Monday, June 06, 2016

In memoriam: Jon D. Tate, 1937-2016

A sad but not unexpected bit of news: Jon D. Tate, my former bishop and longtime friend and mentor, passed away this past Friday morning, June 3, at his home in Nampa, Idaho, four weeks after his 79th birthday. (As a sidenote, he was born on the day the dirigible Hindenburg exploded and crashed, and he left the world on the same day as Muhammad Ali.) I have been thinking about him and about his family ever since learning of his passing, and I put their names on the prayer roll when I attended the Mesa Temple the following day. His funeral is scheduled for Wednesday, June 8, and while I will not be able to attend it in person, I will most certainly be present in spirit. I plan to wear my Sunday best that day, including a black tie purchased specifically for the occasion. Although purely symbolic, owing to the circumstances, this is a gesture that he surely would appreciate.

Jon Douglas Tate was the first bishop I had after joining the LDS Church, and he was also, without question, the most influential bishop I have ever had. One of the great blessings of my life is that I have always been attracted to individuals who appealed to my nobler instincts and made me want to be, or become, my best self; and on that list, which has grown to be lengthy and impressive over the years, he has always ranked very high indeed. He and his family joined the Church only about three years before I did, but by March of 1970, when I was baptized, he was serving as president of our branch in Greenville, Mississippi. At just about exactly that same time, the Greenville Branch became a ward, and he continued serving as its bishop. He was released on December 1, 1974, about five weeks after I returned home from my mission. In later years he served in a number of other callings, although to my knowledge he was never again called to serve as a bishop. But to me he always has been, and always will be, Bishop Tate. I have never felt comfortable addressing or referring to him in any other way.

Bishop Tate was born a few years too late to be a member of the Greatest Generation, but in every other respect he was entirely worthy to have been one of them. He was unabashedly patriotic during an era when old-fashioned patriotism had mostly gone out of fashion, and he took justifiable pride in his military service, which included three years with the Mississippi National Guard and two more on active duty as an NCO with the storied 82nd Airborne Division. In later life, and while serving as bishop, he still carried the persona of the Army sergeant he once was. Fortunately, he never had to serve in combat, but I have often reflected that if I had ever had to go to war, I would have wanted to serve under someone like him. My respect and affection for Bishop Tate were accompanied by the merest touch of fear, just enough to ensure that I would never step too far out of line if I knew he was going to be aware of my doings -- or misdeeds, as the case might be.

As bishop, and throughout his life afterward, he was always rightly thought of as a gospel scholar, but he was first and foremost a man of action. We are told in scripture that Christ "went about doing good," and Bishop Tate always followed the Savior's example, often in ways that went unnoticed and unheralded by others. He and his wife were both exceptionally good to me, and today I shudder in shame and embarrassment when I consider how thoughtless and inconsiderate I, in return, was at times to them. I was still quite young then, cursed with a personality that was as aggravating and annoying as it was unusual, and in particular, I was appallingly naïve, inept, and ignorant where interpersonal relationships were concerned. I also battled with some terrible insecurities, which were largely the result of the way I was raised. All of this was obvious to the Tates, but they took me in anyway. During the summers of 1971 and 1972 I lived with and worked for Bishop Tate, who throughout his career was self-employed as an agricultural consultant, and more specifically as an entomologist. I spent that first summer trying to save some money for college, and during the second I was saving for my mission. Hiring me for those two summers was a purely unselfish act on his part, as I know beyond question that I was far from ideal for the job. I was a city boy, through and through, scrawny and underweight and with bad eyesight, in addition to which I have always suffered from chronic attention-deficit disorder. He tolerated my shortcomings anyway, apparently far more concerned about helping me develop my character and sense of self-respect than he was about my ability to pick up on the initial, subtle signs of boll-weevil infestation. Bishop Tate clearly did not succeed in turning me into a country boy -- but then, he wasn't trying to; but to this day I consider those two summers in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to be among the best experiences of my life.

After returning home from my mission in October, 1974 -- the Tates, by the way, had helped to finance it -- I stayed in Greenville for a short time and moved to Utah early the next year. I wish I had done a better job of keeping in touch with Bishop Tate and his wife, and I can safely assume that anyone reading this can make a similar observation about someone who was likewise important in that reader's life. But I take comfort in the knowledge that he and I did maintain at least sporadic contact over the years, and never completely disappeared from each other's radar screen. Through the 1970s and 1980s I managed to write at least once or twice a year, especially at Christmas, so he was always generally aware of what was going on in my life. There were occasional phone conversations as well. Several times he came to Utah on business and made it a point to try to contact me, and more often than not he was successful. One particularly memorable occasion was during the fall of 1979, when I was taking a year off before law school and living in Provo with roommates. That night, a few minutes after I had gone to bed, there was a knock on my bedroom door, accompanied by a voice I did not immediately recognize; but when I opened the door, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see a grinning Bishop Tate on the other side of it. We had a nice chat for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. In more recent years we have occasionally exchanged e-mail messages, the last such exchange having taken place only a couple of months ago. He seemed pleased that I was still active in the Church after so many years, and I hope he had long since concluded that his rather substantial investment in me had proven to be worth it, my frequent aggravations notwithstanding.

