Goodbye My Friend...
My Friend George McLaughlin
I came late to Cold Spring Harbor. My folks decided to upscale a bit and bought a house further out on the Island with a little more land and bigger house. I wasn’t really sad about the move, I needed a fresh start after ten years in another school system, another boring neighborhood, besides the sand and gravel pit ate the wooded area at the end of our street and the ponds and paths and taste of the country went down the pits into a big pile. Time to move.
When I arrived near the end of August 1964, I was 14, and several kids in the neighborhood sought me out, including a cute little gal named Patty. She introduced me to other kids, and somewhere along the line I met George. He was a tall skinny kid with a lot of personality and he opened his arms and heart to me. Because George liked me, all the other kids in the neighborhood knew I had to be okay. We only spent three years together at Cold Spring Harbor High School, but they were formative years, and the impressions we made on each other were indelible.
George lived up the street from me in the nicer more well-established neighborhood and there were more kids who lived up there, Bruce and Rich and Pam especially. Pam lived across the yard from George and I only recently came to find out that she’d known George since she was four. From my best recollection none of us boys tried to hit on Pam, though she was cute and petite. She was one of the gang. Like a sister, but nicer to us and less complicated. Her mom and dad were nice too, and apparently opened their doors to George and his sister Kathy on a regular basis to what George would later term,” The Yost Kitchen.” Apparently Mrs. Yost was an immaculate housekeeper and her kitchen reflected that. In later years George would remind his brood that he wanted HIS kitchen to look like the “Yost Kitchen.” I’m not sure how successful he was in that endeavor.
It seemed like every weekend we would gather on George’s back porch where his mother held court. Mrs. McLaughlin could have had her own talk show as she was very strong-willed and held strong opinions. I’m not quite sure if we learned what to do…or what NOT to do on that porch, but we all loved and respected her. That’s for sure. Like we had a choice? George’s father had died before I came into the picture and his three older siblings, a girl and two boys were significantly older. Eighteen years older, so they were long gone as well. He was likely a surprise or a mistake as it were, but he wasn’t the first one. His sister Kathy was the first “Oops I’m pregnant. How the hell did that happen? “ And while we all know how “that” happens, having three kids, then an 18-year gap, then two more? That is one for the record books. Mistake or not, George turned out to be the best of the litter. He was funny, he was quick to laugh himself, and he had one of those magnetic personalities. Everybody wanted to be his friend. Even when he was giving you “noogies” or reaching over, putting his hand over your mouth, then pretend like he was laying a major smooch on you for all to see. The thing was…you couldn’t get mad at George. He never did anything out of anger or meanness, he just did all these wild and crazy things that endeared him to you.
I remember fitting 13 kids in his mom’s old 1958 Oldsmobile Delta 88, piled ceiling high in the back seat. Then he floors it on the hump by the movie theater, and came down so hard he bent the drive shaft. We had to push the damn thing back home. It was like a tank. I can remember every night before we would head out, he would crank that big V-8 engine up, pop the hood and open the oil reservoir, then pour in a can of STP Motor Honey to quiet those clacking valves. Quiet right down she did. Later he got a blue 1960 Chevy with “three on the tree” and made the turn to go up Rich Gallagher’s driveway and rode that clutch so hard the smoke just flew out of that transmission case. The whole inside of the car filled with acrid smoke, we could hardly see. We laughed so hard. That was George!
For added fun on those hot summer nights we would ride into Huntington with our bathing suits on late at night. Park down the street, then hop the fence to jump in someone’s swimming pool. The object was to get wet, get cooled off, and be quiet so as not to get caught. You can imagine how long that lasted with George in the pool. The lights would come on and we would haul ass out of there, back over the fence and into the waiting car soaking wet. Laughing all the way.
For spend money we all got jobs at a grocery store coming up out of Huntington. The “Big Apple.” Rich worked the Deli, George and I Produce. He had seniority over me so he got to work upstairs setting the heads of lettuce and carrot bunches in the cases. I was stuck in the basement opening boxes of lettuce, pulling off the brown leaves, wrapping the rest in plastic giving it a twist and into a box to ride up the conveyor belt. The belt had start and stop buttons at both ends, and past the produce section rollers that lead to the outside. Once a week it was our task to load up all the brown leaves and rotten vegetables, put them in a box and send ‘em upstairs. George would roll them out to the outside where a door next to the dumpster waited for the garbage to come out. Funny how we often found six-packs of Imported beer under those leaves. It wouldn’t have been right to throw all that good stuff in the trash, so George saved them in the trunk of his car parked next to the dumpster. Smart move. And so they wouldn’t go to waste we managed to consume every drop.
Now, the produce section was near the back of the store, and the stairs to the main floor all the way across to the front of the store, so it was easier just to call up, hop on the conveyor and ride up when your buddy hit the green START button. You might know that if George was that buddy, he might get you ON the belt, hit the START button all right, but half way to the top hit the STOP button stranding you on the belt. You would also serve as a perfect target for tomatoes and other squishy vegetables he happened to have at the ready. Good old George. What a pal!
There were so many great times with George and the gang, camping out on Gilgo Beach to go surfing the next morning . (That was before some whacko started burying call girls there). Then there was the time we had two carloads of kids heading to Jones Beach on a weekend and decided to line the cars up side by side, and I swear someone, not me, was passed from one car to the other while we were moving on down the line. Hey the Blue Angels do synchronized flying at 180 knots, we were going what…30-35 mph? Piece of cake.
Like a lot of friends back in the day, or maybe NOT like a lot of friends, just a select few, once you made that vital connection, it was for life. Twenty years later you hook up again and it’s like just another weekend, you are right back where you left off. We were visiting George from my home at the time in West Virginia, and we were visiting sites of famous mysteries. The couple in the 1700’s who elope on horseback, the horse rears up, she falls off cracks her noggin on a rock and the blood never…washes…off. We found that rock and it did have two distinct colors. So we drive up one driveway…oops wrong one, but the mailbox had a name on it, “OLMSTEAD.” Which quickly lead to a 30 minute conversation in high pitched, old lady British tones , “I don’t think Mrs. OLMSTEAD happens to be home at the moment, you might want to stop back a wee bit later.” “Sorry to hear that, perhaps MR. OLMSTEAD is available? “ “No, he happens to be out FOX Hunting with the nephews….” And so on, much to the consternation of the two back seat passengers…our wives.
George and I reconnected at our 20th High School Reunion, he in his 1964 Corvette Convertible and me in my 1962 Buick Electra 225 Convertible. We took a grand ride through memory lane including a jaunt over the Lloyd Harbor causeway. We were looking to move OUT of West Virginia and he invited us to spend some time on the “Eastern Shore.” I had no idea where that even was, but we got a grand tour, and ended up getting jobs in Caroline County where we still live. George gets all the credit for finding us our happy home in God’s Country.
Our lives took many weird turns over the years, and the paths we started onto diverged for many reasons beyond our control. We spent less and less time together as children grew up and got involved in sports, and travel plans established priorities with family in far away places. We would reunite at reunions or a chance encounter at the mall, but we never got back to that place in time when we looked to each other for support first and foremost. We grew up in other words. Still, when word came down that George McLaughlin had died…it came as a complete shock. George, no not our George, he was so young and so healthy and active and ALIVE. It broke my heart. Not George, my friend, my pal.
Men are supposed to be so tough, so strong, holding their emotions inside and rarely tell another how they really feel unless they are liquored up and lying on the ground unable to get up, and their buddy comes to their rescue and they say, “I love you man.” And mean it. George and I had one of those moments, and neither of us was even drinking. We were sitting on a pier near his home in Galena, watching the water lap against the boats, and he put his arm around me and said, “I’m so glad to have a friend like you…” And he meant it. And I loved him too, and I will miss him forever.