An Ode to Larry

Feb 28, 2019   //   by bwilber   //   Bob's Blog  //  Add a Comment

If you read my book “Bats, Balls, & Burnouts” you probably remember the name Larry Eberle from the early chapters. He got a lot of ink in the book because of how important he was to me as a young lad. I don’t think I fully appreciated his impact on me until much later in life, maybe even as late as when I was writing about him in the book. He changed me, and that’s not necessarily something we expect out of 12-year-old friends.

Larry and I had a mutual grade-school friend by the name of Dan McKeague (although he’ll always be Danny McKeague to me.) I recently reconnected with Dan on social media and learned that Larry is in the midst of some serious health issues. Larry has had a tough ongoing battle with cancers of various types, as well as other serious maladies, and is now in hospice care. It’s true that we’re all on “day-to-day contracts” on this mortal Earth, but to hear of Larry’s current condition still guts me and breaks my heart.

Larry and I went through Mary Queen of Peace for eight years. We were always friends, everyone was friends with Larry, but it was sixth grade when the friendship blossomed from “just two guys cutting up in class” to something very special. The catalyst for that transformation was our teacher, Mrs. Luna. As I wrote about in the book, Mrs. Luna was gregarious, communicative, supportive, brilliant, and she always looked like she should be wearing an apron and stirring spaghetti sauce. She saw something in both Larry and me that forever changed each of us, I think. She saw creativity, outside-the-box thinking, a little bit of mischief, and quite a bit of humor. She paired us up on many projects, including when she decided Larry and I should be the permanent “Decorators of the Classroom.” We ended up in charge of all the themes that were tacked up on the cork above the chalkboards. She even prompted us to do a full-room decoration supporting the Cardinals when they were in the World Series against the Tigers. We nailed it.

When we all originally arrived for first grade at MQP, many of the teachers were still nuns dressed in classic black and white “habits” (the official name for those flowing robes and head covers they wore.) For the most part, they were very serious older women. Humorless is a fairly accurate description. They were there to teach us and keep us in line. That was not an easy thing for them to do when it came to kids like Larry and me.

You’ve meant so much to me, my dear friend (Click this image to enlarge)

Mrs. Luna was just the opposite. She brought us out of that strict shell and let us blossom. This old torn and creased photo is our sixth-grade class. Larry is second from the right in the third row. I’m second from the left in the second row. Mrs. Luna looks proud of her minions.

As we went through sixth, seventh, and eighth grades Larry and I became much closer. We spent too many sleepover nights to count, at each other’s houses, and every one of those was 100 percent full of creativity.

We had a small reel-to-reel tape recorder, and we’d ad lib impromptu radio shows, or movie scenes, or just nonsense, for hours. By that time, Larry’s large family had moved from one side of Webster Groves to another, not too far from school. It was a three-story house with about a hundred bedrooms, hidden back staircases, and even (wait for it) a bomb shelter. There were a lot of things for two creative kids like us to do.

Even at that early age it was abundantly clear that Larry was a genius. He saw things I never saw. He saw things no one ever saw. He always had a vision. He was an accomplished artist by the time we finished sixth grade, and as a cartoonist he could draw anything. As I wrote about in the book, at the age of 12 he drew caricatures of our entire Wilber family (including our cat) that were so brilliantly spot-on our neighbors and family friends refused to believe someone that young had drawn them. Oh do I wish I had those now.

We won a major ribbon in a city-wide Science Fair when Larry, Mike Fitzsimmons, and I built a fully functioning mini-elevator out of balsa wood, string, and a small electric motor. A little Barney Rubble doll rode up and down on it. Fitzy and I were along for Larry’s ride, on that. We helped, and had input, but he saw the whole thing in his head before the first two pieces of wood were glued together.

Larry and I would spend hours on a sleepover by spinning the globe in his bedroom and then stopping it with one finger. Wherever that finger landed, it was our assignment to crack the other guy up with a funny story of how that place got its name. Places like Iran or Turkey were easy, but what about Alaska? In mere seconds, Larry came up with a story about an eskimo hunter named Ka. Each year he’d head off to hunt seals for the village. One year, he never came back. And the villagers all solemnly cried, “Alas, Ka.”

We’d build Revell models together, but often would put all the pieces from two different cars in the middle of the table to see who could create the most interesting and fun “FrankenCar.” He always won, but I got better at it just following his lead. I got better at a lot of things just following his lead. Imagine that, having a mentor at the age of 13.

We made movies together. Along with Tom Ward, Patrick O’Malley, Larry, and Fitzy, we were Wardoeblerfitz Film Productions. In seventh grade. Seriously. We made four or five movies with a little Super-8 film camera and a small editing desk. They were all hits, at least among our families and friends. We just did what Larry told us to do. The little camera had no sound capability, but on our last movie (a World War II epic) Larry saw a way to give the movie life with sound. We shot the whole thing without ever showing anyone’s full face when that person was talking. Then, we went back into our editing room and recorded a sound track to sync up with the movie. It worked, to a degree, but it was pure genius for kids our age.

