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Seek a Friend

10/17/07 5:55PM By Howard Coffin
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(HOST) When commentator Howard Coffin attended a college soccer game recently and saw freshmen just beginning the fall semester, he was reminded of his own arrival on campus in 1960.

(COFFIN) The shock of going into the world is especially acute when you've grown up in a small Vermont town - even if it's just to a small school like Lyndon State. Suddenly, our high school prom queen wasn't the best looking girl anywhere. My class valedictorian wasn't actually the smartest kid in the world. Our star athlete maybe wasn't the best after all. And that teacher everybody loved? Well, she never lectured like my new history professor.

Then there were people like I never dreamed existed - like that guy I met in the dorm library. I just mentioned seeing the movie Oklahoma and he proceeded to sing the entire title song, in a soft and lovely soprano.

I'd never met anyone like him. He was a Springfield kid and his name was John Laskevich. He couldn't dribble a basketball, but he was so quick witted nobody could top him. He sang show tunes, and arias. He wrote wonderful poems, could draw, act, and quote from all kinds of plays and books. We talked for hours. And he was a contortionist. He could put both legs behind his head.

We worked together one summer at the Woodstock Inn. He a waiter, I a bellhop. He set the dining room applauding when he greeted the aging soprano summering in room 224 by singing "Don't throw bouquets at me," and she joined him in the duet "People Will Say We're in Love." Wow.

One day Laskevich waited on his idol, Robert Frost. The other day I rediscovered John's poem he had given me, titled, On R. F. Near the End. Here it is.

He moved slowly - a shuffle
With downcast eyes, and his
Hands filled the frayed pockets
Of his grey suit and puffed
Them out, roundly, like the
Cheeks of a squirrel.

He chose a table by the window,
Prepared with the sparkle of
Cut glass and silver for two, and sat.
The white head still bent,
He dropped a napkin to his lap.

Offerings of water, iced,
A plate of crackers, a rum drink
The wrinkled celebrant accepted,
And the holy eucharist
Of some older faith than ours
Was begun and finished in silence.

Into the warm summer night
Shuffled Mr. Frost, and then
Into other nights, colder, darker,
And farther yet removed,
Through the winter land of Russia
And home again, where the dry voice

Grew softer, and then still;
And those present in another
Colder, darker night watched the
Old man close his eyes and die.

John Laskevich died relatively young, so when wrote that at 19 he had already lived more than half his life. You who are young and off into the world this autumn, there are such people out there. I would hope that you aim for the stars and seek a friend such as he.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian who's specialty is the civil war.
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