It’s kind of hard of to believe it now, but there used to be cows in Santee. Dairy cows. I never saw them, but I know they were there. I know because there used to be an actual dairy really close to my house–maybe a quarter mile away on a gentle hill overlooking the group of cookie-cutter houses I lived in. The dairy was long since closed by the time I paid it any real attention, though—closed and looking as if it had taken a couple of artillery rounds. We would pass by the ruins if we were headed to Prospect Avenue School to play basketball, or sometimes just a few rounds of H-O-R-S-E if we were lazy, or there weren’t enough guys for a game.
But it’s really different now.
If you’re driving down Prospect Avenue in Santee toward Cuyamaca today, when you make a right at Double M, it proceeds straight for a couple hundred yards, and then continues up a gentle hill into a large development of pretty nice 3 and 4 bedroom houses.
Back when I was a teenager, in the early-mid eighties, it was completely different. Double M ended where the hill began. There was a white wooden fence marking the end of the road, with two yellow metal signs proclaiming “road ends.”
You could easily get around the fence, though. Right on the other side was a dirt path cutting through the field of weeds. The path proceeded another couple hundred yards to an enormous pepper tree that shaded a large flat dirt area in front of the ruins. Lots of kids would hang out under the tree–partying, getting high, and occasionally sleeping there. Some luckier souls would also sometimes drag their sleeping bags inside the entryway for a different sort of fun (though neither my friends nor I were included in either of these groups). On the crumbling wall above the door, you could still see the name in faded blue, italicized cursive.
“Rocky Home Dairy.”
Through the door was a large, empty room. There was no roof left, and only three walls, with the two perpendicular to the facade tapering down to rubble about 18 inches high at the back end. Behind that, there was a large slab of cement, littered with smaller chunks of concrete, trash, and weeds growing out of cracks in the cement. Trash of all sorts was scattered everywhere. Then there were the feed troughs, also choked and overgrown with weeds. It was hard to imagine there had ever been a bunch of cows where hundreds of tract homes were little more than a stone’s throw away.
The path through the weeds continued behind the feed troughs, and eventually led to the back end of another old and narrow street, with several older but still-in-decent-condition houses on either side of the street, along with my friend Ben’s house. Another friend, David (now JD) also lived nearby, as did the young man (Bob Byrd) who’d been the leader of the church youth group I’d attended for a while with Ravi and his brother.
Ben lived about a quarter mile from the elementary school we’d all attended, and it was on the upper playground we’d play basketball or whatever we had the energy for, usually several times a week. Every now and again, we’d switch to football or sometimes just “smear the queer,” if we didn’t feel up to the challenge of running plays. That was usually my favorite game—it was little more than throwing the ball into the air and tackling the crap out of whoever caught it. No skill was required.
As for football, that was also tackle, when we played it. Two-hand touch was for pussies.
Sometimes we would also take some sheets of fiberglass or aluminum siding and slide down the fairly steep incline behind the dairy. When the tall grass and weeds dried out, all you had to do was bend them down, and you could really get some speed up going down that thing. We also liked to crash our bikes on purpose and see who could get the best scabs.
When I was small—had to have been right around kindergarten—people used to ride their motorcycles or dune buggies around the area. There were a few good trails that weren’t too rough. I have this picture I love of my dad and two of my sisters in his dune buggy—he has this sort of half-grin on his face, and my sisters are trying to keep from getting choked by their hair.
And I digress once again. Like with most things you do before you hit puberty, that sort of fun lost its charm pretty quickly, and we began to find other things to do.
By the time Christmas vacation in 1985 rolled around, we were pretty much done with sliding down the hill. We played basketball most of the time, when we weren’t in my friend R’s room listening to music and playing Atari. When we did play ball, we usually played two-on-two, but every now and then we’d get a pickup game going, or just take turns shooting from the key.
We also had epic BS sessions, where we took turns talking about the sort of things only teenage boys talk about with a sense of profundity; which girls were “hot” and had “rad” bodies, which teachers sucked the most at Grossmont, and which Star Wars movie was best (for the record, it’s The Empire Strikes Back—ask anyone).
That break was weird.
