A friend to many, a hero to all

After writing my previous blog post I tried to find traces of my childhood friend Jon online. I’d tried once before and the pickings were slim, but I thought it would be fun to get back in touch with him. It had probably been twenty years since our last contact. Not long ago I reconnected with many high school friends and had enjoyed it more than I’d expected, and so it was with determination that I sought to reforge this old bond.

I found the same few scraps online that I’d found in my prior try a few years ago: a line item in a genealogy database that might have been him; the masthead of a college humor newspaper that was almost certainly him; one or two other citations that probably were not him. Then I found the page that brought me up short: his obituary.

ROPPOLO-Jonathan. January 12, 1966 — May 14, 2002. Beloved son of Steve and Sondra, loving brother and brother-in-law of Peter and Barbara, cherished uncle, nephew and cousin. A friend to many, a hero to all. Burial held at Pinelawn Cemetery on May 16, 2002.

I should not have been surprised. Jon struggled with kidney disease for as long as we were friends in elementary school and beyond, with disastrous results for his growth and, more than likely, his general health. When I first learned of his illness in third grade, and his need to disappear after school three times a week for dialysis treatments, it was, in typical self-centered kid fashion, an annoyance for me — my best friend, unavailable after school more often than not! For Jon’s part, if he ever felt differently about it — if he ever despaired or wallowed in self-pity — I certainly never knew about it. But his bravery about it was the least of the ways in which Jon was a hero to me.

In some ways, I mark second grade — the year I met Jon — as the beginning of the long trip that made me the person I am today. Everything before that was preparation. The kids I hung out with were just playmates. Jon was the first person whose friendship changed me, my personality developing in response to the challenges posed and the standards set by his.

Jon was smart and funny far beyond his years, that was plainly evident to me even at age seven. When I’d “play” Emergency! or The Six Million Dollar Man with other kids, the action consisted mostly of running and jumping and fighting and so on. But with Jon the action was more cerebral — plotting some Mission: Impossible-style deception, for instance, or figuring out how to safely escape a disabled helicopter plummeting from the sky. (Solution: by stripping naked and tying our clothes into makeshift parachutes.)

Grownups found him smart and funny. With him, I was out of my depth. He was schooled in B. Kliban, Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, George Carlin, Cheech and Chong, Abbott and Costello. Fortunately I was an eager and responsive audience and student, which explains why he hung around with me. In future friendships I always gravitated toward those with whose wit and wisdom I could just barely keep up, but Jon was the first who forged my habit of surrounding myself with my betters, a habit that I believe has made me better than I might have been.

A few Jon anecdotes stick out in my mind:

  • Soon after he and his family moved from their apartment down the block to their own house (just a few blocks away), one afternoon I was visiting when Jon suggested we try his Ouija board. (As usual, Jon was way ahead of me. I had never heard of Ouija boards and he had to explain them to me.) For extra atmosphere we took it up to his attic, which was loaded with cartons from the recent move. We proceeded to contact the spirit of a caveman from the dawn of human history. Expressing great skepticism, Jon and I insisted that he prove, somehow, that he was real, and we gave him to the count of three to do it. Exactly on 3, a pile of boxes in the far corner of the attic toppled over.

    We raced down the attic stairs like they weren’t even there, down to the first floor, out the front door and across the street before staring back at Jon’s house in terror and awe.
  • Jon’s dad was in the advertising business, thus connected to the entertainment industry. In the fall of 1977 he scored a five-minute super-8 reel of footage from Star Wars! The footage was silent and in black-and-white, but in those pre-VCR days and in the full flush of brand-new Star Wars fandom (and desperate for a fix), this was huge. Two scenes were included: Luke talking to Ben Kenobi in Kenobi’s hut; and the escape-from-the-Death-Star sequence, including the TIE fighter attack on the Millennium Falcon.

    We watched the reel again and again and again. Since it was silent, we supplied our own running commentary. Every time Luke objected to Ben that he can’t accompany him to Alderaan, we made fun of his whining. Every time Han Solo told Luke, “Come on, buddy, we’re not out of this yet,” we narrated, “Han goes up…” as Han Solo climbed the ladder to his laser cannon turret, “…and Luke goes down” as Luke descended to his.
    Imagine my amazement when, decades later and without prompting, my own kids provided the identical narration for that scene when watching Star Wars on DVD.
  • Once, for no reason I can fathom today, I insisted to Jon that I was an undercover government cyborg. He called bullshit on me, of course, but rather than own up to this bizarre fabrication, I dug in my heels and did my best to convince him that I was telling the truth. Obviously my best wasn’t very good, because Jon was nowhere near fooled. When Jon’s mom got wind of this, she gave me a stern lecture about fibbing that has stayed with me ever since.

In sixth grade, a handful of students from my school were invited to take the citywide Hunter College High School entrance exam. I passed, and so did my two best friends: Jon and David. David and I pleaded with Jon to join us in attending Hunter, but Jon chose to stay local (perhaps for health reasons). After that we inevitably drifted apart. I’d get a scrap of news about him from time to time, and during college I ran into him once or twice when visiting the old neighborhood, but that’s all.

Part of Jon lives on through me. At a time in my life when most kids were focused on things, he introduced me to the world of ideas. He led me around it for a while until I felt comfortable. I’ve never left. According to his obituary, he died a “cherished uncle.” I know that means some lucky nieces or nephews had their horizons broadened too, and that Jon’s legacy is assured.

5 Replies to “A friend to many, a hero to all”

  1. Ugh. You recent post also got me googling but I didn’t dig as deply. Sigh. He was truly a wonderful guy. In fact, just this morning on my way to work (BEFORE I saw this…), my George Carlin CD box set caught my eye, and that immediately made me think of him. I remember us listening to Carlin’s albums for the first time at his house (Baseball vs. Football stand out in particular). I also vividly remember the Star Wars reels. I met him for drinks once when we were in college over the summer (’87 maybe?), but that too was the last I had heard from him. I also didn’t remember that he got into Hunter too. I guess there were 5 from our class then, because I remember the other two were girls; Elaine and Debbie Schenfeld, maybe?

  2. It’s possible Jon merely qualified to take the Hunter entrance exam and chose not to, rather than that he took it and passed it and chose not to attend Hunter. My memory is hazy on that point.

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