Didn’t we all have that friend in childhood that stayed in childhood? You know, it was usually a kid that lived next door or maybe two houses down from you. He wasn’t going to be a lifetime friend but was good for summer shenanigans; birthday parties, occasional sleepovers that involved movie rentals, frozen pizzas, and sneaking in music videos his mom and dad wouldn’t allow. He may have had an older sister that was a year older than you, while you were two years older than him. You may have played the adventures of Huck Finn with them and was excited to be Tom Sawyer to her Becky Thatcher.
Okay, so I may be talking specifically about my childhood friend.
The Jackson family moved into the house next door to us when I was 4 or 5 years old. They moved to our neck of the Midwest from Jacksonville, Florida. The dad was an engineer type, both at a day job and with aspirations of being an actual train engineer(the entire time I knew them he was working on building an actual train with train tracks.) The mom was a stay-at-home mom that was kind of hands off in the parenting department. She was pleasant enough, but she always seemed to be ready for some kind of emotional break(I guess when your husband is in the garage most of the time fantasizing about being Thomas The Tank Engine you’ll have that.) Then there were the kids. Alisa(pronounced “Uhh-Lisa”) and Nathan. I started out as friends with Alisa. We’d swing together in their backyard and apparently sing “It’s A Small World” in an annoyingly loud manner. We’d also dig up dirt and make large holes of soupy mud. It was fun, man. Oh, and yes there was the occasional game of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. I would occasionally go to church with them, too. Mostly in the hopes of lunch being served at the Jackson abode after the service. In the summer I’d go to vacation bible school with the Jackson kids. This was, not surprisingly, not a great time. I was raised by beer-drinking, rock and roll-listening parents that did not go to church. I think me going to church with the neighbors was more just a break for my mom than me getting anything from the bible thumpers.
By the time I was 7 or 8 I was just hanging out with Nathan. He was sort of a weird kid, but he was readily available to hang out and do stupid stuff with. How was he weird? Well, he once told me that he had to get a shot because he picked his nose and ate it too much. He once hit a neighbor girl in the head with an actual power drill on purpose(not plugged in or with a bit in it, thank Jebus.) When he was much younger he had a penchant for biting. I once saw him bite his sister in the back so hard that he bit through her shirt and left bloody teeth marks on her. I was once a victim of the Nathan iron jaw, too. After telling him I was going home to watch afternoon cartoons he laid into my chest with a gnaw like Vlad the Impaler.
But despite his peculiarities and apparent taste for human flesh, we got along pretty well. Though there was a two year age difference, we tended to enjoy the same things. Maybe it was more that he liked whatever I liked which made things easy. When I liked Star Wars, so did he. When I got into Transformers and GI Joe, Nathan did too. In the summer I showed him the ways of billiards in our basement and badminton in our backyard. We both enjoyed a good game of war in the woods and had pretty decent imaginations. When I’d spend the night at his house, we’d stay up late in the family den and watch Friday Night Videos and MTV(they had cable, we didn’t.) For a snack we’d eat several pieces of toast with strawberry jam.
The Jackson household was very religious overall(southern Baptists), while mine wasn’t(Midwestern Heathens.) Our households still generally got along, with Mr. Jackson coming over every now and then to borrow some wrench or caliper that measured in the metric system that my dad didn’t have. My mom would run into Mrs. Jackson going out to get the mail, with Mrs. Jackson looking like a southern Jackie O in big, black round sunglasses and a scarf. Nathan’s dad was also a musician. There was always a nylon-string classical guitar lying around, as well as an actual vinyl LP that Mr. Jackson played on(there was a black and white photo of him on the back cover standing in front of a mic.) He liked a lot of the 60s folk stuff(Peter Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, and the like), but it was gospel that tripped his trigger. I think their mom sighed a lot and pined for the southern plantations of her childhood.
Things went okay, that is until I got into music. AC/DC, Ratt, Twisted Sister, Van Halen, and Motley Crue were just a few that I got into when toys were traded in for the PMRCs hit list. Of course, Nathan liked it too, since I did. This was not cool with the ma and pa Jackson. They saw it as the devil’s music, and in turn saw me doing the devil’s bidding. At first they took it in stride, but then they began the propaganda game. I can remember going over to their house one night to stay and the parents sat Nathan and I down in the den to play us a videotape. It was one of those Riefenstahl-like propaganda videos where an ominous voiceover narrates a fable about how rock and roll will kill you. They went so far as to show a guy mindlessly nodding his head as Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” is playing. As the song plays, the idiot in the video slowly raises a pistol to his head as if he’s going to blow his brains out. It was obviously the work of Satan through Ozzy Osbourne. If they really wanted to stick to the narrative, the guy should’ve been raising a glass of Jack Daniels to his mouth instead.
