By Judith Cullen
Good men can be very hard to find. When they do enter your life, sometimes it happens in the strangest places.
I met Michael (who went by “Mick”) for the very first time one summer at a day camp. It was the summer of 1977, and we were both Junior Counselors. I have to admit, Mick’s slightly notorious reputation had preceded him. My older sister, who was a Senior Counselor, had known him for several years. I had already heard more than one anecdotal adventure, shared with a mixture of amusement and affection. She said he was great with kids, and always singled out the ones who were struggling, never coddling them but simply being encouraging and gently supporting. This probably set the tone of our meeting for the first time.
Mick was an unlikely friend for me. We were both fifteen, and he was the kind of guy that I would have normally found intimidating: a big personality, and way more cool that I could or would ever be. Yet Mick’s “cool” was not an assumed air of superiority, or a feigned fashion. He was an expansive personality and his appeal was the unassuming ease with which he wore that largeness. I found him to be good company, funny, and very human. He was not hard to like. We were heading to the same high school that fall. Somehow I felt a little better knowing I had met and gotten to know him away from the crushing social pressure that comes with high school.
I have to be honest: Mick and I did not really hang with the same crowds. However, we did know a lot of the same people. He and I shared a remarkable similarity: we were both known by a whole lot of people, across many different strata of high school society, and were acquainted with a broad cross-section of people. We were well-known and well-liked just for being who we were.
Mick was of the “Party On!” crowd which dribbled over from the stoners into the jocks and cheerleaders. It meant that he had a certain wild reputation, which was not entirely undeserved. In truth, he did some pretty boneheaded things in those days. He frequently got labeled as “bad” which did not do justice to the entirety of who he was. Then again, back in those days it was all about labels. “Bad” seemed to imply a certain complete lack of regard or respect that just was not part of Mick’s make-up. He liked to question and push boundaries. He defied the labels with his own very firm sense of honor and loyalty.
I was part of the “Honor Society - Student Government” crowd, known best for high grades and playing by the rules. This meant that no one ever would suspect me of bad behavior or “functioning outside the lines.” As a result I could get away with murder. Fortunately, I was smart enough (and paranoid enough) to use this power in very small, very select doses. It was easy to hide within the confines of “good” and not openly challenge the established way of things. Secretly, I admired Mick’s courage to push and question.
We greeted each other in the halls, traveling in circles adjacent to each other. That was the sum total of our interaction during our sophomore year, until it was time to elect class officers for the next year. Then our relationship took a new, unexpected step forward.
The assembly where the candidates gave their speeches was held in the gym, since the auditorium was being remodeled. I had decided to run for the Junior Class cabinet. I was then, and still am, an incurable organizer. I am not totally comfortable with the glaring spotlight of the spokesperson/front man, which makes promoting my work as a self-published author a trial. I like to create and make things happen. I am happy to have a firm hand behind the scenes, and I still get a huge thrill out of seeing things come together and watch people enjoying an experience that I had a hand in creating. So, I ran for office.
Because of the size of the gym, the candidates were a good 30 feet away from the maddening crowd, relieved to get out of class but chaffing slightly at sitting and listening to fellow students give speeches. Who really listened to those speeches? Did they really influence who was elected? I suppose it didn’t really matter. It was another educational experience thinly veiled as student empowerment, but I will admit that high school would have been pretty dull without all the things we did as a result.
I stepped up and began my carefully prepared, well-considered speech. I was about two thirds of the way through when I paused and looked up abruptly. I had heard it. I’d been heckled. A frisson of insecure panic went through me, and evaporated as quickly as it came. It was Mick! He wasn’t making fun of me. In today’s parlance, it was a “shout out.” I don’t know if he knew how nervous I was and was trying to take the edge off my tension. I don’t know if he realized how hard it was for me to put myself forward like that, how vulnerable I felt, and wanted to let me know that it was okay – that I was okay. I don’t know if he wanted to test my authenticity: he despised fakes. I am not even sure that Mick could say why he did it. But there it was, hanging in the air between us plain as day for all to see. So I responded in a friendly, casual manner, acknowledging him, before moving on to finish my speech.
Lots of kids in my position, and with my level of insecurity, would have buckled and shrunken from such a challenge. Others would have aggressively lashed out. Mick had reached out a hand to me, and I had taken that hand gladly. I think I gained his respect that day. I know he gained mine. It wasn’t the last such heckling, though “heckling” is really the wrong word to use for it. Mick was never trying to tear me down. It was more like a personal exchange between two people who like and respect each other, done in a very public manner.
This really was the sum of most of our high school experience with a few variations. We stayed pretty much in our relative spheres of influence and continued our own personal breaking down of barriers, done one person at a time. We exchanged these public volleys and greeted each other in the hallways and the lunchroom. God forbid I would have ever been found down behind the school having a smoke with Mick, and he would have rather have been dead than to have been discovered in Marching Band.
Despite these distinctions, somehow I always felt like Mick had my back. If ever things began to go terribly wrong, he’d be there to help in whatever way he could. I never doubted that. Mick would be there for me, and I would certainly be there for him as well.
Graduation was fast approaching, and final grades were being tallied for the senior class. I was walking to the student council room one day after school and was waylaid by one of the English teachers. She asked me into her room and checked the hallway before closing the door behind us. She lowered her voice and told me that she had to submit final grades before leaving the building that night. Mick was in one of her classes. She liked him a great deal, she said, and in classic Mick style he had planted his feet squarely on the line between “pass” and “fail.” She had checked with his other teachers. He was a single grade point away from not being able to graduate. The other grades had all been turned in, so it was up to her. Should she pass him or fail him? What did I think?
What I thought was that this was a hell of a position to put an eighteen year old in. Mick was my friend, and of course I wanted him to graduate with the rest of us. On the other hand, I was also a “by-the-rules” kid and my then rigid sense of right and wrong dictated that you shouldn’t give a grade that was not earned. I was panicked inside. I wasn’t sure what to say. This teacher surely felt the weight of the dilemma too, and had shared that weight with me – his friend.
I babbled. I am certain of it. I tried to verbally find my way through what she had dropped on me by brainstorming out loud, exploring both sides of what she had put before me. On one hand, Mick was a profoundly good person. In many ways he was at the heart and soul of our class – he had lost none of his largeness of spirit. He would never consider himself a leader, either then or now, but people followed where he lead. It would be awful if he could not graduate. On the other hand . . .
I don’t remember how long I went on. I am not even 100% sure of what I said. I just remember I tried really hard not to take one side or another exclusively. It was not really my decision to make. I was relieved to escape, and tortured about what I might or might not have done to Mick’s life. Back then, graduation seemed to mean everything: the difference between beginning your adult life successfully or with the stigma of failure. Back then, the weight of this all seemed overwhelming.
I remember the last thing I said before leaving the room. “Look, Mick is not going on to College. School is not really his thing. I think you need to consider what difference this one point is going to make in his life, and where he’s heading. How much will this pass or fail mean in ten years?” Then I left, praying I had not destroyed his life or compromised my integrity. Should I have persuaded her to pass Mick, no questions asked? Should I have argued to stick to the letter of the rules? I didn’t have the wisdom at that age to know.
The next day the same teacher stopped me again, all smiles, “Thank you. I took your advice. You convinced me. I passed him.” I’d given advice? Good Lord, I tried to do anything but give advice. Yet, I was pleased for Mick. I was pleased that somehow I might have helped, that I had his back even if I had bumbled my way through it.
Mick’s folks rented a portable, electric reader board and put it out in front of their house to celebrate his graduation. I am sure they knew more than anyone that their son was not, and probably never would be, a brilliant scholar. Mick’s brilliance, and he indeed possesses brilliance, is not in academic achievement. This was a great occasion, and it must have seemed like a small miracle to them.
I can’t take credit for Mick walking proudly with the rest of our class. Really, the teacher was always the one with the critical decision-making power, even if she chose to give me the acclaim. She was the one who is truly, fully responsible for him graduating. But I couldn’t help but take pleasure and feel a little slice of ownership in that glowing tribute on his parent’s parking strip. It remains in the top ten list of things I am proud to have been even a very small part of.
Five years later I was away at graduate school. I was holed up in a tiny apartment, thousands of miles from home, with an awful case of walking pneumonia. The apartment was an “efficiency” apartment which means you had to go out in the hall to change your mind. It came complete with a small gas stove, a refrigerator, drafts, cockroaches and domestically violent neighbors. For the first time in my life, I was somewhere that I couldn’t just pop away in a few hours to the safety and comfort of home. It was a heck of a place to be when your doctor had ordered two weeks of bed rest. I couldn’t even sleep in my bed. I would start coughing enough to choke, and sleep was not possible. So I spent two weeks, a month ultimately, sleeping in a recliner in the middle of a dinky, darkened room. Thankfully, a friend had shipped me a very large shoe box full of paperbacks – mostly historical romances with a copy of Pride and Prejudice slipped in among them. So I listened to music and tapes on my radio, drifted in and out of book after book, sipped endless bowls of chicken soup, and fell into a lot of medication-encouraged naps.
One afternoon the phone rang. I picked up the receiver expecting some local friends, who had proposed bringing me to their home for the evening so I that could eat something other than canned soup, and perhaps run my laundry. That is not who was on the other end. It was incredibly, remarkably Mick. He’d called information for the city I was living in, discovered two numbers listed with the same name, my name, and called away. Of course, he called the other one first, but I didn’t care. There he was, on the phone and the smile in his voice was better than any anti-biotic. I don’t know if he had run into one of the few family anf friends who knew how sick I was. It really didn’t matter whether he knew or whether the call was spontaneous. It was a blessing in a bleak moment. That too, is part of Mick’s magic.
Mick isn’t “smart” in the conventional sense. He is, as the Irish like to say, I gcroílár maith “In good heart.” He brings people together and makes them comfortable. He is full of fun, a profound sense of fairness, and fiercely loyal. It has been over 30 years and he’s still the same.
He has a business of his own, built by his own hard work and sweat, in a neighboring state. He has a wonderful wife. I have never met her, but the word on the street from “the girls” from school days is that she’s the type of woman we never would have expected him to be with. Then again, Mick always had great taste. His life is full of grown children and adorable grandchildren, all of whom he is insanely proud of.
I can’t say that we have kept in touch through all those years, though I know he has kept in touch with some of his closest buds from those days. Yet, once we did reconnect, he’s steadfastly always there. A little exchange now and again and I feel the world is a little better because he was in it somewhere – just being Mick.
I was doing a public reading of my work not too long after I began to self-publish my work. It was one of many things I was experimenting with, trying to promote myself as a nascent author. It was June and the weather was spectacular. On top of it there was a farmers market in full swing a half a block away, and a major weekend festival happening not too far down the road. What had I been thinking? No one was going to want to come inside and sit, listening to a newbie author read stories on a day like this! I got out of the car feeling depressed and was unlocking the venue door with a sense of resignation: I was going to get skunked, but I might as well go through the motions. After all, I had promoted it.
Suddenly a voice halloo’d me from a half a block away. There he was, striding bold as brass down the sidewalk: Mick! He was grinning ear to ear, complete with graying mutton-chop whiskers and the same old mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He was one of the most beautiful sights I had seen in weeks. I was struggling a lot to hold onto life in those days, and Mick wrapped me in a warm, sweaty, marvelous hug that made years and worries melt away with its sheer exuberance. He couldn't stay for very long, but we spent a delightful 10 minutes chatting before he had to go. His appearance was like a prayer answered. It was a prayer answered!
A few months later, when I had a major crisis, Mick was among the first to say, “What’s going on? How can I help?” In reality, there was probably not much he could do to help from some 500 odd miles away. I have no doubt that if he could have helped, he would have. It was just enough that he asked and offered. Here it was, over 35 years since we first met at that day camp, fifteen year olds with so much about life to learn, and Mick still had my back.
I feel lucky. I have really good friends. If it all hits the fan again with me, I know there are people who will help me. I know Mick will be always be at the head of that class, with the very highest marks.
We read tales about the lives of men: artists, athletes, poets, presidents, inventors, entrepreneurs, and scholars. These men are called “great.” Rarely do stories get written about seemingly ordinary, good men. I don’t think “good” is really the appropriate description for someone like Mick. It does not say nearly enough. No, he’s not a “big noise” in the way that our society likes to define success. He hasn’t made the headlines; discovered a new continent; found a cure for a disease, or made a miraculous technological break through. Mick’s magic is far more ancient: he works hard, he looks out for other people, and he heals souls. Isn’t that what we are all really put on Earth for?
Mick is a great man, in every meaningful sense of the word: great spirit, great heart, great fun. They are out there, men like Mick. They can be very hard to find. There are more of them than we think and, at the same time, there are not nearly enough of them.