Op Ed Page
Dec. 9, 1998


They first met when they were six years old. The two boys became best friends, spending their summers together in a town on the south shore of Boston, where one of them lived year around and the other's family rented a house during July and August.

In those early years, they went barefoot all summer, the soles of feet tough as leather, their arms and legs chocolate brown from the sun, their hair bleached yellow-white. No one worried about skin cancer in those days, didn't know much about it, really. The idea was to be as tan as possible as quickly as possible, right after school let out.

They both learned to sail at the local yacht club before they were ten, competing against each other in the walnut-sized sailboats known as "rookies," treasuring the blue pennants for first place, red for second. The year they turned eleven their parents sent them both off to the same boys camp in New Hampshire, where they grew to love the overnight canoe trips, the campfire cookouts, the smell of the pitch pines.

When they were fifteen they were accepted at the camp as counselors-in-training, an important advance in grade and rank, the first of life's promotions. But life's work still seemed far away, and after a year of counseling the two young men committed their vacations to travel and adventure.

They spent a summer house-painting on Chappaquiddick Island, whistling tunes from the current Broadway hit "My Fair Lady" as they worked. They spent a summer in Nova Scotia and Quebec, taking odd jobs and camping along the way in an old canvas sheepherders tent. In the summer of 1956 they drove across the country and worked in a lumber camp in the state of Washington until one of them put a large gash in his leg with a power saw, blood soaking his dungarees. They worked another summer in the slums of London, in a boys club, a far cry from the camp in New Hampshire.

The year after graduating from college, their last summer together, they drove to Central America, where they rode a narrow-gauged train through the jungles of Guatemala, stopping at villages with Mayan Indians selling their wares beside the track. They wondered why they kept seeing American soldiers in those remote villages and they didn't learn the answer until a few months later, when Cuban expatriates, trained by American soldiers in the jungles of Guatemala, launched the Bay of Pigs invasion.

After that, the two young men went their separate ways. One of them took a job as a teacher at a school in South Berwick, Maine. The other became a journalist, living in Boston. Coincidentally, they both got married the same year and both had two children, a boy and a girl. The children grew up and two of them got married, started families of their own. The two men sent each other Christmas cards but found it difficult to stay in touch, two lives diverging. One of them got divorced, then remarried. Their careers took them in different directions, gave them different experiences, involved them with entirely different communities of friends.

The years went by. The ambitions of youth were tested, cast off. Some in success, some in failure. The two men aged. One's hair turned snow white, the other's fell out, left him bald. One of them developed back problems, the other had a bout with skin cancer, a debt from the past. They both turned sixty.

And then, miles apart, they both woke up one morning and knew it was time to retire. Separately, they came to the same conclusion in the same month. Both of them realized it was time to walk away from the jobs that had kept each of them engaged and excited for 35 years, but now seemed routine. It was time to begin another chapter, the book nearing its conclusion.

One of them had heard about a research project in the badlands of Argentina -- a team of paleontologists searching for the planet's oldest dinosaur fossils. The work was sponsored by Earthwatch, a non-profit organization that enables lay people to join scientific expeditions as volunteers. This expedition was more primitive than most. Volunteers brought their own tents and sleeping bags, lived out in the desert, a desolate area known as the "Valley of the Moon." There was no electricity. No running water. No latrines. Just dinosaur fossils and occasional pit vipers.

His wife, a great traveler, showed no interest in going with him on such a trip:"Are you out of your mind?"

That kind of no-interest.

On a whim, the man called his friend of 55 years, talked about their upcoming retirement, told him about Earthwatch. Would his friend have any desire to go with him on such a trip?

The answer was instantaneous, emphatic. A few months later, just retired, the two men were pitching a tent along a dry river bed at the foot of the Andes in northwest Argentina, pounding their tent stakes into the sandy soil with a large rock, the same way they had as teenagers traveling around the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec.

Every day for the next two weeks, they hiked across the hardpack desert, searching for the fossilized remains of animals that had died there 240 million years earlier, dark purple bones in the white sand. They carried canteens of water and hunks of cheese in their knapsacks, just like the days they had hiked around the Grand Canyon. And in truth the rugged landscape was very similar in both places, timeless and forbidding.

At night, lying with their heads out of their tent, the two 61-year-old men looked up at the cold black sky, skimmed with stars, and recalled the time, at the age of eight, when they had found a peephole in the back wall of their local yacht club, a tiny opening that gave a commanding view of the ladies' locker room. The innocence and wonder of a first, prepubescent look at mature women changing into their bathing suits came flooding back. The years fell away, circles re-connected. The two old friends were boys again.

(Ed Note: Tim Leland recently retired as a vice president and assistant to the publisher of The Globe. He left the following week for Argentina with his childhood friend James Dean of South Berwick, Maine on an Earthwatch expedition, and wrote the above piece for the Globe's Op Ed Page upon his return.)