Category Archives: Essay
(Some names have been changed ‘cause some of this stuff is embarrassing)
Amy, my love (who isn’t me), as my birthday approaches, it’s time for another covid fueled look back at ‘80s J.
In our last installment your husband-to-be was a college student in the Reagan years freshly hired as private security. Guarding was a temporary gig, a dues-paying layover on the way to glory.
My plan to embrace my future was simple: get my bachelors’, search the want ads, go to the many “Writers job fairs” no one ever hears about, get hired to compose prose and start spending the torrents of cash my words would earn. Swimmin’ pools. Movie stars. Stephen King was looking nervously over his shoulder as I neared graduation.
Yes. You married an idiot. I know that’s not news, but this document is more evidence for your file.
I settled into my new job of taking a bite out of crime by working any location in the metro where trouble was likely to surface. Of course, I wasn’t Batman, my boss, Jim S. negotiated a contract before we were dispatched to protect and secure. Wherever there’s a parking lot, convention center, festival, wedding, alcohol being consumed, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy, look for me ma, I’m probably the cop.
There was little glamor or flash to guarding things, most jobs are like that I suppose. At no time did I ever have to carry Whitney Houston through a concert crowd or away from Bobby Brown. If someone had amassed a mound of feces on a railcar that needed protection from turd burglars, we were likely to be the successful bidders.
Thanks to guarding I’ve been to more wedding receptions than those guys in _Wedding Crashers_. I was not as accomplished at picking up available women at these events, but it may have had something to do with the fact that my job was suppressing peoples’ fun. That did not prevent many of my fellow guards from scoring, however. Is it possible that I was not as handsome? Not as charming? That my night stick was less alluring? I must be careful as I stare into the abyss. But then, how much interest does my wife have in the action I wasn’t getting in my twenties?
In security work you often have to be out in the weather. Murderous heat, meat locker cold, biblical rain, nuclear winter snowfall—-all on the wind-swept Great Plains. Security contracts, like the honey badger, don’t care. Some underpaid chump must occupy a dimly lit place and make rounds to protect other people’s property. Compensation was a major drawback. Working for the lowest bidder in town translates to your income being equivalent to the change that gathers in the cup of a dancing monkey. And the monkey is held in higher esteem.
On the plus side there was no shortage of interesting material for a man who was working on his novel. As I’ve demonstrated, security work treated me to a panorama of characters and situations not offered by stocking at Hy Vee. It was like a circus parade.
There was Malone, an ex-cop who ran call girls out of a bar downtown. Malone taught me that when hitting someone with a pistol try to drive the butt into either side of the head and discharge the weapon upon contact. “It can blow their ear drum,” he advised. So far, I have been unable to work this tidbit into my life, but tomorrow shines brightly.
Frank (my friend since the 4th grade). Frank took his authority to heart. Once, at the Civic Auditorium, Frank refused to let Tom Petty (yes, THE Tom Petty) into an event without paying admission. Petty was heartbroken—har! I hope Frank would have made an exception for Springsteen.
Stoop and Poop. Honestly, if I ever knew his real name, I forgot it. He branded himself with this cognomen by making a bold speech at a mandatory team meeting (for which we were never paid) wherein he declared loudly he was ex-service, and “I know how to stoop, and I know how to poop!” On a hot sticky night guarding the Summer Arts Festival, Frank, the site supervisor, convinced Stoop and Poop that he was too good for such a stupid assignment and he should quit. S&P took Frank’s argument to heart and walked off the job. Jim was furious, because Stoop and Poop pure gold in the showing up department.
Scrap Iron. He didn’t work for SL&B, he was the bouncer at Big Jim’s Bar, a ROUGH establishment on the north side where SL&B guarded the parking lot. One night the manager came out yelling for security to come inside to break up a fight. One guard asked: “Where’s Scrap Iron?” The manager replied: “They threw him out the back door!” When the sound of gun fire began echoing from inside, SL&B’s close out sale merc squad wisely scattered under various parked cars to await the arrival of professionals.
Big Tom (my friend since the 7th grade). Tom was a very good guard, so he was doomed. Tom not only showed up, he took the job seriously, believing people deserved service. The big in Tom was both his heart, and his measurements. Around 300 pounds. Anytime Tom had to lay down security law his opponent would pull the fat card and try to fat shame him. This will reach critical mass in part four.
