The Essence of Friendship
By: Don Tassone
The tears in my eyes helped me see more clearly. From the middle of the church, I could make out the white pall draped over the casket, at rest in the center aisle, just before the Communion rail.
It was hard to think of his body in there. I tried not to think of it.
Instead, I thought of a time when we were together more than 50 years earlier, the day I learned what it means to be a friend.
The four of us had climbed out on a flat rock as big as a patio atop the Continental Divide, the highest point in Glacier National Park. A warm, stiff breeze bore the sweet fragrance of Beargrass and fir trees from the valley below. All was silent, save for the wind.
We gazed down at a brilliant blue lake. It was surrounded by a crescent of gray mountains crowned with snow and laced with glaciers that stretched like great, white fingers as far as we could see.
“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” Jimbo said.
“Not even close,” said Wags.
“Good lord,” I said.
“Amen,” said Frazier.
We stood there a minute or two longer, saying nothing more, watching the wind sweep glistening ripples across the lake far below.
Then Jimbo, tall and broad, slipped off his backpack and pulled out four sack lunches.
“Jimbo, you think of everything,” Frazier said. He was short, thin and bespectacled, with a shock of red hair.
“I try, Frazier,” Jimbo said, smiling and handing out the lunches.
The day we met, nearly 15 years earlier, we’d all given each other nicknames, which had stuck. Jim Davis was Jimbo, Bob Wagner was Wags, Bill Frazier was Frazier and I was Andy, short for Anderson.
Wags, Frazier and I sat on the big rock and dug into our lunches. Jimbo was still standing. He was looking down at us and smiling. I knew he was proud to have brought us up there. He had loved Glacier since he was a boy, when his father took his family there on vacations. He called it God’s country. He’d told us about it over beers the day we met, as freshmen in college.
“I’ll take you there one day,” he said.
We finished our lunch and stretched out on the rock, basking in the warm sunshine and feeling on top of the world.
We had seen mountain goats in the distance on the hike up, and now one approached us. It was large, with formidable horns. It lept onto the rock where we were sitting. Its eyes were brown with horizontal, rectangular-shaped pupils. They looked demonic.
Frazier stood up. The animal looked at him but didn’t move. Frazier had eaten his apple down to the core, and he tossed it to the goat.
“Don’t do that,” Jimbo said.
The goat bent down, snatched up the apple core and devoured it in one gulp.
“Oh, Jimbo,” Frazier said. “You worry too much. Look how happy he is.”
Frazier stretched out his hand. Apparently, the goat took it as a sign of aggression because it lowered its head and charged Frazier, goring him in his right thigh with its right horn.
Frazier cried out, his scream piercing the air and echoing in the canyon.
“Holy crap!” Wags shouted.
The goat twisted its head back and forth, trying to break loose, but only managed to dig its horn in deeper. The goat was stout, heavier than Frazier, who was screaming like a man being tortured.
“You son of a bitch!” Jimbo yelled, jumping up and starting toward the goat.
The animal, dwarfed by Jimbo, saw him coming. It backed away and, in the process, pulled its horn free.
Frazier shrieked and waved his arms wildly in the air. He began to fall backward, but Jimbo caught him. The goat let out a loud bleat, turned tail and bounded off.
“Ooohhh,” Frazier moaned loudly.
By now, I was at his side. He was sitting with his legs outstretched, as Jim held him under his arms. Blood was spurting from his thigh. A bright red pool began to form on the grey rock beneath him. I knelt down in it.
“Lay him down on his back, gently,” I told Jimbo.
My years as a surgeon, and an emergency room doctor before that, had steeled my nerves.
Jimbo gently eased Frazier back, cupping the back of his head in his right hand. Frazier moaned. I bent down to get a closer look at his thigh.
“Help me, Andy,” he said, looking up at me like a frightened child. “Help me.”
“I will, Frazier,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
By now, Wags was kneeling on the other side of Frazier. The sight of blood had always made him queasy, and he tried not to look down. He wasn’t sure what to do, how he could help. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from Frazier’s forehead.
I looked closely at Frazier’s leg. The top of his right pant leg was soaked with blood. There was a tear where the goat had gored him. Blood pulsated through the opening in the fabric. I knew I needed to stop the bleeding.
“Frazier, this is going to hurt,” I said. “But I have to put pressure on your leg to stop the bleeding.”
“Okay,” he said, wincing.
I pushed down on his leg with both hands.
“It’s okay, Frazier,” Wags said, rubbing his shoulder and smoothing his hair with his hand, as a father might to comfort his child.
