Highway Star: A Memoir for Jeff Culp
October 14, 2016
By Michael Usey
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” [F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby]
Two scriptures from the Hebrew Bible. 2 Kings 9.20: The lookout reported, “The messenger reached them but he is not coming back. And the driving is like the driving of Jehu, he for he’s driving furiously, like a madman.”
Then from the Song of Songs 8.6-7: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.
In my Christian tradition, that of American Baptists, we don’t have eulogies or funeral sermons; we have a hybrid of the two called a memoir, which seeks to answer the question, how did God love us through Jeff’s life? How did God’s love appear to us through the window of Jeff Culp? A window can be crystal clear or dirty and flyspecked, but we are all windows nonetheless.
I chose the 2 Kings 9 passage about driving like Jehu, because Jeff liked to go fast. Whether he was a crazy driver or not depends on your perspective. In the Bible, Jehu was flawed, imperfect, but God used him.
The second reading is from the Song of Songs, which is God’s erotic love poetry; it’s a passage I’ve read twice in the last two weeks at weddings, and it’s been much on my mind lately. The presence of the Song of Songs in the Bible reminds us that we can have God, fidelity, all the higher expressions of love, and still have our romance and hot eroticism too—which Jeff would have loved knowing it was being featured at his funeral.
In this passage the female lover is saying to the man, set me as a seal upon your heart, bind me to your arm. Long before handwriting was seen as individual, persons of power had a seal, which they set upon important documents, to say, this is I. Often time the seal was worn on the left arm to be accessible to right handed people. She is saying to her lover, make me a part of your identity. It’s a good day to remember that God is love, and that love indeed is stronger than death, and passion as fierce as the grave. And as a Christian, I can’t read this 3000-year-old book of love poems, and not think of Jesus, whose love the grave did not hold.
I’m a curious choice to speak today, because Jeff and I were close during my high school years, but only recently did he and I reestablish real contact, and that mainly because of the persistence of his remarkable sister, Melanie. But, if it’s extremely hard to lose someone who knows your story, it’s much harder still to lose someone who has LIVED your story. My father (of blessed memory) was ex-Navy; we moved around a lot; my dad was an alcoholic. Jeff was a true friend to me when it mattered. There is an intensity to most of our lives in high school, because we are still filled with unused potential. In high school, few of us had made the key choices that will both define and limit us, so many of us were happier then, filled with such untapped potential, with so many vista still in front of us.
I came to know Jeff well when I was still in 9th grade, he in 10th, and we were both attending Del Cerro where Sam Williams was the pastor. Mark made the third of our unholy trinity (and, as the oldest, Mark was actually the glue) and we were together at first most every Sunday night after services (and often instead of services). With striking blue-green eyes, Jeff was always the most handsome of us three; I always thought he looked like a movie star. We didn’t have youth group per se, only youth choir, and none of us three could sing anything that wasn’t rock & roll. So, every Sunday night, Mark or Jeff would drive, and we’d peel out for adventures. Mark figured it out once: we’d seen over 100 movies together. We ate out often: Jeff loved Mexican food at Cosuelo’s, where he ate all the volcanic peppers, hot carrots, and salsa (a feat I thought was incredibly macho), or big burgers at the Boll Weevil.
We often did stupid stuff: One time at an all-you-can-drink root beer night at A&W, we had a contest to see who could drink the most, and whoever threw up first lost. After 23, Mark lost (don’t you love that I’m bringing this up at Jeff’s funeral?) and the manager made him hose down the outside.
Another time at a youth retreat on Catalina Island, we three got in big trouble for hanging out a third story window trying to human chain down to a second story landing to retrieve a girl’s hat (We got in trouble, but I got my first real kiss). Such dumbassery was our specialty.
By the time I was in 10th, we three were double- and triple-dating. We went to the beach together often with girls. I brought Cheryl, then Marlee and Gigi, and once even with Annette Benning—and Jeff and Mark had a similar parade of dates. Jeff’s favorite suggestion was for us to go buy steaks, corn, and potatoes and grill out at his house with our dates, shoot pool or play ping-pong, and terrorize his little sister. We did this maybe a dozen times, always at Jeff’s home.
Jeff introduced me to Deep Purple—Smoke on the Water and Space Truckin’—when he told me he wanted Highway Star fade painted on the side of his car. That song and Heart’s Barracuda are the two that continue to remind me of Jeff. Always the gearhead, he taught be how to change the oil in my ‘74 Nova, and I always dropped the plug nut in the oil, just like he told me not to.
