Thursday, February 6, 2014

Howard the Human

This is all about my friend, Howard Downs.

That’s him, on the far left of the photo above, taken on the occasion of our mutual friend BC’s wedding in July of last year. 

All of us in that picture: Howard, Dave, Mike, BC, Lee, Tom, Walt and me… we all go way, way back together, nearly 35 years of friendship. These guys are the only brothers I ever had, and I thank goodness that I have them.

I don’t think that any of us could imagine that when this photo was taken, the last time we all got together, that it would actually be the last time we all got together.

Howard died yesterday, of long term health problems relating to diabetes and liver failure.

The last time I saw him was at the “Maine Comics Geeks Unite” outdoor show in September, where Dave and I and Howard’s wife Liz all had tables stocked with our wares. We practically owned the show! Howard was fresh out of his first stay in the hospital, but he dragged himself up from West Gardiner to come see us anyhow. He was clearly suffering; he looked to me as if his whole body pained him. Even so, we had a couple of laughs, and it was awfully good to see him get excited about meeting Mort Todd and picking up a print of his art… the little kid who loved comics never died in him.

We all met at my Comics Shop in Hallowell, Maine, way back in the late ‘70s… the first shop of its kind in the whole state. I was a lousy businessman and the shop didn’t last more than three years, but it was amazing, it still is amazing, that the friendships I made through that place have lasted ever since. 

Howard was the first, the original, the definite article. I don’t make friends easily, in part, I now realize, thanks to Asperger’s, but Howard took a liking to me and my shop and started hanging around a lot. And although the shop is where we first met, I wasn’t the reason that we all became friends. It was Howard. He was smart, outgoing, friendly and funny… especially funny. He had amazing ideas and insights that were fun to hear. He brought life and liveliness into any situation, every conversation.

Maybe a decade ago, one of us (I think it was BC) pointed out that whenever we got together, it was never long before we all started laughing. Howard was the engine of that; he had a great, infectious laugh that I can still hear, even now. It’s one thing I will never forget about him.

He was a clever, unconventionally creative guy who never found an outlet for his ideas. I know that troubled him. Although affable and outgoing, he was as insecure as anyone… and this led to problems between him and me.

Oftentimes, especially in his younger days, he needed to boost his own sense of self-worth, and would accomplish this by putting others down, quite hard, by verbally knocking their legs out from beneath them. He sometimes surrounded himself with inferior people (his “newsboy legion” as BC labelled them) just so that he could be the Alpha Dog of the pack. One fellow in particular was a regular… not in our circle of friends, but a hanger-on of Howard’s who seemed not to mind the abuse that Howard regularly served up and dumped on him.

And when there was no one else around for Howard to take down a peg or two, I was usually the one elected to receive the abuse (although there were a few exceptions; I recall one unpleasant incident at the now-defunct Graciano’s Restaurant where we all frequently met). He knew just where to strike and he knew how to make it hurt, and I did not roll with the punches. It hurt all the worse because I did think of him as a brother and I know he felt the same way about me. 

I dealt with it the way I dealt with everything in those days… by bottling it up and bottling it up and bottling it up until it couldn’t be contained any longer and finally burst out in an explosion of anger and hurt and resentment. Especially after I started drinking in my early forties, those explosions happened more frequently and with more violence. There was a time when I didn’t want to see Howard anymore.

I’m all the more glad now that we were able to put that aside in these last eight or ten years. It wasn’t easy. But we both finally realized that we meant too much to each other to let it go on.

In his twenties, a stint in the National Guard did him no good. Basic training was an assault in his sensibilities. Shortly after returning from that, he came out to spend a night as a guest with me in the Old House. He was not the same. At night, I could hear him from across the hall, yelling and crying out in his sleep. 

His direct, not to say blunt, not to say caustic methods of dealing with situations in life and at work did him no good.

His first marriage did him no good. He was fortunate later on to meet and marry Liz; who was very good for him indeed, very patient among other things, and with whom he had a lovely daughter who combines all of her parents’ best qualities.

The first time I was hospitalized for alcoholism it was not voluntary, and I essentially vanished off the face of the earth as far as my father and my friends were concerned. It was Howard who came up here, camped out on my doorstep, talked to the neighbors, found out what had happened, tracked me down (“like a bloodhound,” my Dad said), found me in the hospital and contacted everyone to tell them what had happened. When I relapsed almost immediately after that first stay, Howard was right here for me, trying as hard as he could to help, tracking down my hidden bottles of vodka and dumping them down the sink.

The whole time that he was doing that, he was battling his own alcohol problem. While I was drinking, I easily outdrank Howard at his worst; but I didn’t start until late, whereas Howard was a lifelong hard drinker.

We had other issues. His politics were crap. Maine’s egregious Governor LePage was his “hero” — but we never so much let politics come between us.

He was tough, scrappy, hard-nosed, irritating, caustic, funny, and the best friend that anyone could want.

When all of us got together, we never ran out of subjects and certainly never stopped talking about comics (our mutual friend Lee became a professional doing brilliant work for both Marvel and DC) … but it wasn’t comics that held us together. It was that laughter, that old laughter that began three and a half decades ago and never stopped. And that was all Howard.

I know we’ll all get together again in the coming weeks to remember Howard, and I know that we’ll all get together again after that, hopefully many times in the years ahead. But when we do, it will never be the same. A nuclear bomb has come down out of the skies, leaving a great big crater in the center of our brotherhood, leaving us shocked and sad and lonely, staring at a gaping hole that can never be filled. 


  1. Well said, Doug. I knew it would be. You and Howard always had a special bond, and it's right that you lead the parade of remembrance.

    Thanks for taking the time to care and share. Thanks especially to you and your Mom for giving us that great meeting place 35 years ago. Who knew that the friends we made then would be our best friends for life?

    I cannot for the life of me stop crying today. But I can't stop remembering, either, and there are a lot of happy memories.

    Remember when Bruce, Dave and I were at your house two weeks ago, when Howard had just been released from his latest hospitalization? As we parted, we did what we often did: We imitated the Fantastic Four origin from issue #1, where they stand in a circle and place their hands atop one another and pledge to fight crime. Ben, the Thing, was the holdout, so Reed said - as we said two weeks ago in our re-enactment - "There's one hand missing ..."

    Now there always will be one hand missing. And I know none of us will ever stop missing Howard.

    Thanks, Doug.

  2. We already miss him, and we will always honor his memory. I spoke with his daughter tonight, and she said how highly he prized his friendships, and how she was proud of him for forging such bonds. He grew up down the street from Lee, and I helped him a little bit a time or two when he found himself in a pickle, but I know (and I bet you do, too, if you'll admit it to yourself) that the friendship he prized the most was the one he had with you.


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