“The grass may be greener on the other side, but it’s just as hard to mow.” - Jeffery Scott Johnson, 1998
This is the story of two friends who were thick as thieves.
In the winter of 1989, my family and I moved down to Huntsville, Alabama. It was quite an eventful year. It was the year a deadly tornado came through South Huntsville and decimated a good part of the city. It even made national news. However, the prevailing reason my family uprooted from Parkersburg, West Virginia was because of my grandfather, who’d recently undergone triple bypass heart surgery. I remember crying my eyes out all the way down, and it is a long drive from Parkersburg to Huntsville. Leaving the only life you’ve known is never easy, and I wasn’t taking the transition lightly. Nonetheless, I found myself making my home in a town that I still live in to this day.
My grandfather was a renowned preacher, and a great one at that. He had no small role to play in helping me develop a comfort level in front of a crowd. In fact, he and my father were able to work with me consistently, and I began speaking in public as early as fifth grade. One of the first friendships I made in those ranks was with a kid named Jeff.
Jeff was an amiable, blonde-haired kid. He always had a smile to give, and was always warm and welcoming. When I didn’t have any peers to speak of in the outside world, I had a handful of them at my church, and he was at the top of the totem pole.
And why not? After all, this guy had an aptitude for making friends, and it didn’t seem to matter who. No one was too weird, too unorthodox or too unpopular. Jeff didn’t weigh his relationships by those metrics, not ever.
My first years in Alabama were very hard for me. Well…..maybe not the very first one. I made friends fairly easily and excelled in my studies when I completed my fifth grade courses, but couldn’t have been prepared for what the next year had in store. I attended Liberty Middle School. I was excoriated so much that I spent more time calling in sick to the clinic than I did in the classroom. I had some consolation in the fact that I had a loving family and friends outside of that environment, but I can’t lie. It was rough.
I hadn’t yet figured out how to be comfortable in my own skin. I felt awkward. I was an outcast, the object of ridicule, and definitely an easy target. Unfortunately, when I transferred to Madison Academy the following year things were not much better. I didn’t say much to most people. I walked down the corridors basically staring at my shoes, and all I wanted to do was fit in. One evening, I found myself thinking in my bedroom, “Why am I trying so hard to win over people that are so bent on hating me? Why should I care what they think?” That was a turning point. I grew into someone who could hang out with the popular kids, maybe because I’d become self-aware. And I also hung out with the unpopular ones because I knew what it was like to be one, and knew I was no better. One constant throughout this entire process was Jeff. He was always welcoming, inviting and never above anyone. In a way, I’d like to believe the epiphanies I had in school were in no small part because of him.
When we turned 15, we entered into the job market and we both bagged groceries at Publix. We’d hang out after hours and shoot the breeze a bit. I particularly remember him getting a kick out of me going to the bathroom while I was on the clock, and falling asleep in the stall for over an hour. Oops…
Speaking of work, I always admired his sense of entrepreneurism. Jeff, with the help of his family, eventually launched a successful landscaping business. Keep in mind, we were still in high school, and this was and is very impressive to me. He was always hard working and diligent. Certainly more than I was at our age. Did I mention the bathroom?
Jeff and I played on MA’s JV Football team. (They’ve gotten good since then.) We often ate at each other’s houses, and got to know our respective families very well.
We also sang in the chorus together. Jeff had a real musical talent beyond what I even think he knew. He always seemed to have an ear for rhythm, and would tap out drum patterns on the steering wheel of his black Ford Probe with little to no effort.
Beyond the work week, and school, we both extended our time, money and energy to the mission field. One particular trip I remember was to an orphanage in Ensenada, Mexico. He had an affinity for working with the children and made bricks faster than just about anyone on site.
One of our favorite connections though, was definitely music. We had a band of brothers. There was Rob Collier, who has since developed some notoriety for himself in the Shoals, and Matt Eaglan, who I’m sad to say is no longer with us either. Many were the nights we found some location off the beaten path to throw a football while listening to Pink Floyd, Zappa, Phish, Bela Fleck and Dave Matthews. In fact, the name of this post points to a Phish album we listened to routinely.
College opened up some bittersweet experiences for us both. We developed different ways of seeing the world, but this was a time when people could disagree with each other and still remain friends. We both had some of our first serious relationships, and we both dealt with our fair share of heartache on the other side, but we were always there to pick each other up when we fell. We always had that connection even in the years of his marriage where I had the honor and the privilege of playing at his reception and ceremony, and he was always gracious and thankful for the gifts he’d been given.
Jeff, like everyone, had his struggles in life, and like everyone, wrestled with not letting those things get the better of him. I do not wish to discuss these things at length, nor will I dishonor his memory by doing so. I did not struggle in the ways of my friend, and as such, I consider myself fully unqualified to speak on these matters.
Now, my cup runs over to overflowing with the tears of sorrow over the best friend I have lost, tears of joy over the superior life he now finds himself experiencing, tears of anguish over the circumstances surrounding his death, and I hope at least, tears that will ultimately lead me and those who knew him best to the hope that one day we will be in his midst again, enjoying the heavenly splendor that should be the ultimate endgame for all of us, and particularly those who were blessed with the joy of knowing him at all.