Note: Charles Westfall wrote about his friend John Snipes, and his famous Heelraiser hearse, in October of last year. I’m posting this remembrance for him.
“I’m gonna drive as far as my energy will take me”
Those were the words of John Snipes, who I wrote about on this blog about 9 months ago.
Back in 2006, he was on his way to securing some local notoriety with WCHL when he started an interview with those words. He was about to drive a hearse that managed about 12 miles a gallon to St. Louis and return a triumphant fan. You can hear it along with some great life wisdom if you visit his website www.heelraiser.com (Interview part 2, 2006 Final Four)
Ironically, that is the most concrete memento I have left from a 22 year friendship. I have
probably played it about 20 times in the last month. I have an old treasure map of NC that he
gave me. And an impish Blue Devil statue, and several million dollar bills with his caricature. Butthe voice is what I treasure and crave to hear the most. My friend, who battled MS and had sleep apnea complications, passed away in June at the age of 52.
For eight years, he was known in this area as the dude who wore a crash helmet and drove
the Heel Raiser. Not many knew him by name, but with a signature baby blue hearse that
frequented weddings, parties, parades, etc…well, you would know the goofy guy behind the
wheel that would wave at you with these oversized Pillsbury dough boy gloves. And if you
missed that you had to wonder about a set of faux bulls’ balls that trailed from underneath that crazy looking hearse! John, you see, was going to make you look at “death” and demystify it. Make you laugh about it.
Beneath that veneer was a philosopher king who got along with just about anyone. Hell, he let
me into his circle–a dyed in the wool Blue Devil that enjoyed a rare blue/bleu friendship. Both of us had some deep ties to the blues through family. We gave each other shit on game days, and reveled in a little bit of schaudenfreud. But I’ve told folks that travelling with John to Atlanta or Las Vegas or Blacksburg or Charlottesville, etc. was akin to a child who got the sun and the moon and five bags of chocolate chips for his birthday. People stopped him and asked him about the “Beast” and to see the spectrum of expressions was memorable, priceless, you insert the cliché.
We didn’t always agree, however. Beyond the Duke/UNC narcissism, there were some
squabbles. And after renting from him for a few months in Hillsborough, we were the proverbial two man band that got a little chippy and went through some bitterness. Fortunately, that happened early on in his stay in 2004. His energy level wasn’t an issue then.
By 2006, I would get together with John, and I noticed that the heat started to bother him.
During the summers from then on, we had limited contact. What I didn’t know about “invisible” MS was that the afflicted didn’t fare well July thru August. Despite the difficulties, John still practiced some tongue in cheek sardonic wit. During that year, he once asked me about my social life. He started asking me about women that I had dated in the late 90’s, and their whereabouts. We figured out that every girl I had dated had become engaged. My former wife had been engaged. And the woman after that had become engaged. He finally looked at me and said, “Charles, I’m not sure how long this will continue, but you have a role in life. You’re a marriage preparer.” He nailed it. I was the next Dane Cook, I guess. But, like a good friend, he would relay the same frustrations and then the conversation would turn to something else.
After 2006, the effects of his nasty disease became a little more insidious. I noticed that John
started to wobble when he walked. Also, when head back to his house to catch a game, then he
would almost always fall asleep in his recliner. And I mean he was out—seemingly deep REM
sleep. He still looked the same, his voice was still loud and strong, though. But, he also started
to limit his football appearances. The energy that he exuded just six years earlier (and obviously years before that) was starting to take its toll.
In 2009, he bounced back. It was a good year for him. He resumed his busy schedule attending UNC football games—home and away. He continued playing Santa in Hillsborough and Raleigh (something that he had done for over 20 years) for worthwhile causes, and then Coach Smith’s family invited him to play Santa. This was a bit of more of triumph then one would think. John had told me a few years previous that Coach Smith didn’t “go for the hearse.” Times had changed, though, and John didn’t disappoint—he even played against type. When he asked Coach Smith how he’d been doing, the coach surprised him by saying “Well Santa I’ve been doing great. And, didn’t I see you at University Mall?” John told me that he looked somewhat sternly at Michelangelo and said, “Coach, I stopped doing mall appearances five years ago,” and then his face creased with a smile, and the room broke up with laughter.
My last visit with him was May 2012. We drove out to Hillsborough BBQ the day before
Hog Day, which had been moved up a month this year. He was more melancholic than I
remembered—and his voice had really become reedy thin. It sounded like an octogenarian
or someone nearing the century mark, and this was at 52 years old. I had asked him about it
earlier in the year, but he didn’t really want to talk about it. Emotionally, he was shutting down, and it was tough to witness. I sensed and he knew that he was losing.
A.E. Housman once summarized the death of a young athlete: “Shoulder-high, we bring you
home; and set you, at your threshold down, townsman of a stiller town.” I can’t speak for
everyone, but my world has become a little like Housman’s. There’s an uncomfortable stillness.