I was swinging on our front porch with my wife the other night, the sun having set behind the tree line, and the woods around our North Georgia home were awash in the glow of dozens of fireflies. It’s late spring, and I suddenly found myself reflecting on a treasured friendship with an old adolescent pal named Aaron Smith. I’m not sure what triggered the memories, but I lingered there in the gathering dusk, even as Lisa excused herself and stepped inside. I bid welcome to the images, conversations, and shared experiences with my old friend, allowing them to fill my consciousness. I sat and savored, like watching a great old movie I’d seen before, but worth the viewing again and again.
Aaron and I go way back, to our freshman year at Fayette County High School, 1977. We met the very first day of the new school year. I had quite difficult middle school years, as many kids do, and my first day in high school was not starting well. I had no classes with my friends, and by 3rd period was hopelessly lost in the bowels of this huge new world called high school. Overwhelmed, I found myself standing in the back corner of a bathroom, quietly sobbing, afraid and embarrassed to go any further. Suddenly, a blond-haired kid with braces and a pubescent “bro-stache” walked in, eyeballed me and asked, “Dude, what’s wrong?” I told him my dilemma; he looked at my schedule and replied, “Hey, you’re in my class! C’mon, I’ll take you there.” No ridicule, no ignoring, he just offered help. His name was Aaron. He was the first new friend I made in high school.
Aaron went on to become one of the “cool kids” at the school, even owning and riding a 70s-era white Harley-Davidson Sportster by our senior year. He’d ride that bike into the front student lot at the school, always giving the throttle a nice twist before shutting down. Then when school was over, as soon as he’d kick start it he’d rev it again, “just to clear its throat” he once quipped. Much to the awe of anyone within view and earshot, of course. Aaron was a fun-loving, life-of-the-party jokester, who hooked me on the old “Dr. Demento Show” weekly syndicated radio broadcasts. He loved to blast our old Atlanta station 96ROCK, and even tried to teach me a bit of “Spanish”- he once coaxed me to try out a phrase on our history teacher, Mr. Aviles, saying, “Ask Mr. A if you can go use the restroom, in Spanish. Ask him, ‘Donde esta casa de pepe?’ He’ll be impressed, I’m sure of it.” I however, wasn’t so sure, and fortunately, didn’t take the bait.
As soon as he’d kick start it he’d rev it again, “just to clear its throat” he once quipped.
After our school days, Aaron enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and found an aptitude for flying. He later became an airline pilot, living the glamorous jet-setting life for the next several decades. I went to college and grad school, got married, started a family, and pursued a career in vocational education ministry. Except occasionally at class reunions, Aaron and I lost contact with each other.
Our paths crossed again in 2008, when through another old high school friend Pat, we reconnected on Facebook. The three of us began meeting up and going on motorcycle rides, and spent much time talking and catching up with each other’s lives and experiences. They both knew I had become a Christian back in school and was a childhood education pastor, and we shared many conversations about life, meaning, and other deep topics. The years and the miles apart brought all three of us very close once we reconnected.
In November of 2009, Aaron called me one Sunday afternoon, beginning with “Rob, I have something to tell you,” excited to inform me he had begun attending the legendary Dr. Charles Stanley’s church, First Baptist of Atlanta, and had embraced the Christian faith. By May of the following year, he asked me to baptize him there with his mother, sister and her family, and Pat with his wife Karen all present. I happily obliged, telling him, “We’ve been friends for many years, and now I’m thrilled to call you my faith brother as well.”
As much as sharing many deep, theological conversations, over the phone and in person, what Aaron wanted to do was ride. A lot. Which we did over the next few years, some with Pat and Karen, often just the two of us. We traversed many of the noteworthy roads in the Southeast, such as the Tail of the Dragon, Cherohala Skyway, Blue Ridge Parkway, to name a few. By this time, Aaron owned a beautiful Harley Street Glide, and I still straddled my trusty Yamaha Royal Star (see the story behind that bike here). We tent camped up in the Appalachians several times, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in campgrounds like Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge and Blue Ridge Motorcycle Campground, riding through the mountains by day, and chatting over campfires and beers in the evenings. Two old high school chums, now riding bros, who shared not only a common passion for riding, but also a common faith. Everywhere we rode, whenever and wherever we stopped, Aaron loved chatting up the locals, bringing smiles to faces with his charm and sincere interest in their lives and stories.