Anyways, this war of attrition between me and the Jackson family continued on for years. With each new metal band and “Explicit Lyrics : Parental Advisory” sticker the chasm grew wider between me and the neighbors. I still hung out with Nathan, though. But as we got older it was apparent Nathan was getting odder as time went on. Was it my fault, as his parents thought? I don’t know. He got plenty of hazing when he’d visit my house. Being kind of a rube, he was susceptible to being messed with. My older brother and his friends loved messing with Nathan. I can remember one summer evening we were heading over to my house to listen to some contraband Shout At The Devil. As soon as we stepped inside my brother and two of his buddies were in the living room and dropped the needle on The Beatles’ “Birthday”. They all started singing it to Nathan, congratulating him on his birthday. It wasn’t Nathan’s birthday, and they knew that. I knew that, too. But by Nathan’s reaction I’m not sure he knew it. He just stood there with a weird smile on his face, really trying to remember when his birthday was. There was also my brother and I talking Nathan into trying these delicious new snacks our mom bought at the store. Loli-pups. Yes, they were dog treats. They looked like a cookie version of a Mentos. Little bite-size, multi-colored dog treats that our mini schnauzer Klaus loved. In order to sell the charade my brother and I had to eat one as well(in retrospect, that wasn’t one of our best gags.)
Nathan and I hung out through my time in middle school. We’d play Nintendo at his house, watch music videos, and listen to the evil rock music when his parents weren’t around. I still had fun hanging out, but I was getting older and had other friends to hang out with on the weekends. I dated a couple girls that Nathan’s older sister was friends with, so that made trips next door sort of weird, too. Eventually I was banned from the Jackson abode because after spending the night one Saturday evening I got up early and went home before I could go to church with them. His parents likened that to spitting in the eye of baby Jesus and so I was no longer welcomed.
A year or so later I was invited to go with Nathan and his uncle Glen to Chicago for an evening. I’d met Glen over the years on a couple occasions. He was the complete opposite of Nathan’s dad. He was funny, boisterous, and had a personality. He was the southern gentleman through and through. Glen wanted to take Nathan to the big city and asked him if he wanted to bring a friend. I’m sure his parents cringed when he mentioned my name, but they relented(probably because of Glen.) It was a fun trip. We went to the top of the Sears Tower, ate at a really nice Italian restaurant, and the next morning I had a cup of coffee for the first time(I was 15 I think.) Glen nearly got us in a wreck on the way home, but hey it can’t all be fun times and balloon animals.
That was the last time I really hung out with Nathan or the Jacksons. I hit my sophomore year in high school and met new friends, really got into guitar playing and progressive rock(and girls), while Nathan kind of disappeared into the ether of just the “neighbor”. I hadn’t talked to him for about 5 years when one day while my brother and I were at Video World renting some NES games I see these two chuckling yokels standing by the CDs. One of them turns to me and I see it’s Nathan. He was taller and more gaunt looking. The other kid was chubby and had the appearance of the Unabomber on a Clearasil high. The conversation we had was short but stuck with me.
Me: Hey, how’s it going?
Nathan: Okay.(chuckles oddly)
Me: What have you been up to?
Nathan: Have you heard of a band called Tool?
Me: Yeah I have.
Nathan: They have a song where they talk about sticking a knife up someone’s ass. It’s pretty wild.
Older Brother: Well, we gotta go. Got games to play.
And that was that. That was the last time I ever saw Nathan. My mom, however, saw him a year or two later. She was taking trash out to the trash can on the side of the house when she noticed someone at one of the bedroom windows of the Jackson house trying to get in. My mom said she yelled at them and when the guy turned around she saw it was Nathan. He told my mom that he lost his key and that he was trying to get in to borrow their VCR so he could watch some movies. My mom told him he should just wait for his parents to get home. Nathan agreed and commenced with some small talk. She said he was acting strange, like he was on something. Twitchy, nervous, and he looked even more gaunt than usual. We eventually found out he had gotten in with some strange folks and pulled a Syd Barrett by burning his brain up with chemicals. Nathan ended up in a halfway house.
Then that was it. The Jacksons moved away. To where? I don’t know. I don’t even know if they took their acid-burnt son with them. I think about him occasionally, and hope he worked his stuff out. I also wonder if his parents blamed me for his path to degradation and drug use. More than likely yes. It probably wasn’t an overbearingly religious upbringing or the spankings or the mollycoddling or the fact that their mom would often hide from sunlight for days at a time or that they were raised partially by a sweet but racist great auntie. I’m sure it was Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil.
And maybe those Lolipups.
Either way, I’m sorry Mrs. Jackson. I am for real.