Monday, September 8, 2014

Some thoughts about a friend and brother named Joe Laughlin . . .

"But music was his life, it was not his livelihood, and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good. And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. He did not know how well he sang; it just made him whole." - Harry Chapin - chorus of "Mr. Tanner."

I think the words above from the song, Mr. Tanner, describe very well my dearest friend and "older brother," Joe Laughlin.

Perhaps it's appropriate to begin by getting the "older brother" explanation cleared up.  

In the fall of 1975, I was an entering freshman at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX.   The fall of '75 and spring of '76 was the single best year of my life. Here's why . . .

-I met and fell in love with the woman who would become my wife and life partner, Liz.

-I met her friend from Killeen, TX, Riva Padgett, who has been a friend and family for 39 years.

-And . . . I got "adopted" by one of the seniors at Southwestern, a guy named Joe Laughlin, who was Riva's fiancée.

There was sort of an unwritten "tradition" at Southwestern University in those days, that each senior would adopt one of the incoming freshmen.  Joe said it was for the purpose of "corrupting" them.   That may have been his intention . . . until he found out that I had a 12-string guitar.

I was actually "playing at" guitar more in those days than playing it.  I was more into singing.  So my guitar was more of a prop than a musical instrument.  Back then, girls seem to like guys with guitars!  I liked girls. You do the math.

Joe decided he knew best, a common occurrence which some of us are very familiar with, and he took me under his wing in order to address my "playing at" guitar.  He would call me on the phone, or catch me in the Student Union Building, or knock on my door and order my "skinny butt" to his room with guitar in hand . . . where we would play and sing.  He was into Andres Segovia and Gordon Lightfoot.  I didn't have a clue who Segovia was back then . . . but I knew about Gordon Lightfoot, and I could sing most John Denver's songs.

We got along marvelously.  

We would often meet to sing and play not only Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver songs, but also Waylon and Wille songs, Peter, Paul and Mary songs, Homer and Jethro songs,  old folk songs and gospel songs.  There were times when you would mention Willie Nelson's name, and Joe would close his eyes and hold his hand in the air like he was having a religious experience.  We played a lot together that fall semester.  We both missed a few classes as well. We would get so focused on playing a song that we would both forget what time it was.

One day he stopped calling me "skinny butt" and started calling me "Dr. Mang."  I didn't know why. Perhaps it was his way of helping me not take things so seriously.

Several times he would yell at me from across the campus . . . "Dr. Mang, are we having class today?"  By yelling this, he was really asking if we were going to get together to play guitar.  I'd yell back, "yes we are and I expect you to be there!"  Several time, other students around me would look at me and ask, "Dr. Mang?"   I got ribbed pretty good for that.

Maybe Joe was trying to corrupt me after all?  Or maybe it was his way of letting me know that it was his little term of endearment for a friend.  Dr. Zook, Dr. Langley, Dr. Ratchford and others can testify more about this.

I've only been thrown out of one business in my life, and that was with Joe.  He and I went to the old Pancho's Mexican Buffet in north Austin, in the spring of 1976, back when the all-you-can-eat was only $1.99.  After two hours, and our both setting several new personal best records for the number of enchiladas and tacos consumed in an hour (then beating those records the next hour) . . . the manager asked us to leave.

Actually, he begged us to leave.  Neither of us could blame the guy . . . He was probably loosing money.

So, back to the University we drove, and upon arrival we got into an argument about what we would do next.  We ended up deciding to go eat dinner!    

I think that may have been the time when Joe stopped calling me "skinny butt."

Joe majored in Biology and Chemistry.  Academically, Joe was very smart.  He had a ton of book sense.  How much common sense he had will be debated among family and friends for some time to come.  But no one can deny that he was very knowledgable on many varied subjects, and could hold his own in most conversations and discussions, and convincingly so.

Joe's last semester at school in the spring of 76' was spent student teaching in Hubbard, Texas. That summer he married Riva in a very beautiful service in Killeen.   They scheduled there summer travels so they could come by and see me in Bastrop where I was serving as a summer youth director.  Joe and I, with Riva's help, provided a small July 4th concert at Bastrop State Park for a church picnic.  We had a lot of folks singing with us.  Joe even took some requests.  It was a fun day.

Joe starting teaching school that fall.   Back then, first year teacher starting salaries were low, and he got recruited away from teaching to become a quality control chemist for NL Industries, where the pay was better.  It was a job that almost killed him.  The day of the lab accident still resonates in some of our memories.  Something in a container in the lab was mis-labeled, and caused a dangerous reaction when mixed with something from another container.  After making sure the other lab chemist was out of the lab, Joe made it out the door before being overcome. He was in a real mess, and fearing throat and lung damage, he was transported to the hospital.  He was there for a long time.  I personally think that his being exposed to the chemical reaction was the cause of his cancer what later in his life.

The lab accident at NL became a wake up call for Joe, and with Riva's support and encouragement, he returned to teaching . . . which he always felt was God's calling on his life.  I don't believe he ever loved teaching like some people claim to love their jobs.  He never liked the politics, or people who had never taught in a classroom telling him how to teach, or when students would give up without ever trying to learn.   

