Just Gene - Rivers of ThoughtFor some, the title of this post will conjure up images of Sean Hayes’ character on the first iteration of Will and Grace, Jack McFarland, throwing both his hands up, palms forward to face-box himself and exclaiming, “Just Jack”. While that moment became iconic in the annals of television, I’d like to share a different moment…a moment I had recently with my dad, Gene. No, face-box, “Just Gene”.

Many of you know, my dad is suffering from a somewhat rare form of dementia: behavioral-variant Frontotemporal Dementia or bvFTD. This evil disease, although in the same family as Alzheimer’s, doesn’t manifest itself in the same way. Dad still recognizes everyone, can recall the minutest detail of something that happened 30 years ago, or 30 minutes ago, and, other than having an 88 year-old body, is in decent physical health. I sometimes describe him as a person with cognitive abilities of a 5 year-old, with the memories of 88 years.

One of the ways in which this disease manifests itself is in the form of delusions. The formal definition according to Dictionary.com is “an idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.” For dad, this means he experiences things around him that are not real, but he firmly believes they are. For example, my mom comes to visit him quite often. Mom passed away five years ago…and he knows this, yet she visited, or they took a trip, or even played golf together. Like a “real memory” he can describe these events in great detail and these details rarely change as he retells the story time and time again.

When he first started experiencing delusions, I would calmly and matter of factly explain to him that they are not real, that he really didn’t go to Chicago last week, or that his ceiling light did not move three feet across the room. As this delusions grew longer, more involved, and more intertwined with reality, his doctors advised us to just go along with the story. Unless he is frightened, endangering himself or others, just go along.

We have had many visits these past few months where he is in midst of a delusion and incorporates us in. On one such visit, he was clearly leading a church meeting. There were twenty people in his room. When we arrived, he interrupted the meeting to introduce us to the group, told us he would be wrapping the meeting up shortly, and then we could visit. As you probably deduced, the room was empty save for me, my wife Carmen, our grandson Jordan, and, of course, dad.

All of which brings us to my story of “Just Gene”. I stopped in to visit with dad a few days ago. When I entered his room, I found him like we find him quite often. Laying on his bed, fully clothed (including shoes), resting. It was about 5:30 in the evening and he had just returned from dinner down the hall. I pulled up his walker, which has a seat as a part of it, and sat down next to the bed for our visit. We talked about his day, we talked about his meal, we talked about his tv not working (uh, I turned the cable box on and wha-la it worked). I changed his clocks, it being the Monday after the fall time change. I crawled on the floor and picked up his phone, knocked there when he had tried to get up at some point in the last few days. We talked about my upcoming trip to LA, we talked about Carmen not feeling well, we talked about little Jordan and Braxton.

“So, Dad, what else have you been doing? Have you been down to activity time?”

“No, I’ve been way too busy.”

“Busy, doing what?”

“Well, I don’t know how these groups find me, but I keep getting asked by these church groups to help them with this problem or that problem. Groups from Chicago, from St. Louis, from all over. I don’t know how they even know who I am.”

“Well, dad, of course they know you. You lead the baptist churches here in Indiana for years. You were a very well respected expert on congregations and church management. Of course, they want insights from the Reverend Doctor.”

“I suppose you are right. But, this last one did not go well.”

“What do you mean?”, I asked.

“They just weren’t getting it. I could not get them to understand. I finally had to give up. I needed to get back here and they just wouldn’t listen.”

“I suppose that would be frustrating, but you had to run into that many times during your career, right?”

“Not often, but sometimes. One of my congregations was especially difficult. It always hurt deeply when I saw them going in the wrong direction, for the wrong reasons. We had a couple of churches leave the Association. They felt that was what was best for them.”

“I have always been proud of being the son of Reverend Ton. I loved to listen to you preach. I loved it when you got into character and acted like you were one of the Apostles, that always got my attention,” I told him. 

“Yes, sometimes you have do something a bit different to get your point across. You just can’t stand up there behind the pulpit week after week. But, you know, here I am not Reverend Ton. Most don’t even know or care. Here I’m just Gene. And, I kind of like that.”

There you have it. Just Gene. And that feels good to him.

I have to admit, it is something I rarely have thought about…the sacrifices. The sacrifices he, and countless others, had to make to follow their calling. The long hours of running the business of a church during the day, rushing home for dinner, only to have to go back to oversee the various meetings of the church at night. The need to always be “on”. Always “special”.

Just Gene.

Dad spoke of missing so much of our lives as kids, instead, having to rely on mom as the primary parent because she was home…and he was not. It occurred to me, even something as simple as visiting someone’s home for dinner, and always being called upon to say the blessing, because, after all, he WAS the Reverend.

Just Gene.

I remembered the times he and I would go to play golf. Invariably, as a twosome, the course would pair us up with another twosome to complete a foursome and off we would go. Dad always introduced himself as Gene. Just Gene. Not Gene Ton, not Reverend Ton, just Gene. After one such round in which we had been paired with a particularly “rowdy” gent, who liked to swear and tell off-color jokes, I asked him why he didn’t tell him who he was or what he did for a living. “Well, because it would make him uncomfortable and he would change the way he was acting. He was here to relax, play golf and blow off steam.”

I have no doubt, knowing my dad, he would do it for the other person. But, the realization was dawning on me, that maybe, just maybe, he was giving himself a break from being the Reverend Doctor Ton. Maybe in some deep recesses of his brain, he needed to be “Just Gene” occasionally. Maybe that is part of the battle going on within his mind today. As the disease takes over more and more of his brain, it is a tug of war between the calling of his lifetime…to lead, to counsel, to challenge, to comfort…and his desire to be…Just Gene.

 

This is a story of my friend Ben. I had the honor of working with Ben at Goodwill for about four years, give or take. He was about my sons’ age. Ben is a squirrely sort of dude. Think typical IT nerd, complete with glasses (no, they weren’t taped up), a book worm. Born to study, born to learn. Quirky sense of humor. Sometimes exposing itself at the wrong time, leading some to think him a bit socially awkward.

Whenever you needed something, Ben was there. Willing to pitch in and help. Many of you have heard of my “Creek Days”, those days once a year when I enlist as many friends as I can to help me remove trees from the creek behind my house. It is wet, muddy, backbreaking work. Ben was always the first one to volunteer each year, wearing a PS2 cable as a belt (“hey, I didn’t want to ruin a good belt!”). I told you…a bit quirky. Only two people have ever come to Creek Day more than once. In the five years of conducting Creek Days, Ben only missed once.

Over the years, Ben would pop into my office to talk. We shared many stories, stories of family, of friends, of life and music. 

I loved Ben’s story about meeting his wife Taleigha. He had two tickets to the Foo Fighters and no one to go with, so he posted on Craig’s list. Taleigha answered. They had moved in together a few months later, and were married a soon after. I had the pleasure of meeting Taleigha a couple of times when she visited Ben at the office. She had the brightest most beautiful smile, especially when she talked of Ben. Theirs was a beautiful love story. But with a dark side. Taleigha had cancer…brain cancer. I have never seen two people fight so hard. Fight against the disease, fight against the healthcare system, fight against all the odds.

They lost that fight and Taleigha passed away on June 17, 2018.

A few weeks after she passed, family and friends were gathered to remember her. It was the first time I had seen Ben since her passing. There he was, looking awkward in his suit, greeting everyone that attended. I hugged him, kissed him on the cheek, and barely croaked out the words “Bennie, I’m sorry, there are no words” between my own tears. How he continued to hold it together I will never know…shock maybe.

The service was a beautiful tribute to Taleigha. Her family and friends remembering her through their words and music. The pastor, who had known Taleigha since she moved to the area, and who had married them eight short years ago, spoke of Taleigha and her love of music and animals and people. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. And then…and then…and then Ben made his way to the pulpit. There are no words to describe the strength, resolve, and tenderness as he read his words…their love story…pausing only once or twice to maintain his composure. I cannot do it justice, so instead, I leave you with Ben’s own words.

“Almost two weeks from today, July 27th, will mark 10 years to the day that I met Taleigha Lugenia Victoria Elizabeth Clayton, now Frederick. We bonded quickly, that day, over a shared love of science fiction — particularly the X-Files — and through the hope that had been reignited in our hearts by a young senator from Illinois. We hadn’t planned for more than lunch, but decided to see the brand new X-Files movie released two days prior. It was an absolutely terrible movie, made better with great company.

The moment I first walked into her apartment, a week later, and was greeted affectionately — like an old friend — by her “shy, aloof” cat Mayo, I think we both knew that we had found in each other a partner who complimented our best selves.

Taleigha told me that night about her brain tumor. She wanted to make sure I was okay dating someone (it had been a week and, yes, we were dating) who had fought through such a dramatic battle against cancer. My reaction was to hug her tight, and to give her the first of many thousand kisses I would give her over the years. It was truly the beginning of our life together.

Five months later, we celebrated with friends as that young senator was elected as the first African American President of the United States. A month later, she had moved in with me — my new roommate. We knew we were far more and that we would be together the rest of our lives. Six months later our family unit would become complete when our beloved cat Mara joined, at Taleigha’s urging. We would later mourn that completeness, as we both wanted a family together — more than even the cats could provide.

From a proposal on the beach in Florida, to moving into our new home — not “Ben’s Condo” anymore but “our home” — to a wedding at the heart of this very city surrounded by many of the same friends and family here today.

And for a time, things were good. We traveled, dined, fought, saw concerts, and enjoyed each other’s company and the company of friends. Our love grew in the light of our young hopes and dreams. We talked about starting a family.

But cancer is a thief, and a villain. When her diagnosis came back, 5 years, ago she told me “I love you” and, quoting Doctor Who, “I don’t want to go.” For five years, we fought tooth and nail against this villain. During that time, we still traveled, dined, fought, saw concerts, and enjoyed each other’s company and the company of friends. We grew our love in a darkness that I truly hope no one here ever experiences.

And during that time, I powerlessly watched as the beautiful, eloquent and talented woman I fell in love with had nearly everything stolen from her. It took her career of helping others, it took her dexterity and the the wondrous piano music she played, it took her grace with words, it took her independence when it took her ability to drive, it took her hair (that she was so proud of), it took her memories. It took her ability to walk, to feed herself, to speak all but the easiest of phrases and words. And then it took her away from me. The only things she had at the end were her sense of humor and her capacity to love. Her last day on this Earth, she laughed softly at some silly joke I made and she told me “I love you.”

Taleigha’s favorite author was CS Lewis. She left me a little gift, as she had a passage bookmarked in his journal, A Grief Observed. In it, Lewis wrote of remembering his own wife as the person she was, not the picture of the person constructed in his mind. There is a tendency in all of us to remember departed loved ones as their ideal. Taleigha was very loving, but she could hold a grudge and be extremely stubborn — the Gumm in her, as she would say. She was kind, but she could be bossy and demanding. She was courageous, strong, and brave, but she had many many fears, especially of spiders!

We all love Taleigha, but not because she was perfect. She wouldn’t want to be remembered as perfect. She was flawed — as we all are — and we love her because of those flaws that made her human and because of the wonderful qualities she exemplified everyday, qualities that we could strive to achieve.

A friend, in offering me a small amount of comfort — call it a Quantum of Solace, for she loved James Bond too — reminded me of a quote from one of Taleigha’s other favorite works: Harry Potter. He hadn’t realized it was a favorite of hers, so I think of it as providence.

“Love as powerful as her’s for you leaves its own mark. To have loved and been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

My love to all of you. Thank you.”

We love you, Bennie!

Today’s post is by my son, Brad Ton. On Father’s Day this year, Brad was asked to share his thought with the congregation at First Baptist Church (the church he grew up in) about his experience with First Baptist Athletics. For those not familiar with FBA, it is a youth sports program developed by First Baptist as community outreach fifty years ago this year. Both my sons, Brad and his older brother Jeremy, participated in baseball, soccer and basketball…and yes, for most of those 15 years, I was coach. 

Good Morning!  It is my honor and privilege to be with you this morning, on this Father’s Day, to share with you my experiences with First Baptist Athletics.

It dawned on me as I was preparing my remarks for this morning that today marks 17 years to the day, June 17th, that my Grandfather, Gene Ton, baptized me here at First Baptist Church.  

family, baseball, FBA

Brad circa a million years ago

Some of you may know me and some of you may not.  I grew up in this church and in the FBA program. As a kid I had the opportunity to participate in sports such as soccer, baseball and of course…basketball.  Throughout my childhood experience at First Baptist Athletics, I learned a lot of valuable lessons.

The importance of working with a team, how to be a good sport (win or lose) and quite possibly the most important lesson of all: as soon as you step foot on the basketball court…you’re open.  Hey, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

As a kid, I was lucky.  My Dad was my coach. Countless evening practices and Saturday morning games, my Dad was there.  Some say it can be hard being the “coach’s son”, but it never was for us. He always treated me just like everyone else on the team.  There was no extra special praise and I most certainly was not given a pass where others were not. The importance of those lessons has always stuck with me. It was our time together and I truly appreciate all of the time and energy he put in to making it so special.  20 some years later, I can officially relate!

A kid growing up in the First Baptist Athletics program is a lucky one.  I’d be remiss not to mention George Robinson who was the FBA Athletic Director throughout my time in the program.  Looking back, I’m not quite sure how George had the patience and wherewithal to handle hundreds of EXTREMELY energetic, sugar-filled youngsters every weekend.  But somehow, he did and he did it amazingly. I’m extremely grateful for his guidance throughout my youth.

Fast forward SEVERAL years later and our son Jordan was getting to the age where it was time to play ball! There was no doubt in my mind where I wanted him to play.  Thankfully, my wife fully endorses my itch for nostalgia. We immediately signed him up for First Baptist Athletics T-Ball. Initially, I wasn’t going to coach. I had just stared a new job, I was involved in some other things and the timing just was not right.  Then I got an email from FBA Athletic Director Steve Carr, that said the 4 Year Old T-Ball League is still in need of coaches…… I forwarded to my wife, Holly, who said “well… there you go!” It was meant to be.

family, baseball, FBA

Jordan, Brad & Grandpa 2018

Coaching my son Jordan this season is one of the greatest things I have ever done.  He probably would not tell you the same thing today, but that’s okay. Even when the hot summer sun has him tired and rolling in the dirt during the 2nd inning, I know…in that moment…we are truly…truly bonding.  Really though, seeing the smile on his face, interacting with other kids and learning how to be part of a team in the FBA environment has been remarkable.  As a parent, you want your child to learn the lessons of life that they need to properly grow and mature…but…could you also stay wrapped up in this bubble while you do that please??  No, FBA is not a bubble. Trust me, those baseballs can leave a mark if you aren’t paying attention! It is a place where kids are free to succeed. Where they are free to fail. And where they have a tremendous opportunity to learn from both.  

We chose to participle in First Baptist Athletics because, quite honestly, in today’s world, the environment created here is rare.  It is truly about having fun. Every kid, regardless of skill, size, ability, background, every kid gets a chance to play and learn.  I’ve seen some amazing things take place on the fields and courts at First Baptist Athletics. And it is all due to fun and safe environment that has been created and sustained here.  I’m extremely proud to play a small part in continuing the success of the program that has brought me and my family so much joy.

Thank you and Happy Father’s Day.

Brad Ton, June 17, 2018 delivered to First Baptist Church

 

Friends, Music, Life

 

“What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening!”

About the time the Original Cast album of Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970, I was moving from the small farming community of Lebanon, Indiana to Evansville, the third or fourth largest city in Indiana. Little did I know the opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber would be the soundtrack for much of my teenage life and become the impetus for a spiritual journey that has lasted for decades.

The life we lived in Lebanon was idyllic; small town USA. Dad was the minister for the Baptist Church, a community leader, incredibly respected. In the minds and hearts of many he was right up there with The Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and the Pope. I whine a lot about being a PK (preacher’s kid), but truth be told, I was extremely proud to be my father’s son (and still am!).

I never saw myself as one of the popular kids, but, I did have a lot of friends. We had grown up together either at Central Elementary, at First Baptist Church or both. We played Little League baseball together, we played sandlot ball together, we were in Scouts together; Jeff, Tim, Randy, David, Jeff (Jeff was a very popular name), Charlie, Lisa, Betsy, Jill, Susan…and, many, many more.  

In the spring of 1970, we were promoted out of the sixth and into the seventh grade…Junior High School! Filled with pride, excitement and just a touch of anxiety! We said our goodbyes and went on summer break and vacations vowing to that we would all stay close friends in the much larger Junior High.

It was during this summer of 1970, our parents announced we were moving to Evansville. God was calling dad to a new congregation, in a much larger city, away from all our friends, away from the life we new. But, how could you argue with God’s call? We were going to move in October. For me, this meant six weeks at the Lebanon Junior High School, a chance to say goodbye to all my friends.

For me, this meant a return to elementary school. Yes, Evansville schools at the time were K through 8, and High School was 9 through 12. So, after achieving one of life’s greatest rewards of going to Junior High, I would be back in elementary school. Devastated does not begin to describe it.

For me, this meant having to try out for the baseball team, instead of “graduating” from Little League to American Legion ball where all the coaches knew me and my abilities. It meant, not being good enough to be “drafted” for the league and having to play in an instructional league that was one step above sandlot.

For me, this meant joining a Scout troop with twenty kids I did not know. Twenty kids who did not take scouting as seriously as my friends and I had. They didn’t wear a proper uniform or even try to progress through the ranks. Me, in my fully pressed and immaculate uniform, with my sash filled with merit badges, and my rank of Life Scout stuck out like a new kid never wants to do. Heck, most these kids even smoked on camping trips (OK, I was a little naive and sheltered).  

The first day in my new school, my new elementary school came. The principal took me to my new home room. 25 kids who had grown up together. 25 kids who had already been in school six weeks. 25 kids who started at the new kid as the principal introduced me to the teacher. The teacher who stood me up in front of the class and asked “who can show Jeff around the school and introduce him to everyone?” 25 kids whose 50 hands were glued to their desktops and whose eyes refused to make eye contact. Finally, a hand raises and I hear voice say, “I’ll show him around.” (Thank you to Hal Bloss for being my first friend in Evansville! (and one of the longest lasting))

One of the people Hal introduced me to that day was Charlie Hagan. In 1970, I was just beginning to discover music, the Monkees, the Beatles, the Partridge Family (yes, I confess). Charlie and I began to explore music together. (He even let me listen to his album by the Rolling Stones!). Together we dreamed of becoming rock stars, even dressing like them…bell bottoms, puffy-sleeved shirts in wild colors, clothes patched with American Flag cloth, chokers…you get the picture.

I was learning to play guitar, Charlie the drums. Together with Jimmie Gains and Jeff Wilhite, we formed a band called the E’ville Spirits, though I don’t think we ever played a note together, Charlie and I would jam for hours on end.

We started writing songs together, Hagan ‘n Ton, destined to be the next Lennon & McCartney or Jagger & Richards. Honestly, we wrote very little music, we wrote lyrics and dreamed. We designed album covers and we even played for a school assembly. To this day, I can remember Hal being our biggest fan. “I know you guys are going to do it”, he would say.

A couple years passed and now it was time to go to high school. Charlie and I had written at least five “albums” of song lyrics by then. But, life was about ready to change again. Charlie’s family were devout Catholics. Charlie would be going to one of the Catholic High Schools. Ugh! Well, we could still get together on weekends to “rehearse”! Then, more news came. Charlie was an accomplished dancer, performing in multiple productions. Over the summer, he had been accepted into a boarding school in Illinois. It seems the boarding school focused on dance as well as academics.

Before he left for school, Charlie had one last gift for me. As we were saying our goodbyes, each trying desperately not to cry, he reached into a box and gave me his well worn and scratched copy of an opera, really, an opera!??! Yeah, I knew that Tommy by the Who was a rock opera, but this one wasn’t about a pinball wizard…of course, it was Jesus Christ Superstar.

I had heard parts of it coming from my older brother’s room and liked it but I had never really listened to it, never really heard the words, never really felt the impact…until then. I listened to it over and over and over again, I memorized the words, I learned some of the music. This was controversial…at a time in this teenagers life when he was starting to question authority and status quo. It was mesmerizing.

The story of the week leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, told from the perspective of his betrayer and his friend, Judas. It was a story of Christ’s humanity. For me, it was the first picture of Jesus as a man. It was the first time he felt real, instead of a character in a bible story. The Opera was met with protest when it was first written, In fact, Rice and Webber could not find anyone who would produce the play. Instead, they turned to the record company who had produced “Tommy” for the Who and released it as a concept album.

When the play was produced, it was met with picketers at the theatre. Christians felt it depicted Jesus as too human. The Jewish community felt it portrayed them as the assassins who killed him. It was a multi-faceted story. Yes, it was set in the year 30 AD, but it was as much about the political unrest of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Prophetically, it even serves as a picture of the political climate in 2018.

Perhaps the biggest outcry then as of now, is the ending. The story ends with the crucifixion. I have to admit, it bugged me too back then (however, I will say, the ending to NBC’s production on Easter Sunday 2018 was awe inspiring). But, back in 1972 and 73, it felt incomplete. I was starting to enter my “Jesus Freak” phase, listening to Godspell, Larry Norman, and Phil Keaggy. In 1973, the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar hit the theatres. Our entire church youth group went to a screening.

In the movie, there is a moment, a moment that stopped time. It was at the end of the scene for the song Trial Before Pilate. You know the one? The one with the 39 lashes. That scene. The actor who had just flogged Jesus 39 times. Stops. Panting. And stares quizzically at Jesus. THAT scene. That quizzical look. What was he thinking? What was he feeling. I began, what was to become a lifelong obsession with research and learning.  I had to know more.

