Back then, you had to go to the record store, and look through this big catalog. I wanted to buy my father some of his music, something that would resonate, to show him I'd grown up to the point of buying a good gift. I ran my finger down the list of names, page after page after page of singers I had never heard of. Then I found it, and the words jumped out like a thunderclap: Jimmy Reed.
This was the sound, I thought, of my dad's youth. There were these wild blurts of harmonica, like tangy overgrown collards, over a slapping, laconic beat, and then a series of half-sung/half-spoken lyrics that gave off a slurry sense of no-good late-night trouble. Jimmy Reed. My father, gone now for more than two decades, was named Jimmy, too. It was perfect.
So, I ordered a double-album best-of reissue of 1950s-era Vee Jay sides from the tiny GNP-Crescendo imprint, almost two months before Father's Day. The Best of Jimmy Reed, arrived, like, 10 weeks later. By then, I'd already substituted a card and something devastatingly routinea collared shirt, probably. The Jimmy Reed ended up as a Christmas present.
My father poured a cup of coffee, put the first record on, and got to thinking. By the time Reed had loped through a bottom-string blues called Take Out Some Insurance," he was pulling things out of the closetstarting with his senior yearbook, from Thomas Jefferson High down in Port Arthur, Texas. Dad, a hard-handed plant worker, never did things like that. Never talked about the past, never even seemed, to me, inclined to consider it.
He quietly flipped the pages. Then he said, almost as an aside: You know, I dated Janis Joplin." He looked up then, likely having heard my jaw thud against my chest. You what?" I finally stammered. Everybody," he finally said, dismissively, dated Janis Joplin."
I've scoured that annual, looking for her. No luck. But I did find somebody else, another Jimmy, and I think of him now, too, when I hear Jimmy Reed. Jimmy Johnson (later a championship-winning coach at the University of Miami and then with the NFL's Dallas Cowboys) graduated with my father. Then a No. 56-wearing star guard on a district title-winning 4A team, Johnson is all over the book, of courseeven earning accollades as one of the Future Business Leaders of America on page 180. That's him on the fourth row.
Then, there's fellow senior Jimmy N. Deriso. The things by his name, to be honest, are much more intriguinggiving no hint to what his own life will bring. The bowling club, I can grasp. My father was a man who had his own ball, with matching bag. But the French club?
I didn't dare ask him anything more that day, so this remains its own mystery. Really, I was lost in the delicious idea of being Janis Joplin's son, subsisting on her Jack Daniel's backwash through a series of dangerous gigs at white-trash poolhalls. Fast forward to now and The Best of Jimmy Reed (a Father's Day gift given at Christmas) provides powerful atmospheresometimes to the point where a tear squeezes out as I smilebut, perhaps unsurprisingly, no context. Home room lieutenant governor, Dad? Really?
There were several other items stuffed inside my father's high school yearbookincluding, oddly enough, a hand-written note from me to my mom. It must have meant something to my dad. (Of course, by then Janis Joplin was gone, dead of a 1970 overdose inside a room at Los Angeles' Landmark Motor Hotel. No, this was to my real mother.) I figure, from my handwriting, that I was maybe seven-years-old: To Mom, I love you because: 1) You love me. 2) You cook food." (I'm not making this up.) 3) You cleans." (Spelling, OK, was a problem, back then.) 4) You kiss me when I'm hurt. 5) You take care of me. 6) You take me to church. 7) You take me to get new clothes. 8) You think about me when I'm gone. 9) You play with me. 10) Your my mother!" (Again, with the spelling.)
Even now, though, there are lessons to be learned from these Jimmys, from the yearbook, Janis Joplin, the note, all of it.
Stay away from expectations. Things don't always end up going, long after those heady days of learning high-school French, just as we'd imagined. No matter. That doesn't mean they won't work out. Cook the food, kiss somebody when they're hurt, think about them when they're gone, so on, and you just might discover that. Keep it, and my father said this all the time, simple. And something else: Your life, or at least the living of it, counts for someone, whether you end up as a one-time Future Business Leader of America named Jimmy or that other one. My dad.
All of that being said, though, seriously, take out some insurance.
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