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Continued: A father's plea: Be scared for your kids

  • Article by: AL SICHERMAN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 7, 1999 - 10:00 PM

Even though it is only three weeks since his death, I find that the reality of Joey is beginning to turn sepia. He will be forever 18. And his life will forever stop in 1989. That saddens me so much. It's not just that he won't have a career, maybe get married, have kids, all those things we hope might happen for a promising young person. He won't go out for pizza anymore either, or come into a warm house on a cold night, or imitate Martin Short imitating Katharine Hepburn, or scuff through piles of leaves.

And I won't ever see him again.

Joe had been very involved in high-school journalism. He won a statewide award for feature writing in New Hampshire, and he was news editor of the school paper in Shorewood. He contributed a great deal of that paper's humor edition in May, including a large advertisement that read, in part:

"Attention! All available slightly twisted females: Marry Me! I am a nice guy, a National Merit semifinalist, devastatingly handsome, relatively inexpensive, housebroken, handy with tools, easily entertained, a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, and I think I am extremely funny. In fact, I think I am the funniest guy on earth! . . . Please call immediately. Operators are standing by. (I am in great demand.) . . . Kids -- Please get permission from your parents before calling."

Then they handed the shovel to his stepmother.

In his sermon at David's bar mitzvah last year, the rabbi used a phrase I'd never heard before. It caused me to weep at the time; I wasn't sure why. It's come back to me again and again recently. It isn't consoling, nor even helpful. But it is pretty, and in an odd way it puts events into a much larger perspective:

"All things pass into mystery."

At one point during that last visit, we went to a craft fair where Joe noticed someone selling hammered dulcimers. He had never played one, but he'd played the guitar for quite a few years, which must have helped. He picked up the hammers and began to fool around, and soon he drew a small crowd with something that sounded like sitar music. He asked about the price; they were expensive. I keep finding myself thinking that it would be neat to get him one. I should have done it then.

Then they handed the shovel to his only living grandmother; it took her two tries to get enough dirt on the shovel. Neither of his grandfathers could bring himself to do it. But many of Joe's friends, weeping, took a turn.

I hope someday to be able to write about Joe again; I probably won't be writing a humor column for a while. In the meantime, I want folks to know how I think he would have turned out. He would have been a mensch -- a decent, sincere man, the kind you're proud to know. He already was. Damn drugs.

A year or so ago, the four of us played charades, a vacation tradition. Joe drew "The Sun Also Rises," which he did in one clue. He stretched an imaginary horizon line between his hands then slowly brought his head above it at one end and traversed an arc, grinning from ear to ear. It took us about five seconds to get it. Body bag or no, that's how I want to remember him.

The last thing I wrote about him appeared in the newspaper the morning he died. He told me that he and a friend decided one Saturday afternoon to hitchhike to a rock concert near Milwaukee. He realized, he said, that now that he was away from home, he didn't have to ask anybody if he could go or tell anybody that he was going. He just decided to do it, and he did it. I wrote about what a heady experience that was, to be independent at last.

There's a fair measure of irony in that column. We're told that the rock concert is where he got the LSD, and where he took his first trip.

That trip, I understand, went OK. This one killed him.

Although Joe apparently was with friends most of the evening, the police said he was alone when he went out the window. We'll probably never know exactly what happened in those last minutes, but judging by our own reading of him and by what lots of others have told us, we're sure he wasn't despondent. Many of his friends, including one who spoke at his funeral, said that he was very happy and enjoying his life in Madison.

The likeliest explanation we've heard is that he had the hallucination that makes a person think he can fly. In any case, a little after 1 o'clock Sunday morning, Oct. 15, somebody studying across the courtyard saw a curtain open and then a body fall. Joe didn't cry out.

I have since, many times.

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