“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.”
“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!”
“Yeah! I don’t know what we’d use it in, but when you see it, you’ll agree it’s cool!”
“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.
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.
“It’s that same bomber!” I said.
“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)
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.