I feel like growing up everyone had that one friend that lived in the neighborhood whom you kept in a very particular relationship bubble.
You had your school friends and sports friends and maybe some weird YMCA club friends that might have intermingled and bled over into each other. You have your best friends that followed you from grade school clear up into high school, college, your first heartbreak, your first real loss,… then marriage and kids, and maybe even divorce and sobriety. These are the long time friends. The “ride or die” pals and gals that you kept close to your heart for decades.
These are not the neighborhood friends.
The neighborhood friend is the person you hung out with when no plans were made. You wake up on summer break and all your close buddies are gone or have other things going on. No plans to hit the road and visit grandma or your cousins in another town. Mom’s watching Days Of Our Lives and your bologna with cheese is devoured, so you head out into the summer heat and check on the neighbor kid. If all else fails, you hang out with the weirdo next door who’s house smells like fried food and old people.
I had a friend like that growing up. His name was Nathan Jackson.
Not more than a couple years after we moved into our house, the folks to the east of us sold their home and the Jacksons moved in. The Jacksons were Baptists from Jacksonville, FL. Dad Ken, mom Linda, daughter Alisa, and son Nathan. At the time they moved in I was maybe 5 years old. Alisa was a year older than me, while Nathan was two years younger than me.
They were a nice enough family, though the Hubners and Jacksons were never going to get together for neighborhood BBQs or neighborly hangs. Ken and Linda were very religious southern Baptists. They were also very eccentric. My parents enjoyed Strohs, playing pool, and listening to Led Zeppelin and Cheech and Chong records. Ken was an engineer by trade, but wanted to be an actual train engineer. Their garage never housed actual cars; but lathes, CNCs, giant work desk for blueprint reading, and God knows what else. Ken wanted to literally build train tracks so he could have a mini train. In the 30 years they lived next door to my parents no train was ever created. I guess it was just a hobby for Ken to avoid being a parent.
I remember the first Christmas the Jacksons lived next door, Linda and Alisa came over and presented me with a blow-up Incredible Hulk chair. I loved that thing. I was obsessed with The Hulk(both in comics and the Bill Bixby tv show), so it was my new favorite thing. The chair lasted all of a December afternoon before it sprung a leak. I kept re-blowing it up when I felt it wasn’t bouncy enough. That rubber only takes so much.
Alisa and I were initially friends, as we were only a year apart and Nathan was still pretty small. We’d eat lunch together, play in each others backyards, watch cartoons in the afternoons. When I started going to school on the bus we’d get on the bus together at their house. We’d swing in the Jacksons backyard singing at the top of our lungs “It’s a Small World” like we were trying out for the Mickey Mouse Club.
Within a couple years Nathan started playing with us as well. He was getting older and could enjoy a game of Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher or Disney sing-a-longs with the best of ’em. But as we got older playing War with toy guns, Star Wars with action figures, and just the general tom foolery boys enjoy getting into wasn’t really appealing to Alisa, so Nathan and I became neighborhood pals.
We’d have sleepovers and ride our bikes in the woods. Nathan was pretty affable when it came to what we’d do. Growing up in a Baptist home he wasn’t allowed to do much when it came to pop culture, so getting out of the house with a heathen like me he was more than apt to do whatever I was into at the time. Toys and war turned into horror movies and heavy metal. His parents abhorred rock music, and when they found out we were listening to Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, and WASP at my house his time at my place got less and less. They still let me come over and hang out, but there they could see and hear what we were doing and listening to. Oddly enough, the Jacksons had cable and we didn’t. So my MTV fix was typically there. Summer days watching “Dancing In The Dark” and “Round and Round” on afternoon MTV was a treat. As long as there wasn’t any obvious nods to Satan, sex, or gratuitous violence it seemed to pass the smell test for Mrs. Jackson.
When I started playing guitar right before 7th grade year Nathan’s uncle bought him a guitar as well. Nathan’s uncle’s name was Glen Jackson. He was Ken’s brother, and nothing like Ken. He had a lazy Florida drawl and would occasionally come up from Florida to visit. One summer he came up with a camper. The two weeks he was there Nathan and I would hang out in the camper most afternoons, running an extension cord from the garage into it so we could watch a small black and white TV. We also had a boom box in there that we played Scorpions’ Savage Amusement on constantly. It felt like we had our own apartment. It was a pretty fun time.
Glen even took Nathan and I to Chicago once. He drove us to the Windy City, got a hotel room, then we went downtown and ate at The Italian Village. We went up into the Sears Tower and got to see Chicago from the top floor. The next morning I remember having a cup of coffee for the first time at the continental breakfast. I think I was 14, maybe? Glen was the only peek into the real world Alisa and Nathan ever really had. It was honestly hard to understand how he was even Ken’s brother. Sadly he was killed in a car wreck a few years later(we were almost in a wreck coming home from Chicago, so maybe I was lucky.)
There was a time when I was banned from hanging out with Nathan. I’d spent the night on a Saturday night, and the caveat was that I was going to church with the Jacksons the next morning.
