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AND MY EAGLE MARCHED ON: A father remembers his son, and a tragic suicide over a prank gone horribly wrong

"God Bless the Band -- and everyone in it."

Ed. Note:  John, Jamie, and Nancy Meadows lost their son Jacob last week.  Jacob's father and  stepmother live in Ashland, where he attended Southern Boone County High School.  Jacob's mother, Jamie Bartlestone Meadows, lives in Columbia.   Born in Columbia, Jacob and his sister attended Grant Elementary.

I formatted his father's letter last night to Alan Silvestri's wonderful score from the movie Castaway, where, after saying goodbye to his best friend and his greatest love, Tom Hanks stands at the crossroads of his life.

By John Meadows
 
Monday night was my son's last night on Earth.
 
That night, a life ended his family, this community, this world would have been much better off keeping.  I have not closely followed the media's accounts of the incident except to note that Jacob Meadows would not want to be remembered as a "terrorist." 

I want to set the record straight.   It is important to him, to his family -- and to all his friends.

Those of you who didn't know Jacob may be curious about the massive outpouring of love and grief from an entire community for a kid who supposedly threatened his school.

There's a simple answer: My son didn't threaten anyone. Those who knew him know that, and said as much to those investigating the tragedy.
 
What I doubt many of even his closest friends knew, however, was that Jacob struggled mightily with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). His mind never shut down. Only by force of will could he focus on a single thought amidst the cacophony of ideas his intelligent brain constantly generated. His condition was serious enough that just getting up and going to school each day was a modest act of bravery.
 
He also lacked some of the basic social instincts you and I take for granted. He was impulsive, and what he knew about appropriate social behavior, he was taught. It didn't come naturally.
 
Monday is the one night I don't read to Jacob when he goes to bed. He said goodnight to his stepmom Nancy and me and went up to his room. But instead of going to bed, he texted with his friends. He and "Friend A" devised a practical joke to play on "Friend B".
 
"Get him good, Jacob!" Friend A joked, and so my son used his considerable literary skills to compose a creepy, creature-from the-Black Lagoon-style note for Friend B.
 
But Friend B's phone didn't recognize Jacob's number and so Friend B didn't know the message was from Jacob. He was scared and turned it over to the police. Though Friend B soon found out the text was from Jacob, by then it was too late.

Jacob woke me up, told me what had happened. I took one look at the message and understood immediately why it shouldn't have been composed or sent. I spoke harshly to him. I was aggravated the matter had been turned in to the police.
 
But Jacob didn't understand. He told me Friend B was a good guy, just doing what all the kids have been taught to do. Jacob had no hard feelings. "He didn't know it was from me," he explained.
 
By the time the officers arrived, Friend B had texted us the details of the practical joke. The police called Friend B to confirm: the "threat" was a practical joke, albeit ill-advised and in exceptionally poor taste. They kindly but certainly told Jacob this was NOT something he could joke about, and this time, Jacob understood.
 
"Okay, he's all yours for whatever punishment you think is right," one officer said as they left.
 
I wish to God that it had ended there.
 
But it didn't.

Someone forwarded the message to the school superintendent, making the practical joke an official "threat to the system." Jacob would have to be arrested.

The officers returned about 1:00 a.m. They assured us they knew the text message was just a joke, but that they had to "go by the book". They asked Jacob to get dressed. While they were explaining to Nancy and me how to bail him out of jail, Jacob said he had to get his shoes in another room.
 
Moments later, we all heard the sound that will follow me to my grave, the gunshot that opened a hole in my soul and the souls of so many others.

When Jacob was younger, he was bullied unmercifully and the "system" didn't protect him. When he moved to Ashland from Columbia and started at Southern Boone County schools, he suffered bullying almost daily and the system still didn't -- I believe couldn't -- protect him.

But then something happened that stopped the bullying and made Jacob look forward to school again. He joined the Band to play the saxophone. The Southern Boone County Marching Eagles took him in, adopted him, and he had brothers and sisters all over school who would stand up with him and for him, and overlook his foibles and eccentricities.
 
God bless the Band, and everyone in it.

I talked to Jacob about bullying recently, and he told me he had developed a "strategy" for people who disliked him. "I just keep trying to be nice to them, say hi to them, maybe compliment them," he said. "It always works eventually, and they become my friends."

A couple of weeks ago, the last person he was having difficulties with "Friended" him on Facebook, and he celebrated.
 
When I would look up at my son's 6 ft, 3 in frame, it was easy to forget there were parts of him as innocent and naïve as a child. The cynicism of the world had yet to spoil his spirit, and the boyishness that made him such a practical joker.

Many of his friends fell prey to Jacob's practical jokes, startled when he jumped out of nowhere and grabbed them. He lived to pull stunts that would make people jump out of their skin, or try to get him back, or just laugh.
 
And as all his friends knew, Jacob Meadows would not hurt a fly. Some of them saw the orphaned squirrel he rescued. Others saw the baby robin he hand-fed with cat food until it could survive on its own.
 
They all knew he loved them, too, and was the happiest he had ever been just before he died. He finally had what he never believed he could have: true friends.

God bless his friends. You brought him great happiness.

So, with all these blessings, why did my son take his life?

Was it embarrassment and shame that a stupid joke had turned into a nightmare of closed schools and bomb-sniffing dogs?  But he was assured it would be made clear to everyone it was only a big mistake.

Was he afraid he was going to jail indefinitely? Jacob had a great fear of being taken from his family.

He practically worshipped me. Were my harsh words about this stupid stunt and the thought of all the pain and embarrassment he was causing me unbearable?

Or was it an impulse, a desperate, panicked reaction?
 
How could this have happened? How could a foolish prank have gone so terribly wrong? How could a kid who was laughing and joking one evening take his own life later that same evening?

I don't know, I'll never know. But I'll never stop asking.

In my torment these past few days, an endless succession of "if-only's" has marched by.

If only Jacob had just gone to bed. If only the prank text could have stayed with the person it was sent to. If only there wasn't a one-size-fits-all policy to deal with perceived threats. If only an officer had stayed with Jacob constantly.

If only I had remembered that varmint pistol and locked it up. If only I hadn't been so harsh with him about the note. If only I had put my arms around my son and told him it was going to be okay.

God chose me to raise this talented, creative, intelligent, loving, and fragile person. Though I wouldn't trade that responsibility for anything, I know I will never be free of the feeling that I failed him.
 
If only I had been more supportive, more patient, more kind, more loving and attentive, he would still be here. With sincere apologies to my wife, my daughter, and my loved ones, I would give my life in an instant for him to be alive again.

But he will never be alive again, and we are left staring at a hole in the world he left.  Jacob's death was pointless, meaningless, avoidable, and totally unnecessary. It was a death based on a misinterpretation.

Though you are sorely missed my son, in Don Maclean's words, "I could have told you this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you."
 
I love you.

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Mike Martin, Editor


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