I was a freshman at The University of Oklahoma. At the beginning of the spring semester, my roommate Jeff dropped out, so I had a dorm room to myself. I brought my enlarger from home, and managed to make my room dark enough that I could make prints at night.
And it was all about night.
I didn’t take any morning classes. I regularly stayed up past four in the morning, usually listening to music, often writing in my journal, although I went through a period of being mute. I also made my way down to the recreation area to play pool and eat pizza with some friends who I started calling “the night crowd.” None of us could sleep at night.
One of my favorite night people was Debbie. Debbie had long, soft, honey-colored hair and big glasses hiding green eyes. She wore a perfume called Hope. She left our University at the end of the fall semester after someone assaulted her. I don’t know the whole story, but she came back to see us often. I remember when she left I held her for a long time. I remember the scent of her hair like it was five minutes ago. I remember I hadn’t shaved that day, and my one-day beard snagged her hair a little. As she turned to go, I jokingly said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
“Isn’t it, though?” she quipped back.
She dated a guy named Chris who always wore a golf glove when he played pool, so some of us just called him “The Glove.”
Junior the janitor loved to play pool too, and if we would stay up and play him, he would spring for pizza.
One night while prowling around with a buddy, we saw that a steel service cover on a sidewalk behind a dorm tower had been left off, and upon peering in, we discovered a service tunnel. I don’t know how I was supposed to resist checking it out. I climbed down the metal ladder bolted to the service hatch, where I found a tunnel tall enough for me to stand in that seemed to lead indefinitely in both directions. Since I was going somewhere else, I climbed out and made a mental note of it.
Here is what I wrote in my journal about it:
Tonight I experienced a small piece of Nirvana. Under the campus of this University is a maze of heating and cooling tunnels … I eventually explored about 300 yards of tunnel, but not having a flashlight, I stopped when it got too dark and hot.
At one point in our explorations, we actually got all the way to the physical plant, where we almost got caught in the act when one of us kicked a bucket (though not the bucket.)
On another occasion, we found we could get into the locked science lab in the physical sciences building. We didn’t steal anything, but felt like big shots by beating the establishment.
By the middle of the semester, we had most of the tunnel system mapped.
Later I wrote this in my journal:
This is a happy time in my life. As much as I would like to deny or ignore it, there have been and will be sad times.
One night a couple of weeks before the end of the semester, April 6, 1982, I noticed that all of my night crowd friends were gathered together, looking very serious. As I approached, one of them (I don’t remember which one) said, “Did you hear about Debbie?” I said I hadn’t.
“She was killed in a car accident tonight.” She was passing another car on a blind hill, they told me. No seat belt. Ejected. She died in surgery an hour later.
I wonder if the essence of Debbie still exists. Of course it’s a futile curiosity at best. My guess is that no, essence doesn’t persist. The world teaches us to fear the final end. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe we’re all wrong. Do how do I feel about the death of my friend? I wish I could have prevented it.
I also wish I could say that Debbie’s was the only death we would face that spring. On May 12, the day I came home to Lawton, Oklahoma, from college for the summer, my former room mate Jeff shot himself. Here is a chronology of my experience with him, much of it culled from my journal…
December 1980: I started hanging out with fellow photographer Chip more, as we were both on the Talon yearbook photography staff. Through him I met Jeff, Allen, Mike, John, and the rest of that crowd.
February, 1981: Chip, Jeff and I wore three-piece suits to school. On the way to Chip’s after school, we saw some construction workers and, through a trick of automotive manipulation, made the car backfire loudly while Jeff stuck his finger out the window like a mock gun. The workers followed us home and had a shouting match with us, accusing us of really shooting at them.
March, 1981: For a yearbook ad, the Ike Mafia met at Chip’s home to make a photo, circling expensive cars in the driveway for the event. The ad appears on page 232 of the 1981 Talon. At the end of the shoot, I stuck around with Chip. Jeff left, presumably to go home. In fact, he got in his car and drove 13 hours to see his girlfriend DeAnna in Chicago, without telling anyone. It was the Friday before spring break, and he stayed there the whole week.
April, 1981: While horsing around in the parking lot at school, Jeff fell from the trunk of a car and broke his ankle and elbow. About this same time he bought a disintegrating 1968 Javelin from a guy who owed him money, and named it Elmo. He spray painted “Don’t mess with the crip” on the side of it. About ten days later I helped him and Chip cut the roof off the car with a blowtorch.
May 31, 1981: Four hours after graduation ceremonies, Chip and I left to deliver furniture to his brother in Colorado Springs. The next day, Jeff, John and Allen left from Lawton and we all met up at Chip’s parents cabin in Eagle Next, New Mexico. At Eagle Nest we played poker, assassin, and other games. There was a 40-foot swing that Chip’s brother had made between two trees that swung out over a gully. The rest of us just swung on it, but Jeff would wait until the apex of the swing on the far side and leap off the swing into a tree.
July 1981: One night that summer, Jeff told us to let ourselves in to his room through a window in his room while he was out, so as not to awaken his family. Chip and I sneaked in and were waiting for Jeff when Jeff’s dad found us and demanded to know what we were doing there. Stumped, I stammered for a moment and then belched out, “Uh, I’m with Chip!”
August, 22, 1981: I rode with Chip and Allen to OU. Jeff had all my stuff in a U-Haul towed with his gold Trans Am. Just when we were getting concerned that he wasn’t going to show up, he called us from Reno & Meridian in Oklahoma City to say he was lost.
August 29, 1981: Without asking me or the dormitory Resident Advisor, Jeff traded with my room mate and moved in with me. I discovered this when I came back from lunch.
