The Dog Days of Winter

I awoke at four a.m. on a snowy February morning dreaming of and missing my parents, while thinking about the Dog Days of summer. If I could explain the workings of the subconscious mind I would do so as I accepted the Nobel Prize for science, but I do not have a clue, only appreciation. Many problems are solved, jangling nerves and emotions soothed by our never off-line mind, courtesy of nature’s sleep mode.

I drifted off the night before knowing I would shovel snow in the morning. Now awake, I struggled to retain my dream before it disappeared amongst bothersome conscious thoughts of the day to come. I pulled on long johns, wool socks and tossed my jeans over a shoulder, then cranked up the thermostat as I shuffled through our dark, Victorian home to the kitchen. Radiators steaming, coffee pot perking, I propped open the back door and released our Sheltie, Sammy. Paws crunching on the white blanketed deck, he scampered to and fro before doing his duty and scrambling back inside for breakfast, gobbling his grub with the intensity of a starving man.

Ah, Dog Days, I thought, my dream rushing to the fore. With a jolt from a stiff cup of Joe, I flipped my mind and laptop on and Googled Dog Days. Beginning with Wikipedia, I switched back and forth between blank mind and snow-white document screen, tracking ever lengthening threads of information and thoughts sparked by my subconscious wanderings.

The Romans, I learned, called the Dog Days of summer “dies caniculares and associated the hot weather with the star Sirius…the ‘Dog Star’ because it is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog).” On our modern calendar the “Dog Days of summer” follow the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and run from July through August in the Northern Hemisphere and January through February in the Southern. Unaware of the original meaning of the phrase, many of us associate Dog Days with the lethargy of domesticated dogs during these blistering months. But, unlike the Romans, we do not sacrifice any of our furry friends in hopes of abating the heat; instead, we retreat to air conditioned rooms or lay in the shade with our pets and take a nap.

Mmmmm, I thought, giving Sammy a pat on the head and with my brain, computer and radiators humming scrolled down the screen, continuing to alternately read and write.

It seems that in the 19th century, Dog Days were thought of as an evil time when, according to John Brady in his book Clavis Calenderia (circa 1813), “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mean, and all other creatures became languid: causing to man…burning fevers, hysterics and phrenises.”  Although not written in reference to the Dog Days, Noel Coward’s lyric “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” is the 20th century take on the sultry days of summer. As for 2013, in our anxiety riddled society, the Dog Days are a time to wax on climate change and our impending doom.

This prompted thoughts about my melancholy dream of my parents. Jumping down the screen, the text reminded me that we live in an equally halved world above and below the equator. So, conversely, when the Southern Hemisphere is lolling through their Dog Days, the Northern is experiencing the shortest day of the year around December 20th.

Now, there is no corresponding popular phrase to capture the two months which follow, but they are associated with the winter blues. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine “some people experience a serious mood change during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD)…and is a type of depression.”

Of course, I thought to myself in the now cozy kitchen, most of us do not go mad in July or August or plunge into a clinical depression in January and February. But as a writer with a vivid imagination capable of conjuring calamities provoked by the slightest of pretenses, it is reassuring to know that they may be due to nothing more than the tilt of the earth.

“You’re just out of sorts,” my mother used to say, “get busy and it will go away.”

And there it was.

I stopped typing, gratefully punched the “saved” button and refilled my coffee cup. I stared out the window, the weak winter sun sparkling off the crystallized earth.

My parents both passed a few years apart at the end of January, their funerals held on harsh, unforgiving days like the one yawning before me.

My father, a decorated combat GI in WWII, received a full honor guard, a line of gray-haired veterans standing at attention, freezing rain soaking their uniforms and streaming down weathered faces.  I have no idea how long they waited in the drizzle before we arrived, but they were ramrod straight and ready for their fallen comrade. It was one of the most moving and reaffirming moments of a depressing day.

Although 82, my mother died unexpectedly. She was in the hospital for minor surgery and choked to death the night before while eating. A classically trained pianist and soprano, her once perfect posture was destroyed by osteoporosis, her internal organs collapsing on one another, and she could not muster enough wind to clear her throat. A nurse discovered her when she came in to pick up the dinner tray.

I spoke to Mom earlier in the day, never thinking it could be our last conversation.

I heard my wife, Yolanda, stirring upstairs and I made another pot of coffee. Sammy, hunger satiated, stretched out near a radiator, sound asleep, his world a place of perfect contentment.

I switched off the laptop, slipped on my jeans, laced up my boots, donned a wool cap, leather coat and gloves and shoveled snow.

It was time to get busy.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Dog Days, Family, February 2013, Greatest Generation, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Winter Blues, World War II

What it means to be a Hero

I have been thinking about the word “hero” lately.

One reason is because of Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, two ex-Navy Seals who died defending people trapped in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Woods may have even disobeyed orders to “stand down” and lost his life to do what he believed to be right.

Woods and Doherty’s actions have brought the word “hero” to the fore of my consciousness because as a writer, I take words seriously. I listen for how they are used, abused and overused.

Take “warrior,” for example. It is a word that is so overused in sports that it is a mockery. A professional basketball player being paid millions of dollars sprains his ankle and gets hauled to the locker room, arms draped over two teammate’s shoulders. Minutes later, ankle taped, he limps back onto the court. The fans explode with applause. Inevitably, the play-by-play announcer clears his throat and speaks with the reverence of a TV preacher at prayer as the color commentator nods like an enraptured worshiper: “What a warrior.”

No, I do not think so.

A competitor? Okay.

A tough guy?

When discussing basketball players, who in comparison to football players are wimps, “tough guy” is questionable, but I can live with it.

But a “warrior?”

Lay that on the combat veteran Marine living down the street and see what reaction you get.

“Hero” is another word that gets tossed around in sports for all the wrong reasons. I cite the downfall of every formerly revered steroid juiced jock, Lance Armstrong et al and leave it to fans as to whether the term “hero” has been abused as much as drugs.

Mark Twain said we admire heroes “for great qualities which we ourselves lack.” Yet I wonder if “non” heroes lack such qualities or just have not been called to exercise them. Or maybe they have and nobody noticed.

Woods and Doherty, like many in the military, were athletic. Woods a high school wrestler, Doherty a trainer at SEALFIT, a fitness company run by former Navy Seals.  They were classic heroes. Men of action, distinguished courage and ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities. After all, how many of us, if given an order that takes us out of harm’s way and abrogates us from responsibility, would disobey and risk our life?

Maybe more than we think.

Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo was recently quoted in The Wall Street Journal on what makes a hero. “The decision to act heroically,” he said, “is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in our lives. It means not being afraid of what others might think. It means not being afraid of the fallout for ourselves. It means not being afraid of putting our necks on the line.” Woods and Doherty serve as dramatic examples of such heroism.

But there is a phrase within Zimbardo’s quote that we may glide past as we focus on “not being afraid” and “putting our necks on the line.” He says “the decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called to make.”

Many of us.  

In my mind, unlike “warrior” in sports, “hero” is a word which we do not apply as often as we should because we associate it with magnificent acts of courage like Woods and Doherty’s.

But what about the guy who tells his son that he will work overtime at his dead end factory job until the day they drag him out so the boy can go to college? I have a friend whose dad told him exactly that.

Not being afraid of the fallout for ourselves.

Or the stocky, 40-year old Mexican immigrant, who lugs around children’s early reader books, faithfully attends his tutoring classes for English after putting in a long day at his blue collar job, covering his face in embarrassment as he erases and corrects his homework, all because he “wants to make a better life for my family.”

Not being afraid of what others might think.

Or the woman who takes a stand on lightning rod political and social issues, knowing it will provoke condemnation from those who oppose her. Knowing some of those people are family and friends, the very folks whose opinions and approval she values most. Knowing she risks being cast out from that treasured group. Yet, she takes her stand.

Not being afraid of putting our necks on the line.

Twain, a supreme observer of the human condition, noted that “one can be a hero to other folk, and in a vague sort of way understand it, or at least believe it, but that a person can really be a hero to a near and familiar friend is a thing which no hero has ever been yet to realize, I am sure.”

For most heroes there are no cheering crowds or pontificating announcers to proclaim their deeds. But it is that deafening silence and lack of recognition that make two honest-to-God warriors like Woods and Doherty all the more heroic. In a different way it also applies to the factory worker, the Mexican immigrant and the principled woman. Disregarding orders to “stand down” they have done what they believe to be right, unafraid of the fallout, what others may think and willing to put it all on the line.

That is what heroes do. It is not so rare. Look some place other than the game on your television. Heroes abound. There may be one closer than you think.

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Filed under November 2012

9/11 at 11

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when I did something that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression and WWII. “Potato pancakes” was a staple at their supper tables. Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have. But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their daily lives. Far too often now, Americans, as individuals and a country, invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but not crises.

9/11 was different.

I asked Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  Only months from death, three packs a day of Lucky Strikes taking their toll, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he understood what happened on 9/11.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

We go from here.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, a wind-whipped advertising banner in tow. Everyone’s attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years passed.

The fall of 2011 I was at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11. Two trumpeters played taps and there was a moment of silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talked and waved from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from overseas posts.

The next morning, the tenth anniversary, I stretched in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who were killed on 9/11 read names of victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them. Tears welled in my eyes.

I ran.

Along the way I waved to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I thought of the last decade, years 9/11 victims and their families lost. With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birthday parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter, Anissa, blossomed into a woman. Our son, Michael, survived a horrific auto accident. The paramedics told us there was a ten percent chance someone survived such a crash in one piece. Our son walked away and, two years later, off to college.  Both my parents died.

I finished my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge and wandered into the TV room where Yolanda was watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence.”

When he finished, Yolanda told me that earlier that day a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

It’s Sunday, September 9th, 2012, and I open the Champaign News-Gazette to articles about memorial plans for the eleventh anniversary. At the bottom of page one is the headline “On average, U.S. has lost a soldier each day in 2012.” One of the latest casualties was Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, twenty, one year younger than Michael. Cantu was, according to his buddies, a lot like my son, a gregarious guy who lit up every room he entered. Cantu was ten years old on 9/11. In the story, a military historian says Afghanistan has become the “’Who Cares?’ war.”

Ten years, now eleven.

We go from here.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 9/11, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Newspaper, Running, September 2012, Small town America, World War II

And for God’s sake…Clean your room!

It can be a battle cry or a plea, a conversation starter or killer, the opening ante or the last card played in high stakes parent/child “it’s our house/my room” poker. Sure, I know there are families where kids’ rooms are well-kept, but I have never lived in such a house.

I could Google the topic to find statistics and studies to determine if there is a correlation between neatness, character, academic achievement and all-round “great kid” status.  But in this election year where we are inundated with polls and prognostications, I have no desire to research another flash point issue in which an expert shrugs his shoulders and says: “At the end of the day, it’s anybody’s guess.”

No, this is one topic where we can rely upon anecdotal experience to yield unreliable results.

My oldest brother, Scott, was a hall of fame slob, the color of his carpet unknown until he moved to college and the debris field cleared. He was also class valedictorian, varsity basketball player and trumpeter in the band.  After he graduated from college and got his own apartment I was stunned when he scolded me for putting a beer bottle on his coffee table without a coaster.

My other brother, Tim, was a Boy Scout and National Merit Scholar who vacuumed his carpet and made his bed every morning, without Mom asking. In my book, and Scott’s, Tim was a traitor.

I do not recall whether my sisters, Amy and Holly, rooms were orderly. But that being the case, they must have been acceptable.

I was not a tidy kid.  But I was child number four and Mom was running low on energy by the time I reached my teens, closing the door with a groan more often than engaging me in debate.

One day, however, she reached a breaking point and rolled in the big gun: Dad.

Now, in general, Dad displayed little interest in housekeeping. He kept the TV room and the area around his easy chair organized. Lucky Strikes and stainless steel Zippo lighter squared against a chrome ashtray, remote or, in the prehistoric days of my early childhood, one of his five kids within range to change channels. That was about it.

But he lived in Mom’s house and she had spoken, so the order was issued: “Clean your room.”

Skeptical of my return minutes later, we marched upstairs for inspection. Seeing the bed made and floor rubble free, Dad strode toward the closet.

“Dad,” I blurted.

Dirty clothes, empty boxes, stinky sneakers and a basketball spilled on top of him.

“Nice try,” he said. “Now clean your room.”

Like his uncle Scott, our son Michael has morphed into a respectable housekeeper. I spent a week with him this summer at his apartment and was amazed by stacks of washed dishes, folded towels and clean sheets.

Our daughter, Anissa, has not reached this point. Mainly because she has never met a hangar, hook or organizer she liked.

Upon entering the house her shoes go one way, purse another, jacket a third. Car keys have been located under seat cushions, on bathroom shelves and beneath her bed. Dirty clothes are abandoned in the laundry room, languishing until dresser drawers and closets are bare.

Last week we moved Anissa into her dorm room. Excited, she flipped off her Birkenstock sandals and went to work. Later, we prepared to run her and her roommate, Stephi, to Target for supplies.

“Where’s my Birkenstock?” Anissa said.

We all stared at her bare left foot.

“Where’d you take them off?” I foolishly asked.

My wife, Yolanda, sighed. Anissa shrugged, her palms up.

We shifted suit cases and boxes, propped up the futon, checked under both beds. Nothing.

“Well,” Anissa said, “this is a new one, even for me.”

Stephi, filled with the fearlessness of youth, attacked the futon like she was wrestling an alligator. She flipped it to the floor, peeled back the fitted sheet and shook it until it coughed up a Birkenstock.

“I knew it had to be here,” Stephi said, eyes shining.

Hours later, as we drove home, a picture of Anissa’s made bed and well-organized desk glowed from the screen of Yolanda’s Android.

“How long do you think it’ll stay that way?” she said, gazing wistfully at the photo, saving it in her gallery.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” I said.

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Filed under 21st Century America, August 2012, Brothers, Empty Nesters, Family, Housekeeping, Small town America

Mayberry is Real, Happy Valley a Myth

At first blush the death of Andy Griffith and the release of Louis B. Freeh’s findings regarding the Penn State pedophilia scandal seem unrelated.

Griffith’s most famous role was as Sheriff Andy Taylor in the mythical town of Mayberry where the sun shone and showers fell as needed, folks were amiable and any feuds were settled within each half-hour episode. Crime was limited to moonshiners, carnival shell game barkers and snake oil salesman, all of whom Andy outsmarted and rendered justice upon.  Even Otis the town drunk was responsible enough to lock himself up when he had his fill.

With Griffith’s death some pundits have pointed out the obvious, that Mayberry was not real. It did not reflect the times in which it was made, the tumult of the sixties not descending upon Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest.

But that is missing the point.

The great movie, “A Face in the Crowd,” is evidence that Griffith was well-aware of the dark side of small-town life and the American dream. Griffith and the other creators of the TV show, the writers, directors and producers were intelligent people. They knew Mayberry existed only as an ideal. But it was one based on love of family, kindness toward your fellow man and a gentle humor regarding the absurdity that is this life. Unlike so much entertainment today which sinks to the lowest common denominator, the “Andy Griffith Show” spoke to the better angels of our souls, a place in the hearts of all people of good will who long for a gentler world. There was no intent to deceive or fool the audience, but rather an effort to create a world worth aspiring to.

The creators and producers of the longest running show at Happy Valley, the Penn State football team, were less idealistic. The Andy Taylor of this mythical place was Joe Paterno. The English major turned coach whose teams won the “the right way,” with players graduating on time and nary a whiff of scandal. Joe Pa set the pace, living by the same high standards he demanded of his players, residing in a modest home near campus, donating millions to the university. Maybe only John Wooden was as respected both as a man and a coach as Joe Paterno.

But as real as Mayberry was in terms of ideals, Happy Valley was a fraud.

It is difficult to understand how group think motivates otherwise smart people like Paterno, then President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and now-retired vice president Gary Schultz to allegedly cover up wrongs in the name of a “greater good.”  Money, of course, the perennially winning Penn State football program makes a fortune for the university in the form of ticket sales, memorabilia and bowl games. Paterno’s reputation for fair play and the Happy Valley mystique is attractive to tuition paying parents and their children who see it as a safe haven. Proud alums and others wishing to be associated with such a prestigious, well-thought of institution donate millions to endowments. But even greed cannot explain the rationalizations that had to occur in order to cover for a predator like Jerry Sandusky. To, as Freeh stated, participate in “an active agreement to conceal.”

Whether it is the Catholic Church protecting pedophile priests or a university not reporting suspected child molestation somehow the powers at be lose sight of the reason their institution exists: to serve others. The “reputation” of the institution takes precedence over its mission. Unlike Mayberry, where wrong doers answered for their crimes, at Happy Valley a pedophile was sheltered from prosecution for at least a decade because of concerns his actions might damage the football team and the university. And, according to Freeh’s report, Joe Pa was hip deep in the cover up. A note from Curley indicated that he changed his mind about reporting Sandusky “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.”

When we moved to Hoopeston fifteen years ago some of my friends, knowing my fondness for the “Andy Griffith Show,” and discovering I walked to my office on Main Street next to the movie theater, asked how things were in “Mayberry.” After being raised in small towns and living in Chicago and Dallas, my wife, Yolanda, and I were looking for a slower pace to raise our kids. But we never deluded ourselves into thinking we had arrived at some worry free nirvana. To that point, a coach at a junior high in a nearby town was recently convicted of child molestation.

Big town or small, we all know evil exists in this world.

Yet there are moments when visiting with fellow parishioners after Saturday night Mass, walking home from church along shaded brick streets, greeted by honked horns and friendly waves, that we get a taste of Mayberry. The fact these moments are fleeting amongst an ever coarsening world make them all the more worth savoring.

In that sense, the ideals of Mayberry and its humble leader, Sheriff Andy Taylor, are real.

It is the Happy Valleys and Joe Pas of this world that are myth.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Andy Griffith Show, Catholic Church, Crime, Don Knotts, Exploitation, Family, Football, Friends, Happy Valley, Institutions, Joe Paterno, July 2012, Mayberry, Penn State, Situation Comedies, Small town America, Sports page, The Movies

Dream a Little Dream

“What’s the skinny guy sayin’?”

Jake Plotner plopped on the bar stool next to mine in the cool darkness of the American Legion.  Jake’s a sixty-something fireplug with blue eyes and white flat top who claims to be the small town cousin of the late, great Chicago columnist Mike Royko’s alter ego Slats Grobnik. I cannot confirm the identity of either fellow, but they both enjoy a good conversation over a cold beer. Some say Jake retired from a local factory where he ran a press that punched tin can lids. My son Michael worked a similar machine one hot summer.

“Toughest job I ever had, Dad,” Michael said, this from a kid who detassled, painted barns and shoveled soybeans and other things for farmers since the age of fourteen.

Jake punched that press for forty years according to local legend.

Without a word the blonde bartender handed Jake a beer and the three of us stared up at the TV.

Thanks to the proliferation of 24/7 news channels Americans have a choice in how the events of the day are presented on TV. We have networks that lean conservative, liberal and the one that’s in every airport which appears to be simply dazed and confused at this point. But the channels do share a few things in common like banner headlines signaling “Breaking News: Kim Kardashian Divorcing after Seventy-Two Days of Marriage,” a plethora of “buy gold” commercials and talking head “experts” who seem to have so much time on their hands that they do not work a day job. Or maybe being an “expert” is their day job.

Give me a steaming cup of Joe and the morning paper.

I gestured at the flashing screen.

“He says since Congress hasn’t acted on comprehensive immigration reform he’s not enforcing the law to deport illegal immigrants under the age of thirty who meet certain requirements,” I said.

“It’s good to be King,” Jake said. “But heck, his party had control of Congress for two years and never did nothin’ about it. What’s ‘Mister Gentleman’s Quarterly’ got to say?”

A news ticker ran along the bottom of the TV highlighting civil war in Syria, Iranian nuclear denials and the announcement that a Reality TV couple was having a child. GQ appeared on cue, square-jawed with every black hair in place, sixty-something like Jake but not showing the wear and tear of forty years in a factory. He said something about not necessarily disagreeing with the idea of not deporting young illegal immigrants who fit the criteria but objected to the skinny guy’s unilateral pronouncement. GQ also called for comprehensive immigration reform.

Jake and I swigged our beers. The blonde wandered to the end of the bar.

“So they agree?” Jake said blue eyes wide. “We need new rules on this whole deal, right?”

“Yep.”

Jake brushed his flat top and shifted to face me.

“This is crazy. These guys agree we need to secure the border, be reasonable about the folks already here and set up a new system to make it fair for everyone who wants to come to the U.S. That’s what they’re both sayin’, right?”

“You’re correct, my friend,” I said.

“Then why the hell don’t they get it done?”

“Devil’s in the details, I guess. But some say it’s not good politics.”

“Come again,” Jake said leaning on the bar.

“Stirs the pot.  Fires up each party’s base. Helps get the vote out. It’s not about governing or doing the right thing like both sides claim. They don’t want to make proposals that the other can criticize and turn against ‘em.  It’s all about winning elections.”

“Geez,” Jake said, rubbing his chin, “with all the problems this is causin’ for all sorts of people, it’s hard to believe that even politicians can be that cynical.”

Our eyes met and we laughed.

