In 1996, Deep Blue beat Kasparov, The Unabomber was arrested, and I was preparing to graduate high school and go on to Texas A&M when I received a phone call at three in the afternoon as my school was letting out. In the school office, my father told me what, at the time, was the worst news I had received in my young life: Jerry Carson had died.
Jerry Carson was my oldest friend. To this day, I have no idea where he and my father met, only that they did and that one of my earliest memories was of Jerry Carson and myself watching some old Western movie on the couch on the fuzzy old TV in 1981. He'd drift in and out of my memories for the next decade, always reappearing eventually until that day in early May of 1996, when I found myself standing over his simple coffin at a funeral attended by all of sixteen people: me, my father, my girlfriend, two bartenders, the pastor, seven other positively ancient men, and a three-man detachment from the Red River Army Depot there for the salute.
I never knew where Jerry came from. He never told me. Fact, I never knew anything about his early life, before the Army took him in 1941. When he came home, he got a job as a roughneck, tapping the scrub of West Texas for oil and never seeing the bounty he'd unleash. He'd never stayed in one place for longer than a job took, until he washed up in Texarkana.
When I was twelve, he'd been in Texarkana for a while, finally found a bar he liked enough to call home. I was playing in the front yard one summer day when he strolled by, wearing that well-worn path to his little haunt, and I followed him. To this day, I don't remember what possessed me to follow him, all I know is that I did. That day, I knew I'd found a friend for life. Standing there, all of twelve years old watching him as he entered his haunt. But he didn't enter. He turned around, extended a hand, and invited me in.
The Green Frog Café was a small place on a run-down corner within walking distance of home, but it wasn't your typical corner bar. Not to me. I played my first games of darts, dominoes, and pool there. I tried chewing tobacco, booze, and beer. I puked in the weeds behind the bar more than once twelve year olds really shouldn't chew or drink. But as much as Jerry called it home, so did I. I was a fixture: running errands for the bartender, playing my guitar for tips, and the straight man for Jerry's jokes. Sidekick, they called me in between their stories of Normandy, blonde bombshells, and fortunes lost as they stroked their beer guts and hid the shame of shoveling shit in Louisiana, the brunette broads in bordellos, the fortunes they never saw, desperately waiting for someone to believe them in a way they never could, as the outlaw waits desperately for his noose.
We all took our seats in the storefront church gracious enough to loan us some space and settled in as a young couple from the church fumbled their way through "Amazing Grace" with an out-of-tune upright piano for accompaniment. The soldiers in the back and my father were quiet and respectful. My girlfriend abided the scene with an air of quiet irritation. One of the seven Green Frog regulars let out a stifled sob. I closed my eyes around the beginning of the third verse and drifted back.
Jerry taught me how to drive a car. He had a beat-up old Oldsmobile full of gas-station coffee cups and Budweiser cans. I was 13 when he stumbled out of the Green Frog one night, tossed me his keys, and told me to get him home. In between the slurred words to old cowboy songs and polemics on Jimmy Carter and the price of cigarettes, he talked me through starting, shifting, steering, and stalling as I drove him to the tiny particleboard house paid for with an Army pension the welfare checks went to beer and smokes. It was the end of another night at the Green Frog. I'd sit on a stool in the corner and strum my guitar for a jar of tips and just watch the scene. The old men would drink and carry on. Dominoes would become missiles as I felt like that piano player in the old westerns keeping his head down in a brawl. But it always settled down, and I'd end up at Jerry's table shooting the shit about things neither they nor I had ever done.
That night, I'd talked about a girl in my Spanish class with dark eyes and black hair: Juanita. She was the girl of my young adolescent dreams, and the trigger for memories of each man's own Juanita. As I pulled into the driveway, Jerry gave me the first of many wrinkled ten dollar bills with a wink and instructions to "buy that pretty young thing something nice." It was a scene that would repeat itself many times over the years. I'd get money for the girls at the state fair from Jerry when I was 14. When I was 15 and telling the guys about my first time with Nicole, he tucked a twenty in my tip jar. When I was seventeen and talking about prom and swapping dirty stories with Jerry and his old friends, they'd always have advice for Sidekick, and Jerry would always have a crumpled ten to slip in a handshake with the same instructions: "buy her something nice." That something nice inevitably ended up being some cheap, strong drink and a three pack of Trojans in my later teenage years, but somehow, Jerry never disapproved. He was an old-school man's man, and the hero of my teenage years. In a world where all the magic of the Old West seemed to be gone, he was the outlaw on the platform, black hat and duster, waiting to revive a legend.
As I drifted back to the service, the pastor read some tired old passage from the Psalms. It must have been the same passage he read at every funeral, because the drone in his voice and disengagement in his eyes said nothing but let this be over soon. I wanted to protest. This man was a hero. He deserved something more than he was getting. Something more than he had ever had. But I drifted away again into another memory.
Earlier this year, I'd visited the Green Frog again with my guitar as I usually did, but something new sat inside. A pair of fifty year olds had spots at the bar. Surly men in tattered olive drab jackets. I strummed country standards as everyone in the bar got three sheets to the wind. Jerry stumbled up to the bar to order himself another, and one of the newcomers pushed him over, just for laughs. Normally, I'd be quiet unless I was cutting up with Jerry or another regular, but the sight of Jerry, in his old clothes with his beer gut and tobacco-stained hands and beard, got the better of me. I sat down my guitar and confronted the men, helping Jerry back to his dominoes.
