Sunday, February 24, 2008

In Memory: Jim White

Last night I received word that my cousin Jim White passed away. He was 59 and had been battling cancer since September.

Jim and his sister Linda grew up in the Bay Area of California, where their father, my uncle Bill, settled after serving in World War II. I did not meet these California cousins until I was ten years old. That was in the summer of 1963, when they traveled by bus to spend a memorable two weeks with us here in Texas.

Later, in the winter of 1967, Jim lived with us in Cleburne, where my father published the Johnson County News. He worked part-time for my father and attended school full-time at Hill County Junior College. This was when I really got to know Jim.

We were roommates, and would often stay up late at night talking. I learned a lot, listening to Jim. I was 14 years old and had never known anything but Texas and small towns and what I saw on television. I read, but there were huge gaps in my reading. Jim introduced me to authors and books I was unfamiliar with, and introduced me to new music as well. And he had lots of stories to tell about the larger world beyond Texas, in particular California. A lot was happening back there in 1967, especially in San Francisco, and he missed it and wondered what on earth he was doing in Cleburne, Texas, where the Sixties had not even arrived yet.

He was a fish out of water, I recall. He wore his hair longer than anyone else in town at that time, not long by today’s standards, but just long enough to be a figure of amusement to some of the local rednecks. "Hey, Beatle!" they would shout from their pickups. He hated that.

We shared a few adventures. Once, I went with him to Dallas where he wanted to buy some special tires for his car. It was a wet day. We were roaring down Highway 67 through Alvarado, the eight-track playing “96 Tears,” talking, when suddenly his car went into a skid on the rain-slick road and we spun around and around. I thought we were goners. But, lucky for us, we didn’t go into the ditch, or flip over, or hit anything. Jim brought the car under control and we came to a stop in the middle of the road. We sat there a few moments, stunned, looked around, noticed we were still alive, looked at each other, then without a word buckled our seatbelts, and drove on to Dallas.

We drove all over Dallas, trying to find the tire place, and I mean all over—south side, west side, north, east, downtown. I’m not sure what the problem was, something was confusing about the city map—similarly named streets, I think. We would drive and drive, arrive where the tire place was supposed to be, discover a house standing there instead of the tire place, then Jim would study the map again and we’d drive somewhere else, only to discover a factory or an office buidling, anything but a tire place. It was frustrating, but at the same time fun to be driving around Dallas, exploring the city, seeing it in a different way than I had seen it on previous trips with my parents. At one point, we got hungry and stopped at a McDonalds, the first one I had ever seen. Jim bought me lunch. Then we resumed the hunt for the tire place. We ended up downtown on East Elm and saw a group of long-haired guys walking down the street. “Look at those Beatles,” said Jim, smiling that sly smile of his.

Near the end of the day we found the tire shop. It was closed.

It wasn't all friendly conversation between me and Jim. We would also argue. Debate is probably more accurate. The biggest point of contention between us was the question, “Which is better, Texas or California?” I argued for Texas, of course, Jim for California. California was modern, hip, forward-thinking, he told me. Texas was old-fashioned, backward, barely civilized. Jim made California sound so exciting. I continued to argue for Texas, but secretly I began to think Jim might be right. Then, one day, he surprised me by saying his dream was to live a simple life in some out-of-the-way place in the West and enjoy the great outdoors.

“Are you kidding?” I said.

“No, that’s what I want, really.”

“Well, not me. I want to travel and live in exciting places, big modern cities where things are happening.”

Somehow or other, in the course of our arguing, we had each reversed our positions.

Jim went back to California in the summer of 1967. He wrote me, describing Haight-Ashbury and all the wild things happening there. I was envious. But Jim did not stay in California. In time, he moved to Colorado where he went to work for the National Forestry Service and spent the rest of his life enjoying the great outdoors.

I never saw him again. We talked on the phone a few times over the years and emailed now and then. When my father died last year, Jim emailed me his condolences. Then, last September, when Jim's mother died, I emailed him my condolences. When he wrote back to thank me, he mentioned that a lump had appeared on his neck and he was going to have a biopsy. “Hopefully everything will be okay,” he wrote, “and they’ll discover I’m just an old guy with lumps and bumps.”

But it wasn’t okay. It was cancer. We talked on the phone. He described his chemotherapy. It seemed to be going well. We reminisced. I told him he had been an important person in my life, and that my only regret was that he had known me when I was in the eighth grade, the worst year of my life, a time when I was such a disturbed adolescent it must have been difficult at times for him to be around me. “And what were you thinking,” I said, “to leave San Francisco in 1967 and come to Texas of all places?”

He laughed. Then he said, “Now I’ve got to tell you something. That time I spent with you guys in Texas was one of the best times in my life.”

He emailed me shortly after Thanksgiving. He had just completed chemotherapy and was feeling great, he said. He was optimistic that he would now have at least a few more years to spend with his grandchildren. But, as it turned out, the chemo only bought him a few extra months.

Three weeks ago, Linda emailed me to say Jim's health had declined and he was in the hospital. His condition was so bad, she said, he was unable to talk. And yet, she and his daughter Mary were holding on to the hope that he would get better and be released from the hospital. About a week ago, however, it became apparent that he was not going to get better, only worse. Last night, Linda called to say he was gone.

I had always hoped I would get to see Jim again, but it was not meant to be. We were meant to have our six months together as roommates and buddies, and then walk our separate paths in life. I guess it's good enough that we got to have two more long conversations before he left this world.

Adios, Jim. Say hi to everybody up there for me.