Billy Johnson’s Chair – Essay

17 July 2011 – Bill Johnson offed himself yesterday.

He’d been a tall, oafish, and dull child, I thought frankly. He’d attended our church, the Evangelical United Brethern, before the EUB’s merged back with the Methodists.

My sister telephoned earlier today with the news. Billy’d been a member of our very small Boy Scout troop, 121, I believe, and had gone out for baseball and basketball with me.

We’d ridden in Biscaynes and Impalas and Galaxies and Fairlanes on gravel roads drinking beer from our Budweiser phase to our Pabst Blue Ribbon phase to a goodbye to gravel roads and fishtailing Malibus and humid beery nights phase, when many of us left our hometown for college and forever.

Although we’d played music together in a bad high school rock band, and had grown from Tenderfoot to Second Class and then First Class Scout and spent summers on canoe trips and at Camp Mitigwa and the Philmont Scout Ranch in the New Mexico Rockies, Billy was not my favorite person.

I found him spoiled and petulant and bullying. I sensed violence and cruelty in him as a child. In a larger place, a city, even a larger school (only 100 some students attended our high school) he would never had been someone I’d know. In a small town, though, everyone gets along, must get along, and Billy’s dad had spoiled him with a Baldwin electronic organ and a very large speaker. I am not surprised that Billy had deteriorated to a suicidal condition, but rather that he’d had the sand to carry it out.

According to the Des Moines Register’s account, he may have been distraught over legalties involving his property (that implication does require reading between the lines). In any case, judging from the address, it was the house where he’d grown up. The Register did report that he’d missed court dates.

He’d been married and divorced, according to my sister, but probably had no children. We can not guess if the wife was involved, if the property had gone into foreclouse, whether Billy was employed or laid off or generally drunk or sober or stewed to the gills on methanphetimine. The Register who’d only reported the incident, has not yet investigated. We know no details and maybe never will.

At least a couple of news outlets confirmed that Billy had exploed his house. Whether he’d run gas into it, and lit the fuse, or tried something more creative, we do not yet know. The house had blown sky high though, apparently, and Billy, as he’d watched it flame out and land to earth in bits and pieces, had apprently continued drinking the beer he’d begun drinking before the conflaguration. I imagine him in a lawn chair as if watching Fourth of July fireworks over the Community School sports fields.

When county deputies had arrived, he’d told them the explosion had been intentional… intentional meaning planned, premeditated, but when I read this, I did not connect that planning to Billy… it’s nothing I’d see him able to do. But when I did make the connection, and understood that yes, Billy, had decided on all if it, I read a certain pride into it for him, a certain satisfaction, savoir faire, and job well done… Only a competent Scout could have accomplished this kind of destruction.

House blown to smithereens, deputies informed, beer consumed, and well being accomplished, Bill had then performed his coup de grâce, the cherry on the sundae of a bold and perfect act, when he simply shot himself dead with one of the several weapons he’d kept out of the big bang. This big dopey, slow, bully of a kid, had grown into someone so ruined yet so determined, that he’d written himself a perfect tragedy, a brilliant, complete, darkly comedic end, an end exquisite in its perversity.

And now I’m angry, I find. Angry because I am jealous of this perfection, and angry because I don’t know the detail. The media in poor Iowa, the Register, which one bragged of owning a number of Pulitzers second only to the New York Times, did not investigate, did not offer detail, did not speculate. Their online edition story spanned only six paragraphs, answering and promising answers to nothing. Surely they were covering some vapid blabbering presidential nominee or filing a story on “safe” tanning. Certainly the Register was not addressing questions around the Billy Johnson affair.

And what answers do I want? I want to understand the nature of Billy’s financial problem, his mental history, his politics, if any. Had he gone wacky like the religious right of much of the state? Why had he given up, or rather had he seen this as a fabulous end, the only conclusion for a member of the deteriorated and hopeless American middle class. Had he even been conscious enough to see it as anything more than a good stock car wreck?

I’ll call my cousin in Van Meter tomorrow to see what she knows. I’ll spin it all through a leftist political prism from the west edge of the western world; I’ll try to sort out what happened to a culture whose values, my childhood values, could never result in such a self-important show of… misguided bravado? mental decline? cultural decay?

In any case, nothing good comes of it but a story and a deviant and lurid one, at that. I hope I hear more of it.

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