While some knew him as Jonah and others as Mac, we all loved and respected him. And we miss him dearly.

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Shirt Tales (Part One)

Dear Katie and Aiden,

I suspect that lots of parents are easily won over by their children. Not so much because kids demonstrate any particular talent or ability (although certainly those may be there) but rather, pretty much just because we love you and find joy in most anything you yourself like doing.

That’s why I think I was always so entertained by Jonah’s t-shirts. Not the white Hanes ones he wore under something else (I’m not that weird) but the shirts that had something to say. I don’t know, they kept me endlessly entertained and I like to think they said something about the kid who pulled them out of his drawer in the morning.

“Batman Animated” wrapped around Jonah. Jonah wrapped around buddy Ryan. Cleveland, circa 1995.

“Batman Animated” wrapped around Jonah.
Jonah wrapped around buddy Ryan. Cleveland, circa 1995.

From Jonah’s earliest years, he showed a distinct preference for designs that took over his entire t-shirt. Can you remember his Scooby Doo shirt, Batman Animated, and the Coca-Cola Polar Bear? These were probably a hint that all nineteen of his years would contain shirts worth looking at. It’s hard to remember when he switched from us buying him his shirts to him buying his own, except when I see one he’s wearing in a photograph and I think, “I have no idea where he got that one.” For example, I can’t imagine Mom or me getting him his Dane Cook “Suck My Back” t-shirt. It wouldn’t have been worth my even noting he had that one, except (in Feb 2007) he wore it while fixing up Katrina-ravaged homes in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, making his statement on that particular day something along the lines of, “Screw you, how can I help?” As you well know, Jonah was not the kind of guy who blew people off. He may have loved looking (and walking!) like he didn’t care, but his actions betrayed him. Jonah was a good guy.

Jonah, Amanda, and Pink Floyd. March 2008.

Jonah, Amanda, and Pink Floyd
March 2008

Your brother’s trip to Mississippi brought a few other t-shirts of note into his life. While I think he really enjoyed superior barbecue at The Shed, it’s a bit more likely that their motto, “Eat Shed,” emblazoned on the front of their bright red t-shirt is what earned its place in Jonah’s frequent wearer club. He picked up another t-shirt at Mardi Gras in Biloxi that read, “Don’t Worry … Bead Happy.” It bore no profound (or even outrageous) message, perhaps because it represented nothing more than the good time he had (and the strings of beads he caught) there. When you think about it, getting to attend America’s favorite annual street party at age seventeen was probably a peak event for this kid. That he wouldn’t be getting a later opportunity to go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans itself, well, let’s just say his Dad’s extra-grateful for that trip south to help hurricane victims.

Many of Jonah’s t-shirts reflected his love of music, especially guitar. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix were certainly among his most colorful ones, and were consistent with the decor on the walls of his room back home (where he had the Pink Floyd “Back Catalogue” poster, Led Zeppelin’s “Swan Song” and a framed LP/album cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” that he and I picked up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland) and the wall above his bed at UB (which displayed two enormous posters of Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love” and Pink Floyd’s “Animals” recordings).

December 2006

December 2006

But Jonah’s heart (I think) was with two other shirts. First, a simple white t-shirt bearing the words, “Toys from the Attic.” It’s a guitar shop in White Plains, NY, where Jonah purchased his red Dean acoustic and his black Gibson L6-S electric. The folks at “Toys” were always warm and welcoming to this young, unpracticed player. They seemed to have all the time in the world for him, explaining the differences between the many guitars on their walls and giving him hours to sit and play until he was ready to choose. That’s probably why he shopped there and not at Sam Ash across the street. I think Jonah was honoring this small but influential music center by wearing their shirt.

Katie, Ellen, Jonah & Les Paul Cleveland, August 2007

Katie, Ellen, Jonah & Les Paul
Cleveland, August 2007

But the t-shirt I think Jonah loved best was the one he picked up on Monday evening, May 21, 2007. He and I had played hooky that night from temple high school and spent the evening at the Iridium Jazz Club (along with my buddy, Jim Dowdle) listening to the classic riffs of Lester William Polsfuss, known professionally as Les Paul. Jonah understood he was sitting in the presence of music royalty that evening. Besides being a phenomenal guitarist, Les Paul had helped create the solid-body electric guitar, as well as sound-on-sound and multitrack recording. The music that Jonah loved, both in its live and studio formats, owed an everlasting debt to Les Paul. Jonah knew that time was running out for this elder statesman of jazz, and he was so pleased and honored to watch Les Paul play before his nearly ten decades came to a close (which happened only a few weeks ago on August 13, 2009). Jonah did not, of course, know what his own future held and, once again, it’s Jonah’s dad who’s extra grateful for this incredibly memorable evening I was able to share with your brother. Jonah left the Iridium Jazz Club that evening with a black t-shirt that bore the face of Les Paul framed inside the outline of an electric guitar. It quickly became one of his favorites.

Darn Good Lookin’ ... all 3 of them! Graduation, June 2008

Darn Good Lookin’ … all 3 of them!
Graduation, June 2008

Jonah — who learned to play guitar really well, had a fine, strong singing voice, and was at ease in front of crowds — chose never to become a songleader. He did train to be one, though. Jonah spent two years (04-06) apprenticing with master songleader and goofball Kenny Green at Woodlands Community Temple, and the summer of 2005 in the Songleading Major at Kutz Camp learning at the fingertips of Chana Rothman, Jenn Gubitz and Zoe Jacobs. And he got the shirt. And he wore the shirt. A lot. Was it because (as the back of it said) he was proud to have been part of “Kutz Songleading 2005”? Or was it the front of the t-shirt, “Darn Good Lookin’,” that he simply couldn’t resist? Either way, this may just be the shirt that got the most body-time from my boy.

By the way, I don’t know what anybody else thought, but in my completely biased and not-at-all-humble opinion, your brother was most definitely “Darn Good Lookin’”! But remember what I told you at the beginning of this little essay: we love you and find joy in most anything you yourself like doing. There’s always something “darn good lookin’” for your mom and me to see when one of you is around.

In the end, Jonah’s life was about being true to himself. He had a shirt that said, “Rock and roll is all about self-expression.” Jonah deeply valued the idea of becoming the person he would be proud to be, and not compromising on the results of his hard work. We could see this in his music, and in pretty much everything he cared about. He knew the importance of self-respect and personal honesty from very early on. His difficulty back then lay in figuring out how to be that person. It must have been confusing to him that his friends didn’t always start out as friends; it could take a while for people to understand what Jonah was all about. “I’m a second impression kind of guy,” he would tell you. And Jonah was right. If you stuck around long enough to get to know him, you’d find out that Jonah Maccabee Dreskin, your brother, was one of the most decent, giving, understanding people around.

His t-shirts comprised only the thinnest of layers at the very top of his being. Like most of us, that thin, seemingly superficial layer served as a gateway to Jonah’s spirit. And gathered together, those shirts paint a pretty decent picture of a very decent guy. The t-shirts tell some really nice chapters of his story. We’re blessed to have been his family for the entire book.


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