The last time I saw Bishop Tate face-to-face was when I attended my 25-year high school class reunion in Mississippi in July of 1996. During the three days I was there, I stayed with the Tates at their home in Indianola, a familiar place to me because I had lived with them in that house during those two summers in the early 1970s. I attended church with them at the Greenville Ward that Sunday. Bishop Tate had recently suffered a heart attack and undergone bypass surgery, and during my visit he said he thought our next meeting would probably take place in the spirit world. This has indeed proven to be the case, but I don't think he expected to live another 20 years, or even anywhere close to that. He put the bonus time to good use, however. Through our intermittent contact since then, I learned that he and Sister Tate later sold the house and moved to Orlando, Florida, where they served either as missionaries or temple workers -- I don't remember which, but as they are different aspects of the same work, I don't suppose it really makes much difference. Either way, he followed the example of the Savior by going about doing good, as he had done for so many years before that. Eventually the Tates moved yet again, this time to Idaho, which proved to be the last stop in his long journey. (I would occasionally smile when I thought of what a huge contrast this must have presented to them, especially during the winter months, after all those years of living and working in the Mississippi Delta.)

Not long ago I remarked to a very dear friend that the most comforting words to a Latter-day Saint are perhaps "Thou hast been faithful," which appear several times in the Standard Works of the Church. I'm sure Bishop Tate has heard them a few times by now as he starts to become accustomed to this new phase of his existence. I never knew a man with a better heart, but he was also a no-nonsense type who could be blunt and forceful when he thought he needed to be, and as an unfortunate result of this, he was often misunderstood and unappreciated by the people he most sought to help. In that regard at least, he deserved far better than he received in this life, but I rather suspect that this deficiency is now being made up for in a big way. If I had been present with him during his final hours, I would have read to him this passage from the Book of Ether, one of my own favorites, and from which Hyrum Smith took such comfort at Carthage Jail:

"And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity. And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore thy garments shall be made clean. And because thou hast seen thy weakness, thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father."

Few individuals have ever had as much impact in my life as did he, and I hope he will be among those who greet me someday when my own turn comes to enter the world of spirits. As noted above, I wish I had done a better job of keeping in touch with him here on earth; but thanks for the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, I know I can look forward to the time when he and I will at last be able to catch up on each other, no longer burdened by the limitations of our mortal bodies and the hassles and distractions that accompany so much of our existence in this life. Today, however, in a spirit of both sadness and gratitude, I say farewell to Bishop Tate, although Lowell Thomas's trademark radio sign-off might be more appropriate: "So long for now." His online obituary may be read here.

Monday, December 28, 2015

A few post-Christmas observations

I often joke about being a direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge, but it is a fact that I don't particularly enjoy Christmas anymore, and the last time I really did enjoy it was probably about 25 years ago. The religious significance of the holiday is still there for me, but mainly I have come to associate it with crowded shopping malls, an expanding waistline, and unrelenting pressure to spend money I don't have on things that others don't necessarily need or want. And this year's was surely the saddest Christmas of my life, owing to the recent tragic loss of all three of my pet birds. The sadness is definitely still there and continues to surface from time to time, and I especially miss Spoots.

With that being said, this year's Christmas at least was not unbearable. For a couple of days I pondered whether I should get any new birds at all, but I suppose it was all but certain that I would. They are fragile and delicate creatures, to be sure, and the likelihood of eventual loss and heartbreak, always an ever-present reality with any pet owner, is especially true with regard to birds. But my main hesitation, quite honestly, was the consideration of my own life expectancy. The possibility of losing another bird is difficult enough to face, but that does not concern me nearly as much as the thought of my dying first, thus leaving the bird with nobody to take care of it or play with it or love it the way it would deserve. While they can indeed be wonderful pets, as they have been for me, birds are definitely not for everyone. Apart from all that, it is no secret that I am just plain tired of life, with its seemingly endless struggles, disappointments, and frustrations, and that I will be glad when it is finally over. At age 62, I am definitely on the downhill slope of life, and I wonder how much I really have to look forward to between now and the day my earthly journey ends.