Naut. Naut was something you send to haunt a house. It would not be out of line to expect Naut to swing out of a bell tower. He was as big as a sofa, and like most sofas just got dirtier, rougher looking over time and for God’s sake never smell it. He carried a revolver with a butt held together with electrical tape and would often set himself on fire. Okay, he let his cigarette ash drop and burn holes in his clothing. I watched it happen and would alert him that hot cinders were eating through his shirt. Sometimes he would brush it off. Sometimes we both just watched it burn. But, and this is key: HE SHOWED UP. Jim’s gold standard baseline of employee performance excellence (which pertains to all jobs): SHOW UP. My job was to show up to relieve Naut in the mornings before human beings arrived to discover we had shaved a Big Foot and given it a job. Naut was also stunningly inarticulate and could not always be understood. It may have been his lack of teeth, but his sentences often came out sounding like: “Ardy-Ardy-DingDong.” Big Tom’s young son would announce Naut’s arrival shouting: “Daaaad! Ardy-Ardy-DingDong’s here.”
The fact that he was a real human being that could be conveyed in such fantastic fashion remains incredibly sad to me. I never tried to discover how he became Naut. That is on me.
Salted through this period of my life was my growing appreciation for the loveliness of the night. Evenings where the stars glittered like glass beads and birdsong and summer flowers seasoned the air. People were mostly sleeping; traffic sounds were far away so it was just me and God. There is something comforting in the isolation of the midnight stretch.
But being a rent-a-cop was about establishing and keeping peace more than savoring it. In the early ‘80s I worked a lot of places where the faces changed but the ugly never let up.
Parking lots. Lots and lots of parking lots. Any parking lot where teenagers would gather to be teen aged (Burger Kings, W.C. Franks, haunted houses) that had an owner with insurance liability had the potential to have me show up and confiscate their beer, interruptus their coitus and generally rain on the fun. I did not enjoy it, but I got very, very good at it. At some point I started to take security work personally.
Apartments. Apartments seem to host a lot of bad human behavior. Probably because people live in them. I walked around various apartment complexes at night watching cars, smelling dinner being prepared, hearing favorite television shows behind closed doors, periodically asking people to turn their music down. I was a force for mundane justice. On the more intimidating end of the dial there was low income housing on the north side. There, when fun went sideways on Fridays and Saturdays people got shot. Other nights too, but I only did apartment search-and-destroy-fun missions on Fridays and Saturdays.
I worked every weekend for eight years.
Salem Baptist Church. Churches are hot beds of sin. It isn’t just teenagers that have sex in cars. Cheating spouses and the horny faithful all chase the backseat boogaloo. One of the dumbest things I ever did (yes, I know how large that list is) was walk into a mob of people having some dispute over race, religion, sex, or some damn thing, and order them to disperse. God was at Salem Baptist Church that night and he kept me alive.
The House of Large Sizes— a clothing store for plus size women. I walked the aisles in uniform preventing full-figured ladies from shoplifting. Nothing I say here will ever be as funny as I think it is, so I’m moving on.
See? I have gotten marginally smarter in 61 years.
The Game Gal-Ry a hugely popular ‘80s video arcade at the bustling Southroads Mall. Teenagers, underage drinking, cocaine, parking lot sex, Donkey Kong. It was all there. I broke up fights and persuaded players not to beat the machines that beat them. I was a parent without the grocery overhead. I so endeared myself to the clientele (One regular named me “The Bald Eagle”) that twice someone loosened the lug nuts on my left rear tire and each time that tire flew off in traffic. Checking my car for sabotage became one more game played at the Gal-Ry.
The Franklin Credit Union (pre-embezzlement, prostitution and devil worship scandals). I worked the lobby during the day and later the night watch. This was pre-Internet or 24-hour television (dinosaurs still roamed the Earth and three channel TV actually went off the air). I had to read books.
Car dealerships. We would often watch car lots at night to prevent vandalism and theft. I would protect vast sprawls of expensive property I could not afford. I would dream over the gleam of vehicles, wrenched from my fantasy at how distant such a purchase was by the stickers in the windows. I came to understand why cars get stolen.
Not every miniscule paycheck involved guarding things. My boss Jim was a licensed private investigator, so I got to follow cheating spouses and collect proof; when we delivered the news to one cuckold, I was sure we were abetting a murder. Instead, the giant husband wept, his heart entirely broken.
