Friday, March 02, 2018

Lost in the Tall Grass

 The J.T. Hurley Chronicles

Probably the last photograph taken of J.T. Hurley, 
processed in March 1979, weeks before his death.
Whether it's Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison, Anne Sexton or David Foster Wallace, I am fascinated reading about the final days of people's lives.

One of the first biographies I read was 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: The Life of Jimi Hendrix by David Henderson. As I neared its inevitable conclusion, I pored over the increasingly sketchy accounts of Hendrix's final days and hours with an archaeologist's eye, directed by a strange sense that if his dwindling moments were given enough attention, Hendrix's death could be reverse-engineered, and possibly averted.  Ridiculous, of course, but there is a part of me that still doesn't know that, or at least, refuses to acknowledge it.

And so, revisiting the story of my childhood friend, J.T. Hurley's sudden and tragic death, I am doing it all again, visiting the main branch of the library, scanning through microfiche of our local newspaper, The Windsor Star, searching for the Easter weekend 1979 edition.  I found a grainy image of his obituary and a short article describing the circumstances of his death with all the heart of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

J.T.'s accident occurred on the one day his mother allowed him to go home by himself after school.  His usual after-school babysitter was out of town for Easter weekend.  As it happened, J.T. forgot to get the house key from his mother, and was locked out when he arrived home.  Never one to sit still, he went around the beachside of his home on Lake St. Clair and attempted to climb in through an unlocked window.  He was an agile, athletic boy for whom climbing was easy. 

Except it wasn't.  The window fell as he pulled himself through.  It's maddening to consider how easily it could have just thumped him on the head, leaving him with little more than a goose egg, or falling across his back, leaving him to wriggle his way in, possibly breaking the window with his heels as he swung his legs to propel himself forward... later suffering the harmless ire of his mother.  But the window came down upon the back of his neck.  The window frame was five feet off the ground.  J.T. was four feet, six inches tall. 

The details are as maddening as they are heartbreaking.

J.T. Hurley (left), Tim St. Amand (seated, center),
Matt St. Amand (right)
My mother shared her recollections of the event with me.  She was very close with J.T.'s mom -- whom my brother and I grew up calling "Aunt June" -- and she was the first person Aunt June called from the hospital.  My mother went and recently described to me seeing J.T. lying upon the examination table in the Emergency Room: A boy we were to see on Easter Sunday, whose diapers my mother had changed when he was a baby, aged nine at the time of his death, at the outer edge of adolescence, four and a half feet tall, a "big guy" to me and my brother.  All vital signs lost. 

My mother described how Aunt June, distraught and steadily descending into an inescapable circle of Hell, came and went from the examining room where J.T. lay.  She was waiting for her ex-husband, Michael Hurley, who had driven in from Sarnia to see J.T. on Friday and Saturday. Time passed.  He did not arrive.  According to the doctors, J.T. was probably gone before he was placed in the ambulance at his house.  EMS made every possible effort to bring him back.  As impossible as it still seems, nearly 39 years later, nothing worked.  He had died.

And here is where reality and memory disrupt the even flow of a story that smoothed over in fiction.  All the while Aunt June came and went from the ER examining room where J.T. lay, J.T.'s father, waited for her at her house.  He had arrived some time after the ambulance had left.  Police officers lingered, making notes on the scene, but for some reason said nothing to J.T.'s father about the severity of the accident.  It doesn't make sense now, but apparently, that's what happened.  They knew J.T. had died, but nobody could utter the words outloud.  All they said was that J.T. had an accident, giving no indication as to its seriousness.  In all likelihood, J.T.'s dad thought it was another fall from a tree, or some such accident, and that he'd just wait for his ex-wife to bring J.T. home.

Except, she didn't.

Finally, after literally hours had passed, a neighbor had mercy and told J.T.'s father that his son was at Metropolitan hospital in Windsor and that he should probably go there, too.  Michael Hurley arrived at Met Hospital ER, impatient from waiting, utterly unaware -- until he saw Aunt June and proceeded to freefall like a doomed airliner from the stratosphere of feeling irked and put-out at being kept waiting, to hearing his only child was no longer alive.

At some point, a woman who worked with Aunt June at the Children's Rehabilitation Centre, heard the news and stepped in and took over as needed.  My mother couldn't remember the woman's name, only that she was British.  She was not an especially close friend of Aunt June's, but she knew what to do.  She got Aunt June home, stayed with her, and set down to the business of arranging a funeral that had come decades before its rightful time.

