In order to do justice to the living, we have to go way back to a time before I even knew their names. I would have been five or six then. My mother would come into my room. Her countenance was sad but willful. “We’re going to a funeral,” she’d say. “Please put on your good suit.”
Great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, and assorted long-time acquaintances departed every two or three months by the time I was old enough to accept the responsibility of making myself look presentable for such an occasion. By first grade I had a vague understanding of what it all meant. Someone who had been alive had died and gone to heaven. While we would miss them, we were to rejoice that they were now with the Lord. This information was a great comfort to those closest to the recently deceased. It also reassured those at the service who anticipated a similar journey very soon.
My concept of metaphysics in those days was entirely informed by television cartoons. Whenever Sylvester the Cat died from electric shock or by having his skull crushed beneath a falling anvil, the translucent image of his spirit would rise from his corpse, wings would sprout, and a halo would appear above his head. Once in a while the cartoon’s writers would get imaginative and send Sylvester to hell, which, based on my limited understanding—made a lot more sense. So one day my parents and I had gone to a viewing of a woman named Sarah. A tall, scrawny, red-faced man stood up front and wailed and beseeched, ending his presentation by saying that this Sarah person was now in another place. I didn’t realize until a few moments later just how quiet the room was when I said to my father, “Did she go to hell?”
Depending on the faith of the surviving family, the pre-internment service might include something they called a viewing. The dead person would have been placed in a casket surrounded by a cornucopia of floral decorations and sympathy cards. The eyes were closed to simulate the state of eternal tranquility and to quell any discussions of the mortician being a taxidermist on the side. Their hands would be folded, one finger often adorned with a wedding band. Their clothes suggested a regal occasion, somewhere between a Sunday school service and a coronation. (It was many years before I learned the men were put to rest with no back in their jackets and wearing slacks cut off above the knees.) It was the custom to form a procession, allowing the reverential and curious alike to take one last look, that image lingering with the mourners until their own time came. It seemed to me that a Polaroid camera would be useful here, but I had learned to keep to myself any suggestions about protocol.
Now and again over the years we hear social scientists and theologians plead that children must be shielded from much exposure to the final stage of life. My suspicion, borne of my own experiences, is that until a person is twelve or thirteen, he cannot conceive of eternal loss. Long after the illusions of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy have fled, a youngster will cling to the idea that the departed loved-one is eventually coming back. The discovery of this error is often slow, finalizing only once the discoverer is ready. A trusted parent or guardian can take a younger child by the shoulders and say with constricted emotion that little Jimmy is never coming back because he is dead, singing hosannas with Jesus and simply unable to return, and the child’s immediate response is irrelevant. Within a little while he will have convinced himself that perhaps the messenger is an idiot, or that someone made a mistake, or that, after all, miracles do happen because Lazarus came back, didn’t he?
By the beginning of the teenaged years, however, the ugly truth seeps in. The world is revealed to be just as rotten and hopeless as the cranky old men hanging around outside the drug store say it is. The child learns, sometimes to his horror, that not only is so-and-so not coming back, but that everyone else is moving on with their lives, almost as if the really tragic thing had never happened.
The first person with whom I’d been on a first name basis to die was my Aunt Florence. I remember that she lived in a big two-story house in the city. Every dress she wore displayed a subdued flower pattern. Her complexion was milky white, she disliked cats, and she walked with a cane. We visited Aunt Florence every week or two as my family made their rounds on Sunday afternoons. Her living room had a large burgundy rug laid over the worn hardwood floor and I smelled baked cookies every time we visited. I am embarrassed to admit that I remember little else about the dear old woman, other than that looking down at her in the casket, I wondered how she would get along without her cane.
One spring morning my parents and I were snuggled up around the breakfast table eating pancakes and sausage, listening to the local radio station. We lived in the suburbs of a town called Circleville, which only had one radio station. I knew something was up because the radio was not often on in the morning and it was always tuned to one of the Columbus Top Forty programs. I was about to inquire when my father said, “Listen.”
