I was being the worst kind of school assembly dad.
My son had just received his handwriting award, and with an eternity to bear until assembly was over, I staved off terminal boredom by taking out my phone...and brought up the Google search window.
In my defense, my mind had been wandering milliseconds prior. I’d looked over at my boy, sitting cross-legged and bumping shoulders with his best friend, wondering if they would still be this close, later in life.
And I had a sudden flash yearning for my best childhood friend. With utter determination I told myself: This time, I’m going to find Brent.
Thanks to an article from South Florida Gay News in 2018 that exposed and detailed the abuse Brent and others suffered from their housemaster in boarding school I was able to find out what happened to my long lost friend and fill in key details of his life.
It was clear from the moment Brent and I met, eight years old each, in the elevator of our Manhattan apartment building, that there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do perfectly the first time, or at least look good trying.
Even then, his fair hair, dimpled chin and slim, strong frame moved through his world with a confidence I never even knew existed. Brent could roller skate, ice skate, play every kind of ball game with a fluidity and grace that left me speechless.
And he could dance.
He wasn’t showy, wasn’t demeaning. He didn’t think he was something special. He was just capable, and he knew it. Brent McCowan had easy motion.
By late 1968, I was spending as much after-school time as I could with Brent, in his spacious, shag-pile carpeted bedroom, complete with a loft bed and study nook underneath. Where afternoon snacks were frosted Pop Tarts, not a lecture to wait for dinner, and where baseball, football and hockey were things you lived for, not things you pretended didn’t exist.
It was a Sunday in early January. I raced home from Hebrew school, pushing away the traumatic visions of holocaust movie horrors we just watched, and joined Brent in his den.
There we watched the suddenly amazing NY Jets play and win Super Bowl III on a small black and white TV while the grown ups watched on the big color TV in the living room. Mrs. McCowan ensured an endless supply of fun food on the coffee table, and we screamed and jumped up and down at every twist and turn that brought Broadway Joe Namath and the Jets that much closer to victory.
In July, we were back in the den, time after time, watching Apollo 11’s flight to the moon, walk on the moon, and safe trip back.
In October we watched the Mets win the World Series, something we all thought could only happen after, well, never.
If that wasn’t enough, at the end of the year I had a front row seat to my first Christmas, a magical holiday with candy, presents and more presents! That’s when Brent got a phonograph with a built-in speaker, and records that were actually of today’s music and not opera.
Man, I loved Brent’s place.
After school, we hung out and did kid stuff: played The Game of Life (only scrabble and monopoly played in mine), traded baseball and football cards -- cards he gave me, and I kept at his place knowing they would not be received well at mine. We made rubbery plastic creatures with our Creepy Crawlers set, raced hot wheels and played music on his phonograph.
By 1971 my little brother, now 6, was allowed to accompany me up to Brent’s once in a while, and Brent was a natural and nurturing additional big brother to him. You could tell he’d probably thought to himself that he’d like to have had a little brother to dote on.
When winter fell, Brent’s mom and dad would take him out to ice skate in Central Park. They persuaded me to accompany them once. As they skated figure eights and glided like birds, I slid around uncontrollably, falling gracelessly on my bottom, in my pull-over rubber boots.
Out here I could feel the great identity and capability divide between us, Easy Motion vs. Me. It was growing, some kind of unsettling rumble in my being, telling me things are changing.
When 1972 came around, the changes waiting in the wings were becoming more evident. Suddenly, we were twelve. There was more homework, Brent had after-school sports, me after-school astronomy.
And before we knew it, it was 1973. We were living lives more and more in our own, separate spheres.
My last memories of thirteen-year old Brent involve my phoning him with an invitation to a “kissing party.” I did not want to go alone. A girl I had a crush on was hosting the party.
Brent knew none of my school friends but still agreed to be my wingman. My memories that come next are not pretty: A nightmarish go at a game of spin the bottle, forced to kiss every girl there except the one I wanted; and then later watching Brent win the adulations of the girl I liked. Then they danced, as I sat in a chair watching, distanced and dismayed.
Brent had always been kind and fun. He hadn’t meant to step on my territory. He just was good at everything and it put him in pole position every time.
