Old friend, old gold

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange was recently reminded of the value of old friends.

(Lange) It was Stewart’s sense of humor that attracted me to him. We were juniors in prep school, and he and his roommate had played a joke upon Melvin, a credulous freshman whose room was next to theirs and was, as we used to say, discovering National Geographic. So Stewart and his roommate mentioned one day a book they’d found at the library, full of paintings of nude ladies of antiquity.

“Oh?” asked Melvin casually. “What, uh…what’s the name of it?”

“Gargantua, Painter of Royalty. But it’s not in the shelves. You have to ask for it.” Mel never again trusted Stewart and his roommate. But I was sure this was a guy I’d enjoy knowing. So when it came time to choose roommates for the next year, Stewart and I decided to room together.

He came from the Adirondacks. His stories of old-timers, glamorous summer resident beauties, and rumrunners fired my imagination, and as soon as I could, I visited him and his family there.

With friends, as with spouses, you tend to be opposites. I was into literature, he was into physics. On Class Day in 1953, I won the Poetry Prize ($15), and he the Physics Prize ($50) It’s been that way ever since. He’s made at least three times as much as I have for the past 51 years.

After prep school, he went to MIT and I to a liberal arts college in Ohio. We didn’t write much. We both faltered academically for a while. During terms off I rented a $10-a-month flat in Stewart’s home town where I retreated to regroup and make some money. I got the chance to work with dozens of old-timers, picking up carpentry and hundreds of stories that live on in only a few of us in this generation. The poachers and glamorous summer beauties were there, too; but I kept out of trouble in both those departments. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in either Clinton Prison or Connecticut.

We got in touch again at a school reunion. He and Mother hit it off right away. His wife was dying of cancer, and he was devastated. I’d never felt closer to him than at that time.

We keep in touch now by e-mail. He comes East now and then, and cruises over here in a 1940 Cadillac. We think the world of his new wife.

He was going to be at his camp recently, and wasn’t sanguine about the Caddy making it across Vermont. Could we come over? I didn’t think so; I was awfully busy. Then I got an e-mail. He’d had a heart attack in a motel in Albany. After surgery, he’d been released, and he and his wife were at camp. You don’t know how rich you are till you realize that someday you may lose your greatest treasure: old friends. We went.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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