Jeff could drive, which he did well and fast. He had a Vega, with an aluminum block and extra suspension that just hugged curves. He use to try to double the recommended speed signs at off- and on-ramps, so a yellow 25 became a 50 in Jeff’s Vega. Once on his way to see me, he took the I-8 Westbound off ramp at College Ave at double speed, and when two police finally caught up with him and pulled him over, they did not ticket him but instead said, “Wow, that was impressive! We thought you a goner for sure.” I also remember driving alongside him once when he popped a wheelie on a motorcycle on 1-8 near SDSU—on the freeway going 60.
I was with Jeff when he got his first ticket. We had just dropped off our dates, Jeff was with Cindy Fields; it was late, way after midnight, and no one was on College Ave, so I suggested he take go the wrong way on the split lane road to take a short cut—it was only 5 houses, less than 100 yards. He swerved, creeping down the wrong way; just then, a car appeared. “Is that a cop?” No way that’s a cop, I said, keep going. Then the Not-a-cop popped his cop lights. Jeff tucked into a driveway, his first ticket. We had beer in the back floorboard, which went undiscovered, thankfully (I think).
When the brakes failed on his Blue Chevelle, he was rocketing down Fanita. The light was red, and there were a few cars stopped in front of him. With no brakes, Jeff had to swerve left into oncoming traffic lane, then miss the cars crossing, and then scrape against a brick wall to come to a stop. He missed getting T-boned, and the cop wrote on Jeff’s ticket, Expert driving. Which Jeff proudly showed us. “But you still got a ticket,” I said; “Well, sure but look what the cop wrote,” he said, still beaming. He said it to me randomly over the years, “Expert driving,” thumbs to himself, raising his eyebrows.
He didn’t think I could drive however, and he was probably right. Once, after we dropped off Mark at his house on Mt. Helix, I stomped on the gas and fishtailed through the sand on the turns. I lost control of my parents’ Satellite Sebring, spinned the car completely around until it was facing the wrong way wedged in-between two palm trees. Jeff, in the front seat, just said calmly, “Wow, you really can’t drive.”
He was the slot back on the football team at Christian High, and I remember he got into with the coach as a junior and senior. I mean no disrespect, but Jeff was exactly the wrong kind of person to be at a Christian High School. He wasn’t hungry to talk about faith and the Bible like Mark and I were; it felt like too much like schoolwork to him. The inconsistencies and hypocrisies that mark every Christian school (I know this well, as a Baylor grad), these left him angry and cynical. But once when I was home from college, he showed us a video highlight reel of himself playing football (the school was creating highlight reels as a fundraiser), and he was fast then too. He even ran with his distinctive toes-out gait.
One time just Jeff and I went camping for a long weekend in the mountains. He knew I was a boy scout, and we drove up to the mountain with food, drinks, cigars. We got there noonish, set up the tent, stove, and stuff, then smoke a cigar, when he said, “So what do we do now?” I said, “This is it; this is camping—we hike, we cook, we commune with nature, we avoid snakes and bears, and we hope a sorority has a campsite nearby.” He looked at me in disbelief, and said “This is bullshirt [or words to that effect].” He was terribly bored, said so loudly, and within a couple of hours he had convinced me to pack up his Vega and drive to Yuma, where he had a relative we could stay with for the weekend. So that’s what we did: stayed indoors watching TV, cooked our steaks, and had a big time in his relative’s air conditioned living room. And I remember that he pushed his car to 105 mph driving down the steep grade to Arizona.
All during my senior year Jeff and Mark would show up at my bedroom window once, twice a week, usually at 1 am; they had graduated by then. I’m diurnal, solar powered; those two are nocturnal. I went to bed at 10, with milk and cookies. They’d be at my window, saying, “Put your pants on Usey; come outside and just talk to us!” Like the serpent in the garden, all smoove like, these two. I was so groggy and out of it, I’d do it, and by the time I was awake I was in Jeff’s car headed to all night diner in El Cajon, or Donut World in Mission Valley, or to a bonfire at the beach, or to sneak into an apartment complex’s hot tub, or try to hike up Cowles Mt. in the dark (we made it like 100 yards). Jeff cleaned some high-end office buildings on Navajo Road on Sundays, and I remember being with him (but not helping him, of course), me watching football, telling him to vacuum more quietly.
