I plan to spend 2022 thanking the people who have influenced my life. One of the biggest reasons some kids end up in jail, and others somehow avoid that path, is because of the mentors they had access to during their lifetime. Some people I want to acknowledge have died, but many are still alive - and I hope to recognize how profound their interaction in my life affected me.
There are only a few friends that I can say have known me for most of my life. (G)Nat Cowell is one of them. It doesn’t matter how many months go by (it is usually only a few weeks because I am a good friend who puts in the effort and calls him regularly), when we talk, we just pick up from where our last conversation left off. I can spend hours chatting and laughing so hard that my stomach will literally ache. There are probably two things that bonded us so quickly.
On my first day of third grade in Dayton, Ohio, Nathaniel Cowell (Nat) frequently reminds me I wore a bright Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. He couldn’t resist my winning smile and great fashion sense. After school one day, we were running through the neighborhood when a ferocious dog started barking and came after us. I ran for my life, screaming at the top of my lungs, and ended up losing my flip-flop. As I tripped out of the sandal, the angry mutt took a bite out of my butt. Later that day, I had to drop my pants in front of Nat's mother so she could inspect the wound.
The second thing that brought us together was our business interactions during school lunch. My dad, Indian immigrant that he was, never packed me a cool lunch. I always had a sandwich, fruit and a large can of V8. For some odd reason, Nat had a peculiar interest in the salted tomato juice and every day he traded his Doritos for my V8.
The whole Cowell family was (and continue to be) generous with their time and friendship. When we moved to Ohio, my parents rented a small house about a mile away from Spring Valley Academy. The neighborhood was well-manicured, with sidewalks on either side of the street. One Sunday morning, I woke up to a loud motor running in our yard. I pulled the bedroom curtains apart and saw Nat and his father mowing our yard. They knew we didn’t own a lawnmower yet, so they dropped by to help.
For Christmas that year, the Cowells invited our family to their home for dinner. This was a big deal because my parents were immigrants with strong accents, and my dad was unique. We didn’t get many invitations to other people’s homes. Our family arrived, came in, and we wouldn’t take our coats off. We were used to being cold in our home, so we were always bundled up in layers. Also, our WV van’s heater didn’t work well, so often we used blankets as we traveled by car. It wasn’t cold at the Cowells, but we didn’t know how to be normal.
As we sat around their large dining table, I remember listening and observing with great interest how their family interacted. There was loud banter, laughter, exaggerated stories. I remember wondering if this was how all white families behaved. They really acted like a sitcom family, like the Seavers, who I watched on TV. The children were given equal time to take part in the conversation, rather than being relegated as a nuisance. This was also the first time I was introduced to Mrs. Cowell’s Broccoli Cheese Soup, a recipe that should be entered into the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Later that evening, the Cowells surprised us with presents for Christmas. I couldn’t believe my luck. Food and gifts! I spied a large box that had my name written boldly on the outside. I was convinced it was a Matchbox car racetrack. We opened gifts one by one. When it was finally my turn, I ripped open the box to find a large collection of white socks and Fruit of the Loom underwear. I am sure this is what I needed, but for a moment, I was not grateful.
Through the next nine years, I spent many hours at the large white Cowell farmhouse, riding with Nat on his four-wheeler through the woods behind their property. We shared many secrets; talking about girls, discussing God and religion, and smoking my first joint (in that order.)
Now that we are middle-aged men, with kids doing some of the same things we did at that age, you would think that the pressures of adulthood; jobs, finances, teenagers, had made us distant. Nope, not with me and Nat. Every time he picks up the phone, I always greet him the same way: “Hey prick.” He begins laughing his head off because he knows there is a side to me that he only knows. Thanks, Grover for being such a swell guy. You’ve never let me down, and continue to be a gracious and generous friend that I can count on.
Some parts of this story appear in my forthcoming memoir.