Thursday, February 26, 2009

One Golden Moment

One of the things I like best about my job as a sportswriter for the Star Courier is the fact that it sometimes sends me to places and events that I would probably miss otherwise, like the IHSA state wrestling finals in Champaign last Saturday. As you’ve probably noticed, the Boilermaker wrestlers have had a great season this year, winning the regional team title, with a chance to compete in the team sectionals, and sending several grapplers to the individual sectional meet. Three of them, Andre Dunn, Jermain McKnight and Adam Breedlove made it all the way to the state finals, which was, therefore, my destination on that snowy Saturday morning.
I confess, I’m no wrestling expert, though I actually participated in the sport in high school. It was the 1964-64 season, and wrestling was a varsity sport at Galva High School. It had been kind of an on-again, off-again thing, depending, I guess, on whether there was a coach in place with the interest and knowledge to drive a program and enough kids who were interested. There were more students in those baby-boomer days, so we had the numbers to field a team, and heaven knows, we didn’t cost the district all that much money. We were kind of a rag-tag bunch. Our wrestling room was off in a corner of the Galva Armory, where the district rented space before they built the “new” high school. The room was lined with old-fashioned tumbling mats and we wore our own sweatsuits, old basketball knee pads and cast-off track jerseys instead of the cool, skin-tight singlets you see nowadays. I remember thinking the “winged G” track emblem on the front of those shirts was kind of funny, in that it seemed to advertise our ability to run, rather than wrestle.
In my case, that was kind of close to the truth at times.
Anybody who’s ever been involved in the sport knows “making weight” is a big deal, as it’s considered an advantage to wrestle in as low a weight division as possible, while still maintaining the strength it takes to go one-on-one with another starving maniac. I actually had to gain a little weight to wrestle at 103 pounds, which was, at that time, the second-lowest weight class (95 pounds was the lowest.) There were several of us shrimps out for wrestling that year, and I was just (barely) good enough to claim the varsity spot every week. None of the other small schools around had wrestling teams, so we traveled far and wide to go up against schools like Kewanee, Erie, Morrison and Fulton that had established wrestling programs and athletes who (yikes!) knew how to wrestle. I remember peering anxiously across the gym, hoping to spot some skinny, shivering fellow-freshman who might be my opponent for the night. Too often, though, the kid who bounced out onto the mat would be some battle-hardened senior who had, through some miracle of science and willpower, made the 103 weight class and was now looking to ease his hunger and suffering with a little snack. Like me.
I suffered a serious knee injury in football that next fall, which, in those days before reconstructive orthopedic surgery, meant a big incision, several days in the hospital, a full-length cast for a few weeks, and directions to the next meeting of the chess club. Contact sports were out, so my wrestling career was at an end.
But while I might not know everything about the finer points of wrestling, I do know something about kids and sports. I’ve spent a lot of years coaching and watching kids, and, more recently, reporting on their performances. In the few meets I’ve covered this year, and especially in the state contest, I learned some things about the sport of wrestling and the kids who work so hard to succeed at it.
Most sports require some combination of speed, strength and brains. Wrestling requires a lot of all three, plus an extreme level of focus and intensity. The wrestlers I saw Saturday were highly disciplined athletes with great respect for their sport, their coaches and themselves. Take Kewanee’s own state-level wrestlers. They combined all of these attributes to find themselves among the very best of the best wrestlers in the entire state of Illinois. Jermain McKnight showed himself to be a fine technical wrestler, with lightning speed and a surprising amount of strength. Andre Dunn, who is pretty crafty himself, looked to be one of the very strongest of the big men who populate the powerful 285-pound class. And Adam Breedlove was the "thinking man’s wrestler,” pre-determining the match-by-match tactics that took him to the very top. All of these young men showed great courage, drive and determination. And in the process, they made Kewanee a name to reckoned with in the world of Illinois high school wrestling.
It was a golden moment. And they did us proud.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Remembering Denny

