Old friends are the best friends. The words were mumbled to no one in particular as there was no one else in the room. A few seconds later, he turned from the computer screen, leaning back in his chair. Closing his eyes, he lost himself in remembering the summer of ‘88.
Bruno and Jon had been friends for three years and roommates for the last two and a half. They had gone on many road trips together but Bruno’s decision to join the army would make this one their last before enlistment split the two friends up.
The road trip, like so many before, was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but the destination was an easy choice. From College Park, Maryland, Ocean City was just under a three-hour drive. In August, there were sure to be scores of bikini-clad women, just waiting to be ogled.
Their first stop was a local 7-11 where they purchased a Styrofoam cooler, a case of beer, and a ten-pound bag of ice. As fate would have it, the cooler only held twenty-two of the twenty-four cans of Milwaukee’s Best. Undeterred, the pair rolled out of the parking lot and started the adventure, each with an ice cold brew in their right hand.
It hadn’t been part of the original plan, but the lack of air conditioning in Bruno’s beat-up ‘71 Super Beetle basically forced the two travelers into following each beer with another cold one from the cooler in the back seat. Sufficiently lubricated before they hit the midpoint of their journey, the two friends spent the time reminiscing about all that had occurred between them in the past three years.
“So, what should we name this trip?” Jon asked.
“The End-of-Summer Bummer,” Bruno replied, a hint of melancholy in his voice. The pair were famous for their colorfully-named theme parties. There was “Party O’Brain-Damage,” featuring a potent moonshine from a homemade still, tucked away in a closet in their kitchen. If memory served, that party ended with quite a few of the attendees asleep on the living room floor until the next morning. They also had a “Hitchhiker's Guide to Partying,” complete with an awful mixture of vodka, rum, and tequila—and just enough cherry Kool-Aid to give it color. At 4:00 a.m. during this legendary bash, Bruno and Jon had found themselves fresh out of alcohol, resulting in the inebriated roommates to concoct one last drink with pina colada mix and NyQuil. It was the worst drink either one of them had ever tasted before or since, but neither woke the next morning with a stuffy nose or scratchy throat.
“Nah,” Jon said, vetoing the downer of a nickname. “We’ll call it the-road-trip-to-end-all-road-trips.” The two drank a toast to seal the deal.
By the time they reached their destination, the cooler was almost empty. Fortunately, Jon proposed a solution.
“Let’s walk the boardwalk. We’ll stop and have a beer at every place that sells them.”
“It’s our civic duty,” Bruno replied, as the two started their trek.
It’s a little known fact that the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland runs for almost two and a half miles. It is littered with all sorts of businesses, from souvenir shops to tattoo parlors, including all manner of restaurants and bars. Entering at first street, the two friends immediately turned to their left and started to walk.
“This is the best Saturday ever,” Jon said, looking at the waves and women to his right.
“Don’t you mean fry day,” Bruno replied, causing both of them to break out into laughter at their inside joke. The first time they met, Jon was a buttondown-shirt-wearing assistant manager at the College Park Burger King. Bruno had just been hired. On his first day, Bruno was put in charge of the fry station during the lunch rush, a miserable assignment to say the least.
“Hi everyone,” Bruno good-naturedly shouted as he took his position. “I’m Bruno. I’m your fry guy and every day is fry day.”
The pun caught Jon off guard, and he was the only one who laughed out loud with Bruno, who tended to laugh at his own jokes. From that day, fry day became a rallying cry for the fast friends.
“If it’s fry day then you know what that means,” Jon replied, clearing his throat.
In perfect unison, the two began to sing.
“Oh Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior's birth . . .”
The two friends sang two verses, loud and clear, as they walked, beers in hand. Just like their other traditions, the two would, at the drop of a hat, sing Christmas carols no matter where they were or what time of year. Most times people would look at them sideways, but on more than a few occasions, complete strangers would join in.
Holding the last note as long as they could, Bruno and Jon laughed hysterically as they entered a pizza place on their left. They were both hungry from the trip and the restaurant served beer. It was, after all, their civic duty.
Unable to get cash from the automatic teller due to a citywide outage, Jon used his debit card to buy the pizza and beer.
“Here’s to poison ivy on your balls,” Jon toasted Bruno as he sat down, holding an unusually large slice of hot cheesy pizza.
“Whatever,” Bruno muttered, returning his glass to the toast. He then reluctantly smiled. Just as two best friends do, they had a shorthand to reference a whole story in just a few short words.
The previous Christmas, Bruno and Jon, drinking beer as always, had set out to cut down their own Christmas tree. The two drunk friends didn’t go to a tree farm as that would have been too easy and too expensive. Instead, they took their saw and drove down the road, looking on both sides for the perfect specimen. More than once they stopped to traipse through the woods, only to be disappointed in the selection.
During one of the stops, Bruno needed to empty his bladder to make room for another beer, coming into contact with poison ivy in the process. They eventually ended up with a twenty-foot spruce that had to be cut in half twice to make it into their basement apartment. As an extra added bonus, Bruno ended up with poison ivy where no one should ever get poison ivy.
Pizza consumed and with a mission to complete, the two buddies left the restaurant and continued their journey down the boardwalk.
A few streets later, after passing multiple shops and an ice cream parlor, the pair made their way into the next establishment that served beer. The bar was full of people who seemed to have the same goal of inebriation as Bruno and Jon, but after a short wait, two seats finally opened up on the far left side of the bar. Beers ordered and delivered, Bruno scanned the establishment, but stopped as his eyes fixed on an American flag, proudly displayed on the far wall.
“What do you think?” he asked Jon, pointing to the banner. “Should we take it?”