But he would tell you . . . he was called by God to be a teacher.  He believed that teaching was a noble and honorable profession.  He went to teach everyday that he could. He never called off unless he was truly to ill to stand or drive.  He was the kind of teacher who could always be counted on to show up.

Teaching was his call, but what Joe honestly loved most in life . . . was music, especially fingerstyle guitar.  He joked that he loved guitars first, and Riva, second.  Riva even included that comment into Joe's obituary.  I don't think she ever really had a problem with it.  Joe took good care of all their musical instruments.  And, in the very end, he did his part to take care of Riva, so that after his death, she would have few worries.

Joe loved his guitars and music.   But Riva . . . Riva was his "beloved."

Joe's love for playing guitars began when he was 5 years old. He played his older brother Mike's "Roy Rogers Guitar", while hiding in the closet.  He had to hide otherwise Mike would have clobbered him good for messing with his stuff.  Joe later got his Gibson ES-335 sunburst pre-dot electric guitar when he was 12 years old.  He mowed a lot of lawns at $5 or less for a long time to get the money to buy it.  I like to believe that the music store owner must have known Joe wanted it, and as a result the guitar was put it back a couple of times to keep it from being sold.  It was a grand day in Joe's life when he brought it home.  He had that guitar for almost 45 years.  Many years ago, I nicknamed that guitar "Butter," because it was butter in Joe's hands when he played it.

In terms of musical skill . . . Joe could play classical guitar as well as Segovia.  He could fingerpick guitar as well as Chet Atkins.  And, he could sing well as he played. He was more than competent. He was good.  Very good.  Real good.  I'm willing to say he was damn good when he was in his 40's. If he hadn't been so shy in crowds and around people he didn't know; and later, if he hadn't lost some of the feeling in his hands and fingers due to the side effects of his cancer treatments, he could have been a noted and in-demand session player.   He could have travelled, an he would have made good money.

But . . . if that had happened, it would have meant that he couldn't teach.  Teaching was his call, and his profession.  A profession he put his best effort into.  He taught for 20 years at Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown, TX, and then found time to play guitar at church, with family and friends, and at local and regional music gatherings and festivals.  He only retired from teaching school because of his health.  Unfortunately, he never got to enjoy his retirement because of his health.  He did fuss about that . . . (and who wouldn't) but he didn't fuss as much as he could have.  

In my opinion, I think music,and the hope of playing the guitar again like he used to play, helped keep him alive an extra 5 years.  

Yes, music was his life, but not his livelihood.  Music made him happy, and it made him feel good.  His love for music, and his love for Riva and Riva's love for him, made him whole, especially at a time when when he badly longed to feel whole and well.

Riva allowed me the honor of straightening up Joe's music room the day after he died.  Riva, her mom, her sister, Liz and I were gathered at the house, and we were all so very physically and emotionally tired . . . but Joe had left me instructions several years before that, upon the event of his death, I was to check out and wipe down all of his and Riva's instruments and put them into their cases, and see that they were stored properly.

After putting up all the instruments, I sat down on the piano bench and looked at how much space there was in the room . . . a room that I can only explain as being "sacred ground" to me.  That space was the music home of my dearest friend, my guitar and voice teacher . . . my big brothers space.

That's when I lost it . . . I cried tears for my brother and best friend.  Seeing the space in the room helped me realize how much of the space in my life Joe had occupied . . . that I let him occupy . . . that I wanted him to occupy . . . that I needed him to occupy.  It was at that moment that I began to I realize the size of my loss.   It hurt.  Still does . . . for Riva, and for many others.

Joe, in reality, was a pretty simple and decent guy.  He led a pretty simple life compared to others. He was a man of faith, he believed in friendship, and he was a guitar picker.  He wasn't famous in the world's eyes, and probably never will be.  However, he was a huge presence in my life, and I realize now in his passing how much I did appreciate and love him . . even during those times when I could have killed him because he could make me so mad. Riva reminded me, after I shared with her one time that Joe had made me furious, "well Ricky, Joe is really good at being Joe."  Truth is, he got mad a me a time or two, and he had every right to.  In the end, things would work out.  When we saw each other again, we would play guitar and sing, and then apologize to each other.  That's all part of being family, isn't it?  This was a friendship that meant so very much more than our differences, for as we got older, there were some differences indeed.  But the friendship was always bigger, and always what was most important. We were brothers and friends to the "e-n-d."  Joe got to the end first.  Liz and I will always cherish that Riva allowed us to be there with him, and with her, when Joe came to his end.

Since Joe's death, I have begun to wonder . . . if he and I were better together as friends than we would have been if we had grown apart.  This is something that  I will have to figure out later on in life. But I think I already know what the answer will be.

For 39 years, Joe was my big brother, my best friend, my guitar teacher, and my one-and-only true  "guy" confidante.  I am grateful for his presence in my life.  I thank God for him.  Joe was a blessing to me.  I will find it very hard to ever even begin to forget him.

God's grace still amazes me . . . ><>

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