Westside Story: From Nathan Bedford Forrest High School to the End of the Road

by Tim Gilmore, 8/20/2021

Headbangers denied access to their tribe to those whose hair wasn’t long enough. Such rejects might even be branded “poseurs,” a word borrowed from the skateboarders. In 11th grade Biology class, 1990, Brian told a boy wearing a Metallica shirt on the other side of the room, “You need to grow some hair before you can wear that shirt.”

Wolfson High School, of which Forrest High School was an exact replica, from Taylor Hardwick: 60 Years of Design

I didn’t fit in anywhere. Strange that I didn’t get in bigger trouble at Trinity Christian Academy when my math teacher, Ms. Curl, found the lyrics from heavy metal bands Megadeth, Metal Church and Metallica scrawled on my class folder. “Mirror stares back hard. / ‘Kill.’ It’s such a friendly word, / Seems the only way / For reaching out again.” At Nathan Bedford Forrest, a school named for an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, I didn’t fit in with the kids who didn’t fit in either.

from the yearbook for Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, 1992

Which is why it mattered to me to do “Air Band,” like “air guitar” but for a whole band. Nine or 10 acts competed for first, second, third place. Other kids filled the high school auditorium. Brian, Curt, Frank, Jerry and I were the thrash metal band Testament and the song was “Trial by Fire.” I was the singer. I was also the only one of us who didn’t play in a heavy metal cover band. The jocks booed us and threw ice at us on stage. On Monday, a girl in my English class said, “Y’all looked cool” and for a moment, I actually felt it.

my senior picture, from the yearbook for Nathan Bedford Forrest, 1992

When I spent the night at Curt’s house, when Brian brought over a 12 pack of cheap beer, when Curt’s single dad had friends over to watch porn on the living room TV, I felt out of place. I’d rebelled against my fundamentalist upbringing, against having been scolded when I was little for singing “Jingle Bell Rock” because rock n’ roll was the Devil’s music, against the years of my mother’s illness and her death. I liked angry, violent, indignant music. These were supposed to be my people.

Out in the garage, Curt sat down at his drum set. Brian and Frank plugged in their guitars. “Thrash” was the only word onomatopoeically apt for the sounds that came through those amplifiers.

Kreator, live at Dynamo, Eindhoven, Netherlands, 1988

“Taste good to you, Tim?” Brian said when he handed me a beer. “Yeah it does,” I lied. My years of heavy drinking came later, seemingly unconnected. I never liked Brian’s Metallica shirt that said “Alcoholica.” There was a kinship though when we stood talking before Megadeth came on stage at the Morocco Shrine Auditorium on St. Johns Bluff, three days before Christmas, 1990, when the music started, when we dove into the mosh pit.

We all wore jeans and the black t-shirts that advertised thrash metal bands. I had a Megadeth shirt, a Metallica, Anthrax, Kreator. I saw Anthrax play at a club in Orlando, the German band Kreator at the Milk Bar downtown. I rarely did any stagediving but loved mosh pits and the incidental bloody nose.

Kreator, live at Dynamo, Eindhoven, Netherlands, 1988

Despite this amygdalar masculine music, I felt more comfortable around girls in high school than guys. There was always some kind of competitive charge in male space. So I rode around with Leslie and Danita after school every day, Danita driving, me in the back seat. We’d get a slice of pizza at Renna’s.

from the yearbook for Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, 1992

Danita hadn’t yet made national news for being told that because she’d dyed her hair purple, she couldn’t participate in graduation. Danita, head of the French Club, was the only honor roll student among us. Only the three of us, and Leslie’s and Danita’s sisters, were supposed to know she was stuck on Brian.

from Florida Today, June 10, 1992

I don’t remember the backstory to the drama. I don’t remember why Danita drove to Stacey’s apartment, nor what, if anything, happened there. I don’t remember how I found out my friend Brian was after me, why he thought I’d driven Danita to his girlfriend’s apartment to fight. It sounds so puerile. I remember only that Danita drove us to the apartment one day and that Brian told everyone he’d get me for it.

Topaz Gardens Apartments

By then, I’d started hanging out with Larry and Wally, Rick and Jimsky. I fit their group a little better. They liked different kinds of music, post-punk and funk, old cars and art. It seemed right to be the writer in that circle. We went to the first Lollapalooza together in Orlando, saw Siouxsie and the Banshees, Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails. We did Air Band as the hardcore punk band Dirty Rotten Imbeciles.

The occasional sense of threat loomed in the form of Larry and Wally’s older brother Timmy. His friends George and Georgefry, twins from New Hampshire, used to drive around the Westside scouting the sidewalk for people to assault. I never expected Wally would kill Timmy, but that came later.

all that’s left today of Royal Court Mobile Home Park

Now comes the night we drove into the trailer park off Timuquana Road to pick up some LSD. In the trailer, I noticed Brian in the background. I didn’t acknowledge him, just tried to act normal. Not that I’d ever succeeded at that. I don’t know who hit me and ran off as we were leaving. I don’t know who hit Ken. I don’t know where Ken went, though we found him later wandering 103rd Street.

I remember when Timmy, skinny and sociopathic, told his friends, “Let’s go, boys.” I don’t remember whose car I was in, tailing them, powerless over the events of the night. I saw them kick the door of the house trailer in, heard screaming inside. I saw one of Timmy’s friends kick somebody to the ground and then underneath the trailer. Timmy shouted “Five-Oh” was coming. Things had fallen apart.

all that’s left today of Royal Court Mobile Home Park

Brian and I never spoke again. The plot had completely manipulated the characters of the farce. I didn’t know how we were no longer friends. But Brian had changed. And I had changed. Something vicious and baleful worked its way through these Westside neighborhoods and infected the kids who breathed it in.

What was it like, his final night? It was the day before his birthday. He’d been hospitalized from previous overdoses. His high school girlfriend had died from an overdose. He’d gotten sepsis from a dirty needle. He bragged about surviving a later girlfriend’s knife attack at that little house on Collins Court. He liked to tell people he’d died and come back to life several times.

Collins Court

The stabbing happened 10 years ago. First she said she’d gone to the gas station for cigarettes, returned and found him lying on the floor, bleeding from multiple knife wounds. She asked a neighbor if she could use his bathroom. When she came out, the neighbor found blood in his sink and a steak knife in the bathroom trash can.

Then the story changed. They’d argued about her cell phone and he’d started throwing her belongings out into the front yard. She grabbed the steak knife and stabbed him in the back. When he turned around, she kept stabbing him in the chest.

Another decade crawled along. Jerry from Air Band days says, “The guy just kept living.” He’d eventually write a song about Brian “doing everything but dying.” Meanwhile a desperation breathes across the exurbs, overdoses diluted in the hot swamp wind, an opioid humidity. The number of deaths rises every year.

The March 25, 2020 arrest report listed the “incident location” as 4800 Ortega Farms Road, The Palms Apartments, his voice as “intoxicated / slurred,” and answered the question “Is Homeless?” with a “Yes.”

The Palms Apartments

Someone had called the police about a “suspicious person.” Two officers found him sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. He spotted them and started to drive away, but they stopped him. “Upon suspect rolling down the window, we observed a belt wrapped around his right arm as a tourniquet and blood on his forearm.” When they asked him to step out of the car, the used syringe fell from his lap to the floorboard.

The December 22, 2020 arrest report listed the “incident location” as 4901 Sunbeam Road, Thomas Chase Apartments, Building One, #104, his voice as “intoxicated / slurred,” employer “Unemployed,” occupation, “Unknown.” It was 30 years to the day since we’d gone to the Megadeth show together.

Thomas Chase Apartments

Someone had called the police about an “unknown individual sleeping outside their apartment in the breezeway.” The responding officer found him with fentanyl in his pocket. “I advised the suspect of his Miranda Rights via card and he verbally acknowledged he understood his rights. The suspect stated that he has not worn his pants for a few days and didn’t know where the drugs came from.”

He told police he was loitering in stairwells looking for a place to charge his phone. Some days he posted more than a hundred Facebook memes. He took a selfie showing off a set of gold grillz on his teeth, barely looks like the Brian who was my friend.

The last overdose came two months later, day before his birthday. He would’ve turned 47. He’d made it that long. Our old friend Jerry, who sings in the metal band Divided Truth, wrote the song “The Burying” about Brian in 2019. He sent it to him, but doesn’t know if he ever listened to it. “Where’s my freedom? My will to fight? / Bloodstains on my veins taking my last rights.” The chorus says, “Bleed me empty, take everything. / The only thing left for me is the burying.”

I wonder how many years ago Brian last touched a guitar. He used to “shred it” in Curt’s garage in high school days. Girls flirted with him by the lockers. Their hair long and their bangs sprayed high, they said he looked like Chris Cornell, the singer from Soundgarden. When he pulled up his shirt to show them his tattoo, they giggled and sauntered away.

Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, photograph by Charles Peterson, 1989

In high school Biology class, I showed Brian heavy metal lyrics I’d written. We were 16 years old. I told him and Roslyn about a story I’d read and found hilarious in a ’70s paperback horror anthology. The narrator attended some kind of guide through the mountains following a monster’s footsteps in the snow. When they came to a cave, the guide lifted his cloak and the narrator saw that his feet were backwards. He’d been walking with the monster the whole time. One side of Brian’s mouth lifted and something like a bemused scoff came out. What a ridiculous footnote to become prophetic!

Brian, 16 years old, yearbook for Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, 1990