By Greg Johnson, as told to Tim Barela, Torch Magazine
/ Published July 14, 2009
RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- Growing up in California, Joe and I had been inseparable. Yeah, we were both military brats, which right away placed us in an "exclusive club" based on our experiences, and we had a lot of the same interests. But it was our differences that seemed to bring us together.
I was shy, a bit cautious and kind of a loner. Joe was my polar opposite in that respect. He was outgoing, a risk taker and had an electric personality that was a magnet for both girls and guys. I was four inches taller than Joe, and a good bit stronger, but he "ruled the world."
To tell you the truth, I didn't much like him when I first saw him. To me he was a bit loud and obnoxious. But maybe I also envied his easy way with people, which at the time, I used to mislabel him as
The funny thing is there was no grand moment that triggered our friendship. I mean, he didn't save my life, I didn't clobber a bully for him, or anything like that. Fate put us in the same history classroom, sitting side-by-side. And he just kind of grew on me. At first, I wanted to dislike him. But he had a quick wit, and despite my best efforts to ignore his antics, I found myself laughing at his jokes more times than not.
Lacking the same quick wit, I'm not sure what he saw in me. Maybe it was just that he enjoyed making the quiet kid laugh. Or maybe it's because every comic needs a straight man. Or, you know how when some people laugh it's contagious? I've been told I have that kind of laugh, so maybe he simply liked getting a chuckle out of me as much as I grew to enjoy his rhetoric.
At any rate, laughter turned to talking. Talking turned to getting to know each other better. And getting to know each other better turned into hanging out with each other all the time.
We both enjoyed basketball and baseball. We had fun camping. But perhaps what we enjoyed most was spending time in the water. It didn't matter ... a swimming pool, pond, lake or ocean, we'd spend hours in the water.
Of course, it's no surprise that two young teenagers would take risks that would make their parents cringe ... if they knew about it. And we were no different. We dove off of cliffs and bridges. We surfed in water that was probably a little too rough for our experience level. But our real love was driving a fast boat and water-skiing.
Joe had an older brother, Mark, who often took us out on the lake. We all took turns driving the boat, and we became quite good at water skiing. But as our skill grew, so did our risk taking. We tried more tricks like holding the rope handle in our teeth, or trying to do a flip off of a high-speed jump over a wake. And, yes, it became competitive in a friendly sort of way. We'd challenge each other to see who could perform the most "death-defying" act.
Our mindset at the time was, "What is the worst that can happen? You slap the water hard, which stings, or maybe you make a fool of yourself." But that was all part of the fun.
It didn't bother me that Joe would win most of the water skiing feats of skill and courage. For one thing, he was a better skier than me. For another, our personality traits came into play here. Remember,
I was the more cautious one; he was more of a risk-taker.
So it's ironic that one of my risks came into play on that fateful day.
We were engaged in a water skiing contest that I can only equate to a game of HORSE in basketball. Basically, you'd go out on the skis, perform a trick, and the other guy would have to match you. If he failed, he would get a letter. I can't tell you the crude name two teenagers used for this game, but for the sake of this story, we'll call it WIMP.
We'd played this game a lot, and I was the WIMP more often than not. But one of the advantages that I did have over Joe was reach. Along with my height advantage, my wingspan was significantly longer than his. On this day, we were skiing near some cliffs that were off to our right. I told Mark to get me as close to them as possible.
When we neared the cliffs, I aimed my ski tips toward them and made a pass that brought me within a few feet of the cliffs. I touched the cliff wall and quickly darted back toward the wake and the boat. All in all, this wasn't that skillful of a trick, but it does involved a bit of courage (or stupidity) to get so dangerously close to the rocks.
Joe playfully scoffed at my attempt to get him a letter. "How about a challenge?" he said.
"Hey, I'm just warming up," I retorted, pointing out that this was the first run of the day.
At any rate, Joe still had to complete the task. As he neared the cliff, he placed the rope handle in his teeth, as if to make light of my non-challenge.
"Show off!" I yelled, grinning.
But my smile quickly contorted into a look of horror as the rope snapped out of Joe's mouth and he lost his balance and smashed into the cliff wall.
I couldn't hear the collision over the roar of the boat's motor, and my own voice hollering "Stop!"
I was sick to my stomach as I saw Joe ricochet off of the wall and lay facedown and motionless in the water.
As Mark jumped into the water and swam frantically toward his brother,
I stayed with the boat as he had ordered and watched for any sign of movement. But, instinctively, I think I knew even before I heard Mark scream, "He's not breathing! Get help!"
We buried Joe less than a week later. His head had simply slammed too hard into the jagged rock wall, and he died almost instantly.
I still miss Joe. He showed a shy kid who didn't have a lot of friends how to come out of his shell and experience life and people. And he taught me my first real lessons in risk management -- you're not invulnerable, don't get complacent, use good judgment, be a good wingman.
I said earlier, that when Joe and I met, he didn't do anything grand like save my life. But, I guess in retrospect, he actually did.