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Ramblings: A Catharsis

March 29, 1997
Another brother led astray,
well I'll be damned if I go that way,
say a little prayer for him,
he lived a life you just can't win...

--Brian Setzer
Bobby's Back

Thirty-three years ago, on the second day of Spring, I was born, the first child in my family. In the eight years that followed I gained two sisters, but never a brother. This is something I've never felt unfortunate about, since being the only son gave me a certain measure of solitude which I always enjoyed when I was growing up. But, along the way, I have encountered a few people who I felt a certain kind of kinship toward. Perhaps because of common interests, or perhaps because we were thrown into similar situations and complications in our lives, or maybe just because there was something barely tangible in our souls, something that we never grasped on a conscious level, that told us, somehow, we were alike, almost related on a metaphysical level. Lately, and especially this week*, I have been thinking of one of these soul relatives.

John and I were never friends, but neither were we enemies. When we knew each other in high school we were both too busy just trying to survive being teenagers to go out of our way to become friends. I have always been of slighter build and less physically strong than the average person, with almost no aptitude (nor interest) in athletics, which put me somewhere outside of the mainstream when I was growing up, and though (if I may say so without being called immodest) I had a quick intellect, I couldn't run fast enough to avoid all the bullies and frequently ended up the target of budding psychopaths who were twice as big and several times stronger than I was. In this, John and I were very much alike.

I'm not sure when it started, but for as long as I can remember I have enjoyed reading science fiction. I think it may have started when I was only five years old, in 1969. It was the time of the Apollo 9 mission, the first to land men on the moon and I distinctly remember walking back home from the grocery store with my grandmother. In the late afternoon, walking down "A" Street in Floresville, Texas, the moon had risen early. I had heard on the news that some astronauts had actually gone to the moon in a spaceship. I peered intently at the moon and wondered, if I looked hard enough, if I could see the astronauts as tiny as ants walking around the surface of the moon. Of course, I didn't, and I asked my grandmother if the astronauts were still supposed to be up there. She said yes, and I wondered if any of them were looking down at the Earth right then. In any case, I grew up reading science fiction, among other genres, and still enjoy reading it now. I was the only kid in my class to always be carrying a book. I especially liked the Pocket Books--the ones with the kangaroo on the spine--because I could cram them into the back pocket of my blue jeans and never be without a book in case I got a few spare minutes to read. I was a junior in high school when John became a freshman, and after that there were two of us who always carried a book (except for some of the girls who were always reading romance novels--but I never counted them--not because they were female, but because they were reading romance novels, which are a tragic waste of paper). I noticed we were both reading the same kinds of books: the "Dune" series by Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy," among others.

And we both played alto sax in the high school band. But somewhere in here, our paths diverged.

I don't even know if he had any friends. I had many. Friends who were both athletes and at the top of the class in their grades, friends who were musicians, even friends among the group that would go across the street from school during lunch so they could smoke cigarettes. I was never lacking in friends as I grew up, but John always seemed to be alone.

I think the happiest I ever saw him was at the keyboard of a computer. For some reason of which I'm not exactly sure, our high school bought one Apple IIe computer when I was a senior and put it in an empty classroom, and then some of us were informed that we could go and play with it during any free time we might have. We spent hours on it mastering Little Brick Out when we should have been studying trigonometry, and I remember one day walking into the room and finding John at the keyboard, and he was smiling. I think this may have been the only time I ever saw him smile. He had been learning BASIC programming. I can't remember what he had done now, it was probably something very simple but he showed it to me and beamed--a strange but welcome expression on a face that always seemed a little haunted. I was somewhat in awe, actually. It was the first time I realized that normal folks could make these computers do new things just by learning to program them. He was reluctant to relinquish control of the computer to me, so I let him stay on it. He seemed to be in his own element, at last. With the world of electronic machines opening before him, he could type in commands and make it do what he wanted. For years afterward, when I no longer knew him, I thought he had probably gone into the computer field eventually, but apparently that never happened.

John was the only kid I knew who could solve a Rubik's Cube without a cheat sheet. I say this because I could never do it, and to me, this made him a genius. I envied him for that. Many of the other kids would suddenly become friendly with him so he would put their cube back the way it should be. In a matter of minutes, the cube would be set aright, he would shrug and everyone would compliment him, and the brief association would end.

I graduated high school and went to college. After two years, I dropped out and returned home. My old acquaintance Tim (mentioned in a previous Rambling) had gotten heavily into CB radio, and we soon had impromptu base stations set up in both of our homes. We talked to lots of people in the Stockdale area for several months, and I became reacquainted with John, who's handle was Whiz Kid. We talked mostly about science fiction literature, and got to know each other pretty well over the radio, though I never saw him in person.

The last time I saw John was several months ago, when my wife and I went to a pizza restaurant in nearby Seguin, and I saw him sitting alone at a table, reading. I can't remember the exact title of the book, but it was science fiction. I thought about going over to say hello, but then his brother arrived and they exchanged a few words, apparently quarreling, then his brother left, leaving John sitting with an angry expression on his face, so I decided not to interrupt what might be an unpleasant scene.

About a month ago I opened up our weekly newspaper, the Wilson County News, and saw his name in the obituaries. I was surprised, not to mention a little disturbed, seeing that someone two years younger than I had died. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say I was shocked when I learned that one weekend he had shot himself, taking his own life.

I will readily admit that I have had some dark moments myself. There was a time about ten years ago when I was so sick of life that I prayed to God to take me--I didn't care how. An unexpected heart attack, a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky, or maybe just go quietly in my sleep. But I never in my deepest depression ever for a moment considered suicide. Somewhere along the paths of our lives, this distant soul-relative of mine and I took different routes--who knows when it happened? Maybe long ago, when we were kids, and I learned to deal with bullies by developing a vicious, almost insane anger when I was picked on, but he didn't? Or when we were in high school, and I found many friends to help me along the way, and he didn't? Or perhaps after high school, when I eventually (after many years) found a career of sorts that I could live with, and he didn't? Or maybe just because he never fell in love, and I did?

It is early spring in south Texas, and the deep indigo of the bluebonnets cover the roadsides, mixing with the bright pink Indian paintbrushes and the brilliant violet phlox, and last night I saw the comet--an appropriate time of year for such a visitation. We stood outside during our 9:00 PM break at work and stared into the northwest sky, able to see it even over the artificial glow of the lights of San Antonio. A blurry, smudged pinpoint in the sky, one of my workmates said that it was kind of disappointing, it wasn't what he expected. I told him to remember that it only came by the Earth once every 3,000 years, and now that he had seen it, it would be carrying a little bit of his soul on its long, long journey through space. I said it jokingly, but a part of me wasn't joking.

I hope John has found his comet.

*"This week" was the week that the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide.