The friendly male voice from behind my left shoulder caught me off guard.
Spud? I thought. Who would ever want to call me Spud? I hardly knew anyone in this room.
Yes, I was from Idaho, but we were basically a room full of strangers at this annual meet and greet in Las Palmas, our retirement community in Arizona. Most of us were in that awkward zone of introducing ourselves for the first time and feeling each other out. In this atmosphere, how could anyone feel chummy enough to walk up behind me and call me Spud?
I whirled around to my left and found myself looking into the thin, kindly face of a gentleman who appeared to be close to his mid-seventies. Being about my height, he stood even with me and smiled a slightly crooked smile while his eyes twinkled with amusement.
Who was this guy? I thought. Was I supposed to know him? I didn’t quite know what to say. “Excuse me?” I asked as I looked at him rather suspiciously.
“I saw your name tag.” He replied, motioning to my chest. “I see that you’re from Idaho.” His eyes moved from my nametag to my face. “How you doing, Spud?”
“Oh, uh, yeah.” I stammered as my mind slowly caught on to his joke. “Yeah, I’m from Idaho. Lived there all my life.”
“Well, I was born there.” He said, his wry smile never leaving his face. “We left when I was a child.” He extended his hand. “My name’s Earl.”
I reached out and shook his hand. “Well now!” I said, not being one to miss out on a chance to play along. “If you were born in Idaho, that makes you Spud too.”
“Hmmm!” He drew his hand back and rubbed his chin while looking off into the distance.
“Well, I guess it does.” He finally said after a few seconds of feigned deep thought. “I guess it does.” His deadpan smile resumed as his eyes returned to my face.
Thus began more than a decade long connection of warmth and mutual friendship on that Fall night in 2002. Whenever Earl and I would encounter each other in and around Las Palmas, at an event, in the hallway, at the mailboxes, our conversations would usually always start like this:
“How you doing Spud?” Earl would always say with a friendly wave.
“Oh, not bad.” I would reply. “How are things going with you, Spud?”
Earl would look at me with that mischievous grin of his and say something like, “Well, I’m better than a rotten potato!”
Over the years, I would see Earl and his wife Dorothy a lot, especially at Bingo every Wednesday night. They loved to play Bingo. We would often sit together and commiserate as we played game after game without ever winning.
I must have been complaining just a little bit too much to Earl’s liking after a particularly galling night of close calls and near misses. As we were gathering up our stuff to leave after the last game, Earl put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes and said, “Spud, It doesn’t really matter if we win. It’s just worth it to get out and be among friends”.
Those words have stuck with me ever since.