I have become a fan of listening to podcasts recently. I’m not sure why I avoided them before, but my son is a fan and puts out a podcast with his girlfriend that I enjoy listening to, so I started looking for other things that might be interesting. I stumbled across a podcast called Heavyweight, where the host Jonathan tries to help people resolve something from their past that has bothered or troubled them. Sometimes it results in getting the answer the person is seeking, but often the process just helps them find peace with whatever their issue was. One episode dealt with Jonathan trying to patch up a relationship with his father and uncle. Another dealt with a woman who was kicked out of her college sorority without any real reason and numerous years later she wanted to know why. I really like the vibe of the show as well. You get a sense of virtual hand-holding or a virtual hug being given. I guess it makes you feel good. If you’d like to give it a listen, I’ve included a link to the web page at the bottom of this post.
After listening to a half a dozen or so episodes I started to wonder what my heavy weight might be. I have a lot of things that I wish I could change or go back in time and fix. But it was a dream I had the other night about an old friend that made me wonder why I lost touch with this person. It was troubling enough for me that I grew tired of thinking about the dream after waking up and got out of bed a half-hour early just to clear my head. If I had the opportunity to be on Heavyweight I guess it might go something like this:
HEAVYWEIGHT – Today’s Episode: Chris and “My Friend Joe From Work”
In 1986 I was fresh out of college and by August I had started my first ever real job as a forensic scientist trainee for a small, private crime lab. The internship I had completed in my last semester of college had given me some confidence and I thought I was prepared for the job.
The boss’s name was Andrew, and he would not suffer any fools. I was a fool. I had no real idea of what was expected of me or how to take initiative and it showed. My internship had provided me structure and gave me tasks to perform as I learned how to analyze the minute details of stuff that is evidence. At this lab, it took me a while to figure out that I wasn’t there to learn stuff, I was expected to know stuff and apply it. I was learning the ropes as a trainee, except I wasn’t really a trainee in matters of scientific analyses, but rather a trainee for a period of time to see if I had the stuff to do the job. Andrew once told me that he didn’t expect me to know everything, but he did expect me to try to find an answer to things I needed to learn. That was good to know, but I got the feeling that if I didn’t start applying myself I was going to be gone. I just didn’t know how to accomplish being more productive.
One time I got scolded by Andrew for having my hands in my pockets. He said it made me look like I wasn’t doing anything. Thirty years later and I still avoid putting my hands in my pockets unless they are really cold. I wasn’t given a key to the building at first and it took me probably at least a half year before I finally mustered enough courage to ask him for one. Andrew seemed like he was testing me, to see how much I could take. He set the tone for how I would approach my bosses in subsequent jobs – avoid them as much as possible. When Andrew gave me something to do, it was more like a command rather than a request. I was slow to find my purpose there, but there was one saving grace – Andrew’s son Joe also worked there and Joe and I hit it off from day one.
My first day on the job I pulled into the parking lot and parked my tired 1971 Oldsmobile 442 in one of the spots and knocked on the door. Joe had been given the task of guiding me around the lab and showing me the ropes. Joe was a couple of years older than I was and it was clear we liked the same things. He saw my 442 and said he was into old cars too. He had owned a 1974 Camaro that was stolen from Six Flags in Gurnee and he really missed it. We talked about cars and music. We both had older siblings that provided us with similar musical tastes. He took to calling me Skippy for some dumb reason and we became buddies quick and had a lot of fun.
I gradually started figuring out how to at least look busy and productive and avoid having the boss screw with my mind. I eventually grew to gain some of Andrew’s trust and I came to respect the man. He was a tough boss, and I benefited from that. I learned to figure things out and to take initiative. But I might not have lasted very long without connecting with Joe. Having the trust of the boss’s son was definitely in my favor. Andrew eventually promoted me from a trainee to a Forensic Scientist 1, gave me a raise, and I felt like I had won him over.
Some of my fond memories of working with Joe were centered around our lunch break. We would go grab something to eat or take our sack lunches outside to the picnic table in the grassy area near the parking lot and have lunch with a couple other coworkers. Joe and I would finish eating and then grab a football or baseball and gloves out of our cars and play catch until it was time to go back inside. I had a bocce ball set that I kept in the trunk of the car and we would have a great time putting our own spin on the game. We often came back inside somewhat sweaty after a hot lunch break.
We talked a lot about our childhood. We shared stories about friends and family. Joe took pleasure in learning about my Kansas family background and I secretly wished I was Italian after hearing his stories of his family. His uncle Rocco was a great source of stories. Rocco played for George Halas and the Chicago Bears briefly in the 1940s, and would occasionally visit Andrew at the lab. He was a character.
I would spend the weekends back home with my longtime friends, often telling them about what Joe and I were up to. I always referred to Joe as “my friend Joe from work,” which made them roll their eyes. I think they grew a little annoyed hearing about my friend Joe from work.
We did a lot of similar things in our respective childhoods, but he had more of a motley crew of friends. Joe’s story of a buddy named Clifford, who’s dad would yell “Dammit to Hell, Clifford!” whenever he was frustrated with the kid, which I found amusing and still sticks with me today. I catch myself uttering it still, even though I have never met Clifford or his dad. He had this other guy he knew that seemed like that guy from the movie Sling Blade, and Joe would use that voice and say “Mmm… I don’t know what all or what of it, or something.” Such a corny saying, but funny to him and to me as an outsider as well. Another kid Joe would talk about had a speech impediment and would say his phone number as “pipe-six-six-o-pour-pipe-seven,” that’s 566-0457 if you are wondering. I heard that story so many times remember it like it was my own phone number. I catch myself asking my kids to pass me something at the dinner table with the added instruction to not touch it, a nod to Joe’s story about his younger brother getting ice cream from a guy he didn’t like. And I still occasionally will say “shep-up” for ketchup and “eegoot” for yogurt because Joe’s kids said it that way.
In the nine years that Joe and I worked there together, we had a lot of fun. I eventually got acclimated to my purpose there and became productive. Andrew was nearing retirement and was softening somewhat. I think the prospect of retirement and his growing number of grandchildren were taking his mind off of work stuff. Andrew did eventually plan to leave the lab, but before doing so he brought in his oldest son Charles to be the assistant director and learn the ropes. I think his goal was to groom Charlie to take over, but I’m not sure that pleased the board of directors that were in charge of this little regional private crime laboratory. They had let Andrew manage the lab his way and maybe they were looking for a change. To Charlie’s credit, he had a more gentle and likable style, and with what little time I got to know Charlie, we got along quite well.
Andrew started spending less time in the lab and it wasn’t long before we learned that he had cancer. Charlie took over the reins of the lab in an interim capacity as director and we soldiered on. Andrew passed away in December 1992.
Then along came the Brown’s Chicken Massacre in Palatine, Illinois in January 1993. Palatine Police contracted our lab for general crime lab duties, but we also assisted with crime scene processing and they requested our help. I spent seven days there doing my best, assisting in the preservation of evidence that would eventually convict two guys of seven homicides. But before the case was solved, it had turned cold as they say, and blame was starting to get cast our way for the lack of progress in solving these deaths. Eventually, the laboratory board decided to make some changes and replace Charlie with another coworker he had trained. First to go was Joe, fired by the new staff and Charlie was also let go. The era of Andrew and his kids was over.
Even though I was upset that Joe and Charlie had been let go, I stuck around because I was a newlywed, had a mortgage and no other options for employment at the time. Joe was kind enough to get me an interview with another laboratory in DuPage County and I was offered a position, but having to move and leave something that I had worked hard to earn my place at was hard to leave. I felt like I had lost a battle but was given a reprieve and allowed to stay even though it was no secret I was fond of Joe and Charlie. I wanted to be loyal to Joe and stand up for him and his brother, but I was scared. I often wonder if Joe might have thought that I had betrayed him by staying. I really don’t know. I swallowed my pride, opted to stay and tried to become a team player with the new lab management.
My career at the lab would last only a couple more years. I like to blame OJ Simpson for me losing my job. The murders essentially put the forensic science field under its own microscope as OJ’s defense team tore apart the experts and made them look inept. The board of our private lab didn’t want our lab to be scrutinized, so they decided that pursuing an accreditation status with a lab governing body was the way to go. One of the accreditation requirements was that anyone working in the lab had to possess a natural science degree, and my major in law enforcement and minor in chemistry didn’t cut it. The official wording was “your position was eliminated and replaced it with one needing different educational requirements” or something like that. I was told thanks and good luck and escorted out.
I phoned Joe right after that and informed him that I had been let go. We chatted briefly and he seemed like he was moving on with life. I think that is probably the last time I spoke with my friend Joe from work.
In the mid-2000s, I ran into Charlie when we were subpoenaed to testify at the Brown’s Chicken murder trial. We were being deposed and spent a couple of hours together sitting on wooden chairs in a sterile old courtroom office. We chatted about how our lives had changed for the better since being gone from the lab and I think we were both relieved to hear each other say things were going great. I asked about Joe and he said that Joe hadn’t really talked much with him. That was a big surprise to me because they were all such close-knit siblings. I could sense that Charlie had the same feelings and concerns about his relationship with Joe that I had.
When Facebook came along and I finally jumped on board, I searched for him and did not find him. That wasn’t surprising to me as Joe was a pretty private guy. But I did find that his son was there. I sent him a private message, telling him who I was and asked if he could tell his dad that I had been thinking about him and tell him hello. He replied that he would. I didn’t really expect it to evoke a response from Joe, and I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t receive one.
And with that, I moved on from thinking about Joe unless something triggered a memory. I stopped dwelling over a lost friendship until the dream that I had once again rekindled my curiosity.
So here’s where Jonathon from Heavyweight would ask what do I want to accomplish. Do I want to reconnect with Joe? I’m not really sure. I guess I am more prone to let sleeping dogs lie. But I do have questions. Did I do something that made him mad at me? Did he just decide to walk away from the past and look ahead to the future? Is he doing well? Does he ever think about me?
I was curious about my old lab and a search for information on them found that they had changed their name and moved from their original location. As I looked through the website I discovered that a couple of employees that I had previously worked with were still there and looked to be doing well. And then I found an article about a celebration of the lab’s 50th anniversary, and there was a picture of Joe. I was a little shocked. I never would have thought that he would reconnect with them after the history of what he and his brother had experienced. He was there to receive an honor in memory of his father Andrew and Andrew’s contribution to the establishment of the crime lab. I guess Joe felt that it was a sign of respect and important enough to honor it. He had a lot less hair (as do I!) but overall looked great. That kind of gives me hope that maybe he isn’t avoiding me on purpose.
Maybe seeing his picture is enough. I guess I will honor his privacy and let it be. I still have fond memories. I don’t want to ruin them. Writing this was pretty cathartic for me. So, to my friend Joe from work, if you are out there, I still think of you and hope you are doing well.
Your old friend, Skippy.