Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Sad Tale of Billy Brown - The Company You Keep

Decisions you make in life, particularly decisions made early in life, can have profound affect on the rest of your life.  One key decision is who you choose as your friends.

I had mentioned or alluded to Billy Brown in earlier postings, but never, I do not think, did an exclusive posting on his sad life story.   Don't feel too sorry for Billy - it turns out he did some pretty horrific things.   But what is "sad" is that he had so many opportunities in life, but squandered them all in a fit of drug and alcohol abuse and self-pity.

I met Billy when he moved to our small town in Central New York.  Billy was from Virginia - what today they call "Northern Virginia" - Fairfax County and its environs.   It was hardly "the country" or rural Alabama, but to kids from Central New York, three-feet-deep in snow, it seemed like an exotic, far-off location.   At the time, Southern things were coming into vogue.  The whole "Southern Rock" thing got started, with Lynyrd Skynyrd and all.  The "Dukes of Hazzard" was playing on the television (and no, there is no Hazzard County here in Georgia - I checked).

But to us frozen Northerners, Billy was as exotic as a Pacific Islander would have been.  We pestered him with questions about living in "The South" even though his experiences in the suburbs of Washington, DC were about the same as ours in New York.   And he relished the attention.  Pretty soon, he started affecting a Southern accent, wearing big-buckle belts, cowboy boots, and even a cowboy hat.   And the girls loved it.   The more attention he got from this, the more "southern" he became.

It might have all been harmless fun at that point, but things took a turn for the worse.   There was some talk that he had some difficulties with his parents.   And maybe there were difficulties in adjusting to a new school and a new town.   But the main problem was that he started hanging out with the wrong people.   At first, I used to hang out with him.  Back then, we were all smoking pot and drinking beer.   Not good for your psyche or your grade average, but it wasn't about to kill anyone.   But pretty soon, he gravitated to harder drugs and harder folks, and I sort of lost track of him at that point.

A friend told me he was arrested for breaking into the town's pharmacy and stealing prescription drugs.   At that point, I walked away.  He was headed down the wrong path and headed for self-destruction.   His parents, being somewhat wealthy, were able to extricate him from legal trouble.  Since he was only 17, he was adjudicated as a minor and sent back out on the streets.   Our legal system assumes that until you're 18, you don't know what the fuck you are doing (which is largely true) and that there should be no legal consequences as a result (which is a very bad idea).

Like I said, we drifted apart after he started doing shit like that, and the next year I went away to college and General Motors.  When I came back to my home town on occasion, I would meet some of my old friends, and we would talk about what everyone was up to.  And Billy was up to no good. After graduating from High School (or being asked to leave, I am not sure which) he decided to hang out around town, work odd jobs, and live with his parents.   He hung out in bars (the drinking age being 18 back then) and also hung out with high school kids who looked up to him because he was older, had a secondhand Camaro, and would buy beer for them.

Even though adolescence for him was a nightmare, he chose to continue living it for years to come.  And this is the part I don't understand - people who live with their parents and at the same time say they detest their parents.   If you don't like hanging out with them, why not leave?  But maybe there is some sort of crippling emotional tie going on here.  They stay at home, living in the basement until age 30 and beyond, hoping for a parental bond or love that is never forthcoming.   Perhaps, like the addict, they are entrapped by smaller and smaller doses of reward, the longer they continue the game.

Whatever the reason, things went from bad to worse, to horrific in short order.   Billy lost his car to a DUI wreck, and lost his license as well.   To get around (to the big city to buy drugs or get drunk) he would "borrow" cars from the local gas station.  Our town was like Mayberry, RFD.  People would leave their car at the gas station, put the key under the floor mat, and leave a note on the dashboard saying what work they wanted done on it.   It was a small town, and a trusting place.

Billy would pick a car and drive it to the city and then bring it back before sunrise.  He did this a number of times and never got caught, as the car was always right back where it was supposed to be, before anyone noticed.  He had graduated from breaking and entering to grand theft auto.

But one night, he decided to "borrow" a Cadillac from the gas station and go into the city to visit some bars and buy some drugs.  Early the next morning, drunk as a skunk and wired on who-knows-what, he sped back to town, weaving all over the road.  Coming in the other direction was a bride-to-be, returning from a "girls night out" on the night before her wedding.  Billy hit her head-on, crushing her Datsun into a ball of tin-foil.

She might have survived, if help had been summoned quickly, or first-aid administered.  But Billy, worried for his own safety from the law, ran away.  The young lady bled to death before help could be summoned.

Strangely enough, Billy's strategy worked.  Since no one could tie him to the scene of the crime, and since he wasn't around to take a breathalyzer test, it was nearly impossible for the State to build a case against him - not even for stealing the car, much less DUI, manslaughter, or second-degree murder.   So they plea-bargained it out and Billy went to jail for an alarmingly short period of time and was back out on the streets again in no time, hanging out with, and buying beer for, high school students.

Now, one would have thought that after killing someone like that, you would not have returned to your home town. But apparently the well of low-self-esteem is bottomless.   That was the last I heard about Billy - third-hand as it was.

I am not sure what the point of all this is, other than my Mother used to have a saying, "chose your friends wisely" which I never understood entirely.  After all, you don't choose your friends, do you?   Isn't it some sort of mutual thing?  You can't force friendship on other people (although I've seen it tried!) so you don't really have a "choice" of who to be friends with - right?

I think what she meant was, you do have a choice who not to be friends with, and when you start hanging out with sketchy people, well, you will end up doing sketchy things.  The normative cues provided by crackheads will eventually persuade you to start smoking crack.

One reason I ran away from Billy and his new friends is that I saw him doing horrific things and didn't want to be drawn into that.  If I had continued to hang out with him, I would end up doing harder drugs and start to think that maybe breaking into stores and living with Mom and Dad weren't such bad deals after all.

I had another friend - a relative, actually - who started to go down the same path.  He started to hang out with noxious friends - sketchy people from the other side of the tracks who had checkered histories.  One had been dishonorably discharged from the Army and - surprise, surprise - lived with his Mother in a trailer.  He encouraged my relative to do stupid and reckless things.  And through this one friend, he met another, and pretty soon, they were hanging out, smoking pot, doing LSD, and driving drunk.   He was fortunate that he got caught early on, as I think even he realized his friends were taking him nowhere fast.

A similar thing - on a lesser scale - happened to me, and it is one of those "there but for the grace of God" kind of deals.  When I dropped out of college (again, poor choice of friends, plus drugs and beer) I moved back to my home town and got a job in the nearby city.  And I started to hang out with some of my old friends - and new ones - who liked to smoke pot and drink beer.   At least I wasn't living at home.   But the nexus of it was, I was going nowhere fast, and neither were my new "friends" who were getting into harder and harder drugs - smoking opium (no, really) and doing this crazy new thing of the 1980's called "rock cocaine" - you smoked it!

I noped out of that.  Maybe after seeing what happened to my relative and to Billy Brown, I realized I wasn't much different than them, but just luckier.  If I had kept going down the same path, I would have ended up like Billy Brown - in a world of woe with no way out.

Older people like to say stupid things to young people, such as "these are the best years of your life!" and other nonsense.   A better adage is "youth is wasted on the young" - and if you see some of these YouTube videos where teen-somethings dare each other to jump off the roof of their parents' house, you can see what is meant by that.   What seems like ten seconds of thrills to a youngster, looks more like a lifetime of aches and pains to an older person, who still feels the pain from that knee injury incurred at a tender age, decades ago.  Again, decisions you make while young have profound impact later on in life.