I had the pleasure of spending a little time with Harold and Phyllis Anderson a couple of weeks ago as they showed me their marvelous year-round Christmas tree. The tree, which they leave on display all through the year, is filled with ornaments that mark virtually every holiday, plus many memories of their friends, neighbors and family.
It was natural that I would think about Denny.
Denny was Harold and Phyllis’ eldest son. He died a couple of years ago, leaving a hole in their lives and the lives of all of us who knew him.
Denny was a special guy.
Now, often enough, the word “special” is reserved for folks with special needs because of certain disabilities. And though Denny did deal with those kinds of issues, that’s not why I think of him that way. Denny was special because of who he was and how he became an important part of the life of my hometown.
He was one of my oldest friends, stretching back to the days when our mothers would visit over coffee when we were little kids. We remained friends over the years, despite the fact our lives went in different directions. If you met him, you might think, “Wow, that guy has a lot of challenges going on in his life,” and he did. It was the way he dealt with them that made him the man he was.
We tend to measure a man’s worth based on things that aren’t really all that worthwhile. Things like wealth and possessions and job titles. Denny chose friendship, loyalty, determination and wisdom.
He really was everybody’s friend. He knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was keenly interested in what went on in Galva, and kept himself abreast of all the latest news. “Denny told me” became a signature of authenticity, as everyone knew that Denny truly knew what was going on around town.
He was loyal, especially to his town, his school and its sports teams. I remember giving him a ride home from an out-of-town football game one night. This was a few years after Galva had achieved some great, state-ranked success on the football field, and Denny remained positive despite the fact the Wildcats were in the midst of a so-so season. I was feeling kind of irritable, as one of my sons’ teams had suffered another tough loss.
“Do you think we’ll go all the way this year?” Denny asked.
I was about to respond with something kind of sarcastic when it struck me how much more valuable his eternal optimism was than my short-sided grumpiness.
“I guess you never know, Denny,” I finally said, while feeling more than a little guilty about the foolish, negative thoughts I had been harboring.
His determination was legendary. Born in a time when many handicapped people were more or less swept aside, he, with an enormous amount of love and support from his parents, lived and worked independently, living in his own apartment and tooling around town on his famed three-wheeled bike, while managing his own Amway business, plus working at Abilities Plus and the Kewanee Pizza Hut. The life he led was truly a tribute to the work his parents and others put in to create a working education plan for him well before “special education” was a part of everyday academics.
But most of all, Denny was wise. His life couldn’t have always been easy. There had to have been times of frustration, pain and, even sorrow at the limitations and challenges he dealt with. But instead of choosing to resent the hand he had been dealt, he enjoyed a deep Christian faith in a loving God who would always be at his side.
It was a choice that would serve him well.
When I heard Denny had been diagnosed with cancer, my first thoughts were of how he would deal with the many trials that would face him. With cancer, there are many complex decisions to be made. And often, cancer treatments can be as bad, or worse, even, than the disease itself.
“Will he understand what’s happening to him?” I wondered. “Will he know what to do?”
Denny dealt with it all with great courage. He endured the pain of the disease, its treatments and outcomes for as long as it was reasonable to do so. And when the time came when a final decision had to be made to end treatment and live out his days on his own terms, he did that, too.
They say he died peacefully, and I believe he did. After all, he died knowing that he was soon to be fully united with a loving savior. And he had the faith--and wisdom--to know he was heading for a warm, wonderful place where all men are friendly, loyal, determined and wise.
Just like my friend, Denny.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


(Note: This week's Star Courier column is on a variety of local events and probably not of much interest to remote readers. So, here's an older column from the archives posted here by request.)

My mother loved fall.  She loved the change of seasons, "sweater weather" and the sudden burst of color on the flat, green landscape of Illinois.  But I think, most of all, she loved the yearly affirmation of the quiet romance that existed between her and my father.
"Let's go for a ride," she'd say. And they would. My father, probably dreaming of some couch time after a six-day week at the family store, would leave the remains of his Sunday dinner. He'd leave his beloved arm chair, the Chicago Bears, his garden and all his Sunday leisure dreams, and off they'd go on a search for the one thing that meant fall more than colored leaves, pumpkin patches and southbound geese: Bittersweet.
Those rides took them to and through the cornfields and red oak groves and muddy, cat-tailed shores of hidden farm ponds. Those rides went past used-car lots, 'round small-town squares and across ancient, creaking one-lane bridges. They wanted to do something…and to do nothing. So they'd ride, and look around, and look for their own precious sign of the season.
"Look, I think I see some," my mother would say. My father would dutifully stop the car, pulling to the side of some deep-ditched country road. Sometimes, she'd be wrong, fooled by another kind of red-colored berry. But, on those most jubilant of occasions, she'd be right and, springing from the car like a girl, she'd plunge into the underbrush to claim her prize.
I think she loved bittersweet because it was hard to find and beautiful and a reason to be out and about with my father on an autumn day. And I think she just loved the name and the way it reminded her of love and dreams and memories and life itself. 
Bitter. Sweet. 
Every year they'd try to remember the good spots where those red-orange beauties had burst forth before. More often than not, they'd fail to find those out-of-the-way places and the search would continue.
She would bring the little red-orange berries, bursting from their pods, home to rest on the mantle and on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. Home to brighten the soon-to-come gloomy days of late autumn and early winter. After a while, they'd disappear, to be replaced by Christmas greens. I never knew what became of them, whether they were thrown away or tucked away in a special hiding place.
When my mother died, it did not seem to me to be, as they say, "a blessing."  She was much too young. I was, too.
We buried her on a cold early-spring day.  I stood by her casket in confused misery, waiting for what would happen next.  My brother stepped up to me.  He was holding something gently in his hand.
"Here, give this to mom."
It was bittersweet.
I don't know where he found those delicate berries. It was spring, so they were entirely out of season. But, there they were.  Tiny, red-orange berries that looked like they had just been plucked from the thorny underbrush.
Were they hers, discovered in that special place? Where--and how--had he found them?
I never knew. I never asked. 
I laid them there. 
And I knew a season had surely ended.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Worst Dog in the World

