I am posting this on the eve of one of my very best friend’s birthdays: Nelson G. (for Gene) Peterson of Moline, Illinois. Nelson was born Aug. 20, 1923. He is 92 today. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NELSON!
I first met Nelson when I began teaching at Silvis Junior High School in the 1969-1970 school year.I taught Language Arts to 7th and 8th graders. He taught History in the room across the hall from me. In fact, we taught across the hall from one another throughout our years on-staff (my years there ended in 1985; Nelson retired earlier).
But teaching was not Nelson’s only job. He is a World War II veteran (the Battle of the Bulge, I think) just as his own father before him served in World War I. He also worked at the Arsenal and came to teaching later in life. Nelson used to say his initials (N.G.P.) stood for “No Good Prick” but that’s not true. He is one of the sweetest, kindest, nicest people I know. He has always been my friend and has never waivered or let me down or tried to hurt my feelings, intentionally or unintentionally. Nelson has never come to a funeral home and gone out of his way to snub me, as a different old friend has done on two occasions. If the funeral is that of someone who was a mother to you for close to a half-century (my mother-in-law) it is particularly distressing and upsetting to be on the receiving end of mean-spiritedness at an already trying time. (Better not to come at all than to come just to be mean.) But that’s the way some people roll— although not Nelson. He even came to one of my book signings at the (now-defunct) Book Rack in Moline and another one at the Hy-Vee Grocery store in Silvis— in the middle of winter— for a children’s book, despite having no children or anyone who needed books. He has truly gone out of his way to be the great friend he remains today. (Thanks, Nelson! I appreciate it!)
Since Nelson, at 92, is the Renaissance man who literally has everything, I stole the idea of 3 of his other friends who took him out to dinner on his 91st birthday. That was a GREAT idea. Kudos! My husband and I decided it would be the best way to salute Nelson on (or near) his special day.
I purposely did not plan dinner for the REAL day, because Nelson, who speaks fluent Swedish, has many cousins in the area and many other friends from his Baptist Church who probably also want to fete him on his birthday today (the REAL day). For example, 3 friends who taught with him for a long time, (as did I), took him out to dinner last year. Perhaps they plan another such outing for this year on August 20th, or perhaps the cousins in town will be “on the case.” [Best not to muck that up and ruin 2 dinners out for the Birthday Boy—although Nelson did say, as we dropped him off at home, that he hadn’t been out after 8:00 p.m. in a long time !] One of Nelson’s cousins, Rose Fuller of East Moline, has shuffled off this mortal coil, but also taught with us at George O. Barr Elementary School for years, so, sadly, she won’t be among the relatives there for him. (R.I.P., Rose). Nelson never married.
I love Nelson and appreciate his sense of humor and his loyalty as a friend, which mirrors my own. I try very hard to be the Best Friend Anyone Could Be, remembering special days, offering help if needed, and just generally trying to be a friend, for the right reasons, not the wrong ones. I don’t need (or want) thousands of superficial friends. I only want the really good ones, like Nelson. I won’t befriend you simply because I think you are going to do some good for my social status or because you have a lot of money or any of those other bad reasons that can come into play. I have only ever befriended people I truly like, who (seemed to ) truly liked me.
On this night, I gave him a card that said, “Everyone is young once…(and, on the inside) Your time is up.” He laughed and seemed to enjoy that and the catfish dinner he selected from the menu at Short Hills Country Club. We were (literally) the only people dining on Tuesday night and out-numbered the staff. I asked the waitress if she could turn down the air conditioning, as it was frigid. The waitress said, “Well, you’re the only people here, so why not?” The A/C was promptly reduced to something that did not threaten to turn me into a popsicle during dinner, for which I am grateful. (Thanks!)
I am also grateful for true-blue friends like Nelson. It is possibly my aversion to early mornings that makes me an unsuitable friend for invitations to join others as they take (took) trips to Chicago or Wisconsin or Las Vegas or wherever over a 40-year span. (Anything before 10 A.M. is verboten.) I admit that early, early mornings are not my thing; I write late into the night (30 books, so far). I didn’t know that being a Night Owl made me a bad person, but apparently it is a fatal flaw. Speaking your mind is not appreciated, either, but I have always spoken out and been honest about things, both for myself and for others, and if that is a flaw, I plead guilty with a certain measure of pride. It is not always easy suffering the backlash of being outspoken, but, for instance, during 4 terms as President (or Co-Chairman) of the Silvis Education Association, it was necessary in order to unionize our district’s teachers. And there are many occasions in a classroom setting where a teacher has to intervene to insure fairness. When I have spoken my mind, it has sometimes been applauded and other times, [because the truth hurts if it is unflattering], I have been reviled and, later, treated very poorly. One should, instead, play their cards very close to the vest and pretend they like people that they (may) actually despise—maybe even send them an oh-so-proper little note of some kind to suck up to them. I never aspired to such dishonesty.
I try to be loyal, honest, and true-blue— not a phony or superficial or sometimes friend . But I don’t play golf, don’t like early mornings, and I never was a teacher at our local high school (UTHS), United Township High School. I’d say that was a criteria for inclusion in dining out with Nelson in a group, although one guest last year [Judy LeMaster Patchin] was not a teacher at UTHS, either, but taught with him in Silvis, as did I. Judy made the guest list; I did not. (She is better with early mornings, for sure, but I don’t think that is the entire story.)
I was judged and found wanting, probably because I tell the truth instead of currying favor with one and all by any means possible. I am positive I am just as good a friend of Nelson’s from our mutual teaching days as any of the other attendees with whom I also taught, and the Amish “shunning” thing is both childish, hurtful and unnecessary. Is 10 years of that not enough for having noted that the invitations to the “fun” things went to others, but the invitations to help out or pitch in came in pretty regularly and routinely, and I did my best to comply.
Then, too, I’m usually off on an adventure of one sort or another that others don’t find interesting or noteworthy (*Nicest compliment of the week from someone I did not know in a store I frequent: “Your life is an adventure.”)
Yes, my life IS an adventure. It is true, as Shakespeare wrote (roughly paraphrased), “If you cut me, do I not bleed?” It is hurtful to be shunned when you have done nothing to deserve it. If you must be punished for feeling left out (when you were left out) and saying so, is that a life sentence? It is also sad to realize that people you thought were your good friends don’t stand up for you in the face of meanness directed at you for over a decade without good cause, don’t remember your special day (even if you always remembered theirs), and disappear without a trace. But, c’est la vie—right gang?
I’m lucky, though. I have a wonderful husband, wonderful kids (my daughter drove me all the way to Indianapolis to see the Rolling Stones for my birthday in July!) and at least one truly wonderful, loyal, long-time Quad Cities friend: Nelson G. Peterson. (I’d name a couple of others, but I’m a believer in quality over quantity and I don’t want to jinx my good fortune or cause them to be ostracized.) I’m pretty sure Nelson won’t leave town and move to a remote location without so much as a phone call to me, nor, intentionally or unintentionally, forget my birthday, (which he remembered this year, as he has every other year.) I’d recite a list of other loyal friends, beginning with my college roommate (who does not live in this area), but this post is for Nelson on his special day. [If you see him, wish him a “Happy Birthday!”]
Nelson G. Peterson, my good and special friend, long may he live and be my friend and here’s to many, many more birthdays! (We’re aiming to have Nelson replace the lady who was the Oldest Living Veteran at age 110.)