Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Bus Ride Friendship Endures the Test of Time

Every little kid has a best friend. Mine was Gail Piper, a girl on my bus who was two years older.

I plopped down on the seat next to her one day and said, "Hi, I'm Mel."
Gail celebrates my birthday with me in 1976.

I guess I'd seen that she'd been sitting alone. Gail said she wasn't quite sure what to do, so she read "Beauty and the Beast" aloud to me.

We shared orange Tic Tacs, school gossip, and developed a friendship so close that when I got home some 10-15 minutes after she did, I'd be upstairs on Dad's office phone talking to her for 30 minutes or more. And then maybe again that same evening.

Those were the days of “The Partridge Family” reruns. In her basement, we set up a bunch of tin Schwan's ice cream pails to serve as a drum set, pulled in a vacuum cleaner for a microphone stand, and found something to act as a keyboard. We lip-synced to David Cassidy and his TV family.

We'd pretend we were Barbara and Julie off the show "One Day at a Time" starring Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Philips. A tiny unused oven served as my school locker when we'd act out a scene. I wrote about my fascination with that show here.

We’d act out scenes from “I Dream of Jeannie” too. Click here to see what I wrote about that this summer. And because of Gail and her mom, I’m a life-long “The Young and Restless” soap opera watcher.

Maybe Gail helped me develop my imagination, for she, like me, was the only child in the house—only she didn't have any siblings. Mine were just all grown up.

Gail also had an entire plastic kitchen set from when she was younger, and we probably played with it well beyond when we should have. She introduced me to the Tiffany Taylor doll, a fancy Barbie that could change hair color. I've written about that doll before. Click here

Gail had a built-in closet in her room, unlike the antique wardrobe in mine. She’d wanted a canopy bed, but her mom said the room was too small, so they did the next best thing. Put knobs on the wall above the headboard and draped scarves as a headpiece. I was jealous of her straight walls, for my bedroom consisted of the slanted upstairs walls of a 100-year-old farm house.

another birthday with Gail by my side ~ 1977
Her parents had a TV in the living and her mom cooked in a galley style kitchen with a dishwasher that wheeled over to the sink. Her phone had a plunger, so one could eavesdrop on the party line without being heard. They had a bathroom upstairs and one downstairs.
The Pipers had two house dogs, Boo-Boo and Bridget. Both dogs would chase toys and return them to us. They'd trained them to hit bells on the back of the door to go out to potty, and I used this method in training my first house dog, Lexy. Read about that here. And for more silly stories about Lexy, click here.

One time I had to hide out in the basement for awhile after I'd touched Boo-Boo's chocolate chip, our affectionate name for where the poop comes out. She did not like that one bit! Her high-pitched yapping sent me into hiding.

Gail's dad Bill enjoyed teasing the dogs near the fire place, and Gail and I often did too until her mom told us to stop. Seems one time, their rubber toy ball went into the fire, and they couldn't retrieve it. So anytime someone touched the supplies on the hearth, they'd bark and growl and whine.

It's the fun I had with their house dogs, seeing them sleep soundly with Gail's parents and greet you with joy when you came in the door, that made me want to have a house dog when I grew up. And until recently, Gail's always had one too.

Meals at Gail's house were served at the dining room table, the only table they had—where at my house, we had a kitchen table and a separate large dining room. I didn't think Gail was rich, but she lived fancier than I did. And I loved it there. It was like being on vacation.

a quick visit with Gail one summer
We lived seven miles apart, so our moms drove us back and forth. When a play date was done and I'd pout around the house with an ugly disposition, Mom would say, "If that's how you’re going to be, we won't let you two get together anymore." 

When Mom thought I should learn to swim, she and Joyce, Gail's mom, agreed to take turns driving us to the Y in Huron for our lesson. After a couple weeks, the teachers split us up and moved Gail to the advanced group.

I didn't learn much after that. I was scared of the water and barely got through the jump-in-the-deep-end-and-fend-for-yourself ending test. Mom still thought to her dying day that we were messing around, and that's why we got split up.

After lessons, we'd go to Gail's Grandma Burrell's in Huron. She lived in an upstairs apartment building—and oh, how I loved going there too. I never experienced going to Grandma's house, so this was the next best thing.

My brother-in-law Rick remembers Gail and I swimming, well, just cooling off since I never learned to swim, in the cattle watering tank at the end of the feedlot. We didn't care if the cattle came up to us. We’d go wading at Lake Byron too when her older cousin Brad Davis from Doland drove us down there.

