That song was the first Girl Scout song I learned as a Brownie.
Make new friends but keep the old
One is silver and the other gold.
Under the direction of our leaders, Rose Bennett and Laverne Williams who remained our leaders from Brownies on through Senior Scouts, we sang that song as a round. And I’m humming it today as we fly cross country from Seattle to Florida on our way to the Tampa Bay Festival of Reading where I’ll be doing an event with Janis Ian and hopefully making some new friends and readers among the attendees at the festival
But it’s also a weekend to connect with friends—one who has been a friend for ten plus years now and the other for sixty plus.
Since I’m doing an event with Janis, let’s start there. Janis Ian has long been one of my favorite singers. During a particularly dark time in my life, her music sustained me. I drove from insurance appointment to insurance appointment listening to and singing along with her often heart wrenching lyrics. If I happened to have access to a cassette tape player at the moment and popped one of her cassettes into the machine, I know my head would be tuned up and know exactly which track follows which track. Bright Lights and Promises, Jesse, Come Home, Society’s Child, In the Winter, Would You Like to Learn to Sing?, and of course, at the very top of that list, her iconic At Seventeen.
Age seventeen wasn’t a good time in my life. I came from a large family with pretty humble roots. I was tall, wore glasses, and was smart, a socially unacceptable combination that caused all available boys to avoid me like the plague. When the senior class handed out ballots for the “girl most likely to succeed” at Bisbee High School, you can bet my name wasn’t on it. I was, in a word, an outsider, which is good if you want to be a writer but which is pretty much hell on earth when you’re seventeen and wanting to fit in.
When I heard Janis Ian’s song for the first time, I recognized the story all too well. It was a song written by another outsider, someone just like me. My first thought was that she and I had, as they said on the reservation, walked in the same moccasins. Much later, when I learned that she’s four-ten to my six-one, I realized that the moccasin thing just wasn’t happening. But that song continued to resonate in my heart, and once I started doing book signing presentations, I often closed by performing that song. It turns out a lot of people—both men and women—had a tough time at that vulnerable age, and when I sing that song, I see the nods from people who are all too familiar with that reality. And when I finish singing there’s usually more than one pair of damp eyes in the house.
Then, in 2008, through a series of coincidences—including my singing At Seventeen at a writer’s conference in Boise, Idaho,, Janis Ian and I struck up a friendship—first through e-mail correspondence and later on in person. And that’s what we’ll be celebrating in our presentation at the festival—how two outsider girls from very different backgrounds managed to grow up to live their dreams. Because, as it says in the song: Dreams are all they gave for free, to ugly duckling girls like me. And just like US!!
So that’s the ten plus year friendship. The other friend I’ll be seeing this weekend, after the festival, is Pat McAdams Hall, my friend from fourth grade on. We lived on Yuma Trail in Bisbee. Pat’s family lived on Campbell Avenue, but the geography was such that by taking a short cut through Mrs. Corbett’s yard and crossing Cole Avenue, their back door was less than a block from ours.
There were seven kids in our family and only two in theirs—Pat and her younger brother, Ted. In our two bedroom house, the kids’ bedroom had us stacked in like cord wood. At Pat’s house, she and Ted both had their own individual rooms. We spent hours stretched out on the carpeted floor in her bedroom playing with paper dolls in total privacy. (Believe me, my mother never would have allowed paper dolls at our house!) And that’s one of the wonderful things about truly old friends. They know where all those bodies are buried, and that’s why, last year for my birthday, Pat gave me my very own set of Queen Elizabeth Coronation Paper Dolls—the same set we had played with a lifetime ago.
We both loved reading. She favored the Bobbsey Twins. I was into Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Pat was adept at Jacks; I was not. Together we gave our fifth grade teacher, Miss Stammer, fits, passing notes back and for with a clothes hanger and eating garlic pickles on our way back to school after lunch. I’m sure we reeked. We survived seventh and eighth grade where we were doomed to sit in the auditorium for hours at a time, required to watch every single game of the world series from beginning to end on a black-and-white console television set positioned on the stage. No reading was allowed. We were expected to keep score. I came away with a lifelong dislike of anything baseball, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Pat felt the same way.
In high school, we signed up for a journalism class in our junior year, and while we were seniors, served as co-editors of the school newspaper, the Copper Chronicle. We went on to school and were both the first of our separate families to graduate from college.
While I was out marching around in the hotel hallway, getting my steps, I was thinking about Pat’s father, and since this is Veteran’s Day it’s only right to do so. Growing up, I was scared to death of Mac McAdams. He was a gruff man, who seldom spoke when I was around and almost never smiled. Then, one day, when I was a senior, I happened to walk through the living room while he was talking baby talk to their parakeet. I could never be quite as scared of him again.
It was only years after Mac was gone, when Thelma told us that, during World War II, he was D-Day + 1 and lived through the Battle of the Bulge. I’ll never forget what she said. “The man who went away to war wasn’t the same man who came back home.” Let’s remember that this weekend. He, like literally millions of others, have come back home from those horrors and lived their lives in quiet dignity and honor. And then there are the ones who never came home at all.
In the intervening years and despite living sometimes on separate continents and sometimes on opposite ends of the same one–Washington State and Florida—Pat and I have managed to stay in touch. We’ve seen one another through marriages and divorces; we’ve watched each other’s kids grow up; we’ve helped one another through the losses of both parents and siblings. So yes, we’ve shared a lot. And this Sunday, we’ll be sharing an afternoon.
So I guess that’s the point of this message. If you’re lucky enough to have good friends, remember to treasure them. They’re silver and gold all right, and they pay way more dividends than anything you’ll get from the bank.