We repossessed cars. With the title and keys in hand we would legally reclaim the bank’s property when folks fell behind on payments. The pure act of stealing a car and knowing you will get away with it is a big rush. Frank had a shotgun leveled at him during one escapade and his partner, Bone, advised the defaulted fellow: “You kill him. I kill you.”
Over a car.
On the plus side we were tipped twenty dollars for every car we reclaimed.
One security task prevented folks from stealing cars, in another we stole those cars when folks couldn’t afford them: It’s the circle of life.
Motor vehicle adventures continued with valet parking for the upper crust at swanky parties. Our ever-present companion was the weather. We stood outside in the heat, the rain, the falling, clinging snow watching other people going inside to have a great time. Did you know that the wrong Lincoln Continental key might still start some other guy’s Lincoln Continental? Yes, you will drive up with the horn honking, the lights flashing and the alarm going off, but the wrong car is running and can be driven. There is no tip in such circumstances.
Frank and I painted Jim’s house. When I did the math, I found that we made less money painting than we did guarding shit, so I had to negotiate a pay boost. Jim hated having me around the office because I was always reading his official business communications and correcting his text. Terminating me for insubordination was not on the table, because I was the poster child for showing up.
Why did I keep showing up? One, I’m pretty sure we’ve established I’m a dipshit. Another factor is the whole economy was in a massive recession with an unemployment rate around 10%. Options were not abundant. Also, I was taking the work personally; guarding became in some way about me. I refused to back down. I would do whatever I was being paid fool’s wages for because I was not going to give in to fear.
Yep, you had children with that guy.
One aspect of security work that resonated– the range and complexity of human situations I met on the clock. While I spent most of my time thinking only of myself (my greatest natural ability), sometimes I got a window into other lives that forced me to pause.
Once, I had to guard a federal prisoner. Before you think I was staring down some tattooed thug with a sharpened toothbrush looking to shank me (and I may change the story later) I was actually watch-dogging a tiny young woman in the hospital who had just given birth to her son via Caesarian section. I was pretty sure I could catch her if she made a break for it. Just watching her try to walk was painful, so I can only imagine how she felt. I have no idea what crime put her behind bars. I don’t know her story and I wasn’t sharp enough, human enough, to ask. On a warm Friday night, I watched her rock her newborn son. From a distance I saw doctors take the infant away. She cried as her bonding time concluded and she surrendered her baby to whatever was ahead. I don’t remember the prisoner’s name.
I don’t know if anyone does.
Next: Part Three, “There is an A-hole in Everyone.”
Amy, while sheltering in place I have been doing some looking back, (yes, I do that pretty much every day pandemic or no but try to focus here). Previously I have shared some things with you about my past, telling you that before we met, I was an international banker, secret agent, porn star and dog groomer.
Over time you’ve come to your own conclusions about my capacity in each of those skill sets.
The truth, or at least what I’m going to say here is, I spent the majority of the 80’s working as a security guard. You know the kind in the movies, the private cops, mavericks that the system could not contain, that are ex-Navy seals, are smarter than everyone around them, collect exorbitant fees and are usually played by handsome, fit actors who can kickbox?
Not that kind.
We were rent-a-cops, those guys you see in malls, whose uniforms don’t fit, have unusual body shapes and lack real authority, but because this is America often have guns. That was me. I wore a uniform (that fit), carried a firearm, and generally worked a reverse schedule for the majority of the Me Decade. Like Dracula, or many summer teenagers, I slept all day and prowled other people’s property all night.
My first security job was in Texas, where in the summer of ’81 I guarded a foundry. I worked a 12-14-hour night shift guarding Caterpillar engine blocks and glowing white pools of liquid metal. The foundry patrol area was on average 118-degrees (I know because foundries pay particular attention to the temperature). I sweated rivers and I stank. Security consisted of walking around at night with a giant clock on a strap punching keys into the clock proving I had made my rounds once every hour, preventing anyone from slipping multi-ton engine blocks or molten metal into their pockets. As an only child the hours, the solitude, suited me and my desire to read and write. J’s summer of ’81 is another Facebook post entirely.