On Christmas day night 1975 we went ice sliding on the San Carlos golf course. It was a long night. We were chased by police there, hid in an apt complex, hopped in the car, drove to El Cajon, encountered more police at a donut shop (where else?), finally ending up at Mark’s home at 5 am, only to be surrounded by three sheriff’s’ cars, and threatened with arrest for attempted burglary (long story, but mistaken identity). Only the Jappe’s persistent neighbor, also a reporter, keep us from a line up.
Jeff had a Hispanic coworker that taught him a subtle lewd gesture. This coworker would gift Jeff with it all through his workday, so naturally Jeff taught it to us. Once at Del Cerro when Mark and I were in the choir loft during the service, Jeff was in the pews gifting us. I can see him still, nefarious smile beaming. Naturally, I taught this same gesture to my sons, so Nate likes to gift me with it when I get up to preach. I will greatly miss Jeff’s funny evil laugh.
Jeff could be brutally honest. When at 16 I told my church I was aiming to go to seminary and study to be a pastor, Jeff told me, “I think you may have made a mistake.” In his defense, he was far from the only one that felt that way, and he may still be right. (Marlee’s father said about me once that, if you had lined up every one at Henry according to who you thought would become a minister, I would be at the very end. So it goes.)
But when he found out I had been voted by teammates to be team captain at the end of the season, he was genuinely touched and proud for me. I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten the Hard Rock award for the hardest hitter, but Jeff said to me sincerely, “Oh, no, no. This is by far the best award, because your teammates voted you for this.” And he meant it, a true friend who was happy for me.
I did talk to him some over the years. I remember talking with him on the phone, and him saying, “Now when I go fast, it’s on water.” I remember one time being home from seminary when I met Jeff and a friend his age in the apartments in Del Cerro, but this guy was distinctly different, Miami Vice-type clothes, a huge Puka shell choker, didn’t smile, and cuffed me when I made a joke about drugs. It’s a dark memory.
I was not in his wedding, nor was he in mine, sadly. Mark and I were both in each other’s, of course. I felt the void, but what can one do? I have since met his two incredible adult daughters—bright, beautiful, articulate, and driven. I know he loved them and was fiercely proud of them.
If Jeff drank a lot in high school, I didn’t see it; I did know Christian High had some epic parties that he attended. Given my home life, perhaps Jeff hid that from me, or I was just too dense to notice. Addiction is a horrible thing, and while it can certainly begin with bad decisions, it is an illness and a humiliating disease. Few escape its clutches, and I don’t blame Jeff for having a hand in his own death. We all owe God a death, which mostly comes sooner that we’d wish. Bad things happen to all, and grace too. We get knocked down, and most times we can get back up again. Sometimes sowing what we reap is a terrible judgment, but thank God for grace.
Last summer with Melanie’s help I surprised him in this lovely Lemon Grove dive bar, and we sat and talked for a couple of hours. He knocked back virgin margaritas while I drank bourbon (bourbon being discovered by a Baptist minster, Elijah Craig). We laughed; we caught up; we grieved missed years. I told him that he was right about something we had disagreed on years ago. It wasn’t my best ministry moment, me drinking with a friend still shaky in recovery, but it was holy and it felt something like communion, as I had found my long-lost friend again.
The night before Jeff died, Friday, I dreamt of him. In my dream, Jeff was young, healthy, and it was early morning at the beach at La Jolla Shores, and he was in board shorts. He said to me, “Come on, get your shorts, and meet me.” I hurried to change, but the day grew late, and as I went to change a woman and two men in suits came to my door and told me not to wear my Birdwells but to dress in a suit and tie. This made me confused and angry, and I retreated to change for the beach anyway, even though it was late afternoon by then. That was all of the odd dream, and Melanie called that Saturday to say that Jeff had almost passed that night. She called again Sunday morning to say that he had indeed died in early AM.
I don’t believe in praying to the dead, but I do believe in talking to them, so here goes: Jeff, my brother, you’re gone to soon from us; I had hoped we’d grow old and tell lies about the 70s to grandkids. I did not see this coming when we young, dumb, and full of … hope. I’m sorry I wasn’t a better friend over the years. I am a better man because I knew you; you were no saint, but you were a true friend when I needed one. You were always generous with me, with your time, with your gas, with your candid friendship. I think later on you thought Mark and I judged you, but we did not and do not. It is always love, my brother, and it is hard for us to say goodbye. May God’s wild grace bring us together again. Until then, we will drive boats too fast and eat spicy tacos in your honor, and thank God to have known you. “For love is as strong as death, and passion as fierce as the grave.”