Category Archives: Obituary

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.

DIARY: Day 18,006

My aunt JoAnn died yesterday. She was 90.

I don’t feel much. I should. I might later, but I don’t feel much now. When my uncle Bill died a few months ago I didn’t feel anything – I never liked Bill, honestly – but then 4 or 5 days later, the horror of our last conversation hit me full in the heart, and I was haunted for a day or two by imaginings of the terror he must have been facing. And whereas I used to tell funny, insulting stories about Bill’s bizarre life, now I find I can’t really talk about him at all without feeling guilty about besmirching his memory.

Not that there’s much of a memory. He died friendless and alone.

JoAnn died alone, but not friendless. She still died badly, though.

JoAnn had the constitution of a rhinoceros. She got cervical cancer in 1957, which was a death sentence. She survived it. She’s since had kidney and bladder cancer, both of which she survived. There was another one in there in the ’60s, I think. She also had several strokes. Her resilience was nothing short of astounding. You could hit her with a truck, and she’d shake it off and go home and have a wine cooler or something, then watch the news and be fine the next day.

Ultimately this worked against her. Her one remaining kidney needed a stint in order to function, so stuff could get to her bladder. It caused her constant pain, sometimes bad. She had to have it surgically changed every 3 months for several years.

She got an infection, and had to go into the hospital, where she got very sick, and became too weak to walk. We didn’t expect she’d survive, but she recovered and went into a rehab facility so she could go home. While she was there she lost her home, effectively. She got sick again, and went back into the hospital. She recovered, and they put her in an ALF. She got sick, and they put her in the hospital, then back to another ALF. This was her life: getting a disease that should have killed her, her remarkable constitution saving her life, only to be tortured by yet another diseases, survive, disease, survive. The poor thing went through this for more than a year, and she was just tortured. Tortured by her own body which refused to give up.

Finally it did. Yesterday I was talking to her Physician’s Assistant and her POA and her ex-daughter-in-law and the nice lady who’s been taking care of her for no money or recognition, just because she’s a nice Christian lady. I was trying to get some stuff resolved. Then the call came in that she’d died.

I felt nothing, except maybe relief. I’d prayed for her to die on a couple of occasions. She was saved, so she and I believe that the afterlife is better than this life, and she was in so much pain for such a long time, and she lost everything at the end: Her home, her money. She couldn’t even float the costs of the ACLF. They kept her on as a charity case. She was a pauper.

JoAnn had a pretty horrible life. Working class family with seven kids. Her mom had a nervous breakdown when she was eight, and abandoned the family. Half a century later, JoAnn would get stuck with the job of caring for her mother. They went homeless in the Great Depression, and her and her sister moved in with relatives while the boys lived in a coal cellar.

Eventually she married Bill, though all the family told her not to. Their life was not happy. They had a son. he died about 7 years ago. They had a nice house, but lost it, and moved into a condo 30 years ago. They lost the condo as I already said. She worked hard for most of her life, until she was too old to work, and ended up with nothing to show for it: Broke and in a room all by herself in pain.

I don’t believe there’s any real reason people suffer or succeed in this life. Jesus says I’m right in the Bible. If there were any such thing as divine retribution or some hokey concept of “Karma,” then that would mean everyone who has bad stuff happen to them deserves it. Trump is rich because he deserves it? All those kids who die of cancer deserve it? How horrible would that kind of universe be? My aunt JoAnn certainly didn’t deserve it. She was a kind, and often oblivious soul who never hurt anyone. this is why I take great comfort in the inherent unfairness of the universe.

It is a disturbing thing to pray for someone to die. You do it for the most noble of reasons, but it takes a piece of your soul, I think. It goes against every instinct.

So that’s it. I don’t have a moral, or a conclusion, just that my Aunt is dead, and I’m glad for her sake, and not nearly as messed up by it as I should be.

 

RIP David Bowie 1947-2016

Just two days ago, in a list of “Things I like,” in an attempt to be less negative. One of the things I said was that though I’d never really liked all that much of David Bowie’s music, I very much liked knowing that a weirdo like him was still running around doing stuff, and apparently not retired.

And now he’s dead.

Where to start? What to say? So many anecdotes. He was my best friend’s favorite musician for like 30 years. There was the time when a clearly-irritated Miami music critic referred to him as “A Repulsive Future-World Space Queen,” in a review for one of his concerts. (Which, to be fair, is kinda what Bowie was going for, excepting perhaps the “Repulsive” part. I think he thought he was quite fetching.) As a result, I always wanted to name a band “The Repulsive Future-World Space Queens,” though I never quite had the nerve to do it. Sends wrong message. Still a funny name. Maybe I’ll do it now.

And of course my mind drifts to cheap comedy. His real name was “David Jones.” He changed it so as not to be confused with Davey Jones of the Monkees. No, really. (“I want my new name to start with a “B” like the Beatles, and I want it to be some kind of blade, like a “Jagger” is.” Could have been worse. He could have gone through life as “David Butterknife,” I guess.

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve been told that some early singles were released under his real name. I have a mental image of some happy 15 year old girl going to pick up the new solo album by that guy from the Monkees, and getting Bowie by mistake.
“Oh my Gosh! Davey’s gone crazy! I knew this would happen if he didn’t have Mike there to look after him!” Then she checks the liner notes “Oh, well, here’s the problem – he’s writing his own songs, rather than relying on Neil Diamond like normal!”

I told my kid. He said, “How will we survive without such characters as Ziggie Stardust, and Cobbler Bob, and various others who’s name I don’t know?”

I am genuinely sad. My biggest regret is that he never did more acting. I always appreciated – but frequently didn’t like – his music, but I was always fascinated by his acting. His paintings were pretty good, too, and he was unbelievably funny, and unexpectedly smart.

He had a good run, though he didn’t really do much of note after 1990. He seemed to realize this, too, and took like a ten year retirement, rather than release another mediocre album. Recently he put out two new ones, plus an album’s worth of outtakes and B-sides.

A few years ago, I read an interview where he was talking about his weird life, and how it was very laid back and domestic, now, and that he was happily married and raising his kid, and generally just very happy. “My whole life I’ve tried to figure out what I am and who I’m supposed to be, and it turns out that I was supposed to be my dad all along.” [Paraphrased due to my bad memory.”

The very last interview I read with him, the subject of religion came up. He said that every rational thought in his head told him there was no God, and he knew without question that there wasn’t, but that some part of him still suspected that there was. He described himself as a “Hopeful atheist.”

“Well, hopefully in whatever afterlife he ended up in, he’s still running around being a weirdo,” my son said.
“And maybe he’ll finally find out what ‘Station to Station’ was all about,” I said
“Or if he got the bad afterlife, he’s probably annoying the crap out of the devil right now. ‘Stop singing! I have no idea what you’re talking about!'” My son said. We laughed.

So here, at the end, it seems appropriate to me to focus on the beginning. Check out the song below. I’m a man, so obviously it never makes me cry, but I’ll admit it does put a lump in my throat and make my eyes sting a little bit whenever I hear it.

My prayers go out for his soul, and for his family.

A Very Overdue Obituary For Douglas Adams

[Originally published May of 2001 on the original “Mahatma Randy” website]

Just an FYI, since this didn’t receive much notice in the news, but Douglas Adams died Friday, May 11th.  He was killed by a sudden, unexpected heart attack. He was 49 years old, and apparently had no previous history of heart problems insofar as I’ve been able to find out.

For those of you not in the know, Mr. Adams wrote the five books (And one short story) of the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series, two of which were brilliant, two of which were merely ok, and one of which seems to have been written on a dare to see how awful he could write a book. He also wrote two books in the uniformly dreadful “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective  Agency” series, which seem to have been written along the lines of that same dare.

A devoted environmentalist, Mr. Adams wrote several books and articles in defense of endangered species, most notably, “Last Chance To See”, a book about extinction, which I have not read. [Note from 2015: I have since read the book, and it’s honestly pretty great.] He was also story editor and head writer for the long-running English SF series, Doctor Who in the late 1970s. [Note from 2015: I have no idea how to remove the picture frame from this article. Nor what the picture was. Nor how to add a new picture. Sorry.] The 3rd ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ book had it’s genesis in a Dr. Who script that Adams wrote during his tenure on that show, but was the BBC refused to buy. He also wrote the Radio Play versions of the first two ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ books, which are actually funnier than the books, and was intimately connected with the writing and producing of the ‘Hitchikers Guide’ TV series which was considerably less funny than the books.

It is somewhat less well known that Mr. Adams was an award-winning computer game designer, who wrote three award-winning games for Infocom in the mid-to-late eighties. His divergence into writing Computer Games more-or-less parallels the decline in the quality of his novels (During this period he wrote the 4th ‘Guide’ book, and both the Dirk Gently ones), one can make of that what they will.

According to interviews and the forward to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Trilogy’, Adams got the idea for the entire saga when he was eighteen (Sometime around 1970). He had stolen a friend’s copy of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe’ and was bumming around the continent. One night he was very drunk, and had run out of money, and was sleeping in a field. He later said that as he looked up at the stars, he thought to himself, ‘If there was a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, I’d be off in a shot, just like that. The destruction of the Earth in the first chapter of the first book initially began as an unrelated short story which, as he later put it, ‘was a way of working through my antipathy towards humanity.’

The 5th – and now final – ‘Guide’ book apparently ended the series with the death of all the major characters in the series. It was, however, rumored that Adams had planned a 6th book in the series, to be titled “Death, The Universe, and Everything” which would have chronicled the adventures of Arthur Dent, Trillian, and Ford Prefect in the afterlife. [Note from 2015: I have no idea where I got this from, I have never heard it since, and it’s entirely possible I made it up]

I’ve not been able to confirm any of these rumors, nor to find out if he was working on anything in particular at the time of his death.  [Note from 2015: Not a hell of a lot. That damn useless “Hitchikers” movie script (Ultimately finished up by the guy who wrote “Chicken Run”), and pissing around with a Dirk Gently book. Honestly, they guy really had no more interest in writing.]

Just thought y’all should know.