Eventually I returned to Omaha and in ’82 I got a job working for SL&B security. S, L and B were the initials of the guys who started the company. It was easy to get a job with SL&B. My friend Ed saw the variety of suspect characters employed there and concluded that the standards were low if they existed at all. He said, “I’m pretty sure if you show up with a shine on your shoes, you gotta job.” This was true. The employee roster was a wild cocktail of under achievers, ex-cons, drop-outs and recovering (or not) addicts out of some improbable fiction.
Our friend Frank, his shoes gleaming, got hired. After a few months on duty his opinion was that SL&B really stood for “slow, lazy and blind” and he suggested I apply. We are still friends despite this. At the time I was busy cramming four years of college into seven and I needed some way to pay my aunt Evie room and board. So, I shined my shoes…
The interview was long, maybe because I was pretty green. Academically speaking I looked great, and I had experience guarding for a major company in the south, but Jim S. the S in SL&B, wanted to take my measure. It’s possible that having someone who had a high school diploma, no addictions nor criminal record was something he was not accustomed to dealing with. I’m not saying I was better than anyone, but I was very different than Jim’s generally derelict applicants. I take comfort in believing that, anyway. I’m pretty sure I was his first nerd hire
Jim’s big concern was that I “show up.” As I got to know Jim’s management philosophy, I found that “showing up” was the bedrock of being a world-class security guard.
Jim had me show up at the Godfather’s pizza on south 24th street. High schoolers would raise hell there on Friday and Saturday nights, so security was brought in to fight for Truth, Justice and calm dining. Paying real off duty police has a hefty price tag, so enter SL&B. Jim found a demand for marked down protection. Our unspoken motto: “Can’t afford the best? SL&B!” Here was his formula: offer the lowest price in town to companies that needed security, hire a buncha guys who could never pass a background check, pay them dick, and build a reputation for excellence. It is simple math if you are simple to the point of deficiency: 2 + 2 =$220,000,000.
My first partner in crime fighting was Perry, a compulsive philanderer who was primarily interested in afterhours clubs, gambling and sex. Lots of sex that he talked about. Lots. He projected his own infidelity back on his wife. Perry was positive his wife was screwing their dog (“Think about it man, who the dog gonna tell?”).
One night Perry didn’t show up, violating Jim’s prime directive of successful guarding. Jim sent Tate to be my partner. Tate was a four foot something septuagenarian who resembled an ancient hobbit who had been in a horrific car accident. Tate had one glass eye that was always looking somewhere else, and a Gandalf walking stick to help balance his gnarled left leg which was visibly shorter than the right. Tate was presented to me as my “back-up” if I had to stop a fight between amped-up high school troublemakers. Visions of having the snot beat out of me flashed before my eyes.
There were many, many others in this “bonded and insured” roadside attraction of misfits. Over the next eight years I would work with many of them and I would be challenged and change in ways I could not begin to imagine. Like many people in their twenties I had a lot to learn. The one thing I was confident of? I had job security—-all I had to do was show up.
End part one
“I’ve become aware that there are fewer days ahead than there are behind.” —Jean Luc Picard.
60 years ago, on a Sunday, I came into the world. Lots of other people did too, but I’m only interested in me (my wife will testify to that). Having made it this far, I can’t seem to stop myself from commenting on it. Sorry.
Generally, I do not feel different. I am only vaguely aware that I am not 20 anymore. Mainly I know this when I do something physical with my two sons who are superb athletes and we finally conclude that mysterious wheezing sound is me. Another clue would be my performance on trivia games. There’s a lot of delay in dredging up information. Watching “Jeopardy” I’m slower to the buzzer. Ironic. I spend my life amassing knowledge only to have it become increasingly hard to access.
Looking back can be dangerous. It’s easy for me to judge myself harshly. Building a mental spreadsheet of where I failed or fell short in 60 years is not constructive. Amassing a list of successes is not a great barometer either. My experience has been that successes are subjective. I’ve walked around with a swelled head about something I did only to be surprised that that same event disappointed someone. Life has a curious balance to it. When you win big, often there are big losers. At 60 I continue to learn that what we have accomplished good and bad may never be fully clear to us while we live.
It would be completely dishonest for me to say that I’ve improved the planet in any meaningful way. If I catalog how I’ve given back to Earth and the people I share it with, I don’t score well. Basically, I sort recyclables into the right bins. Can you feel the oceans getting cleaner?
