We met as children, not over four or five years old. He lived with his grandparents just four houses down in a working class blue collar part of town called Hillcrest. At the time we met, our area was in Sullivan County and we lived on Hill Street. Later, we would be annexed by the city of Kingsport and, as Kingsport already had a Hill Street, ours was changed to Busbee Street. We were almost the same age; I was six months and nine days older. We became friends and playmates.
Throughout elementary school, we were fast friends. We played in the woods, built shelters out of branches and leaves, took the bus into town to watch the movies at either the State or Strand theaters, swim in the American Legion swimming pool, built a rocket out of tin cans fueled by gasoline which, amazingly, did not explode and kill us all (although it did burn part of a field), learned true model rocketry, and went to Dickson Elementary School.
Whenever there was a free moment we were at each other’s houses. On the first day of first grade, I was excited to be going. Steve’s grandmother dragged him into the school kicking and crying. As it turned out, he became the better student.
The friendship continued when we moved into Ross N. Robinson Junior High School. We didn’t build shelters in the woods anymore, but we listened to records (his favorite was classical music), talked about girls, and still fired off model rockets. Steve took an interest in all things British and became an Anglophile. He could also identify any make and model of car that drove by. We each gained new friends and acquired different interests.
In high school there was both a growing apart and a coming together. He took great interest in his studies while I focused on the football team and, our senior year, the karate team. Steve successfully mastered both Latin and Spanish while I failed first year Spanish and had to go to summer school.
Where we came together was in church and in the church youth group. Two girls, Andrea Carter and Sherry Cloninger, invited me to be the third member of the Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) at Mountain View Church. I invited Steve to be the fourth.
For me, and I think for him, the MYF became the most important peer group during our high school days. Most of our close friends would come from the kids that would become part of the group. Eventually, the group, counting junior high and senior high students, would grow to 75.
It was the spiritual “womb,” if you will that birthed the love and hunger for God in both of us. We were leaders in that group and, throughout our three years there, either he or I would be the president and the other would be the vice-president.
We both greatly admired the young pastor, Fred L. Austin (“Reverend Freddie,” as we affectionately called him behind his back) and he served as a very positive role model. He also allowed us to experiment and encouraged our budding attempts at leadership. Steve and I weren’t always together during the week but, on the weekends, we were both given over to the many activities of the MYF.
We had parties, spiritual retreats at Buffalo Mountain Camp, chess tournaments, Krispy Kreme Doughnut sales (to fund the youth program), swim parties, the development of a youth softball team that competed in the church league, and a host of other activities, including an ill-advised boxing tournament that sent me to the hospital. Steve, who was not a fighter, entered the tournament and, for his trouble, suffered a bloody nose. No, Steve was not a fighter … but … .
I had developed the annoying habit of, when Steve said something clever, I would pinch his cheek and say, “You’re so clever.” I didn’t know it, but he hated it, felt it was patronizing and demeaning, and felt like he was being bullied. He never said anything about this, however. Until one day he did.
We were in the street in front of his house and he said something and I pinched his cheek. He said, “Please don’t do that.”
“What?” I inquired.
“Pinch my cheek. I hate that. Don’t do that.”
Like a jerk, I said, “Or what, Steve? You’re gonna do what?” And I pinched his cheek again.
I never saw it coming. The guy punched me in the solar plexus as hard as I’ve ever been hit. My body’s electrical system short-circuited and I collapsed in the middle of the street. He stood over me and said, “I asked you not to do that again. Look what you made me do!” He walked back into his house.
I lay in the road for a while as my body decided to slowly revive. Finally I got up and walked back home. I was ashamed. I had been bullied until I got tired of it and hated bullies. In that moment, I had bullied Steve and I felt true remorse.
So, I walked down to his house. I tried to pull the screen door open but it was locked. So I pounded on the door, Steve open the door a crack and said, “What?”
“Open the door Steve. Let me in.”
He said, “I don’t think so.”
“Look, I’m sorry, ok? I was a jerk. Let me in.”
“Are you going to hit me?” he asked.
I laughed and said, “No, I’m not going to hit you. And I’m not going to pinch your cheek again either.” The friendship was back on track with new rules.
We went separate ways after graduation but stayed in touch occasionally. In fact, when I got married, Steve was my best man. Later, he got married. It didn’t last. Later he married again and she was the love of his life. He was the happiest he’d ever been. There was a daughter, Faith, that made it all complete for him.
One day, not that many years ago, Steve called. His wife was in the hospital desperately ill. Would I pray for her? I got in the car and headed the six hours to Kingsport.
Melissa had contracted septicemia, also known as blood poisoning. She fought, rallied, got better, got worse and, eventually lost the battle. She died and Steve’s world went dark. I had a part in the funeral service and I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so helpless. It was a long, sad drive back to Georgia.
Later, he moved from Kingsport to Johnson City and continued working at Citibank. At some point he traveled to London, which was a dream come true for this lover of the Royal Family. Faith, the light of his life, turned from a cute child into a lovely young woman and graduated from high school about three years ago.
I was on the way back home after spending the day at the office on Saturday, August 8, when I received a telephone call. I looked at the caller I.D. and saw that it was Faith. As soon as I heard her voice, I knew something was wrong. Through tears, she told me that her dad had been found sitting in his chair at home earlier that morning. He had died.
When I arrived at home, I told my wife. Then I went to our screened in front porch and let the memories flow. As I did, the tears flowed without restraint. The funeral is delayed due to Covid-19 but I hope to be there to pay my respects when it happens.
Stephen Ernest Duncan and I were friends for 65 years. The one comfort that Faith and I both have is that he adored his late wife with a palpable passion. They are together again, at last, forever. God bless you, Steve. No one ever had a more loyal friend than I had in you.
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at email@example.com.]