"You should be ashamed of yourselves, assholes," I growled to the men. "This man's a war hero, back in the Second. The fuck have you ever done?"
One of the men drained his glass and stared deep into my eyes. "Funny. He looks just like every other asshole ever called me a baby-killer. I wasn't anywhere near Mai Lai, but just because I was in-country, he and his kind all think I'm worthless." He spit on my boots, tossed some cash at the barkeep, and he and his buddy split. I looked back at Jerry, hunched over his dominoes with his friends and their endless game of Texas 42, wondering if my hero was only a mortal man after all.
I remembered a scene from my childhood, where his mortality was on full display, a sinner in all his glory. I collected my guitar and my tips as I calmly walked toward the door. Jerry didn't notice. Sidekick was going to walk out that door and never come back, like an outlaw running from his gang to the posse to save his own skin.
I barely remember the eulogy. One of Jerry's buddies talked about something sad, and the boys from the depot folded the flag and fired off their 21 gun salute. I drifted back to the memory that filled my mind on the drive home that night from the Green Frog: possibly the most important moment I could remember with Jerry at the time.
When I was eight, I picked up the guitar for the first time. I took to it pretty quickly, learned some chords and some simple cowboy tunes. It was on one of those days I was home from school and playing my guitar for fun that he returned. I still remember the third day he stayed with us. Isn't that funny how memory works? I don't remember the day he arrived, nor the next, but that third day stands vividly in my mind. I was sitting in the living room, just off the kitchen where Jerry sat at the chipped Formica table. I strummed the chords and stumbled through the words to that old cowboy love song "Red River Valley." As I stumbled with my small fingers for a G7, I paused. A quiet sob drifted from the kitchen. I quietly set the guitar down and snuck right up to the corner. Jerry was still at the Formica table, running his hands through his thinning, scraggly white hair, and crying. At eight, I had never seen defeat before, but there it was, staring me in the face. "Lord, why do my wells run dry?" he'd choke out every few minutes between the sobs.
I scrambled back over to the guitar and quickly strummed out the opening chord to an upbeat diddy my dad would strum along to on his mandolin. The sobs choked away in the kitchen, and I could hear the cheap chair scraping on the linoleum as Jerry stood up and joined me in the living room. We'd sit on the couch, I'd strum out chords and he'd mumble the lyrics to half-remembered bluegrass and country staples. It was like a scene from a western of a pair of desperadoes waiting for a train to take them somewhere, anywhere but here.
Again at the funeral, as the pastor got up to mumble a nondescript prayer about the state of Jerry's soul, I recalled my own redemption earlier this week. Prayers may save the soul, but only if the soul is worth saving. And no soul is worth saving that won't seek forgiveness.
With this in mind, I found myself standing on Jerry's doorstep with my guitar in my hand, waiting. Waiting for what, I wasn't sure. There is no bad time to ring a doorbell, but something stayed my hand. I had no idea what to say. Then it hit me: I didn't need to say anything. I was his friend, and I respected him, no matter the failures of the broken man at the Formica table. So I rang the doorbell and a raspy voice from inside told me the door was open.
I wasn't prepared for what I saw. Jerry sat all alone on his couch, a bad Western movie on a rented VHS player going on the TV. He had an oxygen hose under his nose and looked like hell. Lung cancer, he'd later tell me. I laid my hand on his shoulder and smiled. He smiled back as I got out my guitar and strummed out Red River Valley again, the simple chords and silent lyrics transporting us both back to that Formica table and couch in my living room. We didn't go anywhere for hours as we watched Westerns and sang cowboy songs in his living room, like a pair of old-time desperadoes waiting for a train. I knew in that moment, all was forgiven.
He died the next day.
As I stood over the casket, marveling at the state of cleanliness the mortician had achieved and how little the corpse in front of me looked like Jerry, my girlfriend asked me what the nicotine-stained old man in the box had meant to me. I wanted to tell her about the nights in my living room and the westerns, about how he was a mythic figure to a young boy in cowboy pajamas. I wanted to tell her about my teenage years, about the bars and the long nights and the war stories. I wanted to tell her he was a hero. I wanted to tell her about the eight year old and the eighteen year old who watched a mythic man break down like a young child in the frustration of running toward the American dream, only to never quite be able to catch up because the wells in West Texas would dry up as soon as they were drilled and his old back couldn't take one more summer as a roughneck.
I wanted to tell her he was my friend. He taught me songs. He taught me how to laugh, live, drink, and curse. He taught me how to put on boots, how to wear a hat, spurs, or a bolo tie without looking like a tool. He taught me the good country music and the good westerns. He taught me about Louis L'Amour, Zane Grey, and The Virginian. He taught me pool, dominoes, and dice. He taught me how to be a man.
After a long pause in front of a pine box, remembering that picture in our mutual heads of a pair of old-time desperadoes, straight out of the movies waiting for a train to carry us to Las Cruces, Tucson, Laredo, or Vera Cruz, all I could finally muster was the strength to say was that he was my friend as I silently cried the first of many tears for the memory of Jerry Carson.