By Daryl Fisher News-Ledger Features Editor March 9, 2011
As you may have read in the News-Ledger’s obituary section last week, Ray Harrell passed away recently after a brief and unexpected illness, and a celebration of his life was held last Thursday afternoon at the West Sacramento VFW Hall. His sons did a great job of publicly expressing their love for their dad, as did many of his friends, and Melissa Murphy sang a truly fantastic version of Leonard Cohen’s wonderful song, “Hallelujah”. There was also lots of tasty food to eat, plenty of nostalgic photos of Ray to be viewed, and an overflow crowd made up of his many relatives and longtime West Sacramento friends.
Ray was a close childhood friend of mine and after attending the services, I found myself thinking back to those long ago days we spent growing up together – he on Laurel Lane, and me just a block over on Michigan Boulevard. Ray, along with Richie Yancey, who lived a few doors down from him, and Billy Nichols, who lived on the same street as me, were my best friends from the time we were all about nine or ten years old until we started our freshman years at West Sacramento’s James Marshall High School. And even after that we all remained close, sharing many classes together and also playing on some of the high school’s same athletic teams.
Life is so different now than when Ray, Richie, Billy and I were growing up together. There were no computers or cell phones or any of the other electronic gadgets that young people can’t live without nowadays. All we really had was each other, and our imaginations, and of course our love of sports. And once school was out for the summer, we were basically inseparable. Our mornings usually started out pretty early with everyone getting on their bicycles and gathering at someone’s house to figure out how we were going to spend the day. Were we going to play sockball in one of our own backyards; or go on over to the dusty softball fields of Westfield Village Elementary School where we would line our bikes up in the outfield and use them as imaginary fences to hit home runs over; or maybe ride on over to the old El Rancho Drive-In Theater where there was a lush stretch of green grass out front that made for the perfect baseball field of dreams until the guard ran us off. And there was always the possibility that everyone would rather go shoot basketballs over at the high school, or play two-man team football games in our front yards, or even go inside and play dice baseball for hours on end, a game we had all made into an art form, complete with statistical records on all our favorite major league players. Plus we would also often round up other friends in the neighborhood like Mike Crumley, Doug Felton and Bruce Williams and create even bigger and better fun and games! And if it was a Friday or Saturday, we would usually pair off and end up spending the night at someone’s house other than our own.
LEFT: The old Michigan Boulevard/Laurel Lane gang, photographed in the late 1950s in my parents’ backyard, just before the beginning of a big sockball game. Ray Harrell is on the far left and Richie Yancey is on the far right. I’m the guy in the middle holding the baseball bat, and Doug Felton is between me and Richie. I can’t remember the name of the guy standing next to Ray, but that’s Gary Spiva sitting on the ground, who was younger than the rest of us and always trying to get into one of our games. Billy Nichols and Mike Crumley aren’t in the photo, so it must have been taken on a Sunday, since they always went to church that day.
Now don’t get me wrong, growing up in West Sacramento wasn’t always idyllic, especially when one had a friend as complicated as Ray Harrell. As funny and sweet as Ray was most of the time, he could also be just the opposite when he got the urge, and there were often times when I didn’t know if I wanted to hug him, or strangle him. For instance, there was the time that he decided that our little gang should hold a big boxing contest, and since it was going to be held in his backyard and with his fancy new red boxing gloves, he got to decide who was going to fight whom. And when I learned that he had matched me up with Mike Crumley, who was the best and most powerful athlete in the neighborhood, I quickly realized that Ray was trying to do away with skinny little me. And it wasn’t the last time that Ray almost got me killed, either. You see, telling Ray a secret was a lot like sharing it with the Sacramento Bee, and when I once mentioned to him that I wasn’t particularly fond of the biggest, meanest hoodlum in our high school, it wasn’t long before the guy cornered me in the main hallway, grabbed my best shirt with both of his huge, hairy hands, lifted me off the ground and then said with the worst breath imaginable, “Harrell just told me what you’ve been saying about me you little @#%*@%, and if you ever do it again, you’re as good as dead!”
Ray wasn’t exactly always wedded to the truth, either. In fact, he was the best proponent I ever knew of that old saying, “If you’re going to tell a lie, you might as well tell a real whopper!” He also had a lot of Eddie Haskell in him, for those of you “Leave it to Beaver” fans, especially when it came to endearing himself to adults, and many was the time my mother would say to me, “Why can’t you be really nice and polite like Ray?”
But there were a few things sacred to Ray, and close to the top of that list (probably just under family) was his love for the San Francisco 49ers, which went all the way back to the mid-1950s. He was apparently somehow related (at least that was his story, and he always stuck to it) to the great 49ers running back of that era, Hugh McElhenny, who to this day is still arguably the most creative and elusive halfback to ever put on a 49er uniform. And from those days on, there was nothing Ray didn’t know about his beloved 49ers.
In addition to Ray’s ability to stretch the truth from time to time (and with great charm and believability by the way), Ray also wasn’t very trustworthy when it came to the girls in my young love life. His natural good looks and Ricky NeIson hair made it pretty easy for him to steal them away, especially after he had sat them down and pointed out all of my bad points in great detail. So over our youthful years together, I think Ray and I broke up more often than any other couple in West Sacramento (male or female), but the really irritating thing about Ray was that it was almost impossible to stay mad at him very long. He would simply flash that great smile of his, assure me that everything had just been a big old misunderstanding, and just like that, we were best friends forever again.
What is it about the passing of a childhood friend that floods us with ancient memories that take us instantly back to times and places so long forgotten? Maybe it really is true that “The friends of our youth leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same again.”