Like good little Americans, the wars we fought as little boys were fought over land we didn’t need. One such piece of real estate was a greenhouse tucked away in a friend’s backyard. It had long-since been unused, and the windows were mostly gone because we made it part of our day to throw rocks at things that could potentially make a crashing noise. We didn’t really have an enemy – there was no real reason for hard feelings with anyone – but the bravado of adolescence says you have to juxtapose yourself against another. We didn’t know why. And in those opportunities to fight we would be so confused by the stand-off that we would only find stalemate.
Such was my friendship with Jason Cairns. To us, he was mythical. He was easily the biggest guy we knew, and so we conjured with him an imaginary war. Why we thought he wanted any claim to that greenhouse makes no sense now, but at the time it was perfectly reasonable, because we were boys, and why wouldn’t he have wanted it? The war never came to fruition.
I was just a little guy with a big mouth, from which came big, stupid things – not cruel things, mind you, just stupid. Jason was just big – really big. I can’t stress that enough. He came off sometimes as ferocious and maniacal, an ever-present mischievous in his grin – with plenty of opportunities to snap me in half under the sole witness of those that actually wanted to hurt me. But, he never did. Even once, held at the shoulders between his hands – an unbelievable set of vices for a 12 year old – he, amidst a rally to give me a beating, let me go. Even the way he snarled my name – sometimes my last name, sometimes my entire name – eyes ablaze with faux-madness became an almost subliminal element of our rapport. I knew he didn’t want to hurt me, but it was the fact that he indulged those that did, pretending he might, which kept me from losing teeth.
I knew him later, when we were 20, and the way he still hissed my name became a bigger joke. I want to think he said my name like he did as a throwback to our youth. Almost like a wink to indicate an inside joke. I will remember him in those later years, when we worked together at Ventura’s. We were just becoming men then, and we had the common ground of real life. I was still a small guy, and he was still huge – bigger than ever, actually. He was a bull. I often had to call upon him to help me with the kegs, and he would snarl my name with a varied, groaning inflection.
Back in 8th grade we played football in the mornings before class, in the lot of Belhaven Avenue School. We played full-contact and threw the ball for the kick-off, because we were boys and that’s how we did things. By homeroom we were covered in dirt. If Jason received the kick we wouldn’t try to tackle him, because it was a given that such things were impossible. Instead both sides just walked casually towards one another, and took position for the next kick-off. It was during one of these transitions that I tried to tackle him, with success, but only because the routine had allowed me to catch him off-guard – and it was the last time it worked. He didn’t get mad about it, though. I suppose there isn't much to get mad about in a game where no one keeps score. We just played to play. Which brings a clear image to mind: five of us latched to his arms and legs, him kicking along, dragging us through the dirt – that invincible force, a juggernaut too big to take down.
Afterword: There are other things I remember of Jason: like how in gym class he always made sure a few of us were picked for team games (he was our friend even though we were dorks). But, as I wrote this it became clear that nothing I could say would feel like enough, so I have kept a lot for myself. He was a good guy, and a friend, and he will be missed.