I was soon to learn about Ius Gladii, the right of the sword. Dating back to roman times. It was the right to issue punishment (including flogging and crucifixion) for crimes. I read descriptions of the whip, medical accounts of the flogging and of the crucifixion. I had to write the ending, the “proper” ending.

What started as a simple poem “Ius Gladii – The Right of the Sword” grew into a full rock opera, title “He Has Risen” The story of Christ from the burial to the ascension.  I still remember snippets. From Ius Gladii:

When you stood staring quizzically
At my prophet King
What did you think of my lord then?
Was he different from the rest?

And from the title song, “He Has Risen”

He Has Risen
Just as he said
He Has Risen
Just as he said, he would

I can still hear the melody in my head when I type those words.

I would spend the next two years honing the lyrics, studying music theory and composition to be able to write the orchestration, and working with the late Mark X. Hatfield to turn my music scores into reality and bring the words to life. Alas, Mark was probably the only one that ever heard my rock opera. It, like the hundreds of songs (lyrics) I wrote in me teens and twenties, lost to time.

When it was time to enter college, I decided to study Music Theory and Composition. That decision was heavily influenced by composing (and I use that word loosely) my rock opera. While I learned very quickly one had to have talent (and play an instrument…rock guitar did not count) and changed my major, I continued to write song lyrics and poetry well into my 30’s.

I won’t be as bold as to say Jesus Christ Superstar saved my life, but to an awkward, pimple-faced, shy teenager it was magic and I can say, it forever changed his life!

Friends, Music, Life

 

“What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening!”

About the time the Original Cast album of Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970, I was moving from the small farming community of Lebanon, Indiana to Evansville, the third or fourth largest city in Indiana. Little did I know the opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber would be the soundtrack for much of my teenage life and become the impetus for a spiritual journey that has lasted for decades.

The life we lived in Lebanon was idyllic; small town USA. Dad was the minister for the Baptist Church, a community leader, incredibly respected. In the minds and hearts of many he was right up there with The Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and the Pope. I whine a lot about being a PK (preacher’s kid), but truth be told, I was extremely proud to be my father’s son (and still am!).

I never saw myself as one of the popular kids, but, I did have a lot of friends. We had grown up together either at Central Elementary, at First Baptist Church or both. We played Little League baseball together, we played sandlot ball together, we were in Scouts together; Jeff, Tim, Randy, David, Jeff (Jeff was a very popular name), Charlie, Lisa, Betsy, Jill, Susan…and, many, many more.  

In the spring of 1970, we were promoted out of the sixth and into the seventh grade…Junior High School! Filled with pride, excitement and just a touch of anxiety! We said our goodbyes and went on summer break and vacations vowing to that we would all stay close friends in the much larger Junior High.

It was during this summer of 1970, our parents announced we were moving to Evansville. God was calling dad to a new congregation, in a much larger city, away from all our friends, away from the life we new. But, how could you argue with God’s call? We were going to move in October. For me, this meant six weeks at the Lebanon Junior High School, a chance to say goodbye to all my friends.

For me, this meant a return to elementary school. Yes, Evansville schools at the time were K through 8, and High School was 9 through 12. So, after achieving one of life’s greatest rewards of going to Junior High, I would be back in elementary school. Devastated does not begin to describe it.

For me, this meant having to try out for the baseball team, instead of “graduating” from Little League to American Legion ball where all the coaches knew me and my abilities. It meant, not being good enough to be “drafted” for the league and having to play in an instructional league that was one step above sandlot.

For me, this meant joining a Scout troop with twenty kids I did not know. Twenty kids who did not take scouting as seriously as my friends and I had. They didn’t wear a proper uniform or even try to progress through the ranks. Me, in my fully pressed and immaculate uniform, with my sash filled with merit badges, and my rank of Life Scout stuck out like a new kid never wants to do. Heck, most these kids even smoked on camping trips (OK, I was a little naive and sheltered).  

The first day in my new school, my new elementary school came. The principal took me to my new home room. 25 kids who had grown up together. 25 kids who had already been in school six weeks. 25 kids who started at the new kid as the principal introduced me to the teacher. The teacher who stood me up in front of the class and asked “who can show Jeff around the school and introduce him to everyone?” 25 kids whose 50 hands were glued to their desktops and whose eyes refused to make eye contact. Finally, a hand raises and I hear voice say, “I’ll show him around.” (Thank you to Hal Bloss for being my first friend in Evansville! (and one of the longest lasting))

One of the people Hal introduced me to that day was Charlie Hagan. In 1970, I was just beginning to discover music, the Monkees, the Beatles, the Partridge Family (yes, I confess). Charlie and I began to explore music together. (He even let me listen to his album by the Rolling Stones!). Together we dreamed of becoming rock stars, even dressing like them…bell bottoms, puffy-sleeved shirts in wild colors, clothes patched with American Flag cloth, chokers…you get the picture.

I was learning to play guitar, Charlie the drums. Together with Jimmie Gains and Jeff Wilhite, we formed a band called the E’ville Spirits, though I don’t think we ever played a note together, Charlie and I would jam for hours on end.

We started writing songs together, Hagan ‘n Ton, destined to be the next Lennon & McCartney or Jagger & Richards. Honestly, we wrote very little music, we wrote lyrics and dreamed. We designed album covers and we even played for a school assembly. To this day, I can remember Hal being our biggest fan. “I know you guys are going to do it”, he would say.

A couple years passed and now it was time to go to high school. Charlie and I had written at least five “albums” of song lyrics by then. But, life was about ready to change again. Charlie’s family were devout Catholics. Charlie would be going to one of the Catholic High Schools. Ugh! Well, we could still get together on weekends to “rehearse”! Then, more news came. Charlie was an accomplished dancer, performing in multiple productions. Over the summer, he had been accepted into a boarding school in Illinois. It seems the boarding school focused on dance as well as academics.

Before he left for school, Charlie had one last gift for me. As we were saying our goodbyes, each trying desperately not to cry, he reached into a box and gave me his well worn and scratched copy of an opera, really, an opera!??! Yeah, I knew that Tommy by the Who was a rock opera, but this one wasn’t about a pinball wizard…of course, it was Jesus Christ Superstar.

I had heard parts of it coming from my older brother’s room and liked it but I had never really listened to it, never really heard the words, never really felt the impact…until then. I listened to it over and over and over again, I memorized the words, I learned some of the music. This was controversial…at a time in this teenagers life when he was starting to question authority and status quo. It was mesmerizing.

The story of the week leading up to Christ’s crucifixion, told from the perspective of his betrayer and his friend, Judas. It was a story of Christ’s humanity. For me, it was the first picture of Jesus as a man. It was the first time he felt real, instead of a character in a bible story. The Opera was met with protest when it was first written, In fact, Rice and Webber could not find anyone who would produce the play. Instead, they turned to the record company who had produced “Tommy” for the Who and released it as a concept album.

When the play was produced, it was met with picketers at the theatre. Christians felt it depicted Jesus as too human. The Jewish community felt it portrayed them as the assassins who killed him. It was a multi-faceted story. Yes, it was set in the year 30 AD, but it was as much about the political unrest of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Prophetically, it even serves as a picture of the political climate in 2018.

