The broken rope dangled above, out of reach.
Other than that, there was the ledge under Joe's and my own bare feet, and the pool of water -- how shallow or deep, we still couldn’t tell, though the shadows were growing longer -- below.
And there was Dave in mid-air, between the two.
Dave was tucking himself into a sort of fetal position (not into a cannonball: that wouldn’t break his fall), his legs bent to spring if needed, shaggy hair flying.
Joe and I watched the plunge, holding our collective breath. My gut fluttered when Dave took the leap, and I felt giddy, useless, weightless. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
What if there was only six inches of water? Four inches? Two inches? The only way down off that ledge was to jump -- How would we get Dave out of there, injured -- or worse? What if -- ? But there wasn’t time for more than one or two fleeting ‘what ifs.’
Dave hit the water.
Sometimes lives change with momentous events -- a car crash, a death, a hurricane, an earthquake. Sometimes life changes with the subtlest of gestures: a look, a shrug, a turning of the back, an embrace. Mine changed irrevocably with a handshake.
I’ll never forget my first handshake with Joe Kubert. Joe has a bone-crunching handshake, a macho handshake that is a challenge, a test, and the warmest welcome imaginable, all in one. But it’s not the handshake alone you’re responding to (though it's impossible to ignore): it’s Joe’s face, his eyes, his presence. You might think it difficult to sort the memory of that first meeting out from all the hours, days, weeks, months, years I subsequently spent with Joe thereafter -- as a student at his school, a hanger-on in his studio that first year, as a laborer in the first (I think) Tell-A-Graphics studio, where Rick Veitch and I were the first artistic staff. But it’s easy: his face, his eyes, that killer handshake. I’ll never, ever forget that moment.
But that wasn’t the moment that changed my life. It was the moment after, when my father shook hands with Joe. There was an instant camaraderie, a spark, an arc of energy: Richard Bissette and Joe Kubert met as instant peers.
I’d seen this spark before, whenever my Dad met someone who’d been in the military. Sure enough, the instant rapport between Dad and Joe intensified with an exchange of words: which branch of the service, which unit each had served in, when and where. Both relaxed with one another, and I felt something fundamental shift: the conflict between my father and I that had defined so much of our relationship and intensified so in the past two years evaporated like alcohol off a hot brick in the sun.
There was nothing suspect about Joe’s handshake, about the man himself. With that, the path I had fought tenaciously for, which had seemed so foolish and disconnected from reality, seemed within seconds viable, concrete, even alluring to my father.
To my father, the new reality was: If Joe had done it, it was conceivable that his son could do it, too. I could do it.
As talk moved from their respective military pasts to Joe’s family (the fact Joe had raised such a large family on a cartoonist's income made a lasting impression), the school, and what it was like living in Dover, a weight I hadn’t really known I was carrying so badly for so long eased from my neck and shoulders and melted away for good.
It was okay that I wanted to be a cartoonist, because Joe was a cartoonist -- and Joe was clearly okay in my Dad’s book.
It had been a wild ride to Dover, NJ with my father. We drove the seven hours+ from northern Vermont, and much to my Dad’s initial disgust, my friend Scott Sampietro from Johnson State College tagged along with us.
Scott was a thoughtful, brash, outspoken Italian, a few years older than I, prominent among the circle of JSC friends I’d bonded with doing theater with Dick Emerson. Scott had lived life more fully than I: already married and divorced, a world traveler, someone who told me he had once reached such an impasse in life that he had painted on the walls of his apartment with his own blood in a grand and glorious evening of despair and near-disaster. He'd survived that, but he sure missed that painting. But that was then: now, Scott was eager to get to NJ and connect with his then-girlfriend Patty, another of our JSC circle.
Scott had none of the countercultural baggage my father loathed: no long hair, no love beads, no granny glasses. But he did have a beard, and that particular day he wore an insane set of overalls with a big, green frog sewn onto the front. This was enough to have Dad sputtering after Scott introduced himself. But Scott was nothing but respectful, calling my father “Mr. Bissette” until Dad insisted, “call me Dick.” When it came out during conversation that Scott had served in Vietnam, Dad’s demeanor toward Scott visibly changed. Still, though, there was that fucking frog on his chest...