Normally, shortly before Christmas vacation, you’d have a week of final exams, then you could go through the holiday without worrying about anything, and start a new semester when you got back. That year, break started just a couple days before Christmas. We had two weeks off, then a little more than a week of class, then finals the last week of January. None of us were really comfortable with it.
And it was doubly strange because my friend Ben would be graduating early, at the end of the semester. He was a little older than me and Ravi and a few other folks that hung out at 19, and decided that he would get done a semester early, and join the Marine Corps. No one could believe it.
He wasn’t my best friend, but he was a really good guy, and had been there for me even if he didn’t necessarily mean to be. His absence would also create a “bass hole” in our Men’s Chorus, which I was a little apprehensive about trying to fill. I was no singer, and I knew it.
Plus, I told him, the haircuts would be brutal.
Christmas break went by really fast, as things like that always seem to, and soon it was time to try and get back into a school mindset before finals. We tried to enjoy the remaining time with all of us together at school, but with finals looming, it was difficult.
Monday, January 27th came along, and we each had two tests a day for three days. Could’ve been worse, I suppose–just two exams and then onto the bus to go home.
On the break between classes that Monday, the three of us met on the soccer field behind the racquetball courts (the racquetball courts were also famous for partying, but that’s a story for another time). Ravi had gotten this sort of demented frisbee thing for Christmas called an aerobie, and we wanted to throw it around. What it was, was this slightly weighted rubber ring, a little larger than a regular frisbee, and it was supposed to go for miles when you threw it. Sort of a bastard cousin of the boomerang, I guess. We’d only tested it in the field next to Ravi and Paavo’s house, and it had almost decapitated a kid running by. The soccer field at Grossmont seemed like a much better choice.
We threw the ring around the soccer field for a little bit, one guy on each corner of a large triangle, and it flew as advertised. It seemed like the damn thing would have gone down the hill to Mission Gorge if we threw it hard enough. We stood around talking trash to each other for a few minutes after we were done, and then it was back to finals. I remember leaving my math final and thinking I wouldn’t have done well with 4 hours to take the test.
My classes Tuesday the 28th were even worse, and about halfway through the final in my first class, someone wheeled a television into my class and turned it on. The plan was to take a short break, and watch the space shuttle Challenger launch. Instead, we watched it explode and disintegrate shortly after takeoff.
They wheeled in a TV during the next final as well. The disaster was all anyone could talk about. The brothers and I didn’t see Ben on the bus ride home that day, but it wasn’t that unusual. He never liked the bus much, and often didn’t have a bus token, either. I don’t know how he got home some days, but he always did.
I can’t remember what exactly I did that night, but I know I didn’t study for the next day’s round of tests. I remember falling asleep listening to music, though.
The next day, I woke up when I heard the “bloop” of a police car’s siren–what I always thought of as the “pull over” noise.
I crawled out of bed and went over to the window, looking out at the small piece of Double M I could see from my bedroom. The car had already gone by, and I couldn’t see anything from my window, so I wrapped my bedspread around my shoulders, and went out into the front yard. I could see the Sheriff’s car parked at the end of Double M, next to another car. An ambulance was backed up to the white fence with the doors open, and there was a small group of people milling around watching the action.
There were a few people standing around looking on, buy nobody knew anything for sure. I did hear from a few people that a couple of women had found a body lying in front of the dairy, in the large flat spot under the pepper tree. There was some speculation that it may have been a drug thing, but all we could do was wait to see what the news would bring.
It was all we could talk about at the bus stop, and on the way to school, and the fact that the brothers and I lived close by where the body was found made us persons of no small interest. For a little while, I felt like a celebrity. Who had the person been? Was it a drug deal gone bad? A murder? What was it? No one had any idea.
The tests went quickly that day, and no one saw Ben at all. The semester was over. We figured that he must have simply figured, screw the tests–I’m done. Or maybe he was so busy trying to cram that he didn’t have time to make an appearance on the soccer field, or anywhere else. All I know is that I didn’t see him.
We hadn’t planned on playing ball that day, but our curiosity got the best of us, and it was only a few minutes after we got home that the brothers were back at my house with a basketball and a boombox, ready to play. Ravi slipped a cassette of Yngwie Malmsteen’s Marching Out into the stereo, and we walked up Double M to the hill with the strains of Soldier Without Faith ringing loudly in our ears.
