I submit for your approval an unauthorized biography of a wildly successful, recently departed best friend from my old Pa stomping grounds.
It may require a part II or even III, since it has it all … rags-to-riches, young love-divorce, crippling mental illness with groundbreaking therapy and unlikely reconciliation. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, laugh again, whimper a little and possibly, at some point, puke.
I’m again featured throughout, not in a narcissistic way, but as a first-hand witness. Without overplaying the setup, Lester Stephenson’s life story is filled with intrigue and mind-bending twists not seen since Poe’s “The Raven.” But mine is non-fiction.
Growing up miles apart – me closer to Hollsopple and Les in Tire Hill – we went to different grade schools, never to meet till seventh grade. He was one of the cool, Lance Romance guys – tall, Beatle-bang haircut and no stranger to fisticuffs with his long arms and fast hands.
I was a little intimidated by Les until mutual best friend Donnie Eash brought us together. We hung out at Merle’s Drug Store and anywhere else with pinball machines. We were pinball wizards with a skill level unseen since that deaf, dumb and blind kid Roger Daltry sang about it. Eash and I had no aspirations for anything more, while Les became increasingly studious over time. His mother’s unexpected death years earlier shifted his focus to helping his grieving, alcoholic, coal-miner father.
Decades later, we’d laugh recalling the time in Johnstown when I shopped for records at George’s Song Shop. I paid for one “45” before browsing the shelves for others. Paying for my final choice, hippie George said, “Let’s just put this one in the bag with the other one.” Les, literally left holding the bag he handed over, lashed out when George glared at him and growled, “Hey, you never paid for this one. Or this one ...”
My unsuspecting pal snapped, “Hey, it’s not my bag, ya (expletive withheld).” I nobly stepped up to confess, and after a stern warning, we left without criminal records. (As I’ve confessed in print before, I had a problem, and it took a few years before it occurred to me shoplifting is technically wrong).
As seniors, Eash got sidetracked and I was often a third wheel with Les and his leggy, majorette girlfriend, Maryanne Rudge. My older sister’s boyfriend lined up my first real job at a fast-food joint called Winky’s in Richland’s shopping district, and during my interview, I mentioned my friend also in need of work. We were both hired, and I implore you to take note of this assist I gave Les. You’ll later see it as a profound springboard.
I’ll pick this up next week, including how we missed our first day when I demolished my dad’s car on rain-slicked Tire Hill on my way to Les’ house. That Plymouth Valiant hydroplaned on the slick road and spun in wild circles, bouncing off one parked tractor-trailer and coming to rest underneath another. I mean to tell ya: those semis don’t have much give to ’em.
Stay tuned for the wild twists and turns I promised and have yet to deliver. You’ll be grateful you persevered.