Jody Jividen and I were, on one hand, similar and likeminded: both fierce competitors who loved basketball, and on that same hand we both had a deep affinity for music. On the other we were polar opposites. He’d known what he wanted from an early age. He was born to be a sportswriter. He was passionate. As a youth, he would write about games he watched on T.V. – unfortunately he was a life-long Detroit Lions devotee. As a Dunbar High scribe, Chuck Landon took him to the Charleston Daily Mail newsroom for his indoctrination into real journalism. He knew the Marshall J-School was the place for him. There he could run cross country, attend class, and work at The Parthenon – day and night, driven, focused. He, like so many of his friends there, immersed himself into that world: running, writing, and “occasionally” drinking a beer. Nothing else mattered.
I was a walking contradiction. A couple months after accepting a position at the DM, hired by the great Sam Hindman for the 5 a.m. obituaries shift, I gave up my basketball scholarship at The University of Charleston. Three knee injuries before my 19th birthday, one on each leg as a freshman, left me, in my mind, less athletic than I needed to be to continue. I wish I’d talked to Yod about it before I threw in the towel. I was frustrated, but not finished. I imagine now one of those classic scenes with him, where he’d been mostly quiet for an hour or two then suddenly a topic would strike a nerve in him and he’d begin pontificating loudly, animated, long arms flailing. Then as quickly as he started he’d stop. You’d be sitting there wide-eyed, hair blown back from his outburst. “You only have one window, one chance. Dig deeper,” he might have said. I was a Secondary Education/English major because I wanted to coach basketball. Basketball was my only passion to that point. Without it I spiraled out of control.
I’d worked at The Ghost Ship Restaurant in Murrells Inlet, S.C., the summer before being hired, and turned down an internship with the DM to go back to the beach life in ‘84. I returned to the Daily Mail by late August. In early September, after covering a Friday night high school football game, followed by obits on early Saturday, I sped back weary and bleary-eyed to Garden City for a weekend visit but the world grew eerily overcast. I was in the evacuation traffic line and then, prompted by DM Managing Editor Bob Kelly saying “Hell no don’t leave! This is the biggest story of the year,” I chased Hurricane Diana up the coast to Wilmington where she touched down the next evening. Hurricanes were apparently few and far between back then, it had been twenty years since one had hit the coast, and thirty since Hazel. The effort earned me my headshot and some front page bylines “above the fold,” and for a few days, some teeth. That wouldn’t continue. “You’re only as good as your last story,” Yod would tell me.
That fall and winter Jody and I began playing basketball together, and I started dropping by the famed-garage apartment for games on T.V., or to listen to music: any excuse to have a brew. I couldn’t guess how many dozens of times I – many of us, I’m sure – stood outside his door as the stereo blasted, waiting for the song to end so he could hear the knock. He’d be at the kitchen table punching out a story with the volume on ten, the windows and walls vibrating. Then he’d have to turn it off, and quietly, gingerly tip-toe around to send his story on one of those early model, sound-recognition modems. He’d have it, a lamp, his phone, the laptop, perched on a flimsy, metal T.V. stand. His living room had two full-sized couches, both completely covered with stacks of magazines, books, albums, running shoes – the floor equally covered. Yod would laboriously bend and move a few mounds so a game could be watched – he had to do it, there was a system. I remember at some point in those months him telling me, “When I meet someone I ask myself the question, ‘Could I take a long car trip with this person?’ “
I guess I met his criteria. As winter turned to spring, and because he was taking three weeks off and none of his college mates had that luxury at 26 years of age, 27 by trip time – I’m sure one of his weeks was saved comp time, a DM reward for killing yourself seven days a week as a beat writer during football season – we began talking about me going with him. Even for someone as blessedly-disheveled as me, you can’t just jump into the car for a three-week trip morning of. There has to be some planning. As a student doing in-school class observation that year, I helped Gary Osborne coach basketball at Hayes Junior High AND advised the St. Albans High School yearbook staff. I decided I wouldn’t go back to the beach with my friends because I’d have to quit my job soon after July 4th, which I didn’t think would fly, although it would have made raising the cash for the trip easier. Plus logistically it didn’t bode well for leaving with him. Not that my scenario mattered to him. He was going alone if necessary. He just wouldn’t have been able to do as much without a second driver – or, knowing him, he would have pushed himself beyond safe limits. So, I earned money – we figured we needed at least $500 each – off by hundreds – working small construction jobs for a cousin, Johnny Johnson. One of my former teachers, and my pastor, Ross Harrison, who also got me the yearbook gig, which continued well into June, coached me into my first major non-essential purchase. I’d bought my Alvarez six-string and my Mazda truck (which he also sold me) – both priorities. For the trip I acquired a Cannon A-E1 Program 35-mm camera, two lenses, flash, bag, 30 rolls of film, by applying for a Montgomery Ward credit card and charging it. It was that June that I created the oft-used double exposure pic of Jody, taken in his apartment, created in the SAHS darkroom due to my yearbook affiliation.