We got to the little flat spot in front of the dairy, and were amazed to see the blood was still there, and due to the hardness of the ground, hardly any had soaked in. It was just gathered in a large, teardrop shaped puddle, with one side tapering to a small narrow stream that ran down the plateau into the grass at its base. I’d never seen anything like it, and was amazed at how bright red it was. I was also fairly surprised they hadn’t cleaned it up at all. No one had even so much as scattered dirt across the top. The guy’s life was just lying there spilled out, for all to see. There was just so much blood. We tried to guess what had happened once again, creating grander and grander scenarios, each trying to top the one before. I remember Ravi’s brother nearly dropping the basketball in the slowly drying puddle.
Due to the weird timing on the winter break, and the rotten schedule for finals, we didn’t get any further time off, and school started again the very next day. We had yet to hear from Ben, but had figured that he would be sleeping in, and trying to prepare himself for wearing jackboots, and calling everyone “sir.”
When the bus pulled up and dropped us off across the street from my house that day, I saw a small, scrawny figure hanging around in front of my house. He was a little guy that was one of our group’s peripheral friends, but he lived closer to Ben than any of us. When I stepped off the bus, the first thing I saw was that he’d been crying.
And I knew.
It had happened something like this, though nobody could say with any degree of certainty: The night of the 28th, Ben left with his guitar case, as he also quite frequently did. He probably said his usual goodbyes to his family, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But he didn’t go to his band’s practice space that evening–he went to the dairy, and the flat space under the pepper tree.
Some short time after that, someone went into his room for something and found that his bass was still there, and also came across his suicide note.
The next morning, a couple women out walking had found the body of a young man wearing jeans and a polo shirt. He was lying under the pepper tree next to a guitar case and was quite obviously dead, with a large amount of blood around his head and a small caliber rifle lying by his side. It took almost a day to identify the body as Ben, and for the word to get back to people.
I don’t remember how it happened, but one of the brothers got hold of the note. It was the most heart-breaking thing I ever read. Ben was very sorry he had to do it, he said, but it had to happen. He was convinced he had a mental illness of some sort (the illness went unnamed and was not described at all). He thanked a bunch of people by name for being his friends. He thanked his band and his family. And he said goodbye and asked that his body be cremated. And the really terrible thing is that somehow a copy of the note got out, and made the rounds of the school. I always suspected Mikey, but he would never admit to it, and I never found out any different.
I remember the day after we found out, we were getting on the school bus, and Mikey asked the bus driver if she remembered the kid that never had a bus token.
She allowed that she did. And Mikey told her she wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore, because that kid had blown his head off. I can still hear him saying it and see the shock on her face more than 25 years later.
At the funeral, the guys from his band laid guitar picks in his coffin. You couldn’t tell he’d shot himself–he looked waxen, but asleep. His blond hair was neatly arranged (which never happened in real life).
No more bass riffs.
No more missing bus tokens.
He was just gone.
There were tons of kids there from school, most of whom he didn’t know, and who didn’t know him. Yet there they were. Someone told me years later that any time someone that young goes in such a tragic way, it makes everyone else feel their mortality as well. It wasn’t that way for me—I just alternated between feeling numb and pissed.
School was weird for a while after that, too. Kids—especially girls—were crying all over the place. Like they’d lost someone they were close to. One girl even wrote a poem about him that appeared in the Class of 1986 yearbook.
It was a huge load of crap, or it felt that way at the time. There were grief counselors available. Teachers were more sensitive, and asked how everyone was doing. Most of the students were doing great, I think.
Yet something horrible had happened, and it did give people lots to talk about. I didn’t really want any part of those kind of discussions, though, and I did my best to stay out of them.
It wasn’t long after that the gang started to slowly drift apart. We tried not to, but the brothers and I never fully got our mojo back.
Yet still, some things were good.
A couple days after the wake, we began to learn a new song in Men’s Chorus–an old negro spiritual called “ain’t got time to die.” We were a room full of white boys, and the words felt and probably sounded strange coming from our throats. But when Mr Boucher played the first few notes on the piano and we began to lift our voices, it was like I could hear Ben’s bass voice next to mine. I remember losing the song, then, and breaking down. I was the first, but many of the guys soon followed suit soon thereafter.
