Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared Dec. 28, 2008, on The City Wire. It continues to be an appropriate note to begin a new year.
It’s just another day, really. Another week. Another month. Another year, one hopes, above the daisies and dirt.
But this calendar shift comes with an unavoidable remembrance that, honestly, best serves by being unavoidable.
He called my sixth-grade teacher a sonofabitch. To his face. It’s a memory of everything visual coming to a slow motion, including the jaw drop of all living souls within earshot of the notification of SOB status. You know, like the memory of a car wreck.
Only years later did maturity tell me the emotion I felt then was of discovering that this new kid in the class was a solid friend who had a better handle on life than any 13-year-old should. Because, as it turned out with further overwhelming evidence, that particular teacher was indeed an SOB.
To say my new friend was not the typical student from the small town Arkansas elementary school is, considering the above story, stating the obvious. He was listening to KISS and trying to turn us on to this singer who had left Black Sabbath to create a new sound with a fresh young guitarist named Randy Rhoads. Ozzy, this soon to be dear friend would say, is the music your momma ain’t gonna want you to listen to. Within weeks we were all on the Crazy Train, and sneaking tapes of this new sound from Ozzy so our Southern Pentecostal parents wouldn’t think we were demon-possessed.
We only grew closer in the following years. His family was less than solid. Mine was solid as granite. He was more street-smart than a wily Mafia veteran. I was book-smart without a clue about people. I knew the world between the pages. He knew the world outside the pages.
Looking back, it’s easy to see he wanted to be more like me and I wanted to be more like him. Our deep friendship was, most likely, the result of two souls with a clear appreciation of and unnecessary envy of our respective strengths and weaknesses.
We had numerous opportunities for mischief during high school and did our best to make the most of them. There was the plan to steal silverware, trays, salt-n-pepper shakers and other items from the school cafeteria and then return them at the end of the year in a big box. That plan failed when we were caught stashing our stash in the ceiling above our lockers. Mr. Dean Pitts, our principal, thought it was a clever gag and let us off light. He called us the “Fork-Lift gang.”
We were kicked out of the high school gym for causing a riot with our rival, the Clarksville High School Panthers. My friend and I received a standing ovation as we were heavily escorted out of the gym.
Again, the maturity of several calendar shifts suggested it was at that time came the understanding that the powers that be aren’t always the powers that should be.
My friend went off to join the military between our junior and senior years of high school. He was duty-to-country long before Washington, Nashville, Hollywood and NASCAR got in the flag-waving game.
We graduated high school. He went to work in a factory and I went to college. College granted me the chance to write for the student newspaper.
It was during that time my friend reminded me that our best high school memories were the result of going against the grain; of challenging the prevailing positions of proper protocol. With maturity beyond his years, my friend suggested I responsibly and credibly note the chinks in the Establishment Armor.
And so it was that I began calling the system an SOB. To its face.
The guy in charge of academic affairs at my college wanted to remove me from the student newspaper. The guy in charge of the athletic department wanted the same. The student newspaper that year won more awards than in any previous year.
And then he was the best man at my wedding.
“Sure. If that’s what you really want,” he said when I asked him to stand by me at the ceremony. “But you need to know that these women get goofy when the ceremony ends.”
Again, he was right. But goofy has been fine, and the marriage, despite the obstinacy from the husband remains strong.
Leukemia, however, is the real SOB. It grabbed my friend in 2002.
My last face-to-face memory of my friend is toking with him — the marijuana helped ease his pain from the chemo and internal destruction caused by the bad blood cells — and talking about how we challenged the establishment whenever it deserved to be challenged and the few times we challenged it just for the hell of it.
My friend died just a few days after my second daughter was born. He was at MD Anderson in Houston when his wife told him my second child was yet another daughter.
“He is so screwed. Tell him to watch out for guys like us,” I heard him respond weakly from the background of the cell phone call. It was the last thing I ever heard from my friend.
And yet, in those final two sentences, he imparted one last piece of wisdom: He knew we could be the SOB’s for which we had little tolerance.
It’s been a little more than six years since we buried Randy Tumbleson. These notes of Happy New Year remind me of Randy and the fact that the powers-that-be more often than not deserve to be called an SOB.
So, as you turn the page on your New Year, watch out for guys like me. We’ve got little patience for you SOBs.