Death of a Friend

Today in Brainerd, Minnesota is the private burial of a very dear friend, Chris Johnson.

I met Chris in late 1982 and we became fast friends. I was working as a Personal Care Attendant for the disabled and Chris was a friend with one of my clients.

Over the course of couple of years, our friendship grew. He offered me the position to work for him, which I accepted and for the next six years we shared life as client and attendant, boss and employee…but in reality, we became soul-brothers.

Chris was the epitome of “wavy gravy” with this mellow “hippie type” vibe, he was the most gentle of spirits. Oh, without question, he and I would be tooth and nail with some of  our “discussions” usually regarding our political views, back in a time when opposing political discussion could be had, when the only bombs that were sent were verbal, but by the end of the conversation, folks could still break bread, share laughter, a drink together and remain friends.

Chris suffered a spinal cord injury during gymnastics practice when he was 16. There are pictures that he had of him on the rings in a iron cross prior to his accident that showed this incredibly buff mofo little teenager.

Chris and I shared similar traits: nature boys, always a need to be outside, sun babies, always outside catching rays and in those early days: a fondness for the ganja and alcohol. As we aged, we both sobered up, to the shock of many, but with the same mutual understanding between us as to why.

We did some traveling together and it was on one of these trips to So CA, that I discovered Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.

It was on our first trip to the Coachella Valley, being the knuckle-heads we were…that we thought the Joshua Tree National Monument was a monument of a Joshua Tree like what was the cover of U2’s The Joshua Tree. So of course, we drove up into the high desert in April to “find the monument.” Once there, we of course realized our silliness that there was not just ONE Joshua Tree in the monument, but THOUSANDS as the Park Ranger explained the progression of a wilderness area to monument to national park. DOH!

Once n the park we drove for a while and I felt the need to climb and kept saying so. Chris insisted that I pick a spot pull over and go climb. So I did.

This is how he and I lived so recklessly at times, not thinking…in the middle of what is known as one of the most unforgiving places on earth, the quadriplegic tells his mobility: “Pull over. Get out of the car. Leave me here and go climb.”  And me to think it was an AWESOME idea! and comply.

As I approached the car some 30 minutes later after scampering around some large rock formations, I snapped picture of him in the car throwing me daggers as a look as he proclaimed: “Its hot as hell out here!!”

In the mid 1980s, when I was an unaccredited press photographer, Chris and some of his friends used to assist me in the smuggling of my camera gear into concerts.  I’d buy handicapped seating along with two somewhere in the first three rows on the main floor and the wheelchair folks would roll the gear in under their chairs to their seats, I pulled the gear together and then headed down to the main floor seating to shoot.

After my accreditation was secured, the camera smuggling was no longer needed; still Chris and I hit shows often. In June of 1989, at Riverfest in St. Paul, my accreditation presented the opportunity to meet Stevie Ray Vaughan after the show, although I was told it might take a couple of hours. I met Chris at his seat and took him back to his van telling him the story of what unfolded in the two hours since I had seen him last. He made it VERY clear: I was to get him in his van and return to the back stage area to meet my musical hero. I was dumb-founded, but wasted no time getting him situated in his van so I could scurry back stage.

When I returned a couple of hours later, I was worried that Chris would be pissed at how long I had left him. As I approached the van, Chris had a party going on in his van with all these people hanging, passing around all the flavors. I asked him what as going on. He said he just told people who asked him if he was ok, that he was; he was waiting for me to meet Stevie and these folks just kinda chilled with him. This was Chris, his ability to instantly connect with people with his easy carefree attitude.

Of all the things I was trusted with from Chris in his daily care and life, training his Bear Dog was the greatest honor. Bear was a Shepard-Husky-Wolf mix that was one of the most beautiful dogs I have ever seen.  That dog became a neurotic mix of the both of us! But that dog was a smart, loving, playful 125 pound beast who thought he was a lapdog whose over excitement with Chris at times would send Chris, wheel chair and dog ass over tea kettle with the dog on top of Chris licking face and Chris laughing with such joy. There are stories of how Bear naturally sprung to the action of defense to protect either Chris or a family member after I had moved to California.

Although we talked on the phone regularly and Facebook chatted frequently, I visited Chris at his home in Arizona in December of 2017. It had been a few years since we had been in each other’s presence, but it was as soul brothers are, and we picked up like we saw each other the day before.  I spent a few days there and it was really good to see him.

I spoke with him on Sept 13th, 2018, the “anniversary” of his accident, as I did each year since I worked for him. This year marked 40 years and I shared with him that I could never really “honor” that date, but without the events of that date, I never would have met him or been able to share friendship. He agreed whole-heartedly and thanked me for remembering and for our friendship.

When the call came through with the news of his death, I was as I am now…overcome with such intense emotion. I realize now how much I really loved Chris Johnson and what a dear close friend he is/was.  I know we discussed the importance of our friendship to one another and how we felt, so it’s not a guilt thing.

No, this emotion is true mourning and grief over the passing of a soul-brother whose, energy, smile and vibe I will truly miss.

I know these photographs are 30 some years old, but I cherish them for two reasons:

The slight smile on his face as he reaches for Bear as a pup.


And the way you can see in the shot taken seconds later as he coos to Bear as he pets him and the way Bear is leaning back into Chris touch.



I see Chris now, with Bear at his side in these sceanrios: He’s outside running thru the forest, back-flippin’ off logs, grabbing over hanging tree branches, pulling off these incredible gymnastics moves. He’s walking down a beach, blue-green waves crashing on the sand at his feet. He’s on a tennis court, just blistering his opponent. He’s in the gym, ruling every conceivable gymnastic apparatus.

I know I don’t have to Chris, but I will toast you with a double Jack Daniels on the rocks cuz I still don’t know why you wasted all that great tasting Tennessee sippin’ whiskey with CocaCola!

Peace to you, my soul-brother. I know our paths will cross again in another dimension.

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