Thursday, January 31, 2008

Absent Friends: John McLoughlin

I lost a friend about a year and a half ago.
Even though I hadn't seen him since 1991, I considered him one of my best friends, and part of my circle--that group you have when you're a teenager and finding out who you are and all of that.
Like I said, hadn't seen him for years... but when I heard he was gone, I wrote the following.
Don't know why I'm posting it now, except that things like this are transitory-- and I don't want to forget what my friends-- past, present or future-- have meant to me.
Here goes.
Who was John McLoughlin to me?

Writing something like this is never easy. In fact, it’s some of the hardest writing there is. How do you capture, in a handful of words, someone who was such a singular person? John McLoughlin was someone who defies easy description and completely demolishes classification or categorization. He was like no one I've ever known.

I'll start at the beginning, which for us would have been 1977.

I met John through Peter Nixon. Peter and I had discussed shooting our own version of Star Wars with action figures, or maybe even some live action. John, a friend of Peter’s, wanted to play Chewbacca. The project never came to anything but it did introduce me to John.

We got to know each other better when we started playing Dungeons & Dragons. John wore an Army fatigue shirt almost all the time—that’s one of the things I remember best about him, from those early days. He was also a big fan of all things military, which included Robert Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers; he believed Heinlein’s somewhat right-wing philosophy was really on to something. And he might not have been all that wrong. He had a spent LAW anti-tank weapon in his garage and a German shepherd that he loved fiercely.

John had a way of calling things the way he saw them. He was unflinching in saying how he felt and what he thought. That didn't sit well with some, but he was honest. Say what you like, I never knew John to say anything he didn't really (at some level) believe. He had integrity I can only admire.

We played D&D a lot that first year. We also played Risk up in John’s room. John was a tough competitor; the only person who really gave him competition was [his brother] Tom. They had a turbulent relationship, to put it mildly; Tom was the only one who could make John absolutely crazy.

John had me over at his house for sleepovers several times, and me likewise. Once, when he was at our house, I was freaking out over a TV commercial for the movie Dawn of the Dead. John laughed about it and convinced me that my fear (of a TV ad!) was pretty ridiculous.

He was a regular at Paul Skeen’s and Peter’s homes, and at mine, but we spent a lot of time in John’s home as well. I remember the GI Joe he kept hanging from his light fixture. Dark humor, certainly, but that was John.

He was generous to a fault and already building up the persona that we'd come to know in high school. In many ways, John was larger than life. He was the John Belushi of our circle, the guy who was always doing something. Life around John was never dull or lacking things to talk about.

When John had a fistfight—in Paul’s driveway—the only one I ever saw him in, I was there. I didn't want to be but John was my friend and I supported him. The fight came to nothing and John wasn't hurt. To this day, I don't know what the fight was about-- but I think he ended up friends with the kid he was fighting.

John’s hairline began to recede after his fifteenth birthday. To make up for it, he started doing his best to grow a beard—and when he succeeded, he wore it always after that. With his beard, high forehead and brawn/bulk built up from his Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) training, he was a teenager who looked like he was going on 40... but he never seemed to age for years after that. And, though maybe this shouldn't be said, he rarely had trouble getting served in bars.

He came to visit on an overnight at Rutgers my first year there—part of a large group that included my sister Beth, her friends Kelly and Diane, Paul, Stephanie and Dwain Smith. It was quite an evening; John was one of the few who wasn't running around half-crazed, thrilled and neurotic about being loose on a college campus.

I could tell a lot of stories about John. If there was a wacky anecdote from my teen years, odds are good John was in it somewhere. He was “As Du Valant,” a French Gran Prix driver, in a memorable incarnation sometime around his senior year in high school, and he was Tristan of Lochmoor for many years in the SCA. It’s telling that his self-given name was included in his obituary; I believe that in many ways, he found himself through this kind of singular reinvention.

My mom’s favorite memory of John is him sitting at our dining room table, making chain mail and describing how it was done. He made some beautiful pieces and took pride in being a craftsman. He also brewed mead, though I don't know if that effort was as successful.

He had a wide circle of friends. D&D introduced him to the Carroll sisters, which led to the SCA. He was the lead techie in the Drama Club [at Monmouth Regional High School] and pushed hard for tech workers to be accorded “varsity letter status” along with the performers. He always drove as many people as could fit into his family’s green Vista Cruiser—perhaps the best-known vehicle from the Drama Club years at Monmouth Regional—and never left the cast parties before they were over, often in the early hours of the morning. He knew everyone and everyone knew him.

A couple of anecdotes weren't so wacky. When Peter collapsed at Rutgers, coming to visit me on his first day home from McGill, John was there... and he drove Peter’s car back from New Brunswick, after we grabbed dinner together. We'd seen Peter to the hospital safely—I was the one who called the family and made sure they knew where he was—but it was John who brought his car back to Tinton Falls.

John was rough-and-tumble but always there when he was needed. He came to my dad’s viewing and, if he didn't actually send the condolence card, he bought one.

We saw each other once in awhile as he finished college and spent more time in Philadelphia and south Jersey than in Tinton Falls. I'd graduated and was working, so I had less time to catch up. Our lives were on diverging paths but we made time every now and then. We hung out at Paul’s shared house in Atlantic City one weekend and at his dorm room another time, where John said his floor (he had the job of watching his floor that year) had given him the nickname “Eage”—short for “Eagle,” off his receding hairline. He had a boken (a bamboo practice sword) with which he enforced peace on his floor, which seems appropriately.

The last time I saw him was Christmas Night, 1991. He came to my mother’s last holiday party, before she gave the house to Beth and Glenn and I moved on. We never spoke again and I don't know why. Maybe it was distance, that we were both moving around... or maybe it was that we were both moving on.

He didn't attend the weddings of any of our high school group, that handful of events where we were all together again. Those gatherings were incomplete without John.

The last any of us saw of John might have been 1995 or 1996, when Paul and Stephanie saw him in the stadium parking lot at a Grateful Dead concert. But that isn't my story to tell. As of 2003, Paul heard that John was working in Philadelphia doing construction and was starting to teach computers.

I like to think—I hope—he found tremendous happiness and joy in life, that he had a large circle of newer friends who loved him the way we older friends do. I'm sure they had many stories to tell and miss him just as deeply. All I know is that I regret how nearly sixteen years passed since we last spoke. Maybe John and I hadn't seen each other in a long time, but I knew he was out there somewhere. Knowing now that he’s gone, I miss him even more profoundly.

One last anecdote: in 1980, Peter Nixon came to my door to go to school, teary-eyed. “John’s dead,” he blurted out. My mind reeled. “John McLoughlin?” I asked. “No,” he said, puzzled. “John Lennon.” John got a smile out of hearing that story.

Twenty-six years later, almost to the month, Peter brought me news that John was gone. This time, I got the name right. And I really wish I hadn't.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this again. Thanks for posting it.

Drew said...

Hey buddy!
I wanted it kept "live" somewhere and thought I'd just blog it.
Thanks-- and Kat and I hope we'll see you and Belinda real soon.
all best always,