Of National Geographic Coca-Cola ads and junior-high pals


I got my best friend in junior high interested in trains. He went train-watching with me, and he wrote away to railroads for literature (brochures, timetables). He amassed such a collection that I was envious at moments.

We went for a day’s hike along the track. Did our lunch-packing mothers know their 13-year-olds were going for a hike along the Santa Fe mainline? Did our mothers love us? It was a vastly different time, a world that kids roamed more freely than kids are allowed to roam today’s world. But I imagine we lied.

One afternoon I arrived by bicycle at my friend’s house, and he showed me the latest addition to his collection: a hefty stack of passenger train ads from National Geographic magazines of the late ’40s and early-to-mid ’50s. Even I was surprised that he had scissored them out of his father’s orderly wall of National Geographics. “Uh, you don’t think your father will mind?”

To say his father minded doesn’t begin to cover it. Apoplectic maybe approaches. Besides the aesthetics of a scissored-up National Geographic collection, there was the matter of content on the reverse side of every train ad. The Coke ad above was an innocent back side compared to many.

By the time we started high school my buddy lost interest in trains, almost as quickly as he’d become interested, and guess who got his railroad collection, including the National Geographic ads?

I paid for them in a way, however, because my best friend also lost interest in me. Like trains, I had come and gone. I never knew why. I suspect he had taken stock of himself and of me and decided he could increase his stock by losing me. I was a late-bloomer, naïve, never giving a thought to how others saw me. Until college. In sophomore year it hit me like a physical blow to the stomach. But I caught my breath and, among 20,000 anonymous commuter students at Cal State Fullerton, found I could move in and out of small groups and invent and re-invent myself, something I couldn’t have done in high school even if I’d known to want to. In college I discovered the importance of “losing” people and lost a few, who no doubt wondered why. I couldn’t have told them that I’d decided my platonic friendships with girls were wrong, just as my friendships with boys who weren’t desperate to eat out as many girls as they could were wrong. I needed to move toward a wife. I didn’t want to grow old–certainly not reach thirty–and have people asking themselves why I wasn’t married.

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