Tuesday, October 8, 2013

For Steve

October 3, 2013 the national news was broadcasting day three of the government shutdown. For the Arundel community the news we awoke to, our old friend Steve Casto had died the night before in Los Banos, California. Newscasters were questioning why the World War II memorial was closed to visiting veterans. The questions that swirled through my mind and many of our friends were the how, the where and the why? It was several days before I was able to process what happened, let it sink in, accept his death and be able to write about the boy I knew, the man he became, the person I loved so dearly growing up.

Steve was a fierce competitor in athletics but inside was a gentle soul. His smile and good looks melted many hearts, but it was his character, who he was on the inside, that we all fell in love with. Steve wore many ‘hats’ in high school. He was an artist, an athlete, a flirt, a teammate, classmate, mischief maker and brother but to me he was simply my friend.

I know many who are reading this will have different memories of Steve, these are mine and I hope you will share yours in return. Steve would love the memories, smiles, laughter and conversation.

I first met Steve in Girl Scouts. Yes, crazy but true. I was in 7th grade, Steve was in 8th.   Our Cadet Girl Scout leader was Mrs. Cislo, her son Jeff was a good friend of Steve’s. The two on occasion would crash a few meetings. Much to my father’s dismay, Steve and Jeff even accompanied our troop on a few camping trips.  They amused themselves by scaring us through various tactics while we slept in our tents. My Dad. as a chaperon, spent most of the night chasing them while trying to keep calm and order at the campsite. After finally cornering them, he threatened to send them to Leavenworth if they didn’t go to bed and let him sleep.  

What I remember most about Girl Scouts and Steve. The ‘ruckus’ they would cause hanging outside, waiting for the girls to exit. I was never one of the cute girls Steve and Jeff hoped to talk to as they left Girl Scouts, they barely noticed me.

It wasn’t until late summer 1975 that Steve and I became friends. It of course happened after a Girl Scout meeting. My sister (who they both had a crush on) left with a friend. Steve noticed I was heading home alone. Even though I did not live that far away he was not letting me walk by myself. He rode his bike in big circles around me, back and forth, the entire way from the church to my house. Instead of taking off after I was home safe, he stayed. We sat on the sidewalk, eating ice cream and talked until well after the moon rose. With the stars as our witness, Steve appointed himself my protector that night.

My family lived on Rita Drive, the same street the Cislo’s resided. On his way to see Jeff Steve would often stop by to say hello, see what I was doing. We were definitely an odd couple. I was a scrawny teenage girl, with long hair and glasses. Steve was a well-built heartthrob, great athlete and artist. Somehow this ugly duckling formed a bond, a beautiful friendship with the handsome Prince Charming.

His hugs! I loved them. I remember them so well. They were far from the standard embrace, nothing romantic about them. Steve would stand beside me, wrap his arm around my neck, pull me in close, squeeze and give me a nuggy on the top of my head. Many times his singular goal for the afternoon was to somehow make me scream and/or run. If I did both it was a bonus day. He had succeeded. 

I have so many wonderful memories of Steve floating through my mind right now.  I remember the bounce in his step as he carried me home piggyback style from school. I had tripped wearing platform shoes and turned my ankle. I was sitting on the sidewalk, removing my shoes when he came to my rescue.

I remember the first 'Casto artwork' he ever drew me. He stole my Government book as I walked by him on the way to class. I yelled at him to bring it back. He held it up high and said later as he quickly walked away.  He returned it three periods later. On the book cover, a hand drawn bouquet of flowers with the words, ‘Good Luck’ arching around them.  (I was trying out for Poms that afternoon)

So many vivid memories from Steve’s wrestling days; the trash bag suits he and all the guys wore to lose water weight.  The meets, I remember how he looked standing in the circle ready for the whistle, bouncing back and forth, shaking his arms loose. His exhausted but happy look as his hand was being raised in victory. How he would almost collapse on the sideline after a long hard match. His protective head gear dropped at his feet, half sitting up, half slouched in the folding chair, as he squirted water in his mouth from the bottle. I remember how he and his teammates would sometimes get on all fours, lean in close to the mat cheering on a teammate as they wrestled.

Steve had a mischievous side. After congratulating him on an Arundel football win, I made the mistake of teasing him. I held my nose as I told him he stunk. He laughed, said “really” then proceeded to give me the biggest, longest hug. I probably looked like a rag doll as he spun me around in his tight embrace. Like a big bear he shook me a few times, rubbing his jersey against my uniform, before finally putting me back on the ground. I can still see his grin as he laughed and walked toward the locker room.

There was the time when school let out early due to snow. I hid behind a car in the high school parking lot and waited patiently for him to exit, commence my surprise attack. After I hit him with two rapid fire snowballs, I ran. I made it to the edge of the baseball field before he pinned me and jammed snow down my coat.  After I called Uncle three times and promised never to bean him again he let me up. I broke that promise the next snowfall with the exact same result.

In tenth grade when the guy I had a crush sent me a note breaking my heart, Steve made me smile. On my way to lunch as he passed me in the hall he handed me a folded piece of paper. Inside were only three words, “He’s a turd!”  His note made me laugh and reminded me I had a friend who cared. 

