Since losing my friend Dale a few weeks ago, I've paged through happy, happy memories, but 32 years of friendship is a long time, especially when it's a singular friend like Dale.
When I was 18 and he 17, I was a senior and he a junior at Roswell High in New Mexico. One fated Saturday morning we were fooling around in a fit of boredom. He jumped on the hood of my car. I sped off. He fell and very nearly died.
That near-death experience bound us together more like family than friends. He wrote a note to me after his long hospital stay, apologizing to me for any suffering he caused me. Yes, he apologized to me for almost killing him.
As if we used up all the sadness and terror at the beginning, the rest of our friendship was consumed by laughter.
When I was 20, we were both restlessly bored in Roswell. What other than boredom would make someone terrified of spiders go see Arachnophobia with me? But he did. There we were at the matinee in the Plains Theater on Main Street, before they converted it to a UFO museum where, years later, Dale and I had our photo taken with an "alien." But on this day, we sat right in the middle of the theater, him with his hat over his face -- the entire movie -- asking me, "What's happening now? What's happening now?" Sometimes I told him the truth. Sometimes I made it worse, "Oh my GOD, they're eating out her eyeballs!!" requiring him to sneak a look to see if I was telling the truth. BWAHAHAHA!!! Boy, those five other people in the theater that afternoon must have really hated us.
When I was 21, it was 1981, when phones were large and plugged into the wall, back before technology took the fun out of prank phone calls. I picked up the big gold handset and dialed his number. He answered, "Hello, may I speak to Tammy Lee?" What? I'm calling you! How did you know it was me? Thus began years of phone-answering guesswork, hoping to catch each other unawares, confounding those on whom we got it wrong but amusing the hell out of the two of us when we got it right. "Hello, can I speak to Dale?" On the other end of the line, I would hear a low rumbling, building into his laugh, a laugh like a rogue comet, dragging me happily in its wake.
When I was 23, I moved to Lubbock, and Dale and I would never live in the same town again. For many years, we sent each other blank postcards, decorated with children's stickers and hideously pun-filled notes with no other goal than to outsmart each other. One week the theme would be fish, one candy, another stars, the kind of silliness that piles layers of texture to life.
When I was 24, he visited me in Ames, Iowa, and was thrilled to find a "stout" population, declaring himself svelte, a veritable movie star by contrast. At an amusement park he noted the irony of the fact nobody was smiling, nobody amused at the amusement park -- but us. To make up the deficit we super-sized our amusement, laughing loudly at nothing, screaming on the roller coaster, even when it wasn't scary, finding that it did nothing to cheer the crowd but instead multiplied our own hilarity.
When I was 32, he visited me in Austin on the same weekend as my mom and sister. He didn't know they would be there, so they hid in the closet to scare him, quite successfully calling forth the signature Dale, quivering oh, oh, oh, oh, oooooohhh, slowly transitioning into a belly-deep laugh, a laugh that was so life-giving, we would do almost anything to trigger it -- and obligingly he didn't require much. During lunch at a restaurant, he got so tickled at my mom and sister for fighting over the bread that he spewed tea, all the way across the table, thoroughly dousing my ex-husband. There was no recovery from that bout of laughter, which infectiously bubbled up through the rest of the meal, running around the table and back again.
When I was 37, he brought his laughter to Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina. At an outdoor Halloween production, we walked through scary scenes, never knowing who or what would jump out at us. Being scared made him laugh the loudest. At dark turns, I kept trying to startle him, and he would start his stuttering, no-o-o-o that turned into giggling, then stomach-aching laughter.
When I was 50, I visited him in Roswell. It was the next to the last time I would see him, and it was clear to me that my old friend was slipping away. He begged me to go to Billy Ray's to hear him sing karaoke, and I went along, a happy, sad night. Happy because we laughed just the same. Sad because I couldn't reach him.
But instead, he reached me with his resonating baritone voice, still pure and bright, singing Love Me Tender, piercing through all our 32 years and on into eternity.
"Hello. Can I please, please, please speak to Dale?"