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Featured Column
Week of 6.6.2005
Gilbert
           We had met the summer before we started high school. He had never been friends with anyone like me and I had never known someone like him. We were kindred only in our ages – we were both 14 years old.
           My family had migrated to Inglewood, California from the Bronx four years before we had met each other. His family had left the dusty, squalid outskirts of Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico and located in the same southern California town, near Los Angeles. My family left New York to escape the harsh winters. His family had packed all their possessions and crossed the border in hopes of finding work that would pay enough to support my new found friend, his sister, mother and father.
          Coincidence had his father working for the railroad, laying and repairing track, a backbreaking job. My father was an electrical signalman for the railroad. We lived in a middle class three bedroom house. His family lived in a tiny one-room shack with a dirt floor, provided by the railroad bosses. His mother cooked tortillas and beans in a small fire over a hole in the dirt floor. We lived in a modest residential area. He lived next to the railroad depot in Inglewood. 
           His mother looked for work as a maid. My mother was a seamstress in a dry cleaning shop.
          I still had the remnants of a Bronx accent. He still had his Mexican accent and had difficulties pronouncing some new words.
          I was skinny. He had a stocky build.
          We had met at the first practice for the local junior touch football league team. Everyone had to shake hands with everyone else trying out for the team. That’s where I first met Gilbert Rodriquez. I said, “Glad to meet you Gilbert,” as our hands met. He gave me a friendly smile and said, “Could you please call me ‘Fuzzy,’ I don’t like Gilbert.”
          There was no need to ask why his nickname was “Fuzzy.” His full head of black hair was loaded with curls. “Fuzzy” it is,” I told him.
          For the next 2 years we were inseparable friends. He became part of my family. My mother, father, grandmother and baby sister saw “Fuzzy” almost as much as they saw me. We liked each other – the Bronx boy and the Mexican kid.
          Up the street from my house was the Inglewood Recreation Center – a place where young boys like “Fuzzy” and me could spend our idle hours off the streets. We played table tennis and volleyball and shot pool for hours together. “Fuzzy” was the best pool player at the Rec Center. We usually played table tennis even. He was a good football player, skilled at baseball and excelled at basketball. All sports that he had taken up after coming to Inglewood. When the local American Legion Post sponsored a junior league basketball team “Fuzzy” and I signed up and became starters. He had become an excellent deadeye shot. By the end of that summer “Fuzzy’s” Juarez accent was gone, but remnants of my Bronx twang remained.
          Our first summer together ended and high school started. We saw each other less during the school year, but weekends found us enjoying our idle hours together. We continued competing in table tennis and pool. We shot baskets, kicked footballs and played catch for hours. Our freshman year passed quickly and summer dawned again.
          “Fuzzy,” by this time, had become “one of the boys.” He was accepted by everyone as a “good guy.” Coaches and teammates had come to acknowledge his athletic ability.
          A year had passed and I had still never been to “Fuzzy’s” home. I had never met his father, mother or sister. I never mentioned this to him.
          Then, one day after a football practice, “Fuzzy” said, “Would you like to come to my house to grab something to eat tonight?” “Sure, I’d like that,” was my reply.
          On our walk to his house by the railroad depot “Fuzzy,” in almost a whisper said, “You, know, my mother and father can’t speak or understand English and our house is kind of small. Dirt floor. We don’t have a TV or a radio.” I made a fist and lightly punched my friend on his arm and said, “It doesn’t bother me. I’m hungry.”
           “Fuzzy” introduced me to his mother, father and little sister. I smiled at each and watched his mother stoke a small fire in the center of the dirt floor and heat up a flour tortilla filled with pinto beans. She sprinkled some salsa on the tortilla and handed it to me – the guest. Then she heated more tortillas and beans and fed the rest of the family. We ate and smiled at each other. Trust was forming.
          Now I knew how strong our friendship was. It was based on acceptance. Unconditional.
          Another year of school had come and gone. Summer arrived and “Fuzzy” and I continued our friendship. We played our games and added a new element to our relationship – we talked. We discussed our families and school and what we would do with our lives after graduation in two years.
          The first practice for the touch football team was announced and “Fuzzy” and I showed up together.