But I simply do not know when that will happen, and at this time I am basically healthy and don't feel any particular premonition of impending death, so I might in fact live for another 20 years or more. What if that proves to be the case, and between now and then I deprive myself of the love and companionship of another bird? That would not be good, either; and for me this was what finally tipped the scale, so to speak. So now, just two weeks after losing Spoots, Yo-yo, and Boswell, we once again have birds in our home, both of them female cockatiels. One, an albino, is about four months old and has been named Bibi; the other, an adult pearl with a previous owner, is about two years old, and I immediately named her Sophie. The origins of the two names should perhaps be explained. While we believe the albino is female, we are not 100% certain of this, and I am awaiting the results of a DNA test to establish the bird's gender once and for all. Bibi has the advantage of being a sort of gender-neutral name, in that it sounds feminine but also happens to be the nickname of Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister of Israel. Thus, if Bibi turns out to be a male, there will be no need to change his name. As for Sophie -- well, she sort of adopted me, rather than the other way around. It was love at first sight for both of us, and she immediately climbed up my arm, perched on my shoulder, and nibbled on my fingernails as I petted her. And so it was that I became, quite literally, Sophie's Choice. (The person who assisted me at the bird store told me that Sophie had hissed, bitten, and snapped at someone else who had checked her out a few hours earlier that day.)

More will be written about the new birds in future posts, which will include pictures as well as text. Over the past 17 years, we have had ten birds living with us at one time or another. Two of them did not work out and were soon returned to the pet stores where they were purchased. Of the remaining eight, one (Oochie) was given a name based on mangled Italian; another (Elbie Jaye) was named for an American President; and a third (Spoots) from an amusing memory of our then-four-year-old daughter's mispronunciation of the article of footwear customarily worn when snow is on the ground. Then there was Boswell, named after an author; Ceci, named for an opera star; and Yo-yo, whose name just sort of fit his rather neurotic personality and peripatetic back-and-forth movements in his cage. (During his lifetime, I suspect Yo-yo moved at least 500 miles just by doing that.) And now we have a bird who is sort of named after an Israeli prime minister, and another named after a movie title. I don't think we will be getting any more birds for awhile, although I don't rule out the possibility, either, so perhaps I should come up with another new, standby name or two, just in case.

Friday, December 18, 2015

R. I. P. Yo-yo, Spoots, and Boswell

My last post was about the passing of a beloved pet bird. Unfortunately, so, too, is this one; even more unfortunately, today's post laments the sudden, tragic passing of three birds, all of whom were either very young or in the prime of life. Oochie, at least, was old, having reached the average life expectancy of cockatiels living in captivity. On November 10, 2014 -- about six months after Oochie's death -- our parakeet, Elbie Jaye, also died, likewise at a somewhat advanced age. I knew she was sick and probably dying one day around the third week of October, when she suddenly stopped singing and chirping, something which until then had been a virtually nonstop activity from around 8:00 a.m. every day until around midnight. I never learned what killed her, but much to our surprise, she put up a brave fight and hung on to life for three more weeks. She was buried in our backyard next to Oochie, along with her favorite toy, worn and battered from the constant pounding she had administered to it over the years. Elbie was a stray when she began living with us, so we do not know how old she was then, but we had her for just over ten years. Since captive parakeets usually live around 8-10 years, we were satisfied that Elbie had lived out her full life expectancy, and she was always and obviously a very happy and contented little bird. A healthy one, too, except at the very end. We gave her a good home and a good life, from which I can take comfort today.

Elbie was succeeded by another parakeet, a male whom we named Boswell, after the author of the famous Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell is one of the three birds referred to here, where this story is continued. Since posting that photo and article on Flickr, I have purchased two new birds, about which more later. (Only one of them is living with us now; the other is still being weaned and will probably come home to us in about two weeks.) But all things considered, I would much rather have kept the three birds who are now so suddenly departed. Living creatures are not machine-tooled, interchangeable parts, and while one can certainly acquire a new pet, one does not truly replace a lost or departed one. I don't know if I will ever completely stop grieving for these birds, especially Spoots, who was the best pet I have ever had. 

Monday, May 05, 2014

In loving memory: Oochie, 1998? -- 2014

One who has never had a pet can never understand how difficult and painful it is to lose one. Today I mourn the passing of Oochie, the oldest of our four pet birds, who died this past Thursday, May 1. We do not know exactly how old Oochie was, but he was at least 16 and may in fact have been a bit older than that. The average life expectancy of a pet cockatiel being somewhere in the 15-to-20-year range, Oochie thus lived out what was roughly the equivalent of the threescore years and ten which, according to scripture, are allotted to human beings. That knowledge affords me some reassurance and comfort even as I wonder if I could have done anything to keep Oochie with us for a few years longer. (For the record, I rather suspect that I could not.)