And so the terrible weekend played itself out with a visitation at Windsor Chapel across the street from Met Hospital.  The burial on Easter Monday.  And then school on Tuesday.  I returned to school that day and I am sure most, if not all, of J.T.'s classmates went to school on Tuesday.  I can't help thinking of the newly empty desk in their classroom, sitting their like a bomb crater, containing half-filled notebooks of spelling exercises and math problems, geography maps as yet unmarked or looked at, all of which had dissolved into irrelevancy over the weekend.  The sharpened pencils, the used eraser, the smudged wooden ruler on the ledge just inside the desk -- never to be touched by J.T. again.

Next door to the school was the church where J.T.'s burial service was held.  Beyond the church parking lot was the cemetery where J.T. now lay buried.  The sounds of the school yard could be heard in the cemetery.

For weeks afterward, Aunt June stayed at our house.  My brother and I shared a bedroom.  We began each night in our own beds, but sometime in the middle of the night, I would roll over and find him next to me in my bed.  I remember looking up and seeing the sleeping form of Aunt June in my brother's bed.

And at some point, she returned home and went back to work.  We all tried to get back to normal, but there was no normal with such a gaping crater in the center of our lives. 

A mutual friend recently said to me, pondering J.T.'s death: "Can you imagine the pain?"

I could not.  She could not.  No one can, yet it exists and beyond all comprehension, it appears -- to one degree or another -- to be endurable.

Reverse side of final photo of J.T. Hurley.
When Aunt June died on December 8, 2017, her niece left me some photos of J.T. that Aunt June had close to her at the end.  One of them shows him lying in the middle of his living room floor with a boy whom I do not know.  They are playing with toy cars. 

Across the back of the photo, in faded red script "MAR 1979" was stamped several times by the company that developed the photo.  J.T. died April 12, 1979.  As I examine what must have been the final photograph of him, and look at the microfiche scans from the April 14, 1979 Windsor Star, I somehow feel as though poring over J.T.'s final days, hours, minutes, I might find a glitch in the Matrix, a line of incorrect code, which, when corrected will bring him back.

After one of my countless Internet searches for April 1979, a photo from The Windsor Star came up -- a picture of a crucifix in St. Anne's cemetery, dated April 12, 1979.  J.T. was, in all probability, at school the moment the picture was taken.  I pore over the image and the date in the caption wondering if there is no possible way to transport to that place, to that moment, and to find my way to St. William elementary school in Emeryville...  It's all too ridiculous.  Of course I cannot.  Although I understand the sentiment, I don't understand the futile mental exercise of putting myself through that.

When a story ends far too soon in real life, it's difficult to end it in the retelling.  Whenever I visit J.T. Hurley's grave, I ask myself an uncomfortable question: Am I mourning his passing or am I mourning the passing of my own childhood and youth?  The easy answer is to say "a little of both", but I'm not yet decided.  J.T. is not the only friend I had as a kid.  In fact, he is not the only one whose life came to a premature end.  This is about the time someone would accuse me -- not for the first time -- of "thinking too much".  I don't believe there is such a thing, but at times I do feel like I'm working on an algebra problem that has taken me right off the page, across my desk and into the air.

And midair is where I have to leave this story.  I will not stop thinking about J.T. Hurley, nor will I stop visiting his grave.  After the spring, Aunt June's remains are interred there.  The house of memory at 784 Old Tecumseh Road now belongs to someone else.

I thought I saw an answer to it all in the 1978 movie, Superman, starring Christopher Reeves, when Lois Lane appears to die near the end.  After finding her, a grief-stricken Superman flies out of the earth's atmosphere and begins flying around the world against its spin on its axis.  After a few dozen orbits, the world actually begins to turn backward.  Superman eases it back just enough so that the accident that claims Lois Lane's life doesn't have a chance to occur.  She's OK and impatient to be waiting at the side of the road with car trouble.  If only.

Home Movie Time Travel

 The J.T. Hurley Chronicles

Our life-long family friend, June Hurley, passed away on December 8, 2017.  As her nieces and nephews cleaned out her home, they located a box containing reels of Super 8 home movies.  Aunt June's nephew, Dan, had them digitized and shared them.

Everyone moves like silent film stars in Super 8 movies.  It was no different in Aunt June's home movies, so I watched them in ultra slow motion and was gratified to see numerous glimpses of my family throughout.

The first section of film must have been shot around 1974.  It shows Aunt June's son, J.T., and three other boys throwing a basketball and volleyball at a basketball hoop on Aunt June's carport in late afternoon sunshine.  At one point, J.T. stands, smiles at the camera and then does a crazy dance.

The home movies then flashback to Aunt June's wedding day in 1966.  As the camera frantically pans the reception, my parents come into frame, my father looking like a benevolent mobster with his slicked back, jet-black hair and Alfred Hitchcock suit.  My mother sits across from him, sipping red wine.

The film jumps ahead through the years to approximately 1975/76, showing J.T. and two boys playing in his rowboat at the shoreline.  One of his aunts tries to maintain control of the mutineers who scramble into the rowboat only to turn around and jump back out into the water.

Another jump brings us to a summer afternoon at Aunt June's beach in the same time period.  My family and I are in attendance.  The camera follows J.T. -- who appears to have just come from swimming in the lake -- as he runs effortlessly up the business-end of his slide, only to gracefully turn around and jog back down.  As he does this, I can be seen in the background, playing in the sand.  J.T. goes up the slide a few times.  One of the times, he lingers, standing there, a king surveying his kingdom -- whose plumber's crack peeks over the back of his teeny swim trunks.

There is a jump in the action and the camera is then focused on my mother pulling the bathing suit off my younger brother, as she chats with Aunt June and some other ladies.  My brother is crying for some reason.  My dad bends down to see what's wrong.  Then my dad sweeps sand off my brother's tan-lined behind.  After a moment, I stroll into the shot, wearing my reddish/orange Peche Island tank top.  Aunt June is seated on the stairs of her back porch.  She appears to ask me something, and then she scoops me up into her arms.  The love on display in that simple footage is breathtaking.  I squirm and Aunt June lets me down, but not before kissing me on the back of my head.  The camera stays on us long enough to see me wipe at the kiss from the back of my head, as I walk away.  Then there are shots of my brother and I with J.T. around a bonfire some dude is stoking.

The film footage ends on a surprisingly dramatic image: J.T. stands beyond the roaring bonfire doing karate moves, chopping handfuls of sand.  As he winds up and gives the beach itself an almighty karate chop -- the screen goes black.  The grainy, shaky portal into the past closes.
I don't know how many reels were found, but their combined footage adds up to 11 minutes of irreplaceable personal history.  For me, it's the video equivalent of the Shroud of Turin.  And it plunged me, happily, sadly, profoundly, into my own memories of John Timothy Hurley of Puce, Ontario, circa the 1970s.

"Cameron Avenue Crew" circa 1974:
L-R Johnny Bennett, Tim St. Amand, Matt St. Amand, Glen Cameron
(Painted wooden board replacing broken window shown by arrow)
One my earliest memories of J.T. was when he visited our house.  He and I and my little brother were engaged in our favorite activity: running -- inside, outside, around the backyard, back into the house, outside again.  As we ran out of the house by way of the back door -- a wooden framed door comprised of three or four panes of rectangular glass -- J.T. pushed on the lowest pane of glass and put his hands right through it.  Everything stopped.  The adults mobilized.  I stood stalk still, watching as J.T. held his hands up like a surgeon after scrubbing, looking at them.  His hands were covered with blood.  The blood shocked me, but I was instantly reassured by the look on J.T.'s face, an expression that said: "Ugh, how long is this going to take before we can get back to having fun?"

My dad replaced the broken window with a board and painted it green.  We had that door for many years afterward.  Whenever I looked at that board -- which was everyday, for that was the door through which we came and went -- I thought of J.T..

We visited Aunt June's in December of 1977, when ice from the lake had piled in a mountain along the shore.  Following an afternoon of climbing on the boulders of ice, we retired indoors where, among other pursuits, J.T. taught me how to climb a doorway.  Afterward, J.T. had Aunt June play his favorite Christmas record for us, over and over: "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" from the Snoopy and His Friends album.

It was a great night of education: J.T. also taught my brother and I the age-old variation on "Jingle Bells":
Jingle bells, Batman smells
Robin laid an egg.
Batmobile lost a wheel
And the Joker got away!
We thought it was the funniest thing ever.  Topped only by his recitation of:
Chinese, Japanese
Dirty knees... look at these...
After which point, Aunt June gave him a playful swat.  That was all my brother and I needed.  We repeated the rhyme, too, and received the most loving swats that only Aunt June could deliver, as she laughed in spite of herself.

