I first met Freeman when I was in the 2nd grade at St. Joseph's Sunday school. He lived down by the Meadows where the East Lynn colored people lived, and I lived in the Highlands, so we didn't go to the same elementary school, but just seemed to hit it off on Sunday's at St. Joseph's. When we both went to Eastern Junior High School, in the seventh grade, we joined the St. Joseph's CYO Basketball team and would hang out on wintry afternoons after games or practices down on Green Street and Union Street in Lynn.
Phil and I were not exceptional basketball players, we didn't have the size and basically just held our own. When we were Sophomores at Lynn English High, Phil went out for the cross country team and became a standout. I was thinking of going out for the swim team, but after a couple of gym calisthenic workouts, and watching the cross country team come back in the locker room, I joined the team prior to the beginning of the indoor track season. My mental reasoning was precisely this.... "If Freeman can be this good, then I should be able to do really well, because I'm at least as good as Freeman."
I was wrong.
Freeman was a gifted long distance runner and I was a plodder at the back of the pack. It was incredibly difficult for me to mold my pudgy developing body into the type of shape that it would take to compete, but Freeman was my inspiration. He had a beautiful fluid stride, and a lot of guts.
How could he be this good and me be that bad? !!!
Gradually, throughout that Indoor Track season, I improved until I was the second fastest Sophomore miler on the team... behind Phil.
Then at the beginning of the outdoor season, I pulled a muscle in my hip and was just limping through races. Phil knew that I was not improving and I remember the day when we sat on the bus on the way home from a meet at Peabody High, and he thought he could console me by suggesting that I try to throw the discus or the javelin. I don't think he ever knew how annoyed I was with that comment, and that really motivated me to become the best runner possible.
By the time we were Juniors, Freeman and I were within the top five varsity cross country members of the team, He was number two behind Fred Doyle and I was number four behind Rick Jankowski. We went on to be the Essex County Champions of 1968 and at the end of the year, Phil and I were named Co-Captains of the Lynn English High Track Team for our senior year.
In our senior year, we had begun to be known in local track circles as Freeman and Nestor from Lynn English and we were contenders in Essex County and the Massachusetts State Meets. Any race that I ran with Phil, I was content to be second and at least beat the other guys. The only Cross Country race that I ever won was the time that Phil was home sick from school.... and I took the opportunity to beat the crap out of the Peabody runners who had no idea that I was grabbing what I thought was my one chance to come in first. I did beat him once, when I had a great run at the Essex County Cross Country Championships our senior year, finishing third,.....and Phil came in sixth. It was the only time I ever beat him cleanly. He was genuinely happy for me, and I sensed a feeling of pure friendship from him.
Later that winter, Phil was third in the Division I Two Mile and I came in sixth on the boards in the old Boston Garden... I was happy and proud to see him ahead of me with the leaders, and earn a State Medal.
Freeman was a great dancer at the CYO dances and the girls liked him. Phil told me every sordid detail of his encounters with women and I truly got a good portion of my sex education listening to him. But Phil was a genuinely kind person and I remember how he acted when he told me about the girl in my neighborhood who said that she loved him. He was really moved. We would stand around for hours, leaning against a Mailbox on the street corner, telling each other things that we were feeling. and observing in those formative years.
We would be down at the Meadow Playground playing basketball in the summer and passing pucks back and forth with hockey sticks and no skates when the Meadow would freeze over in the Winter.
I think our friendship was obvious to others, and we never really discussed race issues which were rising in intensity at the time. It was 1967, 68, 69 Sherwin Wheeler, a Black kid who lived across the street from Phil, once got in my face and asked if I would let my sister date Phil... I could sense where he was going ..... "I don't care if she dates Phil... I just don't want her to date you!", was my reply... and Sherwin knew full well that I didn't have a sister.
Outside of that, I don't remember the issue ever coming up. I was bothered and embarrassed when the Lynn English Yearbook had a picture of me at the end of our Senior Year captioned " John Leads the Way". At best it was stupid and naive, and at worse, it was racist. Freeman lead the way, I was a solid second. And I was confused when I came back from my Freshman year at UMASS Amherst, went over to see Phil who was home from Boston College, and asked him if he wanted to go to some nightclub in Boston. Freeman declined, saying it was "Too White Oriented".
I just shrugged it off at the time and didn't give it much thought until I got back to school the next semester when I wrote up the incident in a College Journalism class, and the UMASS Professor told be that my short story should be published. But I never followed up.
After College, Phil got a job in New Jersey and married a beautiful girl, Marva, from Brookline. I remember being at his wedding in Boston, which was incredibly done, and getting really misty for a while as I contemplated how far he seemed to have come from those old days when we would push each other in the St. Joseph's Sunday School lines. He had carved out beautiful life for himself.
We faded away from each other. I last saw him at this father's wake at the Solimine Funeral Home in Lynn in the late 90's. For some reason, I got really emotional, dragged him out into the parking lot and told him that I was always bothered by that yearbook notation and that I felt it was racist. He just shrugged and smiled.
So when I talked to Jeff this afternoon, and he told me how Phil had died with declining health in the last ten years, every detail came rushing back to me. I couldn't speak and just blubbered into the phone with Jeff for awhile. Pretty sad... I would try to Google him from time to time and even Google mapped his house in Englewood, NJ a couple of years ago. I should have called him, but it was enough to know that he was still walking the Earth.
But now he isn't... and I will miss him.