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Cardella: Gus: A Friendship

Gus Hisler was a buttinsky. He would’ve been the first to admit it. Sometimes a buttinsky is just somebody who cares about you. Sometimes you need a buttinsky in your life. Women understand that fact better than men. That was Gus. When I first met him, my life was a bit of a mess. I needed someone who cared that I needed a strong dose of friendship. Someone who cared about what happened to me almost as much as I cared. In short, I needed Gus Hisler.

March of 1961. It was hard to know where I fit in the grand scheme of things. I was out of college. Had worked at a couple of radio stations. The military draft was hanging over my head, making me and the countless young men like me practically unemployable. My faculty advisers were of no help. Neither were my folks. The situation seemed to overwhelm them as much as it did me. America was only a few years from being dragged into the quicksand of Vietnam. I had run out of deferments. That was when I joined the Air Force Reserve rather than risk getting drafted. Six months active duty. Five and a half years of monthly meetings. At Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, I met Airman Third Class August “Gus” Hisler. My life was about to undergo what was for me a cataclysmic change.

Basic training can be a difficult time. Especially for an overprotected kid from South Philly who’d been catered to by his parents his entire life. I knew I was totally unprepared for life in the military — even in the relatively cushy surroundings of the Air Force. I was scared. Gus knew it.

He seemed to know it the first time he met me. Gus could look at you with these mischievous sparkling blue eyes that seemed to say, “ I have your number. I know everything about you. I know you’re scared. But I’m not like these other guys. I care about you.”

Gus walked with a confident swagger. He exuded confidence. He was the kind of guy who attracted followers like me. A sly grin was never far from his lips. And he had this huge pompadour of sandy, blond hair sitting precariously on his head. Let me tell you about the difference between a pompadour and wavy hair.

The relationship between wavy hair and a pompadour is like the difference between the relationship between high tide and a tsunami. Gus had a freaking tsunami going for him. Pompadours were very popular in the ‘50s. In the ‘60s, though, a pompadour would look corny. Out of style. But not on Gus. That pompadour belonged on Gus. It seemed to have a life all its own. A shimmering living thing. He could easily spend an hour combing it carefully into place. And Gus did so, oblivious to time and place. It  was painful. Gus needed a valet to get ready in the morning. I was that valet. While he lovingly combed his pompadour,  I searched for his socks. Eventually the two actions meshed and Gus was ready to start his day. Our odd relationship blossomed into friendship. And that pompadour took control of my life as well as his. Somehow both of us survived our habitual lateness caused by Gus and his attention to his pompadour. Inevitably, we wound up making our own work hours. Report late. Work late.

We became inseparable. Gus was the older brother I never had. Steering me through military life. Helping me overcome my chronic insecurity. The disappointments of my love life. While some others thought him as a buttinsky, Gus was my rock. He could focus his attention on you like a laser. Make you feel that you were the only one who mattered.

Gus would lecture me on the fine points of life. He was the antidote to the loneliness that eats away at your soul when you’re serving in the military. So we went to the local bars and juke joints that kept loneliness at bay for a few hours. The endless search of the soldier for female company. If Gus were lonely, he never let it show.  He was the ever-present life-of-the party. Gus never looked for the prettiest girls, just the ones who had the best personalities. The ones who could dance — because my-oh-my, Gus could dance. Despite being on the heavy side, he carried himself with beautiful grace on the dance floor. Gus was proud of how he danced. When he was young, he had learned to dance the polka and had gone on to the jitterbug and other adult dances as he got older. He floated on the dance floor. Owned it. Flipped his partner this way and that. Reigned supreme. Drew the attention he craved as he swept his partner through his legs. One time causing her wig to fly off her head across the dance floor.

But Gus had that blind spot. He couldn’t manage time. For a while, it was funny. Until it wasn’t.

He and I remained friends once we were discharged from the service. But his inability to get anywhere on time overtook his life. And mine, too. He showed up with his date at 5 o’clock for a Memorial Day picnic that began at noon. After we were both married and had kids, he’d routinely not make it to the beach until the sun was going down. Or get to the boardwalk’s amusement pier just as the place was closing for the night. My wife and I would see the disappointment on his kids’ faces and feel badly for them. If you invited him to your house for dinner, there was a decent chance he’d show up with his forgiving wife — Betty — hours late. One such time, he showed up alone because Betty refused to show up late again. Gus couldn’t seem to help himself.

Time passes. Relationships change. I was no longer the scared, insecure kid he had formed a friendship with in the military. But Gus couldn’t seem to see me any other way. He could relate to me only as the younger brother he had helped through tough times. But now it was Gus who was battling his demons. One year, he got a great deal on a Christmas tree, so he bought five of them. Stuck the other four into their bathtub.

He still flashed the smile that could charm you out of your shoes. He successfully beat mouth cancer. He was still Gus Hisler who felt he could conquer anything. And then he lost Betty. Blamed himself for her death. Finally found out there was one thing he couldn’t conquer by himself. The last time I saw him was at her viewing 21 years ago. A ghost whose pompadour had turned gray. The twinkle gone from his eyes.

I heard from his daughter last week that Gus had passed. He still talked often about you, she said.

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