The thing I remember best about J.T. is that he was a genius of fun.  One night, he and Aunt June visited our home.  Down in our basement rec room, J.T. showed us how to build ramps with our wooden blocks and use them to jump our Fisher Price cars.  Then he put on a TV show that he enjoyed: CHiPs, about California highway motorcycle cops.  It instantly became our favorite TV show.  I watch it to this day whenever the retro channel shows it.

J.T. had asthma.  At one point, his doctor changed the medication he took to ease his symptoms.  There was one side effect: it caused J.T.'s skin to peel, particularly on his hands.  Being a kid, he picked and picked at it, though Aunt June told him not to.  My brother and I must seem like deprived children because, yet again, we thought it was so cool.  Around this time, I remember riding in Aunt June's car one afternoon.  It was winter, the time of year we battled chapped lips, and Suzie Chapstick commercials were everywhere.  As J.T. picked at his hands, Aunt June handed a tube of lip balm back to us that had a 7-Up label on it.  It was the 1970s, so we all took turns using it.  It smelled and tasted just like 7-Up pop.  As I wondered how it would taste if I actually took a bite, I noticed a furtive look on J.T.'s face.  He must have read my mind because he opened his mouth a moment later and showed me he'd bitten off half the stick.  As always, he was the trailblazer and told us that it tasted better on the lips.  The whole stick tasted like bug spray.

As it turned out, alarmed by his peeling skin and their doctor's lack of concern, Aunt June took it upon herself to research the new medication.  The doctor had dismissed her as an over protective mother, but Aunt June showed up to the next appointment with proof -- photocopied from medical journals -- that her concerns were legitimate.  The prescription was changed and J.T.'s skin no longer peeled.

The inimitable Felix the Cat.
No matter when J.T. came to our house, it was an Event.  At the risk of canonizing the dead, or turning him into a superhero, suffice it to say J.T. was wall-to-wall fun.  There was one P.A. day when Aunt June left J.T. at my house while she went to work.  J.T. had his broken leg at the time and he allowed me to examine what his friends had written and drawn on his plaster cast.  I thought it was the coolest thing that the leg of his pants had been cut up to the knee to accommodate the bulkiness of the cast.  After that day, I remember asking my mother if I could cut my pants in a similar manner -- at the time, not realizing the practical purpose it served.

On the P.A. day, J.T. brought with him a big sketch pad and a black marker.  Since I had last seen him, he had taken up cartooning.  A dabbler, myself, I was fascinated looking at the pictures he had drawn.  At one point, I was watching the old cartoon Felix the Cat.  Next thing I knew, J.T. had drawn a very close likeness of Felix the Cat in his sketchbook.  Now, Felix the Cat is not Vitruvian Man, but I have to say, for an eight year old boy, it was pretty damned good.

J.T.'s favorite movie at the time he passed away was Hooper starring Burt Reynolds.  I had seen ads on television for the movie, but it didn't look like anything my parents would take me to see.  I can't say for sure, but I would bet it was J.T.'s dad who took him to see it, as I could not envision Aunt June taking him, either.  J.T. spoke about if often.  Reynolds plays an aging stunt man.  J.T. loved anything related to stunt work.  I have since seen the film and can say unequivocally that it was made for nine year old boys.

On one of our visits to Aunt June's, we stayed into the evening and retired to her front room, which looked onto Lake St. Clair.  In there, she had a small fireplace.  After stoking up a fire, Aunt June unwrapped a waxy bar that looked like a large, white chocolate bar, that was separated into squares.  She broke off a few squares and tossed them into the fire.  A moment later, the flames turned a series of psychedelic colors.  We were mesmerized.  J.T. became instantly fascinated by the stuff.  After our experience with the 7-Up Chapstick, I wondered if he was going to break off a square and eat it.  He did not.  Aunt June broke off some more squares and let each of us toss them into the fire, watching the phantom colors dance across the waxy stuff until it melted into oblivion.

Among my final memories of J.T. Hurley was the day my mother gravely told me he had been caught stealing a bag of chips from a convenience store.  It was kind of a Scared Straight moment, that if J.T. could be ensnared by such temptation, who was safe?  And if J.T. could be caught, who could hope to get away with such a heist?

The next time I saw J.T., I asked him about it.  We spoke in solemn terms.  Yes, he had done it.  Yes, he had been caught (though, he was vague about the details).  Then the Big Question: "What did your Mom do?" I asked.  To put it succinctly, Aunt June was an excellent mother.  She chose her battles, she knew when to be tolerant, and she knew when the hammer should fall.  When it came to stealing a bag of chips, the hammer fell.

