A new state, a new town, a new school. It didn’t take long to meet all of the kids in the neighborhood – no fights required – and see that they had the same collection of Monkees, Neil Diamond, and John Denver as every other kid. My sister picked up Rod Stewart’s A Night on the Town. The music was fine, but I was enamored with the album cover – my first memory of Impressionism. She told me a rumor about Rod Stewart, but I didn’t understand it.
My measure of a man had changed significantly during our time in Chicago. Johnny O’Donnell – “The Kid” – exuded confidence grounded in his exceptional athleticism. Gar Rigoni, hippy school teacher, showed me it was okay to be my own person. But they were in the rearview mirror now. I was surrounded by self-professed goat ropers and rednecks in Tony Lama boots and tooled leather belts.
And so after several months of small town Texas I was thrilled to hear that we were going to pack up the station wagon and visit the O’Donnells. They moved to Nebraska shortly after we left Chicago. I’d never been to Nebraska and I was going to see The Kid. What wasn’t there to love?
Nebraska was beautiful. Yes, you read that correctly. Every yard was well maintained, the grass soft and green, and bordered by a brand new sidewalk just begging for a Big Wheel peel out. Our Texas yard was filled with sand burrs and scorpions; the summer heat so brutal that the tar in the asphalt collected on my Stingray tires. Nebraska seemed like paradise.
The Kid was no longer a kid, but he was still playing baseball. He was in the middle of a championship season peppered with no hitters and shutouts. A stack of newspapers in the corner of the living room followed this now local prodigy as if he were in the Majors. Johnny couldn’t help but flip through them while we all sat in the living room, admiring his own photos.
“Johnny, we’re out of pop. Why don’t you take Jimmy to the store with you?” Mrs. O’Donnell suggested.
Johnny asked, “Do you want to go with me?” I shook my head.
I climbed into the passenger seat of his yellow Karmann Ghia. Just us boys, out for a drive. Johnny reached across and opened the glove box. He grabbed his sunglasses and a cassette tape. “Have you heard this?” he said.
On a dark desert highway,
Cool wind in my hair…
I shook my head. “No,” I said.
Warm smell of colitas,
Rising up through the air…
“You have to listen the lyrics,” he almost screamed over the engine noise.
Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light….
“It’s a story about a haunted hotel,” he yelled. “I’ll show you the album when we get home. On the inside you can see Aleister Crowley. He’s a Satan worshipper.”
I listened closely. I’ll leave it to The Eagles, the critics and your Googling abilities to define what “Hotel California is “about.” The truth of any work of art is that it’s about whatever the reader/viewer/listener takes away from it. Art is a process of encoding and decoding. As the artist I translate my thoughts into words or shapes or notes. If I’ve done my job effectively, when you decode those symbols you’ll understand my thoughts. But it’s more complex than that, obviously. Your experience shapes how you decode those symbols – those words and images and tones. That’s what makes art such a personal experience.
So I didn’t hear a cautionary tale of too much coke and too many beautiful women. “Rock star” wasn’t my ten year-old frame of reference. My experience was preachers and Children’s Bibles and a Devil who lived at the foot of my bed when I was just a little kid (which obviously I wasn’t anymore since I was riding shotgun in Johnny O’s very own Karmann Ghia). I heard a dark story of Heaven and Hell, death and afterlife. I could check out but I could never leave, and there was Satan’s Earthly minion looming over the railing, luring me into his trap. All that death was terrifying.
I’d seen death at our little Baptist church in Texas. Not death, but the aftermath. One Sunday a stranger showed up, sat in the front pew and sobbed uncontrollably while Brother Steve preached. “Who is that, Momma?” I asked.
“His name is Mr. Douglas. His wife and daughter were killed last week in a car accident. The sheriff brought Brother Steve with him when they told him.”
When we left the service that morning I saw Mr. Douglas sitting between two fresh mounds of earth in the church cemetery, still sobbing. For months after that he showed up every Sunday for morning services, and then spent his afternoon sitting between his wife and daughter. He’d talk to them and cry and drink water from a gallon milk jug.
Johnny stopped the tape. “What did you think of the song?”
“It was cool.”
“Of course it was cool. Do you think The Kid would like anything else?” He flashed his championship smile.
