Twenty years ago today, I saw the Ramones live and in person for the first time. It was the “Escape From New York” tour, and the Beatles of Punk Rock were headlining a tour that included the remnants of the Talking Heads and Debbie Harry, still cooing out those classic Blondie anthems. At seventeen, I was still naïve enough to immerse myself wholly in the show, abandoning all thought of the outside world and singing along at the top of my lungs. The Ramones were perfect for such teenage excess. They played their trademark two-and-a-half minute punk ditties in just 90 seconds, taking just a single sharp breath between songs before yelling “onetwothreefour” and careening into the next one. In less than two hours, the band reeled off about 40 songs.
Half a world away, one of my high school classmates was on a study trip to Oxford when the double-decker bus she was in crashed, killing her and one other boy from New York and injuring 18 other passengers. Most of us who knew the girl would find out about the accident the next morning. My ears were still ringing from the show.
But I promise this is a happy story.
Until I was in the fourth grade, my family lived in Savannah, Georgia. I began school there and went about my elementary education alongside the same people I’d gone to day care with until my father was promoted and we packed up our bags for Tupelo, Mississippi. Two and a half years later, we moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Fourteen months later, we were living in Atlanta, where we would stay put throughout my high school years.
Because kids are little adults and the mere powers of observation make it abundantly clear just how problematic the average adult can be, middle school is mostly viewed by attendees and survivors alike as a necessary evil. Changing schools (and states) twice in the middle school years had a profound effect on how I approached the move to suburban Atlanta. First of all, this would be the largest, most metropolitan city I’d ever spent time in. Rural Mississippi and Louisiana were insulated communities and by the time my family rolled into Atlanta, Savannah was a distant memory. I approached the change of environment as a foray into a foreign land, one that was possibly hostile.
In one sense, I was exactly right. In another, I was dead wrong.
On my first day of the fifth grade in Tupelo, a kid who should have been in the seventh grade picked a fight with me. In my first week in Louisiana, the kids there ridiculed me for wearing Wal Mart shoes. I’d never equated Wal Mart with anything negative before then. Moving had been a physical and emotional battle in the past, literally. I was skinny and short and physically unremarkable. Neither my clothes nor my sensibilities displayed any sense of trendiness or fashion. I was not set up to be popular or cool. It would be easy to adopt a new tactic as I looked for an opportunity to fit in among my new peers—I would keep my head down and stay quiet.
I had learned in the past that the new kid—unless they have otherworldly good looks or obviously rich parents—is almost unerringly approached by the weirdos and sociological detritus first. It was true in both Mississippi and Louisiana: the kids on the bottom rung of the social ladder see a new kid as their last best chance to have a new friend. Hence, I had been assaulted by a fifth-grader with chest hair and ridiculed by a kid whose parents could afford good shoes but didn’t bother to teach manners.
I thought I was going to be three-for-three when Autumn DuBose walked up to greet me on my first day at Shiloh Middle School.
Between beginning my education at a conservative Baptist school and living in two rural burgs, I had never seen anyone even remotely like the girl who, it turned out, was the eighth grade class president, unless you count the movies Streets of Fire or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. She had hair the color of bright leaves in the season of her name, bright reddish orange not readily occurring in nature, at least not on a mammal. Her face was pale and powdered and her eyes were lined in black. If the term “Goth” was in wide use in 1987, I was certainly too much of a rube to know about it, but the terminology would have worked. My limited vernacular simply labled her as a “punk.” She wore black and white, a militarized Victorian in combat boots. I tried not to stare, because not staring is how skinny intellectual kids who are emotionally bruised from past moves attempt to become invisible.
“Hi, I’m Autumn,” she said. “How’s it going?”
Another sense that sharpens early on in a transient lifestyle is the ability to read people. Like Spider-Man, the transitional Youth develops a warning bell. This bell rings loudly when troublesome individuals move too close. The Spidey-sense was silent as the first punk I’d ever met in person held out a dainty hand and became my very first friend in Atlanta.