That year, other circumstances would separate us for good.
On short notice, Brent’s family moved out of their apartment and into a building down the block. My mother would be diagnosed with terminal cancer. Before her demise and passing, Brent would be sent to boarding school in New Jersey, with no easy access to phones.
A year later, my mother was gone. When the dust settled, I called Brent’s home to see if there was any way I could phone him and catch up. His father told me that Brent had gone AWOL from school. Soon after, my father was remarried and I was sent to boarding school, too, but in Massachusetts.
It wasn’t until some time after college that I took another stab at finding him. I got in contact with his father, who gave me Brent’s phone number.
Brent and I got together with our girlfriends, at some riverside cafe.
In a surrealistic moment, we saw each other for the first time in almost twenty years. We’d gone from kids, to tweens, to adults. He still looked like Brent - only bigger, stronger.
We were amazed to discover the stunning parallels in our lives. We’d both been to boarding school, both already been married and divorced once, were both aspiring filmmakers and more-than-avid photographers since our teens, despite never sharing any love for visual arts in our childhood together - we even had the identical camera and darkroom kits, camera bodies, lenses and enlargers.
We had grown up entirely apart yet were in so many ways entirely the same. But where I had story after story to tell about my boarding school days, he didn’t want to talk about his much, aside from how a teacher harassed him and when no one would listen, he packed his bags, climbed out a window and made his way into the world by himself.
His spark was gone.
A loneliness in his eyes had taken its place. And I had a feeling that his easy motion, that defining aspect of everything he was, was long gone.
I was moving to California a week after our meeting. He said he’d planned to be out there soon. A few weeks after my move, I called and his phone had been disconnected.
I re-lived my whole life with Brent, from that fateful meeting in our elevator in 1968, up to that surrealistic, sadly distant cafe reunion in 1992, in a heartbeat, as my son bumped shoulders with his best friend in the school auditorium.
It was then I Googled Brent’s name.
And for the first time in decades, I got a hit. Several hits. All the same. Brent McCowan had joined others in outing a teacher for his abuse - abuse that went unchecked by faculty or administration, that led Brent to escape the school in the dead of night, just prior to graduating, never to return...until a school reunion, 40 years later.
My heart raced with excitement that I’d found him, but in pain over a story I’d never known, a story that explained Brent’s far away eyes and quietude on that strange day at the riverside cafe nearly thirty years ago.
I read more articles online about the horror he faced in the hands of his teacher, and read his own words tell the story of how his world changed and left him changed, forever; I read how his tormentor runs free in Florida, a successful and happy business man.
I couldn’t believe that my best childhood friend had suffered so much, but I was moved and hopeful - even excited at the thought that at least now I can find him, and console him, and be the refuge to him he had been to me.
But then I found one more article online — his obituary. I’d lost Brent again, as quickly as I found him.
I looked at my son, so happy, and thought of the feeling of happiness that his happiness gives me. I thought of all four of my beautiful children, of my wonderful, beautiful wife; of the happiness they bring me every day; of my exciting and wild ride through the entertainment industry, and the natural beauty that surrounds me in the hills of my adopted home of Sydney Australia.
I couldn’t understand how Brent, my friend, my sanctuary, the boy with that vivacious personality, can-do confidence and giving heart; the boy with the cool, modern house, young, sexy parents, his own room, coolest furniture, Pop Tarts and TV dinners and current music.
The boy who had everything, ended up struggling to find the light of happiness through the trauma and sadness that haunted and crippled him his whole life. It was hard to imagine this boy was stripped of his easy motion, robbed of the happiness every boy deserves, and the joy of building a family of his own, or of having his aspirations realised, while I — the boy who wanted to be him — ended up with the Motherlode.
Matt Ferro is a filmmaker born in NYC, who produced the Academy Award-winning visual effects for “The Matrix” and headed the digital production of “Happy Feet,” eventually settling in Sydney Australia. Recently, he is one of the producers of “What Will Become of Us,” a documentary feature film about the life of Frank Lowy, the holocaust survivor and co-founder of the global Westfield Shopping Centre chain.