Jody was a national park buff, I learned, and seeing as many as possible was his goal. He had the major stopping points picked out. Others we ad-libbed. As always, with him, I usually learned something. I really didn’t know that there were so many giant redwood trees out west – trees you could drive a car through – or that there was a Mount Whitney in California, and that it had “The highest elevation – 14,000 feet – of the lower 48 states,” as he pointed out to me. I’d been on six AAU trips west, the farthest to Oklahoma. But like so many young men who came to the newsroom before and after me, I gobbled up his words as gospel, soaked them in like a sponge. He was a mentor, through and through, willing to the share pearls of wisdom he acquired through astute professionalism. As the date approached, July 20, with a scheduled return date of August 10 – seven days before my sister was to be married (August 17, 1985, Happy 35th Anniversary) – we were all set. First leg, no agenda, a sprint to and through Texas and New Mexico to the Petrified Forest and Painted Dessert, Arizona, approximately 1,776 miles. Quite patriotic-sounding, I believe, to begin our tour of America. After our symbolic “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” stop, we headed northwest to the Grand Canyon, to hike the seven miles in to observe the cause, the mighty Colorado River.
Maybe it was naivety, maybe it was his belief in our strength, but from the South Rim we headed down the switchbacks in the July sun armed ONLY WITH A CAN OF COKE EACH. Yod was a Coke man. No food. Not a Slim Jim or a bag of peanuts. So excited to get there, we hadn’t planned. So eager to start, we couldn’t drive back out for supplies – the guest amenities were not as sophisticated as they are now. Thankfully there was a water fountain down at the bottom, five miles in, a little oasis of hope with some greenery, and a stretch of trees, around it. Proof something could grow in the desert with enough water. Unlike running down an asphalt hill, descending the dirt trail was easy. Which probably gave me false confidence – me and my low top Chuck Taylors, probably no socks, shorts, T-shirt and a North Carolina Tar Heels hat.
The only other souls down there were two French-speaking young men who we avoided. They weren’t going the additional two miles to the rim, as we were, anyway. And it was awe inspiring. Truly breathtaking. However, with the late-afternoon sun beating down on us, the switchbacks became grisly. I tried to ration the can of water I carried but I soon realized I was drier than the dirt we were dredging through. Completely dehydrated. I stepped off the trail behind a rock to attempt to vomit some bile. Did my pointless retching echo through the canyon? No. But in my mind, I imagined how embarrassing and humiliating it would be if they had to pick me up – dead, or near it – and haul me out, slung over a donkey’s back. And THEN I began to lose it. Five miles, switchbacks, uphill all the way. Finally, the sun began to wane, and as the temperature thankfully dropped into the 90s, I was able to catch my second wind and make it back to the top. Yod was stoic. His long strides unfailing. He was a runner, tucking pain away like a sweaty bandana. Somewhere on the last few switchbacks a park ranger stood. He saw me, shook his head, and began to laugh.
“Ohhhhhh, you don’t know, the shape I’m in.” © 2020