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Experience October/November 2023

Windows to the Past

Gerald Joseph Todaro


  • Childhood Bond: Gerry reflects on his enduring friendship with Eddie, shaped by their differences and shared experiences.
  • Life's Twists: Despite contrasting paths in education and career, Gerry and Eddie remained close friends.
  • Life Lessons: The article highlights moments of guidance and learning from mentors, providing valuable insights.
Windows to the Past van der Wal

Jump to:

The school bus had just dropped me off at the stop near my home. I was seven years old. It was a cold March afternoon in upstate New York. My mom watched from the kitchen window, making sure I came straight home.

On the front stoop, my dog JJ waited patiently. Always wagging his tail, nuzzling my leg ready to play and explore the nearby woods.

I was up in my bedroom that afternoon with my little brother when I heard the phone ring. Moments later my mother called me downstairs. This moment in time is as clear today as it was nearly 70 years ago.

We were in the kitchen, and my mother was on her knees zipping up my winter coat. She looked up at me and said that Eddie, my childhood friend who’d recently moved a few miles from our neighborhood, was coming over to play. Eddie’s mom was dropping him off at our house.

Then she said something I’ve never forgotten: “Eddie’s father died, and I don’t want you to mention it or ask him about his father.”

I never did.

I can’t recall any conversation between us that day, but I do remember walking in the fields near our house, weeds and grass flattened by the weight of snowfall from mid-December, walking and running in silence. I didn’t know then what I know now was that I was experiencing the socially awkward feeling of not knowing what to do or say.

A bond built on differences

As the years passed, Eddie became one of my closest and lifelong friends. But in many ways, we were different. I was picked first or second on the sandlot or football field. He wasn’t. Eddie was an honor student. I spent most of my junior high years standing outside the classroom for alleged behavior problems.

We lived near a large lake that was a summer tourist attraction for families—and their daughters. We spent our summer nights chasing girls, not knowing what to do when we caught them, except a few girls found Eddie first. Those summers we shared were filled with freedom, adventure, and mischief.

An older kid’s hunting license slipped us into bars at age 17—at the time, the drinking age in New York was 18. Bouncers were more lenient back in the early 1960s. When I had children of my own, despite sports camps, cruises, and vacations in the Cayman Islands, I knew their experiences lacked the sheer joy of unplanned adventures not knowing what would come next.

After graduation, Eddie went to an elite university out west. I ended up in military school playing football. It was rumored I wasn’t a model child. Eddie graduated from Columbia University School of Law. I graduated from a fourth-tier startup law school.

We both became trial lawyers. I started on the fast track of the felony division in the prosecutor’s office of a major city. Eddie spent two years at a Wall Street firm, then moved home to run the local public defender’s office.

Neck and neck at the bottom

In law school, I fell in with a genuine article, H. William, a soulmate until the end. He played on The Ohio State University’s 1968 national championship team and in the 1970 Rose Bowl game.

Despite the efforts of his legendary coach, Woody Hayes, he couldn’t get gain entry into Ohio State’s law school. But Woody made a call to the dean of Capital Law School in Columbus, and all that remained for acceptance was a perfunctory interview with the assistant dean.

About two minutes into the interview, H. told me, the dean asked him if he was good with his hands. H. thought he was being tested: Could he think on his feet?

“Give me a knife and a fork and I’m a bitch at a buffet,” H. said.

That’s great, the dean said. “You should apply to hospitality school.”

I shared with H. details of my interview with the Capital dean. The dean had asked me where else I’d applied, and I mentioned the University of Michigan—before I noticed his diploma from the “school up north.”

“You couldn’t smell the University of Michigan,” he smirked.

Obviously, the dean had seen my LSAT scores, ranking just below whale poop. H. said his score was lower and added that a rhesus monkey could have gotten a higher score on the LSAT. He figured we were both neck and neck with a primate.

Leading by example

H. and I became roommates. I’d never met a more driven, competitive guy. He’d repeat Woodyisms in his pickup truck on the way home from the law library at midnight. My favorite: “There ain’t a horse that can’t be rode, and there ain’t a rider that can’t be throwed.”

He was my inspiration. H. studied for hours without a break. He was immune from self-doubt, while I was nearly crippled by the fear of failure. At the end of our first year, he was ranked fourth in the class, and I wasn’t far behind. He became a judge who was so popular with prosecutors and defense lawyers that he ran unopposed for his last two consecutive terms.

Two years ago, H. got COVID. I called him the night before he went into the hospital. He couldn’t speak without coughing every other word. “JT,” he said, “I’m going to beat this punk-ass bug.”

COVID won. H.’s only defeat. Since his death, my friends and I still miss him, and we tell his stories that are so entertaining we laugh out loud.

What makes me sad though is that I can’t go back to a time when he talked me through those stressful days and we bonded for life. Sometimes a year would pass without us seeing each other. It was our stories and his voice and presence that instantly transported me to the time of unrelenting angst, struggle, and camaraderie. That window to the past had closed.

Wise words after a crushing loss

When I turned 34, I left a law firm to start my own practice. I was young, yet my trial experience and medical training at The Ohio State University medical school had given me the cachet to “strike out on my own.” Those were the words of my former boss when he announced to the office staff that I was leaving.

Yeah, I thought I was a hot-shot lawyer. When I came home, which was often because my mother lived in our house for the next 45 years, I visited Ed. We laughed, we shared our stories, and our wives rolled their eyes.

One fall Friday afternoon, I drove straight home after losing a dental malpractice case for a widowed woman raising a son with Down syndrome. That weekend, I spent a lot of time with Ed. I told him I’d been offered only $15,000 to settle the case. But I’d told my client the case was worth at least $50,000, maybe more, and I was confident we would win.

When we lost, my client, sobbing, turned to me and asked if she could get the $15,000 back. “I could use the money to paint my house,” she said as tears trickled down her cheeks.

When I drove her home, I saw her house for the first time. There wasn’t a speck of white paint on the wooden clapboards. The front porch, in disrepair, dipped in the middle, smiling at the street.

My stomach twisted like a pretzel. I’d failed to know my client’s needs, and I’d put my ambition and hubris ahead of her best interest.

I confessed to Ed, “I’m a shitty lawyer.”

“No, you’re not,” he said.

He dissected the financial realities of the case. After the expenses for experts and other litigation costs, including my fee, there was hardly enough money for the client to do anything. The insurance company offered defense cost. If I’d have explained the numbers to my client, Ed said, she would have agreed to go to trial.

“You and the experts would have received more money than the client,” he said. “For her, there’d be no point going to trial.

“Besides,” he said, “you need to get used to losing trials you should have won. Good trial lawyers lose cases they expect to win, but the good news is that you’ll win a few cases you should have lost. Get used to it,” he said.

I was used to winning. I’d won most of my cases in the prosecutor’s office. Ed helped me step up to the new reality—I wasn’t shooting fish in a barrel anymore.

Friends until the end

This past June, I got a call from a high school friend who said I should call Ed.

“What’s up,” I asked.

“Liver cancer,” my friend told me, “and they keep draining fluid from his abdomen.”

I’d talked with Ed at Christmas. He was fine. How could this be? But when the liver fails, it leaks fluid. Known as ascites, this condition means the end is near.

I couldn’t call Ed for two days. I was back in the snow-covered field across from my house, walking with Ed in silence. I didn’t know what to say.

Now I call Ed frequently. We talked of days past; I pull from my memory every emotional laugh-at-ourselves experience from our childhood. I remind him of how he snookered me out of my lunch money at card games and then lent it back to me.

I remind him of the time we were home from college at one of our college hangouts, and late in the evening I’d arranged a rendezvous with an old flame. When I drove by her house at 2 a.m., I saw Ed’s car hemmed in by cop cars, lights flashing, and Ed sitting in the back seat of a cruiser.

He’d knocked on the wrong window. Her father called the cops and reported a peeping Tom. I tell him he owes my mother’s estate $50, given that she wrote a check at 6 a.m., no questions asked, other than a raised eyebrow.

When I call, he asks, “Tell me a funny story.” I do, we laugh. I’ll try to keep him laughing until the window goes dark.