We acquired Oochie in December of 1998, at which time he was at least a few months of age and, as noted above, possibly older still. He was a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law, Joyce Hansen – known to one and all as Dodie – to our son Colin, who at the time was not quite ten. Colin wanted to give him an Italian name – honestly, that was his idea, even though I’m the one who ended  up learning the language – and Oochie is derived from uccello, which means bird.

Colin and the bird bonded almost instantly, and soon my wife Sheila did so as well. Cockatiels tend to bond mainly with one or two individuals, so although I loved the bird, he seemed to think of me as being part of his staff, which made me feel a bit envious of my wife and son. (Because of my apparently more formal status, I usually addressed him as Mr. Uccello, which nobody else ever did.) But  Oochie was loved and pampered by all of us, with the exception of Vanessa, who never really cared much for Oochie or any of the other birds we acquired later. His antics amused us endlessly, and his vocalizations and whistling provided a sort of soundtrack to our domestic life. Soon it became difficult to imagine life without him around.
We nearly lost Oochie twice, under circumstances that would have been devastating. One day when Colin was about 11, we heard a blood-curdling scream and went to investigate. Colin had stepped outside for a moment, apparently forgetting that Oochie was perched on his shoulder, and the bird flew away. He didn’t make it far, however; he landed in the middle of the street, where fortunately there was no traffic at the time and Colin, while badly shaken by the near-disaster, was quickly able to rescue him. The second time was in September, 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, when Oochie escaped through the door of our house in Bountiful, Utah, and disappeared. We prepared some flyers, made inquiries throughout the neighborhood, and spent hours searching for him in vain.  All of us were heartbroken, having concluded that Oochie had perhaps been eaten by a cat and that we would never see him again. But to our joy and gratitude, we found him two days later, almost by accident, in a tree about three blocks from where we lived.  He was a bit frightened and hungry but otherwise safe and sound. We brought him home, where I was surprised and amused to discover that a tiny bird could eat like a horse. This little adventure left Oochie none the worse for the wear, although for some time afterward he would become agitated if any of us stepped out of his line of sight. Fortunately, nothing like that ever happened again during the remaining 13 years of Oochie’s life. (Because of this experience, I now make it a point to have all of our birds' wings clipped regularly.)
In the fall of 2002 we moved to Arizona, and along with Sheila, Colin, and Vanessa, Oochie spent the following summer in Utah, where the rest of my family had gone to escape the relentless heat in the Phoenix area.  I missed everyone while they were gone, but wished Oochie had been left behind so that I could at least enjoy his companionship while the others were absent. This proved to be his last visit to Utah, and until last week was the only time Oochie would ever spend as much as a single night away from home. 
In the spring of 2004 we acquired a second cockatiel, this one a female given to us by an LDS family that was moving out of our ward. We named her Ceci (pronounced Chichi), after mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. So it was that Oochie finally had a companion, although we didn’t want to start breeding cockatiels and thus carefully avoided letting them out of their cages at the same time. That fall we also acquired a stray budgie who had been found in the front yard of our former bishop’s house. The bishop’s wife called Sheila and asked if we would take the stray bird, and Sheila in turn asked me the same question when I arrived home that evening. Of course we would, I said without hesitation, although I was starting to feel like Thidwick, the big-hearted moose in the Dr. Seuss story. The budgie went without a name for several months because none of the ones I considered quite seemed to fit; but finally I came up with Elbie Jaye, in honor of the nation’s 36th president, and that one stuck. (We call her Elbie for short.)
On April 23, 2006, a Sunday, Ceci died suddenly while I was away at church, and I found her dead in her cage when I returned home. We never knew what killed her, but strongly suspect that it was egg binding. The sudden and unexpected loss broke my heart, and it has always haunted me that I was not there for Ceci when she died. Two weeks later I purchased Yo-yo to replace Ceci, and another two weeks after that I visited a local bird store and immediately fell in love with yet another cockatiel, who joined our family a couple of days later and was named Spoots. Our feathered menagerie became complete at that point. In the meantime, Colin had become involved with drugs and went to live with relatives in Utah, and over time Sheila gradually lost interest in the birds and eventually started referring to them as “your [meaning my] birds.” I ended up taking almost all responsibility for their care and feeding, and for giving them the human attention that cockatiels in particular need. But they have always been a joy to me, and I have never minded inheriting them. Later Colin moved back in with us a few more times for periods of several months each, but eventually he, too, almost completely lost interest in Oochie. (He had never shown much interest at all in the other birds.)
Oochie’s health was consistently good, but I started noticing a slow decline about five years ago. He began putting on weight, became somewhat quieter and less active than before, and seemed to tire more easily. Sometimes he would not leave the cage on his own, and I had to perch him on my finger and remove him myself in order to encourage him to get some exercise. I attributed all of this to old age and continued to watch him closely, but by the beginning of this year he had declined to the point that I began wondering how much longer my little friend would be with us. On Sunday, April 27, I took all four birds to the home of a couple in our ward who had agreed to take them in for two or three days while the interior of our house was being painted. (Paint fumes can be lethal to small birds.) I went there the next evening to feed them, then brought them home after work on Tuesday, the 29th. This proved to be the last time Oochie would ever spend a night away from home.