Steve knew how much I hated being called Debbie’s little sister and at times he had fun teasing me with the fact.  If I was sitting outside on the steps when he ran by he would turn, run sideways and ask, “You’re Debbie’s little sister right? Is she home?” 
My playful answer, “Yeah, Yeah, Keep moving!”

The one memory/story that best illustrates the relationship Steve and I shared happened right after my 14th birthday. July 1977.    

It was one of those hazy, hot and humid summer afternoons. My sister was at her boyfriend's, I was home laying out in the backyard. I was half asleep listening to the radio when I was startled by a sudden spray of water. I quickly tied the back of my bikini top, grabbed my glasses, looked up and saw Steve. His face had a huge smile on it as he continued to drench me. With not much success I tried to take the hose away. He locked his arm around my waist and held me tight as he held the nozzle over my head, soaking both of us in the process. 

As we were drying off Steve confessed he came over because Jeff wasn't home and he was bored. He asked if I wanted get a Slurpee. Well actually he said I had two options, walk with him or continue to get drenched. Naturally I said let's go walking.  I threw on a pair of shorts and off we went.

After leaving 7-11 instead of heading home we decided to take the paths through the woods and head to the Little Patuxent.  We hung out on the small bank in the middle of the river. I laid out on my stomach, while Steve reclined on his back. We soaked in the rays and talked, every once in a while Steve would walk in the water and splash, trying to convince me to join him. He finally got me to move when he placed a frog on my back. I screamed, jumped up and ran into the water so quickly I knocked Steve on his butt.

We headed home when the sun started to drop below the tree line. The two of us laughed and playfully bumped each other as we headed home. We were about a half a mile from the river when a snake dropped out a tree and landed in front of us blocking our passageway. I was so afraid nothing came out as I tried to scream. Instinctively I hid behind Steve. I stood with my head buried in his back, begging him to make the snake go away.

At first he laughed, asked me what I was afraid of. He went on to say there were hundreds of snakes in the woods and we had probably walked by dozens on the way there without even knowing. I told him it didn’t matter how many hundreds of snakes were in the woods, I couldn’t see them. This one I could. Further explaining, in my mind when the snake dropped from the tree it was attacking. A few minutes later, probably tired or our banter, the snake slithered off the walkway and curled up in the woody brush.

With the path clear, Steve started to walk forward but I stayed frozen. When he realized I was not following, he turned around and asked what was wrong. My eyes were starting to water as I explained to him I was afraid the snake would come back, wrap around my leg and bite me as I walked by. I didn't want to die. He tried to convince me it was a harmless snake, it was more afraid of me than I was of it.

At first frustrated he reminded me only way to get home was in that direction. He promised me the path was clear. I didn’t care until I was sure the snake was far, far away and could no longer get me I wasn’t moving.  

I am sure my babbling was ridiculous but Steve didn’t laugh, or leave me.  Instead, he scooped me up and cradled me in his arms. Told me close my eyes, turn my head into his chest so I would not see the snake.  As he carried me through the woods, he held me tight and said, “You’re safe. I got ya!”

That was Steve, if you were hurt, scared or you couldn’t make it any further, he simply ‘carried’ you, he was that kind of friend. 

Steve graduated Arundel in 1980 and we no longer passed each other in the hall. We didn't see each other as often as before. On occasion through out my senior year and then during college I would come home to find Steve sitting on my steps. He always greeted me by playfully teasing, “Are you Debbie’s little sister?”
Steve joined the Air Force in 1984 and the distance between us grew even further.  Through the years I would discover a post card, Christmas card or letter from Steve in my mailbox. He would tell me about his exploits in the Air Force and ask how I was doing. His correspondence stopped 1988/1989.

Sadly, back then life had a way of distracting me from my old friends that went missing. Steve was one of them. I thought of him often but never followed up to find out where he had traveled or what had happened to him.

It wasn’t until he found me on Facebook that I discovered why the sudden end to his postcards and letters.  In 1988/89 Steve was in a car accident that left him a quadriplegic. 

The first time I saw a photo of Steve in a wheelchair I cried.  The man who carried me in his arms, who ran up behind me and yelled boo, pinned me, lifted me, threw me, squeezed my neck with his arms, could no longer move, walk, or feel anything from his neck/chest down. His hands that once penned beautiful drawings lie silent by his side. I believe Steve sensed my sorrow for him. He assured me life was good.

Corresponding with Steve I discovered he was the same man, actually a better man, more alive, more loving than when we last saw each other. Steve was happy, in love and had the family he always dreamed of.

Life had not taken the path he had imagined or dreamed of when we were in high school but he was blessed by God and lucky to be where he was. He was thankful every day he was alive! 

The last correspondence I received from Steve ended with the words, “I do enjoy your writing my friend. Keep yo' chin up.”

I hope Steve likes what I have written. All the memories we shared keep me smiling when I feel a bout of sadness coming over me.

I miss Steve but in my heart I know he is no longer bound to his chair, he is standing, walking and dancing in Heaven. That gives me solace. 
Rest in peace Steve, I miss you!!