          An hour into the practice the coach called a pass play with me throwing a long pass to “Fuzzy” running down the right side line. As “Fuzzy” reached out for the pass he stumbled and fell heavily. We all ran to his side and saw him grimacing and holding his left ankle. A few hours later, at the emergency hospital, the doctor came to the lobby and informed the coach, my teammates and me that “His ankle is broken. He’ll be in a cast for two months or more.”
          I phoned my father and asked him to pick us up at the hospital and give “Fuzzy” and me a ride to his house. Dad and I helped “Fuzzy” with his new crutches and guided him inside his house. His shocked parents learned from him about the accident. I told “Fuzzy” I would see him the next day. We talked all afternoon that day about the team, who would take his place on it and about how long we thought it would take for his ankle to heal.
          I didn’t see my friend for three days as I was busy with going to the Rec Center and football practice. On the fourth day I walked up to “Fuzzy’s” house. He wasn’t there. His mother and father didn’t understand English so I couldn’t tell where he was.
          The next day I tried again to see “Fuzzy,” but he was gone. He’d been going someplace on his crutches. That night I tried again and this time he was home. I asked him where he’d been. He told me, “Oh, just with some friends.” I didn’t push it.
          The days of summer came and went. High school started again. “Fuzzy” and I were still friends, but something had changed.
          It was lunchtime during our first week back at high school. I saw “Fuzzy” on his crutches near the administration building, talking with 4 guys. I knew three in the group and I recognized them as rough, tough individuals. I had heard that they were the “Marijuana guys.”
          After school that day I went to “Fuzzy’s” house. He greeted me and asked me to come in. It was just the two of us. I asked him how things were going. He said, “Good, good, things are good.”
Finally, I said, “Hey, pal, who are these guys you’re hangin’ with?” He told me they were just friends, nice guys. No problem.”
           I saw “Fuzzy” once a week now. He didn’t ask about how the team was doing and he seemed a bit defensive. When I invited him to my house for dinner he had excuses not to come.
           Gradually, we grew apart. Once in a while I would walk by his house and knock on the door, but there were no answers.
           I saw him at school infrequently and once we shared a brown bag lunch. I tried asking him again, “So, ‘Fuzz,’ what you been doing.” He didn’t smile, but answered, “Nothing much, why you ask. How come you always ask me that?” I saw him looking around for his new friends.
          Days turned into months and months into years as our close relationship had turned into once a week waves at lunch.
          I realized that I hadn’t seen “Fuzzy” in a couple of weeks. I asked around the campus and found that some people had seen him at night, hanging out with some guys by the park, smoking pot and drinking.
          His ankle was surely healed and his crutches in the past. Every day I wondered where “Fuzzy” was and what was he doing.
          High school graduation was celebrated but there was no “Fuzzy” to be seen or heard from.
          Then I heard that he was arrested for selling dope. I couldn’t find him. Nobody lived in the dirt floor railroad shack anymore.
          Summer came again, but there was no sign of “Fuzzy.”
          One of the guys from the football team pulled me aside one day and said, “I heard that ‘Fuzzy’ was dead, he was murdered by a dope dealer.”
          I shook my head and walked away, trying to understand that I would never see my good friend again. “Damn, damn, damn.”
          Many years have passed since those warm summer days with “Fuzzy.” It was a special time for the Bronx boy and the Mexican kid.
          I’ve always thought that if it weren’t for that cursed broken ankle there’d be good chance that “Fuzzy” and I would still be friends.
          For some odd reason after I had heard about “Fuzzy’s” death I began referring to him by his given name – Gilbert. Just a respect thing for an old friend.
My friend "Fuzzy" Rodriquez
      Ron was born in the Bronx, New York. He was raised in Southern California and lived in Honolulu, Hawaii for three decades. He attended Inglewood High School and U.C.L.A.. His youthful goal was to become a major league baseball player. In Hawaii Ron played on a series of championship softball teams. He is an active tennis player.
      Ron’s career began at the Inglewood Daily News where as a youngster was enrolled in a publisher training program. He served as an advertising salesman, circulation manager, writer and layout and design staffer. He has been a newspaper publisher at the Oregon City Oregon Enterprise Courier, the Beloit Wisconsin Daily News, the Elizabeth, New Jersey Daily Journal and This Week Magazines (Hawaii).
      Ron lives with his wife, Marilyn, in San Diego, California. His two children, Douglas and Diane also live in the San Diego area. Ron’s interests range far and wide and are reflected in his columns diverse topics.
     
Ron Cruger