On Thursday, May 1, I returned home at my usual time of around 5:45 and suggested to my wife that we go see “Heaven Is For Real,” which I thought might help her to deal with the recent deaths of two of her siblings. She said she would prefer to go the next evening, then asked me to run an errand for her. As I was heading out the door, I noticed that Oochie was sitting listlessly at the bottom of his cage, which alarmed me because I knew that was a sure sign that he was very sick. I inspected his cage and was even more alarmed to discover that he had not eaten any of the food I had placed in his tray the night before. I had him perch on my finger – which he did with some difficulty – then took him into our bedroom and told my wife that I thought Oochie was dying. Under those circumstances, I would have cancelled our movie plans anyway. I quickly ran my errand, and haunted by memories of what happened with Ceci, I prayed all the while that Oochie would hang on until I got back home.
When I did return home about 20 minutes later, Oochie was again sitting nearly motionless on the bottom of his cage. I removed him from it, took several pictures of him with my smartphone and DSLR camera, and prepared for what I now knew was at most only a few hours away. I sat on our sofa, spread a bedsheet across my lap, and placed Oochie on the sheet, where I started petting him gently and speaking to him from time to time. For the next 90 minutes I did nothing else at all, and didn't even turn on the television. I told Oochie that he had been a good bird and thanked him for being part of my life and for giving me and mine so much joy and delight. A few minutes later Sheila came in and sat on a nearby easy chair as we both awaited the end. I wondered how long this vigil would last, but was prepared to stay up all night with Oochie if necessary to ensure that he, unlike Ceci, would not be alone when he died.
He rallied briefly a couple of times, during one of which he struggled to climb onto my shoulder one last time, where he nuzzled against my neck for a few minutes. I have wondered since if this was his way of saying goodbye. Sheila asked me if I thought I should give him a priesthood blessing for comfort. The idea had not occurred to me, but I pondered it for a moment and said I thought it would not be inappropriate. I remembered stories about Mormon pioneers blessing sick oxen as they crossed the plains, and I reasoned that the Father who created all living things and notes the fall of the sparrow would surely not be offended or displeased by this act. I held Oochie in my left hand, cupped the right one over him, then blessed him that he might be comforted in whatever way birds can be comforted, and that he might know with assurance of the love we all had for him. I added a petition that he might be healed if the Lord so willed, although I knew that request would almost certainly not be granted that night; and if it was in fact Oochie's time to go, I prayed that he would not suffer needlessly, or for long.
The blessing seemed to help in some way, as he remained very calm, but by about 8:15 his eyes were shut for good and he was obviously having trouble breathing.  I knew the end of his suffering could now be no more than a few minutes away, and it did in fact come at 8:33 p.m., exactly eight years and eight days after we lost Ceci. I continued petting him for about five more minutes, then laid him atop our piano and began preparations for his burial. I wrapped Oochie in two pieces of red cloth cut from one of my old shirts, placed him in a small box that I had found in our garage, sealed that with electrical tape, and then dug a little grave in our backyard, perhaps 8 feet or so from our sliding patio door. A few minutes after ten I placed the box in the hole and covered it with earth, then arranged three flowerpots on the grave to prevent cats or other scavengers from disturbing it.
I still miss Ceci eight years after her death, and know I will always miss Oochie as well. This morning I posted a picture of him as my cover photo on Facebook, where I plan to leave it for the next 30 days or so; then, as life does have to go on, I’ll revert to the one I took down, which was of a Diamondbacks baseball game I attended a couple of years ago. I am not yet accustomed to the fact that we now have three birds instead of four, and while I don’t have any immediate plans to replace Oochie, I do not entirely rule out that possibility. But I have to consider such things as my own life expectancy, which at this point – I will be 61 next month -- might well be less than a newborn cockatiel’s, plus the fact that Spoots and Yo-yo are both in fine health and have a good chance of living for another eight to ten years, if not longer.  The thought of losing another bird, while sad enough by itself, does not trouble me nearly as much as the thought of leaving one behind with nobody to play with it or take care of it.
Meanwhile, I wonder if I will be reunited someday with Oochie and Ceci, as well as a parakeet named Bob, whom I knew and loved during my church mission in El Salvador 40 years ago. (Bob might be a subject worth sharing here in some future post.) We are taught that all animals have spirits, which obviously presupposes that they also have an afterlife. We don’t have sealing ordinances for our pets like we do for the human members of our families, but people often do develop strong bonds with their pets, who sometimes go on to form an important part of their lives over many years; and to me it stands to reason that such love and devotion were not meant to perish in the grave. Sheila and I did go to see our movie on Friday, the day after Oochie passed away, and on the way home I mentioned to her a number of individuals who I hope will be present to greet me when my time comes to enter the paradise of God. I like to think that the birds I loved so much will be there, too.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering a day like none other

