Barry Saunders

Saunders: Call your friends while you have the chance

His name is first in my cellphone’s list of alphabetized contacts, which means that each time I open my phone to look for a number, his appears first.

“Call Alan,” I told myself time after time after time while looking for somebody else’s number.

Oh, I’ll get to it tomorrow.

Tomorrow will never come. They buried Alan Blackwell less than two weeks ago. He was a friend all through school, a tennis partner, someone I’d meet at the school bus stop and laugh with over that morning’s Jay Thomas Show on Big WAYS radio station. He was also a Little League baseball teammate on a team sponsored by one of the myriad local textile mills – remember that? – whose fastball was way faster than his small size would indicate.

We hadn’t talked in months, hadn’t seen each other in years, but we were still friends. He’d moved away to Charlotte immediately after school, but had recently moved back home to be with his mother. He was teaching tennis to kids in Rockingham and Charlotte, trying to ignite in them the same passion for the sport that he had. The kids, who worshipped him, called him “Coach Alan.”

Because the dude with whom I play tennis twice a week usually kicks my butt twice a week, Coach Alan was going to show me some moves to even the score – as soon as I found the time to get together.

“Just let me know when,” he told me the last time we talked.

I never did find the time. No: I never did make the time, and I’ll always regret it.

The regret isn’t over the fact that I’ll continue getting smoked on the tennis court: It’s over the fact that I treated a lifelong friendship so cavalierly, neglected it when they’re so hard to come by and maintain.

Good Lord! How much effort does it take to press one button on speed-dial and call up somebody and say “What it is?” or “How ya’ doin’, pal?”

Too much, apparently, for me. Don’t let the same thing happen to you.

If there’s a friendship you’re neglecting, nurture it. Call your buddy or buddette just to chat or to say “I value our friendship.”

A true friend, receiving that call, will look at the phone and ask if you’ve gone batty, but will appreciate it anyway.

Two other childhood friends I saw at Alan’s funeral? I hadn’t seen them since the last funeral for a friend. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” one of us said.

Then, as now, we pledged we’d do better about staying in touch.

For real, this time.

“Stand By Me,” which gets my vote as the best ever movie about childhood friendship, ends with these lines about a friend who’d died too soon: “Although I hadn’t seen him in more than 10 years, I know I’ll miss him forever. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.

“Jesus, does anybody?”