“Another round,” Jake called to the blonde. “And for Pete’s sake…change the channel. I’d rather watch the Cubs lose than listen to any more of this.”

The screen glowed with green grass, blue sky and a Cub batter kicking the dirt after a swing and a miss.

“Hell, at least he’s swingin’ the bat,” Jake said, raising his glass. “At least he’s swingin’ the bat.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Barack Obama, Chicago Cubs, Corrupt Politicians, Exploitation, Immigration Reform, Institutions, July 2012, Mitt Romney, Newspaper, Small town America

Trophy for a Life Well-Lived

A friend took his nine and seven year old grandsons to the cemetery of their family farm one late summer day. He pointed to where his wife, mother, father, grandparents and generations of relatives were buried. Modest Midwesterners, most graves were marked by clean rectangular stones.

Most.

Over a great-great-grandfather’s grave a marble column with a bowl balanced on top towered, casting a long shadow.

Fresh from their trophy-filled awards banquet for baseball the boys gazed up at the monument.

“Grandpa,” the youngest said, pointing, “what’d he do to win a trophy like that?”

Monuments to self are nothing new. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the above-ground tombs called “cities of the dead” in New Orleans and my friend’s great-great-grandfather’s tower reflect a yearning for recognition even in death. Like a cemetery, the Pyramid of Giza and the New Orleans vaults provide space and recognition for family as well. In New Orleans, once a family member has been dead two years their body can be placed in a bag and laid to one side of the vault, the coffin destroyed, making way for the next relative’s casket.

Of course, not all monuments are constructed after death as a final acknowledgement. Some spring from the egotism of the living. See everything Trump.

Others are less tangible, but more substantive, the sum of a life well-lived. A loving family, friends, a successful career or business which benefits the individual and others, a passion for life, these are the truly lasting monuments we build.

But most of us do not consider our legacy as we traipse through life. We do our best to do the right thing, to care for others and ourselves. We view actions which make things easier for all as fulfilling the social contract necessary for civilization. We do not seek recognition or an “Atta boy.” Not out of modesty, but because we are doing what is expected.

My father was a decorated combat vet of WWII. Yet he and his buddies rarely discussed, let alone boasted, of their service.

“Just about everybody served,” he said. “Whether they were in the military or not, most folks pitched in. How you gonna brag about doin’ something everybody’s doin’?”

Such reticence may be why, in death, some individuals or their family, feel the need to mark graves with a distinctive memorial as a final honor.

On Memorial Day weekend I try to watch a movie like “Sergeant York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Flags of our Fathers.” This year David Lean’s Academy Award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was on Turner Classic Movies.

Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the movie is memorable for many reasons, not the least the tune “Colonel Bogey” which the British prisoners whistle as they enter the POW camp.

Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, dominates, however. His metamorphosis from a British soldier’s soldier, staunchly defending his officers against performing manual labor per the Geneva Convention then ordering them to do so as they construct a bridge “better than the Japanese can build themselves,” drives the film. Nicholson goes from determined adversary to collaborating with the enemy, not understanding his error until the end.

Yet it is a scene from the night before Nicholson’s self-realization that sticks with me. He stands on the completed bridge talking to the shamed Japanese POW camp commander, Colonel Saito. Nicholson won a war of wills with Saito and effectively runs the camp. At this point, though, Nicholson is reflective, not imperious.

“But there are times,” he says to Saito, “when you suddenly realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all really…particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts along those lines from time to time. But tonight…tonight!”

Nicholson gazes across the rushing river at the setting sun. The next day the monument to self on which he proudly stands is destroyed.

Such is the ultimate fate of all man-made monuments.

I will be cremated, ashes scattered. But I have no quarrel with those who give themselves a final “Atta boy” with a towering monument.

Perhaps a life well-lived deserves a “trophy like that.”

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Memorial Day Reflection: Was the Greatest Generation Beat?

From my article “Was the Greatest Generation’beat’?” published in the Sunday, May 27, 2012  Commentary Section of the Champaign News-Gazette.

The movie version of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” debuted last week. As is sometimes the case when adapting a book, the movie is a disappointment. In part, from what I have culled from reviews, because it focuses on the Beats hard partying, jazz loving, sexually open ways. But being “beat” was not simply a lifestyle. It was a perspective. As the movie synopsis puts it, a generational search for “It.”

The original Beats, like Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes, were born in the 1920’s, grew up during the Great Depression and came of age with WWII. So did my late parents, Jim and Betty Pemberton, a middle class couple who settled in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois and raised five children. Despite the different ways of life, my folks and the Beats were part of what Tom Brokaw hailed as the “Greatest Generation.”  While Brokaw’s label reflects their accomplishments, it does not capture their soul.

For me, that soul was “Beat.”

In two essays John Clellon Holmes identified common threads he believed ran through his contemporaries. While admitting that “any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding” Holmes nevertheless believes these Americans seem “to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective.”  The term “beat” Holmes says “implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw” of being “undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself” someone who “goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.”

For this generation, Holmes states “how to live seems to them much more crucial than why.”

Reasonable, considering the Beat Generation was the first in American history to face a combination of three sobering facts. They grew up in a world where an inexplicable “crash” of a market in New York destroyed economic well-being. They matured when a seemingly insulated America was attacked from overseas. Then faced the realization the world could be eviscerated by a single bomb, the way of life they saved destroyed by their own inventiveness.

It resulted, says Holmes, in the “stirrings of a quest” for the “hipster” on the left and the “young Republican” on the right, each of whom “have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness.”

The search for “It.”

It was this alienation that produced the Beats. While much is made of the bohemian aspects of the Beats, if they were so outside the mainstream what to make of the popularity of Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl, and Burroughs Naked Lunch?  Their success illustrates the link between the “hipster” and the “young Republican.”

Like their fellow Beats, my mother and father searched for the “how” of living.  My father was a fair-haired boy who lived on the family farm with his maternal grandmother while his widowed mother, Alta, earned a degree as a nurse. They moved from this relative security to Bloomington-Normal where Alta found work and “Jimmy” went through high school with two front teeth missing. He enlisted in the Army at eighteen.

“At least the Army fixed my teeth,” Dad said.  “That and the GI Bill were about the only good thing they did for me.”

He was shipped overseas after D-Day, survived the Battle of the Bulge (of his platoon of forty men, seven walked away), charged across Europe with Patton, liberated a concentration camp and survived the European campaign only to be informed he was headed to the Pacific. In August of 1945, Dad read in the papers that the dropping of two “atom” bombs and the threat of a Russian invasion convinced the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender.

“We were thrilled; thousands of GI’s would’ve been killed invading Japan.”

Months later he stepped off the train in Blomington greeted by silence, unable to notify his mother of his return. It is safe to say twenty-one year old Staff Sergeant James Roland Pemberton was “beat.”

“After the war,” he said, “I never had any urge to live anywhere but Bloomington-Normal.  Never thought twice about it.  I swore I’d never be cold or wet or hungry again.  I just wanted to live my life.  After everything that happened, I figured it was all gravy.”

My mother, Betty, lived with her parents, three sisters, aunt and grandmother along with borders, in a rambling house. She remembered her mother, Dorothy, scurrying to the kitchen while her grandmother visited with gypsies on the front porch. The gypsies pitched knick-knacks while their children sneaked around back to steal. But the kids were met by a broom-swinging Dorothy, shooing them away.

Mom suffered from any number of childhood illnesses, brown eyes encased in fragile wire-rimmed glasses. Yet she earned a full-ride music scholarship to Illinois Wesleyan, graduating despite her old-world father’s skepticism. She met and married my father, survived polio, mothered five children, and stayed at home.

“Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.  It was a joy to have my own home, just my husband, my children, and me.”

My parents longing for security was shared. As Kerouac writes in his first novel, The Town and the City, young people were in a state of flux which “no one could see…yet everyone was in it…grown fantastic and homeless in war, and strangely haunted now.” For some, life became a search for “kicks…wandering ‘beat’…in search of some other job or benefactor or ‘loot’ or ‘gold’.”

The search for “It.”

It is this dislocation, weary and bitter even in victory, which is often overlooked when people think of post-WWII America. Of how each soldier was affected by the war, how their death or return impacted family, lovers, friends and society. The reality of the homecoming did not match the “we’re all in this together” motif many associate with WWII America. For most, like my father, there were no parades or kisses on Times Square. The return of several million men proved as problematical to the many Americans who never left as it did for those coming home.

In his book Citizen Soldiers historian Stephen Ambrose quotes my father recalling a moment at the end of the war. It reflects the relief millions must have felt:

“The night of May 8, 1945 I was looking down from our cabin on the mountain at the Inn River Valley in Austria.  It was black.  And then the lights inInnsbruckwent on.  If you have not lived in darkness for months, shielding even a match light deep in a foxhole, you can’t imagine the feeling.”

My father was twenty.

I think the perspectives of Kerouac and my parents spoke for many young people who, having weathered the Depression and the war, were just glad to be alive. They arrived at this conclusion not at middle age, when the realization we have lived the better part of our days hits home, but in their twenties. Imagine being that young and feeling grateful to be alive and free, a circumstance most generations of twenty-something’s in this country take for granted.  Yet these young people were emotionally and physically spent. Some, like my father and mother, searched for “It” by attempting to create a safe, orderly existence of predictable days where they might “never be cold or wet or hungry again,” content to “have my own home.” Even those like Kerouac, who sought the “how” of life outside the safety of hearth and home, ached for a sense of security.

As Holmes noted:

“Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means not so much weariness, as rawness of nerves; not so much being “filled up to here,” as being emptied out.  It describes a state of mind from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, to be looking up…”

Kerouac, the “hipster,” and my father, the “young Republican,” and the millions in between, embarked on their individual journeys because they realized that escaping economic catastrophe and the absence of war was not enough.

But the question of what to do next, “how” to move forward and make the most of the gift bestowed upon them – life – was still to be answered. Connected by a confluence of historical events, they began a “quest” for “It.” Some went on the road, others never ventured far from home. As a whole they were the “Greatest.”

But that is so because a part of each of them was “Beat.”  

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Brothers

“Mom, Mom,” my nephew Ethan wailed as he raced into my in-laws house in Texas, “Seth’s pickin’ on me…”

“She’s not here, Ethan,” I said, setting down the newspaper and motioning him my way. “What’s the problem?”

Ethan, six at the time, rubbed teary eyes and sat next to me on the couch.

“Seth won’t let me shoot baskets,” he said between sobs. “Keeps takin’ the ball away and laughin’.”

“He hasn’t passed you the ball at all?”

“Only to bounce it off my head!”

“You know, Ethan,” I said, putting an arm around him as I suppressed a smile, “I had two big brothers who did stuff like that. I’d get so mad I couldn’t see straight. Scott was wrestling with me one time and jammed my head into the wall…I had to get six stitches. Tim and I shared a room and he made me sign a contract that I couldn’t cross the floor without his permission. Dad tore that up when he found out…But guess what? They didn’t pick on me forever. They stopped.”

“What happened?” Ethan said, no longer crying, brown eyes wide with concern. “Did they die?”

I am happy to report that Scott, ten years my senior, and Tim, five, are alive and well. Furthermore, as unbelievable as it may be for Ethan to believe, they do not pick on me, at least not on a basketball court. I am six-two and they are five-ten (in their dreams.)

Though separated by time and miles, I think of my brothers often, particularly when other brothers are in the news. Most recently on the national scene it was the Manning brothers, Cooper, Peyton and Eli.

“I’m proud of Peyton,” Eli, the youngest, said before the Super Bowl in February where his New York Giants were playing the New England Patriots. He had been asked for the one-hundredth time about the hubbub surrounding Peyton’s contract with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I’ve talked to him this week,” Eli continued. “None of that comes up…he does a great job of trying to keep me relaxed. We talk a little football and talk about New England some. He’s supported me… I know he’s just working hard trying to get healthy and I’m supporting him on that.”

Eli went on to lead the Giants to their second championship in four years while garnering MVP honors. In so doing, he surpassed the future Hall of Famer Peyton in Super Bowl wins and stepped out from his big brother’s long shadow.

While the win certainly altered people’s opinions about Eli’s career, I doubt whether the Giants winning or losing would have changed his relationship with Peyton. They are brothers, close brothers, and career success or failure, does not factor into the equation.

Their older brother, Cooper, who could not play college football because of spinal stenosis, was once asked if he harbored any repressed jealousy for his two younger brothers’ athletic accomplishments. “No, zero of that.”

I believe him.  Brothers can be hard on one another, but they celebrate successes as if they were their own. They also close ranks quickly when support is needed. Scott invited me to live with him in Chicago when I was twenty and struggling to figure out what to do with myself, helping me find a job at a bank while encouraging me to return to college. Years later he unexpectedly toasted me at Christmas dinner at the end of my first year as a business owner, congratulating me on its success.

Tim and I lived together after I graduated from college and I began my career with State Farm Insurance in Dallas. It is rumored that Tim has the first dollar he ever made tucked into a safe deposit box in an undisclosed location, but he paid the rent and gave me spending money until my paychecks started.  Recently he called me on a Sunday morning to offer congratulations on my novel and inform me he “read it straight through…it really is good, Mike.”

About a year after my conversation with Ethan, my wife, Yolanda, and I were back in Texas. I had just finished playing basketball with Ethan, Seth and their neighborhood buddies. As I sat down in the living room with a cold glass of water a door slammed behind me.

“Mom, Mom,” Ethan wailed. “Seth’s pickin’ on me…”

I settled into the couch, smiled and thought of my big brothers.

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Filed under 21st Century America, April 2012, Brothers, Family, Football, NFL, Super Bowl, Transcendental Basketball Blues

Take It to the Limit

Take It to the Limit  (excerpt from Transcendental Basketball Blues.) This is a repost. I needed a shot of  70’s style high school basketball and a reminder to live in the moment. 

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” the Hilltopper’s student section chanted.

“No way that was a charge, Jack,” Jenkins shouted as he jerked Jack up from the floor. “Keep takin’ it to the hole.”

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” the students yelled as the referee signaled four and four with his hands, Jack’s uniform number, to the scorer’s table.

It was the rematch against the Black Hills Miners, midway through the fourth quarter of the suspended boys’ first game back, and Jack’s dunk over J.J. “Davy” Crockett would have given St. Jude its first lead of the game. Instead they remained a point down, and Jack picked up his fourth foul.