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event generally considered to be one of the true watersheds of American history, and one unlike any other in my lifetime. It was to my generation what Pearl Harbor was to my parents and grandparents, and what 9/11 would later be to my own children. The fact that I remember it so vividly today marks me as something of an old-timer, as the percentage of Americans with living memories of JFK continues to decline from year to year, and will henceforth do so much more precipitously as the baby-boom generation ages and gradually departs.   

On November 22, 1963, I was ten years old and a fifth-grade student at Libby C. Booth Elementary School in Reno, Nevada.  I was already a news junkie and history buff even at that age, and I remember hearing Chet Huntley announce the night before, in an almost offhand way, that President Kennedy had arrived in Texas to begin a planned three-day political trip. I overheard the announcement while doing my homework, which on this Thursday evening included a book report due the next morning.  The book I had chosen for this particular assignment was The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, by William L. Shirer, which was essentially an abridged version of his opus magnum, written with younger reading audiences in mind. (Some things don’t change much over the years; exactly twenty years later, my current reading material would include The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by the same author.)

In the fall of 1963 I lived with my parents and brother Michael in a small rented house located less than half a mile from the school.  (Valerie, my younger sister, would be born the following June, but I did not know this at the time.) Because home was so close, I usually walked home for lunch, which normally consisted of two peanut butter sandwiches.  On that fateful Friday I arrived home at noon, as usual, entering the house through the back door, which faced an alley. Mike, who was 18 months old, ran up to greet me.  I heard urgent-sounding news-anchor voices emanating from the TV set in our living room, but could not hear what they were saying.  Then I heard heavy, quick footsteps coming from that same room.  In a moment my mother appeared, wide-eyed, in the entrance to the kitchen and asked me if I had heard the news.  I shook my head, which seemed to surprise her, and then she pronounced the three most shocking words I have ever heard, before or since:

“President Kennedy’s dead.”

The news hit me like a body blow. John F. Kennedy had been President of the United States for two years, ten months, and two days, in what would prove to be the third-shortest tenure of any Chief Executive of the twentieth century. But he was the first President I remembered well, and his tragically abbreviated administration had been in power for more than one-fourth of my lifetime. So it sort of seemed to me that he had always been there, a vaguely reassuring presence in my life, and now he was suddenly and irretrievably gone. Moreover, Kennedy had been young, and from all outward appearances healthy and vigorous, making him seem almost immortal to me and countless other Americans.  My first fleeting thought was that he had perhaps been felled by a heart attack, but I listened, dazed and bewildered, as my mother told me he had in fact been shot by a sniper while riding in an open car in Dallas, Texas.  

I spent perhaps the next 40 minutes sitting in front of the TV set, eating my sandwiches as Frank McGee anchored the improvised, spur-of-the-moment network coverage for NBC.  At some point I suddenly realized that I was trembling like a leaf, and crying as well.  My mother, who was no Kennedy fan, stood a few feet away and remarked more than once that this was “terrible.”  At one point I got up and paced the floor in that tiny living room, wondering if the Russians were behind the assassination and were about to attack us.  Then it came time to return to school, and I ran part of that short distance, thinking to myself that I just had to remember this date.  (I need not have worried about that potential memory lapse.)

Later it would occur to me that it was 2:00 p.m. in Dallas when my mother told me the news, some 25 minutes after the President’s death was officially confirmed and approximately 90 minutes after he was shot. I have wondered why the school administration made no announcement before lunch, but perhaps they wanted to avoid causing panic in case Kennedy was still alive. When I arrived back at the school, classes had not yet resumed, and my teacher, Mrs. Harrington, was outside on the playground, surrounded by several other children. I ran up to her and said President Kennedy had been assassinated, and she nodded and said she already knew. Mrs. Harrington was visibly upset, but dry-eyed. Not everyone was able to maintain their composure, and I was told later that our principal, Mr. Singleton, was unable to hold back tears. Around this time the flag at the school was lowered to half-staff, and when the school day officially resumed, a live radio broadcast was fed into the classrooms for about 15 minutes or so.

We were let out early that day, at around 3:00 p.m. For the previous couple of hours, Mrs. Harrington had tried valiantly to do what teachers are supposed to do, but nobody, herself included, really felt like doing normal schoolwork. She finally gave up the effort, instead producing a tape recorder and inviting all of us to share whatever was on our minds. Some of the children spoke briefly about the assassination; for my part, I did an impersonation of Mussolini, which in retrospect seems tasteless and inappropriate, but at the time was a well-intentioned – and reasonably successful – attempt to lighten the collective mood by eliciting laughter. (Mrs. Harrington probably kept the recording, but I never heard it again after that day.)