Assembling a list of things I’m good at does not take long. For the things I can do, I’m passable, but if giant computers ever produce a data mash-up on the best man for some mission, I’m not gonna be at the top of any list. Unless the mission needs a loudmouth with minimal athleticism who can’t easily recall everything he has learned.
For someone who has spent his entire life admiring super heroes I did not become one. It seems highly unlikely that I’m going to mature (and my wife will tell you the sentence should stop there) into Batman. There are several key shortfalls here: My parents’ deaths in my youth left me barely a “thousandaire,” and if there was a giant cave under my home I’m pretty sure the house would collapse into it. Some folks have a life which is a remarkable story. Many of those have a hardship component and the strength of character that grew from overcoming those hurdles. I can’t say that at all. I’ve had a few rough breaks, but overall, I’ve been loved, cared for, and encountered the good will of some truly fine people which I probably have not earned.
When I look around I often feel a profound sense of gratitude. I am aware that a large number of people born on May 17, or any other day of any year anywhere else on the globe, lead lives with challenges that would crush me. My sixty years have been swell. Good fortune, fate, God, the Force, whatever name you give it has always found me and treated me well. I could resent the fact that I’m not a superstar in some field but that would be a profound act of ingratitude for everything good that has found its way into my life. That goodness would include many of the folks reading this.
This philosophic tone suggests that I have some life lessons to impart, information and observations I should share. Ha! Yes, I have learned a lot, but none of it so rich that you won’t do fine without it. When I try to articulate my wisdom into digestible chunks it lays down on a fortune cookie sheet the size of a window shade. I’ve noted my failure at brevity as I’ve been assembling my memoirs (Working title: Lowering the Bar of Excellence: The J. D. Rummel Story). Failure at Brevity is a pretty good title as well.
After sixty years my life appears to be about the connections I make. I connect best via stories. Either by listening to others or, God help the listener, the ones I tell. I did not choose that path, it appears to have chosen me.
The greatest constant in my life, besides my fascination with me, is the parade of stories that fill the streets of my mind. From early on in my 60 years I’ve told tales. Before I knew how to tell my own I told other peoples’. Once, in the ‘70s outside the Omaha theater as we waited for the doors to open I drew a small crowd by repeating Flip Wilson routines that I had committed to memory. At work, I will easily get caught in recounting some event either recent or from the distant past. I’m not saying people enjoy hearing them, but I can’t seem to not tell them. I have to work very hard at keeping my mouth shut. Once, in court, as I was testifying the opposing counsel declared: “Objection! This is becoming a narrative.”
Which is how I see it. Life, or at least my life, is a vast collection of narratives. Like in _The Matrix_ when reality is seen as streaming zeros and ones. Stories are everywhere, like incompetence and corruption in the Trump administration. I’ve learned to see the world as a sprawling play. Sometimes I direct my role in that play by writing my own script. I truly believe I can alter reality by the words I choose and the order in which I release them.
I am aware that many (most?) of my chronicles are special only to me. My yarns of City News and Book, security guard reports, growing up in the church, working at the Merchant of Venus, the escapades of the Mighty Avengers Bowling Team and Movie Club, a love life only slightly less disastrous than Carrie White’s prom, 29 years of showing up at Creighton University (using the word, “working” might be unfair to actual workers), the Adventures of Married Man, and the befuddled observations of J. Rummel: C Grade Parent are mostly warm places only for me. Despite this lack of any need for folks to hear these stories I keep telling them.
As I kick-off my 60th year (not to be confused with kicking off _in_ my 60th year) I’d like to promise you all that I will be a better person, that my remaining time will be spent in the service of the Greater Good, but we all know that’s crap. I’ll continue my half-ass path in my undertakings. I’ll go on being a so-so father, husband, friend, family member, citizen, neighbor, employee, co-worker and boss. The only thing I’m totally confident of?
The stories, long and short, meaningful and pointless will continue.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Writing well, turning out a good poem, story or essay takes me a lot of time. Okay, I’ve never written a good poem that I know of, but you get the point. I’m in awe of persons who write well fast. I’d guess that most times something written fast turns out well it is combination of many factors. Talent, experience and luck being top ranked.
