Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stop All The Clocks

When I was a child, it was almost fashionable to say the Kennedy name and the word "tragic" in the same sentence.

No matter where one stood on the political spectrum, it was a conclusion with which everyone seemed to agree.

President Kennedy and his brother both had been assassinated. Their oldest sister died young in a plane crash, and their oldest brother died in World War II. And over the years, it seemed that tragedy continued to visit the Kennedy family disproportionately. It didn't always take young lives; sometimes it merely left them in shambles.

That is certainly tragic.

But the truth is, in a family that large (there were nine children in Joe and Rose Kennedy's family, and most of those children produced children of their own), there are almost bound to be a few cases of premature and/or tragic death.

I'm sure there have been other large families in America that have suffered such losses, but they didn't exist in a public spotlight. The Kennedys, of course, were and, to an extent, still are politically prominent. Their influence is reduced now, but they remain the closest thing America has to a royal family.

When I was growing up in Arkansas, a politically prominent family lived just down the road from mine. It wasn't what I would call a royal family, but there were times when it seemed to me that it aspired to be.

I have written about this family, off and on, for about 2½ years now. I first mentioned it (briefly) in the days following my high school class reunion (which I was unable to attend but I got on the class' e–mail mailing list). It was at that time that I learned that the mother in the family had died the year before.

I wrote about it here again slightly more than a year ago when the patriarch of the family, a man known as Justice Jim Johnson, died of a self–inflicted gunshot wound. He'd been suffering from serious medical problems and apparently lost all hope.

Justice Jim, as I observed at that time, was an old–fashioned segregationist who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Arkansas when his twin sons and I were in first grade. I was too young to pay attention to a politician's speech at the time, but I have heard that his rhetoric was, to put it mildly, fiery.

He hadn't really been a prominent figure in Arkansas for at least a couple of decades when he died. Nevertheless, I was stunned by the vitriol I encountered when I tried to find out more about the circumstances at Arkansas–based web sites.

I was even more stunned a few months later when I heard that one of Justice Jim's sons, David, had lost his own son in an accident.

It was the kind of pain I couldn't imagine, and I said so to David in a letter I wrote a few days after learning of his son's death from one of the members of our high school class who has taken it upon herself to notify the rest of us whenever someone dies.

At the time, it really seemed to me that the Johnson family had been visited by more tragedy in a short span of time than any family should have to face. But there were two truths, one of which was obvious (Mrs. Johnson had been in her late 70s and Mr. Johnson had been in his mid–80s when they died; I was sorry that those two people were gone, but they both lived longer than most people of their generation) and the other had yet to be revealed, even though it was partially revealed last summer when David's son died.

I don't know if that truth has been fully revealed yet, but I got at least a hint today that it is continuing to unfold.

Today, I received another e–mail from Dianne — who has done a remarkable job of keeping us informed of these developments these last few years — reporting that David has died.

I hoped that Dianne was wrong, but, in my gut, I was sure she was right. I haven't known her to be wrong about any of these deaths in nearly three years, and she wasn't wrong this time, either.

I have confirmed that, yes, my friend is dead. I don't know what happened, but I have heard that he died of liver failure or kidney failure. I suppose I will learn the details in the days ahead.

It's funny the thoughts one has at a time like this.
  • I was remembering, for example, when I was in first grade. David and I were the only ones who had the same first name. Everyone else — Larry, Susan, Lisa, whatever — could be identified by their first names only, but there were two Davids and that was a bit of a problem.

    As an adult, I understand the dilemma the adults of that time faced. There had to be a way to distinguish between David Johnson and David Goodloe. And it was decided that David Johnson would be known as "David" and I would be known as "David G."

    Now, in the 1990s, having an initial attached to your name was cool. But, when I was a child in the 1960s, I didn't care for it. Being the only one in the class whose identity couldn't be expressed in my first name alone made me feel like I was being singled out.

    It's hard to explain any better than that.

    But it just didn't seem fair — or necessary — to me. Everyone called him Davy, anyway. I never understood why I couldn't simply be called David.

    Later in life, I called him David, and he was always gracious about it, but he seemed to prefer to be called Dave.

  • It's a funny thing, too, about "identical" twins.

    I've never understood why people often experience a kind of confusion over the identities of twins. They look so much alike, people say.

    And Hollywood has done what it could to promote that concept of mistaken identity with some successful movies over the years.

    Well, I've known a few sets of identical twins in my life, but I can only think of one set of twins who looked so similar that it was challenging for me to tell them apart.

    I never had any trouble with Danny and Davy. I always knew which one was which. Their voices weren't the same at all. And one of them had a birth mark on his face, not nearly as pronounced as the one that actor Richard Thomas had but clear enough to me.

    No, I never had any trouble telling them apart. They were alike in many ways, but they were always two individuals to me, not parts of the same person.

    When I got older, I mused about that very thing. Why was it so easy for me to tell Danny and David apart? I saw a picture earlier today of the Johnson family that was probably taken around the time of their father's gubernatorial campaign.

    (I'm guessing it was printed originally in campaign pamphlets. Politicians often circulated photos of their families in their campaign brochures in those days.)

    Anyway, I couldn't tell from looking at the picture which twin was which. It was in black and white, and I couldn't see a birth mark on either of the twins. They were dressed the same and had crewcut haircuts (I remember those haircuts).

    So I wonder if maybe the fact that the three of us were so young when we first met played a role. It's been my experience that children are often more perceptive about things than adults think.

  • And, in sort of a random, general kind of way, I've been remembering my childhood on a manmade lake outside the city limits of Conway, Ark.

    David, his twin brother Danny and I shared many of the same likes and dislikes. We loved the same popular TV shows, like Batman, and we incorporated them into the games we would play.

    David and Danny had a toy that was popular in those days called "Creepy Crawlers." You would pour a liquid substance (which you would get at a toy store, and these goops, as they were called, came in a variety of colors, which kept the toy new and interesting) into a mold and heat it on a hot plate. When it cooled, you had a rubbery spider or some other similar creature.

    We would combine those rubber bugs into our version of the Batman series and invent adventures of our own superheroes — Bugman and Buggy instead of Batman and Robin.

    Well, what do you want? We were only about 6 years old! The names we gave ourselves may not have been very creative, but I think our games were.

    I don't remember who was Bugman or who was Buggy. Maybe we alternated. I mean, this was kind of our version of Cops 'n' Robbers, and someone had to be the bad guy. My memory of our games is that we were always fair. We always took turns — and we probably took turns being Bugman, Buggy and the bad guy.

    Perhaps that is why, when I think of David and Danny and our childhood on the lake, I think of us as a threesome — the Three Musketeers, with a group identity — and not as individuals like Bugman, Buggy or the bad guy.
I'm sorry my friend is gone, I really am, but I wonder if maybe I'm grieving as much for the knowledge that that chapter in my life truly is over now. Forever.

Realistically speaking, it has been over for a long, long time. But it lived on in my memory, along with images of three little boys swimming in the lake or riding bicycles on a country road on hot summer days.

Or sitting in a sweltering Arkansas schoolroom trying to focus on multiplication tables while beads of sweat rolled effortlessly down our faces.

We experienced all things together — on occasion, we even got into trouble together — and, for some reason, I thought we always would, but now David has experienced something that Danny and I have not.

If there is an afterlife, perhaps we will speak of it some time in the future.

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