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Ode to Feagins

Posted on February 27, 2016 by Blake Leath

For seven rambunctious years, 6th grade through 12th, I had the most affable friend, David Feagins.

Or, as everyone affectionately called him, "Feags."

You know how a soundlike a smellcan take you back in time? In the same way baked cookies take me back to my grandmother's kitchen, a particular stereo sound takes me back to Feags. 

Feags played the trumpet, a mean trumpet. He could squeak and hiss and DOMAIN that thing, man, like a limb.

It was part of him. He practiced forever, had callouses on his fingertips, and was always putting Chapstick on his swollen lips to recover.

Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, anything by Chicago or a big brass band...these were all his scene and certifiable hip cats. He would play Spinning Wheel by Blood, Sweat & Tears so frequently and so fully that the cassette tape would squeak from stretching and the deck would plead for its life, very nearly overheating in its protestations.

Feagins loved music. Absolutely loved it.

It accompanied him everywhere. 

Walk into his bedroom, and he'd head straight to a bank of Technics receivers, turntables, decks, equalizers, speakers, you name it. Cords running this way and that and taped down everywhere. He'd flip the switch on some particular hardware, fill the air with ominously humming electrical promise, tinker with a dozen silver and black dials, get things just so and perfectly right, then crank an oversized master knob 'til the whole house vibrated off the blocks.

As a teen, I and my entire family could hear Feags approaching in his pick-up truck from a mile away.

He would arrive up our gravel driveway in a stop-cloud of plinking rocks and flying dust—more friends in tow spilling out of the bed—then honk the horn and I'd gamely pile in for another rowdy night heading to Furneaux Creek or Prestonwood Cinema to catch something like Fright Night or Top Gun or anything loud and raucous with Stallone, Norris, Van Damme, Seagal, and eternally unfortunate bad guys.

In the summer, Dave would appear everywhere with a boom box, those blastable cassettes of his carrying the pool party and eventual night away on a wavy sea of sound.

He was quick to smile and wink, ceaselessly mischievous, and that soggy toothpick he'd twist mercilessly between his teeth usually indicated he had gotten himself into one crevasse or another jam. As we neared college, his upper lip finally grew some black fuzz, and he'd twirl the makings of a moustache while "scheming a scheme" or hatching new plans for future daredevil jumps, rope swings, zip-lines, dirt-bike feats, or skeet-shoot shenanigans (like ingeniously luring unsuspecting bats to nighttime feasts of cantaloupes or watermelons skewered on a barbed-wire, moonlit fence post) where he could dust them one at a time with his trusty .12 gauge.

Every year, a couple dozen of us from church would make our way northwest to Durango, CO and ski our novice feet off for the better part of a week at Purgatory. We were all sloppy Texans, christened by our chaperones as "The Wolfpack," because several of the boys were literal and figurative howlers, but Feagins was unquestionably the most maniacal man on the mountain. The second we'd slide off that lift at the top, he'd immediately twitch right or left, draw those yellow goggles down hard, gnaw his gloves off, crouch into a goofy squatted stance and, very nearly biting two fresh fingers placed masterfully between his teeth, whistle like some demented sheep herder, point those rented skis toward the bottom of the hill in the same way Babe Ruth pointed afar andwith unzipped jacket flailing and flapping around and behind him and that tattered ski pass fluttering like a flag in Marcharrive at the bottom of Demon's Run in three minutes' flat, often one or two poles lighter, and usually festooned with pine needles and tree branches springing from his cap. Circling moguls was for locals and proles, not Texans who came to claim air.

Predictably, he'd get stern warnings from Ski Patrol to "watch it" or "slow down or I'll shut you down." If they had issued traffic violations, I'm certain Dave woulda wound up in court by 10 AM, with sheafs of stuffed paper spilling from every orifice of that raggedy parka.

By college, as is often the case, I suppose, virtually everyone I knew moved away, scattering like seeds to the wind.