I turned to Jimbo and said, “Do you have a knife?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Oh, Andy,” Frazier moaned.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m just going to cut your pants open. I need to see that wound. I won’t hurt you.”
“Hold his head,” Jimbo said to Wags.
Wags slid his hand under Frazier’s head. Jimbo pulled a pocket knife from his pants pocket, opened it and handed it to me.
I took my hands off Frazier’s leg. My palms were covered with blood. I wiped them on my pants.
With my left hand, I pinched the top of the front of Frazier’s right pant leg and pulled it away from his leg. I pierced the fabric with the point of the knife and cut it down to the edge of the tear. Then I pinched the fabric just below the tear, pulled it out and kept cutting, all the way down, careful to keep the blade away from skin.
I laid the knife down and gently pulled back Frazier’s now bisected pant leg, exposing the wound. Blood was streaming out. I put my hands over the wound and pressed down again.
Once again, Frazier screamed.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” Frazier said through clenched teeth. “Am I going to be okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re going to be okay.”
I had no way of knowing that for sure, but I wasn’t about to add to Frazier’s trauma by revealing my own uncertainty.
I looked up at Wags, who was still holding his hand under Frazier’s head.
“Wags, take your jacket off, ball it up and put it under his head,” I said.
“Okay,” Wags said.
He looked over at Jim.
“Take his head for a minute.”
Jimbo slid his hand under the back of Frazier’s head again. Wags pulled off his jacket and rolled it up. As he was stuffing it under Frazier’s head, I looked up at Jimbo.
“Do you have a first aid kit in that backpack?”
“Yeah,” Jimbo said.
He got up and grabbed his backpack.
“I need a bandage,” I said.
Jimbo reached into his pack, pulled out a metal box and opened it. Inside he found a large roll of gauze. He held it up.
“This?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Unroll it. The three of us are going to wrap it around his leg.”
I took my hands off of Frazier’s thigh and wiped them on my pants.
“Hold the end,” I said to Jimbo.
Jimbo held the end of the roll, as Wags and I took turns wrapping it around Frazier’s thigh. We wrapped it around several times, until the bandage ran out.
“Now I need something bigger to wrap around the bandage — a shirt or a jacket,” I said.
Jimbo pulled off his jacket.
“Okay,” I said. “Lay that out and fold it over on itself. Make it as long as you can and about a foot wide.”
Jimbo and Wags laid the jacket down on the rock and followed my instructions.
“Good,” I said. “Now let’s wrap that around the bandage.”
The three of us did that together.
“Now we need something to snug it up,” I said. “Jimbo, give me your belt.”
I wrapped his belt around Frazier’s leg a couple of times, crisscrossing it, pulling it snug, but not too tight, then tucked the buckle under the belt to fasten it as securely as I could.
“Now, we need to get him to hospital,” I said.
“How are we going to do that?” Wags asked.
“Wags, you’ll run back down to the visitors center and have the ranger call for an ambulance. Jimbo, you and I will carry Frazier down there.”
No one moved. I looked at Wags and said, “Go!”
Wags got up and started running down the trail.
“Jimbo, we’re going to have to figure out a way to carry him.”
“We can’t do that,” Jimbo said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s too awkward for the two of us to carry him, and we might hurt him. I’ll carry him, Andy.”
Jim stood six foot four and weighed 220 pounds. At 33, he was still as strong as a horse, even without the lower half of his right leg, which he’d left in Vietnam. But the two-mile trail back to the parking lot was winding, uneven and steep. I wasn’t sure this was a good idea.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Jimbo said. “Help me lift him.”
Together, Jimbo and I scooped Frazier up until he was securely situated in Jimbo’s arms.
“Are you sure about this, Jimbo?” Frazier moaned.
“Frazier, have I ever let you down?”
“No, and I hope you won’t start now.”
“Grab my backpack,” Jimbo grunted as he started down the trail. I grabbed his pack and scrambled to catch up.
Jimbo moved fast, much faster than I thought he could. Many times, he nearly lost his footing. I stayed close to steady him.
We passed hikers, coming up, along the way. They asked if they could help, but there was nothing they could do.
About halfway down the trail, it changed from gravel to a boardwalk made of thick wooden beams.
“I need to rest,” Jimbo said.
“Let me take him,” I said, dropping the backpack.
Jimbo lowered Frazier into my arms. I laid him down on the boardwalk as gently as I could.
Jimbo plopped down on a step. He put his elbows on his knees, leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. I kneeled down over Frazier to inspect our makeshift bandage. Thankfully, the bleeding had stopped.
Jimbo pulled his canteen out of his pack and brought it over to Frazier. He helped him sit up with one hand and lifted the canteen to his mouth with the other.
When Frazier was finished drinking, Jimbo handed the canteen to me. Once I had taken a drink, Jimbo took the canteen, tilted his head back and took great gulps, water spilling over his cheeks and down his neck.
Then he said, “Let’s go.”
Together, we picked Frazier up and put him back in Jimbo’s arms.
Although the boardwalk was the smoothest surface along the trail, it was the hardest for Jimbo because he had to keep stepping down each descending section, and because he was holding Frazier, he had a hard time seeing his feet. He worried he would lose his balance. So whenever Jimbo came to a step, he stopped, and I grabbed his arm to steady him and help him down.
Finally, the boardwalk came to an end, and the trail became gravel again. At that point, we had less than a quarter of a mile to go. Jimbo was breathing hard and drenched with sweat, but he kept going. As we approached the visitors center, Wags sprinted up the path to meet us.
“An ambulance is on its way,” he said. “It’s coming from Kalispell. It should be here soon.”
“Good job, Wags,” I said.
Jimbo carried Frazier past the visitors center and down the steps to the parking lot. Wags and I were at his sides, but he took the steps slowly and didn’t need our help.
The ambulance still hadn’t arrived. Jimbo stood in the parking lot, holding Frazier.
“You can put him down now,” I said.
“I’ve got him, Andy,” Jimbo said, his eyes fixed on a mountaintop in the near distance.
A few minutes later, the ambulance pulled in. Two paramedics got out and took Frazier from Jimbo. They put him on a stretcher and lifted him into the back of the ambulance.
I told them I was a doctor and asked if I could ride with Frazier. They said yes, and I climbed in.
“We’ll follow you,” Wags called after me.
“Okay,” I said.
As we pulled away, I looked out the back window and saw Jimbo kneeling on the pavement. Wags was standing next to him, with his hand on Jimbo’s head.
In the back of the ambulance, a paramedic unwrapped Frazier’s leg and redressed the wound, which was still oozing blood. Even the slightest touch of his thigh made Frazier grimace and moan.
He grabbed my hand and looked up at me. His face was filled with pain and fear.
“Can you give him some morphine?” I asked the paramedic.
“Yes,” he said.
He gave Frazier a shot, and he began to relax almost immediately.
“You’re going to be okay,” I said.
“Thank you for being with me, Andy,” he said, squeezing my hand again before falling asleep.
It took us an hour and a half to get to the hospital. The emergency room doctor on duty was waiting. I explained I was Frazier’s friend and a surgeon in Chicago and asked if I could join for the surgery.
“Okay,” he said, looking me over.
With a four-day beard, I guess I didn’t look much like a doctor. I’m surprised he didn’t ask to see my license.
A nurse helped prepare Frazier for surgery. I put on a gown and a mask and scrubbed up. The emergency room doctor administered a general anesthesia, and we got to work.
Getting a clear look at Frazier’s wound under the operating room lights, I realized it was fairly extensive. Muscle, veins and arteries were torn. It took the two of us four hours to knit Frazier’s thigh back together.
I was sitting next to him in post-op when he began to come to. He looked over at me.
“Am I okay?” he moaned.
“Yes,” I said. “You’re going to be fine.”
He closed his eyes and smiled. Then he opened his eyes and reached out his hand. I took it.
“Thank you for being with me, Andy.”
“We are now honored to hear from dad’s longtime friend, Doctor John Anderson,” a woman said from the lectern.
I slowly rose to my feet and, leaning on my quad cane, stepped out into the aisle. My hand was shaking. A young man sitting across from me got up and stepped over.
“May I give you a hand?” he said in a loud whisper.
“I’m okay,” I said with a smile. “Thank you.”
I made my way up the aisle. When I got to the casket, I stopped and placed my right hand on the pall. I closed my eyes and stood there for a moment. I thought of Frazier and Jimbo and Wags too. They were all gone now.
I had prepared remarks. They were folded and tucked into the inside pocket of my suit coat.
But then I heard a voice in my mind say, “Speak from your heart.”
I opened my eyes. I carefully took a small step up into the sanctuary and shuffled over to the lectern.
I looked out at all the people, but I could see only Frazier, lying not in his casket but on a stretcher, looking up at me as we bumped and zigzagged our way down through the mountains, squeezing my hand and saying, “Thank you for being with me, Andy.”
I reached out to him with my right hand.
“Thank you for being with me, Frazier,” I began.
Don Tassone is the author of four short story collections and a novel. He lives in Loveland, Ohio.