Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, April 06, 2017


He's not the first. There's been others--three of them whose deaths have stopped me in my tracks. In each case, they were guys I knew very well as boys long ago, men whose adult lives had passed almost without my knowledge, even though back in the Sixties we grew up together.

One was a catcher, the catcher on a baseball team I played with for almost a decade. When my college baseball coach told me he wanted me to try catching myself, I told him I would, but not without thinking that I really couldn't, because catching was always Herbie's job. He was the catcher. A couple of years ago he died, left his place behind the plate. For an entire lifetime I had rarely seen him, rarely spoken to him. But when he died, I just couldn't help feeling that something of me went with him.

Then there was Jim, who didn't play ball at all, but was part of my life when Vietnam made all of us cower. He was the first, I think, to wear bell bottom jeans, to let his hair get shaggy, and to attend to the virtues of weed. He was younger than I was, cooler, immensely quick-witted. I don't know that he taught me to be anti-war, but in his company we talked about Tricky Dick and the mess in southeast Asia. He died a few years ago, a suicide. I hadn't seen him at all in a half century; but something in me felt as if it went with him when he left.

And now Mark, who wore number 66 proudly, the number the coach always put on the back of the team's iron man, generally the middle-linebacker. We both had scooters we took to school. We went to the same church.  He was a magical personality who created the only moments of catechism I remember by pushing the preacher on ideas like predestination, using arguments that, to me at least, came out of nowhere. My family was immensely pious, but I'd never dared to say things he did--and to the preacher, who, by the way, loved it.

Cancer took Mark last week. The last time I saw him was at my mother's funeral, when the two of us stood in the back of the church and giggled. I told him there was a story connected to that massive cross at the front of the sanctuary, that my grandmother had determined to donate that cross after my grandfather died, and that, even though I was just a kid, I knew there was a story there, a story I didn't know.

"Erwie TenPas wouldn't have it," he told me, just like that. 
 Some ancient anti-papist argument. I hadn't thought about Erwie TenPas for fifty years. "Erwie TenPas said there'd be a cross in this church only over his dead body."

I pointed at the cross. "There it is," I said. "So what happened?"

"Erwie died," he told me, and we giggled, two grown men, two retirees, back of church, at my mother's funeral.

Mark is gone. He was that kind of story-teller. He knew a hundred magical tales about the Dirkses, a family we were both part of, cartoons about ancient ancestors, stories that would make me laugh and fill me with wonder, stories so magical they may well have originated in our own vague and pagan past.

All three died where we all grew up, 500 miles east of here. 
I didn't know their grieving families, didn't recognize most of the names listed in their obituaries. I knew very little about any of them through the long course of their adult lives.

They each have their own stories, I'm sure--of love and loss, of joy and sadness; their own human stories.

But each of them play roles in the consequent chapters of my life, chapters that grow less distinct and verifiable, more mythical, I suppose, now that they're gone. And it's fair to say, I suppose, that three fewer people, boys way back when I was, care. They never hung around together that I know of, but something in me feels as if it went with them.

And so it goes.
Yesterday, I stood at a little memorial park just off a major intersection in a town named Columbus, Nebraska. Just about three hundred years ago, a couple dozen Spanish troops, their commander, a Franciscan priest, a greatly heralded Black warrior, and more than a few Pueblo Indians from New Mexico, were slaughtered, en masse, at dawn, by a Pawnee war party.

There I stood, just off the road in heavy traffic.

Lieutenant Governor Pedro de Villasur had been dispatched to the Missouri River, hundreds of miles east and north, to determine the influence of the France in the Nebraska. I'm not making this up. It was 1720. Ben Franklin was fourteen years old, George Washington wouldn't be born for twelve more years, Thomas Jefferson for 23. Long, long ago.

A few of the 42 royal troops escaped, but most were slain right there at a red light in a small town, where the Loup River meets the Platte.

Back in New Mexico, when the survivors straggled in, a man named Martinez, a former governor wrote, "In the villa of Santa Fe, thirty-two widows and many orphaned children, whose tears reach the sky, mourn."

A track meet was going on in a stadium a half-block away from the killing field, spectators bundled up against a cool-ish spring wind, a meager crowd of family and friends who did remarkably little yelling.

Cars and trucks streamed by me where I stood. I had miles to go before I'd get to where I was going. It was four o'clock, I hadn't had much lunch. I thought I'd just think about that a bit, so I went across the street to a Dairy Queen and ordered a blizzard and ate it right there where dozens were murdered in the Villasur Massacre, long, long ago.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, but the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”

Sure, but sometimes it's not at all easy.

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