Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I say, "Hey man, I haven't seen you in awhile."

I'm not really sure when I first met Wayne Erickson. My earliest memory of him was one Thursday afternoon at the local comic book shop. It was new comics day and we were browsing through the recent arrivals. I know we exchanged some idle chatter about whatever was new on the shelves that week, but it was nothing more than a friendly exchange between two people with a common interest. I'd see him at the shop from time to time, but we never clicked.

It wasn't until years later, 1995 to be exact, that we actually met each other and became friends. I had taken a job at a local Kroger grocery store. I was part of the glamourous bunch of misfits that stocked the shelves while the rest of the world slept. Wayne was a manager of frozen foods at that particular Kroger.

Wayne and I didn't hit it off right away. I recognized him from the comic store, but that didn't really jumpstart any sort of relationship other than a couple of guys who worked at the same place. Wayne was friends with some of the guys who had been there for awhile and a couple of them were friends of mine as well. Slowly, over lunch breaks and after work meals at Denny's, Wayne and I got to know each other. What really pushed us together were a few mornings where he and I were the only ones to go to breakfast and so we were forced to have one-on-one conversations.

Denny's provided many fond memories of Wayne for me. And not just me. The rest of our little clique that held court at some point or another included Clay, Dave, Junior, and Jeremy (forgive me, Randy, if I left you out... I think you joined breakfast after Wayne had left). Those were some wild breakfasts. The conversations were always fascinating and entertaining, many times they were just pure farce. The "argument" he and I had over a weedwhacker has become legendary, apparently. I don't remember the details exactly, but I was arguing that a weedwhacker couldn't be classified as a tool (I don't know how I came to that conclusion). The argument, while never leaving the realm of "all in good fun" absurdity, did come dangerously close to becoming a yelling match. It was bad enough that other patrons began listening in and finally the manager suggested we should leave.

Once, Wayne spent 20 minutes explaining to me his theory on how to make something invisible. It was very detailed and thorough and involved numerous sketches on napkins and placemats. At the end of this presentation, he paused and then said, "But then I realized it just wouldn't work." The whole thing was just hysterical (although you really had to be there). His deadpan one-liner at the end of this science lesson was hilarious. And that's how a lot of Wayne's humor was. He didn't have to hold up a bright yellow sign that said, "Here comes the funny!" He'd just hit you with some comment out of nowhere, very calmly, and then you'd lose it.

Of course, there was also Wayne being absolutely ridiculous. A running gag he started involved using his hand like a skittish, deranged sock puppet that proudly declared, "I am the sock puppet Satan! First.... you must eat of the potted meat... then.... you must drink of the sauerkraut fountain!" It was hilarious. We all would crack up... even Wayne.

I should probably explain that last part. At one point, Wayne went through a phase of wanting to try some crazy product he had never tried before. Every morning after work, he'd buy some weird food product and give it a shot. I think pickled pigs feet were in there as well as a can of potted meat. But it was the sauerkraut juice that really did him in. One morning outside the store while Dave and I were probably burning out our retinas trying to watch the sun rise, Wayne brought out a can of sauerkraut juice. I related the incident in a column I did for the TCU Daily Skiff:

"Speaking of strange tastes, did you know you can buy sauerkraut juice ready to drink in a can? I can only guess it is ready to drink because on the can, there is a picture of a sea green liquid that I assume is sauerkraut juice, in a nice looking glass. This says to me, 'Please, drink me!'

I have a friend, let's call him 'Wayne,' who once tried sauerkraut juice. He took a swig from the can, grimaced, and said, 'How can this be a marketable product?!!?' He then surprised me by downing the rest of the can all at once. Wayne then proceeded to gag, spit, curse and almost vomit. It took a long time for that taste to go away. When I later asked him why he proceeded to consume a large quantity of something he knew was akin to poison, he simply replied, 'I didn't want to waste it.'"

That was Wayne. It was pretty clear he experienced the world in his own unique way.

Eventually, Wayne and I discovered a mutual interest in wanting to make music. He played guitar, I played bass (badly) and sang (again... badly). We goofed around a few times. He played one of his originals (technically unnamed, but usually referred to as "Too Hot to Fish") and we attempted to play "Iron Man." Then we discovered another Kroger employee, Scott, who played drums and the three of us had a jam session. We thought we might be able to get something going, but it didn't really go anywhere.

But what did go somewhere was when we added my pal Ray (keyboards) and Wayne's buddy (and my former comic book supplier) Tom (horns). We worked pretty well together. Since we had no drummer, Tom, Ray, and I took turns on percussion. There was a lot of rotating in that band. Tom and I split vocals and Wayne occasionally played bass. We called ourselves "chairface" which was a) a reference to a comic book/cartoon character from the world of "The Tick" and b) a pretty stupid sexual innuedo (hence our battle cry, "Sit on it, baby!").

It was mostly fun. We played three gigs (all of them house parties, two them at my house) and did about half covers, half originals. Wayne came up with a lot of the material. Although it would be way out of line to call them classics, Wayne wrote the music and lyrics for a few of the songs including "Billy" and "...On the Highway," as well as the initial tune for "Test Page," the song where the words are directly taken from an HP laserjet printer test page. I'm not kidding.

Wayne was a really good guitarist. I don't think he believed that, but he was. And he was fun to work with and far more talented and creative than he gave himself credit for.

Wayne had some severe problems with stage fright. To get around this, he developed the onstage persona of "Anti-Social Fire Hazard." ASFH was a loud, crude creature whose primary concerns were chasing his hair, playing guitar, and writing songs for his cat. Think of a cartoonish Ozzy Osbourne. We thought the character was great and it gave Wayne a mask to hide behind allowing him to perform. Inevitably, his war cry of "Wicked Crispy!" (taken from a Long John Silver's commercial) would be heard at some point in the evening.

ASFH wasn't his only character. There was another one that would appear at times to baffle and confuse us. It was a mysterious German who was determined to prevent us from getting to an unknown assortment of chocolate confections. This one was great and so I used him in a story once. It should be noted that nearly this entire passage was inspired by Wayne. He once told me a long and confusing tale about a Military School in Skagawa, Iowa where the students guarded the Great Whale Tree. You'll just have to read the passage:

*Note: Lewis & Larry the Cow are searching for Christmas which has mysteriously disappeared. I could explain it further, but you still wouldn't understand*

"You heard me... the Great Whale Tree of Skagawa, Iowa. Seems that Christmas likes to go there every year for the annual Whale Ripening festival." explained Larry.

"Well that doesn't make any sense," said Lewis as he slowly spun around on one foot while scratching a framed photo of Peter Graves. "I mean, what the hell is a whale tree? Whales come from the ocean and certain convience stores in the south... not from trees."

"Lewis, this tree is what makes new breeds of whales. Every year the Great Whale Tree lets forth it's bountiful harvest of whales which are then trucked out to the ocean."

"Whales do not grow on trees... they are not vegetation... SHEEP are vegetation, not whales," said Mr. Know-It-All Lewis.

"Sheep are not vegetation Lewis... we've been over this before. Sheep are animals that... Oh for crying out loud! Why am I having this stupid argument with you anyway! C'mon!"

Larry grabbed Lewis by the arm and flung him into the passenger seat of Larry's Magnudarian Roadster, which convienently had been parked in Lewis' living room. He started the engine and drove off, only stopping by the kitchen on the way out for a six pack of beer and a salt lick.

And so our heroes trekked across countless deserts (3 of them) and innumerable mountain ranges (12) and an endless string of coffee shops (they really are endless... damn coffee shops) until they reach the outskirts of the meteor crater where Skagawa was located. Carefully, so as not to disturb the finely tuned road gravel, they drove into downtown Skagawa which consisted of a restaurant and a Military school.

"... and over there is the restaurant and the Military School," explained Larry as he began and ended his detailed tour of scenic Skagawa.

*A note to the readers: there weren't no Christmas 'round Skagawa either*

"USUALLY," continued Larry, in large enough print that the author realized Larry wasn't happy about being interrupted, "this place is packed with people. Strange. The people to land ratio is genreally 16 people square foot. I wonder where everybody is." Larry parked the car next to the restaurant and the two intrepid detectives removed themselves from their vehicle. They mosied over to the Great Whale Tree where they saw a young man standing motionless near, but not directly under the tree.

