Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.
I grew up on the edge of a slowly expanding metropolis. Between the ages of 0 to 7 or so, I lived in an older home, along a street bordered by empty fields on one side and a row of homes on the other. I have vivid memories of this place, but I’m not always sure of their correspondence with reality. Prior to my 8th birthday, we moved from this more or less comatose area to one roughly a mile away. Our new street was short, caught between two “T” intersections at either end. Across the street lived two girls my age in the only two houses on that side. I later had some slight romantic involvement with both of them, but that’s another story. To our right was a long-time resident family, an overriding memory of them was their love of all things cowboy. They kept horses, until some years later when my mother rather gleefully announced that the city now forbade this practice. It took several citations before the horses finally disappeared as I recall. There was bad blood from that point.
Down at the south end of our street, across the intersection, stood Jim’s (not his real name) house. My earliest memories of Jim were from Church. We both happened to be Mormons, and so we saw each other in Primary, etc. We didn’t hang out or anything at that point – he was older.
The main thing I remember about Jim at that time was his father. He was ex-Navy and worked at one of the local oil refineries. Every afternoon about three Jim’s dad arrived home from work and I’m only a little ashamed to say that it got so I would purposely stand outside our back door and listen. The cacophony of swearing that broke out was legend. You could hear it for a half-mile I think. I came to believe that Jim’s dad used his daily homecoming as a kind of release for those work-day tensions we all have, except it seemed like he took it out on Jim mostly. It was usually about the condition of something in the yard I think (there were fearful rules about lawn-mowing for example) or some other assignment either incomplete, undone or imperfect.
Jim and I did not really become friends until middle school age, and then only in fits and starts. I always had the impression that he associated with me as a kind of fill-in when more fascinating company was unavailable, but objectively I think this was not really true. It was just that Jim valued social standing in his friends. I suppose many of us engage in variations of this at points in our lives. Through it all I saw, via my adolescent lens, that Jim’s actions and words hinted at a strong desire for his father’s approval, an approval that seemed quite rare to me. In any case, Jim evidenced an industrious nature, driven to achieve certain goals that didn’t really resonate with me at that age.
For instance, the time when my mother invited a woman in our ward — who wanted a gardener — to hire me. I think I was about 13 or 14 and I saw this as a terrible imposition on my summer vacation. I mean, the old lady wanted 8 hour days out of me. No way man. I rode my bike the three miles to her house in the morning and by 11 I was done with that, brother! She’d call my mother at work and complain that I just didn’t “know how to work” (the kind of charge that was nearly a social death sentence among adults in my circle — since then I’ve always had a negative view of Idaho-Farm-Boys and the associated legends of the glory of labor).
No doubt it was a just charge. But it was a status I silently cherished and at the same time disliked for years. Jim questioned me about the situation and one day when I chose not to show up for some odious task, he rode over to the old lady’s place and got himself hired in my job! The mixture of shame and joy was a little hard to take around the house for a few weeks. My mother’s opinion of my character was on a downslope. I’m afraid it remained that way for decades. (“When are you going to quit school and get an actual job? Your brother says there’s an opening at the warehouse.”) To top it off, the old lady’s husband ran a commercial trash pickup business (think: early Waste Management). Jim so ingratiated himself with her that she got him hired to ride the back of a truck, picking up trash cans at each stop and dumping them in the back — this was long before the days of “ride in the truck while the automatic thingy picks up the can and dumps it for you” bit. It was miserable work in my eyes, but Jim relished the paycheck and the independence it brought. Plus, there was a lot of earthy talk around that group. And I didn’t mind leeching the odd cheeseburger from his cash flow.
A couple of years later, Jim’s dad got religion and actually ended up in our bishopric. This was a little astonishing to me, but I was happy about it. It made him seem somewhat approachable. The thing that bugged me a little at the same time was that for some reason, as I got to know him better, I sensed that he found more to admire about me than Jim. I couldn’t figure this. Jim was a high school athlete of some repute (distance running) and clearly had economic ambitions that far exceeded those of that kid who “didn’t know how to work” — yes, the title stuck with me around home for some time.
The Vietnam War was in full swing when Jim graduated from high school (he was a year ahead of me) and college didn’t appeal much to him. Selective Service deferments for college were long gone anyway and Jim decided that rather than do the draft thing, he would join the Navy. I always wondered why he didn’t pick the Air Force but I later learned it was imitative of his father. So Jim went to Vietnam.
When you think Navy, you think ships, right? Well, Jim was indeed on a boat. But it was a river boat. They’d quietly motor up water ways and get fired on. My impression was that he was part of an SOG support unit. The second time Jim came home on leave he came to my house and we walked around for a couple of hours. Jim was a changed man. He told me of his introduction to sex at a drug party when he came home from basic training (he’d been estranged from his father for a couple of years and was staying at his paternal grandfather’s home) and his own drug use in the Navy. The fear in his eyes about going back to the war was haunting for me.
Events in my own life overtook me and I lost track of Jim for a few years. Eventually I found out that he had gone AWOL after his next leave. He was apprehended in a neighboring state and served time in the brig. He was mustered out with a general discharge. He moved back with his grandparents. I don’t think he ever spoke to his father after that.
Jim got married a year later to a really fine woman by all accounts. But a year or two after that I got a call from his mother. Jim was in the university hospital in my city. He had discovered a small lump on his neck a few months previous. It grew to the size of a golfball very quickly. It was removed, but the cancer was extremely aggressive and he had only a few weeks to live. I found him in a hospital bed with a morphine drip. He recognized me for a minute and then dropped off to sleep. That was the last time I saw him. I don’t think anyone had told him he was going to die. It was all so fast.
I still think about Jim from time to time. I wonder about his life and what it meant for him. His experience was so different from mine, though we shared much for a few years.
We speak often of accountability and choice. The discussion seems connected to the traditional one about chromosome vs. environment. What really counts? Was Jim somehow doomed to his life trajectory? What if our parents had been switched? I admit that over the intervening years I’ve come to a stage of puzzlement about such things. I’m not even sure there is ever going to be a satisfactory answer in either the scientific or spiritual senses. But anyway,
Dear Jim. Sorry.