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.