came to hear me play music, invited me to parties at his house, occasionally gave me rides home when it was raining, and saved me at one party from a huge drunk football player who was about to rearrange my face for gazing too avidly at his girlfriend.
On Grad Night at Mel’s Bowl, Elgin and I were on the same bowling team, came in third, and we all won Parker T-Ball Jotters, after which Elgin got very drunk and told me I was his hero for being brave enough to be in plays despite so many people thinking it meant I was a homo.
Fast forward to the summer after my first year of college. I was hitchhiking to Palo Alto and Elgin stopped for me in his yellow VW Beetle. After gossiping briefly about people from our graduating class, Elgin confided in me that he was considering either fleeing to Canada to avoid going to Vietnam or joining the Army and getting his two years over with so he could get on with his life.
This was in 1968 when American soldiers were dying in large numbers every day in that terrible war. I had a student deferment and would soon get a medical deferment. Elgin had quit college and was smoking lots of pot and experimenting with LSD. His father was pressing him to enlist and several of his friends had been drafted or were enlisting. He said the Army had a new buddy program encouraging pals to enlist together and then…what? Be in the same outfit? Get killed together? I wanted to hook him up with an anti-war Draft counselor I knew, but he said he’d already been to a counselor and it was either exile in Canada or join up.
And then he asked me if I would accompany him to Canada and help him get settled there. He didn’t know anyone else who would help him and he was afraid to go alone. I said I would be glad to help him if that was what he decided to do.
I never heard from him again. Six months later I learned from a mutual friend that Elgin died in Vietnam when he jumped on a live hand grenade to save his buddies. Whether that is how he died or not, I have no doubt Elgin would have done something like that.
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com.)