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The Imaginary Friend

The Imaginary Friend
From the PorchBy Amber Nagle
The Imaginary Friend
From the PorchBy Amber Nagle

I was about four years old when I marched into my family’s central Georgia home, slammed the back door, and stood in the middle of the kitchen, arms crossed and my face wrinkled in a scowl.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked, her hands plunged deeply in dishwater.

“It’s Billy!” I said. “I’m so mad at him!”

This was a routine that played out throughout much of my childhood, and my mom, my dad, and my two older siblings were accustomed to my theatrical outbursts. I usually recounted some reason that I was angry with Billy, followed by a simple phrase, “And then he got in his airplane and flew off to California.”

Billy was my childhood playmate, and Billy was imaginary — so we all thought. My family was intrigued by my relationship with the little boy who didn’t actually exist. They questioned me and learned that Billy was a tall boy — a pilot from Texas. Together, he and I climbed trees, drew pictures in the dirt with sticks and sprayed the water hose high into the air on sunny days to catch glimpses of rainbows in the droplets. And when I was irritated with him, I’d storm into the house saying that he had flown away to the West Coast.

Studies show that about half of all children develop imaginary playmates in some form or fashion, so no one batted an eye when I talked about the invisible boy who appeared before me in the backyard. “Amber has an active imagination,” they’d say, and they were right.

I don’t remember a lot about that time in my life, and I don’t specifically remember a male playmate other than my next door neighbor, Lee, though sometimes I feel like I can see a boy named Billy in my mind’s eye — someone tall and familiar to me. But maybe my mind is just playing tricks on me.

My family has never forgotten this part of my childhood though. Mom says that when I was six or seven, Billy “flew off to California,” but that time, he never returned. He disappeared as suddenly as he had come to me. Perhaps my mind was done with him.

Fast forward to just over a year ago. My husband, who was adopted from a home in Austin, Texas, in the early sixties, found his biological parents. His biological father, Bill, who was known as “Billy” to folks in his hometown, lives north of Dallas. On our first phone call with him and his wife, Laura, Bill told us that he had been a pilot for the Air Force and had flown Caribou cargo planes. After Vietnam, he lived in California and continued to fly. A few days later, his wife sent us a photo of handsome, young Bill, in his flight suit standing with his hands on his hips in front of a large aircraft.

Being the nerd I am, I typed “Air Force Caribou” into Google to learn more, and it returned a photo of the plane in the results. The shortlanding- and-takeoff aircraft seemed familiar to me. I grew up just a few miles from Robins Air Force Base, and so I often saw military aircraft in the air surrounding our home. Moreover, my father worked on the flight line at the air freight terminal, and when I’d visit him at work as a small child, I often saw the mammoth- sized aircraft and/or met the flight crews, including the pilots.

It was as I sat in front of my computer monitor that day reading about Caribous and thinking about the flight line and my father, that my brain made a startling connection. Gene’s biological father, Bill, who piloted cargo planes for the Air Force, may have met my father, Her man, in the late sixties or early seventies, when my dad worked at the air freight terminal. Indeed, the two men probably shook hands, at the least, during one of Bill’s missions. continued from page

What are the odds? The thought made me smile, and then I did the math in my head. Bill was in the Air Force when I was very young — four, five, six, and seven years old.

My heart began to thump, and my mind raced. I realized that I may have met Bill all those years ago — Billy from Texas; Billy who piloted planes; Billy who often flew off to California; Billy who left one day after an argument and never returned; Billy, my seemingly imaginary friend that I talked about all the time when I was a young girl; Billy, the father of my future husband. Could it be that I actually met Bill, and my mind used his image as a model for an invisible playmate?

When we met Bill in person last March, I asked, “Did you ever fly in or out of Robins Air Force Base?" “Yes,” he answered. “A few times.” “Do you remember meeting a man named Herman Lanier? He was my dad.” Bill didn’t remember meeting my father, but then again, the chance encounter would have been 50+ years ago. A lot of life has happened since then.

All of this speculation makes for a really good story. An extraordinary coincidence? Maybe. Divine intervention crafted to foreshadow a chapter in my own destiny? Perhaps. We’ll never know, of course.

Whatever the case, this revelation suggests that the universe has a great sense of humor and the realms of dreams and reality may be closer than we understand. Perhaps, in some inexplicable way, our brains know what’s to come. I’ve pondered this a lot recently, and I’ll be pondering this for a long time.

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