Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What Does "Brian Gives Free LBJs" Mean?

Rock Island, June 1974

One Saturday in the summer of 1974, just after eighth grade, the sky was clear and bright, the air smelled like new lilacs, and the grass was sprinkled with dandelions. I invited my friend Craig  to ride bikes.

As we passed the back of Washington Junior High, we saw a small, strawheaded seventh-grader in a blue windbreaker standing against the red brick wall, near the windows of the gym. When we drew closer, we saw that he had a sponge and a yellow bucket sloshing with soapy water. He was scrubbing furiously at a piece of graffiti.

This model is much older, but he has Brian's sandy hair and slim physique.

I recognized him as Brian, the boy my parents used to babysit.  They stopped because he had a smart mouth.  Once when we were playing in the back yard, he offered to tell us “a dirty joke,” right in front of my Mom! It didn’t matter to her that the joke was “The boy fell in the mud!”

“Hey, Brian!” I yelled. “You’re not supposed to be writing on school property.”

“You gonna call the fuzz, big guy?” Except for the belligerent smirk, he was cute, with a tanned face, sandy blond hair, pale blue eyes with eyelashes so blond we were almost white, and thin, pinkish lips.

His hands were raw from scrubbing at a line of graffiti: Brian gives free LBJs in letters nearly a foot high.

“What’s a LBJ?” Craig asked.

“It’s the president, Gomer!  I mean the old president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense!” Craig said.  "You can't give away presidents!"

“So what do you give?” I asked. “Can I have one?”

“I didn’t write it, ok?  It was a Mean Boy. Now can it, before I pound you.”

I tried to restrain a laugh at the thought of this slim, slight boy trying to pound me, after years of wrestling and judo. The posturing seemed to be hiding something scared, something wounded. I thought of Bill, who also threatened to pound me, long ago.

What kind of insult did giving LBJs signify?  Brian's feverish attempt to destroy the evidence made me suspect Acting like a Girl -- but graffiti was an unlikely Mean Boy punishment.

“You can’t erase paint with soap and water.  Why don’t you just mark it out?”

“Sometimes you can  And the paint’s in the garage, and if I go through there, Emmitt will see me. Ok, Mr. Know-it-All?”  Emmitt was his Dad.

“Why would Emmitt care what a Mean Boy says about you?”

Then we heard a clumping noise inside the building: a teacher or custodian, insanely working on the weekend, coming to the window to accuse us of disfiguring the school!  Brian kicked the bucket over and started to run away, but I knew he'd never find a hiding space by running east: the schoolyard in that direction was empty scrub for hundreds of miles. So I yelled “Get on my bike!”

Brian jumped on without protest and wrapped his arms tightly around my waist, and we sped away past the back of the school. We hid in the alley for awhile, panting and laughing. Then we went back to pick Brian’s bucket and sponge, and rode him home.

We became friends, of a sort, after that, but Brian didn't tell me what LBJ meant, or who wrote it, until many years later, when we were both in college.  By that time, I had already figured it out (You probably think it has something to do with sex, but it doesn't.)

Season after season, year after year, Brian gives free LBJs remained on the wall, faded but still faintly legible, stubbornly resistant to the generations of custodians who attempted to erase it.  It was the biggest riddle of my childhood, and not mine alone.  Generations of junior high students have wondered who this Brian is, and what LBJs are, and if they find out, how such things can exist on 20th Avenue in Rock Island, Illinois, in the world of everyday experience.

As far as I know, it's still there today.

See also: The Secret Message Behind "Brian Gives Free LBJs"

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