My Friend, Yaakov
Vignetted in memory, are pictures the camera never caught.
One such group of mental snapshots holds images of Yaakov Solmon, an Israeli boy about my brother’s age – about 4 years older than me. I remember my first impression of him: a shy kid, red hair and freckles, in a white tee shirt. He was new, and didn’t know anyone. That soon changed.
Yaak (rhymes with “clock”) became very popular. Everyone just liked him, and he liked them back. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he did have a cool car; a customized ‘55 ford with a souped-up engine and a subtle, two-tone white paint job. Down at Johnson’s Esso station, the taut-faced mechanics would always be putting in this or that new feature. But a wicked car is just what one would expect from Yaak, just one more cool thing about him, like the way he rolled up a pack of Luckies in the sleeve of his tee shirt, the logo showing through, above his strong, freckled arm, like the man in the straw hat in Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”.
Yaakov was an only child, and lived with his parents just two blocks away in our sweet little suburb of DC. Yaak’s father, in finance at the Israeli embassy, was a pleasant, roundish man, with a moustache, pipe, and a laugh in his voice, always glad to see you. He sat in their den and read the paper. If I had been older, I’d probably remember just what Yaak's mother looked like, but I do remember she was quiet and beautiful. One summer, when I lost 25 pounds, lifted weights, and transformed from a pudgy kid to a robust adolescent, she commented: “Oh, you look like a different person!” It meant a lot when she said it. She was a soothing presence.
Despite being so popular, and out of my age group, Yaak was my good friend, and never kidded me about being chubby, as others did. He found time to spend with me, telling and showing me things, such as his wonderful collection of cigarette lighters. There was one that looked like a tiny camera on a tripod, and one that looked like a gun. There was a gold one that slid apart in a clever way, a silver and mother-of-pearl one, and one that looked like a TV, which reminds me how impressed I was that the name of the city in Israel that Yaakov came from sounded so much like “Television”: “Tel Aviv”. Equally delightful was that in Israel, Mickey Mouse was pronounced “Mucka Moose”! Yaak also showed me his CO2 pellet gun, which could fire little feathered darts as well as pellets. I don’t remember him actually ever firing it, though.
We “flipped” baseball cards, letting them fall from about your waist, so they flipped over and over to the ground and landed, hopefully, image side up. If so, and the other card was image-down, you won it. A tie, you flipped again. One day, my luck was very bad, and I kept losing until I noticed that the card Yaak was using was always the same one, and it seemed a bit thick to me. It was a rare display of devilishness from Yaakov: a double-sided baseball card! When I caught him on it, he laughed and gave me all my cards back and then some.
Once again, as boys do, I was throwing a pen knife so it would stick in the ground, and in a reckless moment threw as Yaakov picked up something on the lawn. I meant to come close, but to my horror, the knife handle actually hit his hand. He wasn’t cut, but bruised, and he was angry, but never yelled at me. He just went home and saw to his hand. He never mentioned it again, and never held it against me.
Now, Yaakov had a dog. She was a picture-perfect German Shepherd, with a fabulous pedigree. Nine champions on her mother’s side, and fourteen on her father’s, Yaak told me proudly. And I’m sure that was true, because Lupa (Latin for “wolf”, I was told) was super-intelligent and beautiful. I can remember once, in our large back yard, Yaak telling Lupa: “Go get a stick.” She went out the gate to return in a moment with a branch in her mouth that must have been 3 feet long – wider than the open gate. Seeing that the stick was not going to fit, in a distinct move she tilted her head sideways and trotted through easily. Aside from her smarts, Lupa was even a cover-girl on a dog calendar, and she was always friendly – until the day I learned she had another side...
When walking home from school one day, I passed the Solmons’ house as I often did, to play with Lupa, in their yard behind the fence. I threw a stick for her to fetch and bring back to me. Suddenly I heard an ominous sound behind me; from the alley beside the house had come a dog, a boxer breed, who was baring its teeth and growling as it crept toward me. I was frozen.
The chain link fence was high, but Lupa was over in a flash, her cheerful dog aspect vanishing as she cleared it, landing as a furious beast, streaking toward her enemy. The boxer turned tail and ran, with Lupa right on its heels. They were gone in the next second, and for a couple of minutes I didn’t see or hear a thing, just standing there dumbfounded. Then Lupa came trotting back, all business, and, leaning slightly against my leg to keep me close, she scanned all around, making sure it was safe. I tried to make her stay there, but she wouldn't leave me, and when I had to go home she went with me, guarding me all the way.
My mind goes back to an early memory with Yaak, when we were watching TV in our small back porch. I leaned my head on his soft flannel shirt and said: “I like you Yaak”. “I like you too, Danny”, he said, putting his arm around me and patting my shoulder. Years after he had gone back to Israel, my brother told me about a girl from school who had been there and seen a tall, handsome Israeli soldier, who turned out to be Yaakov. Sometime after that, I heard that Yaakov had been killed in the ’63 war. Not really comprehending death at that age, it hurts more now, now that I know what loss is, and like a fading snapshot, I cherish his memory all the more. Because he never grew old, in my heart we are still young together, and Yaakov still guards my friendship, and I his, like Lupa guarded my life.