When I returned home, my mother’s first words to me were, “Lyndon Johnson’s President now.” She sent me to a nearby store to pick up the day’s edition of the Reno Evening Gazette, and the line at the cash register was longer and quieter than usual. The store clerk, a middle-aged gentleman who always smiled and greeted me pleasantly whenever I stopped by, was holding a telephone receiver to his ear, apparently listening intently to some kind of news feed, and didn’t say a word as his customers shuffled by, all of them likewise silent as they made their purchases. I paid for the newspaper and left, and to the best of my recollection, this was the last time I stepped outside our house until I returned to school four days later.

Like most Americans, I spent that long and tragic weekend alternately glued to the television set or immersed in a newspaper. I have always loved pomp and pageantry, for which the Kennedy funeral, its attendant sadness notwithstanding, provided the best and most memorable example that I have ever seen. The beat of the muffled drums that paced Kennedy’s funeral procession is everlastingly seared into my memory and still provides a kind of soundtrack to that momentous time, but other enduring impressions have remained with me as well. I remember waking up Saturday morning and greeting Mike as he sat awake in his crib. For a brief moment I had actually forgotten what had happened the day before, until I looked outside and saw that it was raining. Then the shocked realization hit me once again. I learned later that it had also rained in Washington that day, which seemed appropriate: the heavens themselves, as it were, weeping over our fallen prince. I remember my father rushing into my bedroom at midmorning on Sunday to ask if I had overheard the announcement that Oswald had been shot. (I had, and it astonished me as much as it did everyone else.) During the four days between that 22nd and 25th of November, I added several new words to my vocabulary, among them caisson, catafalque, and rotunda. (In fact, until November 22, 1963, I had never even heard the word motorcade.)

Fifty years have now come and gone, the greater part of even a long lifetime, and I don’t believe a day has passed in all that time that I haven’t thought about the Kennedy assassination. I often reflect on Billy Graham's answer when he was asked what had most surprised him about life; "its brevity," he replied. Fifty years seems like it should be such a long time, and yet it isn't. I was a schoolboy then, and now, too quickly it seems, I am on the cusp of old age.

Today my feelings about the man himself are ambivalent. As Presidents go, he was neither our greatest nor our worst, and I agree with the assessment of most historians that he was overrated. In particular, his first year in office was arguably a disaster, a conclusion with which Kennedy himself might agree. For me, JFK has long since ceased to be the larger-than-life hero that he once was, especially during my childhood and teenage years. As a man and as a President, he was clearly and deeply flawed. Yet he continues to be a source of endless fascination, and in my view one of the most complex and interesting men ever to occupy the office. Of all American Presidents, he impresses me as the one I would have most enjoyed knowing personally, given our shared intellectual curiosity, common interest in heroes and history, and appreciation for the majesty and power of words. As one who regards humor as one of the greatest of human virtues, I would have found his wit engaging. He unquestionably had the ability to inspire, to appeal to Americans' better and nobler instincts, and he had a unique connection to young people. But his rampant womanizing, when noted close-up, would have repelled me even more than it does, although Kennedy was famously adept at compartmentalizing his life and doubtless would never have mentioned to me his latest dalliance with a young, nubile Hollywood starlet or White House intern. His health issues evoke in me a mixture of admiration and disgust, the former because he accomplished so much in spite of them, the latter because of the dishonest and conspiratorial manner in which they were hidden from public knowledge in spite of their obvious pertinence to his ability to function as President. 

Kennedy continues to be admired today, not so much for what he accomplished as for what he might – or just as easily might not – have achieved if his life had not been cut short. In 1963, with the Bay of Pigs, Berlin, and the Cuban Missile Crisis behind him, he seemed at last to be hitting his stride as President. That was the year he presented to Congress what would eventually become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the year the Limited Test Ban Treaty was signed and ratified. But it was also the year of the Diem coup, a sordid episode in which the administration was directly implicated. We will never know if Vietnam would have turned out differently if he had lived, or if the civil unrest that marked the balance of that decade would have developed the way it did. My own assessment is that he had the potential either to have been one of the nation’s great Presidents, or to have seen his administration and his place in history destroyed by a sex scandal. Unfortunately, based on all that has come to light in the past 50 years, I believe the latter possibility to be by far the more likely one. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

On turning 60

Two weeks ago I reached another decennial milestone in my life when I turned sixty. A few friends have asked me how it feels, and my response has always been that it is more sobering than other such mileposts -- very different from arriving at age 30, 40, or even 50. For one thing, none of those birthdays seems all that long ago, as if time somehow accelerates as I -- and we -- grow older. But more sobering still is the constant and ever-growing awareness of my own mortality. I am not a young man anymore, and never will be young again; and even though I have always been blessed with abundant good health, even that is no longer quite as good as it used to be. That is to be expected with advancing age, of course, and I am not complaining, but along with the calendar, the arthritis that set in about ten years ago and the weight issues that bedevil me today serve as gentle reminders that my mortal life is now entering the home stretch. I was born in 1953, and a person my age at that time would have been born in 1893. And nobody born in 1893 -- not a single person anywhere in the world -- remains alive today.

