I was lined up with three or four other junior high school runners waiting to run the third leg of a relay when the guy next to me suddenly bent over and puked on the track.
Just a few seconds later, he took off after our baton exchanges as if nothing unusual had happened. As I recall, he even held me off.
That was my introduction to Jim Gifford, who would become my best friend and, other than my parents, the biggest influence on my young life.
We didn’t officially meet until the start of our sophomore years at Kokomo High School. On the first day of school, I hustled into my honors English class just ahead of the tardy bell and there he was all alone in the back row. He opened up his arms and let out a big sigh of relief.
I quickly realized why. We were the only boys in the class — 24 girls and us two goofy guys. It was a little overwhelming since some of the smartest (and prettiest) girls in the school were sitting in front of us. The teacher, Mrs. Ackerman, eventually moved Jim and I to the front row so we would feel more a part of the class.
And maybe too so we wouldn’t be back there giggling to ourselves all the time.
We both survived that class. We also became fast friends.
I was a skinny little twerp back then and Jim wasn’t much bigger. But he would later become the leading ball carrier and one of the top tacklers on the Kokomo football team by being the grittiest player on the field.
A few people called him The Brow because his eyebrows seemed to be one continuous line. And he was ticked off when the photographer airbrushed out the hair in between his eyebrows for his senior picture.
Jim always had a bit of a swagger and I didn’t mind following in his shadow. When I was sports editor of the school paper, he was editor-in-chief — my first ever newspaper boss, I guess. When he was dating a cheerleader, I was still having trouble calling girls on the phone. When he was a football star, I was a 118-pound cross country runner.
Jim worked me out of my shell and made me push through my shyness. He helped give me confidence and got me out of the house — driving us around in his old $200 Rambler that we called the Scrambler and eventually the Blue Bitch.
My parents loved him — probably for what he did for me. My brother and sister loved him. Even my dog Buddy loved him.
He got something out of the friendship, too. Not as well-off as my family, he ate a lot of meals over at our house, enjoyed going to our lake cottage and worked at my family’s Burger Chef alongside me out on the old Kokomo bypass.
I also helped him a little in school — although he was every bit as smart as me. I took literature at the start of my senior year and he had it during the second semester. With his deadline looming on a Greek mythology paper, he asked if he could borrow my saved report so he could get some ideas on how to write his. Later in the week, I asked him what he had used of mine.
“Everything but the introduction page,” he said sheepishly. ”You had your name on that.”
I was incredulous. “Our handwriting isn’t even close,” I moaned. “And Mrs. Heaton had made some comments in red ink on mine.”
“Well, I traced over them in blue,” he admitted.
Somehow, he got away with it. Yet I had the last laugh. I had gotten a B-plus. He received a B-minus on the very same paper.
It was always interesting to be around Jim. And, yeah, he would continue to puke at track meets — mostly right after a race. We would be doing a warm-down jog together and he would say, “Hang on for a second.” I knew what was coming and moved quickly away.
When we graduated, I went off to I.U. and he headed to Butler to give college football a try. He met a girl named Gail White at freshman orientation and she became his one and only. Jim and I would see each other during breaks and in the summer and he transferred to I.U. his junior year.
He was the one who drove me home that fall semester when my dad died. We hardly said a word as I just stared out the window on the worst day of my life. But it was comforting to have him beside me.
About that time, Jim and Gail realized they couldn’t be without each other and made plans to marry that summer of 1970. Jim asked me to be his best man. I told him I couldn’t. I was scheduled to go to ROTC summer camp at Fort Riley, Kansas, and with the Vietnam War still going strong, I figured it was not the time to test the U.S. Army.
Jim was disappointed. So was I. But I’m not sure he totally understood my situation.
Back at I.U. for our senior years, we saw each other a few times during the fall and he and Gail invited me over for a nice meal in their married housing trailer. They were the happy newlyweds and I was certified single and having the time of my life. I probably wondered how Jim and I were going to fit into each others’ lives — at least for the near future.
He seemed to read my mind. When I took him to pick up his car at the repair shop, he wondered about where our friendship was going. At the time, I was busy with a lot of things — serving as president of my frat, writing for the school paper, riding on a Little 500 bike team and dating any girl who would go out with me.
In some ways, I had become what Jim had been in high school. And If I had stopped to think about it, I would have realized that he had helped give me the confidence to be able to take on all those things.
I hinted that we might have a hard time seeing a lot of each other for a while. I think he thought I owed him more than that. I’m sure I did.
He walked away shaking his head. I walked away with a shrug.
That day was more than 50 years ago. That day was also the last day I ever saw Jim. That has become the biggest regret of my life.
I always thought we would reconnect. We never did.
Last month, one of our classmates informed me that Jim had died in Nashville, Tenn., at the age of 73. He had been married to Gail for 52 years and had two children and three grandchildren.
I sobbed at the news. I never got to tell him how much he had meant to me.
How did I let this happen? How did we never get back together again?
To be honest, I never thought much about Jim the rest of my senior year. I had my activities. I found a serious girlfriend and I was waiting to see what was going to happen with me and the Army.
It wasn’t until years later when I ran into Jim’s younger brother, David, in the Notre Dame Stadium pressbox, that I learned Jim was living in California. David didn’t have his address on him. Maybe he could send it to me. Neither of us followed up.
More and more years went by and I tried a few times to track him down but with no success. I talked about him fondly with my family and started realizing how much I must have hurt him.
I didn’t go to reunions and I heard he didn’t, either. When our 50th came around a few years back, I asked the classmate in charge if she had any contact information on Jim. She said he was one of the those who had fallen between the cracks.
Maybe I could have tried harder to track him down. Maybe guilt was holding me back a little.
I didn’t get to read about Jim’s life until earlier this week when my mom saw a little death notice in the Kokomo Tribune. It listed a website where I could find his full obituary.
I read it with wonder. After graduating from I.U., Jim served in the Navy while also earning a master’s in correctional counseling. He became a drug abuse counselor for the Navy and was awarded an American Spirit Honor Medal.
He went on to start his own winery in California. After 16 years in that business, he became an English teacher, first in upstate New York and then in Tennessee. The obit pointed out that he was a fierce supporter of public education and served as president of the Rutherford County Education Association. He retired from teaching in 2019.
I had to smile when I wondered if he ever remembered our Greek mythology “collaboration” while he was teaching.
The obit stated that he still wrote news articles and editorials, was a true family man and a regular church-goer. Jim’s brother Jeff described him as the best guy he ever knew and not one person who ever met him would disagree with that statement.
My old buddy Jim had become a man in full. God bless him.
Even after 50 years, I recognized his picture in the obituary, even though he had gone bald like me. We would have probably laughed about that if we had ever gotten together again.
All of us have regrets in life when it comes to relationships with other people. I have had the good fortune to be able to fix some of mine over the years. But I never did with my best friend from high school.
I am embarrassed to write this story — to have others know how I let down one of the best buddies I’ve ever had and one who made me a better person.
But just maybe this story will remind you of a Jim Gifford-type person from your past. All I can say is don’t wait until it’s too late to tell him (or her) how so very important he (or she) was to you.
I only can hope that Jim now knows how I felt about him.
He became the missing piece in my life’s puzzle. And I have missed him for 50 years.