When the night has come

And the land is dark

And the moon is the only light we'll see

No I won't be afraid

Oh, I won't be afraid

Just as long as you stand, stand by me

Ben E. King, 1938-2015

 

Ben. E. King passed away last week, leaving me in a reflective mood.

His greatest hit, "Stand By Me," was special — a reminder to treasure those special people in your life. Listening to his music again triggered memories of several friends who stood by me when I needed them most.

Denny was a high school buddy. We were on the football and wrestling teams together, cruised Main on our motorcycles on warm summer nights and roomed together for four years through two different colleges. We ended up in Vietnam at the same time, but never saw each other. We keep up only through Christmas cards. But a few years ago, we met again after more than 30 years, mourned a friend, shared a beer and picked up where we left off. Everything moved on; nothing had changed.

Russell was a former gang member from Houston, my running buddy during a frigid period of Army basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. We wore the easily removed rank of squad leader, shared two halves of a pup tent and learned teamwork and leadership. Russell personified "cool," loved his wife, regretted his gangster past and trusted me enough to share that tortured world. We talked deep into the night, learning about each other, about honesty, friendship and tolerance. When basic ended, he headed for Georgia to be an MP, I headed for Indiana and we lost touch.

I met Van in Vietnam. We worked together, got soaked in the monsoons, shared a cubicle in the Information Office barracks and returned home with the best tans we'll ever have. But we see each other rarely, though he and Bettye are just down the road in Longview. Marti and I attended their daughter's wedding and they came to my retirement party. We need to get together more often; maybe we can do ribs again soon at the Country Tavern.

Steve was another Army buddy, a kid from California I knew for just a few months. I was at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1971, working at the Public Information Office at 18th Airborne Headquarters. Fayetteville, the nearest town, was a dirty military town flanked by topless bars, beer joints and used car lots. One street close to downtown was called the "Combat Zone," much too dangerous to explore except in groups.

I was newly arrived and knew just a few guys in my office, but the married guys went home after work, and I walked alone across the street to the barracks. Most of the guys in those open bays were mainly interested in my car … and a lift into town. It was a boring, lonely time.

One vivid memory of those early weeks at Fort Bragg stays with me. I remember one dreary, rainy evening. I was standing in the open doorway of the barracks, looking out on a steady downpour, wanting to get out of there but having nowhere to go.

A radio behind me was playing "Rainy Night in Georgia," a haunting and moody song by Brook Benton. I knew I wasn't in Georgia, but it seemed that song was playing just for me.

Hoverin' by my suitcase, tryin' to find a warm place to spend the night.

Heavy rain fallin' seems I hear your voice callin' "It's all right."

A rainy night in Georgia,

A rainy night in Georgia.

It seems like it's rainin' all over the world.

I feel like it's rainin' all over the world.

On the wall next to the door was a military poster of a soldier at attention, with words urging me to "look smart" before going into town. All I could think of was that I didn't want to stay one more evening in the barracks but I sure didn't want to go into town.

Neon signs a-flashin', taxi cabs and buses passin' through the night.

A distant moanin' of a train seems to play a sad refrain to the night.

A rainy night in Georgia.

Such a rainy night in Georgia.

Lord, I believe it's rainin' all over the world.

I feel like it's rainin' all over the world.

I was about as low as you could go. And that's when I met Steve. I don't remember how we met, but I needed a friend, and I guess he did too. We hit it off from the start. He had a big grin and a way of making everyone around him smile. Like me, he was a draftee. He didn't like being in the Army, and he was feeling cut off from the normal world. And, also like me, his old girlfriend wasn't writing.

We hung around together and made a habit of getting off post whenever we could. We avoided cottonmouths on a fishing trip but were rousted from our tents by state troopers. We watched a track meet at Duke, drank beer at a lot of those seedy bars and got too much sun on several trips to Atlantic beaches. The small adventures we created are fun to remember, but I lost track of him when I was ordered to Vietnam.

Almost 30 years later, I wrote about the impact of that song and that rainy night … about Steve and those Army adventures. That Tuesday night — April 2, 2002 — I penned my memories and tried to find him online. I wanted to reconnect, but I had no luck — probably because I was spelling his name wrong.

The very next day, Steve found me.

An email arrived asking if I was the David Val Berry he had known at Fort Bragg. "If this really is Dave … Yahoo!" Steve wrote. I was dumbstruck. We were both looking for each other on the same night. I didn't find him, but he found me.

"Stand By Me" may be a song that celebrates friendships, but sometimes it takes a "Rainy Night in Georgia" to bring one together.

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Dave Berry is the former editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column runs every Wednesday on the front of the My Generation section.

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