"Lewis, that's one of the military students. They keep watch over the tree so that nobody steals it and uses it for evil." Larry walked up to the guard and extended a hoof in greeting. "Hi! I'm Larry and this is Lewis."

"Hi... my name is 'Wayne'" responded the guard.

Hello, 'Wayne'," said Lewis, "Have you seen Christmas? It doesn't seem to have shown up this year."

"Wayne" simply stared at them and then began chasing his hair. "Damn germans!" he exclaimed suddenly, "Damn Germans and their chocolate! Der Chocolate is Verboten!" At this point, "Wayne" managed to catch his hair and began chewing it vigorously, all the time staring at Lewis.

"Um, yes, I see... but we're looking for Christmas and any help you co-"

"DER CHOCOLATE IS VERBOTEN!!!!!!!!" yelled "Wayne".

Larry grabbed Lewis by the arm and dragged him back to the car as he yelled to "Wayne", "Thanks! We appreciate your help!"

Larry once again flung Lewis into the Roadster and then immersed himself in the driver's seat.

"Larry, that guy was nuts! He had no useful information! We've wasted our time and we have no further information on the whereabouts of Christmas!" moistened Lewis.

"On the contrary," designated Larry, "He gave us a very big clue. Obviously, Christmas is involved with the German's somehow. That also explains where all the people went and why he was a raving loony. The German's have been here and have enslaved everyone by getting them addicted to their fine chocolates! Then, with no one left to resist, the Germans will simply take over the world and force everyone to watch David Hasselhoff television programs!"

"Egads," exclaimed a most horrified Lewis, "a fate worse than death! Can thier chocolate be that good?"

"Oh yes... absolutely divine. No finer chocolate has ever been produced. But, it's highly addictive and people will do nearly anything to get it. I can only hope that they don't intend on using Christmas as their means of distributing their fiendish sweets to the world. No one will be safe... every stocking will be filled with doom!"

You may have noticed that Wayne is referred to here as "Wayne," just like in the earlier newspaper column. That was a running gag for Ray and me. When I originally wrote the newpaper piece, I thought about changing his name to protect his identity. Then it occured to me that nobody knew him at TCU anyway and by adding the quotes, they'd think his name wasn't actually Wayne anyway. So, "Wayne" kind of became a separate character altogether.

One of my favorite pasttimes with Wayne was hanging out at Bentley's, drinking Dry Blackthorn Cider. He introduced me to the cider and I was hooked. We'd polish off a few big bottles in an evening and have more wild conversations. Those really were good times. Conversations with Wayne were always interesting. You never knew where they'd end up.

Sometimes, it was just going out and acting silly, though. One Halloween, Wayne, Ray and I went wandering around the streets in Wayne's mustang. At one point, we came upon a cat in a church parking lot. For no reason, Wayne ordered, "John, go get the cat." So I got out and chased the cat for a couple of minutes. I didn't catch it. So I got back in the car and we left. Why did we do that? I don't know... it was just the oddball things that we found amusing.

I'm not sure when things changed. The band kind of split up and Wayne and I didn't see each other much anymore. Wayne wasn't a "talking on the phone" kind of guy and our schedules made it difficult to hang out as much anymore. There would be long stretches where we didn't see each other.

The last time I saw Wayne, Ray and I had dropped by his apartment for something. I don't remember what it was, but the visit didn't last very long and Wayne didn't seem all that interested in chatting. We concluded our business and that was it.

The last time I spoke to Wayne was about 3 years ago when the remains of our old band (Tom had kept it going) were about to play their first gig. I called Wayne a few days before to see if he'd like to go. He was pretty uninterested in not only the concert but the phone call as well. It didn't last long and I understood that he wasn't interested in continuing our relationship at that point.

Still, despite the way he had cut himself off from everything, I held out hope that perhaps he would come around and we could be friends again. Every now and then I'd check to see if I still had his number, but I never called it. His last email address that I had no longer worked. I didn't contact him.

One of the many things on my "To Do" list is to take all of our old band tapes and condense them, clean them up, and put them on CD. I'd always held out a hope that maybe if I got that done and I sent him a copy, that he might take an interest in it and try and re-establish contact. I never did get that done.

