Best Friends Forever

Best Friends Forever

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Best Friends Forever

When I said good-bye to my best friend, Opal, we promised to write and vowed that we’d see each other again. At fourteen, our futures seemed full of possibilities, despite our coming separation. It was June 1957, and we had spent two and a half of the happiest years of our lives on Chitose Air Force base in Japan. Now her family was being transferred to England, mine to Florida. What hurt most about leaving each other was that she was not only my first, but my best, best friend.

Growing up with a father in the military meant moving often. The two-room schoolhouse on the northern island of Hokkaido was my ninth school—and I was only in sixth grade when I arrived. Opal’s roving childhood was similar to mine, except that I was terribly, horribly, painfully, miserably shy. I loathed always being “the new girl.” Once or twice I’d managed to make a friend, but before we could get to know each other well, I’d moved on to a different school.

Then one January day in 1955, when the snowdrifts were ten feet high and the wind howled around the chimney of the coal stove, I stood in the doorway of my newest classroom. As always, my stomach ached with dread, and shivers of fear ran through me like tiny sharp arrows. I hoped no one could tell I was trying to hold back tears. Twenty kids silently stared at me, and I turned red from my ears down to my toes. I kept my eyes on the floor, sneaking only quick peeks at the strange faces. Then I saw a girl beaming, her smile like warm sunshine flooding my shaking soul. She actually seemed to welcome me! When the teacher told me to take the desk next to Opal’s, some of my frozen terror began to melt slightly.

“Hi, I’m Opal.” Her voice carried the twang of the Midwest, her face was round, her eyes soft behind her thick glasses, her hair long and brown. And as I quickly learned, her heart was crafted of twenty-four-karat gold.

That first day, as we moved from history to math to English, she helped me find the right place in the books and filled me in on the other kids. It appeared they were all terrific, even the class pains. “Don’t mind about him. He likes to tease, but he sure can be funny.” Or, “She acts a little snobby sometimes, but she’s a real nice girl.”

Because we had fourth, fifth and sixth grades in the same room, the teacher would take small groups up front while the rest of us worked at our desks, very much like the school in Little House on the Prairie. With only five of us in sixth grade, the angels were working overtime when they made sure one of them was Opal.

By the end of that first day, an unspoken promise had been made. Opal and I knew we would be best friends, the first either of us had found. During the next months, more and more new kids moved to the base and Opal welcomed everyone—teaching me by example to do the same. Red-haired Maureen arrived and became an especially close friend. But we all hung out together, both boys and girls, playing kickball and Red Rover, skiing on the snowy mound behind my house, exploring the woods where we were officially forbidden to go, swimming in the frigid pool when the short summers arrived, camping on what we hoped was an extinct volcano, attending the Japanese Cherry Blossom and Snow festivals.

In that large group, Opal and I were rock-solid best friends, a true Mutt and Jeff duo. She was tall and slim, I was short and plump; she was good in math, I loved reading; she wasn’t athletic, but cheerfully joined the games and sports I dragged her into. Her father was a master sergeant (the fire chief! So romantic!), mine a lieutenant colonel. She admired my get-up-and-go; I admired her gentleness with young children, the way she always gave of herself, her ability to see the smallest rose in a thicket of thorns. Our differences meshed and never clashed.

Two years flew by—miracle years filled with fun and growth and discovery. Then the rumors began. The Air Force was closing the base, and we would all be transferred back to the States that summer, headed for different assignments, hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

As promised, Opal and I wrote occasional letters (on military salaries, long distance phone calls were out of the question) until we were sixteen. I was in boarding school when her last letter came. She’d fallen in love with an older man—nineteen—an airman first class. She’d left her family in England and returned to the States to marry him. She had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl.

I wrote back right away but didn’t get an answer. Knowing how Opal found writing an awful chore, I wrote again and again. Finally my letters were returned: forwarding address unknown. How I worried about her! To be married and have a baby at sixteen! I knew her so well: I knew she’d be a wonderful mother, but I also knew she was too young to be married.

I graduated from boarding school and then college, was married, had three babies, divorced, remarried. My children grew up, went to college, and my daughter was now a mother. And so often I thought of Opal, wondering where she was, if she was all right, if she was happy. I’d talk about our blissful years together, and my family knew all about my best friend.

One sweaty hot August day in 1991 the telephone rang. “Is this Louise?”

“Yes.”

“Is this Louise Ladd?”

“Yes.”

“Is this Louise Ladd from Japan?”

“Who are you?” I roared.

“This is Opal.”

I screamed. I was outside on the porch and the entire town must have heard me. Dancing around and jumping up and down, I shouted out my joy.

Thirty-four years after we said good-bye, she had found me. Sorting through piles of stuff after a recent move, she had opened an ancient box marked “papers.” My letter from 1959 was in it. Immediately she called everyone named Ladd who lived anywhere near my old address in Maryland; then, refusing to give up, she called my boarding school. After much begging and pleading (she swears she was literally down on her knees), the alumnae office finally gave her my phone number.

That Christmas, Opal and her second husband drove from Omaha, Nebraska, to spend a few days with us in Connecticut. She looked exactly the same. She sounded exactly the same. She radiated the same warmth and love I’d always known. She’d missed me as much as I’d missed her. She’d been through difficult times, but as always, had managed to find the good in life. Twenty-four-karat gold does not tarnish.

And now we are together again: best friends, forever.

Louise Ladd

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