Perhaps the biggest outcry then as of now, is the ending. The story ends with the crucifixion. I have to admit, it bugged me too back then (however, I will say, the ending to NBC’s production on Easter Sunday 2018 was awe inspiring). But, back in 1972 and 73, it felt incomplete. I was starting to enter my “Jesus Freak” phase, listening to Godspell, Larry Norman, and Phil Keaggy. In 1973, the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar hit the theatres. Our entire church youth group went to a screening.

In the movie, there is a moment, a moment that stopped time. It was at the end of the scene for the song Trial Before Pilate. You know the one? The one with the 39 lashes. That scene. The actor who had just flogged Jesus 39 times. Stops. Panting. And stares quizzically at Jesus. THAT scene. That quizzical look. What was he thinking? What was he feeling. I began, what was to become a lifelong obsession with research and learning.  I had to know more.

I was soon to learn about Ius Gladii, the right of the sword. Dating back to roman times. It was the right to issue punishment (including flogging and crucifixion) for crimes. I read descriptions of the whip, medical accounts of the flogging and of the crucifixion. I had to write the ending, the “proper” ending.

What started as a simple poem “Ius Gladii – The Right of the Sword” grew into a full rock opera, title “He Has Risen” The story of Christ from the burial to the ascension.  I still remember snippets. From Ius Gladii:

When you stood staring quizzically
At my prophet King
What did you think of my lord then?
Was he different from the rest?

And from the title song, “He Has Risen”

He Has Risen
Just as he said
He Has Risen
Just as he said, he would

I can still hear the melody in my head when I type those words.

I would spend the next two years honing the lyrics, studying music theory and composition to be able to write the orchestration, and working with the late Mark X. Hatfield to turn my music scores into reality and bring the words to life. Alas, Mark was probably the only one that ever heard my rock opera. It, like the hundreds of songs (lyrics) I wrote in me teens and twenties, lost to time.

When it was time to enter college, I decided to study Music Theory and Composition. That decision was heavily influenced by composing (and I use that word loosely) my rock opera. While I learned very quickly one had to have talent (and play an instrument…rock guitar did not count) and changed my major, I continued to write song lyrics and poetry well into my 30’s.

I won’t be as bold as to say Jesus Christ Superstar saved my life, but to an awkward, pimple-faced, shy teenager it was magic and I can say, it forever changed his life!

Sounds of SilenceThey were a last minute Christmas gift…tickets to see Art Garfunkel. In fact, they were so last minute our seats were in the very last row, a row with only two seats, tucked way in the back of Orchestra Left. The concert was a month after Christmas. As it turned out, timing could not have been worse…or perhaps timing could not have been better.

In the four plus years since Mom died, we have been on a journey.  Even before she died, Mom knew there was something not quite right with Dad, but didn’t know what. It would be almost three years to the day after her death that we finally had a name for it: Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia, bvFTD for short. Being on this journey with my father is an honor, but it has been (and will continue to be) the hardest journey of our lives..

The week leading up to the concert was a blur. We knew Dad was growing more frail by the day. His falls were starting to happen much more frequently. We knew his cognitive ability continued to decline, his ability to make basic decisions for his own comfort and safety (decisions like to wear a coat, hat and gloves when the temperature was below zero) was fading away. His need for more and more prompting to perform the most basic of the activities of daily living, such as getting dressed, or even eating, increased at an accelerating pace.

And then, the delusions. Somewhat rare in bvFTD cases, but then bvFTD is a rare form of dementia, and especially rare in someone so elderly. In the course of six weeks, Dad relayed several “stories” as fact: visits from mom (dead over four years); a shopping trip he never took; and, the adoption of three children just a few days prior. It was this story that triggered the nursing staff at his assisted-living facility to alert the administrators and the administrators to call a meeting with me (his Power of Attorney) and my wife, Carmen, his primary caregiver.

Time…time…it was time. Time to move Dad, yet again. This time he would be moving to Hickory Hall, otherwise known as the memory center. We all knew it was time, honestly, it was probably past time, however, this was a step I was hoping to never have to take…why couldn’t his body give out before his mind? I scheduled a call with my siblings to talk over the plan. At the advice of staff, we would tell him Wednesday morning, I would take him out of his apartment, Carmen would pack what things he could take, movers would come, and when the room was ready, he and I would take that dreaded walk to Hickory Hall.

It would be easier on Dad if he didn’t have time to think about it. For us on the other hand, we didn’t sleep for days…second guessing the decision…dreading the conversation…second guessing the decision…honestly, being a little pissed at God…second guessing the decision…

Wednesday. The Day. As the grey Indiana morning light began to dimly light our room, we realized the freezing rain predicted the night before was indeed here. School closings, traffic accidents, and meteorologists filled our morning news. After steeling ourselves for yet one more difficult conversation with Dad, the move was postponed a day. Another day (and night) to dwell on the upcoming conversation and the second guesses.

The move would now be Thursday. The day Carmen and I were to be going to dinner at our favorite restaurant and then enjoying the Art Garfunkel concert. My god, we were going to be exhausted. No way to get refunds at this late date. Wednesday evening we set out clothes for working through the move, and another set to wear to dinner and the concert.

The next morning was not much better, but at least the roads at least were clear. As I tried to get in a couple hours of work before our appointment at the retirement center, I noticed a car stopped in our driveway just outside the gate. Carmen donned her coat, hat and gloves to slip-slide her way down the gravel drive (hey, I said the roads were clear, our driveway, however, was still a sheet of ice). It turns out the woman had hit the ginormous pothole a couple blocks north of our house. Her front right tire was flat and the rim bent beyond recognition. She had called a tow truck.

Well, at least it was a distraction. Some time later, I saw another car pull into the opposite end of our U-shaped drive and navigate around to the gated side. After Carmen donned her coat, hat and gloves and made her way down the drive, we learned it was the woman’s husband. He collected her wheel covers from down the street, talked with her for a bit and then proceeded to back out the full length of the drive, running over one of the driveway markers in the process. Ugh!

Finally, the tow truck arrived…and parked in our yard (ugh!) while the tow driver changed the tire on the car. Two hours after first pulling into our drive, everyone was gone, leaving behind the two wheel covers the husband had retrieved.

The distraction gone, it was time to head across town. The conversation with Dad lasted about 30 minutes. He debated as he had in the past. The bitch about this disease is because the cognitive abilities and executive functioning are so degraded the afflicted person does not have the ability to understand they are sick. In the four or five years Dad has been battling this, only once has he acknowledged he has any sort of problem.

The way I describe the difference in this move and the one 18 months ago is this. 18 months ago I was very frustrated with Dad (me not yet understanding the disease). I was able to use that frustration to be stern with him as I told him he had to move. THIS time however, all I felt was heartbreak. It was all I could do to remain strong, yet compassionate; remain firm, yet empathetic. Hell, it was all I could do to keep from crying.

After the conversation, we helped Dad finish getting dressed and I took him down for his morning meds and to occupy him for the next five or six hours. Carmen had about two hours to get his belongings packed and the furniture marked before the staff would arrive to relocate what things he could take with him. Looking around the apartment, I had no idea how she was going to accomplish it. Who am I kidding? I had no idea how I was going to occupy Dad for six hours. I could take him to a museum, but he was so weak he would last about an hour. I could take him to a movie, but they don’t start for another two hours.