We didn’t talk about it much after that, but I remember Mr B playing the piece through, and just letting us grieve.
After that, I began to learn about a new kind of guilt. At the time, I thought of it as absolutely true. While I may not have pulled the trigger of the rifle, I did nothing to stop Ben. It seemed that I should have known something. I should have had some kind of sense of what would happen (my brother made that very clear. I was Ben’s friend, wasn’t I?). Some kind of friend “radar” should have been triggered, as it had been when the gang came to my house after my dad died.
But it wasn’t. And Ben’s blood had soaked into the dirt in front of the dairy.
Still, even carrying that, I had to finish school. I had to graduate. And as my final semester progressed, my mom began getting sicker, too, and I had to help with that. I had just gotten a job I liked a lot, but I had to quit so I could “be there.” It was a busy year, and I think any more catharsis would have exploded either my head or my heart like a melon.
But, boys being boys, I felt like I had to at least keep up the pretext of being strong. I don’t know if my friends felt it, but I did. Plus, it didn’t seem right to be moping around when my mom was dealing with her stuff.
It took a while, but by the end of the semester, we mostly had our lives back. Or at least we acted that way. To me, that didn’t really feel right, but it was what it was.
Sometimes I would look up toward the hill and the dairy from the bus stop, but I never went up there again. As far as I know, none of us did. We never played basketball again after that, or at least I didn’t. Nor did we talk about it, either, now that I think of it. I wish I’d known then what I know now about keeping stuff inside.
I went to my old junior high school shortly before I moved to Yuma, and I stood in the key under the hoop closest to the fence, on the court we’d always used. It was pretty much the same, although the netless and battered hoops were now painted orange and there were lineup numbers nearly up to the back of the key. But it occurred to me then that I was not the same at all. I was alive. I’d changed. And where once there had been the possibility to go the same route as Ben, there was now Jesus in place of that darkness (and in him there is no darkness at all).
It took me most of my life to realize that so many of the things that had happened in my life I had absolutely the wrong idea about, as far as my being responsible for them. I hadn’t totally blamed myself for Ben dying, but I had always felt like I could have done more, and like I’d been a lousy friend.
But even if that was true, the plain truth was that I wasn’t privy to the inner workings of Ben’s mind–and I had no idea about how deep his darkness really went. I had no way of knowing how long he was thinking about doing what he did. And when he decided to do it, I had no way to stop him once he’d made up his mind. He left his house at night, and not even his parents knew where he was going or what was on his mind.
Most of this God has helped me to realize over a very long period, but some of it occurs to me even now, as I sit here reading this over with my wife sleeping behind me. The damage caused by the crap I’d believed about my part in Ben’s death was something I didn’t even think about healing for a very long time, well into my adulthood. It never would have happened without Jesus, and those wounds would have colored the rest of my life. And the sad truth about all of it is that God would have comforted Ben in his darkness, had he but asked.
And God will not force himself on anyone, not even someone in that situation. Our free will to choose Him is absolute.
But I didn’t think about any of that the afternoon I went to the school. I just stood under that rusty orange hoop, and I thought about all games played on that court. I thought about my friends ministering to me after my dad died, whether they meant to or not. I thought about Ben.
I thought of his shaggy blonde hair, and his large, spider-like fingers tearing through bass lines. I thought about how I had always tried to follow his voice in chorus, because of how well he knew his parts. I thought about how nice he was to my mom when he came to my house.
Ravi and Paavo are doing well these days, though they have both seen dark times as well. Ravi is now playing music with a really good, genre defying band up in Portland, OR. Paavo is back in San Diego, and has completely changed his life. He plays worship music, and has a wonderful family. God is real to him again, and I hope we can spend some time together some day.
About a year or so ago, thanks to the wonder of social networking, I was able to visit with Ravi and Paavo and their mother around Christmas time. When I hugged Ravi’s mom I broke a little inside, and the first thing I thought of was my own mother. That day was so special to me, because my wife and kids got to meet the only people besides my family that had known me since I was six. It was a wonderful hour.
And to shamelessly paraphrase from a Stephen King story–I never had any friends later in life like the ones I had when I was a kid. Jesus, does anyone?