That’s Life: 30 Years After

Bender COLUMN BOXI hadn’t seen him in 30 years. When you’re as tight as our gang was back then, it’s hard to imagine anyone pulling that kind of disappearing act.

But most of us did. There was no slight of hand, false panels or mirrors. It was life—life happened. We drifted away like dandelion tufts in the summer.

It’s a familiar pattern in its unfamiliarity. High school losers become winners, winners live in the past, golden boys tarnish, shrinking violets bloom, and we all get fat. Except Bernie. If he gained an ounce from the time he was a 165-pound All-Lake Region Conference guard, playing for the Frederick Vikings, I couldn’t see it.

After graduation, he was like the wind, like a ghost, like a traveler in another dimension. We both were. I’d hear he was in town for a holiday, a funeral or, like this time, to visit a mother who doesn’t always remember him. Somehow, we always missed each other.

As it turns out, my sister just started working part-time at his mother’s nursing home and she texted me with the news: “Bernie’s back.” My call to his nephew was answered in the shop. Wouldn’t you know, Bernie was standing right there.

“This is Tony Bender,” I said, suddenly feeling strange that I felt it necessary to include my last name. On the other end, he seemed surprised. His voice was a little thinner than I remembered. He still seemed far away. It was probably just the connection. We decided to meet in Frederick later that afternoon.

If you’re lucky, kissed by the stars and blessed by the angels, you’ll find friends—foxhole friends, I call them—who will stand by you through everything. That’s what our gang was like and, even though 40 years have evaporated like a sprinkle in the dessert, that’s the way I feel about them today.

Let me tell you about the chaotic night in 1977, the day after Thanksgiving, when I slammed my ‘67 Pontiac into a railroad embankment at 80 mph, with my friends aboard. I got the worst of it, but when I came to and saw my friends were all alive—bloodied, but alive—I was relieved beyond description and horrified by what I’d done. All I wanted to do was get my friends to the hospital.

If the mangled wreck would have started, Bernie would have driven it away to keep me from getting in trouble. He tried. Obviously impossible. But, to be fair, he’d taken a pretty good knock on the head.

At St. Luke’s, doctors and nurses hovered, stitching me together in the emergency room. I looked pretty rough. Suddenly, Bernie burst through the swinging doors, dragging two men in white uniforms with him. He thought I was dying. Behind him in the hall, Doug Braa was popping wheelies in a wheelchair, bleeding from his lip, being chased by a nurse. Surreal and strangely funny. That was our gang. Comedy at all costs.

A few moments later, the door burst open again. This time, Bernie was dragging more people, with a cop in hot pursuit. “I need to see Tony before he dies!”

Knowing it would take the National Guard to keep him out, I pushed the doctors and nurses away, sat up and, with clamps hanging from my face, teeth missing, mumbled, “Hey, Witt, I’m OK.”

That’s all he needed to hear. He instantly relaxed, his shoulders slumped. “Uh, all right,” he said, and walked out peacefully, still oozing blood from the gash in his forehead.

That should tell you everything you ever need to know about Bernie Witte.

We laughed about that night at my mother’s kitchen table over two beers and three hours of memories. He’d barely changed. Still fit, barrel-chested. A pair of glasses and blond hair turning platinum were the only apparent concessions to age. Me? Too many concessions to list. “You look like your dad,” he said.

We shared lessons learned over the years, confessed to mistakes and regrets the way only best friends can. We talked about the detours, the dead ends and accidents, scars seen and unseen. We talked about our kids. About life.

How can you regret the missed turns and paths less taken? That’s what brought us here.

I’d followed his high school coaching career in Wyoming on the Internet with great satisfaction. I always knew his enthusiasm for life would translate to the classroom and football field.

“Tell me about your best moment in coaching,” I said, as the conversation wound down. I sat back knowing I would hear something special.

There had been undefeated teams, state championships, decades of glory. There was the time, as a matter of principle, he kept his best players off the field for training violations against a juggernaut, a team of unbeaten monsters.

When reporters asked about the holes in the lineup, he said defiantly, “We’re going to talk about the kids that are here.” Wouldn’t you know, his undersized, overmatched, second-stringers hung in there. Danged if they didn’t hang with them.

“But my favorite team is the one that went 0-7,” he said, leaning forward, his voice getting soft. “We weren’t very good.” They got knocked down all right, but they kept getting up.

It could have been demoralizing but, at the end of that bruising season, one of his favorite kids got up and said, “Coach, you taught me more about life in nine weeks than I ever knew before.”

Some guys coach for trophies, some coach for moments like that. Some guys are born teachers. That should tell you everything you ever need to know about Bernie Witte.

I gave him one last bear hug and we both promised it wouldn’t be another 30 years. The goodbye went so fast I’m not sure if I said it, or just imagined that I did.

I hope I told him I’m proud to be his friend.

© Tony Bender, 2016