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!”

The St. Jude crowd, stinging from the treatment at Black Hills, had been rowdy at the start, screaming like banshees during a tight first half. They hushed when Black Hills opened up a thirteen-point lead in the third, but revved up when St. Jude closed the gap in the fourth. Coach Collins took full advantage of the experienced gained by Tompkins, McElroy, and Pitman during the suspension, and rotated eleven players in and out of the game. Like a prizefighter saving a reserve of energy for the final round, when the fourth quarter rolled around Collins unleashed his rested starters along with the two-two-one full-court press. Not as deep as St. Jude, the Miners felt the squeeze, turning the ball over and letting the Hilltoppers back into the game.

As he ran up court after the foul, Jack glanced to the sidelines and saw Black Hill’s coach Stan “The General” Patton striding in front of the visitors bench, forever in his white shirt and black and red striped tie, hands clapping, grinning face a contorted scarlet, violet neck veins bulging. Patton was thrilled with the call, Jack thought, hopeful it might stem the Topper tide.

“Let ’em holler, Crockett,” Patton shouted. “That was a helluva play, boy. Way to sacrifice yourself. Good hustle, good goddamn hustle. Now let’s get two.”

Jack passed the half court line and the scorer’s table and looked to the Hilltoppers bench, expecting to see Collins shouting similar encouragement. Instead, Collins stood with his hands on his hips, staring into the howling student section, while Scooter shouted at the ref.

“You owe us one,” Scooter yelled, hoping to plant a seed for the next close call. “No way Crockett had position. No way.”

“BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!” echoed through the Wreck.

Collins turned and marched to the scorer’s table and snatched the PA announcer’s microphone. “Not here, not here,” he said into the mic, looking toward the student section.

The bullshit chant slowed, but did not stop.

“I said, not here!” Collins shouted and pointed at the students. “Not at St. Jude. We’re better than that.”

The chant faded then died, leaving a muffled murmur that rolled like an ocean swell around the gym. Collins handed the mic to the announcer, signaled for timeout and strode toward the bench.

As he did so the subdued swell transformed into a growing wave of cheers and a building crescendo of applause. The students began a different chant.

“We are HILLTOPPERS…We are HILLTOPPERS…WeAREHILLTOPPERS…WEAREHILLTOPPERS!” The noise ricocheting off the concrete block walls as the entire crowd joined in.

Patton stared at Collins like a father caught in a lie by his son. The blood drained from his face, grin turning to a glare, as he stopped marching and called his players to the bench.

“What the hell does he mean ‘we’re better?’” Patton yelled at the Miner’s team physician, Dr. Keck. “Uppity—”

“C’mon, Stan,” Keck said, grabbing Patton by the arm and turning him to the bench.

Collins did not hear Patton or chose to ignore him. He unbuttoned the top button of his blue Brooks Brothers suit jacket and knelt on one knee in front of the St. Jude bench, head down. The five starters sat facing him, drinking water and wiping sweat off with white cotton towels.

Collins waved away the clipboard Scooter offered.

“You want to sub for Jack?” Lane asked. “That was his fourth, and we’ve got three-plus minutes to play.”

“Nope, we’ll keep him in,” Collins said, lifting his head. “Need his offense.”

Collins’s brown eyes roved from Jenkins to Gudy to Brewster to Connolly to Jack. He pointed to his head then thumped his chest with his fist. “That’s what it comes down to!” he shouted. “Keep up the full court pressure. Run the offense. Trust yourself and your teammates. Remember the ‘Law of the Jungle.’ Now let’s win this thing. I’m sick and tired of losing to Patton and the damn Miners.”

Collins stood and extended a steady right hand forward. Scooter, Lane, and the five starters covered it. The boys standing behind Collins closed in tight.

“We are,” the team shouted in unison with the surging crowd, “HILLTOPPERS…WEAREHILLTOPPERS… WEAREHILLTOPPERS!”

Because of the foul the Miners had to take the ball the length of the court, allowing the Toppers to set up their press. To make it more difficult, the Black Hills basket was on the side of the court away from their bench, making it impossible for his players to hear Patton.

“Jack, Gudy, Brew,” Collins shouted as the huddle broke, “because of Jack’s fouls he’s going to play safety on the press. Brew you take Gudy’s spot at right middle. Gudy you go to left middle. All right, let’s go!”

“This ain’t the NBA,” Patton shouted in the huddle. “No shot clock. So be patient. Get a good shot or make ’em foul. We have a one-point lead. We’re in the bonus. Foul puts you at the line. Remember, as long as we have the lead, the pressure’s on them to get the ball and score.”

Crockett inbounded the ball to the Miners point guard, a five-foot seven, one-hundred thirty pound watermelon-seed-slick kid named Freddy “Mercury” Morrissey. Jack did not know if the nickname paid homage to Queen’s smooth-sounding lead singer or the Miami Dolphins running back, Mercury Morris. Or if Mercury was what every fast kid was called by his buddies or by ground-down veteran sportswriters tired of trying to dub jocks with fresh handles. Regardless, the soot-freckled Mercury Morrissey gave opposing teams fits.

The full-court press on, Jenkins and Connolly, tried to trap Mercury in the corner, but he squirted free and hit Crockett in full stride with a looping pass at the top of the key.  Gudy and Brewster tried to close, but neither possessed Jack’s athleticism and Crockett crossed half court, avoiding a ten count.

Jack hung back in Brewster’s safety position, knowing he might have picked the pass off.  It was on such a play he drew his fourth foul. He leapt high, snatched the ball and drove to the hole. But Crockett, as swift as Jack, slipped in front of him and picked up the charge, forcing Collins to adjust the boys’ places in the press to protect Jack. But Jack reminded himself to not be too aggressive. He was the safety now, the last line of defense. With Gudy trailing the ball, Jack kept Crockett and the Miner’s center, Kurt Svenson, in front of him as the rest of the Toppers raced to pick up their man. Crockett waited for Morrissey than passed him the ball.

Then the cat and mouse game began.

Crockett and the three other Miners ran to the separate corners of the half court, leaving the point guard inside the half-court circle with Jenkins guarding him.

“Four-corners,” Collins shouted. “They’re running the four-corners offense. Stay with your man. Deny the ball. Force the five-second call. Don’t foul unless I tell you to. Jack, stay with Svenson. Gudy take Crockett. Brew pick up the other forward.”

The four-corners offense was designed to protect leads at the end of games and score, to move the ball within the square, the players in the corner cutting across the middle to free a man for an easy path to the basket or a backdoor pass for a lay up. It ate up clock, wore down the defense, and resulted in easy baskets or fatigue fouls and trips to the line. It required a strong point guard like Morrissey who could make free throws, but his teammates needed to be good ball-handlers and shooters as well. Morrissey could not dribble the ball for three-plus minutes.

The St. Jude crowd, recognizing the four-corners, booed.

“Play ball, Patton,” the students yelled. “You gutless wonder!”

But Jack knew Patton made the right call. The Toppers had momentum, closing the Miners thirteen point lead to one. Out of timeouts, the only way Patton could hope to get a measure of control was to slow the game down. On his haunches at the far end of the Black Hills bench, leathery palms cupped around his mouth, shouting instructions his players could not hear, Patton knew the issue could not be forced, this game one the Miners must survive, not go out and win. Patton reveled in the catcalls, as the fans grew restless watching the Toppers chase Morrissey and the Miners around. Better to hear boos than cheers when the Toppers stole the ball off the press and Jack or Gudy slammed home dunks.

The old warhorse knew how to win a basketball game.

It surprised Jack, however, that Patton would keep Svenson in the game, the lumbering Swede easy for Jack to guard and avoid a fifth foul. At six foot nine, two hundred and fifty pounds Svenson was a man among boys. Clogging the lane with his bulk, he forced high-fliers like Jack and Gudy to adjust their drives, while his shoving and leaning took a toll on Brewster. But he could not dribble, shoot the ball, or rebound reliably.  Svenson was a basketball player only because Patton said he was.

At first, the four-corners worked to perfection. Morrissey zipped in and out, dribbling, cutting, faking drives to the hole and then reversing, a gasping Jenkins focused on keeping the slippery guard from slithering past for an easy layup. After fifteen to twenty seconds, Morrissey gave up the ball to Crockett, or any teammate besides Svenson, who passed or dribbled for five to ten seconds before returning the ball to Morrissey. A minute fell off the game clock like a raindrop from heaven, and the frenzied St. Jude fans howled in frustration.

“Deny the pass,” Collins shouted at Gudy, Brewster, and Lane the next time Morrissey had the ball in the middle. “Jack, Jenkins. Trap the ball. Trap the ball!”

Patton, hearing Collins, jumped up and whistled and waved like a traffic cop, desperate to signal his players. But Morrissey, back to the Black Hills bench, could not see Patton, and the coach’s whistling was lost in the hooting and hollering of the Toppers fans. Morrissey dribbled hard to the hoop on the right side of the court where Jack stood keeping his body between Svenson and the ball. Jenkins denied Morrissey a path to the basket, the little man stopped short of the baseline, spun to his right and shifted the ball to his left, expecting to see Jack with Svenson and squirt between them and Jenkins toward the half court line.

But as Morrissey spun, Jack abandoned Svenson, planted his right foot on the base line and spread his left leg wide. Jenkins closed fast also and within a split second they bottled the slick Mercury on the baseline.

“One…two… three…” the ref counted, right hand holding a silver whistle in pursed lips, ready to blow, left arm marking the count with hatchet-like chops. If he reached five, the Toppers took possession. Morrissey’s eyes searched for an open cutter between Jack and Jenkins’s arms and elbows, but Gudy, Connolly, and Brewster stayed on their men, cutting off all hope.

In the corner stood the statue-like, blond-haired Svenson, arms extended, eyes wide, hands trembling.

“Mercury, Mercury, Mercury,” he dry-mouthed, not wanting the ball but compelled by a sense of duty to call for it.

“Four…” the ref roared, left arm slashing.

Morrissey kept his pivot foot in place, ball faked toward half court then jab stepped to the baseline extending his short arms toward the crowd behind the basket and wrapped a short bounce pass around Jack’s right leg to Svenson. The big man bent low, caught the ball and held it above his head looking, like Morrissey had, for an open man. But Gudy, Connolly, and Brewster had their men covered, Jenkins stayed with Morrissey, and Jack turned and closed fast on Svenson. Jack planted his left leg on the baseline, keeping his body between the center and the basket. Svenson would have to find an open player or dribble the ball up the sideline toward center court, a perilous trip even for an expert dribbler.

“One…two…” the ref began again.

Jack thrust his arms to the sky and edged as close to Svenson as he dared without fouling. The Swede’s blue eyes bulged, sweat rolled down his flushed face. No man open, no timeouts left. The massive Miner had one path to freedom.

“Three…” the ref yelled.

Svenson pivoted away from Jack, brought the ball to his waist and laid it with a solid THUMP against the hardwood, shuffling up the sideline, white, size fourteen, Converse high tops skimming the floor, eyes on the ball, big body creeping like a man lost in the dark.

THUMP went the ball again, and Svenson slid down the line, Jack pressing him on every step.

The St. Jude fans screamed. The few Black Hills fans in attendance and the entire bench, including Patton, stood frozen, never having seen the senior center dribble more than a few times in succession during the course of his three-year varsity career.

THUMP, THUMP…Svenson dribbled twice in succession and took a full step forward, confidence growing.

“Sven!” a sprinting Morrissey shouted, freed from Jenkins by a pick from Crockett .

Svenson, releasing the ball for another dribble, lifted his head and turned a few degrees to see Mercury streak by, arms waving, and as the big man’s head rose, his huge foot followed. He dropped his hands to catch the ball and whip it to Mercury, but instead of one last reassuring THUMP against the hardwood there was a muffled THUD as the leather ball landed on the toe of the Swede’s big sneaker and bounced out of bounds.

An ecstatic St. Jude student wearing dark glasses and a Blues Brothers fedora caught the ball as the ref shouted, “Toppers ball!” and pointed toward the St. Jude basket.

Svenson clutched his head as he ran down the court. Crockett patted him on the back. Patton kicked the floor, cursing not Svenson but himself for not pulling the big man during the timeout.

“Run the offense!” Collins pointed to Jenkins as he took the inbounds pass from Connolly.

Unlike a lot of coaches, Collins did not call timeout to set up a play at the end of a game. He believed this was where good coaching and practice paid dividends. No need to diagram a play and allow the rattled Miners to set up an inbounds defense. The Toppers either executed the motion offense as taught or not. “Practices are class, games are tests,” he said many times. “And the end of a close game is like a final exam. Let’s see how you do when the pressure’s on.” He could not play the game for them. He would not play the game for them.

Jenkins dribbled the ball toward center court, Mercury Morrissey picking him up at the half court line.

Jack and the boys waited for Connolly to join them, each player taking his position, readying themselves for the action to come, hearts revving like the Indy 500 field waiting for the green flag. Jenkins picked up his dribble at the top of the key and fired a pass to Jack on the right wing. Jack held it strong in triple-threat position, two hands on the ball in shooting position, ready to sink the jumper or pass or dribble penetrate. Crockett was in his face, bouncing, waving his arms, a bundle of nervous energy, determined to block Jack’s shot from the wing or stop his drive to the hole.

“Make somebody else beat us,” Patton hollered.

Jack jab-stepped and head faked, but Crockett did not bite and stayed on him like cling wrap. Brewster and Gudy flashed off screens, but neither could get open or in a good position to do anything with the ball but pass it back. The idea of slashing past the overeager Crockett passed through Jack’s mind, his streetball, man-on-man instincts ready for the challenge. He glanced at the game clock. 1:20 left. Too soon. Jack saw the hulking Svenson lurking in the lane, threw a ball fake at Crockett and whipped the ball to Jenkins at the top of the key who fired it around the horn to Connolly on the opposite wing. Jack raced into the lane and set a pick for Gudy. Jenkins cut toward the hoop on the right as Brewster set a screen.

And with that, the Toppers cranked up the motion offense, the ball not touching the ground as the players flashed and dashed across and up and down the lane. Jack and Gudy popped out on the wings, Connolly and Jenkins rotated through and back up to the point. Brewster crisscrossed the court, setting picks, pivoting, back to the basket, the big man taking the occasional interior pass, looking for a cutter, throwing a fake at Svenson to keep him honest, set him up for the next play, then firing the ball to the wing or the key.

A low murmur of ooohs and aaahs spread across the bleachers, the standing crowd appreciative of the contradictory notion of the motion offense; its precision and free-flowing grace playing off each other, the ball be-bopping between the boys like pinball with a purpose. The mesmerized fans, like cool-cat-customers in a jazz club, let loose no prolonged cheers or screams. Everyone in the gym, including the Black Hills folks, was in the moment, marveling at the cuts, picks, passes and brief solos of the Toppers. Brewster’s work in the lane, Jack’s head and shoulder fakes on the wing, Jenkins taking two quick dribbles into the lane, then popping out, testing, poking, prodding, looking for a crack in the Miners defense. And the Miners countered, lunging, scrambling, Crockett face-up on Jack, Svenson leaning on Brewster, Morrissey scatting around Jenkins. Their defense flexed but did not crack, as the crowd admired the simple beauty of a well-played game, the ten boys dancing an unscripted basketball ballet, the finale approaching with every tick of the scoreboard clock.

Patton paced and shouted.

Scooter chewed his nails and prayed the rosary.

Lane, decked out in a pearl shaded leisure suit and wide-collar blue shirt, perched on the edge of the bench, fingertips tingling, ready to take the last shot. Always the gunner, confident he would drain it, astonished whenever the ball failed to fall but, with a true shooter’s self-assurance, certain the next one would.

Elbows on his knees, game program in his left hand, gold cross stuck to his sweating palm, brown eyes darting as the ball zoomed around the court, Collins leaned forward on the bench, fighting the urge to shout, not wanting to interrupt his players’ rhythm, break their concentration.

“Let ’em play,” he told himself. “Let ’em play.”

As the clock ticked down below twenty-five seconds, Jack weaved his way through the lane one more time, taking a pass from Connolly in the right corner. Crockett fought through Brewster’s screen, a step late getting to Jack, but managed to stay close enough to stop Jack from firing. Jack glanced at Crockett’s eyes.

“He’s gassed,” Jack thought and nodded toward the far corner as he tossed the ball to Connolly on the wing, faked Crockett to the left, and sprinted toward the hoop, crossing out of bounds over the baseline as Brewster slid toward Jack from the lower block and set a crushing screen on the trailing Crockett. As Crockett sprawled on the floor, the slow-footed Svenson tried to reverse course and stay with Jack.

In full stride, Jack peeled around Brewster, sweaty shoulders sliding white on black, black on white, hopped back in bounds and raced toward the left corner, free of all defenders. Connolly, who held the ball for a beat after Jack’s nod, ball-faked his man to buy Jack time, then cleared it with a blur to Jenkins at the top of the key who zipped it to Gudy on the left wing who fired a fastball back to the corner where Jack caught it with his right hand and jerked to a halt with the shriek of rubber-on-wood. He did not hear the crowd or coaches, nor did he think of his mother vanishing for days at a time, his father drinking himself to sleep, he felt no worries about what people thought, had no cares about winning or losing the game. The sound and fury of life, all the bullshit and the noise, floated like flotsam and jetsam in his wake as Jack propelled forward on his singular, simple mission, soul lost and found in the flash of an instant.

Pivoting toward the hoop on his left foot, he squared his shoulders to the basket; legs bent at the knees, his body strong from Collins’s constant conditioning, and pulled the ball in, left hand resting on its side, right hand in shooting position. Although slow as an overloaded grain truck creeping uphill, the desperate Svenson took one last labored stride, shot his arms in the air and lunged toward a jumping Jack.

At the height of his leap, Jack felt the dimples of the leather ball as it rolled off his fingertips. He watched it arc toward the hoop, spinning like a satellite in the weightlessness of space, reaching its apex, then tumbling down toward the welcoming white net, landing with a cuuuuuush.

He knew it was good the moment the ball left his hand, knew it without thinking, knew it the way a loved baby knows his mother will comfort him when he cries, instinctual, unspoken, understood.

He struck the pose for a split-second, right arm extended, Svenson stumbling past him and collapsing in a mismatched heap of alabaster knees, chest, hands, and body, smacking the beige floor boards with a shuddering thump, while all eyes in the building watched the ball slide through the net.

The Wreck exploded. The St. Jude fans jumped and shouted, the Black Hills faithful groaned.

And with that, like an alarm awaking him from a deep sleep, Jack returned to the world. Conscious now of the crowd, the players, and the scoreboard clock ticking down, the game still on.

“Get the ball, get the ball,” Patton shrieked.

“Set up the press,” Jenkins yelled.

Morrissey snatched the ball as Svenson and Crockett scrambled to their feet.

The Toppers’ scrambled to their defensive positions, no one slapping hands or smiling

Jack drifted to the left middle then remembered he was the safety as Crockett streaked down the opposite side of the court.

“Get back, Jack, get back!” Scooter shouted.

The game clock raced toward ten seconds as the ref started the five-count on the inbounds pass. Morrissey slid to the left side of the basket to keep his pass away from the backboard, set his stubby legs, and fired the ball over Connolly like a quarterback leading a wide receiver.

Crockett caught the ball over his right shoulder at the half court line and dribbled toward the left side of the hoop.

Jack, four steps behind and across the court, took an angle that would intercept Crockett in front of the hoop, if he could beat the fleet Miner to the spot.

But Crockett throttled down on his way to the basket, Svenson’s turnover fresh in his mind, not wanting to take any chances with the ball careening out of bounds.

Jack sprinted, fast-closing footsteps now thundering above the din of the crowd, Crockett glanced back and saw him, dribbled faster, passed the foul line, and went airborne six feet from the basket, the ball in his left hand, left leg raised, rim between Jack and the ball.

Jack took one last bounding stride and leapt towards the hoop, right arm shooting to the sky. Crockett, who decided midflight to lay the ball off the glass, not certain he could dunk with his weaker left hand, released the ball below the rim with a flick of his wrist, floating it up toward the glass. Jack soared, right elbow even with the basket and tipped the ball before it brushed the board. The ball bounced off the glass, dinged the rim, and fell to the court. Gudy, following the play, grabbed it before it went out of bounds and dribbled, playing keep away from lunging Miners as the buzzer sounded.

Collins, Scooter, and Lane turned to each other and slapped hands. Jack, Gudy, and the rest of the starters hopped, hugged, and high-fived.

Crockett and Svenson shook Jack’s and the rest of the Topper’s hands, as did Dr. Keck with Collins. But Patton and his assistants turned and double-timed with the rest of the Miners to the locker room. The St. Jude students, vengeance theirs, poured onto the court.

As the student body bounced and skipped like children playing in the rain, Jack scanned the stands for his family, relieved to see Mary Lou clapping and cheering. He smiled, a wave of satisfaction washing over him with exhilaration, surprise, and calm. Katy popped out from the throng and Jack swept her up in a hug. They turned and waved at his family then whooped and dove into the mob of screaming kids.

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Filed under 1970's, Family, High School, HIgh School Basketball, In the moment, March 2012, Small town America, Transcendental Basketball Blues