Disbelief, wondering, pain, and the firefly remembrances of our times, this is what’s left when great friends pass on. As for my wonderful friend, Johnny Courson lived his life the way we said we would, back when we were teenagers, and on the threshold of all our futures. A freak accident took my friend, at the end of a monstrous battle — in a way, a bit like great Achilles fell. So it is, that I use great words, deep seeded emotional tidings, and heroic names in this shared soliloquy, because my friends, a great spirit has passed away.
As a hundred childhood and lifelong friends message me on Facebook, asking me “what happened”, I return their queries with this story, and the words I feel he would assume I would write?
“The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.” – Te Tao Ching
People used to say I was crazy. You know, in that way wild things are; unbridled, different, and peculiar to all things that live in the gently quiet, patterned way of things. One longtime friend I remember kindly, she used to gasp, “Oh my God,” when I’d tell her Johnny and I were going out somewhere. “Be careful Phillip,” she’d always say. It is quizzical that only she and my Mom ever called me Phillip, by the way. But for me and Johnny, “careful” was only a built in self preservation quality, something hinged to the rationale were we immortal somehow. By the normal definition I guess we were truly crazy, but by his and my understanding we simply snatched at life, soaked it in, attacked it, and he particularly, could not get enough of the experience. I know he would agree, life is something there is simply too good, too tenuous, and of paramount importance. He and I talked about this many times. Living is the oxygen that feeds the flame that illuminates our existence, and Johnny was the brightest wild flame I ever knew – brighter even than the fire that burns in me – and you know, neither he nor I were ever humble creatures. Johnny was a unique hind of hero, a soldier of the searching dream.
“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” – Joseph Campbell
Goddamnit! I will miss you my wonderful friend. I know all the people reading this will too. Mike is heartbroken, Jay cannot come to terms, Jonathan and the family, those wonderful kids, everyone is stammering about now, in a state of bedazzled confusion. As I grapple to find the words, and as the tears stream down my cheek over my lost comrade and companion, 10,000 moments, a million memories rush in. The laughter, the emotional and gripping brotherhood men share so rarely. Those bright shining eyes, the wild abandon in them, the turned down smile, and the cutting – razor-sharp-wit, these images rush into my mind. And a strange pain grips my heart, one I never felt before.
Then, like one of those crazy displays he and I seemed famous for, it hit me – “Hell!”, the tension needs breaking. Nothing can ever be so damned serious as to spoil a whole goddamned day.
Johnny, I remember you and me, and Mike, headed to Brunswick after skipping school. The joy we three took at needling one another, prodding one another always – a bristly sharp competition – always the competition. It made us all, oh so much sharper tools. Johnny made us better, there’s no elaborate way to express this. We all made one another better, more, in a special way, truly immortal.
You marvelous friends reading this, you’re sitting now wondering how words on a webpage will wind their way toward immortalizing such a human being. But you all knew Johnny, you all felt at a point that immutable promise, that anything was possible when he was around. And by God almighty the impossible was reachable, please trust me on this. We lived in the most impossible moments.
But I cannot make Johnny immortal, he already was from the moment he was born, you see. Right there in your mind, and in your heart, and in the stories you tell these days, even your kids will speak of such things. Johnny Courson was a Hector with no Troy to defend, an Achilles who stayed home to burn, burn, burn under the weight of what might have been. But let me share with you some of what he and I did…
Me and Johnny drove our cars as fast as they would go, then we beat the doors and dashboard to gain a second’s gain, an engine decible more. He and I laughed with Dionysus himself, then drank the puny god of wine and revelry under the table. Me and Johnny fought a bear once, and a whole bar room full of night-life competitors too, we represented the perfect “tag team” you see. Hell, Johnny fought a gang of armed police once or twice, and he and me threatened a brigade of them on other occasions. Me and Johnny played Smokey and the Bandit before Burt Reynolds did. We laughed one whole day solid, and were imperiled and rescued one another 500 times as well. He and I competed every second, for somehow we faced our strongest and most undaunted foe, when we looked in the same bathroom mirror, at ungodly hung-over faces, oh so many next mornings after.
Of feats of strength and almighty wildness, most people have no idea. Johnny Courson and me loved the audience, but never really needed them. Once he goaded me into lifting a set of disc cutting harrows clear off the ground, I still bear the squeezed disc pain from that one. Then we’d dare one another to test some brick wall, some impenetrable room full of excitement, or a real life danger in the air, under the water, or on the side of some crevasse. Mostly, we pitted ourselves against one another’s strengths, and weaknesses, in a pugilistic test for future use. Johnny was one of the “few and proud” – a husband and dad, a worker and a dreamer. In short, a living human being determined not to just “go lightly, dimly into the night.”
And he didn’t.
He and I rode the roads, ran the beaches, swum the river, and arm wrestled or fought til dawn a hundred times. Then in the morning friends would find us huddled together to keep warm, hugging as grown men sometimes do, in some field or neighbors front yard – the morning dew gently calling us back form some Homeric dream-scape. It’s ironic as hell, it seems Johnny died from a short fall to the ground, when we dove head first long ago, from 40 feet up in a tree, and into a black hole in a snake infested swamp.
God-damn-it, I loved Johnny Courson.
I know some of you wonder how come this humble memorial to my friend seems as a soliloquy. Well, I do not mean to insinuate my pain is more than yours, but we were blood brothers you see. It’s amazing how children with pocketknives in the woods, conjure up in their minds ancient rituals – but it’s even more amazing that such pacts are kept.
Til-death-do-us-part is not simply an utterance at a wedding between the betrothed you know, it’s a solemn pledge little men make to one another, in the shared moments of growing up. Johnny Courson was my brother, like Mike and me, slung together by a cosmic strategy we cannot understand. Together we were protected, safe, proud, undaunted by this wicked world, and yes, crazy as hell to most people. We are, all of us, intertwined in ways we cannot understand my friends. I am sure Johnny knows this “secret” now, and I swear he whispered to me last night, from the bitter grave as it were; “It’s okay Butler, don’t be afraid. I am okay.” Did you know he never called me Phil, only B-U-T-L-E-R!
“There is an electric fire in human nature tending to purify – so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it, as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish.” – John Keats
There are so many of you I have not mentioned here, Tanya and Sheri, Keena and so many, many more out there made up the moments of this wonderful human being’s life. Forgive me my own tribute here, as fragmented and incomplete as it may seem. I hope you understand me not mentioning everyone. My capability to dwell on the finality of my friend’s passing, it runs against my nature you see – and against his nature too.
I do have one last duty to my friend, other than remembering him each day till we meet again. Johnny Courson loved his son Jonathan, he loved that family so. Dear Jonathan, it is my unpaid duty to tell you son, you were the light of your father’s life, the promise of honor, courage, and goodness he looked for all of his years. Jonathan, Cindy, kids – my heartfelt sympathies are with you. You must know how adored you all were. You must know of whom I speak now. We cannot have so much trouble identifying the heroic nature of Johnny. As Keats said, we should more easily identify.
I leave you with something I know you’ll identify with, a funny story of a truly wonderful man.
One time I recall Johnny, Mike and me, we got together for one of our “reunions” about 15 years ago, at a beach house on Kiawah Island, not far from Charleston. The three of us, having stayed out all night long at the God-Knows-Where bar, the stage was again set of dawn’s early disbelief. As for Mike, you must know he had “connected” with a new-found friend the night before. And as he awaited Johnny and I, fresh from our typical form of male bonding (finding the way back home from Jupiter), imagine a vision of JC and me squinted with pounding heads and cerebral hemorrhages included, at the break of day crackling up over the Atlantic Ocean.
We’d arrived at the beach house at the crack of dawn, only to discover Mike, like some robotic road warrior, up and about for a morning run. I remember thinking out loud; “Damnit Boy, that’s the stuff of legend, straight out of the arms of love, and into an Olympic moment.” Then our pal sped off down the beach in his Speedo, while me and Johnny, and my oldest son Reyn, we headed out swim toward the sunrise. Little Reyn, he was only 8 then, and wondering why Uncle Johnny insisted on going topless for a morning swim in January. Yes, it was near zero on a windy beach, crispy salt sea cold, you know? Like so many times before, my challenge, our challenge as it were, was to not be some weak assed and pitiful form of candy ass. Forgive me, I speak openly, as he would.
So it was, at length, as I watched in awe and fucking frozen astonishment, as Johnny and little Reyn stood chest deep in a chilled sea, staring at the orange, luminescent ball rising from the sea. Their two silhouettes made a kind of magic image, which is forever burnt into my brain. The silvery gray tide was just coming in, an orange and yellow glow, just then visible on the horizon to the East, we stood there the three of us, in all our pristine humanity.
Oh and of Mike, who had sped off to thrill the girls down the beach, with his well toned form – Johnny and I poked our normal fun at this too. It was on this emerging seascape a fine portrait of Johnny Courson is forever painted onto my mental canvas.
“Reyn, you see that big ball out there,” Johnny said. “Yes sir,” Reyn replied, looking out from under Johnny’s arm. “Well that’s a gigantic ball of burning gas,” Johnny instructed. “Gas!” Reyn exclaimed. “Yes, a huge ball of gas that burns forever, heating and lighting our world.”
To this Reyn replied in youthful amazement, simply “Wow!” Stunned, standing hypothermic and scarcely able to even see through bloodshot eyes, I smiled at the knowing of what was coming. “Son of a bítch,” I thought. Then JC delivered the 5:30 AM punch line to my little boy; “Yes Reyn, the sun is a great big ball of burning gas. Our world is kept alive by a huge blazing fart hundreds of millions of miles away.”
Oh man, I miss my friend so much. Goddamnit Johnny…. I love you man. We all love the tragic and magical hero in you, the hero that helped marked our time.
“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald