Monday, July 31, 2006

I was thinking about Jerry Bittle the other day. Jerry was one of those friends that you meet on-line and think that some day you'll get together and have a beer and talk deep into the night. That actually happened to me with an on-line buddy -- we were up until nearly 4 a.m., laughing and talking and finding out that we got along just as well in person as on-line.

It didn't happen with Jerry because, before we could get together for those beers, he took a vacation to Central America and somehow had a heart attack while he was scuba diving.

And he left behind a wife and a couple of daughters and far more grief than my losing out on a night of beer and giggles.

But there is still that frustration -- He was working on a new strip, "Shirley and Son," about a divorced family. It was the most compassionate, wonderful, hilarious strip I've ever seen -- absolutely one of a kind. Dammit, I wanted to see how it came out. And I'll bet he did, too.

At the end, in the story arc Jerry was working on before his vacation, Shirley was starting to date, and I told Jerry I was about to go on a date from one of those on-line dating services. Her pics on the Web site looked good, I said, but I was a little concerned because she was a graphic artist. He wrote back that he wanted to hear all about my "Photoshopped blind date" and I meant to tell him all about it, but put it off. And ... well, then it was too late.

It certainly wouldn't have mattered in the grand scheme of things for him to have known that she invited her entire family along on the date, but he certainly would have gotten a huge laugh out of it. And I felt bad that I could have told him, but put it off because, after all, there's always tomorrow.

Jerry's bread-and-butter strip, "Geech," was a genius piece of timing. It was like the Bob Newhart Show -- the real one -- where you knew, as soon as Bob said, "I just want a quiet evening with no interruptions," that Howard was going to come through the door -- you knew it, but you laughed because it was like being in on the joke.

Geech was like that -- yes, predictable, but that was part of the fun. Rabbit would never go to Artie's for dinner. Ruby would never get a date. And the bathrooms at the gas station would never, ever get cleaned.

But with "Shirley and Son," he was reaching beyond brilliance. How he could be so knowing and compassionate without being divorced was a mystery to me. But he said he listened to his friends. Jerry Bittle was one hell of a listener.

I have a couple of missing friends who I wish I could have one more email exchange with, even if we never did get to drink those in-person beers. Jerry Bittle is absolutely the name at the top of that list.

By the way, his stuff is still available on-line here and here.


BrianFies said...

Very nice remembrance of Mr. Bittle. I never spent much time with "Geech" but agree with your assessment of "Shirley & Son." It had a real, warm wit and unusual depth of character that I enjoyed. I'm glad you had as much of a relationship with him as you did.

ronnie said...

Mike, a wonderful remembrance.

I wish you'd gotten to sit up until almost 4 am laughing and talking with Jerry, too. I know that anyone who got to swap war stories with you until the wee hours would never forget the experience.


roger said...

Jerry was my neighbor for three years when I lived in Richardson, Tx. Jerry's stockade fence between our property was very termite infested, but was a great place for us to hand on to while would tell each other funny stories of our upbringing and college days. His wife, Trish, would finally come out to get us back to doing whatever we were doing before being sidetracked. I know it wasn't yardwork, cause that was her job. Trish was the extension of Jerry. A beautiful person inside and out. We had a bad freeze on year and both of us had some freeze damage to our swimming pools. I was more fortunate than the Bittles as they had to replace all the tile around their pool. Jerry told me that he and Trish were going to pick out a different tile to give the pool a new look. The pool looked great, but it wasn't until after it was all done that he and Trish realized the the new tile was the exact same tile as the old. He brought out one of the old ones and held it side-by-side to a new one just to prove to me he wasn't pulling my leg. Another good laugh with the Bittle!

On a warm night, you could hear Jerry floating around in his pool, creating the next Geech strip. I remember one night in particular, because it was about 3:00 a.m. and I couldn't sleep. I just was laying back by my pool and all of the sudden heard Jerry start laughing. He had just finished his next Sunday comic strip in his mind and was ready to go inside to put it to paper.

I hadn't heard that Jerry had passed, so it was quite a shock to find out yesterday that it was almost the 5th anniversary of his death. I went on the internet to look him up and give him a call. I wanted him to know that I still share his book with friends and still have a good chuckle every time I read it. What immediately caught my eye in the Google search was the short phrase, "Jerry Bittle WAS a cartoonist....." Immediately I had a sinking feeling that my friend was gone, but also was thankful that our lives had crossed paths. I hope to contact Trish and the girls to let them know how special they all are to us and that we cherish those memories of Jerry. I must say that there was a little bit of Geech in him, especially when it came to anything mechanical. Right, Trish?

Anonymous said...

I was going through some of my old stuff to whittle down the pile when my copy of Sorry We're Open came to light. It is an autographed copy from a book signing here in Wichita Kansas. I always enjoyed his strip and when I found out Artie wore a shirt with WSU on it he confirmed at the book signing it was indeed for Wichita State University. A woman I worked with knew the woman that was to become the inspiration for Ruby in the strip. I really miss everything that his strip represented and shared with his readers. It holds a place in my heart that Calvin and Hobbs and the Far Side also inhabit. I hope that his family is doing well.