Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Fickle Finger of Fate

A post my friend sent me today jarred a memory.

Growing up, death never really touched me. Yes, living on a farm I saw the natural ebb and flow of life and death - the calves that didn't make it, the chickens that ended up in the freezer. The exuberance of the young ensured that I would live forever. One of my grandmothers died during this time, but she was elderly and infirm, and this was expected. It hurt to see her go, but she hadn't been herself for many years. I was more relieved than pained. It didn't reach out and touch my heart. Maybe I was a cold hearted kid because the experience didn't reach out and touch me, but I think it was more the lack of experience and understanding that age would give me.

Mike (not his real name) was a classmate of mine. He wasn't very smart - he was held back a year back in the times when schools actually did this sort of thing. He was from a poor family that went to the same church I did, so I knew him pretty well. Mike looked taller than he was - he was lanky and lean. He wore a lot of hand-me-down clothes from his older brothers. He always wore clodhoppers - those durable leather lace up boots with yellow soles. His light blonde hair was parted on the side, and a shock of his bangs were generally in one of his eyes. I'm sure his mother and sisters were his barber.

Our high school was a separate building about two blocks from the "new" grade school, where the cafeteria was. When the bell rang for the end of class at lunchtime, Mike would head out at a dead run for lunch. He liked being first in line. We figured he was pretty hungry, too. His parents were just that poor. If seconds were offered, Mike took advantage. Like I said, he was lean. He wasn't fast or quick - some of my better fed buddies could outrun him easily, but he was dogged and determined.

We were sent to the principal's office as well. Mike had saved a place for me close to the door in the class before lunch. It was taught by our football coach, who ate metal rods and spit out nails. Another classmate took my spot. We tossed his books to the back of the class so he'd have to leave MY seat to get them. Coach didn't find any of this amusing, and sent us to The Office. The principal didn't get to swat us - Coach wanted this one for himself. We had to remove all contents from our back pockets. The board was long, wide and flat, drilled with air holes to increase swinging speed. We bent over, and Coach grabbed a couple belt loops and squeezed, to tighten our jeans against our butts. He slightly lifted us so we were on our tip toes. Whack! Only once, but it was enough. Mike's swat sounded a bit more clunky than mine - he had a skinny butt. It stung for most of the hour, and sitting in class was no picnic that day.

We eventually graduated and Mike went to work for one of his brothers who owned one of the gas stations in town. Mike put in seven day weeks, both opening and closing the station. This was one of the old full service stations where they pumped the gas, changed oil, batteries and tires and did minor tuneups. Mike wasn't too happy with his brother. I was more fortunate - I "went off to college" and my part time job was in a discount store.

Mike discovered beer, as did I. Times were different - if a local cop caught us, we were generally escorted or told to go home. If they caught us out later, then we were in deep trouble, but most of us had the sense to listen to authority. Mike had a night off, and went partying.

South of town next to the river is a small, deep pond - The Sand Pit. Sand for road gravel had been extracted from there for years, and it was deep with serious undertow. It was part of "The Route" where we cruised late at night. Mike was cruising after the pool hall closed. He passed out and drove into The Sand Pit. He never regained consciousness and drowned.

He was the first classmate to go, and he went far, far too young. It was a humbling experience - after all, we were all going to live forever. Unfortunately, he was proof of the fallacy of that particular idea.

At the funeral, his older brother - the gas station owner - bawled his eyes out. My roomie - another high school buddy, and I went together, and we both had the same thought: "Bet he's upset that he'll have to hire some help now." Mike wasn't working for him anymore. He sort of resigned.

I think of Mike once in a while - his was the first death that really reached out and grabbed me. For instance, if I was driving way over the speed limit in the middle of the night, it actually occurred to me that I could be killed. Before his death, not so much. I really doubt that our Creator arranged Mike's death so I could learn this object lesson, but I do believe it was one of the minor benefits. Now my body reminds me time is finite. The gray hairs, the sore muscles, the occasional twinges in my hands, and the other hallmarks of growing old serve as constant reminders that the impudence of youth has a price.

But, growing old is part of the deal. We all know this from birth - maybe we can deny it for a while, but the knowledge is always there. What isn't always there is the idea that fate can seal the deal suddenly and without warning. Literally, a bolt of lightning from the sky could burn you on the spot. Or maybe it is a drunk driver hitting someone else head on. The cause isn't as important as the effect. Savor the existence we are granted.


skywriter said...

That was beautiful. . you are deeply articulate, more than you know, and your feelings are well expressed. You should write more, if not for the blog world. . than for your friends.

My Dad and a friend used to buy a steer every year or so and raise it, then slaughter it and split it for our two household's winter larder. As kids we'd name the steer, though it wasn't a pet, we spent little time interacting with it, but it had a name. When it was in the freezer it was labeled. "Bob" or "Eric" or Bubba" so we'd know what year it was prepped. We never thought that morbid. it kept our family fed and strong in lean times. We respected it's sacrifice to feed us in an era where people ate out in restaurants as only the occassional treat, Mom's stayed home and budgets were tight on one income.

My Mom's best friend from high school, June (from Juneau) once shipped down some moose meat from north of us. Mom labeled it, and the leftover bits were "moosecellaneous."

Thanks for sharing Jeff.

skywriter said...

Well I thought it had posted.

That was a beautiful and articulate post Jeff, and shows depth you probably don't think you have. You need to write more.

My Dad and a friend used to buy a steer every year or two to raise and slaughter to provide food to our two households. We'd name it, it wasn't a pet, but it still had a name and the packages in the freezer were labeled as such. Eric or Bob or Bubba. We didn't think it morbid. We respected the animals sacrifice to provide us nourishment in an era where money was tight, Mom's stayed home and feeding a big family on one income could sometimes be tough. My Mom's best friend June (from Juneau) once sent us some moose meat and Mom labeled the packages in the freezer "moosecellaneous".

Queen of Dysfunction said...

Wow, what a neat post.

I don't think you were callous for not being more deeply touched by your grandmother's death. Isn't part of the deal with kids that they are almost wholly self-absorbed? Plus, accepting the death of someone who is elderly isn't shallow, it's well-adjusted.

But Mike? Poor Mike.