Batman Vs Superman looks like something that was written fast, to meet a set of conditions it does not completely agree with nor is prepared for. As someone who has never written a film my impression is that writing a movie must be very hard. Or rather, writing a good, solid screenplay would be very hard for me because there are so many factors. One of which is time. This movie had to be pitched and stitched together fast to meet a lot of business conditions. Movies are collaborative, and often constructed in compromise. They are built on the input of literally hundreds of people. If I write something purely for myself I’m not influenced by business concerns and business concerns are a non-trivial part of big studio movies. Business concerns probably outweigh artistic ones, because getting someone to bankroll something I created to satisfy only myself may not be a good business decision. I understand business decisions to a degree, as I do artistic choices somewhat. Building on collaboration and compromise is not bad, but it is hard to steer cleanly. Simply put Batman Vs Superman does not seem to me to have a well-crafted screenplay. It has good performances all around, great music and tremendous technical effects. Those tools are not given the appropriate platform to build on:
The story reaches boldly for some things that it does not successfully grasp. I commend the reach because to aim low and score is not a concept that is easy to get behind, but the filmed story is also deeply flawed.
The filmed story of BvS starts from an unstable place. It does not establish Superman as what the public wants: Sunlight, goodness, hope, good-triumphs-over-evil, the hero who succeeds because he represents what is Right and Ideal. Truth, justice and the American Way (in whatever the best sense of that phrase is). The Superman in BvS is not the Superman the audience wants. He is powerful but conflicted, and severely compromised by the fact that he is a murderer. The archetypal Superman that we expect is the ideal, he is what we aspire to be in our best selves. He came to this planet from a foreign place and was infused with the best human ethics we have built over our brief time on this planet. Superman is the perfect molded creation of man. There’s a reason one of his sobriquets is “The Man of Tomorrow.” That’s why writing a Superman story for the general public is hard. One is writing the adventures of God and it’s hard to give the perfect hero compelling conflict. The best fantasy sequence in the film is the one where Kevin Costner as Pa Kent relates a story of how by doing a good thing on his farm he inadvertently harmed someone else. That’s the stuff that Superman rises above in concept (but not Zack Snyder’s Superman). Superman in BvS is a very human superman, and we don’t want Superman to be human. That’s what Batman is for.
The contradistinction is that Batman is molded from the lowest parts of us. Anger, resentment, fear of abandonment, guilt. He is the Dark Knight. Goodness out of the shadow. Why is he the most popular caped hero of all? Because we all recognize him. We look at him and know that we could be him if we had the right genes and bank account. He is imperfect like we are. Something early in life scarred us and we are fighting to make it right. The real battle of Batman fighting Superman is us as we see ourselves versus how we would like to be. This ethic is missing from the movie Batman Vs Superman.
This should be light and hope and the belief in What is Right vs. what we live with every day as Real and Hard. This movie is mostly dark when it needs to sharply juxtapose light and dark. That’s the vs in a true Batman vs Superman.
In the film there is a scene where Superman interrupts Batman’s super-violent car chase and tells him to knock off the vigilante bit. That’s an interesting point if Superman were pure and good (picture Christopher Reeve delivering the message to Christian Bale), that is an argument we could take sides on and have a movie party worth the outrageous price of popcorn. That contention is God interfering in our free will. An act that would be a sufficient cause for a fight. Both guys fight the Good Fight but what happens when the new fighter tells the first fighter to stop because the new fighter does not approve? There’s your movie story.
But the BvS Superman cannot come from the place of Truth and Justice. Remember, he let his loving adopted father die to keep his secret and later breaks the neck of the bad guy to end his movie—this hero can’t do the right thing because he has no idea what that really is. Superman can be conflicted but he always makes the Right Choice when it counts.
Batman Vs Superman as written is a very muddy collection of distracting events, too many dream sequences and fights. Add to this the business concerns of needing to launch the DC movie franchise and you get a very unsatisfying story experience.
This is me being selfish, one of my many flaws that you overlooked.
It was twenty years ago today, March 7, in 1996. The plane crash. The flames. The awfulness of going in the way you said was the worst possible death.
Nah, can’t go that route. First, it sounds like the opening to Sgt. Pepper. Worse, while it’s true you died in flames, writing about it doesn’t make for the kind of read your life deserves. So I’ll start again.
March is your birthday month. At 57 would your body, that slim, low cholesterol, always-in-motion frame of yours be any different? Would you be bald? That’d fix your ass. I think you’d be silver at least. Would you ache just a little? Probably not. The idea of you being old and fat is like having a young Santa who runs triathlons.