Twelve years later, I found my way back home and, clear out of the blue, Feagins walked into my office.

He greeted me with laughter and a bear hug that nearly lifted me off my feet, we exchanged numbers and emails, began to correspond, and promised to get together soon.

I saw him twice more.

And then, one horrific afternoon, I heard the news that he and one of his two sons had died in a tragic car accident en route to New Mexico. Red River, as I recall, perhaps destined for boating or camping or summer fun.

I eventually found myself once again at his childhood home, speechless this time as I sat on the couch where I'd sat hundreds of times before yakking and yammering my young-adult face off. I was surrounded now by his young, grief-numbed widow, their eldest boy, thirty extended-family members, and friends from days long since passed—the characters found in the bed of his pick-up truck.

I stared into the presently dark and fireless fireplace, the one we had hitherto faithfully fed pellets at his father's bidding to warm his twitchy socked-and-tired feet after a long day's work at the plant. "You boys make yourselves useful," he'd cajole and wink, "and keep that fire a roarin.'"

Feagins' mother, Linda, had already succumbed to cancer, and his precious father, Jimmy, was ill-fated to die in a car wreck en route to East Texas not long after David's passing.

David was an only child.

There were no sufficient sympathies to be shared on those occasions, and certainly no words as we watched the disproportionate caskets of Feagins and his beloved boy lowered into the dry ground on a scorching Texas morn.

Fifteen years later, Feagins is still with me.

I see him every time I enter the megastore or any of the half-dozen surrounding restaurants that sprawl needily across the vast acreage of his family's former homestead where we shot rabbits and raced Yamahas and Kawasakis.

I often park far away, so I can walk the remembered trajectory of the long drive that led to his garage.

I pass the beautiful, enormous, silently swaying pecan tree—the one literally right outside his former bedroom window—to which we nailed 1x4's for target practice and which is, today, surrounded by well-groomed, crushed-rock walking paths and black iron benches for unbeknownst shoppers who pause to snarf or smoke beneath its shade.

They have no idea, of course, nor could they—the comings and goings that happened there—and sometimes my Forresty heart longs to sit on a bench and tell them, if only to resurrect David one more time.

Dave comes alongside me, though, when I hear the recognizable screech of a teenager's truck begrudgingly halting beside me at a stoplight.

When I hear a cassette tape strain to start or squeal to stop.

When I hear static on a receiver, or in the enormous, pendulous, parabolic speakers swaying overhead at concerts, groaning to life during sound check.

He is always here when Wynton Marsalis blares his trumpet from our television set during some news program or late night talk show.

And he came rushing back to me when I saw the trailer for Don Cheadle's forthcoming Miles Ahead.

Yes, Feags is always here, from pick-up truck to pellet gun to pellet stove, from summer tunes to ski slopes to all things stereo.

I see a glowy dial on a Technics or Marantz receiver, and blam, it's 1985 and I'm standing in his room, surrounded by posters, staring into the same horizon that I see now when I'm checking out at the megastore and stuffing claptrap into a plastic bag.

Gimme the reverb from an old Ohm speaker, and snap, we're listening to tapes and demos he's made, the ones he hopes might be tickets up and out and forward to someplace else, or better, or just different.

He was restless, knees always bouncing, eyes often on the door.

And though his land haunts my memory, my mind knows that his soul is free.

He is music now.

When it comes to great music, especially jazz, I'm liquified jello on the floor. A man, now 46, who wishes his crazy friend was still here, showing up loudly and unannounced at his office, asking when the Leathal Weapon can knock off and head to a show in that fiery, snorting, stomping, fuming rig running right out front.

What I wouldn't give to run outside, hop in, and join him for one long, loud, last ride. Windows down, radio blaring, heads bobbing in time, lips pursed and cheeks puffed and fingers playing those imaginary air trumpets.

Life is short, my friends.

Enjoy the music.

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