September 1981: Jeff, Allen and Mike all pledged Kappa Sigma. None remained a pledge for more than six weeks.
November 17, 1981: Jeff confessed to me that, “The only reason I pledged a fraternity was to have a feeling of adulthood and relating.”
December 7, 1981: I wrote in my journal that, “…Jeff seems to be trying to get everyone mad at him. He’s getting worse every day…and most of all he doesn’t seem to like himself any more…he obviously has some serious problems.”
Christmas Day, 1981: Jeff told me he told his parents, “I hate you, but I’ll keep on being your puppet to make you happy.”
January, 1982: The phone company discovered that Jeff had defrauded them out of long distance while calling his girlfriend in Chicago, but they reached a payback agreement and no legal action was taken.
January 20, 1982: A warrant for Jeff’s arrest was issued for three additional outstanding speeding tickets, all for driving over 100 mph.
January 30, 1982: Jeff’s parents appeared while Chip was visiting for the weekend and asked us if they and Jeff could be alone. When we returned, Jeff and his parents were gone, leaving only a note in Jeff’s writing saying, “They’re taking me away and the car.” We called him later and confirmed they were taking him back to Lawton, and taking away his beloved Trans Am. In the next few days, he moved out of my dorm room and in with John at the apartments on Cache Road near 53rd street.
Night, May 11, 1982: Jeff was arrested after buying a bottle of 7-Up at the convenience store at 53rd and Cache, making a left-hand turn leaving the store. A police officer stopped him and issued a citation, but Jeff refused to sign the ticket, claiming he had not made an illegal left-hand turn onto Cache Road. His father bailed him out of jail and they quarreled.
Morning, May 12, 1982: Jeff bragged to Chip that he was carrying John’s .38 Derringer pistol.
4:45 pm, May 12, 1982: Jeff wrote two suicide notes (one to his girlfriend and one to John), removed his jewelry, placed a towel on the floor in his living room, and shot himself in the right temple with the Derringer. He died about four hours later at Comanche County Memorial Hospital.
That last image is incredible, not just in the fun pose and emotion, but the startling clarity and excellent tones.
I find it amazing that you recorded so much in your journal about other people. It makes my journal seem selfish and one-sided, to be sure.
And the story of Jeff reminded me of my high school class, which seemed to lose a few more students every year. Smack in the middle of GenX (or whatever we’re being called these days), we seemed lethargic, morose, apathetic and cynical, even by my modern cynical standards.
Even after graduation, occasional newspaper items would inform us that yet another one was gone. Wrecks, suicides, and at least one police shootout have culled our numbers greatly. I was afraid to attend the 20-year reunion for fear of learning of more loss.
Wil, don’t think of my journals as anything less that completely self-indulgent. In fact, you have my word: 99.97% of my journal entries shake out into this… “Waaah, waaah, I don’t have a girlfriend so I hate the world. Waaah, waaah.”
Wow! That slice of life and death is very compelling. I’m sorry about Jeff and Debbie. I think we’ve all experienced a friend who committed suicide or one who died too young. Thanks for sharing.
Debbie was my cousin. I was in 6th grade when I got the news. I don’t think my life was ever the same after her death. So in answer to your question…Yes her essence still exists. I am sleeping in a room with her old bedroom furniture as I wait to attend my grandmothers funeral tomorrow. She is in the obituary. Thank you for this glimpse of her life. I am now going on 46.
Thank you for your insights.
I love this entry very much. Though you had great times with your friends your first year seemed very bittersweet. Death seemed to be a theme that I here lately am relating to. My friend Rachel died in a car accident just this september and Connor also in an accident just weeks ago. I know how you must have felt but seeing as you still have made the most put of your life after experiencing grief and pain, even today is very inspiring.
Mac, I would love to be able to say that death has gotten easier to witness after 35 years in news photography, but the opposite is true. Its coldness, potential suddenness, and frequent cruel indifference can be a bitter bill to swallow.
Here’s something I wrote five years ago about the death of one of my best friends…
The death of Ann
Email from Lisa Bradley…
Several of my dear friends knew Debbie much, much better than I. They grew up with her in the Choctaw school system whereas my brother and I spent most of our school years in the Mid-Del district only moving to Choctaw in the second semester of our sophomore year. If you check my Facebook friends, they are Ellen, David and Roy. There were several deaths–all car crashes–in the five years after graduation. Our state has required seat belts to be worn since 1987, and that’s a good law in my opinion. I wish that it had been enacted years earlier.
Either on the day it happened or the next day, Roy called me to tell me. We spent that afternoon driving (me) in the country trying to make sense out of the senselessness of it. Roy was in love with Debbie and had been for years–he was devastated. I remember that we all went to her funeral. There was a lovely photograph of Debbie by her casket. I do not remember her parents but do remember that I didn’t see how they could go on losing their daughter. By that time in my life, already my dad and grandmother had died, and funerals were the last place I wanted to be.
I remember Debbie as being kind (and to the new kid in school, and not many were kind in that school), smart, funny, sweet, and outgoing. I never knew that she had been assaulted on campus, and that she was I find absolutely heinous, and deeply disturbing. I went to OU, and my daughter Meg is a junior there, and as I mom, I worry about her … want her to be safe yet I know the statistics on how dangerous campus life can be. Debbie had such a love of life, and had so much to contribute to others … everything ended far too early for her, and her parents. It is heartbreaking that her time at OU which she had so looked forward to, could bring her such pain. I’m glad that you and Debbie were friends…two good people.