Autumn and I never grew particularly close, but we remained friends until her death three years later. In the ninth grade, we dissected a fetal pig together in Coach Kruscamp’s biology class. She was reading Anne Rice’s vampire yarn Lestat, to which I attributed her vigor for eviscerating the unborn pig, but we both aced the segment.
We also shared an English class where we sat in the back of the room and swapped comic books we’d brought from home. She loved the X-Men.
After our first year, I don’t remember ever having another class with Autumn but we did share a homeroom. We could catch up there as high school kids with little in common except good vibes for one another do. Late in our junior year, we began having discussions about art. It was a passing interest to me but a passion for her. We argued about books sometimes. She reveled, I think, in watching my growing passion for the Ramones and my own easing into a more punk sensibility (which, it should be noted, amounted to little more than ratty jeans, a black leather jacket and combat boots; I was actually indistinguishable from most other average teenagers in a suburban setting). She came to at least one of the drama productions I was in—Kiss Me Kate—and hung around long enough afterwards to congratulate me on my performance. Our homeroom conversations often ranged through the full gamut of the arts by the end of our junior year.
My memories of high school are mostly fond ones. I kept my head down at first as I’d planned to do. But Autumn’s warm welcome and the subsequent revelation that she was not a full-on freak probably saved me from becoming a misanthrope. I won’t say her friendship set the tone for my experience in high school or shaped the person I became there, but her eccentric individuality and unconditional friendship made their mark.
Why the adolescent tradition of signing yearbooks matters:
Scott—You are an extraordinary guy and a great friend. You have a great mind so make the most of it. I know you’ll have a lot of fun in life (& so will I). Stay cool! Love, Autumn.
Autumn DuBose was the coolest, hippest person I knew. If she had lived through the following summer, I think that might be the most famous signature in my 1990 yearbook.
Philip Soloman and his crew introduced me to the Ramones. Autumn DuBose probably did as much as anyone to get my mind ready to accept just how great they were. So to learn of her untimely passing with “I Wanna Be Sedated” and the “Cretin Hop” still ringing in my ears didn’t seem so sad. It seemed appropriate. It was the universe’s way of patting me empathetically on the back and reminding me that sometimes the things which burn quickly burn brightest.
I went to Tybee Island with my grandmother a day later. I had a bag full of old paperback books in tow, most of them pulpy beach reads a boy of seventeen would love traded for at a used book store. I read a lot of Conan that week between on walks on the beach staring at girls in bikinis and thinking about losing a friend. I also carried a copy of Interview With the Vampire. In an angsty teenage tale, this would be the spot for long ruminations about a boy contemplating his first real brush with mortality. Some of those epiphanies undoubtedly crossed my mind. Mostly I surmised Autumn had pulled off a fairly impressive run for a girl who would never turn 20. She had stood out. She’d played by her own rules and managed to come out the other side okay, a feat that has eluded strong-willed teenagers more often than not. Sure, she had been cut down too soon, but I doubted Autumn had any regrets as she passed from one world to the next.
She was my first friend in Atlanta and a genuine one. I figured Autumn had earned some pretty good karma. Death wasn’t a penalty. It was likely a reward.
Early in our senior year, we held a small memorial for Autumn in the library. Someone asked if anyone would like to share a memory of our lost friend. I told the story of trading comic books in the back of our ninth grade English class when we were supposed to be reading Great Expectations. It got a laugh. Her parents hugged me although we had never met. It felt right.
Twenty years later, I still stop and think about Autumn Dubose from time to time. When I meet a particularly self-possessed teenager or see the freaky kids at the Savannah College of Art & Design bestowing some tiny kindness on someone I remember my friend and smile. My wife and I have agreed that if we ever have a daughter, we’ll name her after the eccentric girl with the green combat boots and the rusty magenta hair.
One day we’ll all jaunt from this world to that next one. If we’ve lived a good life, someone like Autumn DuBose might be the person to welcome us to the flip side.