Thursday, June 18, 2009

The true story of Jerry's kids

This essay I wrote back in 1998 appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. I'm posting it here for old friends of Linda to see. It also happens to be about the worst thing I ever did in my life.

The first letter comes months before the telethon. The trademark caricature of Jerry Lewis on the envelope zaps me like a stun gun. Jerry's eyelids are lowered, mouth open in hearty guffaw. Inside the note reads, ``Can you repeat your prior gift of $25 today to give my MDA Labor Day Telethon a head start?"

Of course I can. I have no choice.

This is a story of Jerry Lewis, selfish kids in love with the sounds of their own voices, my friend Linda King and a debt that can never be repaid.

As junior high boys in laid-back, mid-'70s Austin, my best friend and I loved Cheech and Chong, Alice Cooper and winning free records off of the radio (mainly for the ego boost at having our names broadcast to the city as "winners").

We owned tape recorders and tried to outdo each other creating and imitating comedy routines : aliens had multiple belly buttons, DJs were whacked out on drugs, heavy smokers cut their habit in half when one lung was removed. At night our mothers often picked up the phone only to hear us presenting these strange bits to each other, phones pressed firmly to tape players.

With the purchase of a cheap suction-cup device that plugged into our recorders, it was a natural progression to prank calls. We dialed numbers at random and offered free gifts from Burger King. "Just go to the counter and ask for their whopper," we snickered.

But our favorites came on Labor Day weekend when Jerry Lewis pulled out a never-ending string of lame entertainers, and a phone number flashed on the screen in the background.

"I'd like to donate 5 cents," my friend said into the phone in a little-kid squeak aided by the fact that his voice had yet to change.

"Well, you can get your mom and dad to bring you to the station and drop it in the fishbowl," the gushing volunteer offered.

"But I want to give it to Jerry Lewis!" my buddy whined.

"He's in Las Vegas," the operator said.

"But he's on my TV!"

That prank eventually got tiresome and, broke and facing the last days of our summer vacation, we took notice of an even better scheme for Jerry and his TV kids: join the Muscular Dystrophy Association's young army of door-to-door collectors and make some quick cash.

We bounced through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and collecting a dollar bill here, a five spot there. Then one smiling man grabbed us by the arm and yanked us into his living room. Out popped his wife with a plate of cookies and a checkbook.

"You boys give us hope in today's young people," the man said.

"Would you like some milk with those cookies?" his wife asked as she tore a $25 check loose and handed it to me.

In 30 minutes we had $40 in cash and at least $60 in personal checks. We dropped the checks in a trash can and went shopping. I purchased the latest from Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Charlie Daniels Band, went home, placed my head between two speakers and rocked. But along with the music came an oozing sense of dread. I had gotten away with a mini-heist and wondered why I didn't feel more guilty.

Eventually I got tired of Southern rock, and the albums were forgotten. I went on with my life. My best pal and I started hanging with different crowds in high school. I went on to college and entered a new world. And I met Linda, the only person to whom I've ever written a fan letter.

Linda was a regular columnist for our college rag at Southwest Texas State University when I first met her on paper. She was funny, and I sent a goofy letter complimenting her writing. I wondered if Linda thought I was weird.

We ran into each other off and on, but the letter was never mentioned. I was only on the fringe of the journalism crowd, and she didn't go to fraternity parties, so we didn't have a lot in common. My most distinct college memory of her was the night she and I were inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists. It was a boring event we attended only to add to our resumes, but Linda made it lively by following the rules of raucous frivolity. She told jokes and drank the guys under the table. This was one newspaper person to whom I could relate. Semesters passed. I was elected president of my fraternity; Linda became newspaper editor, following in the footsteps of some guy named Lyndon Johnson.

More years elapsed, and I was one of the few SWT journalism grads I knew still trying to work in the field. I lived in a small town, worked long hours for a weekly newspaper and drove a Volkswagen Beetle with a terminal oil leak to Austin on weekends to party with friends. I heard Linda was at a mid-size daily and looked her up. Linda gave my name to her boss, a guy whose existence proved positively that alien life forms do exist, but their movements are too slow to be detected by the human eye.

I saw Linda again at my job interview, and she looked the same -- dressed in black, smelling of a recently smoked cigarette. I didn't get hired then, but a few months later I got a call offering me a different job: Linda's. It seemed she'd upset the town's mayor, who had pressured the paper into reassigning her. When she was informed of the lateral move, Linda suggested me as her replacement at city hall. I later learned that such selfless acts were the norm for her.

Linda trained me in the new job and took me under her wing in those first few weeks. During slow times in the newsroom, she and I wrote fake newspaper stories about how our bosses had died in grisly "accidents." When she left to work in medical public relations, Linda bequeathed to me the long computer file of humorous and vile stories (famous quote from that slow-moving editor -- " .").

I heard from Linda only a few times in the next few years. As I prepared to leave the newspaper business and return to our alma mater to pursue fiction writing and a master's degree, Linda called from San Antonio, and she was a little tipsy. We finally talked about that letter I'd written her in college. She told me it had meant a lot to her and that she'd never received another like it. This time I think she wondered if I thought she was weird.

In 1993 we got in touch again. I sent her a copy of a self-published sick humor magazine, Lost Armadillos in Heat, that friends and I put together for fun. She loved it, and I coaxed her into writing a humor column like those she did in college.

The column she wrote for me was about her journey into the personal ads to meet Mr. Right. Linda confessed to little luck on the romantic front. In our old newspaper office she was relentlessly hit on by an infrequent bather with a red afro, Coke-bottle glasses and the personality of Susan Powter. She wasn't impressed with the pickings elsewhere in Texas, either. "Half the yuppies are Bubbas. The others are Debbie Gibson fans who pee in the shower and climb the corporate ladder by telling the grossest Koresh joke at staff meetings," she wrote. Linda never found the perfect guy, but she quit smoking, exercised regularly and looked and felt the best she had in her life.

I had tried for a long time to get another friend who lived near Linda to call her. They were both successful professionals with a passion for sports, music and fun. Linda didn't return his calls. I soon got a letter telling me she had been diagnosed with ALS -- Lou Gehrig's disease -- and asking me to pass the word to my friend. Her letter was full of hope. There is no known cure for Lou Gehrig's disease, but the full effects can take years to manifest themselves. She had time.

I sent a note reminding Linda how many people truly cared about her, but I didn't call because I didn't want her to feel uncomfortable. Or maybe I was worried about being uncomfortable. Probably a little of both. When I finally quit procrastinating and dialed, her phone was disconnected.

The next day I got the call telling me Linda was dead. The disease had progressed quickly; I had missed my chance to say goodbye.

I think about all of this as I guiltily write another $25 check to MDA and seal it in the envelope provided. On the back is a plea from a mother whose two children suffer from a different neuromuscular disease. I finally have begun to understand their pain.

The Japanese have two distinct words for debt. Giri is a debt you can make good -- like paying back $5 you borrowed from a friend. Gimu is the debt that can never be adequately covered. My debt to Jerry Lewis and all the potential Lindas in the world is a raging dose of gimu.

I mail the check and take solace in a photo. Frozen in time is a lively blonde, her arm around a friend at the San Marcos Chilympiad in 1993. Linda smiles and mugs for the camera. She wrote to me of that trip taken with two of her best friends. "We hiked up to Old Main to see the plaque they hung in 1985 with my and LBJ's names on the list of newspaper editors."

May they both rest in peace.

No comments: