Category Archives: Obituary

Burt Reynolds, RIP

This is my Burt Reynolds story:
 
Somewhere in late 1992 I was working inspecting homes for State Farm Insurance. This was a great job for a lazy guy because it mostly entailed driving to a home, verifying that it did, in fact, exist, taking a couple external photos, and then taking those back to the office. Cake!
 
This also gave me plenty of time to screw around on my travels, stopping off to get lunch, or at a comic book store, or whatever happened to be on the way to/from/between my destination(s)
 
One day I stopped off in Peter Dunn’s Vynal Museum (Gulf-To-Bay Drive, across the street from Clearwater High School), and had picked up some random crap from the cheapie bin. While I was there, people had come in and gone and I didn’t notice. The cashier was fiddling around away from the register and hadn’t been paying attention. I went up to pay and as he took my stuff, he said, “Oh. It’s Burt Reynolds again.”
 
The way he said it cracked me up. It was just completely flat, with no affect whatsoever. It couldn’t have been funnier if he’d thrown in a “What ever shall I do?” or “Now happiness has returned to the village.” He wasn’t *trying* to be funny, but it was funny. I thought he was throwing random nonsequitors around, but then I noticed he was staring past me, so I followed his gaze and – holy crap! It’s Burt Reynolds!
 
“Holy crap!” I said, “It’s Burt Reynolds!”
“Yeah, he’s been in and out of here all week,” the guy said. Heavy sight. I dunno what Burt had done, but he’d clearly annoyed the crap out of this guy.
 
Burt had this enormous freight train of a bodyguard with him. He said something, then walked off. I went over, and stood in his peripheral vision about eight feet back (NEVER sneak up on celebs who (A) you know are good with guns and (B) have enormous bodyguards). He was looking through the Miami Sound Machine CD. No joke! Miami Sound Machine! Intently, like he was trying to find something specific.
 
“Pardon me, Mr. Reynolds?” I said. He was a little startled, looked at me, then quickly looked for his absent bodyguard.
“Yes?” He said.
“Hi. I don’t want to take up any of your time, I just wanted to say that I’m a native Floridian, and I really, really, really appreciate all you’ve done to bring the film industry to our state. Thank you.” I turned to leave.
“Oh, that’s very nice of you.”
“You’re very welcome.” I started walking away. In the background the bodyguard came out of the can, saw me, and looked startled like ‘I am so fired’, and started forward quickly. Burt must’ve seen him because he waved the guy off, and he instantly calmed down.
“Did…uhm…did you want an autograph or anything?” He turned to the bodyguard and said, “Run out to the car and get a headshot,”
“Hello,” I said to the bodyguard. He gave me an annoyed nod.
“Just wait a sec,” Burt said. I never get autographs. Just never do. I declined.
“I appreciate it, but I wasn’t trying to butter you up to get anything, I’m just genuinely greatful, and wanted to tell you it means a lot to folks who grew up here.”
 
Boom! Million dollar smile! “That’s so nice of you. Wow, thank you very much.” He stepped over, grabbed my hand and shook it, and slapped me on the shoulder. “Sure you don’t want an autograph?”
“Thanks, but I gotta get back to work,” I lied.
“Well all right. Nice to meet you!”
“Likewise!” I turned around and he slapped me on the shoulder again as I walked away.
 
Back at the office, my manager said,
“You were gone forever. What were you doing?”
“Screwing around as ever. Met Burt Reynolds.”
Eyeroll. “Sure you did.”
“Ok, don’t believe me.”
“Show me his autograph.”
“I didn’t get one.”
“Well then I don’t believe you.”
“Which is why I didn’t get one. I don’t *CARE* if anyone believes me or not about this stuff.”
“So what was he like?”
“Unsurprisingly very nice. I think I got his bodyguard fired, though.”

OBITUARY: Dan Groner (1970-2018)

My friend Dan Groner passed away this month. He was 48. It was a stroke, apparently.

I hadn’t seen Dan in at least 30 years.

Obviously, even though we were friends, we weren’t super-close. It might be better to say that we were friends who drifted away on good terms after graduation, as happens to most people, I guess.

We were in college together from 1988 to my graduation. He was a music major, having recently switched over from classical acoustic guitar to electric, and started playing rock. He was exceptionally proficient, though given his background he was a little stylistically cold to begin with. He got better over time, though and was always the best thing in any of the bands he had going at that particular moment.

He was a tall, handsome, rock star-looking kinda guy with an enormous mane of late-80s heavy metal hair. Sometimes people would ask him to teach them guitar. I would say 95% of these were girls who just wanted an excuse to get close to him because, duh. His standard running gag was “Sure, we’ll use the Dan Groner method of musical instruction, which consists of three simple steps.
STEP 1 – Basic music theory
STEP 2 – Basic chords and riffs
STEP 3 – The Dan Groner Hot Oil Treatment,” and which point he’d usually wave his hair around. That always cracked me up.

Dan was one of maybe three people on campus who was actually interested in writing original music and songs. I was another. Unlike me, though, his songs actually got heard. Me, I was just a singer who couldn’t hold a band together or play an instrument. Him: he was a musician. He practically had a waiting list to join his bands. Still, we’d talk about the frustrations of trying to find an audience for your stuff when everyone else on campus was just playing John Cougar covers (ugh) or songs by The Ramones. I tried to recruit him into one of my ill-fated projects once. He politely declined.

I say “Bands.” Dan had a lot of bands. They were usually pretty short-lived and there were a few core musicians that he tended to rotate through from project to project, in addition to some lesser folks that’d turn up for one iteration, then never be heard from again. These bands were always almost inexplicably short-lived. A week, a month, six weeks, and they were gone, followed by a new lineup playing largely the same music, plus a new song or two.

I was never sure why he had such a high attrition rate, but I think it was just the strain of trying to do original music around a bunch of kids who really didn’t want it. It’s hard to keep people motivated in a band that continually starts its sets with, “Here’s a new one you’ve never heard before…” You don’t get the adulation you’d get with “Here’s one by INXS.”

Two things were consistent in all of Dan’s bands, though: (1) No matter how good the rest of the band was, Dan was always the bet thing in it and (2 ) The band had a terrible name. For whatever reason, Dan was just the worst when it came to thinking up names for his projects. “Gepetto’s Workbench” was a particularly awful example. And what can you make of “Three Dollar Socks?” There were myriads of others, but those are the only two I can remember right now. If anyone knows any others, sound off below.

But the name and the lineup didn’t matter because whatever they were called, and whoever was in it that week, it was always fundamentally the same, it was always Dan’s show. He knew what he wanted to do and he did it.

One day they were playing somewhere and I couldn’t remember their (disposable) name, so I referred to them as “Dan and the Not-Quite-As-Good-As-Dan Band.” The name stuck – at least among my friends – and we called them that ever after, or at least as long as I can remember afterwards. I came back for a visit two years later and people were still calling them that name.

I’m not really giving a clear picture of what a nice guy he was, though. He was always smiley, he was always friendly. Kind, even. I’m sure he had arguments and disagreements with people just like we all do, but he kept them quite and seemed quick to forgive. Even if you absolutely sucked at music (Like I did), he didn’t talk down. He was just a genuinely nice guy, and while we were never super-tight, he was always on the short list of people I didn’t hate. (I was a bit of a misanthrope in those days)

I don’t know what his life was like after graduation. I know he taught music for a while. I know he got married, but don’t know if he had any kids. I know he didn’t become a rock star, dammit. I’m sure that, had we both lived to a hundred, we never would have crossed paths again.

Even so, whenever he’d come up in conversations about the old days, or I’d find a forgotten old picture of him in a photo album, I’d always smile. It always made me happy to know that he was out there somewhere still gigging around, with that goofy smile.

The world is a poorer place without him in it.

OBITUARY: Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

He was kind.

The thing that struck me most about Harlan Ellison was that he was kind. That’s not the attribute most people mention about him, and I don’t think it’s one he probably would have used himself, but in the year or two I knew him, he was very kind to me, and he didn’t have any real reason to be.

I don’t want to give the impression that we were bosom companions, or besties or even terribly close. We didn’t have a walking-through-the-field-at-night-looking-up-at-the-stars-and-wondering-what’s-it-all-about-Alfie kind of friendship. We were never even in the same room at the same time. Honestly, I’m surprised we were friends. He’d called me up to talk about movies or something, the conversation roamed all over the place as it generally did with him, and then he said, “I presume we’re friends?” I said ‘yes,’ of course. You coulda knocked me over with a feather.

Back in 2009, I wrote a massive three-part review of his book about The City on the Edge of Forever, and the infamous clusterfuckery surrounding that. I was the head-writer at a now-defunct Science Fiction website back then. A week or so after I’d posted the last installment, my boss called me up and said, “You made Harlan Ellison cry!”

“Oh, shit, I’m a dead man!” I said.

“No, no, no,” my boss said. “You made him cry in a good way.”

A few days later he called me up, and he was funny as hell, and friendly as hell, and overwhelmingly smart. I mean, you could feel intelligence just boiling off the guy. If you’ve seen him on TV, or read stuff by him, you don’t really get the full sense of it, but, damn, the guy was an effortless, born genius. I’m far from stupid, but I could not keep up at all.

I talked him into an interview for my website, and we spent two or three days on the phone talking about everything and nothing, and joking around, and reluctantly coming back to the topic at hand before going off on a wild tangent. I taped it all, of course. Somewhere in my house I have a recording of him hacking up a lung when the breakfast he was eating went down the wrong pipe.

“Oh, God, [splutter]”

“You ok there?”

“Yeah,” he said, then started joking about how I’d be famous forever as ‘The guy who taped Harlan Ellison choking to death.’

I never posted the interview. It was very long, obviously. I sent him a copy of it beforehand, as I knew better than to risk misquoting him. He thanked me for the copy, said he really enjoyed it and it was very well done, then requested that I not publish it.

Harlan spoke a mile a minute, and he spoke about a lot of obscure things in rapid succession, and he used a lot of words that I don’t know. There were a lot of misspellings, and other problems, all technical. He said the content was good, but that he would appreciate it if I didn’t publish it until all those problems were cleared up. I was disappointed of course, but he reiterated that it was a very good interview, and that I asked him a number of questions that nobody, ever, had asked him before.  They weren’t massively insightful or anything, but they were at least new.

Here’s the best example of his kindness. Not the only one, but the best one: He spent the next year and a half trying to get at least some of my interview published in the real press. He did this without even telling me. One night he called me up, and said, “Randy, I thought I had something for you with a magazine in Poland, but I didn’t like their terms, and they wouldn’t budge, so it fell through.”

I told him thanks, but he really didn’t need to waste time trying to get my goony stuff published.

“It’s a good interview. It’s a historical document. I don’t have time to correct it, but you did the work, and you deserve something for it, even if it’s only a couple of kopecks.”  I told him to knock it off. A couple months later he called me up saying a website out of New York wanted to run a portion of it. We had a conference call with them, but they irked him, and he said goodbye, and that was that.

Here’s this guy, living legend, on everyone’s short list of the greatest authors of the 20th century, and he’s wasting time trying to help dipshit ol’ me. Not only was he trying to help me, he was expressly trying to make sure I got paid. 

Why did he do it? Because he was kind. Again, that’s probably not the word he’d use, he’d probably consider it maudlin, but he felt the need to look out for the little ones. I’m hard pressed to think of an established author who’s done more to help new writers get established. He considered it a moral obligation, and he was often very aggressive about it, but aggressive kindness is kindness still.

He got sick.

Actually, he’d been sick for a while, but he didn’t mention it.  To this day I still don’t know what was wrong.  It became more apparent the longer I knew him, though. One day he called up to answer some question or another that I’d bugged him with, and he sounded like a ghoul. I asked him what was wrong. He said that he’d spent the night in the hospital, following some kind of attack that almost killed him. I suggested that maybe he shouldn’t be yacking to me after that, maybe he should just try to take it easy. “I’ll be fine, I just need to keep working.” A few minutes later, he said, “Do you mind if we come back to this some other day? I’m not feeling well.” I said of course.

The last time I talked to Harlan Ellison we were both very much aware that it was the last time I was ever going to talk to Harlan Ellison.

I was doing the dishes when the phone rang. He sounded…just awful. At death’s door. His breathing was weird, his voice was quiet enough that I had to ask him to repeat a couple things, and he was clearly terribly sad. I’ve been around it before. This was clearly the voice of a dying man.

In gist he apologized for not being able to get my interview published. I told him (For the Nth time) to forget it. He said that he had really wanted to do it, but he’d failed, and he wasn’t going to be able to now. He said that he wanted to give me something to make up for it. I said there was nothing I wanted, nothing to feel bad about, just getting to know him a little was plenty. He kept saying he wanted to give me something, and it became apparent that what he was really doing was closing out files and saying goodbye. It was important to him. He had started something, and he had to finish it, and if he couldn’t make it work, he had to at least give something. He asked what I wanted.

I named something trivial to let him off the hook. He said, “Ok. Well, I gotta go.”

“I understand. Hey, Harlan?”

“Yeah?”

I tried to think of something meaningful to say. I almost said, ‘Don’t go gently,’ or something half-assed like that, but fortunately I realized that was just completely inappropriate to say to a dying man. Then I thought, ‘who the hell am I to try to tell him something meaningful?’ I mean, he’s the hyperlexic’s hyperlexic. The man’s toenail clippings have more talent and drive than my entire body. No, it wasn’t my place to even try that.

“Goodbye.”

“Yeah, bye,” he said.

I expected to hear that he’d died a day or two after that. I think he expected that, too.

That was, I think, somewhere in the middle of 2011, maybe earlier. He rallied and held out for another seven years.

It’s impossible to talk about someone famous without coming across like you’re name dropping. It’s worse when you only know one famous person, which is the case with me. I’m sorry for that. I’m not trying to make myself seem great through my connection to him, I’m trying to point out how great he was through his kindness to a less-than-nothing like myself.

Everyone knows Harlan as The World’s Angriest Man, as the sue-happy guy who was always complaining about something, as the outrageous guy on stage, as the hopelessly prolific writer, the raging lefty, as the guy who’d effortlessly cut you down eight ways from Sunday in a debate. He always saw himself as a boy scout. There’s a million different Harlans, and all of them are probably at least somewhat true. I don’t have any great insights, but I just thought I’d share with you a quality he shared with me, and one that I don’t think I’ve heard anyone mention before:

He was kind.

OBITUARY: Billy Graham 1919-2018

Ah, poor Billy Graham.

Whether you’re a Christian or even an Anti-Christian, it’s very hard not to appreciate Billy and all his work for social causes in addition to the cause of Christ. Even Harlan Ellison once said that Billy seemed to be the only big-name Evangelist who seemed like a good man who actually practiced and believed what he preached, and wasn’t just in it for the money. (Paraphrased, owing to my faulty memory)

He opposed segregation before it was trendy. As early as 1957, he would refuse to preach at revivals that separated Black and White sections. He invited Martin Luther King to co-headline a 16-week revival in NYC. He spoke publicly about the need for nuclear disarmament. He advocated more attention money and time be spent on AIDS back in the ’80s. He was, as far as I’m aware, completely scandal free.

In the 1968 election, Nixon enlisted Graham’s aid in campaigning for him and helping him wrap up the evangelical Christian vote. He made a number of promises of how greatly he could help Christianity once he was in office. Graham did so, but after the election he quickly realized Nixon had been lying to him, and had no interest in making good on any of his promises. He grew disgusted at having been so gullible and so easily used, and remained mostly publicly apolitical for the rest of his life. Even so, he was a guest of 11 presidents, and functioned as an unofficial spiritual adviser to a couple of them.

You don’t have to agree with his stance on everything – heck, *I* differ with him theologically on at least one important point, possibly others – but in the end he was a man who spent his whole life trying to make the world a better place, both spiritually and materially.

He’d been retired for more than 10 years owing to failing health, but just the same: it’s a sadder place without him in it.

What is a Memory but the Sum of a Man?

The cliche is “What is a man but the sum of his memories?” Cliches are used to the point that they’ve become trite, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently untrue. I think this one is true, or mostly so.  There probably is more to me than my memories, but I can’t tell you what that is.

I’m religious. I believe in a soul, but I don’t think anyone has ever defined that very well, and I certainly don’t think I’m capable of it. In my limited imagination, however, the soul seems pretty much like a self-aware repository of memories. This brings up the question, “What is the soul but the sum of our memories?” That’s way too frustrating to deal with for me, and assuming anyone ever reads this, half of them probably won’t believe in an eternal soul anyway, so I’m not going to bore anyone with my fanfic theories of the afterlife.

Instead, I’m gonna talk about my friend John. He died in January of this year. He was a year or two younger than me. I wouldn’t say that his death messed me up, but it has affected me uniquely. John was my best friend for my last couple years in high school, and probably my first year or two in college as well, though he didn’t go to college, or at least not with me. We saw each other increasingly rarely, drifted apart. Eventually we hit that point in our relationships when we only talked about stuff we’d done in the past, nothing new, because there was nothing new. There’s something sad about that.

I bumped in to John entirely by coincidence in an airport one night. Bought him dinner while waiting for his plane. We told lots of stories from 1983-1987, some stories from 1988-1993, and really nothing after that. There was nothing after that. Pretty much half a lifetime apart, and only a few years together.

I’ve had people die before. Hell, I’m practically swimming in death. In the last six years I’ve lost my dad and his entire family. In the last year,  I lost my aunt and uncle. I’ve lost friends, co-workers, bandmates, enemies, rivals both IRL and online. I used to point and laugh at those kids who took the “Death and Dying” classes in college because they’d been sheltered by their wimpy baby boomer parents. Me? The earliest funeral I can remember was my great aunt Ailene when I was about 3.

My point being that I’m depressingly jaded about death, and, though I didn’t think about it until just now, I’m something of an asshole to those people who aren’t jaded by it. Whups. Sorry ’bout that.

Just the same, John is the first best friend I’ve lost. He’s the first person’s death has made me think, “Well, what the hell was this all for?” This is the guy who used to work at JoAnn’s Chili Bordello, and who lusted after the waitress, Tobie, same as the rest of us. This is the guy who ended up as my subordinate in ROTC when he should have gotten my job simply because our teacher found him annoying. He’s the guy who chased after this girl for a year, went out to dinner with her, realized there was nothing there, then called me up and told me how strange that was. We used to sit around for hours on end listening to Huey Lewis, which was considered acceptable in those days. We’d talk about Star Trek – which was only just beginning to suck – endlessly. We both wanted to be filmmakers. I helped him move several times. I remember things that he himself had forgotten, like a hallucination he told me about once. I know he’d forgotten it because when I brought it up, he clearly had no idea what I was talking about. All trivial, but I remember them in vivid 70mm Eastman Kodak color with Dolby Surroundsound. (It was the ’80s, remember)

Why does this matter?

I don’t know. You know people in life, and they become part of your story. They’re your sidekick, and they probably see you as theirs. You drift apart, their story ends, and maybe you never even hear about it. Maybe you do, but you’re so removed in time and space that it means nothing. Somehow it’s different for me, though, because I feel like I was there at the beginning of the story.

I wasn’t, of course. John was 14 or 15 when we met. He had a big long life before that, and I did too. Maybe it’s just that I feel like it was kinda the beginning of my story. I sometimes don’t feel like I was really interesting prior to sixteen, but that’s a story for another day.

For whatever reason, though, I remember a million billion trillion things from “The start of the story” that seem to have no payoff now that the end credits have rolled. The day I was joking with him about this thing, or he insulted me about that, or we’d compare notes on girls we were too scared to ask out, of stories he’d told me he was going to write, but never did, not because his life was too short, but because he never really liked the act of writing. All those moments are….

Not lost. They’re locked in my head.

Another cliche is “Nobody is ever truly gone as long as we remember them.” Now that one truly is utter bullshit. It’s grossly unfair, too: everyone remembers Jeffrey Dahlmer, but very few people remember my friend John. People will remember the very bad man long after they’ve forgotten the perfectly average one. What the hell kind of piss-ass immortality is that? It’s bullshit, and I’ve never placed any stock in it. Not that I’d have to. I’m religious, as I said, so I believe in an afterlife, even if I don’t know anything about it. I don’t need to rely on Hallmark greeting card philosophy.

But I’m having trouble reconciling John’s loss because all those moments, all those stories, all those events, were building blocks leading up to, well, I assumed they were leading up to something other than a massive heart attack at 48 brought on by chain-smoking four or five packs a day for thirty three years. And now they are building blocks that lead up to nothing.

This isn’t about ‘a life cut short.’ Certainly he should have lived longer, and if John were alive to realize how badly he’d been ripped off in that department, he’d be madder than a wet hen. Just the same, people die all the time and I am depressingly desensitized to that.  Likewise, people die without reaching their goals so often that we don’t even comment on it. We only mention it when they did end up the way they wanted, since it’s so rare.

So I guess this isn’t so much about his story getting cut short – tragic though that is – as it is trying to figure out how to reconcile it into my story.

I’m a writer and an editor. If my life were a book, or more likely a long series of really boring books that no one reads, John would turn up, play a major part, and then just sort of disappear. He plays no real role in the larger story. While he was alive it was always possible that he’d turn up again in the third act and do something remarkable, however unlikely. I wasn’t holding out hope for that. Truth is, I didn’t think about it at all. Now that he’s gone, though, I look back at this theoretical manuscript, and I see that introducing such a major character with no narrative payoff is simply bad writing. John would be the first thing chopped in the editing process.

This bothers me. He’s dead, I don’t want him edited away, too. And yet there’s this huge file in my brain of John Stuff. Funny stuff he said, dumb stuff he said, incredibly stupid things we both did, girls we fought over, movies I’m pretty sure only we saw. He and I went to see “Psycho Girls,” just a terrible, terrible movie. We were the only ones in the theater. I laughed so hard at one point that I fell out of my seat, the only time in my life I’ve ever done that.

Well, now John’s gone. This reduces the number of people who even *remember* “Psycho Girls” by probably 10%, and it reduces the number of people who remember me literally falling down laughing by half. What do I do with memories like that? Furthermore, his loss has kind of eroded the persistence of that moment for me, you know? Only the two of us were there, he’s gone, the moment seems less real somehow. That “So long as someone remembers them” bullshit cuts both ways. Whenever someone dies, there’s fewer people to remember you, too.

I remember once in the parking lot I told him that I’d decided I was one of the 15,000 greatest people ever to live. He laughed and said, “You’re not.” John’s life was…not great. He definitely got closer to the 15,000 than I did, but certainly a triumphant third act would have covered over a lot of stuff. As for me, I’m left with all these dangling plot threads. A million Checkov’s Rifles set on a hundred thousand mantles (John always tended to be doing several things at once), and most of them are still sitting there, never to go off. I don’t know what to do with all the dangling plot threads he left in my formative life. I don’t know how to incorporate what remains of his story into my story. I need closure on that anecdote, dammit!

I’m not saying anything new here, and I have no great insights or answers. I can’t even seem to express it very well. Basically, lots of stories started back in the mid-’80s, and they ended with as little resolution as most of us get in life, but I need to believe that all of John’s stuff back then meant something. I suppose maybe if his endless whining about girls and obsession with grade-z movies and student films and nametag jobs and crap like that meant something, then maybe my life means something, too. That’d be a help, as I really don’t think my life matters. (Being religious doesn’t mean you’re particularly optimistic. When I die, assuming heaven is even an option, I expect St. Peter to refer to me as “That waste of human skin from Florida.” Likewise I have to think Satan would find me singularly disappointing.) I’d like John’s giddy hobbies and good days and bad days and all those useless memories to mean something even if the story is – like most stories – begun and abandoned, because, I guess, it means that his existence would have had some meaning, or at least value, beyond a bunch of memories locked in my probably-dead-in-a-decade-or-so head. By extension, that would imply that I am not completely valueless, and perhaps I’m more than the sum of my memories, too.

Like I said, I don’t know what that would mean. Perhaps my memories are the sum of me, and not the other way around. Perhaps I have value, and the value of the memories is derived from that. Certainly I hope so, because the alternative is that all those first pages of the unfinished stories that made up John’s life, and my life, and all of our lives, are useless.

OBITUARY: John Sterneman 1968-2017

John visiting my college dorm in 1986 prior to a concert

RINGRINGRINGRING
“Hello?”
“Randy! It’s John! I just had the most amazing hallucination!”
“Really? That’s fascinating. I just had a grilled cheese sandwich myself.”
“It’s not like that! I was driving down Alternate 19, you know that area down south of Dunedin where there’s that little bridge?”
“Of course not.”
“Ok, well it’s the place north of Clearwater, before you get to the causeway but…”
“Stick to the hallucination, John.”
“Ok! I was driving along and I looked to the right and the sun was just right over the waves, and this bird took off and the light made it look completely unlike a bird!”
“What did it look like?”
“A space ship!”
“Cool! What did the space ship look like? Do not say ‘like a bird'”
“No, I just said it didn’t look anything like a bird! It was cool! It had kind of a box for a back end, and the sides were sort of hooked, and it had wings, but they were coming out of the box end and…well, it’s hard to describe.”
“Evidently.”
“I’ll draw you a picture of it the next time I see you. I was thinking maybe we could kitbash a model of one together and use it in a film!”
“Cool!”
“Yeah! I don’t know what we’d use it in, but when you see it, you’ll agree it’s cool!”
“Sounds it.”
“So what’s up with you?”
“Well, I just had a grilled cheese sandwich, as I said, and I was planning on not doing my homework, and then my insane friend called rambling about a space ship he hallucinated was in the intercoastal waterway.”
“Yeah! Oh, hey, I gotta go!”

I remember the first time I ever spoke to John Sterneman. I was in 10th grade, and had just transferred to Countryside High School. I was taking Air Force ROTC, and didn’t know anyone. I just sat quietly in the back of the class and pretended to pay attention while everyone else – who already knew each other – studiously avoided me.

Our teacher was prone to just losing interest in the middle of  lessons, so he declared that we could just do whatever we wanted for the rest of the hour. John, Scott Mead, and a guy named Robert Supples went over to the book rack, where they were talking about something.

I went over to see what magazines they had while John and Supples were arguing about something, I’ve long forgotten what. Mead just watched, amused. Supples said something that grossed out John, and he replied, “You’re just tastless, Supples.”

Not even looking at them, and without even thinking about it, I said “How would you know what Supples tastes like?”

There was this awkward moment of silence where I was pretty sure I was gonna get punched, and then all three of them busted out laughing, including John, even though he was blushing beet red.

I have always remembered that moment. How often does one insult net you three friends? Much less one good friend, one great friend, and one best friend?

(Which isn’t to say he didn’t occasionally attempt to strangle me with my own tie)

For much of the next two years we were inseparable. It wasn’t particularly because we wanted to be, it was just that we were both in ROTC, which meant we got stuck together on projects a lot. We were both on the Drill Team, on the Honor Guard, volunteered for car washes, we hit on the same girls, we struck out with the same girls. It was a small world we inhabited in a big school, a weird little military subculture. Eventually just just sorta bond, you know?

John was smart, funny, and frequently given to enthusiasm for no good reason. He! Was! Prone! To! End! Every! Sentence! With! An! Exclamation! Mark! He was obsessive about movies, and he liked me because I had an encyclopedic knowledge of crappy 50s science fiction films. It quickly became apparent that he wanted to make movies. That wasn’t really as common at the time as it is now. People wanted to act, of course, but directing and writing were mysterious magical chores that we didn’t quite understand. The cult of the super-director, like Spielberg and Lucas was rising, but the wave hadn’t quite struck in 1983. Or if it had, we hadn’t really noticed it.

John had dreams of being a great director, but more than that – and this is what always set him apart from everyone else in my head – he also wanted to be a bad director. He loved those hacky old flicks where the robot is a stack of boxes with a man inside, where the 50 foot spider is clearly just walking over a photograph of a city skyline. He said something one day that has become one of my maxims, “Good movies are a dime a dozen, but a truly bad one? That’s unique!”

It’s hard to disagree with that.  So, yes, he dragged us off to see great films like Brazil or The Terminator or arthouse films like Clan of the Cave Bear, but he also dragged us off with great relish to see stuff we absolutely knew was dreck going in. Defcon 4. Savage Streets. Barbarian Queen. Grunt: The Wrestling Movie. Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. Really, really bad stuff.

How bad? I pride myself on never walking out of a flick. I’ve even sat through crap by The Brothers Quay simply because I refuse to be beaten. The number of movies I’ve stomped out of in my lifetime can be counted on my fingers without using ’em all, and all but two of those were John’s fault. He had a genius for it.

The Bloom County Movie Critic’s Guild

John created an informal group he called “The Bloom County Movie Critics Guild,” (Being as it was 1984, and we were all dutifully obsessed with that comic strip) and just about every friday we’d hie off to some cinematic turd you could smell from a mile outside the theater. Sometimes there were six or eight of us, sometimes just John and me, yelling at the screen, laughing at things that weren’t funny, or weren’t meant to be, just reveling in the awfulness of it. On one occasion, during a movie called “Psycho Girls,” we laughed so hard we actually fell out of our chairs.

I think. I know I did. I’m reasonably sure he did, too.

Time passed and I graduated, and John kept inching closer to a career in film. He joined a local filmmakers society and dragged me along. He even made his own short, which you can hear him talk about here:

Unfortunately, the film is lost now. I actually never got to see it, even though he borrowed some of my equipment to edit the thing.

I’ve been running memories through my head all day, laughing myself silly, and trying to imagine what High School would have been like without him there, with his film obsession, and his Bloom County obsession, and his frequently-poorly-thought-out plans to feed those obsessions. At one point he was planning on driving to Berke Brethed’s home and having him paint the Bloom County cast on his serving tray. (John most often worked as a waiter). He always signed his first name in Japanese, and claimed that was his legal signature. If anyone tried to sign it any other way, you’d know it wasn’t him. If he, himself, signed his name in English, he believed it wouldn’t legally count.  He had some elaborate reason for this, but I never quite understood it. We called him “Johnjack” a lot, but I can no longer remember why.

He also built models. He was really good at it, excepting this bomber. I came over to his house, and he was just taking the pieces out of the box, sighing, looking at the plans, and then putting them back in. Eventually he glued part of the body together, declared himself done for the day, and shoved the box in the closet. Once or twice after that I came by to find him puttering away with it, and then it disappeared.

After he got married he shanghaied me into helping him move a bunch of crap from his childhood bedroom to his new apartment. While loading the car, I saw him carrying that model. “What the…?” I said.
“What?”
“It’s that same bomber!” I said.
“Yeah, so?”
“You gave up on that TEN YEARS AGO!” I said.
“Well, I always figured some day I’d have a son, and he could finish what I’d begun.” He said it with this perfectly deadpan voice, like he’d been waiting a decade to spring this punchline on me. I lost it. As I said, he was damn funny when he wanted to be.

His life wasn’t particularly funny, though. His childhood was rough. John was originally from New Jersey, where his folks had a rocky marriage. They moved to Florida to give it one more chance, to try and start over again in a new place. I suppose that worked. As with all things, the answer is more complicated than the question makes it appear, but I’m pretty sure that one worked. Even so, problems arose from time to time.

I remember one night I was getting ready for bed when I heard someone stage-whispering my name from outside. I figured it was the annoying neighborhood kids, with whom I was feuding. I called my dad. my dad ripped open the shutters expecting to see the fat boy from across the street; certainly not expecting to see John shriek and jump backwards into the darkness. I guess John wasn’t expecting to see my dad, either.

It turns out John’s dad had been mad about something or other, and charged him. John, having been down this road before, literally dove out a window and ran. When he couldn’t run anymore, he walked. Eventually he ended up outside my window. What you have to realize is that I lived nearly ten miles from the Sterneman house!

We fed him, and were going to put him up for the night and take him to school in the morning, but his dad insisted we bring him home. After discussing it with John (“You know you don’t have to go, you’re welcome to hang out here for a few days, or we could call the state if you like”), he decided to head back, and he never mentioned it again. So, even though the big “Florida Restart” experiment was a success as far as John’s parent’s marriage went, there were still some issues, obviously.

John’s dad had some utterly hilarious stories about his time in the military. In retrospect, those were almost certainly not true, but John told ’em better. Nobody could tell ’em like John did.

My point being that however bad things were between him and his dad – and evidently they were pretty rough – you’d never know it.

Instead, John would invent stuff like the point system for being unexpectedly funny, in which you’d be awarded one or two points, depending on how unexpectedly funny the thing you said was. There was only ever one three-pointer issued, in the parking lot immediately after seeing Aliens in 70mm at Tri-City Plaza, but I can’t remember who got it, not that it matters. John never actually kept score. There probably had been some point – like scientifically determining who was the funniest kid in ROTC, I dunno – but he’d immediately lost interest. The game went on forever, though. Years later people would still occasionally say “Two points,” or “A point at best” or “No points, loser.”

Or when he invented The Confusion Contests. The object was to come up with a nonsequitor and drop it casually into a conversation. Something of the lines of, “Yeah, we’ll hit the movie then they’ll really have the mouse on the schooner and we’ll go to Dunkin’ Donuts.” If you reacted with a ‘what?’ then you lost. If, however, you replied with a nonsequitor of your own, then the other person had to fire back with yet another one made up on the spot, and worked into the next sentence. The competition kept going until it became so incoherent that one side or the other gave in. Or, if a third party said “What are you kids talkin’ about?” a draw was declared.

Man, those were exhausting! It’s a lot of work to be that random. Fun, though.

Despite the eventual total falling out with his dad, I don’t want to give the impression that John was bolted down, over-pressured and ready to blow, because he wasn’t. Whatever negative things were going on in his life, though, he’d just bury it beneath goofball stuff like his games, or hanging out with the rest of us ROTCies as we wandered around Clearwater Beach at night and struck out with the girls, or him hauling us off to Jo Ann’s Chili Bordello, a pre-Hooters cathouse-themed restaurant where merely-average-looking waitresses served tables in lingerie.

Jo Ann’s was, incidentally, John’s first job. He’d worked as a busboy there before I’d met him. I remember the first time we went there, all of us were like, “John, what kind of place did you bring us to?”
“Relax, guys, this is as dirty as it gets. It’s a family restaurant.”
“Is it a Manson Family restaurant?”
“No. Also, avoid the chili. Despite the name, it’s not very good. ”

You may notice that I’m being pretty unorganized and all-over-the-place than I usually am in relating all this. It’s because thirty-to-thirty-five year old memories that had long been filed away are unspooling continually in my brain. I tell a story, it reminds me of another, which reminds me of another, and so on. This was back in the days when we were still mostly kids, after all, and a school year seemed a million days long, and there was always more things to pack into a day, more days to pack into a life.

You know how it is: things are just more intense when you’re young. Colors are brighter, happiness is happier, depression is bleaker, friendships are tighter and friendlier. In a larger sense, though a life with John in it was kind of random. Not like crazy-eight bonkers random. We had Supples to fill that role. But entertainingly askew.

Time passed, and you start to grow apart from the people you care about. They get better jobs – in John’s case, at a TV station – and then they move away. Being as it was the ’90s by then, they might move away and back several times. It was an odd time, with technical jobs becoming almost a form of migrant labor. We stayed in touch, still occasionally arranged to see movies, or go to a Superbowl Party at his place, even though it was 100 miles away, and he’d somehow acquired a pet rat by then, which was, all things told, a bit off-putting. But, hell, John was worth it.

Thinking about it, our last “Just like the old days” night was his bachelor party, appropriately enough. It was filled with drinking, vomiting, Karaoke-ing old Marty Robbins songs, no strippers, and (As usual), me as the designated driver. (I don’t drink. Also, oddly, I’d never done Karaoke before, nor have I done it sense, which is strange as I’m a natural ham)

John at his bachelor party, just moments before belting out “Old El Paso”

He had his first kid shortly after that, and I really didn’t see him, apart from helping him move once or twice. (True friends: People you will help move, even though you already had conflicting plans). Nothing unusual in that: New wife, new kid, job, priorities. Wasting time with your friends is something you can’t afford, and it’s pretty universal. As Scott Mead said when he found out my wife was expecting, “This is the part where you stop returning my phone calls, and never hang out anymore.” It’s true.

That’s me on the left, then Scott Mead, John, and Mike Ciani. In high school we were inseparable, but this was the last time ‘The Big Four’ were ever all together in one place.

Presently, the newly-minted Sterneman family moved out to California. They did a couple reality shows, which, let me tell you, is pretty shocking when you’re just flipping through the channels one night, and your best buddy from fifteen years before is on TV, trying to decide which new house to buy. (I talked to him about that. He was dismissive of the experience, but not so dismissive as to avoid doing it twice.)

He and his wife had a couple more kids, and he was pretty successful, by all accounts. You can check out his IMDb page here. I was proud of him. It’s a tough industry to crack, and he did. Granted, he never got to make movies, but I don’t even know if he still wanted to by that stage in his life. It made me happy to know that of all our little high school throng, he was the one who came closest to attaining his adolescent dreams.

The last time I actually saw John was in 1999 or so. He was back in town seeing to some properties he owned. We got together with one or two of our old friends, grabbed a bite at some greasy spoon.

“You owe me a picture of that space ship you hallucinated,” I said.
“What?”
“Years ago you hallucinated seeing a space ship taking off from the water somewhere off of 19. You kept saying you were gonna draw me a picture of it, for like years, but you never got around to it.”
“Huh. I think I kinda remember that.”
“Here: Napkin! Pen! You owe me a drawing! Now! Go!”
“Randy, that was probably fifteen years ago.”
“Right, so I’ve been patient for a long time. Draw it!”
“I have absolutely no memory of what it looked like.”
“Draw!”
“No!”
“You bastard,” I said.
“Yes,” He laughed.

Afterwards we saw some crappy b-movie, just like the old days – I don’t remember the one – and when it was all done, he sucked down a cigarette, shook my hand, and said, “Hey, it was really good seeing you again! We’ll have to do this again next time I’m in town!” I whole-heartedly agreed, though I think we both knew that wasn’t gonna happen. I think we both knew that was the last page in that chapter, the period at the end of the sentence.

We were still friends, of course, but contact was infrequent in the years that followed. We’d email, but it was unfulfilling. I’m long-winded and generally jobless, and he was working and terse. I sent a few. I sent a couple letters, which he never replied to. John was always bad with letters. I found him on facebook, and a quick look tells me the last time I talked to him was in February of 2016. We met in 1983. 33 years. A third of a century.

A long damn time, even though all the fun parts of that were in the first half, and the life-long bonding stuff was in the first quarter. Still: there are some people you can never see again, and still be friends with, and there are others you can be in the same room with constantly, and not care about all that much. John was in the former group. It always made me happy to know that he was out there somewhere, running around, doing stuff. Knowing that I could theoretically turn a corner in an airport and bump into him and –

Oh, holy crap, you know what? I actually did The movie was not the last time I saw him! It was seven or eight years after that! My wife and I were seeing somebody off, and we literally turned a corner and there he was, waiting for a plane! We went to the Chilis or TGI Fridays or whatever the crappy chain restaurant is there, and I bought him dinner and we chatted away for a while, then he had to go. Hand to God, I had forgotten that until just this moment, writing it now. How weird.

It was the cigarettes that killed him. He’d smoked like a stack since high school, and had the resulting health issues. He needed a heart transplant, but wasn’t really taking care of himself, and passed away in late January.

I feel as though someone just ripped out half the plumbing of my childhood. Like with his passing, a hunk of the foundation of who I am is cracked. I feel bad, of course, but oddly it’s not so much the fifty-year-old me of 2017 I feel bad for. Rather it’s the thought of how the me of 1985 would have taken the news. That’s strange, isn’t it?

Though he did eventually reconcile with his father, I’m given to understand that the last years of John’s life were…confused. As awful as that was for him and the people who loved him, I choose not to dwell on that. John loved Orson Welles, and as Orson himself said, “The only difference between triumph and tragedy is where you decide to stop telling the story.”

I choose to stop telling it before the grim last years started. I choose to stop it when he was still out west, actually doing what he’d set out to do decades before. If I’m putting “The End” and rolling credits on the movie of his life, then in my mind the final scene in that movie is whatever his last, best moment was, with a good present, a promising future, three kids, and a wife, and a happy life.

It still bugs me that I never got to see that damn space ship, though.

Goodbye, John, and thank you.

OBITUARY: Margo Hoffman

Margo Hoffman died yesterday. She’d been my friend and occasional boss for pretty much my entire life.

I first met her when I was five or so. I hadn’t started grade school yet, so it must’ve been around then. She was sixteen or seventeen, still in high school, and working for Don Bennett.  I have a preschooler’s memories of her, and meeting her from that period: she was a grown up and she was nice to me. Don called her a kid, but as an even littler kid, I didn’t see it, you know? She was doing unfathomable grown up things that I couldn’t understand, and was somewhat amazed by. In that regard, she was always ahead of me.

My dad had recently lost his job with NASA, and he ended up going to work for Don Bennett, who was a State Farm Agent. Changing your career at age 43 is tough, and Margo was invaluable at helping him through it, even though she was still too young to vote.

Eventually Don got promoted and my dad bought out his franchise. Margo became his personal secretary. We call that an “Office Manager” today. Whenever my dad hired additional staff, she was always in charge. My dad joked that he hired Margo because she “Came with the furniture” when he bought the place, but he was actually pretty open on how much he relied on her to keep the business running.

Somewhere in that period, she married Bob Hoffman, and they had a daughter, Jo Ann. (“Jo Ann” is one of those names I’ve always manage to misspell. I don’t know if it’s “Jo Ann” or “Jo Anne” or “JoAnn” or “Joanne” or “Joann” or something with four Ms and a silent Q in there. Even with my own aunt Jo Ann, I always managed to misspell it, so I’ll just admit up front that I have no idea how not to botch it. I’m sorry. No disrespect intended)

Time passed. Margo was always a good mother, always a good sister, always a good daughter, always very close to her family. Always good to me when I was hanging around the office after work, or sentenced to the purgatory of cleaning the place with my mom.

Changes happened. My dad moved the office, then again, then again. He hired more permanent staff, and Margo was always his trusted lieutenant in keeping the place running.  Eventually, when I was about as old as she’d been when she started working for Don, I started doing odd jobs for the office. Mostly inspections and other crap that my dad didn’t want to be bothered with. I’d come in, get my assignment from her, get the camera, the maps, the other info, head out, take pictures, come back, turn ’em in. My dad would slip me five or ten bucks – remember, this was back in the ’80s when gas was less than a buck a gallon – it wasn’t a bad gig for a high school student, even if it was pretty irregular work.

Afterwards I’d hang out and Margo and I would chat. She’d tell me about Jo Ann, and other stuff in her life, and ask me if I had a girlfriend yet (No, but not for lack of trying). She was always very nice and supportive of me.

More supportive than she realized, I think. My dad was a successful businessman by this time, but it was Margo that put him in a position where he could do that. I had an upbringing that wasn’t what you’d call patrician, but it was much, much, much better than it would have been if she hadn’t been there to help my dad. A lot of the ease of my youth was due to her hard work.

My mom was prone to illness, and was frequently bedridden, or nearly so. She was very depressed. My dad had to work, but there weren’t a lot of people he trusted to be around his ailing wife. He’d have Margo go over and hang out with my mom for a few hours every day, just keeping her company, talking about stuff, and so on. Most people have forgotten this – honestly, I’d forgotten about it until my mom reminded me the other day – but this went on for years. You can make a good argument that my mom wouldn’t still be here if Margo hadn’t nursemaided her for so long. Again: My life is better because she was in it.

Time passed, and I ended up working for my dad, which meant I was really working for Margo. I was a TERRIBLE employee. Lazy, unprofessional, questionably kempt, unable to keep the rules of the business straight, continually screwing up my work. Margo proved to be a saint in this period by resisting what must have been the hourly urge to murder me. That’s an entirely justified urge, by the way. I was a basket case, and everybody knew it.

After 22 years or so of working for my dad, and however long she’d worked for Don before, she’d grown tired of Insurance, and decided to go work for the City of Tarpon. She held a few other side jobs. She became a grandmother, which I know filled her with glee. She fell in love and spent the last of her life with the love of her life. Then she retired and the rest you know.

Yesterday she passed away.

There aren’t really words in English for people you have a family-level connection with, but that aren’t family. I call her a ‘friend,’ but that seems insultingly inappropriate. She was more like an aunt. Someone who was always there. Someone who cares about you even when you piss them off, and whom you care about even when they piss you off. Someone who’s always in your life, though maybe in a greater or lesser capacity at different points in time.  There were times – lots of them – where I know for a fact I infuriated her, and there were times when she got on my nerves too, but she was always there, forgive and forget, caring, overlooking peoples faults. Even people with SUBSTANTIAL faults like mine. She got me out of a lot of trouble when I was younger, and never told my dad about it.  After she quit, I could go for years without seeing her, but then  – bang – we’d bump into each other and immediately pick up where we left off.  When my dad died, she kept my mom company, visiting her and keeping her company, and helping keep her from sliding into suicidal depression.

As I said, there’s not really an English word for that kind of relationship, but I’m going to call her my aunt. My unofficially-adopted aunt. Assuming, of course, her family doesn’t find that disrespectful. I hadn’t seen her in a couple years prior to her death, but I loved her. How could you not?

There’s no need to talk about how things played out. Suffice to say she put up a very strong fight, and she died way way way too young. She leaves behind an unbelievably awesome daughter, a granddaughter that I really don’t know, but who seems pretty amazing by reputation, a fantastic sister, and of course, her one true love, whom I don’t know at all, but who must be an exceptional man to have won the heart of my unofficial aunt. She had a huge family besides, and God knows how many friends who feel about her the way I do, or moreso.

My prayers are with them, that God might ease their suffering in this terrible time. My prayers are also for Margo, that her soul finds peace (Which I have no doubts about), that she’s reunited with the people she’s loved and lost over the course of her way-too-short life, and that we’ll all meet her again in that place some day.

In the meantime, she made my life materially better in ways she probably never realized. That’s a debt I can’t repay. And though I didn’t see much of her in the last decade, I was always happy knowing she was still roaming around there, doing stuff, and realizing that at any random, unforseen moment I might turn a corner and there she’d be.

And now, well, knowing she’s not, knowing that I’m not, knowing that that’ll never happen again in this life is hard.  Much, much, much harder on people who were closer to her than me, of course.

For me it comes down to this: She made my life vastly richer by having known her, and now I’m much poorer for her absence.

Richard Hatch 1946-2017

So the word is that Richard Hatch – TV’s Captain Apollo from Battlestar Galactica – has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 71. There’s a little debate as to whether it’s fake news or real at the moment, but I think it’s real.
 
I met him once, and learned a minor life lesson
 
See, I didn’t like him. Not to speak ill of the dead, but I just didn’t think he worked on the final season of The Streets of San Francisco, and I, like everyone else, preferred Starbuck. Hatch was reputed to be very afraid of typcasting, and refused to do interviews on set in his uniform. Apollo was always a bit of a schlub at that, even in the new show. So ultimately the star of the show got overshadowed by his own sidekick.
 
I’d heard he was increasingly hard to work with, and there’s a scene in a later episode where his lines and Starbucks have obviously been reversed (Starbuck is unusually analytical, and Apollo is unusually emotional) just for one scene. I later found out that he’d been bitching about his lines, so they just flipped ’em on the fly.
 
I saw him in a few things after that. A movie or two, a TV movie about Jan and Dean, I think he had a sitcom about a detective school for a while. I have no idea if he was a good actor or not. I do not know. He could be brilliant. All I can say is that I never saw him in anything that really showcased his talents particularly well.
 
And of course I’d always heard he was a dick.
 
So I met him once after his first appearance on the New Galactica, and oh my gosh, he was probably the friendliest non-stoned person I’d ever met. He was very nice, he was very modest. When I told him I liked Zarek on the new BSG, he seemed genuinely surprised, he went out of his way for me to get a picture with him, he was happy to just hang out and talk despite being very busy, gave me his autograph without asking for any money, talked excitedly about other projects he had going on (“Great War of Magellan,” which never materialized) and above all was extremely, extremely modest.
 
And I felt really bad about thinking he was a dick all those years, based entirely on 3rd hand reports from people who never knew him.
 
Now, granted, he could have been acting. He’d just had his biggest break in 20 years, and getting out there and being really friendly was a good move, even if you hate the people around you, but I don’t think he was. I think he was just a genuinely nice guy who hadn’t had the easiest of careers, but was still doing what he loved.
 
Admittedly that’s a pretty minor life-lesson, but it was in the right time and place and frame of mind to make a big impression on me. He was the first celeb from my childhood that I had really strong impressions about that turned out to be utterly false, and it made me revisit a lot of stupid opinions. I had a very similar instance some time later with Gil Gerard, but that’s for another day.

RIP Gene Cernan, RIP Apollo

MY DIARY, Day 2096: It was Thursday, December 7th, 1972. My mom and dad and I, and a million of our closest personal friends, were standing along the banks of the Bananna river. It was long after dark. It was cold, the river stank, as usual, and it was crowded. My dad had long since given up me staying awake and standing, so he just carried me.

It was the night of the launch of Apollo 17, the last of the missions to the moon. Gene Cernan, who died yesterday, was in command of the mission. Back then, he was thirty-eight and I was five. (Going on six) I grew up in Cocoa Beach, and my dad worked for NASA at the Cape, so launches were commonplace in those days. I couldn’t really understand why this one was significant, why I couldn’t just go home and go to bed.

Then, around half past midnight: Ignition. The engines were the brightest thing I’d ever seen, brighter than the noonday sun, brighter than anything but a small atomic bomb. It went from a black Florida night to dazzling and hard to focus in perhaps a second. I remember roosters started to crow. I remember fish started flopping around in the river, thinking it was daytime. I remember a million breaths sucking in all at once in awe, and I remember the sound hitting us an instant later.

The Saturn V was – and remains – the most impressive rocket ever built, and the way things are going, it’ll probably stay that way. Tall as a 36 story building, six million pounds, it lept up quick – don’t be fooled by all that slo-mo footage you see on The History Channel, rockets are fast! – and tore off downrange. The intensity of light quickly faded to day-normal, and then we had an odd kind of second nightfall where it all faded to blackness again, with everyone standing around blinking and cheering with purple spots in our eyes. It had been the only night launch of the program. Decades later, I found out that it had been clearly visible as far away as North Carolina,  as far south as Haiti!

APOLLO 17 LIFTOFF FROM KSC. 12/7/72. REF: 108-KSC-72PC-42

I also remember the drive home. We lived less than ten miles from the Cape, but attendance for the final launch had been larger than any in NASA history, excepting Apollo 11, which sent Armstrong to the moon not quite four years before. So quick an age, so long a drive home. There’s probably a metaphor in that if you want to hunt for one.

It was total gridlock the entire way, with hundreds of thousands of cars on roads never intended to hold tens of thousands. I remember the white leather seats in the back of my dad’s car, trying to curl up and go to sleep, but it was so cold, and we hadn’t thought to bring a blanket. That drive seemed to go on forever, stop, start, stop, start, endlessly being jostled awake, irritated as hell.

Though I’d seen all of the Saturn V launches with my own eyes, I don’t consciously remember any of them, except for the last. Again, there’s probably a metaphor in there if you want to poke around.

Decades later, I developed a fascination for Apollo 17 for the same reasons we’re always fascinated by the last of some animal going extinct. In particular I grew more and more interested in Cernan. It was the end of an age. Though there have been sime impressive things in space since, nothing we’ve done in the years since has matched, or even come close to matching, the Apollo program, and that last launch was the most ambitious of all. When it was done, when they returned home about two weeks later, we went from actual physical explorers to voyeurs, gawkers, people who send robots off to do man’s work. It’s cheaper, safer, but dammit, it isn’t sexy. It’s not strapping a rocket to your ass and riding fire. Sure, hundreds of people have done that to get into space, to endlessly tool around in orbit for whatever reason, but even that isn’t nearly so cool as riding fire to actually get somewhere. 

APOLLO 17 LIFTOFF FROM KSC. 12/7/72. REF: 108-KSC-72PC-42

“Everyone remembers firsts, no one remembers lasts,” I wrote in one of my stories, “Everyone can tell you who the first man on the moon was, but nobody can tell you the last.” Well I can, it was Gene Cernan. It’s been 44 years since he left. I despair of anyone ever going again. The past is a country. The past is a lost continent, drowned by seas of time. The brave new world is past, and this timid age dares little.

Gene Cernan died the other day. He was 84, I was 49. A door slammed shut for me. There are other moonwalkers still alive, that’s not the point. Not to me, anyway. To me, Gene Cernan – moreso than Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong – was the high water mark of the golden age of space exploration. He went to the most remote location of any of the six landings, he stayed the longest, he left last. He was the end. The last man, the last rocket, the last to strive, the last to try, the last, period.

Here’s a story about him I’ve heard, which may be apocryphal: He’d promised his daughter that he’d writer her name in the soil on the moon, where it would stay undisturbed for millions of years. In the massive workload and tight schedule of the mission, however, he forgot. He said that for the next 30 or so years, he couldn’t look at the moon without getting angry at himself for not doing it. I always thought that was cute.

Can I tell you a secret? My fascination with him led to me using a not-very-accurate version of him as a recurring character in some of my stories. If you’ve ever read any of my stuff, and noticed a slightly-manic grey-haired old guy named “Gene” turning up, that’s him. None of my characters ever say his last name, of course, though there’s plenty of clues. If you haven’t read any of my stuff, he figures most prominently in my novella, “Home Again,” and in my unexpectedly controversial short story, “The Cetian Sky.” He turns up here and there elsewhere and gets namechecked a few times, but he’s front and center in those two.

In the real world, Gene Cernan was every inch the hero. In my fictional world, where history followed a somewhat different road, I turned him into a full-on Moses of the Space Age. It just seemed appropriate somehow.

OBITUARY: James Stephen Graham

There are so many people who knew and loved Jim, from so many different places, that I feel like a poser talking about him. I only knew him for the last few years of his life. During that time, he and I were never on the same continent. We were barely in the same hemisphere. Even so, we were friends.

We weren’t the incredibly close secrets-of-the-soul kind of friends. You know, the ones where you go walking through the park, looking up at the stars and talking about what it’s all about, trying to make sense out of life and existence. I don’t claim any massively hugely deep insights, and as I said there were so many people that know him so much better than me. But we were friends, and I feel like I have to say something.

I don’t mean “I feel obliged to say something,” I mean, “My heart demands I say something.”

I first ‘met’ Jim when I was the head writer on a now-defunct website. He’d just written a book called “Birdie Down” – his second novel – and he asked me if I’d review it. I got a fair number of requests to review self-published books, and I wasn’t enthused. They’re generally terrible. Most people can’t write for sour apples, and I usually couldn’t print a review anyway, because it would be very negative and hurt their feelings. Just the same, there was something about him – maybe just how polite he was, or maybe his lack of pretension – so I said, “Sure, I’ll get to it when I get to it.”

When I finally got to it, I really enjoyed it. I wrote a glowing review and posted it, and Jim was so happy that he reposted parts of it on his website, and used part of it for his cover blurb.

As a self-published writer myself, we naturally got to talking about the craft, and how hard it is to get paid and/or discovered, and we hit it off. You know how it is when you meet a total stranger in the dorms in college, and something just clicks and you sit up talking about vampire movies or some other dumb thing until it’s time for class the next morning? And then you just know that you’ve made a life-long friend, and thirty years from now you’ll still be calling up and annoying each other about movies or TV shows, or ideas for TV shows, or some dumb funny thing or another? It was kinda like that. I figured Jim and I would be yammering on for the rest of our lives.

And here we are. And I find myself missing all those conversations we’ll never have.

I read his first novel, and enjoyed that more than “Birdie Down,” and I may or may not have reviewed that too. I don’t remember. I probably did. He told me that he was working on a third novel, Army of Souls. By this time it had come out that ancient arcane theology and forgotten heresies are a hobby of mine, and as “Army” touched on some of those subjects, he asked if he could use me as a resource. I said sure. I don’t think I was very useful. The novel ultimately had exactly one line that I’d had any hand it. That made me laugh.

During that period he asked me if I’d be a reader for him. I said, ‘sure.’ This basically entailed me reading his manuscripts, and making notes about flow; pointing out when the American characters used Anglicisms in conversation rather than Americanisms; spelling errors, stuff like that. Nothing substantial. During that period we emailed several times a day, and conversations frequently sprawled away from the topic to whatever dumb random things struck our minds. It was a lot of fun.

My kid is special needs, and during that period he was going to a Christian school. I needed to be on hand, just to be safe, so I spent most of my days in the chapel when they weren’t using it. I did most of my readerly duties there, and when Jim found out about it, he was amused, given the somewhat sacrilegious nature of his book.

We talked less after the project was done, but still kept in fairly regular touch. No big deal. Friends for life, right? Thirty more years? Levels of chattyness wax and wane. No need to force it.

On October 12th he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He’d been working on another novel. It was about 80% done. On the 13th he gave me the bad news, and asked me if I’d please finish the book for him. He said he really liked my writing, and he liked me, and trusted that I’d do a good job with it.

He also said – and this is probably the best example of what a great guy he was – he said, ‘I don’t know why your books don’t sell better, but you can put your name on the final one of mine as a co-author, and maybe that will help my readers find your stuff.’ I paraphrase slightly, but that’s the gist of it.

My God, how selfless is that? Who turns their death into an advertisement for a friend’s crappy career?

He asked me not to mention it for a while, because there were people he needed to tell about his condition, and he wanted them to find out from him, not by accidental online blathering. After that was done, he said, he’d send me the notes and manuscript and stuff. I said sure, I’d wait to hear back from him.

I asked him what his prognosis was. “Not years” was all he’d say. I was determined that I would write the best damn ending to his book that I could come up with, and that I’d get a finished copy to him before he passed.

A week went by, two, three, more. I figured he had more pressing matters, but I really wanted to give him that finished story.

Yesterday, the November 10th, Vivien told me that the cancer was much more aggressive than anticipated and he had died.

Well, what can you do? I was stunned. I said, “I’m sorry for your loss,” I prayed. I binge-ate to make myself feel better. I had trouble getting to sleep last night, writing this obituary over and over again in my head all night long.

Jim was a nice guy. He was kind, he was honorable and brave, as his long service record in the British military attests. He was interesting and smart and, although he never talked about it, I gather he was a pretty good businessman in his later years. He was a good writer. The places he wrote about felt like real places. That may not sound like much, but trust me: It’s high praise. Most can’t pull that off.

And of course he was my friend.

I’m envious of you, who knew him better. You were blessed to have him in so much of your lives, and I can only imagine the sorrow and anguish you’re going through. If it’s any consolation, the last time we talked he told me he wasn’t despairing, that he wasn’t angry with the world. I don’t know if that helps, but I hope it does. He was only in a little bit of my life, for just a few years, but I consider myself better for having known him. He was a good man.

He was also a good writer with a lot of stories left to tell. His mind was like a library that burned down. Now we’ll never get to read all those books he never got to write; hear all those stories he had yet to tell. There’s just an empty space where all that imagination and talent used to be. It’s a terrible absence.

My prayers go out for the well being of his soul, and for the comforting of his family and friends in this terrible time. He was a good man, and he will be missed, but he will not be forgotten.