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.
My friend Aaron Smith, Pat in the hat in the background.
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 on his prized Harley, and his senior yearbook photo.
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.
Road tripping with Pat & Karen, and out on the open highway.
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.”
Some shots of Aaron and me on the Tail of the Dragon and Cherohala Scenic Byway.
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.
Riding and tent camping, two old rogues on the road.
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.
My father and mother joined us on one trip, which made it extra memorable.
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.
Aaron’s beloved 2011 Harley-Davidson Street Glide.
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
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Thank you So very much Rob for remembering my precious Aaron. I miss him every day. Thank the Lord he knows Jesus n is with Him now.
Love you Rob. Hope to see you soon.
He was loved, and he is missed. Love ya too, Marilyn.
What a beautifully written story! I graduated FCHS in ’77…and wonder who your English teachers were!
Thank you for sharing.
Thank you Nancy! My sister-in-law graduated in ‘78, Kathy Brown. I married her younger sister. I remember Mrs. Eleanor Jackson and Mrs. Carolyn Oliver, two of my English teachers.
Thanks for reading!
This was beautiful Rob. I’m tearing up right now and thinking back to when I first met Aaron in 7th grade playing baseball on the same team together in PTC. I wish I had kept in touch with him after high school as you did. Thank you for sharing the pictures and the stories.
Roger, my ole friend!! Thanks for reading. Didn’t know you guys played baseball together. Very cool. Blessings, my friend,
Sadly, I don’t remember either of you. I would have been class of 80 but moved away in 78. What a precious memorial! So well written and full of God’s love and faith! Have strength in knowing that one day you two will be together again.
Thank you, Beverly, I appreciate your sweet comments.
Rob, this is so touching! My last encounter with Aaron was around a Braves game he was attending with a group of friends – he wanted a Hank Aaron jersey to wear (cuz of the name on the back, LOL) & I got them passes for the 755 Club. I went up to visit with him, saw the group having just a fun time that I decided to not interrupt after all. Wish I had cuz I never saw him after that. But, at least we had Facebook. 🙂
That’s a cool recollection, Dawn! Thanks for reading, and for sharing your memory.
Aaron and those late night talks!
When we were kids ,he used to walk around PTC in the wee hours. Often showing up at my house. He’d throw rocks at my balcony to wake me up and stand in the driveway, me on the balcon, just talking.
So many memories growing up in PTC, days at the pool riding golfcarts, snow days, and one rainy day a few of us were at Aaron’s. We made a game of counting all the owls his mom collected. ?
Years later reconnecting thru Pat and Karen, those late night talks came at the tailend of parties. Recounting exploits of our youth and sometimes glimpses of the deeper stuff.
I’m a backseat rider and hadn’t been on a motorcycle in years. I got to ride one day with Aaron, and friends. It was a blast and a day I won’t soon forget.
I really miss that guy.
May is a hard month. My mother passed 10 years ago. My friend lost her son 9 years ago and it was Aaron 7 years ago. Knowing that we all have a BIG reunion coming helps with the sadness of these loses. I feel sorry for those that don’t have that comfort and faith. I’m glad Aaron found that faith.
Thanks for adding to the memories, Mare. Wonderful recollections. I’m sorry May is a difficult month for you. Much loss and pain. Reunion and restoration- thankful.
Great tribute Rob … And Aaron is now free from all pain. God speed Aaron!
Thank you Tracy, I appreciate your reading and commenting.
Spectacular story Rob!
Thanks Steve, glad you liked it!
Rob, What a great tribute to your friend, Aaron! There’s nothing greater than a true friend—one who knows you & loves you unconditionally! Thankful for you! Your witness to him will live on thru others and multiply thru the years! Praise God!
Thank you Mama Joan! Aaron and I were very close, but your son Lyle has been, and will always be, my lifelong best friend.
Aaron was one of the first captains I flew with at ASA. What a special man he was. We had the very best times at work in those “good ole days”. Overnights were a riot no matter where we went. Aaron was the life of the party no doubt. There was never a person that had a negative thought or word about him. “Mr. Smooth” is what he was. I can still see him swaggering along, captain’s hat in his hand (after all he didn’t want to mess up his fabulous hair) always with a smile and a laugh to share. We did cut up lots! I was shocked to know he was gone. Heaven got a wonderful angel in Aaron and he’s keeping the multitudes of those there laughing all the time. Aaron was gorgeous inside and out with a personality unlike any other. Gone much too soon, but I was blessed to know him. Thank you for this loving tribute to him.
Thanks for adding your memories to Aaron’s story, Debbie. I so enjoyed reading your comments.
You have a wonderful way with words. I could picture each event as if I were actually there also. Your tribute was very moving . I sat and wiped tears that rolled continuously down my face as I read it. Lifelong friends are great especially when they are also eternal life friends.
Thank you for your kind words, Darlene. I’m glad you found the article so moving. Blessings,
Rob, this is just beautiful. I remember lying on my little nap mat next to Aaron in kindergarten! He was one of my first friends. Our birthdays are 4 days apart and not one year since we met have I not thought about him on Oct. 2. He was the sweetest person, so funny and kind every time I saw him, which was much too rare. I love when you and Pat post memories of him.
Thank you Kim, this made me tear up, reading your comments. Love and blessings on you and yours this year, and thanks for sharing this memory of him.
Thank you, Rob. I was lucky to call Aaron my very first friend. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone 8 years. Aaron was always a very kind person and a true gift of a friend. I’m happy to have many wonderful memories of him.
Thanks for sharing this, Lee. I didn’t know that. Blessings on you and yours.
I was class of ’82. Time to pull out a yearbook and put the pieces together. Thanks for sharing this story!
Hi Rhonda, thanks for commenting! What was your maiden name? We might have known each other or had some classes together at FCHS.