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“You won't be forgotten.”

Doug Swanson was a kid who went to the same high school as me. I never knew him, though. Probably never spoke to him. I didn’t speak much in high school, and anyway, there were thousands of students. I only remember his name because he died. Probably I would’ve forgotten even his name, if he hadn’t had the same first name as me.

He was high on something, driving his car at triple the speed limit on the busy arterial that descends a hillside, near the McDonald’s where I worked. He lost control of the vehicle, somehow launched his car into the air, and it came down in the balcony and living room of a second floor apartment. This happened while I was working at McD, a block away, but I didn’t hear the crash, only saw all the cops and paramedics afterwards. Next day, reading the paper, I learned that the victim had been a kid from my school.

When Betty Russell had to “go away” for several months, and when that spazzy kid tried to burn down the shop building, those were big events at school. This was the biggest event, though, during the 2½ years I went there.

Swanson had been a popular kid, and on Monday morning there was weeping in the locker bays. The district brought in two outside therapists for sessions with grieving students, and there was a big assembly in the gymnasium — attendance required — where everyone talked about what a great kid he’d been.

Ordinarily I skipped all the big mandatory events (still do, when possible) but for this one I was there. Not out of respect for the dead or anything, but because I thought it might be a shitstorm, and it was.

It started and ended with prayers, though this was a public school so that was illegal, even then. Teachers took turns at the microphone, telling us of Swanson’s great potential, and a line they said several times was, “You won't be forgotten.” 

I didn’t pay much attention to what the teachers said. They were teachers, so I figured it was 80% horseshit. I listened to the kids who eulogized him, though. Four kids spoke, and I (sorta) knew three of them. 

First up was Swanson’s girlfriend, a cheerleader — oddly, wearing her cheerleader outfit. I didn’t know her name, nor anything about her. I wouldn’t have even known she was a cheerleader if she hadn’t been in uniform. She said he’d been sweet, and she would always love him, and she cried, and I’ll make no snide remarks.

About the other three speakers, though, I’ll make snide remarks — Alex Buchanan, Hatchet King, and Sam Stanton.

Alex Buchanan had never spoken to me, nor me to him, because I’d always kept my distance from that bastard. We’d been strangers at the same schools since fifth grade, and his hobby was probably plucking legs off kittens. Flamboyantly cruel. He’d beaten up a semi-friend of mine, twice, years earlier when we were in junior high. A week or so before Swanson went flying, I’d seen Buchanan intentionally trip a borderline-retarded dweeb in the locker bay. I'd seen him punch a girl once. He even looked crazy. I’ll bet twenty bucks he’s in prison now. Or dead.

Someone had written a nice little speech for Buchanan, though. He read it in a nervous voice, stumbling over the bigger words, and then he motioned for the next speaker to come to the podium.

Hatchet King had beaten and battered me one afternoon, a couple of years earlier, as I'd walked home from school. “This is my street,” he’d said. “I don’t want you walking my street.” We’d never spoken before that, and never spoke after, but that day he ordered me to turn around, find a different route to my house, “or I’ll beat you but good.” I figured he’d beat me but good whether I kept walking or did a 180, so I kept walking, and came home with a fat lip, bloody nose, lots of bruises, but no broken bones. 

I don’t know why Hatchet beat me up. Also don’t know why everyone called him Hatchet, but the story probably isn’t heartwarming.

At home, my dad demanded I tell him who’d done the damage. He wanted to get someone in trouble, but I told him I didn’t know who it was. I’ve never told anyone who it was, until this page. My silence wasn’t out of some sense of childhood honor or “Thou shalt not fink,” but because if I’d named names, the next beating would’ve been worse. 

Sam Stanton delivered the best eulogy that day. It sounded sincere, and his voice cracked dramatically when he said Swanson had been his “very best friend, ever.”

Stanton had never beaten me up, but he’d threatened to, several times, and he'd shoved me into a blackboard once. In a class I’d taken with him, he’d bullied any kids he could bully, with jokes and insults and spitwads and punches. He was on the football team, he was loud, and he’d been the co-star of a little drama I’ve chuckled about ever since:

Several months earlier, I’d been sent to a vice principal’s office for skipping class (my only crime in high school, and I did it often). While I was in the waiting area, Stanton came in with his girlfriend, who was some gorgeous stuffed-bra sophomore. Their conversation was already underway when they walked in, but they didn’t lower their voices, and they didn’t stop arguing, so for the next several minutes I heard it all.

She’d become a Christian, and she was telling him that they could continue dating, but she wasn’t going to “do anything” any more. Stanton said, at first, “If you won’t put out I’ll find someone who will,” and when that charming line didn’t work, he said, “What am I supposed to do, sit in my bedroom and whack off?” 

That’s what I do, I remember thinking. That what every boy I know does. That’s what you do too, Stanton, but now you can do it seven nights a week instead of just five. Can’t remember what his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend said, but she was certainly insistent that if they went out again, she’d keep her clothes on. Then the vice principal called for me, so I can offer no more of their too-loudly spoken details.

The dear departed, Doug Swanson, had been a stranger to me, but his “very best friend, ever” was an asshole, and his other two friends who spoke at the memorial assembly were also assholes. We’re known by the company we keep, so it's fair to assume Doug Swanson was an asshole, too.

He literally left this earthly plane driving on drugs, 90 miles an hour, and easily could’ve killed more people than merely his own sorry self. But hey, who didn’t have an indiscretion or two when we were teenagers? Maybe Swanson was a great kid, and would’ve gone on to a stellar career in medicine, and cured hangnails. I hope he’s in a better place than some stranger’s balcony, which is where he left this place.

At the school, posters were hung, quoting a line that some of the teachers and his friends had said at the assembly — “You won't be forgotten.” The posters were for a fundraising drive to build a memorial, and they raised enough money for a nice remembrance for Swanson.

On a corner of the school lawn between two buildings, shaded under a couple of trees, they installed a picnic table, made of stone, with a matching stone bench. Nearby, at the wall of the building, a suitcase-sized boulder with an engraved plaque said, “Doug’s Corner,” and in smaller letters, “Doug Swanson, 1958-1975, You will not be forgotten.” It wasn’t extravagant, but the effect was warm, welcoming, and comfortable. I skipped a few classes there myself, at Doug’s Corner.

The next semester, I dropped out of high school, and since then life has been too hectic and enjoyable to give Doug Swanson much thought.

A couple of years ago, though, I visited my family in Seattle, spent an afternoon with my stoner nephew at his marihuana-infused apartment, and we went on a walk that started at the high school. He lives only a block from my almost alma mater.

My nephew and I strolled across the high school grounds, which have changed very little. All the same buildings are still there. Toward the back, where a sidewalk connects the main building to a smaller wing, is where Doug’s Corner used to be. I looked for it as we passed, but it’s not there any more. There’s no picnic table, no bench, and no engraved memorial marker.

What happened to Swanson’s memorial? I don't know, but it’s not hard to guess. Three years after he’d died, all the students who’d known him would be gone. In another twenty or thirty years, all the teachers who’d known him would’ve retired. Most likely, a new principal came in, saw Doug’s Corner, and said, “Who the hell is Doug and why does he get a corner? And do we really want kids loitering back here?” And the next day, a truck took away the picnic table, and the bench, and the engraved stone.

Maybe the memorial was moved to a different part of the school grounds? That's possible, I suppose, but I had a good view of the campus and didn't see it. I’ve also searched the school's website for any mention of Doug Swanson. There's nada. 

And I've searched the whole dang internet for Doug Swanson, adding the name of our high school in quotes, since there are lots of Doug Swansons in the world. This yields only one result: Swanson’s face on a page at e-yearbook.com. I’m there, too, several pages away. It's our yearbook from the previous year, though. Swanson got a two-page spread in the next yearbook, after his death, but that yearbook apparently isn’t on-line at all.

And there's nothing more to be found about him, or about the wreck, or about the tragedy that rocked our high school that winter. 

“You won't be forgotten,” Doug Swanson, until you are. Same as the rest of us.

 9/13/2021

itsdougholland.com 

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4 comments:

  1. This is depressing, wow. That's not a crticism, I liked it, but -- sad.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It would be sadder if he hadn't been an asshole.

      Delete
  2. We didn't have anything like this in my school. A kid was kicked out because he brought a gun to school twice, but that's all.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bringing a gun to school isn't a serious infraction until you do it again?

      Delete

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