My son was talking to me the other day about friends, and how they are always there to lend a helping hand. “A true friend is someone who is there for you at a time of need,” he said.
I thought that was pretty insightful for a 10 year-old, and I know he meant something completely different, but it made me think back to the day when one of my oldest friends was there for me at a time when I needed more than a helping hand. I needed a miracle.
If you go to the bottom of the hill on Crescent Street, you'll notice an old house on the right. It used to belong to Ray and Bea Shaeffer, and was the last house on the block. The area between Shaeffer's and Berdan Street was filled with woods, but there was a trail, with a shallow brook alongside of it, that ran all the way through the woods to Berdan Street. About half-way in, it was joined by another trail that led to the clearing behind our house on West Oldis.
I only mention that because taking the trail from the clearing to the bottom of Crescent was the fastest way to get to A&E's deli, located at the top of the hill, and my friend George and I used to go that way all the time to pick up groceries for our mothers, or to get sodas and other treats for ourselves.
George and I met when his family moved into one of the newer houses on West Oldis Street. We were about 7 or 8 years old when we became friends, and before too long, it seemed as though we had a special connection, because we would always come out of our houses at exactly the same time to play with each other,
When they started developing the area between Crescent and Berdan Street, they began by chopping down all of the trees along the trail, and brought in bulldozers, dump trucks, and paving crews. Everything was changing fast. The trail to Berdan Street became a dirt road, and the foundations for the new houses were being dug as quickly as possible. From our perspective, it was all part of growing up. We adapted quickly to the loss of the woods, and started playing in the foundations, and in the framed-out houses themselves. For a while, there was a section of trail along the edge of the woods where some of the trees were still standing, and the clearing was untouched, but beyond that point, whenever we wanted to go to A&E's, we had to cut between the houses and walk up the dirt road to get to Crescent Street.
As the houses were going up, we were being told to stick close to home, because it was too dangerous to play in them, and sometimes I would bring out my toy cars and trucks, and play in the large pile of dirt next to the foundation that was being dug behind our house. The heavy, dark soil was perfect for imaginary roads and tunnels, and one day, I decided to dig a tunnel large enough to crawl into myself. Using my mother's gardening trowel, I dug out enough dirt to get my body about half-way in, when George came by on his way to A&E's. We talked for a few minutes, and then he took off along the old trail to the clearing, and disappeared between the houses.
I went back to digging the tunnel, and decided to make it 'U' shaped, so I could crawl in one end and out the other. I got the full length of my body into the hole, lying on my right side, and started digging to make the turn. All of a sudden, the area of dirt above the entrance collapsed on my legs. I tried lifting them, but the weight of the dirt had me pinned, so I raised my left arm and tried hoisting myself out from the waist up. Another layer of dirt fell and covered my chest. I started to panic. I realized that any movement I made could cause the rest of the tunnel to collapse, leaving me buried alive, but I was too scared to stay in the situation I was in, and made one last effort to get out, using my left arm as leverage. Just as I had feared, the remaining dirt fell on my face, and I was completely covered except for my arm. I had instinctively closed my eyes to keep the dirt out, and tried yelling and waving frantically in the hope that someone would hear me or see me, but my mouth and nostrils were filling with dirt each time I tried, and I had all I could do to breathe.
As George tells it, he was coming back from A&E with the bag of groceries for his mother, and when he had reached the center of the clearing and looked over to where I had been playing, all he saw was my arm sticking out of the dirt. He instantly realized what had happened, dropped the bag, and ran over to pull me out. I got to my feet, grabbed his shoulder for support, and was shaking, laughing, and crying, all at the same time, knowing what would have happened if he hadn't come by at exactly the right moment.
Maybe it was the special connection between us, or maybe just a coincidence, but whether he knew it or not, George was offering me much more than a helping hand that day. He was saving my life.