Shirley & Son has been bumming me out lately.
The current arc is about Shirley deciding to try a dating service and, if you look at the panels closely, you'll see it ran in the last part of March and first part of April, 2003.
Jerry Bittle, the cartoonist behind the long-running Geech and this newer strip about a divorced woman and her son, was one of my first cartoonist friends and, while we never met face-to-face, we had a lively ongoing conversation online.
He could laugh and he could make you laugh, and he was a fine storyteller. I have no idea how the subject of the Battle of New Orleans came up, but he told me once of how, when he was a kid, the family would go visit his grandfather in a nursing home.
But he would kind of slide on out of the room, because down the hall was Jimmy Driftwood, the former school teacher and music writer who had penned the song "The Battle of New Orleans" in 1936 to try to get his history students to learn the basics of the battle.
On these Sundays, all the kids who were supposed to be visiting their grandparents would be gathered around Jimmy for a free concert.
There was no moral to the story and I don't think there was any particular point. It was just an odd, wonderful little thing that made me smile, both for the kids and for Jimmy Driftwood.
Jerry often dropped these little anecdotes and observations into his emails and I always thought, if I ever got down to Texas, sitting down with Jerry and a couple of cold ones would make for a pretty memorable evening.
I had gone back and forth with him when Shirley & Son was about to launch, because, as a single divorced dad, I was a little concerned about the (so far unseen) portrayal of the father. But it turned out fine: I liked Roger, who was gently clueless but well-intentioned and, honestly, a lot like many of my divorced friends.
I brought Shirley & Son to our paper and interviewed Jerry as part of a series that I've since reprinted here, and part of the revelation was that he had never been divorced and was, in fact, in a stable marriage with kids. He was just a good listener and a fine storyteller.
When this current story arc started, I dropped him an email because I was experimenting at the time with Match.com and had just lined up a coffee-meet with a woman a little over an hour south of where I was living. And I told him that she seemed nice and her picture looked good, but I was a little concerned about that latter part because she was a graphic designer.
He was tickled by that and wrote back that he would be waiting to hear about my "Photoshopped blind date."
It turned out to be a pretty funny date, since I got lost trying to find the place and, while I had a cell phone, I only had her landline number, so when she panicked and decided she was being stood up, she called her famiy and they all rallied around. By the time I arrived 20 or 30 minutes late, she was just about to be seated, along with her mother, her sister, her sister's husband and another sister.
So coffee became dinner and dinner became a sit-com. We took a table for two and they all sat in a banquette, such that I was facing not just my date but, over her shoulder, a semicircle of her family, who kept laughing and giving me thumbs-ups.
By the way, she did look pretty much like her picture. And pretty much like several members of her family, which was not something one expects to learn on a first date.
I should have emailed Jerry right away with the story but I put it off and he went on a family vacation to Honduras from which he didn't return. On April 9, 2003, while this arc was still running, Jerry had a heart attack and died in Honduras.
And so it's been nearly 10 years now that I've been beating myself up that I missed a chance for one more funny exchange with a funny, funny guy.
It also means that, if you haven't been reading "Shirley & Son," you might want to mark it, because they'll be restarting the strip in a few weeks. Of course, Jerry had left strips before he went on vacation, but most cartoonists come back to an empty cupboard after a break, and the syndicate didn't have a whole lot more on hand, so the strip ran out fairly soon after.
It's a very well-done strip and I wish it could have run longer than three years, because I'd have liked to have seen what he did with it.
And I'd have liked to have had another conversation with him. About anything.