We saw the movie, “Marley and Me” a couple of weeks ago. I think I can tell you, without spoiling the plot, that it’s based on an autobiographical book about a young newspaper reporter/columnist who has a dog named Marley, that he lovingly calls “the worst dog in the world.” I kept getting those familiar wifely nudges in the side from Megan as we watched the film, and I knew why.
We really had the worst dog in the world.
His name was Whitey.
While many dogs are ruled by a desire to please the one who feeds them, Whitey had two, and only two, driving forces in his life.
Food and love.
Or, more precisely, garbage cans and girls dogs.
This, of course, put us at odds a lot of the time. And if you were keeping score on who got what they wanted, he would have been way ahead.
When we owned Whitey, we lived in a house with a huge back yard. It was a wonderful place, filled with sunny open spaces and shady tree-filled pockets; a perfect place for a dog to live his life in ease and comfort.
Not Whitey.
He used that yard for a successful base of operations that targeted every trash can and female dog in a 10-block radius. Once we got clued into the fact he wasn’t going to be content to stick around, we began making him come indoors when we weren’t out in the yard to restrain him.
No dice.
The dog was a veritable Houdini, able to slip out of any unattended, unlatched door without detection. When we responded by locking exits, he began an assault on our doors and windows that kept Galva’s Houghton Lumber Company, and its screen and glass repair business, on daily alert for years. He started with the screens. I’d walk into a room and find a perfect dog-shaped hole in a door or window screen, letting me know that Whitey was, once again, on the town. I tried closing windows, and he discovered that glass is only, well, glass, and was easily broken by a determined dog with love on the brain and a high tolerance for pain. Thinking I’d thwart him by locking him upstairs, he, after stewing about it for a few days, discovered that one of the upstairs windows looked out onto a porch roof. The jump off that roof was only about seven or eight feet. Crash. Thump. Gone!
While Whitey’s exploits were many and varied, one of the most infamous has to do with a neighbor a couple of blocks away, who had, of course, a female dog. After making his escape late one night, Whitey got that lovin’ feeling, and trotted over for a visit. It was a warm night, so just a screen door blocked the front entrance to the house. One dog-shaped hole later, Whitey was in the house and heading upstairs in search of the object of his affections. As the story goes, the lady of the house woke up just in time to see Whitey peering into their bedroom.
“Wake up, wake up, there’s a dog in the house,” she cried to her sleeping husband.
He woke up, looked at the object of her concern, and said, “That’s not a dog, it’s only Whitey.” Alarmed, Whitey exited by the first means available, a back window, bringing that evening’s destruction count up to two screened openings. After receiving an early phone call and alerting Houghton’s, I made my way over to retrieve a now guilt-ridden dog, who had, however, been unable to bring himself to leave the home of his beloved. I took him straightaway to the local veterinarian’s office for a procedure designed to cool his ardor, if not increase his intelligence.
Being “fixed” didn’t really cure Whitey’s wanderlust, it just redirected it. He still visited girl dogs, as a consultant, I guess, and became even more of a garbage aficionado, if that was possible. He became a kind of collector, as well. I would find interesting things in my yard: clothing, tin cans, kids’ outdoor toys, and, even, part of a fishing pole one time. But the highlight was when he discovered an ample supply of pig skulls stored outdoors (I hope) at the Bob Evans plant on the edge of Galva. It must have taken him all night going back and forth, because when I stepped out into the back yard the next morning, it looked like a Georgia O’Keefe desert landscape, with bleached skulls dotting the terrain as far as the eye could see.
The thing is, that despite his many transgressions, Whitey was still our dog, and we loved him. When caught red-pawed in some petty crime, he would roll over on his side, slowly thump his tail, and plead for understanding with his big brown eyes. So we forgave him. Again and again.
There are many other things I could tell you about Whitey: how he got his name, the adventures he had with his dog-friend Claude and our two boys, and all the ways he entertained, outraged and loved us. But there’s barely room now to tell you one more thing about my dog.
As he got older, his lifestyle caught up with him in the form of a heart condition that the vet said would force him to live his remaining days as a dog-invalid, sheltered from noise and excitement by confinement in a quiet, darkened room. I got that news from Megan while I was at work one day, and drove home worrying about him and thinking about how his weakened state would finally slow him down. It seemed the life-long battle between man and dog was finally over, though I wouldn’t have chosen to win that way.
As I pulled into the driveway, I saw Whitey lying in the back yard under the shade of his favorite lilac bush. Wondering why he was outdoors unattended and fearing the worst, I walked over to him.
He rolled onto his side, as his tail thumped gently in the grass. I looked into his big brown eyes, then I glanced back at the house.
There, in the back door screen, was a perfect dog-shaped hole.