By Kwame P. Dean
Posted September 30, 2022
Being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer didn’t come as a surprise. Years of smoking in the cab of a long -haul truck takes all surprise about something like that away. For Johnny, the diagnosis was somewhere between possible and inevitable. He said cancer let’s you know who your friends really are. “You ask for nothing your whole life, only to have people make excuses about why they don’t call.” But he didn’t worry too much about other people before cancer and he wouldn’t start now.
We are early. The fish is yet to go into the outdoor propane fryer. The anti-keto buffet is covered in the kitchen. Drinks are on ice. Only, most of the guests were missing. I’ve never attended this fish fry before so I was probably the only one there who hadn’t heard Johnny’s life story, yet. Being twenty years younger, I certainly couldn’t dispute anything he would tell me.
Johnny grew up next door to my grandparent’s on the raucous north side of town. It was a lower working class neighborhood that didn’t pretend to be anything other than what it was. There was a bar called “the brick” on the corner, because the building looked like one, and a brothel across the street.
Johnny grew up when there were physical consequences to messing up and he was a “bad” kid. A self-professed bully who didn’t “mind his mother”, he heard the request to “go to the tree” many times. That meant go and bring back the switch you were going to be beaten with. Once, he dragged a fallen tree limb to his mother and got the smile and reprieve he’d hoped for. “These bad-ass kids today could use some old-fashioned discipline”, he said.
He talked about growing up in our semi-segregated hometown in the early 60’s. He had to learn to deal with white people because he grew up not caring for them much. He asserted his dominance over other boys, and got good in sports at a time when winning became more important than race. He joined the army and got out of town as soon as he could.
By that point in the story, a witness showed up to offer occasional commentary. When the witness, one of the kids Johnny bullied, told him, “I hated you growing up,” the feeling was as fresh as the fish for the fryer. 60 plus years didn’t blunt much.
The years had obviously changed Johnny’s views about white people who were at least half of the people at the fish fry. White wives of black men, including his own, his neighbors, and former drinking buddies made the occasion as mixed as the half and half ice cream that awaited us for dessert. He wasn’t just tolerating white folks anymore.
Johnny didn’t regret much except not being there for the black kids who could have used role models growing up in our hometown. While he was away in the 70’s and 80’s, things had changed there as they had for the country. It was easier to move up and out but not so easy to stay together.
Spending years on the road made self-reflection an occupational hazard. With all of the truck stops, restaurants, and hotels, you were your own constant companion. There’s only so much to distract you from examining yourself. He spoke as someone who come through that for the better. He accepted where he was, what he had done, and the consequences. The cancer was just one more thing to deal with and he accepted that too.
We prayed, ate, drank bottled water and caught up with the events of the year before the fish fry culminated with the release of balloons in remembrance of the recently departed. It had been a tough year with the pandemic as there were almost as many balloons for the dead as there were people to hold them.
I wondered who would hold Johnny’s balloon someday as the soloist sang, “Thank you lord”.