To most people it’s just a picture. To me, it’s so much more.
My dad called me one Saturday and asked if I was coming over. I gave a simple, ‘yeah, in a bit,’ which was true. I was about to head over there.
“Good,” he said. “I have something for you.”
Something for me? What could it be? Honestly, I didn’t think too hard on it. I have learned that when someone says they have something for you, don’t think on it too much. You could get your hopes up and have them dashed. I prefer to not dwell on it. If it’s something good, it would be a pleasant surprise.
In this case, it was a surprise. One that made me pause and think for a while later that night and on many nights since then.
I walked in the door, my kids in tow. They darted off toward their cousins, talking and laughing and doing the cousin thing, whatever that is. My dad walked into the room and smiled that Dad smile. The one where you’re not sure if he’s up to something good or mischievous. He pulled out the picture, handed it over.
“This look familiar?”
“Wow,” I said. “Yeah, it looks real familiar.”
It was a snapshot of four young men. You wouldn’t know it from the picture, but those four males were at a rest stop somewhere between Columbia and Charlotte. Behind them sits a snack machine to the left and a coffee machine directly at their backs. They stood behind the metal bars that were usually closed and locked—the bars that the vendors put up so no one could tip the machines or take the money out of them. I guess someone left the gate open on that day. It was a mock prison scene.
The two guys on the ends were adults, both in their twenties. The two in the middle were teenagers and part of the church youth group. It was an outing to Carowinds in Charlotte that had that quartet (and others not in the picture) at the rest stop. I think the girls—yes, all of them—had to pee or something.
I gave a chuckle. The one on the right… yeah, that’s me. The kid beside him in the Carolina Panthers shirt and blue jeans holding tight to the red and black Nerf football was Chris. We tossed that football about all day long when we weren’t in the car (yes, we threw it while in Carowinds, much to the dismay of a couple to several dozen folks).
The picture had been taken in the summer of 1995. About three months or so later, Chris was dead. He was fifteen. I won’t get into the details right now, but it was a senseless murder that claimed my young friend.
Chris had been at the beginning of a downward spiral, hanging out with the wrong kids, smoking and from what I gathered from folks later on, dabbling a bit in drugs. On that day you would have never known. That day was a good day.
We road roller coasters and picked on the girls and ate at the joint with the big hockey player as its mascot. I can’t remember the name of the joint to save my life. We talked a lot. Mostly about girls—well, he did most the talking, since he was crushing on one of the females in the group—and we threw the football. Boy, did we throw that football…
As I stood looking at the picture, at the two teenage boys between the two twenty-somethings, I couldn’t help but wish I had known then what I know now; that Chris would become a brooding teen with haunted eyes and an even sadder smile; that another guy with the same name as his would be instrumental in a lot of Chris’s decision making; that that guy would be the end of my friend—a kid who looked up to me, who I taught how to draw cartoon characters and who liked to play practical jokes on me and Steve (he would be the other adult in that picture).
I thanked my dad for the picture and told him I had been looking for it. That was the truth. I had been looking for it and wondered what became of it.
After I got home I showed my wife. She and Chris had been close friends. I remember holding her at his funeral as she cried into my shoulder. I remember the tears tugging at my own eyes, but fighting them back.
Be strong—you’re a man and you don’t want her to see you cry, do you? Not crying doesn’t make you a man. It doesn’t make you strong, either.
Two things before I go, since nothing seems to be flowing the way I want it too and all my thoughts seem incoherent in my head as I write this.
First, the four of us stood behind those bars, pretending we were in prison. I find that ironic now. We were pretending to be in jail. I even made this crazed face (which isn’t all that hard for me. Have you seen this mug?). A few months later another Chris would really be behind bars and, well, I already told you about my friend and where he would be. Someone really went to jail. And someone died…
The other thing, and I leave you with this: That picture sits on my desk. I can see it right now. It saddens me greatly to think that trip to Carowinds was one of the last times I saw Chris really smile and really enjoy life. It was one of the last times I spent any significant time with him and my heart sinks at the thought of that. I didn’t cry when I found out about his death. I didn’t cry at the funeral. I didn’t cry in the privacy of my room that night or any other night. That didn’t make me strong. Now, a lifetime later when you consider Chris’s life was cut short at fifteen, I wish I would have…
(Herbie’s Note: Chris died on Halloween night of 1995. We heard the sirens of the fire trucks as they raced to the place where a trailer burned with his body inside. The fire trucks passed us as they hurried to what turned out to be a crime scene. I remember my wife to be (though neither of us knew at the time) saying, “I hope everyone’s okay.” Everyone wasn’t okay. But, that’s for another day. For now, I spend this month of October in honor of the young boy who died way too soon. And if you will, spend it with me in let me rememeber my friend with words.)