One of the most memorable weekends of my childhood was Easter weekend of 1979, my senior year. It is 34 years ago this week. I will never forget that Easter Sunday when my family drove in our driveway from camping at some lake in Louisiana. The next few days would be my first brush with death. And, as far as death was concerned, it was probably in line with a massacre. In that little town of Watson where everyone is related in some fashion or other, we lost three fathers and two children in two separate drowning accidents. My best friend, Angie, lived next door to me, and her father and little brother drowned on a camping trip in South Louisiana along with two other men. For most of the weekend, I was tied up with Angie’s family as we were all very close. In the midst of dealing with this tragedy, another drowning tragedy ended the life of my cousin and schoolmate, Mike King. For years, I’ve wanted to go back and talk about the tragic events that happened that week as I was too young, too scared and too shocked to even know how to talk about it back then. Today, a SWAT team of counselors would have descended on the community to help people deal with such a loss of life in a tiny, rural town. But, back then, you just sucked it up and dealt with it. I remember being numb with grief. My friend, Tammie, contacted me about writing a memorial blog on Mike for his Mom, Mrs. Jane.
The Kings moved out to Watson from Baton Rouge because Mr. Roland had a Community Coffee delivery route in Livingston Parish. I don’t recall exactly what year Mike came to our school, but his friends Barry and Bryan can definitely recall the stir he made. Barry was his neighbor, and he says he still remembers the first day he saw him after he moved into their subdivision. A group of neighborhood bandits were riding bikes, and Barry saw him in the yard with all this long hair. “Who the hell is that?” Barry thought. Well, as it turned out, it was Barry’s best friend. It wasn’t long before they spent all of their time together riding bikes, playing in the creek, fishing, swimming and talking about girls. They shared families, growing up much like brothers, eating meals together, visiting relatives on Sundays and causing mayhem in the neighborhood. Bryan, another one of my classmates, remembered Mike coming to our school. He was cute. He was a hit with the girls. He looked good in a pair of Wranglers. He could play basketball, football and baseball. What’s not to like? Well, to the local boys, this was not a welcome addition. One of our alpha male high schoolers, Earl, challenged him to an arm wrestling match at the last recess of the day. The crowd gathered around to see if this new boy had the right stuff – surely a challenge to see if he could fit in with the local boys. The entire recess went by, and neither boy won the match. Mike won the respect and eventually the love of pretty much the entire school.
Country boys played outside in those days. Riding bicycles, terrorizing the neighbors, playing all-on-all football and swimming in the nearby creeks were the way hours after school and on weekends were burned. Computers and cell phones didn’t exist. Television was around but not nearly so invasive as it is today. Hanging out with friends was the primary form of entertainment for growing boys, and they bonded and became pseudo-brothers along the way. Family lines blurred as many of us were related. But, even more than that, kids swapped houses, going to one house to eat an after school snack, another to play football and still another for dinner. Barry, Mike’s best friend and neighborhood brother, said they often would go from house to house to see who had the best meat for sandwiches. Mrs. Jane said she felt like a Mother to all of those boys. One day, she walked outside, and she saw that little band of brothers sitting outside, arms around each other, legs stacked together in those big platform shoes of the day. It was so cute, she went back in the house to get her camera. It was a picture she framed and kept in her house through the years to remind her of happier times.
I didn’t really know Mike all that well even though we were related. We ran in the same circles, so we knew each other. He was a gifted athlete, and I followed the athletic teams at school, particularly baseball. He was the quarterback of the football team. Barry asked me what I remembered most about Mike. Well…I laughed...I remember his tight little ass in those wrangler jeans and that blue baseball uniform. I mean – I was a teenage girl – what do you think I’d remember? I still have this very clear picture of Mike in my mind, holding a baseball bat dressed in that light blue baseball uniform. He turned around and was looking at us with that mischievous grin and those flashing brown eyes. He was as pretty as any girl I knew back in high school, and he probably would have winced to hear me say that.
Barry and Mike loved to swim in the creek behind their neighborhood. Unbeknownst to their parents, they had old shorts hidden in one of the trees back there. They’d strip down nekkid (in the country it’s called nekkid not naked), change into shorts and go swimming for hours. Then, they’d get dressed and go home as if it never happened. Mike loved the water. If he wasn’t on an athletic field, the creek was the place he wanted to be. One day a group of the neighborhood boys were playing in the creek, and Mike took off running and jumped over a beaver dam in the creek. He landed right on top of a broken bottle. The water turned red with blood. The cut was deep and jagged. They wrapped his foot, and one of the guys ran back and called Mike’s Mom, Mrs. Jane, to come to the bridge to pick him up. They jogged the whole way….and just kept saying…we have to get to the bridge…we have to get to the bridge. Mike was weak from the loss of blood by the time they got there.
