My College, My Church and My Cafes
My Greater Liberty Inner Sanctum
Life In The Footnotes
© 1996 by Ed Chasteen
Headline life is exciting. And exhausting. Footnote life is routine. And reassuring. Some names have been changed.
We were at church last night in our little town, our first Wednesday night dinner since our summer recess. We sat around some 20 small tables and caught up on one another’s lives as we ate. After we had eaten, our pastor called several grade school children forward to tell us what special thing they had done earlier in the week. On cue and in unison, they beamed: “We shook hands with the president.” Wearing red, white and blue, they had been with their teachers to the airport when Air Force One landed. The preacher asked the children if the president was taller than they thought he would be. They were all grinning so big they couldn’t answer.
The preacher announced the names of our half-dozen sick and asked that we call them. Each table parceled out names. I took Danny Drum and Dan Banks. Danny was in an accident; Dan was home again from the hospital after another treatment for chronic lung disease. As soon as I got home, I called them both. Jill said her dad was home but didn’t feel like talking. Martha said tomorrow would be a good time to visit her husband. When I call about 8:45 this morning, Martha says Dan is just getting up “It’s a little early,” she says. “It takes Dan a little while to get going.”
“That’s good. I’m gonna ride my bike, so it’ll be about 30 minutes before I get there.”
“Great, come on over.”
Just three blocks from home, I pass the Coleman’s house. The truck is in the driveway. The last two times I’ve been by, it’s been gone. I prop my bike against a tree in the front yard and ring the bell. Dan, Sr. opens the door.
“How’s Danny?” I ask.
“He’s sittin’ up. Able to drink some tea. Come in.”
We both take a seat on the couch. Dan holds an unlighted cigarette in his left hand; he’s barefoot and without a shirt.
“I’m so sorry, Dan. I was just a few minutes behind Danny. I didn’t see it happen. When I rode up, a bunch of riders were off their bikes, standing in the road. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘A bicycle hit by a motorcycle. The biker’s hurt bad.’ About 50 yards ahead I saw a police car and an ambulance. Several people were in the ditch, bent over the downed cyclist.
“We were held up for about an hour. A helicopter landed on the road and took the injured rider away. I didn’t know it was Danny until Connie called Monday morning. Is he gonna be okay?”
“The doctors say they’ve never seen anyone’s head crushed so bad and him still be alive. He’ll probably lose his left eye. His pelvis is broken. He can move his hands and feet. They thought they would have to do plastic surgery, but now they think his face may heal so they don’t have to. But it will take a long time.”
“What about his job?”
“He works at Ford. His job will be there when he’s able to go back.”
“Will insurance take care of this?”
Danny and his brother Roger had been two of the 2,700 riders in the MS 150. Roger had just turned to say something to Danny when he saw the collision about to happen.
“Danny was out to help somebody, and this is what happened. But that’s life,” says his dad as I get up to leave.
“Let me know if I can help,” I say.
Several years have passed since I was last at the Banks. I turn onto the wrong street and wander around their neighborhood for a while. When finally I am there and Martha comes to the door, I say, “Now I know why some people carry maps and ask directions. Sorry I’m late.”
“That’s okay. Dan is just getting up. Sit here in the kitchen. He’ll be in in a minute.” Martha had been talking to someone on the phone when I rang the bell. She returns to finish the conversation. A short time later she rolls Dan’s breathing machine into the kitchen.
“Can I help?”
“No, thanks. This is all routine by now. Dan will be right in.”
How ya doin’?” Dan booms as he enters.
“Better than you, it looks like.”
“I hope so.”
“Dan, I came because I know how easy it is to feel deserted when you’re sick. I want you to know you’re not. We can’t make you well, but we can be here for you. I promise you we will be.”
“I haven’t cried much in my life,” Dan says, “but I’ve been crying alot recently. It helps. I get so depressed. When I’m at the hospital with other guys who have the same problem, we try to make each other laugh. When one of us dies, we say, ‘Now he has new lungs.’ Then we just sit. We don’t know what to say to one another.
“When I come home, all I can do is sit in a chair. Martha and I have been invited back to the place we lived when our twins were born. The church is a hundred years old this weekend, and they want us to come. I hope I can make it.”
“Dan, when I heard Bruce had cancer, I had to go see him. I had to talk to him about things that matter. George Brett was chasing .400 that fall, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about. When I got to his hospital room, I asked everyone else to leave. I took Bruce’s hand. ‘Bruce, if I had just been told I have cancer, I’d be scared to death. I don’t know what to say, but I’m here to listen’.”
Bruce began to cry. He told me he was afraid. He squeezed my hand. We visited often when he left the hospital. We talked of dying. It was never a depressing conversation. I felt somehow liberated. For the first time in my life I was able to talk to another person about the thing we most feared. I think our talking lessened the fear for both of us.”
