After 12 years, Dirk Nelson's Big Brother relationship comes to a heartbreaking end

Tucsonan Dirk Nelson reminds me of Michael Keaton's character, Billy Blazejowski, in the 1982 comedy movie Night Shift. The dozen or so of you who remember that movie will know exactly what I mean; everybody else will need some help.

Directed by Ron Howard (who hadn't quite hit his A Beautiful Mind/Cinderella Man stride yet), Night Shift tells the story of a nebbish (Henry Winkler) who is passed over for a promotion he deserves and is relegated to the graveyard shift at a New York City morgue. But then he's given an assistant, and comic mayhem ensues.

Billy Blaze, as he calls himself, is a whirlwind of nervous energy, a jive talker with way too many "brilliant" ideas and a never-ending supply of get-rich-quick schemes. Soon, Billy's using the city hearse as a limo to take kids to the prom, and he drags Winkler into a ridiculous scheme to become pimps to some heart-of-gold hookers. Billy carries with him at all times a tape recorder, just in case he flashes on an inspiration. One night, as he's unwrapping a fast-food hamburger, he pauses, whips out the tape recorder and says, "Note to Bill: edible paper."

That's Dirk, standing when most people would sit, running when most people would walk. If you told him to calm down and take a break, he'd probably draw a breath, blink and then say, "OK, what's next?"

He owns a couple of businesses, including Warrior Fitness, where he's basically the personal trainer to the seriously masochistic. He drives around in a bright-yellow sports car that advertises the Web site he runs, on which people can "Rag or Brag" on or about local businesses. He's been a high school basketball coach and was named one of Tucson's 40 Under 40. But it is one of Dirk's nonpaying endeavors, a longtime labor of love, that is dominating his thoughts these days.

Dirk's father died when Dirk was 3 years old. He was raised by his mother, with whom he is still incredibly close. (She even shows up to watch him play in adult-recreation-league basketball games. There is a special place in heaven for people who do that, as such games are generally "contested" by either Has-Beens or Never-Weres, with the resulting quality of play being something for which the term "quality" should not be employed.)

He says that his mom did a great job of raising him, but there was always that little something missing. A few guys drifted in and out of his life as would-be mentors, including a few from the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson. They'd hang in for a few months, but eventually they'd get a job or move away or simply lose interest. They weren't bad people, but Dirk thinks they were unaware of the feeling of abandonment they would leave behind once they were gone.

"I told myself that when I got older, I would do it right. I would break that cycle," he recalls.

And so it was that he came to be a Big Brother to Nathan Spangenberg. Nate, as Dirk calls him, and his older brother, Colin, lost their father to cancer when Nate was only 4. Dirk was a natural for the situation.

"I was Nate's Big Brother for 12 years. I hung out with him and Colin every chance I got. We'd go camping, play basketball and go to the movies. You know how they say that 90 percent of success in life is just showing up? You just have to be there for them."

Being a Big Brother or Big Sister isn't about molding the perfect human being. The kids are going to mess up and lose focus like any other kids. The Big Brother should act like those inflatable bumpers at the bowling alley, nudging the kid back toward the middle of the lane.

"Nate wasn't a great student," Dirk says, "but he was a good guy. In class, he was kind of a doodler. His mind would wander, but he wasn't disruptive or anything."

He eventually left Marana Mountain View High School for a charter school, but then quit that and got his GED. He followed his older brother into the Army and appeared to have found his niche. He served 15 months in Iraq and was training for the Special Forces. Dirk says that Nate had recently completed a 12-mile hike while carrying a 50-pound pack and had done so in record time.

"He was really into it," says Dirk. "He loved being in great shape."

After surviving nearly 500 days in Iraq with nary a scratch, Nathan Spangenberg died in Schofield Barracks in Hawaii after a brief illness. He was 21. He had called his mother a few days earlier to tell her that he had strep throat and was undergoing further medical tests because of blood and protein in his urine. He said he was going to take it easy and stay in the barracks and watch movies. His body was discovered when he didn't show up for his work assignment.

Dirk was a pallbearer at the funeral a couple of Saturdays ago. He's still sorting out his feelings.

"Y'know, I can't begin to imagine what a parent goes through. I knew Nate for 12 years, and we were like brothers. But it's all so random and so final."