I was running late to somewhere I didn't want to go in the first place. The men of the church were having a campout party. I had heard about it plenty of times in the weeks prior but had never planned to go. I was so early in my twenties that I might as well have still been a teenager; I certainly felt like one. The idea of hanging out with adult men—men who worked construction, men who knew how the world worked, men who were the fathers of kids that I taught in my Sunday school class, men on whom I projected my own father's rejection—terrified me. They would too easily discover how much I lacked.
Then one of them called and asked if I was coming. I lied: "Oh, yeah, I'm running late because I lost track of the time. I'll be there soon."
That's how I ended up with my passenger-side light on while trying to read my hastily scrawled MapQuest directions and infuriating any car that approached me from behind. I was relieved when I started seeing signs that said, "Men's Hoot," with helpful arrows. That relief lasted right up until I realized that those signs were leading me quicker to anxiety overload.
As I pulled in, some of the boys in my Sunday school class directed me up a hill to where everyone else had parked. The hill had also become the impromptu hang-out spot for the tweens and younger, as they could play "King of the Hill." In this case, that was less pushing and physical dominance, more taking turns rolling down the hill and running back up to get in line for another go.
If I had my way, I would have stayed up on the hill all night. The Bible teaches that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and I've always felt that deep in my soul. I love spending time with my little brothers and sisters. I left the hill for two primary reasons:
- I knew it would be weird for me to not even go down to where the adults were, seeing as I was ostensibly one of them.
- I was these boys' teacher and, in my own insecurity, assumed that they would feel like I was there to babysit them and resent me for it.
So, I smirked, told the boys not to hurt themselves too bad, and made my way down to the campfire with a pit in my stomach. It didn't last long, though. After about ten minutes, one of the fathers said to me, "Would you go up the hill and make sure everything's going alright? My son would be annoyed with me for checking on him, but he won't care if it's you doing it."
A few minutes earlier, I had been worried about the kids mistaking my presence as parental interference. Now, I was being told that it didn't matter: even if I was there precisely for that reason, they wouldn't care. Because it was me.
I ended up ping-ponging between the hill and the fire all night. I would go up on the hill, watch as the boys eagerly showed me some new way they had figured out to throw themselves down, talk to them for a few minutes, and report back. I was never down at the fire long before a different father asked me to check on his son. Almost all repeated the same sentiment as the first.
It was during one of these clandestine investigations that we noticed red and blue lights growing brighter and brighter. It was especially noticeable because our only other source of light was the distant campfire. A cop car was driving off the road and up the hill towards us. The hair on the back of my neck raised as it dawned on me that I was the only "adult" available where we were. I turned to one of the boys and said, "Go get your dad."
As an illustration of why kids are great, let me explain exactly how he went to get his dad. He took off running towards the fire but stopped as the hill began to slope down. After hesitating for a moment, he threw himself down the hill. Reaching the bottom, he was running as soon as the last tumble planted his feet back on the ground.
Two officers got out of the car, a man and a woman. The boys' excited whispering died down as both approached me. Not wanting to be rude, I forced a smile and asked, "How can we help you?"
The female cop spoke first, with a bit of a smirk, "We got a call about a drunken redneck party with a lot of explosions somewhere out this way. We were looking for it when we started seeing signs for a 'Men's Hoot.' We thought it was best to check that first."
All that I could think to say was, "This is a church party."
The male cop said, "So...not the drunken redneck party?"
One of the boys pretended to be drunk and said, "We're just drinkin' sweet tea and water!"
I tried to shoot him a glance that said, "Not the time!" It probably got lost in the darkness, though.
I can't remember what else we said, but the officers didn't stay much longer. The boy I sent off came back without his father: they had seen the police car start to leave before he had even started towards the hill.
Tumbling down the hill was over. Now all the boys wanted to do was talk about how cool the cop car and service pistols were. I know next to nothing about cars and even less about guns. I stood by and heard little snippets of five different conversations happening around me at once.
"Hey, hey," I said with a loud whisper. I waved my arms for them to gather around. "You guys should watch what you're saying. They may not have believed me that this isn't the party they were looking for. For all we know, they drove a little bit down the rode and snuck back through the bushes. They could be right over there, right now saying, 'Hey, what did that kid say about me?'" I brought my hand up to my mouth as if I was holding a blowgun and made a fwoomp sound. It should have been thwip; I accidentally defaulted to mimicking the sound of a grenade launcher from a bad James Bond game I had played years earlier.