The Circleville station only played three songs an hour, the rest of the time being taken up with farm reports, local sports stories, weather-related school closings, Sheriff Radcliffe’s arrest reports, and traffic accidents.
You wonder how the news will affect you, what you’ll do with the rest of your day, how other people will react, and still you are never prepared. Four friends had been out the night before, driving up and down the rainy and slippery dark Circleville streets. A boy named Perry was at the wheel when the car went into a high speed skid, clipped a fire hydrant, spun, flipped, and slid on its top until it crashed into a telephone pole. Two of the passengers, Jan and Roberta, were dead. The other two, Perry and Chloe, were expected to be fine. The Sheriff suggested that the teenagers had been drinking. Jan, a pretty sixteen-year-old who lived up the street from us, had been decapitated.
For the next forty-eight hours, every kid I saw had the same look: devastation. I didn’t know anything about Roberta, but Jan had been something of a local legend. As I said, she had been attractive, was an honor roll student, played on the school track team, and went with a boy named Darrell who had the worst complexion I have ever seen in my life. The story in the neighborhood was that Darrell had gone crazy, stolen his daddy’s deer gun, and was looking to shoot and kill Perry, who just happened to live two doors down from us. I remember hoping that Darrell would be successful because Perry was a bully, a wise guy, and a drop-out who had two distinct advantages over my friends and me viz-a-vis the female population: he had a car and at age eighteen he was able to buy something called three-two beer, which was lower in alcohol content than the regular stuff, but still carried the panache of being actual beer. But Perry was creepy. He was the kind of guy who, when someone’s dog or cat disappeared, you suspected he’d had a hand in it. As a juvenile he had been arrested for grave robbing. And I would have bet that, even as a young adult, Perry still wet the bed.
So two days later, when I saw Darrell walking down the street, holding his father’s rifle in an almost relaxed manner, I actually had to contemplate the proper response. Rationalizing that Darrell might not stop with shooting Perry, I moved towards the telephone, only to be halted by the squeal of a law enforcement siren. The sheriff and his deputies tackled Darrell before he could get himself in any real trouble. Shortly after this, Perry enlisted in the Army, only to go AWOL during basic training. We didn’t hear any more about him after that.
The day I turned sixteen I began working in a restaurant called the Covered Wagon Steak House, later to be renamed the Blue Drummer Steak House. The division of labor there was gender-based. Girls worked food preparation, the salad bar, or the cash register. Boys worked the dish room or as cooks. Being a cook there was actually a bit prestigious because in that position a boy got to wear a chef’s hat and kerchief, interact with all the other employees, and received an extra ten cents an hour, the only raise Chuck Orr, the owner, had ever been known to give. Every boy employed there started out loading and unloading the dishwasher. Clean dishes were a definite asset in the restaurant business, so I could sense the value of the job, although I yearned to be a cook. The guys whose tongs and spatulas blazed above the four hundred degree grill upon which the steaks were seared with perfect criss-cross patterns were the essence of the operation. A customer might overlook a flat soda, soggy bread roll or wilted salad, but the sizzle was the steak and it had to be perfect. The dish room boys rode their bicycles to work; the cooks drove cars.
I begged Mr. Pauley, the manager, to let me cook and after a couple months he relented and set out to teach me. I took to it well, so well that Mr. Pauley cautioned me not to get big-headed about it.
The job was everything I’d imagined and much more. For one thing, that grill was hot. Way up above the rapturously smelling sirloins, rib-eyes and T-bones hung giant air filters which by the end of each day were caked with brown oily grease. A cook was on his feet for the eight hour shift. It was considered bad form to lean on anything, and doing so was a sure way of getting Mr. Orr to yell at you.
A lot of stories went around about what a tough guy Chuck Orr was. Most of those stories didn’t scratch the surface. During the two years I worked there, I saw him manhandle employees, in one case picking up a boy named Jim Heacock by the collar and belt and throwing him through the front door. I watched him fire Mr. Pauley on Christmas Eve. I saw him berate, chastise and intimidate people less than half his age. He ran that restaurant the way a despised drill sergeant runs a Marine barrack. But when it came to the customers, he turned on the charm, smiling and calling many of them by name, making sure everything was one hundred percent hunky-dory, as he liked to say it.