“When that doctor told me years ago, Dan, that I have MS, I complained so much that Bobbie finally told me I had to find someone to talk to. That’s why I volunteered to direct our Sunday School department. And for three years all of you let me pour out my fears and doubts to you. I thought after a time all of you would get tired and ask me to stop. But you didn’t. You couldn’t make me well, but you helped me find joy. And now I want to do that for you. The same way you did it for me. By being here to listen.”
Martha is up several times to answer the phone. We talk about our grown children and their lives. We talk about a mutual friend, the former president of our local college. Dan and Martha had gone to college with him in a distant state, then by some twist of fate wound up here with him. I thought he was one of the most elegant and eloquent men I ever met. Serving with him at our little college brought me joy. We all miss him.
Dan has counted out and one by one taken his many pills as we sit talking. “I have a question for you, Ed,” he says, as he looks at the pills. “How do each of these pills know where to go to do their job?” His eyes are twinkling. He doesn’t expect me to know.
After an hour we join hands around the table for prayer. “God, we don’t really know how to pray about this. But you know our hearts. Hear the prayer we don’t know how to say. Please. Amen!”
Emily’s question comes up as we talk. We remind ourselves that we have no past and no future. Only this moment. Dan mentions a writer whose name he has forgotten who said that life is an isthmus connecting the land of was to the land of yet to come. Then, with a promise to return, I am gone.
Through town and to my bank I pedal. Bobbie has been gone now for five weeks to be with her sick mother in another state. We talk nightly by phone. She usually pays all the bills and keeps the checkbook. I’ve managed all that this month. Now I want to make sure that we have enough still in the bank to cover the last withdrawal I need to make before she comes back this Saturday evening. We do.
As I enter the bank, Joan hails me. Joan has sat at the desk just inside the door for years. She speaks to everybody. Today she wants to tell me about her recent weekend trip to Oklahoma, where she and her husband attended a surprise birthday party for a 75 year old Indian chief. When her vacation comes in a couple of weeks, Joan and her husband will drive to Canada so Joan can do genealogical research on her Indian ancestry. Already this summer, Joan has gone to several pow-wows, where she dances and celebrates her heritage.
“They’re going to open the county airport on October 18,” Joan tells me. “What do you hear from Ron and Brenda about their Country Crockery Inn?”
“I haven’t heard. Last time I talked to them, nothing had been decided. The appraiser still hadn’t decided how much the state would offer them.”
I had planned to spend a small part of the fifty dollars I just withdrew at a new restaurant on our town square. Joan’s questions prompts another destination. So past the recently abandoned post office I ride. Beginning about thirty years ago when the interstate cut our time to the city, new streets and houses have popped up all over our town, for the past few years like spring dandelions. Our post office is now in its third location, out near where the new fire station is planned. As I turn down a street that a month ago was a field, workmen are sitting in their trucks having lunch. An hour later I have arrived at the Country Crockery Inn, about a dozen hilly highway miles from town.
My usual table is free. Soon I’m downing my usual: iced tea and the biggest tenderloin sandwich I’ve found anywhere. With a thick slice of tomato, a thick slice of onion, a mound of lettuce, pickles and meat that sticks out of the big bun on all sides and a plateful of potato chips, I busy myself with rural ambrosia.
When I have finished my sandwich and several glasses of tea and everyone else has left, I’m still sitting. Ron or Brenda should stroll through sooner or later and I can ask about the airport and the future of this place. Even before we rented the whole restaurant for our community party last Christmas, Ron had told me that the airport would buy them out. “In the flight pattern,” they were told. They will relocate on the outskirts of a nearby town if all the involved levels of government ever agree on what to do about them.
When I have almost decided to leave, Brenda walks through. The airport will open next month, she says. Still no decision, but she is afraid to be here when the planes are landing over them. They will cut their hours and close after lunch. Maybe by Christmas she thinks they will know something.
By a country road when I leave I make my way back to our town. When I’m a few blocks from home, a small car with a bike on the back passes me. I see a small hand fluttering from the cracked glass on the driver’s side. I return the wave.
For only the second time since Bobbie has been gone I go to check the tomatoes and okra she had planted. The okra should have been picked weeks ago; it’s now over six inches long and too tough to eat. But only three ripe tomatoes do I see. While I’m wondering, I hear Margret’s garage door coming up. She drives up next door and alights from her car. “Hey, Ed, tell Bobbie I got her tomatoes. I canned them. When she comes back, I’ll bring some over.”
Kitty Kallen sang the praises of the footnote life in her 1950’s hit, “Little Things Mean Alot”. Maybe she could have said yes to Emily’s question.