I got a call from Aaron in March of 2012 which, after taking a deep breath, he began with- “Rob, I have something to tell you…” What he confided made my heart stop. “I have prostate cancer. It’s highly advanced, stage 4, and I’m scared.” I was stunned. Not Aaron! The last few years flashed through my mind, our childhood memories resurfaced. We talked on into the evening, prayed together, shed some tears together, and I pledged, along with our mutual friend Pat, to do whatever possible for him as he faced this fiery trial. After a battery of tests and scans, the cancer was found to be in his bones also, the pelvic region, in his lower spinal vertebrae, and even his liver. The outlook was bleak, the road long and torturous out before him. Aaron had never married, but had his parents, his sister and her family, a few of us close friends, and his church family, and he leaned into us for strength and support.
Aaron battled valiantly, through aggressive chemo, radiation, and even some experimental treatments. I spent several nights at the hospital with him, to offer any comfort, aid and companionship I could, as did all of us. The morning of May 16, 2012, I got the call I hoped would not come. Aaron had passed away in the early morning hours. His sister Elizabeth called to inform me. I was stunned, speechless. It had all happened so fast, and I couldn’t get my head around it. Over the previous couple of months, the cancer had moved so rapidly there was virtually nothing that could be done to stop it, or even slow it down. Aaron fought bravely, but ultimately, the cancer overpowered modern medicine, and he was transferred to a hospice down on the south side, close to where we all grew up. There he died, not two days after being settled. I immediately called Pat, sobbing as I shared it with him, and the line went silent for a moment, as he tried to digest the news himself. Neither of us was completely surprised by that stage, but the finality was still a shocking, difficult pill to swallow.
If you’ll indulge a brief segment of “faith talk” for a moment, I’d like to share some of his closing words with me. Over the last months of his battle, we had numerous rich conversations. Aaron traveled from fear, to determination, to urgency in sharing his faith with anyone who would listen, and finally to peace and resignation, that whatever turns the path took, God had him, and he was in good hands. One of the last nights I was with him at Piedmont Hospital, about 2am after taking another overnight round of pain meds, Aaron wanted to talk. We sat up until 3am, talking about the insights he’d been learning in a Bible study recently, the opportunities to share his faith with visitors and hospital personnel, and his thoughts on where all this was going. He said, “Rob, I have something to tell you. I’m not afraid anymore. Whatever God’s plan for me is, I’m at peace with it. If I get well, I’ll keep living for Christ. If I don’t, well, I’ll be with Christ. I can’t lose either way.” His heart was settled, his peace was made, and I could see it in his eyes, under the dim glow of the hospital room lights that early morning. He was ready.
That night would be the last conversation with my friend, riding pal, and brother in the faith.
I was invited to speak at Aaron’s funeral, where I recounted some of our memorable rides and experiences out on the roads, some fun and fond memories from our youth, and the intimate, final conversations we shared. These brought smiles, a few chuckles, and some soft tears from those in attendance, and I think Aaron would have been pleased. It was a celebration of his life, not just a grieving at his death.
In the weeks that followed, several of us helped the family go through Aaron’s apartment and belongings. I got to ride his Street Glide for an afternoon around Atlanta one last time, before it was to be returned to the H-D dealership that held the loan. Sitting in that saddle, rolling on that powerful throttle, I basked in the warmth of a springtime sun, the wind in my face around his fairing, his classic rock tunes blasting through his sound system. One last ride for my friend, on his prized steed, reflecting on our many shared miles and memories. The family had wanted me to have his bike, but I just couldn’t. This was Aaron’s baby, and it needed a fresh start in a new home. I’d carry his memories on my own steed, the big Royal Star, which I am still doing these years later.
A shared love of motorcycling reconnected us, carried us across many miles and roads, and enabled us to make many memories together. I’m thankful for the ties that bind.
Until we meet again, my friend,
October 2, 1963 – May 16, 2012