Barry was with Mike when he had his first seizure. And, for all the time they lived next door to each other, Barry always prompted him about taking his anti-seizure medication. But, Mike didn’t like the medication. He said it made him groggy, and it slowed him down on the athletic field. At some point, Mike moved to another neighborhood, and Barry wasn’t there to be a mother hen about his medication. He got more and more sporadic about taking it. If you read about epilepsy on the internet, people with epilepsy are 19 times more likely to drown than people who don’t have seizures. But, we didn’t have the internet back then, and that research was probably not available. In hindsight, an epileptic with Mike’s love of the water was probably an accident waiting to happen.
“He was just one of those people that made everybody feel good, and he brought out the best in everybody,” Bryan said. “I loved Mike. Everybody did.” My sister, Susan, said Mike used to tease her all the time about having a bird nest in her massive curly hair. He’d come up behind her and start picking around in her hair and say something like, “Well, look. There’s an egg…and another one.” Tammie said she and a group of friends used to hang out together at Mike’s house. “He was special, so sweet…..genuine. He loved Live Oak High, his friends, had a great, supportive family.”
According to Mrs. Jane, Mike learned to walk when he was 7 or 8 months old. About the same time, they taught him to throw the football. He had a thing for throwing things. In humid and hot Louisiana, most cars didn’t have air conditioning, so the windows were always rolled down to let the balmy summer air circulate. Mike would sit in the back seat with a pacifier in his mouth. Mrs. Jane said he would suck on it for awhile and then throw it out the window. “We went through more pacifiers,” she laughed. She said one of her favorite memories of Mike was when he got a pair of those clogs (platform shoes). Mr. Roland didn’t want to buy them, but Mrs. Jane knew he really wanted a pair, and everybody was wearing them. He started trying to walk in them, and he couldn’t. They laughed all afternoon watching him learn to walk in those shoes. “He had this thing he would do. He would come home from school, and I’d walk into the room. He’d pick me up and throw me on the couch and walk out of the room,” she laughed. “He never said a word. I don’t know why he did that.”
On that fatal Easter weekend, a group of local boys were camping. They were partying, mud-riding, fishing, and sitting by the campfire. It was a typical Louisiana country boy weekend. Most of the boys went mud-riding, but Mike stayed back. Bryan said they got the trucks stuck, and he came back to get Mike and go get some help. What he found haunts him to this day. Mike was face down in the shallow water. He pulled him out and went to get the other boys. Mike had a Grand Mal seizure – only the second seizure he ever had – and drowned in shallow water. His boyhood friends, that band of brothers who laughed with him, played with him and loved him beyond measure, had to get help for the unthinkable, unimaginable, unfathomable event – death. Although we never talked about it until this week, I’ve always wondered what that was like for these kids…..and they were kids….playing at being men. It had to be the most tragic and awful moment of their boyhood lives. Barry spoke of the pain….the sound of pain in Mr. Roland’s scream when he saw his son in a bodybag….the feeling of pain that Barry felt for months after that, knowing that his childhood friend was gone forever. “For a long time, I didn’t know what was night and what was day. I just kept seeing that night over and over again,” he said. “And we never talked about it after the funeral. Nobody wanted to talk about it.” We know now that talking about traumatic events is therapeutic, but back then there weren’t tools to enable people to process grief. And, for teenage boys, their feelings were all jumbled up in a mass of hormones and expectations. I can’t imagine their confusion about how to deal with this. And, of course, there was Mike’s family that lost a son all too soon. It was an event that changed so many people’s worlds – and their perception of the world – forever.
Kathy, a schoolmate who wrote a poem for the family after Mike’s death, said, “Truth is that Mike was my first experience with death. As a voracious bookworm, reading and writing were my comfort zone … It’s how I tried to deal with bad things. I remember feeling numb from all the death.” My sister said she was embarrassed that she couldn’t cry at Mike’s funeral. “I had been so exhausted from the other funerals, I just didn’t have anything left,” she said. Every one of my schoolmates that I interviewed for this story said it was their first close experience with death. For Bryan, the night still haunts him. “I always wonder if there was something I could have done. I got scared and ran to get the others. I had never experienced anything like that. I didn’t know what to do.” It was obvious that the memories are still painful for him. Barry said Mike had long been gone by the time they got there, so there was nothing Bryan could have done to change the outcome.