We won the MQP Talent Show with an ensemble cast, dancing and acting to a hit song from that time, about Bonnie and Clyde. We took large sheets of cardboard and cut them out and painted them, making one look like the front end of a 1930s Ford while the other was a black and white police car from that era. We’d do the dance holding those in front of us, looking through the cut-out windshield as if we were driving, while two other guys did the same with one we’d drawn as the police car. We actually choreographed the whole thing at Larry’s house. He was Clyde, and I wore a wig and a beret to be Bonnie. Brought the house down.

As I wrote about in the book, Larry and I were big fans of the space program, and we started talking about building something. We came up with the idea of a mockup of the Apollo 11 command module. We built the whole thing in my basement, out of chicken wire, rope, and Reynold’s Wrap, and damn if it didn’t actually look like Apollo 11. Then we “blasted off” and spent about 18 of the planned 48 hours in it before we aborted our mission. We didn’t have the stamina to stay inside it for the planned two days, but it was never about that. It was about the vision. Our minds were constantly racing.

My mom was working for the Cardinals in their front office and once in a while she’d come home for lunch and then take Larry and me back downtown for that night’s game. We had free run of the entire stadium, because the receptionist in the Cardinals’ offices adored Larry (imagine that) and we could run around downtown, take riverboat rides, and go up in the Gateway Arch, right up until game time. It was riotous fun.

In seventh grade, Larry folded up a piece of standard lined “school paper” and made some tears in it to form some box-like wings. Nothing held it together, but he envisioned it as a flying thing. He just created it, straight from an idea in his head into reality. And of course it worked. When the wind was right, we’d open one of the big windows in our classroom and let one go. The best flight we ever launched disappeared around the church and kept rising. We named the folded origami thing a “Larry” because it was his creation.

By that time, we were getting interested in girls. Somehow, the two of us realized that we’d be better off representing one another rather than trying to get girls to like us on our own. We were each other’s agents, and it worked like a charm. I think I got the better end of it with Larry working his magic on the girls I was interested in, but hey… We were in seventh grade. If a cute girl so much as smiled at you, concentrating on the teacher for the next hour was impossible.

We rode our bikes all over Kirkwood, Glendale, and Webster Groves. We must have ridden 25 miles a day, and I don’t recall ever being tired. We knew every clerk in every store. Those were the days when the Rexall drug store would not only have a soda fountain, it would also have a grill. Those hamburgers with a Pepsi on the side, and a paper straw, were the best lunch meals ever.

We played touch football in the huge yard at his house. I still have two scars on my right knee, where it impacted a spot on the ground that featured two small rocks. Bled like a stuck pig but I had to put a big BandAid on it and ride the 2.5 miles back home.

When the snow would come in the winter, we took our Flexible Flyer sleds over to Algonquin Country Club, not far from his home. The long fairways made for perfect sledding. I have no memory of ever being cold, but solid memories of thinking “I wish this would never end.”

Larry’s family would “adopt” me when it came time to get “resident passes” to the Webster Groves skating rink. They’d add me to their list and I’d get a pass for the full skating season. Again, I have no memory of being cold, but vivid recollections of exactly how the warming house smelled, with a big wood fire burning the middle. We never got very good at skating, but it was idyllic fun.

Larry was from a strict family and our upbringings were very different, but we connected at a deep level that never felt like we were anything but kindred souls. That’s what we were.

As eighth grade came to a close, the end of our friendship was near. I had chosen to go to St. Louis U. High down in the city, while Larry’s parents wanted him to go to a new Jesuit school, De Smet, that had just opened out in the suburbs.

I think we saw each other five or six more times, and that included one football game where SLUH and De Smet faced off. We’d gone our own ways, made new friends, and altered our lives. That’s kind of how it is when you’re 14. You can have all the creative vision in the world, but it’s nearly impossible to fabricate maturity. We let each other wander away.

In this age of social media and instant contact, we connected again over the last few years. We shared emails that recounted our memories of those incredible years in grade school. We both enjoyed talking about Mrs. Luna. He was doing wonderfully with a company he founded in the digital media sector. They make videos and films. Hard to believe, right? I didn’t feel the need to hurry up and see him. I knew we’d get around to that because, after all, I get to St. Louis fairly often. But life is complicated and we have “things to do” all the time.

He remains the most amazing person I’ve ever known. He brought out a whole new part of my eventual personality, and I learned something from him every single day. And we were just grade school kids.

Everyone loved you, Larry. They still do. Myself very much included.

I’ll be back next week.

And please, if you just read this blog installment and liked it, please click on the “Like” button at the top. I’d love to show Larry how many people appreciate everything he has done and what he has meant to me.

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