Friday, July 27, 2012

The best of friends

Marion and Casey Baker
         Early September 1958, the day before sixth grade at Sunset Acres Elementary School. The tall, slender, brown-haired kid rode his bike into our yard, knocked on the front door and when I answered, announced, "Hey, we're in the same class again!"
          And with that, Casey Baker and I became best friends. We still are, and it's 54 years later.
          He chose me. How good is that?
           The "best friends" takes a qualifier now. Casey has Marion, and I have Bea. Best male friends is more accurate.
            We had been in fifth grade together, my first year at Sunset Acres. We were friends, but it was nothing special. But from that day in 1958 through the decades, the bond has been unbroken.
             We went to the same school, in the same grade, for 12 years -- two at Sunset Acres, three at Oak Terrace, three at Woodlawn, four at Louisiana Tech. We have seen hundreds of games together, checked out stadiums and gyms and schools, whatever, from Shreveport to Irving and Arlington to Kansas City.
             We covered every inch of Sunset Acres on our bikes, expanded the routes down the side of busy Mansfield Road to go see friends in Summer Grove and Southern Hills, then when Casey got his first car -- a dear old '48 Chevy with only two seats -- we covered all that area in Greenwood and Keithville and wherever our curiosity took us.
             I remember Casey's youngest brother, Chuck, as a baby in the crib at their old house on the other side of Sunset Acres. Soon they moved to Despot, a convenient long block away from our house on Amherst.
            Many, many Saturdays -- 7 a.m. or so -- began for me with a tap-tap-tap on my bedroom window. Casey was an early riser, and he was ready to go exploring. And off we went.
             We spent a lot of time at each other houses'. We invented ways to play football -- Casey by flipping pennies, me with cards and with a shoebox filled with folded slips of paper.
          He had some magazines -- uh, yeah -- and one of them was a basketball magazine in which the center spread was a 6-foot-11 phenom, an eighth grader (like us) in New York City named Lew Alcindor who was being touted as the next great player. You might know him now as Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, and he lived up to the billing.
            He touted the new TV shows he had seen, describing them in detail -- The Wild, Wild West and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He charted the Top 40 weekly music chart as the songs came on the radio, and so did I. He created a disc jockey nickname for himself -- Carlton the C -- and gave me one -- Van Albert. He said that should be my penname.
           When Mickey Mantle won Game 3 of the 1964 World Series for the Yankees with a home run on the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth inning, the phone rang before Mantle even got around the bases. Casey wasn't a Yankees fan per se, but he knew how much I loved them and Mantle. He was screaming as loudly as I was.
           We have a lot of shared stories, a lot of code words. If I say "Chalmette" or "Forbing" or "Zarta station, middle of the night in Olathe, Kansas,"  "Uncle Urgly" or "as the sun set slowly in the West, he kissed his horse good-bye," Casey knows exactly what I mean. He can finish the stories.
           Can't recall if Casey was interested in sports in fifth grade. But he credits me with sparking his interest. That might be true, but he's taken it full blast. That sixth grade year, he and I hit each other ground balls and popups (mostly grounders, though) on the Sunset Acres playground. Then began three years we shared on some woeful St. James Episcopal Church-sponsored baseball teams.
A winning combination
for 54 years.
               Casey actually was one of the teams' best players, at second base, then at first. I played mostly right field (that's where they tried to hide the weakest players). Between pitching changes, we would visit and lament how badly things were going ... and how hot it was.
               But in junior high, Casey began playing football (offensive guard/linebacker) and participating in track and field. He could run well and was a good athlete, one of the city's best hurdlers and long jumpers.  I was a manager/statistician.
               Late in a couple of those summers, we would ride our bikes up to Oak Terrace waiting for the day the coaches -- Bruce and Ponder -- would arrive to begin preparations for football practice. We were so happy when they finally showed up, and we were in there helping them unpack the equipment, climbing into that locked loft in the dressing room.
               Then onto Woodlawn, where Casey played offensive line. He started at tackle as a senior on a very good team that finished 10-2, with two close losses. No two kids ever bought into the program more than we did. Maybe some equally, but no one cared more.
                 And it didn't stop when we graduated. We spent the next four years, while at Tech, caring just as much. That state football championship in 1968 was our long-awaited reward. I have no doubt that Casey will tell you that his favorite high school player of all time is Joe Ferguson.
              When an undefeated Woodlawn team played in the playoffs at Bogalusa in 1966, the game wasn't on radio. We were at Tech and I had to call the Shreveport paper to get the score. When I told Casey we had lost 18-14, he stormed out of the sports information office.
                Two years later, Woodlawn played Holy Cross in New Orleans in the playoffs' second round. This game was on radio in Ruston, but Casey bailed out when we quickly fell behind 14-0. He felt much better later; we won 35-14.
               The next week, Casey, Gary Pennington and I -- all seniors at Tech -- drove to New Orleans for Woodlawn's semifinal game at Chalmette. I was driving my dad's car, and we must've been map-challenged because we drove for 45 minutes trying to find our way to Chalmette. No luck. We ended up back in downtown New Orleans, stopped at a filling station -- we were so tired and frustrated -- and I got out to ask for directions.
             The attendant gave me the directions, then added, "You can't miss it."
             I was already laughing when I got back to the car. I barely got out the guy's words, "You can't miss it." Casey and Gary exploded with laughter. We laughed for a good 20 minutes before we got back on the road. It was the longest, loudest laugh of 54 years of friendship.
            Woodlawn's state football title was one great thrill. Three months later, we were in Alexandria as Woodlawn's basketball team played for the state championship. We had been bottom-feeders when we were in school, but under coach Ken Ivy, Woodlawn's teams made great strides in just three years.
            We didn't have a place to stay in Alexandria. Jerry Byrd let us crash in his room the night before the final game.
             When the game ended, and Woodlawn had won, I was the second person to race onto the floor to celebrate. I was a half-step behind Casey.
              In our first year of high school, Casey was our ride to school. It was me, Jere Welborn and Ray Boughton ... with two of us having to stand in the back behind the two-seater. The next summer, things changed.
             Marion Marie Ziobrowski moved into the neighborhood. They met one night, and that was it. I was out as No. 1 friend. She took our place in the car.
               They married in the summer of 1970, when Marion graduated from Tech. Casey, who had majored in business and fraternity at Tech, had begun working for JC Penney at the new mall in Irving, Texas. They lived in Irving for several years, then moved to Alexandria, La., when he was promoted. Then he switched from retail to hospital administration (human resources) and wound up back in Shreveport.
           Which is funny in a way. I thought I'd never leave Shreveport; Casey never thought he'd come back after moving to the Metroplex. Now he's back to stay, and I left for good in 1988, winding up in  Fort Worth.
              But we did overlap for a while in Shreveport-Bossier, with Casey helping out in The Times sports department -- thankfully -- in my one year as sports editor there.
              The Bakers' kids, Brian and Leslie, are about the same age as ours. He and Marion dote on their grandson, Anthony; we adore our three grandkids. The Bakers' house is a frequent stop for us when we're in Shreveport.
                Not everything has gone well for Casey. Like me, he's been told he was no longer needed in a couple of jobs. He went through a depressive period, but decided to go back for more schooling and changed career paths. He's now a counselor, he works hard at it, and he likes it.
               Losing his brother, James Royce "Spanky" Baker (one year younger ), to pancreatic cancer a few years ago was very tough for both of us.
           Marion said this a few years ago, "Casey is one of the smartest people I know," and I agree. I've always felt that way. He is full of opinions, on a variety of subjects (not just sports), but they're studied opinions. For instance, he is much more of a student of baseball statistics than I am.
           He is also more conservative in his views, but even if we don't agree, I listen to him and he listens to me.
              Our joke for years has been that if the NFL, NBA, MLB and NCAA would just listen to us, and let us run things, everything in athletics would go smoothly. We have answers.
             He is a big fan of Shreveport, of Shreveport schools, of North Louisiana. We don't always root for the same teams now. He loves the Texas Rangers -- he did when he lived in Irving -- and he loves Louisiana Tech. I love Tech, too, but I pull more for LSU these days. That confounds Casey, and has for years.
           Not too long ago, we were talking about Tech and LSU, and for one of the few times in all these years, he yelled at me, and basically hung up. He called early the next day, sheepishly apologizing and talking about the long friendship.
            He didn't have to do that. But he's got a big heart -- a heart that has given him problems over the years and left us all worried. He had nothing to prove to me. The kid who rode up on that bicycle in September 1958, the man who turns 65 today, proved himself to me a long, long time ago.
            Everyone should have a best friend like Casey Baker. Marion does. And so do I.


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