One of my fondest memories of childhood was watching the stop-motion animated special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" every December at my best friend Steven’s house. My sister, Steven and I would gather around the television, dressed in our pajamas, eating popcorn or some sort of TV-watching treat, and wait in high anticipation for the CBS "special presentation" introduction to play, which signified the beginning of the hourlong program. It was something we did as far back as I can remember.
But in December 1985, that tradition ended. Steven died in an auto accident. He was 10 years old.
I remember hearing about it from a friend in my fourth-grade class at Barger Elementary. Actually, I was late to class, which was pretty much an everyday occurrence. A mutual friend caught me just as I was about to open the door and hand my teacher my pink tardy slip. She yelled at me from across the hall. "Did you hear? Did you hear?" she said. "Steven’s dead."
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Knowing I was late and afraid of getting into trouble, I opened the door to class, gave my teacher the tardy slip and sat down at my desk. I didn’t mention it for the rest of the day.
When I got home, my aunt, whom I lived with at the time, sat my sister and me down at the kitchen table. I knew what was coming. But I remember hoping that it was all a dream and that maybe she might have another piece of news she was sharing, something other than what, deep down, I knew she was going to say. "Steven died last night," she told us. "He died in a car wreck."
Looking back on it now with kids of my own, I know it took much more strength than I could possibly muster for my aunt to be the bearer of such tragic news. At 10 years old, it was my first experience with death. But it was different from the death of a grandparent or the death of a pet, the kinds of death that 10-year-olds should have to deal with if they are forced to deal with such a subject. But the death of a best friend, a child, someone who was my equal—it was something so big, so incomprehensible, that I didn’t know how to process it. I didn’t know how to make it real.
I knew the facts. Steven's mother was driving down East Brainerd Road on a Wednesday night. It was raining. Steven was in the backseat. Their car hydroplaned after driving over a manhole cover and was T-boned by an oncoming car. It happened to be on Steven’s side. He died instantly. When paramedics came, they had to lie to his mom, telling her he was still alive, to get her out of the car. She was injured but OK.
I wasn’t allowed to go to Steven’s funeral. It was feared that it would be too much for me to handle at such a young age. And so I never got to properly say goodbye to him.
It took me a long time to cry. In fact, it was three years later when I finally did. And I exploded. I was angry, sad, heartbroken, confused. I threw things. I beat my fists against walls. I wanted to know why and how this could have happened. And, of course, the only answer my aunt could give me was, "I don't know."
I can still remember his laugh. It was a sort of cackle, a series of cartoonish, hearty yucks. And I remember his dark brown hair cut straight across the middle of his forehead. And I remember the way he used to move his jaw up and down, mouth opening and closing as he cut paper with scissors. He had just gotten glasses and braces. I thought he was so grown up.
It’s funny what things will remind you of the past. This time of year, I always think about Steven—not for long, but just enough to make me smile. After he died, I never watched "Rudolph" again. It wasn’t necessarily because it would have been too painful. It just never occurred to me.
Now, with kids of my own, I undoubtedly will watch it again at some point. It won’t be quite the same. There will be no rotating, multicolored "special" coming toward us as the CBS logo flashes on the screen, indicating a special presentation, as we wait in high anticipation for the cartoon classic to begin. CBS quit airing it sometime in the late 1980s. And now, "Rudolph" can be seen on YouTube anytime, though CBS still shows it every year during the holiday season. But once my children are old enough, they will begin to form their own memories of watching "Rudolph." And one day, they’ll learn about the memories I hold of watching it with my best friend Steven.
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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