"She made me bring the chips back to the store and apologize to the owner," J.T. said.  I winced, imagining the awkwardness of the scene.  Then my mind ran through the calculus of criminality -- so, J.T. hadn't even gotten a chance to eat the chips!  Our parents and teachers had not been lying: Crime didn't pay.

"Then I had to say ten 'Hail Mary's and ten 'Our Father's," J.T. said.  He was then grounded for an unspecified period of time.  If there was one unspoken message that made itself perfectly obvious: J.T.'s life of crime was over before it began.

Somewhere around 1985, my mother took my grandfather -- Ted Hickey, originally of County Kildare, Ireland -- out to see Aunt June.  By that time, Grandpa Ted had had a stroke and he went from being a profoundly active man in his late 70s (at one point, digging up his own sewer when the city came to him and said repairs had to be made to the line serving his house), to a man with a half-paralyzed body whose only mobility was a wheelchair.

If there is one thing about Aunt June that continually struck me all the years I knew her, it was her endlessly optimistic outlook.  Sure, she was a realist, and could certainly call a "spade" a "spade", but she was always so upbeat. It was no different the afternoon Mom and my grandfather visited.  At some point, Aunt June asked Grandpa (the most frugal man who ever lived, who never turned his heat above 50 degrees Farenheit in the winter) what he would do if he won the lottery.  It was a wonderfully preposterous question.  The idea of Grandpa Ted parting with a dollar for a lottery ticket was beyond the realm of reason, but I love that Aunt June asked him.  At the best of times, Grandpa was difficult to pin down and Mom later described how he demured and avoided answering Aunt June's question.  But Aunt June (who had known him for nearly 30 years by then) was having none of it.  She prodded him from every direction -- "Would buy a new car?  Would you move out of the nursing home and hire servants?  Would you travel?"

Seeing his chance to get off the topic, Grandpa said, "Well, I could never travel with this thing," indicating his wheelchair.  To which Aunt June goodnaturedly exploded: "Jesus, Ted, you hire someone to push the fucking thing!"  

It was 38 years before I knew where J.T. was buried.  Once I found out, I took every  opportunity to visit his grave.  By my third or fourth visit, I noticed many of the other graves had fresh flowers by them, indicating they were visited by someone who cared.  I didn't want anyone to think J.T. was forgotten, so I drove into Belle River to get some flowers.  As I looked around the small floral section of a grocery store, I suddenly thought, "What use would a nine year old boy have for flowers?"  So, at home, I found an image of Batman visiting his parents graves, holding a bouquet of flowers.  I know what Batman means to nine year old boys.  I wrote a note to J.T. on the back, saying we loved him and we missed him, and laminated the image.  My five year old son was with me when I mounted it at J.T.'s grave.  Then my son and I visited Aunt June at Seasons Retirement Home down the road.  On subsequent visits, I have been amazed that the laminated image remains standing at J.T.'s grave.  In fact, it proved an excellent marker for finding him in the snow.

In my last conversation with Aunt June, we talked about a play I had written called Sermon on the Ward, in which the actual, historical figure, Jesus Christ, is a resident in a modern hospital psychiatric ward.  Everyone around Jesus -- staff, patients, administration -- all accept that he is the Jesus of the New Testament, though no one is willing to sign the paperwork to that effect. 

Aunt June was a tremendous reader, devouring each gargantuan installment of The Clan of the Cave Bear in mere days, for instance.  She was kind enough to read my work, and was always very supportive.  I appreciated her feedback because she gave an honest opinion.  When she didn't like something, she told me why.  At one point in Sermon on the Ward, Jesus Christ uses profanity.  Aunt June didn't like that.  She felt it was beneath him.  I agreed, but my point in the play was that I don't believe contemporary Christians would recognize Jesus Christ if he returned.  Moreover, since the story of Jesus in the New Testament is hearsay, nobody knows how Jesus Christ actually spoke.  It was a fun and interesting discussion with Aunt June.  One of her many positive attributes was that she was always willing to listen to someone else's opinion.

And now all we have left are 11 minutes of home movies saved from oblivion by Aunt June's nephew, along with some photo albums and our memories.  It's not enough, of course, but they are, for me, much more a source of comfort and joy than of sadness.  For anyone who heard Aunt June's laugh, who could forget it?  For anyone who played with J.T., who could ever forget him?  The boy who was never too cool to get down on the floor and play with a toy car.
Last photograph of J.T. Hurley, taken March 1979, found
among his mother's possessions at the time of her death.