Georgetown, Texas (September 1991)
For a brief period, I was friends with John “Sandman” Payne (far left). We lived in the same freshman dorm at Southwestern University where he earned his nickname before classes even started, having passed out in a sand-volleyball court. He recounted waking up and shaking sand out of his hair and wallet. “It was in my teeth,” he said. Sandman was funny like that.

Regrettably, my friendship with John waned during spring semester as our dorm became divided along fraternity lines. We eventually lost touch after freshman year, and the subsequent fall, he transferred to Texas Tech in Lubbock. In late February 1993, however, John abruptly quit school to backpack in New Zealand.

Two months later, his family would never hear from him again.

“This was a journey for John to kind of find himself,” his mother said in a July 1993 Dallas Morning News article about his disappearance. “It’s the adventure a young man wants to have.” He had turned 20 shortly after he arrived in New Zealand.

According to police records, John had attempted to climb Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak. His paper trail ended on April 2, 1993, with a guestbook he signed at the Douglas Rock hut on the Copland Pass, a dangerous traverse stretching from the ocean to Mount Cook.

For the next four years, John was declared missing, though his family kept a staunch vigil throughout. In March 1997, a group of hikers discovered his body. He was still wearing his backpack and had all his possessions, including a journal, according to another Morning News article. It also quoted Sgt. Dave Gaskin of the Timaru Police Department: “He perished, probably, from the cold rather than a fall, because there [was] no obvious injury.”

I didn’t learn of John’s disappearance until late-summer 1993 when my friend and college roommate, Fisher (he snapped the group photo), called with the news. At the time, we thought Sandman could still be alive since we figured he knew how to rough the outdoors — he had spent his childhood on a farm in Wyoming. A bona fide hick, Sandman didn’t move to the suburbs of Dallas until he was 14; in fact, he once said he’d never seen a skyscraper until he drove through downtown Dallas.

I’ve thought a lot about John since “Into the Wild” was released to critical acclaim. But unlike the book and movie’s protagonist, Christopher McCandless, who died in Alaska, I don’t think of Sandman as the type who burned his money before setting off on his expedition. I just think of him as the funny dude who used to blare this DJ Quik song from his dorm room.

Photo backstory: At the beginning of the school year, all the guys on my floor had singled out the Pakistani guy, a really nice fellow named Jawad, as a faux cult leader. I silkscreened t-shirts that read “Believe in The Wad. For He is truth,” which really got the ball rolling. Fisher and I tacked the photo and a list of quotes from “The Book of Jawad” to our door. And for the next six months, the running joke was to recite Jawadisms and add more quotes. For example, when asked if he would come drinking, Jawad replied, “No, I’m sorry. I believe in the Teddy Bear philosophy.” Through it all, Jawad was a great sport, and it is my understanding that today he is a successful attorney.

“The family has also set up a fund for Richardson High School, which he attended, to allow one or two students to travel each year to Washington, D.C. – for fun as well as education. ‘John would not have approved of something that was totally scholastic,’ Ms. Payne said.” –Aline McKenzie, Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News (March 5, 1997)

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1 Response to “Sandman”

  1. gardner says:

    It’s more a sign of that heavy-swillin’ freshman year than a sign of the dood that my most vivid memory of Sandman is him walking in from a weekend away (maybe even a Thanksgiving break?) beaten all pulpy–just tattered up and ripped to shit with raw, unscabbed holes and trenches guttering his face.

    So what are you gonna say, right?

    Gardner: “Heyman, what the fuck happened to you?”
    Sandman: “Uhh…I dunno. I think I got my ass kicked.”

    Yeah, Sandman was funny like that too. St. Iraneaus said, “The Glory of God is any person fully alive.” Sandman was no religious fella (nor for that matter am I), and even if there is a heaven I don’t suspect Sandman snaked his way past the doorman. But I’ll be damned if Sandman wasn’t a man fully alive. Every moment I spent with John was a moment. He was fully engaged in life and refused at all times to spectate or to let you spectate. He was an actor who did not want you in the audience; he wanted you on stage with him and would yank your ass out of that theater chair if he had to. With Sandman, you couldn’t help but live. He was one of Kerouac’s “mad ones” desirous of everything at the same time, and I loved him for it.

    Like you, I’ve been thinking about the Sandman a lot since that McCandless movie came out. Thanks for the pic and post Sweetness. It’s good to see the the brother still smilin there. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Manuel just showed up for a little Hogan’s and Hockey and Jordan needs the computer to email Ling-Ling.

    A Jawadian Postscript:

    -Jawad, you want a smoke?
    – No, I will only smoke a cigarett on my death bed.
    – But what if you die all of a sudden? What if you’re struck by lightning?
    – Well–then I will be the cigarette.

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