The only real disadvantage to being a cook there—and the one thing nobody had warned me about—was that the position made an employee constantly visible to Chuck Orr, which meant that whenever he was there, our performance needed to be one hundred percent hunky-dory. Given our ages and the thoroughly unrealistic job expectations, it was only a matter of time before Mr. Orr got around to each of us.
In the meantime, he was not there every day, and he sometimes disappeared for stretches of a week or two, so there were still times when I enjoyed the job. As a matter of fact, to this day it remains the most difficult and best job I have ever had. A temporary and genuine bond developed between many of us: Debbie Azbell, Roger Kellogh, Pam Martin, Mark Kiger and the others. I do not know how it is that I still remember their names, but short of Alzheimer’s, I always will.
One other name I suspect I’ll retain is Jamie Wellover. He started cooking there only two weeks before I did, we were born just a few days apart, we looked somewhat alike, and as much as possible, we each tried to have a good time with the job. For instance, Jamie had a knack for remembering what our customers usually ordered. He could look at a line of customers and at least half of them would have their meals ready three seconds after they requested them. This used to drive Mr. Orr crazy because he couldn’t figure out how Jamie was doing it, but at the same time he couldn’t curse the kid for doing his job too well.
“How you doing?” Mr. Orr asked him one day.
“Hunky-dory,” Jamie replied. “Whatever that means.”
The last time I saw Jamie Wellover, he and I were sitting in his black Dodge Charger listening to some of the soundtrack to the movie Tommy on his eight track player. We had just finished closing up the steak house, I was tired and sweaty, and I guess that’s why I declined his offer to go riding around. Well, the other reason was that I knew Jamie got high, just like he knew I didn’t, and I just didn’t see any sense in complicating my life.
I doubt I’ll ever forget how I heard the news. The next morning was a Sunday, so I knew we’d be busy. I arrived fifteen minutes early and stopped in the dish room to say hi to Ronnie Easter. I made a joke about something and Ronnie turned to me and said, “You haven’t heard, have you? Jamie was killed in a car crash last night.”
Ronnie told me later that from the look on my face he’d thought I was going to pass out. I stood there, gazing blankly at Ronnie. Neither of us could think of a thing to say. A few seconds later, the thin metal door that separated the kitchen from the dining room crashed open and in charged Ms. Bevan, Chuck Orr’s second-in-command and a person for whom the terms brown-noser and suck-up were invented. Before she was all the way through the door she started yelling for us to get busy, were we crazy, there was a line of customers out the door!
Even now I wonder why I didn’t hit her.
He was seventeen. We were all seventeen, Ronnie, Debbie, Mark, Becky, Roger and I. We staggered through our shifts like zombies. No one said very much. Chuck Orr tried to lighten the mood with a raunchy joke and none of us would even look at him.
I suppose that on one level the true story of a high school kid dying in a stupid car accident is the corniest thing in the world. But if it is, I’m okay with that because just possibly it’s good in this age of irony to hear something overly sentimental once in a while, just to maintain perspective. I am not here to make the case for sainthood for anyone. On the contrary, I am here to make the point that Jamie did not live to graduate high school, to decide if he would get married, or pick out a favorite location to take the kids on vacation, in case he’d decided to have any kids. Instead, one minute he was driving along with a song blaring at him, the wind blowing back his hair as he drove through the night, without the weight of responsibility that was only a year or two down the road. The next minute his belt buckle hooked on the top of the steering wheel as his head shot through the windshield, night birds scattered out of the tree, the engine shut off and the car’s horn began to scream.
A lot of other people died. There was Mrs. Cain, who had been a little girl in Nagasaki in 1945 and who died of cancer in Circleville in 1979. Steve Winn, a professor friend at Marshall University, dropped dead on the street of a heart attack at age forty-five. I’ve written elsewhere about Bob Gerke, Bill Sullivan, Randy McKay and Bill Westbrook. I miss them. They died.