Every boy has a best friend in his youth.
In 1959 I was lucky enough to have two; my older brother Frunk and a neighbor.
Chaney and I were in the same kindergarten class at Pinewood Elementary in Falmouth Maine and we did almost everything together boys were supposed to do that far north.
In the winter we played hockey in the small rink my father built from 2 by 10s in our backyard and also sledded down a gully to a tidal ice pool. During the summer we swam in the shallow waters beyond the marsh grass and bicycled to the forbidden bridge crossing the salt flats to Macklowe Island.
That August in 1959 the two of us crawled under the fence into a strawberry field and ate ripening fruit on our backs. The farmer caught us and my father paid him for four quarts.
Partners in crime, but Cheney and I were in love with the same girl. Kathy Burns was sweet on Chaney. He played the accordion. I had no musical skills, even though my mother was famed for a voice capable of silencing the Portland Cathedral choir.
Chaney was a protege on the squeezebox. He played SINK THE BISMARCK and DAVY CROCKETT as well as the standard songs learned from his music teacher; YELLOW BIRD and MACK THE KNIFE. I envied his virtuosity as well as Kathy's admiration of his talent.
That autumn she held a birthday party to which I was not invited. Chaney brought me a piece of chocolate cake and told me how he had kissed Cathy in her basement. The cake tasted like chalk, but I congratulated Chaney's success. We were best friends.
When my family moved south from Maine to a suburb south of Boston in Spring of 1960, Chaney and I vowed never to go swimming, unless we were together. His parents had a place on Lake Sebago and my grandmother's cabin was on Watchic Pond.
"Wait for me."
"You and me only swimming together."
"And take care of Kathy Burns."
"I will, because one day I'm going to marry her."
I bid him good-bye and my father drove us to the South Shore of Boston in his Ford station wagon. It had wood paneling and he liked to go fast.
That summer was warm in New England and my parents took us to Nantasket Beach for Memorial Weekend. My mother thought there wasn't a finer beach in the world and she had been to Bermuda for her honeymoon. My brothers and sisters were playing in the eddies of the surf. My father swam past the waves.
"Why aren't you in the water?" my mother asked me.
"Because I told Chaney I wouldn't go swimming without him.
"We won't be in Maine for another month."
"I can wait."
"Seems a waste." She reached out her hand. "Come with me."
I was a good boy and obeyed my mother.
The Atlantic was cold, but not to the young.
Upon our return to our suburban development my father hosed off the sand and salt off his boys outside, while my mother showered inside with my two younger sisters. We dried off in the warm summer sun.
The phone rang in the living room. My mother answered it and came out a minute later with wet hair.
"Go sit in the car."
"What I do wrong?"
"Nothing. Just do as I say." She was on the verge of tears.
"Yes, ma'am." I went to the station wagon and sat in the front.
To the West the setting sun shadowed behind the silhouette of Great Blue Hill.
Several minutes passed before my mother came to the car. She leaned on the open window with a pained weariness and said, "Chaney drowned this morning."
"Drowned how?"I already knew how.
"In Sebago Lake. Everyone had gone waterskiing and left him with his grandmother. He swam out too deep and struggled in the water. The grandmother couldn't swim and he drowned. Say a prayer for him."
"I don't know. This afternoon."
I nodded knowing the time and my mother walked back into our house.
I sat in the car and looked at the sky seeing only the sky.
Chaney had broken our vow, as had I at Nantasket Beach.
One of us paid the price.
Chaney not me.
Later that summer my family headed north for a two-week vacation on Watchit Pond.
my father drove to Falmouth Foresides. We saw the Noyes. I hung out with his brothers. NOne of us talked of Chaney. As we prepared to leave, I saw Cathy Burns across the street. She would look at me and said, "I know what you did and so did Chaney."
She was right.
"You were wrong."
"I was. I miss him."
"Me too. Chaney could play accordion."
Yes, he could." An hour later I was swimming in the pond. It was wide enough, but short by a mile to make a lake.
That night my parents sat around the campfire and my mother sang 'YELLOW BIRD'
I wished Cheny was there to play accordion.and since that sad day every time I see an accordion I think of Chaney and any time I see a street accordionist I ask them to play SINK THE BISMARCK. None of them know the Johnny Horton tune and I request IN-A-GADDA-DA-VITA.
None of the accordion players can play that 60s hit either, however I'm sure that Chaney would have liked Iron Butterfly.
Cathy Burns too.
After all we were best friends.
To hear Rene Sevieri's cover of IN A GADDA DA VIDA, please go to the following URL