So we three travelers hit the road and shared the driving to Dover. Suffice to say it was an unexpectedly pleasant trip, and Scott even booked a room at the same motel on Route 46 Dad and I stayed in that first night. There’s more to tell, but this is neither the place nor the time; next morning Patty arrived. It was a joyous reunion, and Scott and Patty headed out as Dad and I headed to the Baker Mansion, headquarters of the soon-to-open Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Inc.
En route, though, we stopped at a stop light on Route 46. We were the second car in the line of stopped traffic heading west, when a car shot out of the facing traffic against the light -- and was slammed into by a car moving south through the intersection legally, with the light.
They collided in front of us, and that nanosecond of collision was suspended uncannily in a spray of glass. The shards hung in the sun and air for what seemed an impossible duration. But it was over in a heartbeat; the car coming across with the light was moving so fast it pushed both vehicles out of the line of traffic. I then experienced my first dose of NJ indifference: as soon as the light changed to green, the traffic carried on as if nothing had happened.
It was, in its way, an omen: there were many aspects of living in Dover that seemed, then and now, like a slow-motion car accident. Dover itself was in some stage of precipitous decline as a city. As students without cars, we could measure that decline by the increasing distances we had to walk to and from -- wearing empty backpacks to, lugging overloaded backpacks from -- the surviving grocery stores, as those shops nearest to us went out of business in the two-to-three years we lived in the area. We were soon hiking miles every week or two just to buy groceries. The decay and eventual closing of the beloved downtown ‘nabe’ (Variety-speak for “neighborhood theater”) was a bummer; it was a once-glorious single-screen grindhouse movie house which had brightened our nights with AIP double-features, current mindblowers like Taxi Driver and brand new “what’s this?” gems like The Hills Have Eyes and The Last Survivor amid the more turgid major studio fare of the late ‘70s. By the time we had graduated, that was history. Thereafter, a walk through the woods to the new Rockaway Mall offered us multiplex choices at bargain first-show prices, but it was further to go and had none of the glow of the now-defunct downtown theater Larry Loc and I had lived across from during our second year at Kubert School. Veitch and I would occasionally wander the woods around Dover, seeking something like the solace we both had grown up with in our respective corners of Vermont, only to find remarkably hearty stashes of garbage, broken furniture, and debris in the most out-of-the-way patches of woodland. We once stumbled upon a heap of busted refrigerators, a rotting couch, and car parts, including a rusted engine, and wondered aloud, “Were these air-dropped here?” It was a toxic landscape in more ways than one: We were once concerned about a stream of dead fish running through the park bordering Route 46; the next day, Veitch and Tom Yeates followed the stream down and out to the apparent source of the contamination, a formica factory. This was topped later when a local newspaper article about a fire at a local facility that was experimenting with irradiating food prompted a phone call to the place -- sure enough, they were indeed experimenting with radiation and food as a means for ensuring longer shelf life, which we considered sheer lunacy. With the exception of our little outpost of creativity at the Kubert School and the good people we came to know and love in Dover and nearby Hopatcong and elsewhere, it seemed at times to us that the entirety of NJ was a slow-mo car accident in progress. Whenever that thought arose, I flashed on that glittering halo of glass shards my father and I had beheld our first morning in Dover.
If I thought then that was an omen of what was to come, our subsequent arrival at the mansion and school grounds -- an idyllic patch of trees and green framed by hedges and stonework, at its center the imposing stone Baker Mansion -- certainly provided an alternative snapshot of my possible future.
Muriel Kubert met us at the door, putting us at ease as best she could, though I could see Muriel was a bit nervous, too. I mean, what were they getting into? This was new to her, this vast undertaking -- The Joe Kubert School -- she and Joe were about to launch. And here I was: another skinny, scruffy, unshaven applicant from someplace far away, standing with my worn black art portfolio and my beefy Dad. How many of “us” had Muriel already greeted at that door? But she radiated hospitality and grace, and ushered us into Joe’s studio on the right as we stepped inside, the largest single room on the main floor.
Then came the handshakes, and the sparks, and the change.
Dave hit the water, and for a terrible second, I saw red --