I am highly introspective by nature and given to frequent and deep reflections about the past. A look at the actuarial tables suffices to remind me that the story of my life has by now mostly been written, and I am painfully aware that mine has, without question, been a checkered and unsettled journey. I know that I have failed far more often than I have succeeded in life, and this recognition has weighed heavily on my mind, especially in recent years. I often say to friends, only half-jokingly, that being a lifelong teetotaler has probably been good for me, because I have made so many damn-fool mistakes while cold sober that I shudder to imagine what I might have done while under the influence of alcohol. Yet I also take some comfort from knowing that my heart has always been in the right place and I have consistently meant well, and that at least some of the issues I have wrestled with throughout my life could reasonably be expected to have resulted from the way I was raised. In addition, I decided at an early age that I wanted my life to be good and decent and purposeful, and along the way I developed and cultivated a love for things that were beautiful and noble and inspiring. I was already past fifty when, acting on those impulses, I took up photography as a serious hobby. I have always been an unusually late bloomer, and perhaps even now I have not yet fully bloomed.

Still, I wonder. I believe in God and an afterlife and a Last Judgment, but have never quite been convinced that He is really infinitely merciful, kind, and understanding. That, too, is perhaps because of the way I was raised; our feelings about God are often influenced by our feelings about our parents. The most influential person in my life, by far, was my cruel and abusive mother, who never made any secret of the fact that she despised me and regarded me as a monstrous burden. But what of God? When I appear before Him at the great and last day, what will I hear? A tongue-lashing over what I might and should have been? Or will He welcome me with open arms and the assurance that my feeble and often-frustrated efforts really were the best that could be expected of me under the circumstances, and that this is enough for Him? The scriptures are replete with references to love and mercy, but also to anger, wrath, and vengeance, and I wonder which of those I can expect. Perhaps this bit of insight and knowledge is something still conspicuously lacking in my process of conversion, but I do pray every day now, and with considerable fervor, that notwithstanding the failure and pain and embarrassment of the past, I might at least be able to finish well. Perhaps in the end that will be all that really matters.

In the meantime, I accept the fact of my mortality and actually draw some comfort from the knowledge that the end of my odyssey is now far nearer than its beginning, that I now have many more yesterdays than I have tomorrows. I feel tired and drained and depressed most of the time now, and know that much of that is simply because I have grown weary of life itself, with its seemingly fruitless struggles and relentless difficulty and the concomitant sense that at this point I have little else to look forward to except more of the same. The Book of Mormon refers to death as being part of "the merciful plan of the great Creator," and the burdens of life in general and advancing age in particular now make it easier for me to see why and how this is so.

But life should consist of more than awaiting the inevitable summons, so I will continue trying to make the best of it. Last week I purchased a new bicycle when I was told, not unexpectedly, that my old one, bought by me at a bike shop in Provo way back in 1984 and last ridden six years ago, was unrepairable. I never buy expensive items on impulse, and this was something I had been considering for a long time, finally deciding that the bike was a necessary investment in my health and sense of well-being. My wife, to her credit, agreed with this assessment, so I dipped into our scarce financial resources and plunked down $500.00 for the bike and its accessories. With the sole exception of dancing, which I no longer do, bicycling has been the most therapeutic activity I have ever engaged in. I have resumed it more in the hope of improving the overall quality of my life than in lengthening its duration, and while I do not expect to be riding this bicycle as long as I did the one it replaces, perhaps I should not rule out that possibility. I rode the old one for a total of 19 seasons, not counting the ten years or so that it spent in a storage unit or in our garage. If I am still going strong after 19 more seasons, the new bike will be at least part of the reason.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sarah Kay delivers!

Sarah Kay delivers! by gwilmore
Sarah Kay delivers!, a photo by gwilmore on Flickr.

I haven't posted anything to this blog in quite awhile, but this seems like an appropriate way to end the drought. I participated in a group photoshoot this past Friday night, and this one image alone was well worth the time and effort I put into the event. In addition to Flickr, I posted it on my Facebook page this afternoon, noting that I thought it might afford my friends a moment of welcome relief from the endless and often depressing news about the Presidential campaign.