WASHINGTON -- As the holiday season comes upon us -- Christmas and Hanukkah, then New Year's -- there is a phrase one hears often repeated, after rarely coming across it during the rest of the year.
It is said, in the glowing warmth of the holidays, more like a mantra, something that everyone knew was true all the time but didn't give too much thought. Its hymn is "Auld Lang Syne," the emotional toast to old acquaintance never being forgot nor brought to mind, nor for that matter even those days of auld lang syne that we look back on as the snow falls, blocking out the lesser days of today, with such pathos and yearning.
The phrase, of course, is "Old friends are really the best friends." It slips out this time of year, and I am one of its true believers. Others, the miscreants and the Scrooges, will laugh and say it's all absurd. Why, you don't remember four friends from grammar school, they'll say, much less a handful from high school, a few from the old neighborhood and maybe a few more from college.
And exactly why, they'll go on, should those earlier acquaintances be better than friends from later in life, when you know and spend your life with people whom you have immeasurably more in common with?
Well, that point of view surely has its adherents -- many, in fact -- and I can understand where they are coming from, yet I don't believe it. The proof of my eyes shows me that at this time of year I will receive more cards and letters and have more good talks with my old friends. What's more, I believe there is good reason for this.
When we were young -- oh yes, a long time ago! -- we made friends with other young people because we genuinely liked them. We laughed together, we played together, we shared our visions of what we would do in those vast lives that lay ahead. I didn't like Georgia, or Jean, or Joanie, or Lois, or Carol, Mary, Lucy or Joyce because they were going to be rich or famous, or because they could get my future child into a big university, or because their husbands could advise me on mortgages or how to make a fortune on the stock market.
No. We genuinely cared for each other. It was all emotion and it was all truth. I don't remember ever giving a care about what any of them did after that; I loved them openly and eagerly and truly on the spot. There was something else: They often knew our grandparents, and our parents, of course, and our homes. We started life walking hand in hand, and holding very tight, no matter what happened.
Later, when some were having children and some, like me, were working around the world, we made other friends, but from my vantage point of the "wisdom of age" today, I can see how those friends tended to go in and out, then others came in and out. But my early friends hung on, and sometimes I hung on for dear life.
The problem, I found, with the first generation of women's libbers or free women or whatever we want to call them, is that it is very hard to make real friendships with them. They are in everything to move ahead, and often you just don't fit in after a while. They haven't learned yet that, if you live by the job recommendation, you will often also die by it.
Colleagues are a different matter. You can have both men and women colleagues, and they can last longer because they are based on a common interest in a common cause or work. My first paper, the Chicago Daily News, folded in 1978, but there is still today a precious newssheet on the reporters and other colleagues.
Differences in rank can be easier, too, because the positioning is clear. Disciplines, like those of Jesus, are also clear in their mission because they are following the acknowledged master.
But friendship -- that's a tricky one, especially for Americans, because in recent years so many Americans have moved away from their original homes. They pretend to make new friends on strange machines in which they put often embarrassing pictures of themselves, but it is exceedingly doubtful that such practices could make genuine friends of anyone. So what holds Americans together with their childhood friends becomes ever more precious, as it becomes more rare.
Maybe, I think as this holiday season comes to an end and we need to confront the genuine difficulties that America now faces, we ought to pause to consider that all the traits of those original friendships of our youth are exactly what we need in our beloved country -- loyalty, love, honesty, help, consideration, fairness and dedication.
So when you hear people say, perhaps on New Year's Eve, that "old friends are the best friends," don't laugh. That's not only true, it's a necessary component of the revived America we will be seeking in the next years.