A couple days ago I learned of the untimely passing of one of my best childhood friends, Arthur Russell “Rusty” “Russ” Wilbur. I thought I’d share a few stories of our time together, which was during some of the best years of my life.
I first met Russ when I was maybe 7 years old. I was out in the driveway shooting hoops when he came barreling down our private drive on his bicycle after the brakes gave out. Having this strange kid come so suddenly into my life was like meeting an alien. Before then I never imagined there were actually other kids nearby other than those in my immediate neighborhood.
Rusty lived on the other side of Tuscarawas Road—a.k.a., The Forbidden Zone—just beyond my bus stop, which marked the outer reaches of my universe at the time. Despite this geographic obstacle, we quickly became close friends, thanks to our mutual interest in all things Star Wars. And since he was a bigger boy, maybe double my size (although, to be fair, I barely registered on the scale), Rusty and I made an interesting pair—sort of a modern-day Skipper, him, and me, his “Little Buddy.”
Rusty was a couple years older than me, but he quickly took me under his wing. I grew to admire him for his razor-sharp sense of humor and for his taste for more sophisticated things like Queensryche and Dungeons & Dragons.
One time when I was about 7 or 8 years old, Rusty and I were stomping around in the woods behind my house, pretending to be Luke Skywalker (me) and Han Solo (him) on a secret mission to foil the evil Empire. In lieu of light sabers, we borrowed my sister’s dancing batons, which we used to hack our way through the thick foliage.
Before long we came across some old glass bottles lying near the base of a tree. Being boys, the first thing we thought was how fun it would be to throw the bottles against a tree and watch them shatter into pieces. Rusty went first, hurling his bottle toward a tree about 20 feet away. It was a direct hit, as the old bottle exploded into a hundred pieces. We were quite pleased. Next it was my turn. Winding up like Nolan Ryan, I turned and threw my bottle as hard as I could at the same tree. Unfortunately I missed. Even more unfortunate, I had failed to notice the bottle was already broken, and I sliced the palm of my hand clean open.
First came the blood. Then the screaming. Dropping my baton…I mean…my light saber, I scurried up the hill back towards my house, squealing all the way as the warm blood dripped from my hand and trickled down my arm. I was terrified. I had never seen so much blood in my life, and I knew I was dying. A couple minutes later I was sitting on the kitchen counter, whimpering, as Dad cleaned and examined the wound. He wasn’t too happy about me playing with broken glass, but I think he could tell from my sobbing that I had learned my lesson. Just to be sure, however, he helped to re-enforce the lesson by cleaning my cut with iodine. More screaming ensued.
As we sat there tending to my wound, we were both surprised to see a police car pull down the driveway. Apparently my blood-curdling screams had been so loud that someone all the way down in town had heard me, and they thought that someone was being murdered up in the woods. My poor father had to explain to the officer that no one was being murdered, but rather his son had a boo-boo. By this time, of course, Rusty was long gone.
As I grew older and needed more money, I started cutting grass for Rusty’s dad, who allowed me to use his old Snapper riding mower and his gas as well. It was a piece of cake. All I had to do was ride around their yard for an hour or so, collect my $20 dollars and go home. Then one day I ran over the cleanout cap in their front yard. I saw it coming as I turned the corner of the house. But instead of using the brake—the obvious solution—for some reason I tried to halt the mower Flintstones’ style, by putting my feet on the ground and stopping it with my legs. Surprisingly, this method failed, and I hit the cap head on, causing a loud explosion-like sound and sending bits of metal shrapnel flying through the air.
I told Rusty to tell his dad he could just keep the $20 dollars.
The one thing I’ll always remember about Rusty is how he made me laugh. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and I always admired his sense of humor. Rusty understood the importance of laughter and of never taking things too seriously. I think that’s something we all need a little more of nowadays.
Rusty went on to become an incredible chef at places like the former 1810 Tavern in Bridgewater. Whenever we’d go down there for dinner, I’d always pop in the kitchen to see him, and it was like we’d never lost touch. That was Russ. He was like family.
Thank you, Rusty, for all the laughs, for all the adventures, and for all the memories. You were a big impact on me, and for that I’ll always be grateful. Can’t wait to have a laugh with you on the other side.