Did you ever have a dream where there’s all these women wearing nothing but bras and tutus and they’re screaming and pointing at these elephants that are coming over the horizon and picking their noses and their butts at the same time? – Rob Burton
Lately I find that my mind has been turning back to the one person who has probably had the most influence on my life in a creative way. Is it “Weird Al” Yankovic whose music I still listen to and get creative inspiration from? No, but he is the person who introduced me to Weird Al. Is it one of the countless slightly surreal comedy pieces that I find funny? No, but he is the person most responsible for broadening my horizons to them. Is it Batman or some other comic book character? No, but he is the one who was filling me in on origins and comic storylines long before I met Chuck. This man is a childhood friend by the name of Rob Burton.
Rob was a good friend of mine all from kindergarten through grade 6. I think there were points in there where he was even my best friend. We shared many of the same interests in toys, like Transformers and He-Man. Some of my earliest memories are of what a friggin’ genius he was. I remember that, in the third grade, he read The Hobbit and adapted it into an epic, 10-page poem. And it was a real poem, with a good rhythm and words that rhyme and everything! In the third grade! THE THIRD GRADE! In the second grade he built an actual working traffic light. Of course, it was only two feet tall and powered by a 9-volt battery, but it worked. We were in Cub Scouts together, and for the three Cub Car rallies, he built: a perfect scale model Rolls Royce (with popsicle stick running boards), a sports car with working headlights (using a 9-volt battery that doubled as ballast) and a perfect scale model of Ecto-1. Yes, the Ghostbusters car.
I also remember that he could always recite this wonderful nonsense poem about a late-night duel in a graveyard. I still know a line or two of that poem. “They drew their swords and shot each other.” “I know it’s all true, because the blind man saw it all through the knothole in the barbed wire fence.” That was one crazy poem.
I remember having the occasional slumber party at his house. He lived on an acreage in the middle of nowhere, but it was a very cool acreage. I remember getting up very early on Saturday mornings at his house and watching cartoons. The strongest memories I have of cartoons at his place were Pac-Man on Saturday mornings, and, one Saturday, when there was nothing else on, we watched Tom & Jerry on the French Channel. Hell, it was on that TV at his 10th birthday when I saw Transformers: The Movie for the first time. When we got bored with that, we’d play Spider-Man on his Gemini (an Atari-compatible home video game system) or some kind of text-based game on the family’s Commodore PET. And, when all that failed, we’d go to the family library (a little room in the basement with a comfy couch and tons of books) and read old Mad magazines.
That’s where he gave me the gift of “Weird Al” Yankovic. It was at one of those slumber parties where he put a scratchy vinyl copy of Dare to be Stupid on the record player. I was a fan from day one. Rob brought down the house that year at my school’s annual Air Guitar competition with his live stage version of Like a Surgeon. Once I got a tape player, he loaned me a cassette copy of Dare to be Stupid for me to copy. Now, the album ends with this song called One More Minute, in which Weird Al ends the song by letting out an anguished cry. Since that anguished cry sounded so much like Rob’s laugh, for the longest time I thought the Weird Al’s anguished cry was actually Rob’s laugh ruining the song.
He even had a very cool family. He had two older brothers and one little brother. His eldest brother would always violently defend his Star Wars action figures and keep us from playing with them. His mother was a bit of hippie. She was always saying to me, “Mrs. Burton is my mother-in-law. Call me by my first name.” She made great cookies and had a pottery wheel in the basement. And his father. You’re going to think I’m making this up, but his father was a diabetic skydiving telephone repairman. Yes, you heard me right. He worked for AGT (Alberta’s phone company before Telus bought it), skydiving was his hobby, and he was living with diabetes. He and my father were Scoutmasters together and man, did they make Beaver Scouts fun!
But sadly, it was his father’s affiliation with AGT that soon brought these days of childhood merriment to an end. As the sixth grade drew to a close, the order came that his father had been transferred to St. Albert. True, it was a city that was just one hour away, but it seemed very far away. A huge farewell party was thrown for him and his family at the community hall. I was the only one man enough to cry. And then…he was gone. But still an influence. For you see, he did leave me his St. Albert address.
That following fall, I sent my first letter to him. We wrote back and forth for most of junior high. He told me a lot of fascinating things in those letters. In one of those letters I asked him, “So, who is this Batman villain called Two-Face?” He replied by sending me an old Batman comic he had lying around detailing the origin of Two-Face. I still have that comic. He even told me that his school was selected to do experiments with some tomato seeds that were left on a satellite as part of an experiment. Naturally, they planted the seeds to see what would happen. They grew bigger than any other tomato. So then, in this letter, Rob started (practically) presenting a paper on how radiation in space affected certain cells and certain chromosomes in the seeds and all I could do was sit back and go, “Wow.”
Of course, Rob and his family came out to visit many times. Rob would hook-up with me and some other friends of ours and we’d roam the streets of Entwistle like some kind of gang. Since junior high had begun, I had begun turning into a Trekkie. I was constantly amazing Rob as I’d spout out obscure facts about Star Trek continuity that just made him look at me and exclaim, “You’ve got to be the biggest Trekkie I know.” I also remember that one of the radio stations I listened to at the time had begun playing Always Look On the Bright Side of Life. One time, in our gang, I began singing it out loud. Rob looked at me with a big grin and asked, “Have you begun watching Monty Python?” I looked at him and said, “Monty Python? Who’s that?” So, he began running through Monty Python sketches at a rapid fire pace, and I promised him that I’d check out some Monty Python at my earliest opportunity. Of course, my earliest opportunity turned out to be university.
But, Rob’s visits soon became infrequent. I never went to St. Albert to visit him, although I asked my parents to take me quite a few times. The letters soon became spaced further and further apart until, finally, they just stopped. By the time the ninth grade began, we had officially drifted apart. I didn’t hear from him again until about, o, grade 11 or so. The family was having dinner on the deck one evening, when two young gentlemen on their bicycles pulled up. They got off of their bikes and came into our yard. It was Rob and a high school friend of his. For their summer vacation, they were attempting to cycle to Vancouver. So we talked for a bit. Actually, my mother talked with him for a bit. I was just kind of stunned into silence at seeing him before me. But, after visiting with my parents for about half an hour or so, he and his friend rode off, and I left so many things unsaid.
The last time I ever heard any news on him was about two years ago. I was hanging out with some friends in West Edmonton Mall, when I wanted to stop in at a tie store and buy a bow tie. (Why I wanted the bow tie is a whole other column.) And who was working as a clerk in the shop but…Rob’s older brother. The one who violently defended his Star Wars action figures. So, we chatted for a bit, and I asked about Rob. Turns out, circa Y2K, Rob was still in St. Albert, working as a substitute teacher.
There are still many questions I want to ask Rob. I would love to just sit down with him and catch up with him someday. How much of him is still the childhood friend I remember? Does he still cling to the things that he introduced me to? Does he look forward to every new Weird Al album as much as I do? I never even found out if he liked UHF. Being one of my first influences in sci-fi and comics, did he like the movie version of X-Men and Spider-Man? How about the new Star Wars films? Am I still the biggest Trekkie he ever knew? Is he still able to recite Monty Python sketches backwards and forwards? And maybe I’d ask him some more personal questions. Is he married now? Has he found his path in life? And just…how is he? He was truly one of the larger influences in my formative years, and wherever he is now, thank you, Rob, and I hope you’re doing well.