Friends at Peart

Friends from Phoenix and Tucson meet in Casa Grande’s Peart Park. Jon Nichols and his wife Susan Burch, at left, share a laugh with Darnelle and Stanley Dunn.

CASA GRANDE -- Casa Grande is where people meet in the middle.

Years ago, I met in the middle to adopt a rescue dog. This was before I started a nearly 10-year gig with the Casa Grande Dispatch.

The dog, Mindy, was being fostered by a woman in Tucson. Cindy and I lived in south Phoenix. Full disclosure: We still do. We spotted an ad for a bichon looking for a home. We called Mindy’s adoptive parent and agreed to meet in the middle.

We picked up Mindy at a once-thriving outlet mall in Casa Grande.

Last week, four longtime friends met in the middle. Stanley Dunn and Darnelle Dunn of Phoenix met up with Jon Nichols and Susan Burch, a married couple from Green Valley, south of Tucson.

I met them while strolling through Peart Park, a cozy Eden of grass tucked between the library and Florence Boulevard.

They were seated at a ramada. In non-COVID times, it likely had a picnic bench. Now it didn’t. The couples brought their own seating, camp-style lounge chairs. Each couple sat a good 6 feet from the other. Social distancing that still allowed for lively conversation.

If they wanted to talk about old times, they had a lot of material. Darnelle and Stanley met Jon in 1978, or thereabouts.

Darnelle and husband Stanley were trekking through the mountains of Colombia, looking for ruins.

“We were walking along and this guy and his brother, who looked really rough, came up and said: ‘Would you like to share a boat and go to the Galapagos with us?’ And we said, ‘We’ll think about it.’”

That guy was Jon. A lifelong friendship was born.

Jon, Darnelle and Stanley have a lot in common. They were all schoolteachers. So was Susan. She entered the circle of friends through Jon.

She had known Jon from early childhood. Their families were friends. About 11 years ago, both were newly single. They had lost spouses from previous marriages. Susan lived in Anchorage, Alaska, at the time. She was a master teacher for the Anchorage School District, where she had also taught music.

Jon lived in Tucson. He was teaching social studies at Tanque Verde High School. Like Susan, he also was a master teacher.

Susan, by then, had moved into a smaller house. The fence was falling down. A cousin said she should call her longtime friend, see if he’d fix the fence. She emailed him and he agreed.

Susan told Jon, “Here’s the deal. I would buy you a plane ticket if you come and fix my fence, and then we’ll go camping for the next month.”

They went camping. Jon fixed the fence on the day before his return to Tucson. They got married five years ago and now live full time in Green Valley. They’re both 73 and retired. They celebrated their birthdays by camping out on Mount Wrightson, a nearly 9,500-foot peak in the Santa Ritas south of Tucson.

They like to camp.

Stanley and Darnelle are 78, both retired. Darnelle taught chemistry at Dobson High School in Mesa. Stanley taught math at Arcadia High, in the Scottsdale Unified School District. His students included Alice Cooper’s kids.

Alice Cooper, Stanley added, was “actually a pretty good guy. His wife was active with young people.”

He wasn’t really the wild and weird guy our parents once feared.

I later jumped in with an observation, about Jon and Stanley.

“You guys still look like ponytail kind of hippies.”

They denied the hippie part. They couldn’t deny the ponytails. Jon has had one from the time he was a teen, with one exception. He was 17 and spent the summer in eastern Turkey on a study grant.

“I took it off then,” he said. “It was a little too out there.”

Stanley grew his ponytail while he was still teaching. The math class had some tough cookies.

“The ponytail just helped,” Stanley said.

The tough crowd got more comfortable around him. He was cool, not the close-cropped figure of authority.

Darnelle added Stanley’s doctor took notice and said: “Oh, the eccentric millionaire look.”

We all laughed at that one.

The couples bought lunch for their picnic at the nearby Burger King. They ordered at the drive-thru.

Darnelle added: “We asked if we could use the restroom, and they said no, because people were stealing the toilet paper.”

And so we dove right into a discussion on toilet paper. Perhaps inevitable in the age of COVID.

I learned that in European countries, public restrooms don’t offer free toilet paper. You have to buy it, Susan said. I imagined a toilet paper vending machine. Maybe 10 squares to the euro.

In Mexico, Darnelle added, schoolchildren can’t just use the bathroom. They first have to buy toilet paper from the school secretary.

In America’s public restrooms, we expect free toilet paper. If it’s available.

On a different subject, I asked the couples how they decided on Peart Park.

“I looked on the internet and wanted a park that had shade,” Stanley said. “And there’s a picture of this park and it had these big trees.”

The big trees are largely eucalyptus, planted years ago. The city, at one time, had considered cutting them down but got an earful from the community. People wanted the big trees and the big shade they provided.

The trees stayed.

The grass and mist from the sprinklers, along with the shade, made for a pleasant picnic. The four old friends enjoyed the park. They saw others enjoying it, too. People walking dogs. Children playing. Bench sitters coming and going.

“It’s a treasure,” Susan said.

“It’s ideal,” Darnelle added.

A good place to meet in the middle.

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Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at bccoates@cox.net.

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