Last night a group of us got together at the Annex in Logan to plan a memorial service for our old friend, Billy Jack Shiplet. It was uncharted territory for all of us – there are those of us who had sat in a funeral home with a professional and filled in the blanks – “this song would be fine, use this picture,” but none of us had done a start to finish, don’t forget the guest book, what order do we do the prayer and scripture and video in sort of planning session, all alone with no help other than the seven of us.
It began awkwardly – I was sort of in charge, but only because I called BJ’s brother Kenneth and offered to get something together – and at some point in the initial small talk I had to speak up and state our purpose and get us on track with the planning. It was hard – none of us want to have to do this. He shouldn’t be dead – he should be at home recovering from his knee surgery and enjoying his new granddaughter. It was a little chilling – we’re all high school friends, and like the rest of the world, we go blithely through life assuming that we’ll live to be a hundred years old. But it was also, if I can say it, sweet and funny and warm – once we chilled out and got through the order of service (will Tom Humble sing? Pete could you say a prayer? [he said he’d rather sing] Can we shoot off a firework immediately after the service?), we began to tell stories.
Billy Jack Shiplet became my friend when I moved to Logan from San Jon in 1964. I remember my daddy taking me to Creao and Jack’s house in town across from the school one early summer morning – I have no recollection what we were doing there, unless it was just a drop in for a cup of coffee sort of visit. We went in and Creao told me hello and gave me a hug and then turned to the table where four year-old Billy Jack sat with a bowl of cereal and a cup of sweet milky coffee. I was a skinny scrawny scaredy cat and he was the biggest kid I had ever seen – already tall and strong and hefty. He took me into his room and showed me his toys – more toys that I had ever seen in one place – and then we went out to the garage and I got to pick out a yellow kitten to take home with me.
And so it began. We were in the same class throughout school, and he never missed a single day of school. He was always right there, in the next row, sometimes asking to copy off my high school history test, tormenting me with teasing (he and Jerry Bob were relentless – guys who were like brothers to me – who gave me a noogie almost every day in 7th grade), but ever ready to fight any battle I faced.
The stories last night were hilarious. BJ was quick and funny and never missed a chance to see the humor in whatever situation we found ourselves. He tormented teachers, who in turn loved him. I’ve tried to write them down so that I can relay them, but honestly every time I start to capture that essence of him on paper, I start to tear up. Maybe later in the week when it’s not so fresh that we’ve lost him I’ll be able to tell those crazy tales.
So last night we got together and planned a funeral. I, who love a good funeral, was determined that we all create a service that will convey to his kids (they live in Missouri) how incredibly alive and funny and essential he was to our childhoods and to our lives in general. Although they’re having a service there, we wanted him to have a hometown sendoff.
I had a plan that included covering all the bases and making sure the details were taken care of for Friday morning. But my plan was overtaken by the reality – we have lost someone who was always there, always making us laugh, always taking care of us, always creating a diversion from what we thought was boring small-town life. At the end of the evening it was the stories that got us through our task, and on Friday morning, it will be the stories that comfort his brother and sister and wife and kids. It always comes back to the stories.