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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Chad Austin and Chris Knight: Twenty-five years of mischief and friendship!

A few days ago was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I'd thought of writing about that but you know, that's one event in my life that I've shared my memories about a few times already. All these years later and my ears are still ringing with the pandemonium that erupted when Darth Vader betrayed the Emperor.

That's already one of the fondest memories of my generation. But there's something else about the present time, that to me is much more special and worth honoring here. Because it was twenty-five years ago this month that a life-long friendship began between me and Chad Austin.

It was actually a few years earlier that Chad and I had met, on our first day of kindergarten at Community Baptist School in Reidsville. We didn't get to see much of each other though for the next three years because he and I wound up having different teachers, so there was one group of students that by circumstance he wound up hanging out with, and vice-versa.

But toward the end of our third-grade year, our classes were sharing a lot of recess time together and he came to me one day to ask about something. What was his question? Ahhhh, yeah I still remember that one. He asked if I by any chance had a certain action figure. As a matter of fact I did and not just one but two of 'em! I brought it with me the next day to show it to him. And then we started talking about other things too, like Return of the Jedi which was two weeks or so from being released, and whether Darth Vader was really Luke Skywalker's father: hard to believe that those were the last days of discussion and debate about what had turned into the most heated controversy of the era's pop culture.

And a funny thing happened, which I didn't have a name for it at the time but I think that even back then, Chad and I recognized a kindred spirit in each other. We enjoyed the same things like Star Wars movies and G.I. Joe comics, and more serious stuff. Like, way more serious stuff, including science and religion. Chad was the first person of my own age that I could have a deep theological discussion with.

By the time we had the end-of-year third grade cookout a week before school ended, Chad and me were fast friends. We gave our phone numbers to each other, and started laying plans for the summer. Sleepovers at each others' house were definitely in the works, especially 'cuz I wanted to come over to his place and see something his family owned and I had only heard whispered about, like a piece of arcane magic: a video-cassette recorder.

I've never forgotten my first time visiting Chad's house. I spent the night there beginning one Friday evening. His Dad brought pizza and he also got these toy Star Wars lightsabers for Chad and his brother, and we wound up having mock lightsaber duels in the backyard and on the trampoline (yeah dangerous but fun!). And Chad showed me their VCR. I still remember beholding it, in awe at the kind of power that there must be with being able to tape television shows and watch practically any movie you wanted to whenever you wanted to watch it! Sorta my introduction to the basic concept of an iPod, when ya think about it...

Anyhoo, that night we watched Tron, which I'd never seen before. And the whole time we were watching it together, Chad and me were cracking jokes at whatever was happening in the movie. It wasn't as intense as Mystery Science Theater 3000 but we couldn't resist cutting-up some. Who knew that a quarter-century later we'd still be doing that?

(By the way, I gave him my spare action figure too :-)

A few weeks later Chad visited my house for a sleepover, and we played lots of Atari 2600 together. Fourth grade started, and I think by that point at least one weekend a month was spent at on or the other's house. Most nights, we'd be up way late chatting up a storm, and I can't recall if we ever once resolved that we would try to actually get some sleep! It was on one of those nights, when I was at his place, that I told Chad something...

"Chad, I'm going to make a movie someday and I'm going to put you in it."

"What's it going to be about?"

"I don't know yet, but I'm going to put you in it."

That was January of 1984. Just one of those times when two kids are talking and dreaming about what they're going to do "when we grow up."

It's twenty-five years later now. I honestly don't know if Chad and me have grown-up yet.

But a funny thing happened: twenty years later, I did make a movie. And Chad was put in it! He had the principle role even, playing George Lucas in my first film Forcery. He did an awesome job too, despite how much he got thrashed and throttled-around in the course of production :-)

And the neat thing is, he and I still haven't stopped with our dreaming and scheming. I don't think we ever will, either...

Sixth grade came, and that was the last time we saw each other for awhile because the next year my sister and I started in public school. And there were some other things going on in my life at that point too: way much more than most twelve-year olds have to deal with. And before we knew it, there was a long time that Chad and I weren't able to keep in touch with each other.

But one day during Christmas break in our eighth-grade year, our phone rang and I happened to answer it.

"Hey Chris?"

"That's me." I didn't recognize the guy's voice. Just one of many strange things that puberty does to a guy...

"This is Chad!"

I think we spent about two hours on the phone after that, catching up on things. He was in public school now too, and he was telling me about the trip his class had taken to, I think it was Washington D.C. I told him about our class going to Disney World in a few months. We compared notes on pro wrestling and for the first time in my life I confided with a friend that I liked... as in, really liked... a girl.

(Her name was Dana. That's all I'm gonna say about that :-P)

We were expecting to see each other again when we started high school, but as it turned out Chad and I had a reunion during a month-long summer enrichment program a few months before class began. He and I took the newspaper elective together. And I wish that whatever happened between us could be bottled and sold 'cuz when Chad and I hooked-up again after so long, it was like a spigot of mad creativity that got turned on and we didn't know how to make it stop! Between Chad's hilarious cartoons (he always was a terrific artist) and my insane articles, we took over that middle-school summer project and turned it into our personal MAD Magazine. I still have a few copies of each issue that we did, too!