“We were fearless,” Barry said. “After that, it all changed. So much pain happened. Everybody went away. It woke me up. Brought me down to earth….Death never entered my mind. We were not invincible. For a long time, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The memories were always there.” Of course, the King family was devastated. Mrs. Jane said that before Mike’s death, their marriage was unraveling. They partied too much. Faith was not a big part of their lives. When the funeral was over, the family was sitting around the living room in silence. Mr. Roland said God spoke to him and told him that Mike was taken so that they would come back to Him. “It changed our lives completely,” Mrs. Jane said. They started going to church. They found a grounding faith in Christianity that sustained them through this terrible tragedy and the future death of their daughter in later years. Mr. Roland taught Sunday School for boys that were Mike’s age. They were able to put their marriage on a better course, and they celebrated 52 years of marriage before Mr. Roland died. Interestingly, Mike had gotten baptized a few months before his death at Amite Baptist Church. He never told his parents. They found the Baptismal Certificate when they were going through his things.
Mike loved this pair of jeans that had a big hole in the pocket worn from a Skoal can. Mrs. Jane said she always kept those jeans clean because he wanted to wear them all the time. That’s the jeans I remember. When my friend Tammie sent some pictures for this blog, there was a picture of his cute ass in those jeans. I obviously wasn’t the only one that remembered. They buried him in those jeans so that he could wear them for eternity. He also loved music. Barry helped him install a stereo system in his car. It was state-of-the-art. He had an 8-track player under the dash and 6 x 9 co-axial speakers. His favorite song was Toto’s Hold the Line. Barry said he can still see him, pretending to play the guitar, drumming on the dashboard like they all did when a great song played. He laughed, “I heard that song over and over…he just kept playing it over and over all the time. Every time I’d hear that song for years, I’d think of Mike.”
As I talked to Barry, the accident in the creek haunted me. In hindsight, could it have been some type of foreboding about the hidden dangers of water. Ironically, the area where Mike died was right where that creek dumped out into the Amite River. Mrs. Jane said that every time she crossed that bridge for a long time after his death, she’d look over there for ….. something. Mike lived hard and fast and wanted to be free…to be free of lethargy-causing medications, restrictions and fear. He loved the water. He loved movement and energy and the feeling of being an athlete in competition. He loved his boyhood friends. We were robbed of the opportunity to see the man Mike might have become. He would have turned 52 this year. Bryan said he can imagine that Mike would be the one with a bunch of kids, and his house would probably be the house where everybody went for parties. I’m sure Mike would have had his unique share of struggles and tragedies just as the rest of us have. I would like to have caught up with him the last time I was home. If I could get my wish, I hope that Mike is somewhere in a country heaven with a beautiful creek where pain and loss don’t exist. I hope the music that plays every day is that old time rock and roll that he loved, and I hope he visits with us from time to time from behind the veil. When he runs, I hope he is fast and feels free and alive. I hope he’s wearing those tight little jeans and flashing those big brown eyes for all the gals up there to see. And, above all, I hope he has something better than an eight-track tape player. I think he’d probably like that.
I’ll end with the poem written by Kathy Lentz for Mike’s family. Mrs. Jane keeps it in her Bible. I’ve also included a link to the song Fire and Rain by James Taylor. Bryan said every time he hears that song he thinks of Mike. If you have stories or remembrances of Mike, please feel free to leave them in the comments section of this blog as a gift to Mrs. Jane. RIP Mike.
NOTE: A special thanks to Tammie Horner Hill, Barry Linder, Bryan Cowart, Mrs. Jane King and Kathy Lentz Aucoin for their thoughts, memories and stories of this very special young man. I hope this is a comfort to all who remember him.
by Kathy Lentz Aucoin – April 16, 1979
Those of us who knew him, Never will release, The happiness he brought to us, But now he has his peace. Remember him for who he was, And don't cry when you hear his name, For I consider him lucky, For now he feels no pain. Those of us who loved him, In our hearts we know, That God wanted Mike with him, He said it was time to go. Mike heard his call, For him God had sent, And now everyone is crying, Just because he went. Remember not the bad times, Even though there weren't many, Remember just the good, Of which there were plenty. Remember him like I do, Happy and full of love, Think of him as he is now, Watching us from above. God is with him this very minute, Today and Tonight, It makes me feel so much safer, Because we all loved Mike. Feel not worthless, Because he is not near, Just look toward a reunion, When the voice of God and Mike we'll hear. For of this day, I am sure of one thing, In Heaven very happy now, Is Michael Keith King.