A drunk driver killed my best friend and was set free even though he was driving drunk with a revoked license and 4 counts of DUI on his record.
“I’m Don, what’s your name?” A friendly, blonde – haired, 16 – year – old kid with glasses asked, as I prepared to audition for our highschool talent show, alone. “I’m Steve”, I said, as Don climbed over the auditorium seats to sit next to me. He asked what kind of guitar I was holding, as we both waited for our audition. He had a guitar as well.
We hit it off right away. Instantly I sensed he would always be there for me and I knew I would be there for him. Don was 16 and I was 17. His band went on first and I performed alone, nervous as hell. I was mostly introverted back then. We talked about how we enjoyed each other’s performance after the auditions and made plans to hang out and play guitar at one another’s houses. We both made it to the talent show by the way.
We jammed together at each other’s homes after school, talking about life and laughing as good friends will. Don’s parents were very nice and always made me feel welcome. The strong bond they shared as a family was very easy to see.
The first day I went to Don’s house after school, he said we have a lot of music to talk about. He had more cassette tapes from various hard rock metal bands and classical artists to show me. “Hey that’s cool….I love classical music too”, I said, as he rummaged through his bag.
His room was the all-too-familiar teenager’s room from the late 1980s, covered with posters of rockers going on world tours. The room was similar to mine in that sense.
Don pulled a cassette from his bag. “Check this out.” I recognized the cover. It was Ozzy’s Blizzard of Oz album, with Randy Rhoads on guitar, but I have yet to hear the album. Don introduced me to Randy Rhoads’ playing. I was again, inspired and had to purchase every cassette Randy played on. Unfortunately, Randy passed away far too soon, in a plane crash while on tour with Ozzy in 1982.
Don qued the cassette to Randy’s solo spot and started to wave his hands like a conductor. “Listen to his phrasing!” I’ll never forget him saying that. I never saw anyone so young, read into the playing of another like this. It was at that point I knew we met for a reason. There were many more moments in our musical journey like this, of course.
After graduation, we worked at our jobs and hung out when we could. Don liked my idea of opening a recording studio and asked his father to get involved without me knowing. During one of our talks he said his dad wanted to help and would front the money to get our studio going. His dad wanted a list of all the equipment he thought we would need. I was torn and told Don I could not accept such a great gift. Don’s response was that his dad sees our passion and believes in us. We were around 23 at the time. I made the list to humor myself, as I was more into the tech side of things than Don was.
At this time I was getting more into metal and hard rock, while Don was moving a little more towards the blues (he loved Stevie Ray Vaughan…and I do too.) We visited various music stores in the area, looking at guitars, amps and recording gear. It was so much fun, and yet, I felt really bad about the money fronting thing. Of course I told Don we were going to pay his dad back. We made our lists and planned for the studio.
This was circa 1991. There was no internet for another 4 years and only the rich had cell phones, which were called car phones (they were mounted in cars.) We had planned on placing ads in local papers and music stores for the recording studio, catering to local bands. We would record on reel to reel recording tape. This is known as analog recording (nothing was recorded on computers yet.) The digital era wasn’t alive yet.
Neither Don, nor I, drank. He chose to smoke a pipe, like what your grandfather would smoke. His apartment always smelled like a tobacco shop. We got together when we could, working on songs and experimenting with recording sound with our gear. “Musical brothers” was a good way to describe us. His cats would make an appearance to jump in a guitar case of his, to use the washroom. Don didn’t like that and responded by spraying them with water from spray bottles he kept handy. I made sure to keep my guitar cases closed.
As we got a bit older, I started working more hours and spending a little less time with music. Don was busy with work as well but we always kept in touch and hung out when we could, as we lived about 30 minutes away from each other.
The last time I spoke to Don was on the phone while visiting my parents one evening. We talked about the usual music and recording studio techniques we wanted to work on and made plans to talk tomorrow after work. “Cool man, I’ll call you tomorrow.” Little did I know, those were the last words I would say to him.
Don would joke with me about not being around and hard to get ahold of. He once left a message on the old answering machine saying he won the lottery. He went to extremes to trick me into calling him. He was never upset, but liked to joke around with stuff like that. We were in touch a lot.
A call came later the next morning while I was at work. Don’s wife, Kelly, called me crying, saying Don passed away. A part of me thought he was trying to trick me into calling him again, but another part of me knew she was telling the truth. I was in instant denial.
After we got off the phone the night before, Don took a walk in their neighborhood with his wife Kelly and their two little boys, Don and Dewey. Don was a couple of years old and Dewey was a couple months old. This was 1996.
While walking, a drunk driver jumped the curb and killed Don. Kelly and the boys were not badly injured. I was told Don held the baby to shield him as he was run over by the car. This is terrible to type.
Right before I made the phone call to Kelly I started to brace myself for the embarrassment for believing the story. I knew Don would pickup the phone in the other room right when I believed it just to say GOTCHA!
As I talked to Kelly, I knew right away this was real. I kept waiting for Don to laugh in the background. He never did. Nothing made sense. I wanted to find the guy who did this. Kelly said he was in custody with 3 other counts of DUI on his record, and was driving on a suspended license. Drunk again, driving around.
The drunk driver / murder, got out of jail 2 months later, free to roam. This made me hate cops and hate the “system.” I hated most people and wanted nothing to do with anyone. I distanced myself for a long time and stopped playing guitar. The recording studio never happened and I didn’t care. Music felt different and the world was a much different place. My life had changed and I didn’t care about anyone or anything. I was dead inside and couldn’t care less about anything.
What kept playing through my mind over and over again, was, if I only stayed on the phone with him for 5 seconds longer or 5 seconds less, he would still be alive. That thought haunted me daily for a very long time.
I didn’t go to court, never saw the murderer, and never saw Don again. It took a few years to let go of the guilt. If I had only kept him on the phone longer, he would be with us today. The thought never went away.
Losing Don was a black death and I didn’t care about anything. It definitely added a lot of armor to my being and I miss him to this day. At the time of writing this, Don has been gone for 26 years.
I still carry with me, all the time, a couple of cards Don always had on him. One is a sign language chart and the other, a business card from a music store we frequented.
His wake was beautiful. There were flowers, photos of him (most of which I photographed) and all his guitars on stands. Although it was very nice, it was very wrong. I can’t explain how the days felt blacker. Trust me when I say things were very different and always would be.
People get into cars and assume they will be safe. We all take our lives for granted, even me. Others, who drink, get into vehicles and always think they will be fine…it won’t happen to me. Guess what…
I despise drunk drivers and anyone who thinks they are fine to drive under the influence. I realize they think it will never happen to them but it does. Don’s boys grew up without a father and his wife, widowed. Don and Kelly were in their early 20s.
Don’s death affected so many people in so many ways. Although it’s been years, I still think of him and wish he was here. A part of me died with him that day, leaving a very large scar.
Whenever I hear that Ozzy Osbourne album, especially with Randy’s guitar solo spot, I always think of Don and the day after school he introduced me to it.
If you are trying to cope with the loss of a loved one here is some additional reading that can help.
thanks for reading!