“Unique” is a word much abused as a descriptor for human beings. I have heard many, many people described as unique, people who are actually a great deal more like other people than they would like us to believe. Scratch the surface of a gothic kid and underneath you’ll find someone who is most likely just as desperate to find his place and fit in as any fraternity boy. This is not a criticism — just an observation of how seldom we meet a truly unique individual, someone for whom being different is not a style, but a calling.
My friend, Terry Presnell, was a unique person. I thought he might be a poser, or simply an advanced prankster, back in high school when we were on the tennis team, and he wore a rubber Richard Nixon Halloween mask in a match against West Wilkes, our conference rival, and refused to take it off, despite the protest of his opponent and the other coach. Nothing in the rules against wearing a mask to play tennis, Terry said. He wore it, and won the match.
Terry wasn’t big on rules anyway. Rules came from institutions, as far as he was concerned, and he had great, venomous contempt for institutions — schools, churches, government, you name it. Like Huck Finn, he was afraid that institutions were out to “civilize” him, and when he looked around, he didn’t much care for what civilization had come to mean in this age — war, hypocrisy, tyranny, fighting over oil but not genocide. He didn’t want any part of that “civilization.”
For Terry, the continental United States was his Mississippi River, and he drifted all across this country, never allowing himself to become too “tied down” to any particular job. Over the years, he called me from all sorts of places — Las Vegas, Kitty Hawk, somewhere in New Mexico, the Keys in Florida. He kept as much as possible to warmer climates, with the beach as a special favorite. He took any sort of job he could find, even delivering newspapers if necessary. He basked in the sun, but he really thrived in the nightlife. Within a few days, he became a “personality” in any town he lived in, which was as natural to him as breathing, with his background in professional wrestling, radio, and gonzo journalism. He had been a columnist for several newspapers, even started his own rag in the Ozarks, which lasted for a good while until he got behind on some debts and then pulled a stunt that would prove to be the beginning of the end for him.
Terry owed some company $1,400, which may not seem like an insurmountable sum unless you don’t have it and can’t get it. He could have called his friends — we would have pitched in and got him out of a jam. But he had never taken charity from any of us, and wasn’t going to start then. So he thought of a way out. He drew up a fake death certificate, sent it to the company, and hit the road with everything he could take with him, leaving whatever was left behind.
This bad decision — which I can easily imagine Terry rationalizing as a silly prank that he would somehow make good on later — led to other bad decisions. I believe there were some counterfeit checks, identity theft, I can’t remember what all. He stayed on the run for months, but one night in Ohio he got pulled over on a routine traffic stop, and within minutes, it was all over. In some ways, it was a relief to Terry. As the bad decisions accumulated, there was just no way to keep going without making another one, to get him through the next day.
He went to prison for a few years, and we lost touch. Then, a little over a year ago, he reappeared in our hometown, about twice his normal weight, barely able to move. Prison had been hard on him. He had a variety of very serious health problems, and no real way to make a living. Some of us did what we could for him, donating furniture, a microwave, a computer, groceries, whatever he needed to get on his feet. But he couldn’t get on his feet, not in any meaningful way. Part of being Terry was being on the move, beholden to no man and no institution.
He got by in a dingy little rent-controlled apartment for about a year. I saw him whenever I got home, which was only a couple of times. We visited and reminisced and laughed a lot — he had the greatest laugh in the world. He laughed with his whole body, his shoulders literally shaking up and down if he was really amused.
The last time I saw him, right around Thanksgiving, he gave me a grocery bag packed full of movies and CDs. He said he was getting the hell out of Sparta and moving back to Hickory, a town where he probably had the most success in making a decent living and where he had become pretty well known for his column on pop culture.
Now we know the real story. He “moved” to Hickory as a launching pad for his last big adventure, a trip to Florida, where he spent the last days of his life driving around, sleeping in the car most likely, or on the beach, drinking beer, which he had not really been able to do much with his health in such poor shape. He wrote a few fond farewells to his friends, and assembled packages for a couple of people containing the most meaningful scraps of his life. Somehow, he managed to get a gun, which he used to shoot himself two weeks ago.
Another friend from the old days, Stewart, called me last week to tell me about it. Initially, there were no reports of a note, which didn’t sound like Terry. Sure enough, two days later, Stewart called me again and said he had received a package, along with a note, in which Terry basically said that with his health getting poorer by the day, he was looking at another lengthy hospital stay, dialysis, even worse. He quoted Neil Young, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” He said if the preachers were right, he was “probably headed South,” but he thought the company would be more interesting there anyway. He said if reincarnation turned out to be true, he might come back as a fat Chihuahua.
He said that if there was going to be a service, he wanted only for a few of his friends to get together, drink a few beers, listen to some music from the old days, and remember some of the good times. He said he absolutely did not want the service to be held in a church, or for there to be any preachers.
There was a service on Saturday, at Saddle Mountain Baptist Church in Ennice, N.C. There were preachers. One of them had talked with him a handful of times in the hospital, the other had never met him at all. I was asked to speak, too, so I got up and shared a few stories, but whatever I said was swallowed up whole by 45 minutes of pure alter call preaching. For these two fellows, Terry was not a person. He was a platform. His life had no meaning for them other than as a cautionary tale for the rest of us. At one point, the preacher said, “Since I didn’t know Terry, I asked God what to say here today, and God said, “Remember me,’” which, it turns out, is translated as a very long story about the preacher’s own salvation, and how, thank God, he had not made the choices Terry had made.
It turns out that most of the memorial service for Terry was not really for Terry after all. Several times, I thought about walking out. I wish I had. After the service, someone told me they wished I had had an opportunity for a rebuttal.
Well, here it is. I don’t presume to know where Terry is today, but if God has a sense of humor, Terry may be pleasantly surprised with his accommodations. On the other hand, those responsible for denying him his final wishes ought to be deeply ashamed. Like Huck Finn, Terry once faked his own death. Unlike Huck Finn, he did not get to watch his own funeral. If he had, he would have been outraged. I have known him for 35 years, and I can guarantee that much. He would not have been alone. I spoke with at least a dozen of his friends after the service in front of the church, and every single one of them was upset by the service. Someone said it was more like a revival than a memorial for Terry. Someone else said those preachers ought to be ashamed.
Sometime this spring, there will be another service, the one he asked for. Call it a memorial mulligan, a do over. We’re going to get together, play some of the old songs, and drink a few beers in his honor. Then we are going to divide up his ashes and take them to various beaches — wherever anyone is going on vacation this summer — and set him loose on the tide.
If I see a fat Chihuahua running loose on the shore, I swear I’ll bring it home.