As we walked down the hall, I started talking about our beloved Indians. Dad and I had been going to baseball games together for several years. I have never been too sure if he is going “for me”, or I am going “for him”. At any rate, for four hours seven times a summer we hang out at the ballpark taking in a game. Watching players come and go. Laughing at the way the lines are laid. People watching. And talking of my baseball “career”. In Dad’s mind, I was an all star Little League catcher. Leading our team to the league championship. Orchestrating our big win on the final day of the season. (For you Scrooged fans, insert a joke here about the Courtship of Eddie’s Father). Reality was far different. While I loved the game, I really sucked as a player. My role at the all-star game? Catcher? Outfielder? Pinch Hitter? Benchwarmer? Nope…I gave the Little League Pledge before the game, I hadn’t even made the team. So…maybe a silver lining in this dementia-thing (sorry, I have to joke or I would cry).

As we sat at the nurses station, Dad would tell everyone that would listen (and many that wouldn’t or couldn’t) that he was being put in prison today. He was moving to the memory center. My mind was still on how to pass the time. That was when Larry arrived. Larry is probably Dad’s oldest friend. The two had worked together for many years at a couple of different churches and organizations. Our two families were dear friends. Larry stayed with us throughout the morning. Shared lunch with us at the noon hour. And, sat in the library with us while we all talked, waited, and passed the time.

I kept up with Carmen’s progress via text messaging. After lunch I ran back up to the apartment to disconnect the television, DVD player and computer. I was amazed. I still don’t know how she did it, but everything was ready to go, even with the movers arriving 45 minutes early. The move began. Carmen now shifted from packing to un-packing. I headed back down to Dad (and Larry).

A couple hours later, it was time. The room was ready. We hugged Larry goodbye, and Dad and I made our way to the memory center. I don’t know what was going through Dad’s mind. What was going through mine were the images from 55 years ago of a scared little boy being dropped off at Kindergarten for the first time, not wanting to let go of his father’s hand; the images from 35 and 30 years ago of a young man dropping his own sons off at their first days of school…and, them pleading with me not to go.

Carmen had done a wonderful job of getting Dad’s room ready for him. Many of the things that he holds dear were placed around the room. Here and there I could see touches of my mom. I doubt Dad saw any of it that first day. One of the nurses took him by the hand to show him around the facility, while Carmen and I finished a few things. When Dad returned he wanted to lay down. We hugged him…kissed him…and said goodbye.

We spent the drive home recapping the day to each other. Exhausted, emotionally, physically, exhausted. We plopped down on the couch. We had about an hour before dinner. What we wouldn’t do for a power nap. Nope…brains on overload. Instead, we sent a quick update to the sibs, trying as much as possible to keep them in the loop.

We changed and headed out to dinner. Nothing could push the thoughts of Dad out of our minds. It dominated our dinner conversation. Even the French and Dirty martinis couldn’t take the edge off. We ate, taking a bit longer than planned, then rushed to the concert, arriving just a few minutes before show time. We made our way to our seats…very last row, a row with only two seats, tucked way in the back of Orchestra Left.

Neither of us had seen Garfunkel (nor Simon for that matter). The show was a combination of Art singing and telling stories from his sojourn across the United States years before. We loved the format. Art’s voice betrayed his age when he sang, the stories ranged from humorous, to touching, to downright strange.

As the opening strains of the first song, “The Boxer”, filled the hall, Carmen began to cry.

I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told…

…When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
In the company of strangers
In the quiet of the railway station…

…In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev’ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains…

*Lyrics: Paul Simon; Copyright Universal Music Publishing Group

As he talked and sang, we were barely holding it together. At one point he relayed a story of talking with his father. I wish now I could remember the quote. I have tried to find it online, but to no avail. Something about telling his father, “You were the author of your life, your story set the stage, so I could be the author of mine.” Something like that…I really wish I could remember. What I do remember, is both Carmen and I inhaled audibly when he said it.

Late in the second set, Garfunkel paused, looked at his notes and said, “Ah, the words that change the course of my life forever…”

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

Using another Scrooged reference, “Niagara Falls, Frankie.” I was now sobbing uncontrollably, my body convulsing….but still singing along….

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

To my right, Carmen was doing the same, tears streaming down our faces…

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

All the emotion from the past week came pouring out. I am sure the people in front of us thought we were nuts…

Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

Carmen dug tissue from her purse and by the end of the song, we had pulled ourselves together…

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

*Lyrics: Paul Simon; Copyright Universal Music Publishing Group

Maybe, perhaps, the very last row, a row with only two seats, tucked way in the back of Orchestra Left was exactly where we were supposed to be that night…sitting among the sounds of silence…  

The Land of Serendip

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, lived a King, his three Princes and his one Princess, and their wonderful spouses and families. When we last visited the Land of Serendip, the Princes received a visit from an Angel, we now return, 18 short months later…

The King of Serendip was about to embark upon another journey. The Prince of Whitetail issued a proclamation on the King’s behalf. “Hear ye, in the name of the King! Let it be known across the land, the time has come for the King to leave the Forest of Hawthorne and reside instead in the Village of Hickory. The Princess of Whitetail and I will see to it he has the necessary comforts for the journey and for the winter ahead.”

As the word spread throughout the kingdom, messages were delivered from the Prince of the Western Lands, the Prince of Raymond, and the Princess the Green Lakes. Each messenger brought words of support and the offer to travel to the Forest of Hawthorne if need be. The Prince of Whitetail sent them on their way with assurances there was no need for them to undertake such journeys.

The day of the King’s journey was soon upon them. The Prince took the King by the hand and led him from the Forest, while the Princess and her porters packed some of the King’s belongings to be sent on ahead to the Village of Hickory. The King was distressed, he did not want to leave the Forest. The Prince and the King halted at the shop of Maidens of Medicine for the King’s treatments and to ensure his room at the Village of Hickory was ready for his arrival.

The wait merely added to the Prince’s feeling of dread for the journey ahead. He tried valiantly to relieve the King’s distress, while the dread mounted within his soul. His mind was racing with thoughts of threads to pull. What was that sound? The sound of someone approaching. The Prince looked momentarily without recognition, but then…the veil fell from his eyes to reveal Sir Larry of Sayre! Why was he here outside the Forest of Hawthorne?  

Familiar with the journey ahead and being a long time friend of the King, and much older (and therefore somewhat wiser) than the Prince, he’d come from afar to provide the magic of listening ear to the King. As the sands in the hour glass slowly moved from top to bottom, he was there to share the burden of the Prince and Princess. Through his laugh, through his stories, through his heart of empathy and compassion, he was able to lessen the King’s distress and cause the Prince’s dread to nearly vanish.

As mid-day faded and the shadows lengthened, it was time. The much older (and somewhat wiser), Sir Larry of Sayre, with a tear in his eye, bid adieu to the King and Prince as they took the road toward the Village of Hickory to meet the Princess.

The King and Prince arrived at the Village of Hickory, where the Princess was just finishing up with the King’s room. She had done a wonderful job preparing the way and ensuring even the smallest detail was tended to for the King.

Thank you, Larry. Thank you for not asking, because the answer, as you knew, would have been “Nothing”. Thank you for knowing what was needed even when I did not. Thank you for being you. Thank you for being present. You gave us more than you will ever know…then again, maybe you do.

family, 60's

Copyright – Playboy

September marked the passing of a cultural icon. Love him, or despise him, Hugh Hefner almost single handedly changed American society…and the lives of many adolescent boys! His passing sparked the memory of my first encounter with his magazine.

I grew up in a small town. It was the 1960’s. Watch a rerun of “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and you get a pretty good idea of life in the 60’s in small town USA. Innocent. Simple.

I don’t think those pre-teen years could have been more stereotypical. My siblings and I walked to school and back every day. At school, I had a close group of friends. We’d been together since Kindergarten. One of the most vivid memories is of my best friend, Jeff and I bent over a transistor radio during recess as the Tigers won the ‘68 World Series, the Tigers themselves could not have been more excited as we celebrated by raising our arms above our heads, and racing across the playground, screaming with joy at the top of our lungs! Most of the memories have faded over the years, but the names and faces have not.

Every day after school, I delivered papers. All the paperboys (and girls) would gather at the newspaper office. We would spend a half hour or so folding our papers before loading them on our bikes and heading out to various parts of town. My route was several blocks south of our house. A lot of my friends lived along my path. I would buzz down the street on my bright yellow Stingray bike tossing papers toward front doors.

Baseball pretty much was IT. Yeah, there was football and basketball, but those were to merely pass the time until baseball. I played Little League baseball. My dad was usually my coach. However, most of our playing was sandlot ball…or water tower ball as we call it now. There was a small grassy area next to one of the town’s water towers. We spent days cleaning it up, hauling away trash (thanks to one of the dads for driving the pickup), and marking base paths. We spent hours and hours playing ball. Not enough kids to have teams?…home run derby was the game of choice.

Other than baseball, we spent the majority of the rest of the time playing some variation of “good guys/bad guys”. This could be Batman and Robin against the evil villains, Green Hornet and Kato, cops and robbers like Adam-12, or Combat. Our neighborhood was our “battlefield”. Our block was mostly residential. It was cut into four sections by two intersecting alleys. In the northwest quadrant was our house and the church where my dad preached. The northeast and southeast were all houses. The southwest quadrant, had an small apartment building, a Citgo gas station, a small, single story office building, and an insurance company. This quadrant was further dissected by a couple of “shortcuts” between the buildings. GREAT hiding places for bad guys and good guys alike! In fact our “Batcave” sat at the intersection of these shortcuts in a small outbuilding that held, of all things, the trash dumpsters for the office building.

It was during one of these neighborhood adventures that Roddy, one of the younger kids from down the street, and I found ourselves in need of a hideout. Not being incredibly creative, we chose the outbuilding. Inside, were two large cardboard boxes about the size of an oven. After checking to be sure they weren’t filled with trash that was “too disgusting”, we jumped in to hide. Within seconds, Roddy exclaimed, “Jeff, look at this!” In his hands was pristine issue of…PLAYBOY! Me, being older and wiser, after all, I was 10 and Roddy was just 7, I snagged the magazine from his hands. Within moments, we were staring at the Centerfold of Miss July 1968!

“Roddy,” I asked incredulously, “where did you find this?”

“Right here! Look, here is another one!”

Sure enough. We had discovered the motherload! The oven box was filled about a third full of dozens and dozens of the magazine! For a young kid who had just seen his first Playbook only seconds ago, this was a discovery of a lifetime! Holy Airbrush, Batman, this was an incredible find!

About that time my younger brother, Joel and his friend, Dale (also from down the street), showed up. For about the next 20 minutes, we dug through the magazines, each one of us in turn holding up another beauty! “Hey, look at her, she’s tough!” (For some reason “tough” was slang for “hot”) Trust me, we were not reading the articles!

Soon it dawned on us that we could not leave our goldmine where it was…we had to move it…but to where. Leaving Roddy to stand guard, the three of us began to scour the neighborhood for a good hiding place. Down the alley just past our house was a row of garages. A friend of my parents owned them and he used them to store antiques for his business. Mr. Carson rarely ventured into those garages. We tried the first door, locked. We tried the second door, locked. We got to the fifth door and the door opened. We lifted the door about two feet and peered inside. It was dark and musty…a perfect place! Our treasure would be safe here until we found a more permanent location.

We spent the next hour carefully moving armload after armload. We had to use all our skill and cunning to avoid discovery. We are on a mission! All those years of playing Good Guys/Bad Guys was really paying off. We took our last load, but before we closed the door, I snagged one of the magazines to hide in a hollow branch of the tree in the back yard. One can never be too careful.

As dinner time approached and we all needed to head home, we took the most solemn oath of all…the pinky swear…we would not breathe a word about our historic discovery. We planned to meet the next day to find a more suitable hiding place.

The next day we met behind our garage as planned. Before we discussed suitable hiding places, we went to gaze at our glorious find. We raised the door on the fifth garage…no magazines. Zippo…zero…zilch…thinking we miscounted the doors, we tried to open the other garages. All of the were locked except the fifth and seventh. No magazines. We were stunned. We’d been robbed! Who were we going to tell? I remembered the lone magazine stuffed in the tree branch. Quickly we ran to the yard and scaled the tree. I reached into the hollow branch…NOTHING. That one was gone as well!

How could this have happened? It didn’t seem possible that Mr. Carson had discovered them, especially since the one in the tree was missing as well. I smelled a rat! Someone had broken our sacred vow! Roddy had no siblings and his mom was a single mom (and honestly, we all thought she should be a centerfold!). I couldn’t imagine even if Roddy had told her that she would have pilfered our contraband, no, she would have called my parents.

I began to interrogate my brother. Had he told our older siblings? He swore not. Besides, I’d been with him all night after all, we did share a room. That left Dale. Dale, who had two older brothers. Dale, who had remained suspiciously quiet after the robbery had been discovered. Dale, who had three sets of eyes now trained on him. Of course, he vehemently denied any wrongdoing. After intense interrogation, he finally caved. He had told one of his brothers, but the brother had promised not to tell, he pleaded.

About that time my older brother came walking out of the house. “What’s the matter? Missing something?” The plot thickened! It seems Dale’s older brother had told my brother and sister. They had all had a good laugh as Dale’s brother told his story of stealing our cache of magazines. Not much we could do about it. We couldn’t tell on him. We certainly couldn’t retake our treasure using force, he could whip us all! We could do nothing but accept the fate!

It would be a long time before I found myself in possession of another one of Mr. Hefner’s magazines. Ten-year old preacher’s kids just don’t have many opportunities like the one that was ripped from our grasp! The sixties were drawing to a close. The innocence of those days is long past. I can’t help but wonder, if Hugh Hefner was launching a business today, what societal norm would he help to change?

July 19, 2017: The day the music died.

July 19th the world lost Mark X. Hatfield, and, yes, on July 19th…the music died.

Mark X. Hatfield - The day the music died...

Mark X. Hatfield (Photo from Mark’s Facebook page)

Mark as an organist. A church organist. He brought his gift to thousands around the world. Words cannot describe the majesty of his music. I urge you to listen to some of his performances on YouTube.

If Mark had played rock ‘n roll, he would have been known as a “keyboardist”. With no disrespect to Elton John, Billy Joel or the late Keith Emerson, that label diminishes the enormous talent God had given Mark. Whenever Mark played the organ, the congregation would come early to hear the prelude. After the service, they would sit in the pews until the last notes of the postlude echoed throughout the sanctuary.

