My first memory of Peter John Jr. is of us playing on the beach near our homes on West Seventh St. probably in 1966. One of his brothers caught a flounder and Peter came up to me to show me the fish. He could never pronounce my name right. He always said, “BRI-Ann.” His name was Peter but everyone called him “Sonny” back then. I never knew his real name until our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Maas, called out his name in roll call on the first day of school at Harborview Elementary.
He was my best friend from kindergarten to sixth-grade. We were in the same classes together, until he stopped coming to school in junior high. I recall all the days hanging out in the old neighborhood when we would go to my grandpa and get 15 cents and then go to Spruce Delicatessen or Thibodeau’s Market and buy a Coke or a Pepsi and we would share it.
As we got a little bit older we loved playing basketball more than anything. Every recess we were at the basketball court, shooting hoops and dreaming of the day we would be stars for the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears. We both made the sixth-grade team although neither of us grasped the team concept that Coach Martin tried to instill in us.
I recall one time in a reading circle in grade school Peter kept “helping” an extra slow reader with words like “It” “See” and “The” and so on. We both started to laugh. I know it was mean, but we did have a good laugh at that and many other situations.
We both lived on North Douglas from 1968 on. Some times we would hitchhike to his house where we would play after school. One day he was upset because a neighbor girl was hit and killed by a car near his house. He asked me if I believed in heaven. I think I said something like “I guess so.”
He started to miss school a lot in junior high. First it was only a day or two, and then soon he didn’t show up at all. I saw him and I asked him why he didn’t come to school anymore. I don’t recall the answer, but I do remember he said he was drinking beer and getting drunk and he asked me if I wanted to drink some with him. I said. “No way.”
I lost track of him for the rest of junior high and high school. I went to college for a bit, then came home and got a job as a photographer at the paper. Then I started to see him drunk all over town. Sometimes he had it together and we talked about the old days, but most of the time he was too wasted to say much of anything. I saw him passed out at the Salvation Army Thanksgiving dinner several times.
He was 52-years-old, like me, but he looked much older. He still said hi to me when our paths crossed the past few years.
A few days ago he was found lying dead all alone downtown in the rain. I saw the police standing over his body with a blanket on top of him. I didn’t know it was him at the time. He didn’t have much of a chance to become successful, after he fell into the abyss of alcohol addiction at such a young age. I don’t know if he ever had a Merry Christmas or if he ever fell in love.
Rest in peace at last, Sonny, and yes I do believe in Heaven. I hope the Lord will take pity on you and reward you for all the endless suffering you endured.
• Brian Wallace is a life-long Juneau resident and for 27 years worked as a staff photographer for the Juneau Empire.