LIKE YOUR FIRST love, you never forget your first friend. Mine was John Lesage. I was probably his, too. I was 5 years old when my family moved to 57th Street and Springfield Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia. John was 6 and lived nine doors away.

How we met, I don't remember. It just happened, I guess. I do remember, however, many of the things we did growing up in that blue-collar, God-fearing neighborhood.

Some of the things were naughty, like smoking and getting dizzy from the Raleigh cigarettes John "borrowed" from his uncle. And drinking Ortliebs and getting sick in the alley behind Mary's Hoagie Shop.

Some were nice, like singing at nursing homes and for the veterans in hospital over the Christmas holidays, and pushing a man home at night who spent his days on a corner sitting in a wheelchair.

Then there were the Friday night dances, Saturday afternoon matinees, Sunday morning Mass, playing cowboys in Cobbs Creek Park (he was Roy Rogers, I was Gene Autry), walking to school, hitchhiking to high school.

I remember us playing football with a rolled-up newspaper, baseball with taped-up bats, stickball with broken broom handles, shooting marbles, flipping baseball cards, playing pinochle under the streetlight and snatching a piece of ice from the milk wagon on hot summer days.

I'll never forget the apple butter sandwiches John ate, and those brown canvas sneaks he wore. I never told him, but they were the ugliest sneaks I ever saw.

I never told him, either, how I often thought of reminiscing with him over a beer or two about those days growing up on the streets, sidewalks, schoolyards - and alleys - of Southwest Philadelphia.

And I'll never be able to tell him, either. John, 73, died recently after a gallant but unwinnable fight with Lou Gehrig's disease. A piece of my childhood went with him.

John and I moved from the old neighborhood years ago. We got married (I was his best man, he was in my wedding party), raised families, slowly drifted apart. . . in body, not mind.

The drifting started slowly in the autumn of '55. That was when 16 guys from the corner enlisted in the Air Force. John, however, followed in the boots of his older brother and joined the Marines.

It was while he was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that I met this beautiful young girl on her way home from high school. I'd write John often, telling him about taking her out and how much fun she was. At the same time, a fellow Marine he happened to befriend at Lejeune was brooding to him about the "Dear John" letter he received from his girlfriend who lived not far from our neighborhood.

Unknown to John, we were talking about same girl. . . the same one I married more than 51 years ago.

Joe Clark was a longtime writer for the Daily News.