Mark was an organist. A church organist…and so much more. Mark came to our church in the early 70’s to be the organist. When the Minister of Music left, Mark took over those duties as well and truly began his ministry. The music became an integral part of the service. He would work with my dad (the minister) to really understand the message he wanted to convey on Sunday and deeply tie the music to that message.

Mark brought a bright sense of humor with him as well. Member of the choir having a birthday? Aren’t those notes of “Happy Birthday” subtly being played underneath the melody of the offertory? “The Bringing of the Tithes” Sunday in November? I swear I hear the tones of “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof!

As Mark expanded his ministry, he resurrected the youth choir and started a youth handbell choir. The bell choir became known across the state. We were a ROCKING bell choir. I don’t mean we played rock music (other than Tubular Bells, I can’t imagine bells in rock music), I mean we ROCKED it! He was able to take us all as a group further than we ever imagined. The complexities of some of the pieces we played required some of us to play four, five, six and more bells in a given song. We were GOOD…because Mark taught us to accept nothing less than perfection.

The world will forever remember Mark for the music he made through his own fingers and feet and through the voices, hands, and instruments of those he led. Me? I will always remember Mark for what he did for me. As a young pimple-faced teenager of 17 or 18 he took me seriously. He took my dream of music seriously when few others did. All I ever wanted to do when I grew up was be a rock star.

During the 70’s I was deeply moved by the Broadway Rock Opera “Jesus Christ Superstar”. So moved, I wrote the sequel. After writing the lyrics to 20 or so songs and plinking out the melodies on guitar, I nervously shared it with Mark. To my amazement, he did not laugh. He did not make fun of me. What he did do, was spend hours and hours meeting me before Bell Choir practice and helping me write the music. When Mark took my melodies and played them, it was magical. He made those silly little songs sound REAL!

As I prepared to graduate high school, I turned my attention to college. I enrolled at Indiana State to major in Music Theory & Composition. I submitted my rock opera as part of my portfolio of work. About six weeks before school was to start I learned that even in Music Theory & Composition one must declare an instrument…oh, and rock guitar did not count (uh, nor did classical guitar). I was crushed! But, there was Mark.

Mark found an accelerated piano curriculum for adults and for the next six weeks we met several evenings a week. Mark taught me to play. He taught me to play well enough to actually audition…and to pass. I was given provisional acceptance into the school of Music.

For a variety of reasons (mostly because I had no talent) my career in rock and roll never materialized. What was born in me through Mark was a lifelong love of music, a dedication to lifelong learning and the dare to dream. Last summer, Carmen and I, along with our friends Hal and Beth Bloss, had a chance to reconnect with Mark for lunch. With tears swelling in my eyes, I was able to tell him what he meant to that pimple-faced teenager and what he means to a somewhat older and grayer grandfather today.

Mark, you will be missed deeply.  Your music will live on in the ears of all who heard it, your love will live on in the hearts of all of us who felt it!

 

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Divine Coincidence Divine Coincidence, the term an old friend of mine (thanks Melva) uses to describe those moments in life when the unexpected happens in an otherwise routine day. These might be moments of “small world-ness” (like flying to Paris, taking a train, bus, and taxi to an old castle, walking into the grand hall of the castle, and seeing someone you know from back home), or they might be moments of “serendipity” (like a dear friend buying a cabin and needing furniture at the same time you are downsizing your father’s house), and sometimes, on rare occasions when the universe aligns the stars, they are moments that takes your breath away.  This is one such tale.

Blogging is an interesting hobby. You write, you post, you hope your words resonate. I am thrilled when someone “likes” on a post and even more thrilled when they comment on a post. When I meet someone and they mention they read my musings, it touches a chord deep within my soul. (Buck, for someone reason Carly Simon is singing in my head, right now). And then… and then there is this story…

Carmen and I were in the midst of a large remodeling project on our rental house. Her mother and husband were scheduled to move in in a few short weeks. Carmen wanted to give her mom a special surprise…a garden window in the kitchen. She called a couple of local window companies and settled on Faerber’s Bee Windows.

On the day of the appointment, Bee Windows’s representative, a man in his fifties, arrived and introduced himself as Ty Swincher. They walked next to the rental house and now stood in the kitchen (or what used to be the kitchen before it was stripped to the wallboards and subfloor.) Ty re-read his paper work, looked at Carmen and hesitantly asked, “Mrs. Ton, by chance do you know a Jeff Ton?”

Carmen tiring of all the work and the endless stream of contractors, laughed, “You mean the guy that is paying for this? Yes, I know him, he’s my husband. Do you know him?”

Ty put down the paperwork and began to explain.

“A few months ago, we had a horrible mole problem in our yard.”

Carmen is smiling now, still not sure where this is going, but knowing we have been battling those little devils for years. Just the week prior, we had been talking to our friends John and Ruth Vess about “mole eradication techniques”. The maze of tunnels criss-crossing our yard flashed in her mind. She was about to warn him not to get his mole advice from me.

“Well, we seem to have gotten rid of the moles, but then our yard was just a maze of dead grass and humped trails where their tunnels had been. Someone told me the best way to repair the yard was to be sure to evenly water the entire yard. So, I went to Google and began to research sprinklers.”

By now, tears were beginning to form in the corners his eyes. “That was when I came across your husband’s blog about “The Sprinkler Head”. That post changed my life. I made my kids read it. It has changed our relationship. You see, I’ve learned recently that I have skin cancer. I will be going in for another surgery in a few weeks.”

In a flash, memories bombarded Carmen as she remembered the post about that old sprinkler head. Months before, as we packed my dad’s belongings and moved him to an apartment, she had repeatedly told me to be sure and claim some of dad’s tools. I would mumble something about having all the tools I need and then some. I didn’t need anymore tools, I insisted. But, she knew better. Her dad had passed away 22 years ago and she still clings tightly (and occasionally lets me use) the tools of his that she had managed to keep.

She knew my dad would never be able to use them again, and he, himself would be gone from us one day. She knew we would want them. I finally decided she was right. I selected a few things to save, among them was the old sprinkler head. It was the memory of her father and his own battle with cancer that now flooded her mind.

As Ty finished the story of his upcoming cancer surgery, both he and Carmen were now crying.

As they stood in the garage of the rental house, Ty declared,  “You know, I couldn’t figure out why they sent me out on this job. I don’t typically make sales calls. I’m one of their most senior Project Managers.” At that moment, they both knew the answer.

A few days later, I had a chance to meet Ty when he delivered the estimate for the window. He thanked me for the post as he retold the story. He and his wife were leaving in a couple weeks for a trip of a lifetime to Belize. His surgery would follow their trip. As we talked, I learned more of his background. Prior to joining Bee Window, he had been a sports reporter and columnist. His column had been syndicated and appeared in papers across the midwest.

I reached out to Ty this week to see how he was doing. Their trip to Belize was a magical as you might imagine, sunrises on the beach, hiking ancient ruins, swimming with nurse sharks and giant sea turtles. But the surgery has had to be postponed until June for a variety of reasons so he is still facing that with a bit of trepidation. 

Call it a serendipitous moment, call it a small world moment, or call it a Divine Coincidence, it’s a moment I will remember every time I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys, as the case may be), it is a moment I will never forget.  Ty, I am thankful my words touched your life, your story has profoundly impacted mine, thank you for sharing it with Carmen and me!

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