This letter should tell some John stories. God knows there are plenty of them. I’ve written about our trip to the sex mall, “Boystown” in Nuevo Laredo. I’ve talked about your love of the sky. But there’s lots of subjects I’ve never covered. I never wrote about you and the opposite sex. I’ve never written about your trip around the world in a World War II bomber, I’ve never written about your wedding or your funeral. I’ve never written about Drama class or the plays we were in. Same for you taking dares that challenged your ability to do something. I’ve never written about how you died and I’m not starting now.
So where do I start?
If this were a song I’d start it like “The River.”
“Me and John we met in high school, when we were both seventeen.”
In first period Theater class to be exact. God that was so much fun. You, me, Russ, Dave, John Johnson, Don and Vince. We did a few plays together that year. Remember when Mr. Hatch quit his job to go write in Hollywood and we all showed up unannounced at his apartment to say good bye? I met your brother Andy in final period. _My god, _ I thought, _there are two of them! _ You and Andy shared the same boundless energy. Looking back I remember you two brothers competing, fighting, collaborating on some things, but mostly fighting. Looking around my living room at two boys I helped make I still don’t get it: The fierce heat that some brothers make.
Have you done anything stupid or dangerous lately? One stupid thing you did was trying to get condoms to prepare for your First Time with Robin. You went from bar to bar, drinking one beer then checking for a rubber dispenser in the men’s room. You hit many bars that night looking for rubbers and showed up at Robin’s too drunk to do anything. I don’t care if that embarrasses you today. I dare you to come back and do something about it.
If you came back we’d talk about our kids, I’m sure. You had families you joined in progress. First Sharon then Elizabeth. And you were pretty good at being a dad as I recall. I did not understand what you were taking on then, my kids came later. After. I’d love to talk to you about my boys. There’s another story in that meeting. I’d brag about them and complain about how they fight all the time. I know you understand fighting brothers better than I do.
A lot of our stupid stuff involved your aggressive driving. Not about how you would out run the police on your unlicensed motorcycle, or the outrageous insurance premiums you had to pay because of your driving record. No, I’m thinking about how other drivers must have hated you. Once, in Council Bluffs you were driving my car and some guy in the truck next to you hung a shotgun out the window at you. Later, you asked me who hated me enough that they recognized my car and would want to shoot me. I’m pretty sure you pissed off someone in traffic, buddy. Remember that guy on a motorcycle you passed leaving Glenwood? He so resented being passed by you that he sped past you, then actually shot at you.
For a long period I worked nights and you were on call, so we’d hang out during the day just being friends and sometimes stupid. It was the ‘80s and I could not get a decent job. It frustrated and infuriated me then. Today, I am so grateful for not getting a real job then. It gave us time to build memories that keep me warm. I don’t think a week goes by I don’t reflect on those days. There were long walks on the railroad tracks. I’m sure we walked in the cold but all those memories are sunny. We’d eat fruit and wander for miles, sometimes we’d take Wren the dog with us. You and me and Wren. There’s a whole essay right there. We’d explore abandoned buildings, rail cars, the woods, some of the walks took us to the river. We walked a lot. Like the Friday night we had no money for gas so we just walked 5 miles to the Southroads Mall and then back.
When there was gas money we did road trips. Our first expedition was when we were 18 and took off after a blizzard to drive to Norfolk NE to visit John Johnson. Snow piled high, roads were crap. At one point we were sliding sideways in your mom’s car on the highway entrance ramp. Driving with you was like a carnival ride without the safety bar. That first trip is where the talks began. We talked about everything. Job concerns, triumphs and tragedies, girl troubles. We’d walk and talk, drive and talk, drink tea and talk. We’d talk. You only got one long distance conversation with Amy the girl I married. You once said, “I can’t imagine the girl that would marry you, J. It’d have to be somebody pretty special.” I agreed and still do.