Sad thing. Brad was killed in a train accident a few years back. I loved it when he'd be at Grandma Piper's when I visited Gail. He'd tease us, play with us, and act up—something a brother near one's age would do.

When Gail would come to my house, we'd play stewardess using the stairway as the aisle of an airplane and serve our invisible passengers plastic food. We'd drive like mad women on the three-wheeler. We also played around on the cassette recorder making radio news broadcasts.

Gail & son Billy visit me at Mom & Dad's one winter day when I was in SD.

One year in the middle of the school week, I got to stay at Gail's overnight for three days because Mom was in Kansas helping my sister Brenda get ready for a move. Joyce and Mom had arranged this so Dad wouldn’t have wake me, feed me, make sure my clothes matched, and get me to bed on time. 

This was every little kid's dream—three nights in a row at a friend's house.
When we got up for school the first day, Gail's mom said, "You can go back to bed, girls. No school. Snow storm."

Same thing happened the next day. And the next.

I was snowed in at my best friend’s house for three whole days!

We made snow forts, drank hot chocolate, listened to her mom tell us stories about the Bermuda Triangle, the Nazis, and other educational topics my parents never talked about. Joyce was an avid reader and had stacks of books by her recliner.

When the weekend arrived, Dad came to get me because Mom had called from Kansas, where she too was snowed in, and told him I’d spent enough time over there and that the Piper's need their privacy back.

Dad drove a tractor over to get me—the roads were that bad. I climbed up the steps to the red International with my little suitcase and looked back. I felt like I'd never see my friend again. But in reality, it was only a couple days until I'd see her on the bus on the way to school.

Dad drove diagonally across the hard-packed snow. It didn't matter if we were on a road or not. I came home to eat cereal and toast and watch him sleep. I was bored stiff. What a letdown.

One school year the bus routes were switched and Gail was on a different route. Sure glad that didn't last long. When she got to high school, and I was stuck in jr. high, I found new friends to cling to. Had too.

But we sat near each other in band, for we both played clarinet. She was lucky though—she had Mr. Wiens as a teacher many more years than I did. Read about him here.
1984: Gail gets married

I visited Gail at college once when she went to SDSU. My friend was all grown up, living a different life than I was—again.

But conversation came easy, and the age gap of two years didn't keep us apart for long because when we were both in our late teens, she chose me to be her maid of honor.

Throughout the years when I’d travel home from Kansas, I’d often make an effort to see Gail. Once it was in Brookings when she was a newlywed. Another time I drove to Iowa. Now they’re near Vermillion. Technology and cell phones make it easier to stay connected.

We’ve lived different lives. She married early, raised three kids, and taught Sunday School. I teach public school, took forever to get married, and have a step-daughter.

Me with Gail: summer 2012

Each visit with Gail brings reminiscing, talk of current events, discussion of our lives and families. Laughter and love come easily. It’s like time has never passed.

Gail has a birthday this week, and if I lived nearby, I know I’d be celebrating in her presence like we did when we were kids.

Instead, I write from miles away about the girl who let me sit with her on the bus.

Is there a simple decision you made as a child that changed the course of your life? What is your favorite memory from times spent with your childhood best friend?


  1. So sweet. It's great to have someone that no matter the distance of time between visits, it's like you've never been apart. That's special. Happy birthday to Gail. My best friend's mother kept her house so clean ... Saturday was their day to clean house ... and it made a huge impact on me. They liked Pepsi and had honey that had a lid on it. :) (not your normal squeeze bottle) I thought that was neat.

    1. Honey with a lid? Maybe they raised their own bees. So you'd stick a knife in it to use it then, huh? I like the details from your memory--thanks for commenting, Shelli.

  2. What a wonderful story. So many of my BFF's from childhood are lost in the busy moving of life. My Dad was a minister, and we moved a lot so I never had friend that lasted through all the years of school. Pam, who I met in Grade 10, is my longest lasting friend. We are six weeks apart in age, each married guys three years younger than us, and slid in and out of touch now for 50 years. I dated her brother and then kept her company as we sat with him when he was dying of cancer. I also knew her parents well and they too are now gone. She says I'm the only one left who has known her most of her life, and knew her family, the house she grew up in and the area she lived in. Even though we only talk (for hours) a few times a year and see each other ever few years, it is always just like we talked yesterday.

  3. What an incredible friendship, Mahrie. What a way to be there for her your friend in those tough times. I'm glad you could relate to the idea of timeless friendships. Everyone needs at least one. Thanks for commenting.