The boys didn't care, though. They laughed a lot more than I thought they would. They then spent a large chunk of the rest of the night lifting their fists up to their mouths and mimicking the incorrect blowgun noise. When I left the party, about five of the boys fired upon me at once. I, of course, pretended to be horribly wounded and told them I hoped I got home safe before the poison took me, which elicited more laughs. I left the party thinking that perhaps I wasn't as colossal of a screw up as I thought.
That Sunday, I set up for my class like any other Sunday. As the kids started to arrive, I shifted to greeting and talking to them. I went to close the door when it was time to start the class. As I reached for the door, this little ginger kid named Noah hopped into the doorway from the hall, his fist up to his mouth. fwoomp
Some of the other boys who had been at the campout decided to "fire," as well. I again pretended to be gravely injured by their darts, slumping against the wall. It was only a couple days after the party, so it made sense for it to still be fresh in their minds. I assumed that would be the last of the blowguns.
The next Sunday, Noah popped up out of nowhere again. fwoomp The next week? fwoomp Every week, the first thing he would do was shoot me with an imaginary blowgun. One Sunday, I wasn't at the front when he came in. He went to the other place I could be: the sound booth in the back of the room. But by pure chance, I wasn't there. And I saw him. I quietly approached him from behind and tapped his shoulder. When he turned, my fist was already up to my mouth. fwoomp
His eyes grew wide and his jaw fell slack. After a moment, he squinted his eyes and said, "So, that's how it's gonna be?" And the game was afoot.
Every week, as I went about setting up for class, greeting and talking to the kids along with whatever else I needed to do, I remained on the lookout for my fellow-ginger assailant. Would he get the drop on me, or would the day be mine? At first, he got me the majority of the time because I would typically be distracted by one responsibility or another. Over time, though, other kids in the class figured out what we were doing and decided to act as lookouts. I would be in the middle of something and suddenly hear, "Michael, Noah's coming!" That evened the odds a bit.
Each iteration of our little game lasted less than a second, but it was an opening, a jumping-off point for different conversations. We would talk a bit before the service, and Noah would almost always hang back after it ended to talk with me until one of his parents came to pull him away.
When FaceTime released for the iPod Touch and iPhone, I could count on Noah calling me (or texting me to call him) at least once a week, sometimes more. When one of us decided to fwoomp the other via video call, we started devising ways to try to bait the other to be visible first in order to get the drop on him. That turned into texting each other pictures of blowguns or other vaguely threatening images:
We also took clandestine screenshots capturing less-than-flattering moments and facial expressions.
Eventually, we started hanging out more and more in person. Most of the time, this meant we were either playing games at his house or entertaining ourselves at nearby stores.
The Thompsons would invite me over for fireworks on Independence Day, dinner on Thanksgiving, or sometimes just because. They were becoming my second family, and I will forever be thankful for how they have always welcomed me. Because of that (and, really, because we're both gingers), it made sense to Noah and I that we would often get mistaken for brothers. At first, we would laugh about it and correct the person. That developed into shrugging and saying, "Yeah, basically." Eventually, we both owned it. We were brothers.
Noah's father, Vince, was one of a few powerful examples of what a good, godly father looks like. When I got engaged, it made sense to ask him to be my best man. They were there for my wedding:
Noah and I have been there for each other through major milestones of our lives. Previous drafts included more stories from our years of friendship and how it developed. Including them still didn't feel like it was doing the story justice. If I've learned anything from trying to type all of it out, it's that you can't really make anyone understand a friendship—especially one that spans more than a decade—when they weren't there for it. You can only give them the rough shape of it.
As time has gone on, we've seen less and less of each other. It happens. But every time we do see each other, it feels like no time has passed since the last. We pick right back up from where we left off.
So when Noah tweeted about getting a tattoo last year, this conversation happened:
We discussed both the blowgun and ginger flower ideas, eliminating the ginger root from the running. We had made plenty of ginger comments and jokes about ourselves throughout the years, but the blowgun went all the way back to the beginning. There are other gingers; the two of us kept the fwoomp...thing going for twelve years. The design was based on a blowgun I brought back for Noah from Iquitos, Peru when he was 12. It's now a permanent mark on both of us.
The tattoo artist (and a few others in the shop) were curious about our odd choice of body art. We told them the story of the cops and what I thought at the time was going to be a throwaway joke. Of a boy that didn't let the joke die. Of a friendship that never will, either.