SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 28, 2016

People Who Died, Died

 

I was sitting at my desk, settling in as I waited for Herr Schlafke’s second period German class to get underway. It was the late fall of 1982, and I was a senior at Green Bay East. The other students were dribbling in before the bell. It was strange. There was just something in the air that morning. Everyone seemed unusually quiet and glum, but I had no idea why. I figured it was just one of those things to blame on the barometric pressure. Then my friend Steve came through the door, and he looked shell-shocked.

            “Did you hear about Perry?” he asked quietly after stopping by my desk.

            “No, what?”

            “He died.”

            “What?”

            “He died last night.”

            Perry had been a friend of mine, a goofy, burly kid, one of the three original punks in my school, along with my other friends Gary and Norb. Perry was the drummer for Suburban Mutilation, the band the three of them had formed. He wasn’t the greatest drummer in the world, always a bit too reliant on the cymbals to cover his erratic backbeat, but they were still really something, and Perry was a great kid. He wasn’t the most brilliant student, but he had an artistic bent, always sketching out little cartoons and portraits of Sid Vicious. It just comes back to me now that his punk name was Julius Seizure, not that it’s of any significance.

            Anyway, the night before he’d been drag racing with someone downtown along Mason Street when he lost control of his car, wrapping it around a tree. He’d been killed instantly. The story had been all over the news that morning, but I hadn’t bothered to look at the paper or turn on the radio.

            It wasn’t my first encounter with death, no, but up to that point they’d all been adults—grandparents and aunts and uncles. Perry was the first kid my age, at least the first one I’d known personally who’d died, and the first friend.

            Green Bay was still a relatively small town at that point, and teenagers simply didn’t die. At seventeen we were all still convinced we were unbreakable and immortal. But beginning with Perry, there was a rash of student deaths in my school, some of them kids I’d known since kindergarten.

            About a month after Perry’s accident, a girl named Laurie died, though nobody seemed to notice until her picture appeared on the memorial page of the yearbook. Laurie was a deeply shy and quiet girl with long straight hair. Pale, unremarkable, and seemingly emotionless. The most memorable thing about her was she was skeletally thin. So much so she was nearly invisible, just a passing, silent wisp in the hallway. Few seemed to notice her at all, teachers and students alike. The term “anorexia nervosa” was only then beginning to enter the lexicon, so nobody connected it with her until after she died. One day she simply wasn’t in school anymore, and no one noticed. Most people, including myself, saw her picture in the yearbook months later and thought, “Oh yeah, her. Yeah, I can see that now,”

            Then there was Amy. My friend Gary’d had a crush on her since second grade. Very cute, petite girl with short brown hair and large eyes. One night in the spring of 1983 she was riding on the back of her latest boyfriend’s motorcycle when he lost control. He walked away with minor injuries, but Amy, who wasn’t wearing a helmet, was thrown off. By all accounts her skull was crushed like an eggshell when she hit the pavement, the contents held together by the skin alone. She was still alive after the accident, but in a coma and severely brain damaged. I think they were able to keep her alive for two weeks before giving up.

            Gwen was one of those people everyone seemed to like. Very sweet and bright, an independent thinker with a sharp but relaxed sense of humor. We were in a bunch of classes together. She was dating a senior from West High who looked like Richard Gere with a wacky haircut. He was in another local punk band, The Silos, I believe it was, and I always found it really funny to see her working the door at hardcore shows. She simply didn’t seem the punk rock type. I think she found it just as funny to see me at those same shows, and for the same reason. She was the second kid in my class to be diagnosed with terminal cancer during senior year. Both of them made it through graduation. I don’t know what happened to the other kid, Bob was his name, but shortly after graduation Gwen married her boyfriend simply to make her mother—who was likewise dying of cancer—happy. Three months later, Gwen died herself. Always found that story particularly tragic.

            I’d known Tim since kindergarten. He lived just a couple of blocks away from us. He was another short, burly kid who, even at five or six, looked like a Forties character actor. It was a neighborhood full of kids who looked like miniature Forties character actors. Tim wasn’t the brightest kid, but funny and energetic, sort of a second-tier class clown. We weren’t the best of friends, but we never had a problem with each other. Tim was a regular presence throughout my childhood, one of those people who was simply always around, if only in the corner of my vision. About six months after graduation, Tim, who was still living at home, got into an argument with his older brother in the family kitchen. Not sure what it was all about, but his brother whipped out a shotgun, pointed it at Tim’s chest, and blew him all over the wall.

            Danny was another one I’d known, hell, since before kindergarten given his family always went to our church. We always got along, too, if from a distance. He was a little hellion from a white trash family full of hellions. He got into drinking and drugs far earlier than most, which might be understandable. If he was able to avoid prison, he was likely looking at a lifetime in one of the local paper mills. Not long after Tim was murdered, Danny was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. If you’ve known anyone with Crohn’s Disease you know how horrible it can be. Danny learned this first hand, so grabbed his own shotgun and blew his own head off.

            I’m sure there were others, but those are the ones who immediately come to mind. I suppose it’s kind of sad their deaths didn’t really affect me much at the time apart from the initial shock. We were young, preoccupied, and anxious to get on with whatever lay beyond high school. We had to keep moving.

            My mom still keeps me posted when other old classmates who remained in Green Bay die, but now that we’re all in our fifties it’s far less shocking. Just something to be expected, even the murders and suicides, somehow.

            What strikes me as stupidly ironic about it is that as all these kids around me in school were dying of various and sundry causes, I was desperately trying to kill myself on a monthly basis without a shred of success.

 

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