So then the high school years were upon us, and all the dilemmas and difficulties that come with them. And unfortunately, Chad and I didn't get to see each other much during our freshman year: again because of different schedules. The following year though he and I were inducted into the Beta Club together, and on the night of the ceremony Chad and his mom did something that turned out to be one one of the better turning-points in my life: they encouraged me to join the school's swim team, which would start practice the next day.

You gotta understand something, folks: at this point in my life I was extremely shy. Like, you wouldn't believe how withdrawn I was from people... including the people I cared for most. And this ain't the time to talk about why that might have been but take my word for it: the Chris Knight you're reading the words of today, is the farthest thing you can imagine from the Chris Knight that used to be. So think about what it was like when that shy kid was asked to not only come out of his shell, but put on a swimsuit and show the world how fast he can drown...

If it had been anyone but Chad telling me that I could do this, I don't know if I would have tried. But he said that this would be a fun thing, so the next day I showed up at the first practice.

If somebody had told me that I would be on Rockingham County Senior High's Swim Team for that year and the next two, I would never have believed it. Or that before it was over with that I would have earned a trophy for "Most Improved Swimmer".

I also remember the day during one meet (we were swimming in the pool at what was then Elon College) that Chad was about to finish a race and he dislocated his shoulder. And it came out so loud, that we literally heard the thing pop out of joint all the way across the pool.

Chad went into physical therapy for his injury. But he never gave up. He came to every practice and every meet. And as soon as his doctor gave him the green light, Chad was back in the pool...

...swimming with one arm...

...and coming in first a few times too!

(It goes without saying that Chad quickly earned the nickname of "One Armed Bandit" ;-)

It was our junior year of high school that the friendship between Chad and me really began taking the form that would follow us into the rest of our lives. We had more classes together then and he and I were talking on the phone a lot more too (but this time less about pro wrestling and a lot more about girls). In computer class we were still cutting-up together. And yes, that was when the now-infamous "Chris Knight does Elvis" thing first happened. Before lunch that day, posters advertising "Chris Knight Does Elvis! See him shake his pelvis! One show TONIGHT ONLY!" had appeared on just about every bulletin board on campus. There is also my very strange "Buffalo Bill" impersonation from The Silence of the Lambs too (which I'd sometimes do on the starting blocks during a swim meet) but we don't have to go there...

Toward the end of our junior year, something else happened to Chad and me that years later we still crack up laughing about. That wasn't long after I'd discovered Monday Night Live on what was at the time WAEU Channel 14. One Monday in school Chad said he was going to call up the show that night with this "laughing box" that he had. It took him a few weeks but sure enough, on a night in early May in 1991...

Ken Echols: "Well you know Mark, this is the time of year, getting to be summer, people start spending more time outside, and calls to the program sometimes become sparse. So we'll often have these periods of lull that we'll have to sit through, waiting for someone to call us..."

(A few minutes later...)

Mark Childrey: "And it looks like we finally have a caller!"

Ken Echols: (answering phone) "Hello you're on the air."

Mysterious Prank Caller: (the next several seconds are of a laughing box going "HHHHHHHHAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAHAHAHA...")

(Ken Echols laughs so hard that he has to bend away from the desk and off-camera in order to regain his composure)

Mark Childrey: "Okay well you know, that's how it is sometimes. Things get slow, and then some nut decides he wants to play around and..."

By then my own phone was ringing and Chad was asking if I'd heard that. I don't think there was another Monday night from then on until we graduated high school that he or I and sometimes both of us would prank-call Monday Night Live. I still have most of the tapes of those shows, too! And I was already calling the show a lot to talk about serious topics but then whenever Chad did his laughing box, that was a personal obligation to phone in a prank too. And we had a system: whenever we called up the station, we told the screener that "Uhhh yeah I want to talk about the cruising on Scales Street" and just like a charm, we were in the phone queue. Then whenever Ken said "Hello you're on the air" Chad would hit the laughing box button or I would shout "HE SHOOTS HE SCORES!!!!"... and so it went.

After high school, Chad went on to UNC-Chapel Hill and I lingered around Reidsville for a few years, not too sure of what I wanted to do so I took full-time classes at the nearby community college. We were much better at keeping in touch though. And by this time the Star Wars saga was starting to return to full-bore popularity, and I was reading all the new novels and comics that were coming out from it. The summer after our second year of college Chad was interning at the Reidsville newspaper and he wound up writing a column about how Star Wars was making a comeback: I still have that, too.

Then the following year I started at Elon. And by this time the Internet was everywhere, so Chad and me were writing e-mails to each other just about every day. I always knew an e-mail from Chad just by looking at the subject line: he would also use some reference to Sanford and Son, his all-time favorite television show. There are floppies in my possession from those years that are loaded with e-mails that have "Esther" and "I'm coming to join you 'Lizabeth!" and "I'll stick my foot in your... hello?" as their subjects.

After he graduated from Chapel Hill, Chad worked some stints at the Naval Academy and then some colleges in Georgia. A year after I graduated from Elon I wound up in Asheville, and by that time he and I had added AOL Instant Messenger to our communications repertoire. It was also around that time that I told Chad that there was a girl that I'd started talking to, and she was very different from other girls that I'd met before.

Chad and Lisa became great friends too. I didn't know it at the time but she was "conspiring" with him to give me a great birthday in 2001, after the previous year when my birthday had been spent as a pallbearer at my grandmother's funeral. So Lisa and I wound up meeting Chad at the CNN Building in Atlanta, where he was working at the time, and he gave us a tour of the place that most people never get to see. Two months later the three of us got together again for a day at Six Flags.

And then a few months after that came 9/11. Chad was part of the Sports Illustrated staff, but nobody was writing about sports on that day. He was able to use Instant Messenger at work, and we were up 'til 1 a.m. on the morning after the attacks talking about it, sharing news links and photos that we'd found about the tragedy. Like ever other instant message, I saved those too.

The following months were punctuated by Lisa and me getting engaged, and then our wedding in the summer of 2002. For my groomsmen I chose three of the people who have become not just the best friends any guy could ask for, but also true brothers in every sense: Johnny Yow, Ed Woody, and Chad Austin. And I could visually elaborate on the camaraderie by posting some pics of the bachelor party we had the night before the wedding, but this write-up is getting long enough as it is.

And now here it is: twenty-five years since that day in third grade when we started talking about action figures. And I still have barely touched on the things that have happened during the friendship of Chad Austin and Chris Knight. How could anyone possibly chronicle all the good times, the bad times and the crazy times in between? And yes, there have been some times of genuine hardship and heartache. There have even been, it shames me to admit, times where less-virtuous words have been exchanged between us.

But you know... in the end, those didn't matter. Because the respect and admiration, and loyalty... and yes, love... that we've had for each other, has always borne out. And Chad and I came out stronger from everything that's happened to us, too. Every tragedy in our families and among our circle of friends, we've been there for each other. He and I have become brothers, and our families have become as one family as well over the years.

And there's no doubt that across the years I've learned not only much about the true meaning and value of friendship from Chad, but also about the grace of God and how much His grace is sufficient. Chad Austin is one of the most sincere and earnestly-seeking followers of Christ that I have ever known, and he really has no idea how much of an inspiration he has been for me to seek after Christ with that same measure of humility and desire. You want a model of Christian discipleship? Folks, don't look at me, 'cuz I'm not it. But I can point to a few people who are that, starting with Chad Austin.

So here it is, a quarter-century of friendship between two guys that gets to be celebrated. Which is one of the reasons why I wanted to make a post about this, 'cuz as bad as things are becoming in this world we could all use a little reminder that good things still endure.

And hey, seeing as how far we've come already...

Chris (left) and Chad (right) playing Rock Band on the Xbox 360
May 10th 2008

...is there any doubt that the next twenty-five years are going to be even more fun? :-)

Happy anniversary, brother. Here's to looking forward to another quarter-century of good times and general mayhem!


Chad said...

Hard to believe an innocent question about action figures and Star Wars would lead to all this. And let's just say I'm glad you didn't put ALL the hijinks in this post! Seriously though, you've been a great and loyal friend, and I hope the next 25 years are as good as the past 25 have been.

Anonymous said...

We must know Chris: who was Dana? =)

That is so wonderful that you and Chad have been so good friends for a very long time. This world needs more loyalty like that.

Unknown said...

You two are so lucky to have each other. Its so wonderful to see two friends like you guys. Sadly close friendships like that don't happen for everyone. I wish I was that lucky. Happy Anniversary guys.

Anonymous said...

I saw the picture after reading this, and I really did see two third graders playing Rock Band together. And I think its sweet!

Anonymous said...

Great duos throughout history:

Peter and Paul
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker
James Potter and Sirius Black
Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin
Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith
Abbott and Costello
Bert and Ernie
Batman and Robin
Beavis and Butthead
Laurel and Hardy
Lennon and McCartney
Holmes and Watson
Butch and Sundance
Simon and Garfunkel
Bill and Ted

Chad and Chris deserves to be on the list too :)

Chris Knight said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone :-)

To Jay:
I haven't heard anyone reference Izzy and Moe in a long time! There was a TV movie about them over 20 years ago, with Jackie Gleason and Art Carney (though the real life story about them is MUCH more fascinating).

I'd have to say that comparing Chad and me to Izzy and Moe would be a pretty fair and funny assessment :-) I'm also inclined to say that we share many of the same characteristics as James Potter and Sirius Black. Although which one of us would be James and which would be Sirius, is something I'd be too afraid to speculate upon...

And Rebecca:
"We must know Chris: who was Dana? =)"

A good person and terrific friend who I'm happy to report ended up becoming the wonderful wife and mother that I always prayed she would get to be :-)

Anonymous said...

Chris and Chad,
If I get to meet you sometime, I want to buy you a drink. Friendships lasting that long should have a toast raised to them.