Yeah, there should be road stories. We hit the road a lot over the years. Fireworks runs to Missouri, amusement park trips to Kansas or the Willie Nelson Picnic (the one where I mouthed off and that giant woman almost beat me to death). The trip to Ames, Iowa to try to buy Wren a little more time despite the cancer. We widened our travels to Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho, Utah. Sometimes we went to weddings, sometimes to funerals. You locked the cruise control at 100 miles an hour in that rental car. On another trip you found out that the cruise control would not lock in at 100 in Dave Austin’s Trans AM. We always managed to have fun, eating at good places, strange places. You taught me to drive a stick. We parachuted and bungee jumped, we swam in quarries, public pools, the Gulf of Mexico and double dated. We went to a lot of movies, a few concerts, played a lot of pool, did many stupid things, like trying to confiscate all the inventory from your employer when they filed bankruptcy and stiffed you on your last check. I’d tell my boys that what we did was stealing but I was helping my friend. Both our moms died when we were kind of young. We lost rudders in some ways, so some of the stupid was us feeling our way in the dark, not knowing stuff that adults might have told us.
Know something weird? Sometimes I will smell a fart and I will think of you. Hey, I said it was weird. You had distinctive gas, John. Playing Foosball you’d let out some aroma from your unusual diet (Salad with no dressing? Who does that?) and everyone would complain.
You told me one night driving over the old Martha Street Bridge that you didn’t think you’d live long.
We did things that were great stories because we didn’t die.
Can one brief letter capture 20 years of life? Certainly no single document can contain you my friend.
20 years of life, now, today, 20 years gone.
I need to go now, brother, I’m super busy these days. I don’t seem to have the free time you and I had in our twenties. Before I head out, I wanted to explain. This essay is entitled “BFF” which is slang for Best Friends Forever. That acronym came around after your exit.
Maybe this isn’t the kind of read your life deserves either. Maybe you resent me calling us stupid in this narrative, but I’ll just say, “Fuck you, John, come back and do something about it.”
I dare you.
I would love to have you back for one more day. But that wouldn’t be enough. You know how selfish I am. But I know you’d overlook that.
I’ll close with the words of Mr. Spock from _The Wrath of Khan_
“I have been and always shall be—your friend.”
Blue Skies and Tail Winds.
(I wrote and posted this in November of 2014 when the rape stories started to get my attention)
I want to put Bill Cosby in a box, into a spreadsheet, I want to break him into component columns so I can understand what is going on. I want to codify and understand what he is today.
In one box Cosby was a hero, a story telling role model, one of the great monologists not just of the 20th century but of all time. I listened to his routines over and over, learning how to spin a yarn that was funny and yet might also reflect the real world in a deeper way. Bill Cosby taught me and trained me by his example.
In another box he was an icon, not a great black man, just a great man, a man that broke down color barriers by highlighting the common ground we all lived and worked on. His successes are legendary. We listened to his records, one of his six television series raised the bar on television humor. I remember watching the first season of the Cosby show and knowing I was watching something new and powerful coming to life that would not only entertain but change things.
Those successes were the reason we all grieved with Bill when his son was murdered, because he was our Bill Cosby, our national, paternal figurehead.
Now we stand with our mouths hanging open, at what seems to be crawling out of the darkness.
Because Bill Cosby seems also to fit into the box of monster. If one reads the accounts coming out now, it is hard to dispute that Bill Cosby is a sick man, a man who forced himself sexually on an uncounted number of woman. And how does the father of women live with himself?
I’m so angry at him. I’m angry about his evil abuse of other human beings but I’m more deeply hurt about the lie. The way he presented himself, the way he represented a kind of standard. What he stood for remains real and important. I cannot let go of what was good because something bad is attached to it. It is my job to use what I can and leave the rest.
Are his stories still wonderful? Yes. Is he still a master story teller? Absolutely, the crushing thing is that his greatest story appears to be the lie he lived all this time. To some degree it is my fault. I should be smart enough to know that the great works of fiction are complex, never simple.
Bill Cosby was a comedian, he made me laugh. His timing, his phrasing, his subject matter all combined to draw out of me a vast array of smiles and rollicking cackles, I cannot let this awfulness take that out of my life. Those moments are eternal.
It is easy to sit here in judgment. Bill Cosby continues to teach me even now, but the lessons I take from all that his life means today will take me a long time to process. To get beyond judgment beyond black and white is my first goal.
He cannot fit in a single box, he is too complex for that. I strive for a simple, distilled version of him, but that cannot be created. Our greatest human gems have giant flaws. Our heroes, real heroes are just like us. No one is just a father, or mother, no one is just a hero or an icon, and no one is just a criminal or a monster.
No one fits in a box.