It was rare that a week would go by that I didn't think of Wayne. Something would always occur that would make me think of him. The sauerkraut juice story has been a particular favorite of mine and I've told it often over the years.

I knew that Wayne had always been very private and he rarely let people get too close. I knew of an ex-girlfriend (before we had met) that he wasn't entirely over. His mother was sick, and he wasn't handling it well. But he never really talked about anything. He kept those wounded emotions inside and never allowed anyone else to help him ease those burdens.

I guess when his mother passed away, that's when the walls broke down and all that pent up sadness created a black hole that just sucked the last of the life out of him. He became a virtual hermit. He had little contact with anybody. These last few years are a mystery.

Still, I never thought Wayne would do anything rash. I figured he could get through anything.

So, Tuesday morning, I was absolutely shocked when I saw his obituary in the paper. I saw the picture first, then the name, and all I could do was stare. It wasn't real. It couldn't have been. Not Wayne. No way.

But it was. Wayne had apparently decided it was time to move on. July 10, 2006, at the age of 35, Wayne left his life of solitude.

I've been through the usual emotional roller coaster. I've cried, I've remembered all the good times and laughed, I've expressed some anger towards him for doing this. But for awhile, I couldn't really understand why I was so upset. I mean, I hadn't seen the guy in 6... 7 years... sure, we had been friends, but time had passed and we knew nothing about each other's recent lives.

But I know why. I rarely meet people that I truly look up to and respect... people that I find to be truly unique individuals with a keen mind and a sharp wit. Wayne was one of those people. And it hurts like hell that the hope I had of bringing him back into my life is forever crushed.

I don't know how he felt about me, but I like to think that at least at one time, he considered me a close friend. I don't know if he ever thought me these last few years and smiled, but I've definitely thought of him and smiled, sometimes even laughed, at the things we did and said.

The guilt and anger isn't strong in my head. I know there probably wasn't anything I could do, but dammit, maybe I should have tried a little harder. A phone call every few months... knock on his door... just to let him know SOMEBODY cared about him. And that's just it... there were a lot of us who cared. Even though we couldn't be a part of his daily life, we cared. And all he had to do was just to ask any of us for help or even just an ear to talk to and we would have been there for him. If he had needed somebody right then and there, we would have dropped what we were doing and gone to help.

I can understand his hurting. I can understand depression. It's not easy. And sometimes, you just think there isn't any way out. Maybe there wasn't a way out for Wayne. I don't know. But I just hope that he knows now, if he didn't then, that there are still people here who care about him and miss him terribly.

Maybe it's just selfish that I (and others) want him around still. Maybe it's selfish to think that our desire to have him here should outweigh his desire to not be here. I don't care. That's how I feel.

I don't who will read this, or if anybody actually gets this far. I'm writing this primarily for me... for a way to say what I'm feeling right now. I need to say these things to help me get through my personal grief. But I'm also writing this because I want the world to know about my friend Wayne. I don't want him to be another statistic. There needs to be a monument to Wayne so he isn't forgotten. He may have wanted to forget the world, but I'm not going to let the world forget him.

I still intend on putting that CD together, but now it has a whole new meaning. It's for his friends who want a piece of him to remember and for his family who never got to hear that side of him.

Two days from now (Friday, July 21st), I'm going to go to Bentley's and have a bottle of Dry Blackthorn and remember one of my favorite people. I'm hoping some of Wayne's other friends and family will join me for this impromptu wake. And sometime in the future, we'll have a more formally planned gathering for those who cannot make it on Friday.

I want to rap this up by explaining the title of this entry. One of the songs Wayne wrote was titled "Billy." It was a more or less fictional song about a friend that was gone and the memories of that friend. The chorus was:

Little Song about my friend Billy/He's a good ol' boy, trying to make it in the city/When I knocked on his door, he always had a smile/I say "Hey man, I haven't seen you in a while.

The past few years have caused this song to have a personal meaning for me. It's about Wayne. The words may not perfectly describe him, but the sentiment was perfect. I hadn't seen Wayne in years, but I still thought about him.

And I'll continue to think about him...

Wayne Anthony Erickson


Safe journey, my friend...

No comments: