Today I happened to think of my childhood friend John. John was a free spirit, reckless, fearless, wild, the exact opposite of what I've always been. His youthful vandalism, which occasionally bordered on the criminal, always kept us laughing: shoving a tree-sized branch down a neighbor's chimney, flinging bluegill over his backyard fence at cars passing on the highway, blowing up footbridges with improvised gasoline grenades. He was the kind of guy who could mis-grab a hot line drive in a game of Chicago softball (no gloves), have it shatter his thumb, and coolly reply "Damn, I broke my thumb," as if he was commenting on the weather. He played on the rugby team at Wisconsin, which fit him perfectly: ceaseless, manic, bone-threatening action, with no concern whatsoever for the lack of both padding and scholarships.
The last time I saw him was shortly after we graduated from college. He had just taken a job with a civil engineering firm, dredging harbors. His job would take him place to place: Chesapeake Bay to San Juan to Puget Sound, working three weeks at a stretch with one week off, which he spent at his adopted hometown of Steamboat Springs, skiing, undoubtedly flinging himself down the side of the mountain at breakneck speed, thirsting for adrenaline with no thought of his personal safety. During his interview he said that what the company needed was "a gypsy, someone who lived out of a backpack," and that he was the man for the job. Standing at the bar in a dive in our hometown, he had just finished regaling us with stories of firefighting in Yellowstone with the National Park Service.
The reason I thought of John this morning was that the conductor on my train vaguely resembled John, albeit a balding, paunchy, 50-year-old version of him, and I was sobered at the thought. I know we all have to grow up, mature, settle down, buy a three-bedroom house with two-car garage, but please, not John. I want to think he's still out there, a vagabond, a ski bum, living on the edge for the pure thrill of it. In my mind he will always be exactly the way he was the last time I saw him, garrulously talking about the Yellowstone forest fires.