That short drive was the only time I spent alone with Johnny. For the rest of the trip he hovered around my sister or vice versa. I was too young to understand, and he was too nice to shoo me away. One afternoon the two families went to a small recreational pond, a man-made paddleboat and canoe kind of thing. The water wasn’t more than waist high for a grown man, but it was plenty deep enough for a kid my age to take a swim. The two mothers rented a boat that was powered by a pair of bicycle pedals, and another for Johnny’s sister and my middle sister. Big John, Johnny’s father, got a canoe for himself. Johnny and my sister got a canoe, too, and I insisted on riding with them. My father stayed on shore.
We puttered around the lake for a while, me babbling about whatever a ten year old babbles about. The Kid and my sister listened uncomfortably.
“Hey, you see that pole sticking up over there? I bet you can’t swim all the way to it without stopping,” Johnny said.
“Yes I can.”
I hopped out of the canoe and started swimming. I don’t know how far it was. It may have been 20 feet or so. I’m a horrible swimmer, so regardless it was a tremendous and time consuming effort. By the time I reached the pole and turned to claim victory and brag Kid-like about my athletic prowess, Johnny had paddled my sister far away. They were laughing and waving. I started to cry.
“We’re just kidding,” Johnny yelled, but it didn’t help. He’d abandoned me. I walked right into his trap and now I was stuck in the middle of the lake, all alone. “Stay there, I’ll come and get you.”
Why he didn’t paddle the canoe back for me is a mystery, but he didn’t. He climbed out of the boat and started walking toward me. He walked a few feet and went under. I guess he could swim faster underwater. He was under quite a while, and then he came up in the same spot. Arm raised, he went under again. Across the pond his mother laughed and said “That’s one.” He came up again and went under again. “That’s two.” Everybody was laughing now. The Kid could make a joke out of anything. He came up for a third time, and then he didn’t come up again.
Big John had been making his way to the spot. “Johnny!” he yelled and plunged head first from the canoe. I started swimming, too. Perfect Nebraska, with its green grass and blue skies and perfect sidewalks, was in complete chaos. Women were screaming and crying. Other guests inexplicably were moving as far away from the scene as they could. The two Johnnies surfaced for a moment. My sister accidentally hit them in the heads with the canoe before Johnny panicked and pulled them back under.
The screaming was horrible. The stillness of the water’s surface was horrible. The frantic, terrified, helpless faces were horrible. I looked toward the shore and there was my father, fully dressed, water up to his waist, calmly walking toward us. I held onto the side of a boat and watched him move like he was on a casual walk. Big John surfaced again with Johnny under his arm. He wasn’t fighting anymore. The Kid was blue. The sockets where his eyes were supposed to be were pure white. Big John held his lifeless body and joined in the sobbing.
Another man arrived when my father did. My dad looked at Big John. “Calm down,” he said. “He’s okay.” He pointed to the stranger. “You two hold him level and start walking toward shore.” Big John and the stranger did as they were told. Johnny bobbed on the surface like a blue leaf. My father pinched his lifeless nose and tipped his head back. He breathed into The Kid’s mouth as the three men slowly made their way to the dock.
It seemed like forever, but it was probably only a few minutes before they had Johnny laid out on the dock. My father continued CPR. Nobody was screaming now. There was no sound other than the short bursts of breath moving between the bodies. Finally Johnny groaned and vomited water tinged pink with lunchtime watermelon. The onlookers began sobbing again, and the ambulance arrived as if on cue.
So how does an athletic sixteen year old drown in waist high water? Johnny had managed to step into a sink hole. Big John estimated later that it was twenty feet deep. Maybe it was a drain for the man-made pond. Maybe the builders assumed that no one would ever stumble across a three-foot wide drain in a pond that big so they didn’t bother to cover it. Who knows? Johnny found it that day, and it sucked him down into the abyss.
He survived, but that afternoon in the hospital was the last time I ever saw him. “I owe you my life,” he told my father. Sometime after that my dad received an award for his action that day. I think it was from the American Red Cross, but I’m not sure. He didn’t talk about it, and I didn’t ask.
I still don’t like to swim, and I still see a rush of watermelon-tinted water when I hear “Hotel California.”
(This story originally appeared in Under the Gum Tree magazine.)
Categories: Throw Beck Thursday