Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Two Sun-soaked Tombstones

It's been a rough couple of weeks. Like really rough. To the point where Sal and I pass each other in the house like two ghosts. We're on autopilot, just trying to make it to imaginary finish lines.

Grandpa John Hickle passed away a few weeks ago.

He was this weird mythological patriarch of the Hickle family that I never got to know.

I met him about 12 years ago. Sal and I had been dating for about a year and went went to their house for Easter. I don't remember actually having a conversation with John at the time. The Hickle women seemed far more interested in me. (Honestly, the first interaction I remember having with John was Thanksgiving after Sal and I were married when he asked when we were going to give him a grand child. It would not be the last time we were asked this.)

He always tended to enjoy events through the lens of his camera rather than actually attend the event.

When he was engaged with the event, it was often the same questions discussed a previous time, rarely deviating from the script. I'd get that John Hickle smile, he'd say, "Dan, that's some good chili." And I'd see him again at the next event.

The most human conversation I had with John was actually Thanksgiving 2018. His camera was in the room, but packed away. He sat in the big leather chair (his former chair actually), in the company of a dozen strangers and family members, and he was engaged. He was witty, laughing, smiling, telling us tales of the Navy. Stories that he was pleasantly surprised when people made call backs to them later in the night.

Thanksgiving to today is a tragically long time between seeing John, but I'm glad it's my last memory of him. It matches the stories I heard countless times from his family and friends all weekend. John, this prankster with a sly smile, sometimes with a short fuse, but generally always with good intent.

The day I arrived in Rolla for the funeral, I unfortunately got a text from my brother that a long time family friend has passed away on Friday night.

Jeff Wilson randomly found me on StlPunk late one night, (a precursor to Facebook in the St. Louis area) probably around 2004 or 2005 when I was living in Columbia. I had written a post on the New Speedway Kings band page about my Uncle Mike and how he continued to influence my entire family years beyond his death.

For the next several weeks, Jeff and I sent stories and memories back and forth.

Then one random summer day, I came home to my empty apartment after work and had a package with a ton of New Speedway Kings stickers and patches as well as the unreleased demo that my brother's witnessed the recording of, but never got to hear it.

Jeff became a sort of surrogate cool uncle. He was still friends with a lot of bands my uncle toured with in St. Louis. We'd often get introduced to these 35 year old skater guys that toured Europe with Mike and would tell wild stories that if I didn't hear so often, I would never believe.

Jeff was also an indy comic book artist in the St. Louis area, which in it's own right was a very cool thing. It was what I wanted to do as a kid and was only talked out of it because I was told there's no money in comic books. (I'd love to show my art teachers how much money these Marvel movies are making now) He didn't make a living doing it, but between comics and his odd jobs, he did just fine for himself.

Every time a punk band would come to St. Louis, Jeff would text and ask if I was coming in. If so, we'd meet somewhere (usually with Nick) for some food. He'd regale us with tales of how he talked on the phone with Les Claypool of Primus or passed off a remix of an Against Me! song to the singer. He'd show us new artwork or a preview of the next issue of Sap.

I had Jeff design both my shoulder tattoos.

And life happened.

Jeff always dealt with depression, but he seemed happy. He had a family, a little kid. He would joke about selling out and joining the 9-5 to support them. But he really did seem happy.

The last time I saw him was just sort of a weird and sad state. He and his wife were having issues. He wasn't living with them and was having some sobriety issues. But he was happy to be around us. It felt like maybe we could reconnect, "once he got some of his shit together."

And then life happened.

He'd pop up on my Facebook every now and then, we'd exchange some pleasantries, always talk about how we needed to get together once our schedules sort of opened up.

And then death happened.

I haven't really been able to just think about this yet. We're still in survival mode.

I have a feeling there's going to be a late spring night with that perfect combination of river humidity and brewery smell in the air. My car, with the windows down, will catch the aura just right, and I'll be taken back to Mississippi Nights. Sweaty, and in the pit, with Jeff standing on the edge of the floor, smiling as if he were a proud older brother.

And I'll start uncontrollably crying, completely freaking out the person next to me that has no reference of where my mind went. And I'll swallow hard, gather myself, and just say, "I was thinking of a good time with a friend of mine."

And life will go on.