I’d gone to church with them plenty of times over the years and when I was really young I’d go to Vacation Bible School with the kids in the summer. When I was really young it seemed kind of fun. “Learn a Bible verse, repeat it like a parrot in front of a bunch of kids you don’t know, then you can get a Snickers bar.” Seemed like a cool deal to me. But as I got older I’d caught on to the sham that religion was, and in-particular, “Baptists”. Fire and brimstone, Satan, yadda yadda,…I grew up in a house with no religion. It was just a given that you be a good person, help others when you can, try to have some empathy, have manners, and don’t kill anyone. I didn’t need church three days a week to know that. My dad’s glare and striking scowl, along with my mom’s penchant for out of the blue rage were reason enough to follow the straight and narrow.
Anyways, back to the banishment.
So early that Sunday morning I woke up and got the hell out of dodge. When I saw they’d returned from church service I walked over and knocked on the front door to see if Nathan wanted to come out and play. Linda answered the door and said I wasn’t welcomed in their home anymore because I was deceitful and didn’t go to church with them. I guess their plan to save my soul just didn’t work out, so I said okay and went home.
A year later, out of the blue, I was invited to come over and go out on a pontoon boat with them. Glen was visiting and asked if I would want to go. I figured why not? So my banishment was officially over.
By my freshman year I wasn’t seeing Nathan much. He was in 7th grade and hanging out with a few kids his own age, while I was busy making new friends, playing guitar, and going deep into music and girls. Alisa was doing her own thing as well. It felt like that family was drifting apart and it was kind of weird to be around them. And by the time I graduated high school things were starting to come to light about Nathan, that honestly had been there all along.
Early on Nathan showed signs of some emotional issues. I was playing at his house when I was 7 years old, maybe? The old Spiderman ’67 cartoon was going to come on so I told Nathan I was going home to watch it. He blew up in a rage, ran over and bit my chest. Hard. Enough so he left bloody front and bottom teeth marks through my shirt. Another time there was another neighbor girl over playing. I’d left to go home and after I’d gone Nathan hit her over the head with an actual power drill(one his dad let him play with.) She didn’t require stitches but he broke the skin on her scalp. Nathan would also have raging meltdowns. Like screaming and being dragged by his mom into the house when it was time for him to go in.
I’m not a child psychologist, but I feel I’ve learned enough over the years that when there’s those kinds of outbursts there’s something else going on. But in the late 70s and early 80s when kids did that they were just “acting out” or “brats”.
Around 1993 my older brother and I were at Video World renting some NES games to play at his place when we ran into Nathan and one of his friends. There was something off about them both. Stoned, maybe, or something else. Nathan starts asking me about Tool and their album Undertow(it was new at the time.) He starts telling me how cool it is, and one particular song that he loved where Maynard is singing about sticking a knife in someone(“Crawl Away”). I knew what he was talking about as I’d had the album for awhile. The fact that that song stuck out so much to Nathan, and in-particular that line, seemed sort of disturbing. I nodded my head and said “Well, later man.” My brother and I sorted chuckled at the odd exchange and went to his place and played Excitebike.
After high school Nathan seemed to be flailing through life, hanging with a pretty shady crowd. My mom was outside on the side of the garage one day when she saw Nathan pull up in a car with someone else. He walked over to the side of his house and started messing with the window, attempting to jimmy it open. My mom said “Hey Nathan, what are you doing?” Startled he replied “Oh, I’m just trying to get into the house so I can borrow my parents VCR.” “Well, maybe you should wait till they get home”, said my mom. “Yeah. That’s probably a good idea.” Mom said he got back in the car and drove off.
Not long after that my mom told me that apparently Nathan had started huffing gas and put himself into a coma. He woke from it but never really came back fully. He was living in halfway home for a bit. I think he did eventually move back home with Ken and Linda, while Alisa went to college and pretty much never came back.
I would sometimes wonder if Nathan’s parents thought him hanging out with me had something to do with his eventual drop into the abyss. The rock music and the horror movies he indulged in at my house as a kid. My lack of religious guidance as a youngster maybe somehow influenced him to turn against God and his family. I know that’s not the case. I had no religion in my life, loved blood and gore flicks and banged my head to Slayer, yet I somehow turned out pretty well. Nathan on the other hand was force fed the Bible and watched anti-rock propaganda videos from the church, yet still ended up literally losing his mind in gasoline fumes.
Sure, Nathan may have been the target of some pranks here and there. My brother and I tricked him into eating Lolli-Pups dog treats, telling him they were cookies. And my older brother and his friends would sing happy birthday to him for no reason. My buddy and I shined a flashlight into Nathan’s bedroom window which hit a portrait of their great, great grandfather in the living room. It looked as if he was glowing. The whole family was looking out the window as my friend and I hid behind my dad’s old car laughing silently.
I don’t think those pranks led to gas huffing and breaking and entering. But if they had anything at all to do with what happened to Nathan mentally and emotionally, all I can say is I’m sorry. I’m sorry for Nathan and whatever happened to him. Despite the outbursts and weird behavior he was still a friend. We did have some good times together. Summer fort building in the woods behind our houses, bike rides to the convenience store for a pop and candy, lots of MTV and late nights in his parents den watching movies. And there was some crossover into my school friends as well when Nathan would come over for birthday parties.
I hope that Nathan was able to make some kind of recovery. Maybe he got it together and was able to live a normal life. If not, all I can say is I’m sorry Mrs. Jackson. I am for real.