I have been blessed with a few TRUE friendships in my life. I've had numerous friendly acquaintances, even some dear relatives. However, I can only think of three life-changing, perspective-clarifying friends in nearly 64 years, and Billy Doniel was the first of these.
He and I first met when we were in the same Cub Scout pack, which I think was age 9. My family moved out of state then, and after that, I moved out of my family, so it wasn't until we were 16, in 1969, that we were neighbors and began hanging out together.
Neither of us had a GREAT home situation. Both of us had people that loved us, but he was being raised by his grandparents, who were also tasked with caring for his angelic younger sister who had Down's Syndrome. For my part, I was at war, constantly, with my step-father.
And it was 1969. I had already broken into the drug experience, thus becoming the 'WOW!' guy in the neighborhood, and I dragged others along with me. Drugs weren't easy to get at the time, but alcohol was, and Billy seemed to have infinite resources when it came to procuring beer, wine, and the hard stuff.
That's PART of the reason that his house was the center of activity. Another part was that he lived in the basement of his house, and had it all to himself; his grandparents never went downstairs. The real reason it was the center of activity, though, was because of Billy. He was such an incredibly powerful personality, and anywhere we went, the leadership role always fell to Billy. He ALWAYS had a beautiful girlfriend. He attracted them like a magnet. Some of that probably was just his audacity; he was never the least bit insecure, or afraid, and he had incredible powers of persuasion. He was a heck of a salesman. At one point, he persuaded me to quit my comfortable minimum wage job in the K-mart shoe department, and become a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. It was good experience; if you can do THAT job, you can do anything.
Behold, I will not deceive you: we spent most of our time doing things that would get us into trouble. And any time we would meet up with a couple of girls, Billy ALWAYS, ALWAYS got the cute one, and I got the one with personality.
Billy loved fast cars. He drove a Le Mans, wrecked it; then had another, newer Le Mans, and wrecked that one, too. In 1972, he got a GTO, and took me out on the Interstate to show me how fast it would go. The speedometer had crossed past 120 mph, gone around past zero, and was quivering on '30' when we flashed past the Monroe County Sheriff's Department car. He talked his way out of the ticket; he told the cop he had just bought the car, and that they had told him to take it out on the interstate and 'blow out the pipes.' And the cop told him to slow down. (Umm, this has nothing to do with my post from yesterday. Speeding with no ticket = just coincidence.)
I can't recall the exact sequence now, but mixed in with the life of alcohol, drugs, and fast cars, Billy and I both had a profound encounter with Christ. We had each separately come to a cataclysm in our run to burn the candle at both ends, and each had reached the same conclusion: we were no good at running our lives, and we were much better off letting God do it.
And we each, on our own, decided to return to our old ways for a bit. And things got worse, and while we were both drifting toward the rocks, I made the decision that saved my life, and took me away from my old playgrounds and playmates: I joined the Army. And that was essentially the end of our time together. I think he visited me once in Atlanta, where I moved after the Army was done with me, but I don't know that we had any contact after that. For twenty years.
And then he wrote a book; it's a love story, wrapped around the truly nasty tale of contractor misconduct in the building industry. It was temporarily the number one best seller in Savannah, GA, which is where the story took place. Through the book, I was able to find his address, and we corresponded.
And what with one thing and another, twenty more years go by. We made contact again (through our high school reunion page) several months ago, and I find he has a small horse farm in Canoochie Creek, GA, which happens to be 90 miles north of where my daughter is living, in Screven. And last week, in our trip to see my new grandson, I sandwiched in several hours to drive to visit my best friend, Billy.
I had no idea what his new life was like. Scared me a bit, actually. Neither of us really had much of a chance to make it to age 21. For BOTH of us to make it to this age? No one would have seen THAT coming. Whether we were together or apart, we ALWAYS pushed the limits. When we drank or drugged, we drank until the booze was gone, until the drugs were gone, or until we were unconscious. I didn't know how much was going to be left of him, or even how much of our past life he remembered. Yes, we were close, spent lots of time together, but we ingested a TERRIFIC amount of substances. Were the brain cells going to be firing for him?
And I met this beautiful, sweet-spirited man, and his gloriously beautiful, humble, sweet Christian wife. She and my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA, hit it off like long-lost sisters IMMEDIATELY.
I found a man at peace with himself. The demons that had driven him to wild excess were gone. Instead of picking a party girl, he has been married for 23 years to Vicki, a solid Christian woman. He retired as a Master plumber last year, and now has a small farm, with three horses, two sheep, and a big honken mastiff. He fishes in his pond, and he showed me where he will plant his garden. And for lunch, he made incredible hand-formed rolls, and spaghetti with home-made sausage and marinara sauce, and a Caesar salad. (Hamburgers and chips for the kids!)
The kids (Kenneth and Alicia, plus my 2 2/3 year old grandson Josh) fell in love with his mastiff, Buddy. They fed carrots and apples and celery to the horses. They threw rocks into the pond. And it was good.
I cannot tell you what a gift it was to me, to see this man who I had loved so much as a teen, and gotten into so much TROUBLE with, being at peace with God, and happily married to the woman who was right for him.
And here's what I thought, and I wish I had remembered all the words on Saturday:
And are we yet alive,And see each other's face?Glory and thanks to Jesus give,For His almighty grace!
The Doniels and the Pattersons
March 4, 2017