Tuesday, September 22, 2015

My Old Friend John

In seventh grade at Springdale Elementary School one of my good friends was Johnny Gibson. Fastest white boy in the school (I could be wrong, but I don’t recall any black classmates at Springdale).  Son of a preacherman. His baldheaded daddy was the pastor around the corner at the Wesleyan Drive Baptist Church.

In those days, as twelve year old boys friends would consist of school classmates during the day, Sunday School classmates, kids from the neighborhood, siblings, and Little League teammates. Some were the same. Not many play dates back in the day. So I didn’t hang out with Johnny all that much. I can’t remember if he attended Rusty Spaulding’s legendary spend the night birthday party. But at recess we’d compete on the basketball court and football field. Johnny was a great athlete. Bill Yancey had us all trying to make half court shots. He was the king of those long-rangers, even in the ankle high zip up black boots he favored. I made my share.

Like me, Johnny favored sneakers. I remember him attired in short sleeve button front dress style shirts. His hair was cropped short on the sides and back but straight on top with a little wave on the end. Our beloved teacher Mrs. Grenga would head us down to the music room several days a week. We’d sing show tunes as she played the piano. To this day I owe my knowledge of some of the great old songs to her. But I don’t remember Johnny from all the singing. I remember Johnny from the football field.

My memory has faded on some of the details of our daily gridiron battles at recess. I think we played tackle. I was just average, but I held my own. I don’t remember catching many passes or scoring many touchdowns, because I probably didn’t. But Johnny was a star. No one could catch him. A blur.

But even in 7th grade my after-school driveway kicking sessions were beginning to pay off. At recess I handled the kickoffs. My classmates loved my onsides kicks, where like my NFL heroes I would lay the ball flat on the ground and scrib the kick downfield. The ball would sail low in the air, wobbling all the way. Hard to catch.

So one fall day as recess was winding down my team scored to take the lead. As we lined up for the ensuing kickoff the bell rang signally the end of recess. As boys do, we quickly decided to run one more play. The kickoff.

The game was on the line. Tackle the ballcarrier and we win. If they score the game would be tied. I drilled a decent wobbler – but Johnny scooped it up. He dashed this way and that, avoiding my teammates. He broke into the clear and was running down the field at full speed. Soon there was only one boy standing between Johnny and the goal line. Me.  
Johnny’s straight line path was taking him past me, just a step away to my right. I had to stop him to win the game. A slow reactor, at the last second I was able to take one step over to block his path. He smashed right into me – a literal face-to-face, nose-to-nose collision (but not targeting). I fell straight back onto the ground. But I had hit Johnny so hard that he spun around several times as he fell to the ground, like a cartoon. Amazing.

Both our noses were bloody. My formerly wimpy-looking straight nose now permanently had a character-building bump. For that I am forever grateful to Johnny Gibson. As boys so often do, we both shook off our injuries, brushed off our Tuff-Skins, and limped inside for class. There would be more football tomorrow.

That was the last year Johnny and I were classmates. Eighth grade meant Junior High. For both of us it meant an entirely new set of classmates. I was off to Northside/Appling and then Central/Miller. Johnny enrolled at First Presbyterian. I’m not sure I ever saw Johnny again after our days together at Springdale. We never reconnected on Facebook. But to this day my dad would occasionally run into his dad at the coffee shop, so from time to time I’d get an update on my old friend.

Johnny was now Dr. John Gibson Jr. A Baptist pastor and beloved professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. I never thought to ask any of my friends who attended the seminary (like Bruce Ambrose) if they knew John.

Life is so busy. There’s more to do that there is time to do it. With the internet and social media these days there is more to read than possibly be read. Much easier to keep up with people from your past, if you so choose. I don’t take enough time to spend with my immediate family to take time to rekindle relationships with faraway acquaintances I might barely remember or have little in common with.

So many supposed news articles are posted on places like Facebook that one doesn’t have to go looking for news – it comes to you. Even when I quickly scan down my feed I’m barely cognizant of the headlines to news stories. There’s no enough time to read about the few things I’m actually interested in to bother with all the other clutter. Like DeflateGate. So many articles I never read, but the headlines were more than enough information for me to keep up.

Recently there was a story in the news about a website named Ashley Madison being hacked, with the miscreants threatening to expose its users – people registering on line to conduct extramarital affairs. A juicy story about something I didn’t know even existed. Something else I didn’t take time to read the articles about. There was tiny buzz in the Christian community about possible leaders being exposed. Like everything else a headline would cross my feed, and that was it. Last week I remembered one headline crossing my feed about a pastor who’d been exposed by the hack who had committed suicide. I scrolled on past without clicking.

On a recent calls my dad had mentioned that John Gibson Sr. had heart surgery. On a later conversation my said reported that Dr. Gibson had passed away. Wait, not the 89 year old father, but my former classmate. Later my parents reported it had been a suicide. Still later my parents reported more details. It was only then that I started to make the connection. John was on the Ashley Madison list, and he couldn’t handle being exposed. So he killed himself.

His wife wanted to help others in the same situation, so she told her story to the press. The Gibson’s had been fighting the battle together for the past twenty years. The press, eager for fresh copy on an aging story, ran with it. I was amazed at how many outlets published stories on John. The Washington Post. CNN. People Magazine. The Huffington Post. The Blaze. Washington Times. New York Daily News. The Business Insider. Christian Today. Buzzfeed. The Baptist Press. Cosmopolitan. Christian Post. The London Daily Mail. Hollywoodlife.com. MSN. Sac Fly. Eulogized by a Pulitzer Prize winner. I was amazed but probably shouldn’t have been. We’re all so close to being the next big story. 

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