“Too small,” Jon replied, as he took a sip of beer. Again, they burst out laughing.
At the end of Bruno’s last semester at the University of Maryland, the two had celebrated by getting drunk and going for free food at the Burger King where they worked. As is the case with most drunk young men, bad ideas somehow seem like good ones. The two decided to steal the huge American flag from the car dealership two doors down. The rope holding the flag was wrapped around a flagpole cleat, almost ten feet off the ground. Jon, the lighter of the two, climbed up and stood on Bruno’s shoulders. He began to undo the rope.
Looking down at Bruno, Jon instructed his partner in crime. “If anyone comes by, just act naturally.”
“Okay,” Bruno responded, as if in his state of drunkenness and while committing petty theft Jon’s ridiculous admonition seemed reasonable. The large American flag, which the two never let hit the ground, was still tucked away in a closet in the apartment they would share for only a few more weeks.
Now that the question of taking the bar’s flag was asked and answered, the two turned their attention to any young ladies they might buy a beer.
“Target acquired,” Bruno said, like someone who was about to join the military. “Two bogies at 6 o’clock.”
“Definitely.” Jon said, pretending to straighten his hair. Both drunk friends had the courage of more than a case of beer on their side.
“Is this seat taken?” Jon asked a pretty brunette, as he and Bruno reached her table. Without a word, one of the young ladies grabbed the other young lady's hand and nearly decapitated Bruno in a rush to get away from him, leaving quickly out the front door.
“Their loss,” Bruno said with a chuckle, as the two sat down in the now empty booth to finish their newly acquired beers.
Bruno and Jon left the bar and continued to walk down the wooden street, stopping at every place that sold beer to stay true to their mission. At the end, they turned back and returned where they had initially started their walk.
The last place they stopped at was a place that sold mouth watering fried chicken by the bucket. The establishment was just about to close, so they bought a bucket and their final two beers to go.
Not wanting the night to end, Bruno found a bench, sitting down to finish his beer. Jon, a little more toasted than his friend, took the bucket and decided to sit in the middle of the boardwalk, eating chicken like he was King Henry VIII.
As Bruno watched Jon consume the greasy meat, oblivious to most of what surrounded him, Bruno decided it was the perfect end to a perfect day. The cool evening air joined by the ocean breeze was a welcome respite from the heat of the day. All that was left was to find shelter for the evening. Far too inebriated to chance a drive home, the two friends settled on a local cinderblock motel to sleep off their day.
The next morning, the two woke up just a few minutes shy of check out time. Jon, the first out of bed, grabbed a towel and headed for a shower. With no towel rack to be found, he flung his towel over the light just above the bathroom mirror, took off his glasses, and stepped into the shower. Bruno, out of bed a few moments later, felt the familiar morning urge to use the bathroom, only to find it occupied.
“How long are you going to be in there,” Bruno asked impatiently.
“I just started,” came the annoyed response. Short of time and will power, Bruno barged in.
“Don’t come out until I’m done,” he advised Jon who was safely behind the shower curtain.
“Gross,” came the reply from a man who had no intention of leaving before Bruno was done relieving himself.
Then tragedy hit, three loud knocks were followed by the voice of a woman who had no idea what she was about to walk into.
“Maid service,” she called, pushing her key into the lock.
“NO!” Bruno and Jon shouted in unison. Deadly afraid of the maid finding the two in the bathroom together, Jon reached out of the shower and grabbed his towel. The glass globe that held the towel in place became dislodged, fell to the ground, instantly shattering. In the process, a shard from the glass embedded itself in Bruno’s leg.
At that moment, one man had his pants down while sitting on the toilet with blood streaming down his leg, and another man appeared totally naked with one bare foot stuck in the middle of a floor covered with glass. To add insult to injury, neither man could reach Jon’s glasses, rendering one of them functionally blind.
“We’ll be out in a second! Please come back later,” Bruno implored her. To her credit and their good fortune, the maid honored the request. With the embarrassment now over, the two men used Bruno’s eyes to guide Jon’s feet across the floor to the much needed eyeglasses. In just under five minutes, the two were fully dressed, snuck out of the room, vowing never to return.
The trip home was nothing but retelling of the stories of the day before, laughing at and with each other. For three hours, they both forgot that this would be their last road trip.
Soon after their return from Ocean City, Bruno left for basic training. The two friends lost track of each other for years. The hiatus ended four years later when Bruno, fresh out of the Army, received a call from Jon’s young wife. He listened in disbelief when she told him how Jon, celebrating the first warm day after a long cold winter, had pulled his motorcycle out of the garage. While going the speed limit and wearing a helmet, Jon had hit a pothole and was thrown from the bike, landing directly onto a concrete curb, his back broken and instantly paralyzed.
Bruno and his own new wife rushed to the hospital to comfort Jon who was determined to live his life the best way he knew how. To Bruno’s chagrin, he wanted to find a way to ride a motorcycle again.
There were promises made about more regular visits, promises that were barely kept. Good intentions aside, the two friends lost track of each other again, although Bruno thought often of the friend of his youth.
Years later, armed with access to the internet, Bruno decided it was past time he found his old friend to tell the stories about each other that only old friends can tell. He quickly found that not all stories have a happy ending, as the very first internet search found Jon’s obituary, over three years old.
Turning away from the screen and leaning back in his chair, Bruno did the only thing he could do to honor his work colleague, roommate, drinking buddy, and fellow adventurer. He remembered Jon, the shared days long gone by, the moonshine, the American flag, the bucket of chicken on a boardwalk at night. Unashamed he cried freely over the loss of his friend and his youth.