Grumpy Old Man: Emails and a Facebook community

We often don’t know what we have until there’s nothing more we can do about it

Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R) (photo credit: reuters)
Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R)
(photo credit: reuters)
Facebook pages usually show only the wonderful sides of a person’s life, be it adorable children, new luxury vehicles or the most recent vacation in paradise. There can be a lot of bitching, but it’s usually about politics, social issues or the occasional faulty product. Rarely is it a venue for hanging out one’s dirty laundry.
The same goes for the myriad Facebook communities where people gather to discuss common interests. I belong to such a community, one of the endless variations on the “You know you grew up in…” theme. In our case, the comments delve lovingly into memories about a place where it was terrific to be a kid – because where I grew up it truly was.
Recently, though, the idyll on the page was interrupted.
WHEN WE were growing up, Pete lived down the street. He seemed to have a gargantuan chip on his shoulder and built a reputation as a schoolyard bully. We had a fistfight once and it ended in a draw. After that he left me alone, but throughout the rest of our childhood and youth he tormented many other kids without mercy. Following his graduation (he was a year ahead of me in school) and for the next four decades, I didn’t give his sour face a second thought.
Last year, though, I began to see him on the “You know you grew up in…” page. Apparently, he still was a pool shark and still rode a motorcycle.
Some things never change. He traded enthusiastic, friendly and even respectful comments, but it was mostly with people he had run around with back in the day, not with his victims.
Still, the chip seemed to have vanished.
And gone was the tough-guy scowl, replaced by the photo of a man with a trim, graying beard and a warm smile. He posted the following on December 5, 2012: “Was disappointed that the weather didn’t cooperate very well for a motorcycle ride yesterday, was not bad!! Took a cruise through a few of my favorite places and to pick up some eggs at the local farm. It didn’t really feel like it was in the 30’s until I stopped and got back on the seat!”
I felt a growing urge to “like” something he said or even post a favorable comment, if only to see what he might say. But my memories of him as the neighborhood Biff Tannen somehow always got in the way. Maybe some other time, I told myself.
Then in early May came news on the page that Pete had died (and that he had done so in a particularly appropriate way – out for a ride on a fine spring day, he stopped his motorcycle, rested it on its side, asked a passerby for help and then collapsed from what later was determined to have been an aneurysm).
He was just a few months shy of 60.
With astonishing speed, friends and acquaintances began leaving posts, each reaching for a higher platitude. Within hours it seemed Pete would be a shoo-in for beatification, if not full sainthood.
Then came this from Nick, a former classmate: “In high school, Pete and one of his cronies sat behind me in homeroom and took great delight in torturing/bullying me every day. Their favorite ‘game’ was to stick a thumbtack in the eraser at the end of a pencil and rub it against the seatback on their chairs until it got hot, and then burn me with it. I still have scars (physically as well as mentally) from that abuse. My mom saw one of those burns and was convinced that someone had burned me with a cigarette. At that time I had set a goal of graduating high school without getting a detention so, instead of fighting back, and being scared that I’d get in trouble – I sat there and took it (and [the] pain and the humiliation of being brought to tears in front of all my classmates on a regular basis). When you weigh 100 pounds soaking wet it seems like that’s all you can do…”
While this posting did not exactly open any floodgates, it did open the door to a competing narrative telling a much darker story. At the more extreme end was this, by Diane: “Being as I too was bullied, I find it disturbing that everyone just give [sic] praise and pretty words to discribe [sic] someone that wasn’t all kind words himself! … I know if my tormentor was being praised as a good guy, I wouldn’t have been as nice as Nick… and would have gone to DANCE ON THEIR GRAVE!!!! Amen.”
The comments went back and forth, with both praise and criticism for Nick (Rhonda, another classmate, wrote this: “Talk to your therapist about it, Nick. In fact, your therapist would have a helluva lot to say about your dumping on a dead person”) and a thread explaining that while Pete indeed had been mean, with time he had changed for the better to the point where he even apologized to his entire class in an email chain for his nastiness as a youth.
Eventually, the affair was settled by John, who had been one of Pete’s best friends: “Nick: I read your initial post and it brought back a lot of memories, mostly bad. I’m glad you posted as you did; it was courageous and much needed. Let’s face it, we all knew that side of Pete, especially those of us who were close to him in middle school and the first year or so of high school. He grew and matured and apologized, sincerely, and the sad part of that is once the damage is done it can’t be undone...”
THERE ARE a number of lessons in all of this.
First, there are diverging narratives for almost everything. Second, people change. Third, don’t put off something by thinking you’ll eventually get the chance.
It wasn’t of earth-shattering importance that I enter into a Facebook dialogue with Pete or merely see whether he would “like” something said by someone who way back had clearly not been particularly fond of him. But it was a missed opportunity, and missed opportunities should not sit well with anyone.
I should have known better. My arm’slength reconvergence with Pete came after I repeatedly had postponed replying to two emails in my inbox, saying I’d get around to them when I had more time. One was from my former journalism professor, at the time 91 years old. The other was from an old friend from my IDF days who went back to the States, became an officer in the US Army Rangers and later in Military Intelligence, and more recently had ended up as a civilian adviser in Afghanistan.
From the set-up to this tale it doesn’t take a Hollywood scriptwriter to know that before I could get back to them, Prof. Hill died of old age and Shawn was killed when an improvised explosive device went off next to his unarmored vehicle.
Ninety-one! Afghanistan! These facts should have made me sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and head for the computer, knowing that each additional moment of delay could be significant. Of course, there was no such clue about Pete, like there is no warning sign for most things we can end up being sorry for.
I’m sure that Pete, Shawn and Prof. Hill suffered nothing from my failure to reach out.
They probably didn’t even notice. But I did and I’m worse off for it. To paraphrase that Joni Mitchell song, don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till you can no longer do anything about it.