Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 of this series describe the origin of a group of teenage friends in Pittsburgh (PA) in the late-1940s. It is also a story of my education outside of schools and how I learned to live a full life with people I loved.

Deciding to Stay Together

The idea of a group of close friends who worked at staying together did not emerge among us until after college when many of us left Pittsburgh to attend graduate school, work in other cities or serve in the U.S. military. While we had already begun annual New Year’s Eve parties in the early ‘50s while in college (much food, little liquor and awfully amateurish but hilarious entertainment staged by ourselves with the obligatory game of charades after midnight), the notion of a cohesive group beyond annual parties had not taken hold.

By the early 1960s, most of have us had been married a few years.* Children arrived. We were building careers. Some of us lived in Cleveland and Youngstown (OH) and Elizabeth (NJ). A few of us in Pittsburgh and Cleveland got together to establish a book discussion group. As to who would join, a core of seven couples who had kept in touch by phone, letter, visits, and being at each other’s weddings became the book club (Yus, Sam, Dave, and I along with our wives were among those founding couples).

We had no name. No president, dues, or business meetings. No rules save those agreed upon by consensus. Intellectual and social interests had merged.

Once the book club formed and met monthly, even traveling to Barbara and Larry’s home in Cleveland on a few occasions, the idea and its existence grabbed our imaginations. We began to pride ourselves in sticking together even though our careers diverged, a few of us lived out of town, and each of us had created other networks of acquaintances and friends at work, in schools our children attended, the synagogues we joined, and neighborhoods in which we lived.

In effect, what we did unselfconsciously over subsequent years was to build a group folklore, enriched initially by common experiences in Victory but extended to include incidents involving wives and children, joint vacations, annual picnics New Year’s Eve parties, and, of course, the book club. We had learned to do for ourselves as a group. In little bits and pieces we taught ourselves how to survive as a group, creating more ties that bind through book discussions and annual events.

We had an identity but no name. We had a history with no written record only an oral tradition. We had learned without teachers. And we had pride in lasting as long as we did without anyone’s guidance or approval.

A wealth of images, some manufactured, some embellished, some remembered through photos and slides were embraced by all of us to define who we were as a group. A common history of experiences meant that recall of a particular New Year’s Eve party, a certain picnic, a slide-sharing evening—often exaggerated for effect–would trigger gales of laughter, knee slapping and elbow pokes of shared warmth. And, yes, we also shared children and career achievements, disappointments, and sadness in family member illnesses, the death of siblings and parents. Without basic trust in one another built up over the years, such sharing would not have occurred.

Who We Were Two Decades Later

Here’s a snapshot of the group in the 1970s. Ten couples made up our group. Jewish, middle aged, married and nearly all with children. No divorces had occurred except for one in the late-1980s. All of us had married within our faith and raised our children with varying degrees of religious observance.

College educated, all of us were in the mid-to-late stages of their careers. Among wives and husbands in these years, there were four social workers, five school teachers, one administrator, two lawyers, a college professor, a family physician, three housewives, a college student, a manufacturer’s representative and a public information specialist in a large organization. The core of the group—now eight couples—lived in Pittsburgh where all of us had grown up. Barbara and I lived in Washington, D.C.  for 16 years and then relocated to northern California in 1981;  Dave moved his family to Los Angeles in 1976.

Of course, these few facts sketch out little more than the bare outline of who we were then. For those who find comfort in categories, I guess we would be classified as Jewish, middle-class business and professional types, indistinguishable from contemporaries in big cities. In religion, families, sports interests (especially Pittsburgh teams), we were probably no different than others with similar backgrounds, families, stable friendships, careers, and quite predictable daily rhythms in our lives. All of us had other friends, of course, but what I believe made us unique was that a core group of individuals strove to stay together in subsequent decades.

Working at Staying Together

Groups such as ours do not jell magically. It takes time, commitment, and trust. Surely a common history and chemistry of sorts must be present for cohesive relationships to initially meld, evolve over time even as membership changes, and cement the group together.

No single leader mobilized and consolidated our group. Leadership was casual and distributed among the couples during these years. Informally, leadership flowed from some couples to others over time when it came to planning book club meetings, New Year’s Eve parties, summer picnics and later, weekend retreats. Everyone somehow did things and leadership, often shared, emerged naturally without prodding. Organizing chores fell to some folks while operating tasks fell to others. Starting and maintaining a book club required different skills and time, for example, than the important work of keeping it on course. Conflicts arose over the years. They ebbed and flowed and only once rose to the level of ending the book club that by the end of the 1970s was nearly twenty years old.

What prevented conflicts from splitting the group irreversibly was that an informal, unsigned social compact had emerged for staying together in the group’s decisions to begin, continue, and expand the book club, maintain annual New Year’s Eve parties, and annual picnics. Politics, for example, seldom was discussed within the group. Nor did simmering divisions in the group over how much work for events some people did (or did not do) or spotty participation by other couples ever get discussed explicitly.  Raw and open conflict was tamped down. Within that social compact, anchored in mutual trust the group would gather more than a dozen times a year. In between those gatherings, individual couples would go out for dinner, get theater and symphony subscriptions, and see one another adding more stitches to the social fabric of the group.

Since in these early decades, almost half of the group was at times away from Pittsburgh, patterns of contact emerged.

Those of us who lived far from the group such as Barbara and me worked at staying in touch. Letters, monthly phone calls, cassette tapes (remember this is before the Internet), exchanges of photos, and, of course, visits kept alive memories while creating new ones. Birthdays, anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, and, yes, funerals, were events that each of us noted and cared about—further enriching our bonds. Thus, Dave, Sam, Yus, and me grew close especially with playing tennis in SLO and having occasional reunions on the west coast.

As Yus once observed about those of our AK group who had moved from Pittsburgh (I at the age of 21 and Dave in his 40s) and had lived in various places since, the close “buddies” of those day became an extended family that I could turn to time and again for solace, sharing fears, and seeking advice.  Knowing that I had such intimate friends made each move to Cleveland, Washington, and then California one in which Barbara and I didn’t worry about making new friends in each new location although we did through our professional work and synagogues we joined. I always had my rock of faith in my long-time Pittsburgh “buddies.”  **  

_________________

*Evidence of our closeness and a footnote to the social norms of the day that we adhered to was a betting pool on getting married. The first to get married would collect five dollars from each of us. While hardly an economic incentive to get married ($50), it does illustrate how we viewed the inevitability of marriage in the 1950s. Not so, today.

___________________________________

**In our rough-hewn taxonomy of friendship, there are acquaintances, friends, and buddies  (or the phrase “intimate friends” which we did not use then). All of us in the group reminded ourselves occasionally that each of us had acquaintances and friends, but it was “buddies” that encompassed what we had.

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