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Finding Comfort in Friendship

February 22, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

I had my bimonthly lunch last week with my two Navy flying buddies, Po and Joe.

I've written about them before, but by the way of a refresher, Po Harwell was a career Navy man who directed the Navy's flight-testing program, then spent 16 years as a research pilot for Rockwell before retiring a few years ago.

Joe Blizzard took his flying experience into private industry and is now marketing vice president of an Orange County aeronautical supply company for whom he can presumably work as long as he likes, since he had the foresight to earn a place on the board of directors as well.

As might be expected from their stations in life, both men are card-carrying Republicans and frequently chivy me about what they perceive as a lack of balance in this column.

Po, in his Southwestern drawl, told me last week, "I follow your column pretty regularly and don't think I've missed one for a while, and I don't remember you ever taking issue with any of the Democrats who are doing stupid or illegal things."

Oh yeah, I said. Who did you have in mind?

Both of them jumped on that and for starters suggested that I had conspicuously avoided mentioning the recent activities of U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, state Sen. Joseph Montoya and state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp. I told them I'd nicked Cranston several times, that Montoya was getting worked over daily in the news columns, and that I didn't know why I should get on Van de Kamp's case.

They said they'd seen my Cranston nicks and it wasn't enough, that excusing myself with the news coverage of Montoya was a cop-out, and that Van de Kamp deserved opprobrium for blocking some useful mergers for political reasons while setting himself up as a champion of the people. I said I didn't know anything about that, and we went on to other things--like the propriety of attempting a slow roll immediately after take-off or doing a loop to a landing.

But I thought about all this on the way home and remembered it with special warmth for two reasons in particular: first, we weren't limited in our talk to old war stories or semi-lies (I'm speaking only for myself here) about our flying exploits. And second--and most important--I felt a comfort level with these men that put philosophical and political disagreements in perspective and permitted the kind of totally relaxed badinage that can only happen in that comfort zone.

When I was growing up, I used to sit quietly in the dusk on our front porch and listen to World War I veterans--and, yes, very early on, even a couple of Civil War survivors--talk about their experiences. I was never bored, even though I heard the same stories over and over again.

Sitting on the fringes of these conversations and being allowed to listen somehow drew me into this circle of camaraderie, and I found that warming. It wasn't the war that interested me primarily. I was never much into war games when I was a kid, and the only gun I ever owned was a BB gun I got for Christmas when I was 14, discharged once, hit a bird, and never picked up again.

What intrigued me was the obvious bond between these men to whom I was listening. I found that enormously appealing and wondered, even then, if only the shared experience of war could make it possible. I guess I've never answered that question satisfactorily, but I'm inclined to believe that any intensely shared experience would serve the same purpose.

But I also realize now that that isn't enough; there needs to be a much broader base of friendship and interest and affection to make the bond stick. Wartime experiences can be part of the structure, but they can't support it alone.

Many times I've stopped to see people--mostly couples--to whom I was close during World War II. And once we got past the reminiscing, there were great voids in the conversation. But when the chemistry is there, the shared experiences become richer because they don't have to carry the full burden of the friendship. That was brought home to me with considerable impact on my wanderings cross country last summer when I stopped to see a close wartime friend I hadn't seen for 20 years. Our rapport was instantaneous and powerful and didn't need to be primed.

That's the way it is with Po and Joe, and thinking back on our sporadic meetings, I can suggest no satisfaction greater than a conversational comfort zone where the relaxation is total. Where there is no need to perform, to impress, to massage an ego or to be careful about what we say. Where the chance to be misunderstood is minuscule but not lethal if it should happen. Where you can be as outrageous or excessive as you like, knowing that you'll be brought up short if you overstep but that it won't change anything in the relationship.

These may seem to be excessive profundities to grow out of a three-hour lunchtime bull session with a couple of other old geezers, but I don't think so. During one of our sessions, a nearby table of four smartly dressed 35-ish women got caught up in our conversation and finally began listening in the same way I had on my front porch all those years ago. When they left, they came over and told us good-by and thanked us for letting them eavesdrop. And they meant it, and I knew what they felt.

This high-pressure world in which we live allows for very few comfort zones. So thank God for Po and Joe. I hope you have a few of them in your life.

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