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The Day Jack Benny Died

By Don Kenton Henry

JACK BENNY 2

“Who would have thought a tale of star crossed love which began with the death of a celebrity … would reach its near conclusion with his own.”

The hearse made its way onto the gravel road and into Weston Cemetery. I followed in the first car behind along with my mother and dad, fiancée, aunt and uncle. Sitting next to the front seat passenger window, I looked out at the November sky. It was gray and lined with pale streaks of pink and blue – like the inside of a Wabash River muscle shell – the kind I’d find as a boy digging my toes into its muddy river bottom. Good colors for a funeral sky. Relatively unfamiliar with the death of loved ones, it was difficult for me to fathom I could be attending the farewell to a man with whom I shared the most intimate of conversations less than one week ago. It took place at the Rainbow Lodge, out along the banks of the Eel River, near Greencastle, Susan’s (my fiancée’s) hometown. It was the occasion of our wedding announcement and all the families on both sides were in attendance. It was a day long anticipated by all, and welcomed by most. I was named by my mother, Jessie, after my great-uncle, who died at the age of forty in a plane accident. He was admired by all the family and, after the death of his grandfather, had become something of the patriarch of the family. Though my mother was only six when he died, and remembered little of him (other than the many stories told) – she knew how much he meant to her father, Preston’s oldest brother. And so she named me Preston. All toasts had been made and the celebratory pats on the back tendered when the family retreated to a bonfire, down by the river. There they seated themselves about on various benches, logs cut for this purpose and tree stumps. The last of fall’s red leaves clung desperately to the branches overhead like the hands of little papooses clutching their mother’s arms. A slight wind did little to mask the sound of water cascading over rapids illuminated by a half moon. I was struck by the contrast between the table nature set for my eyes and the sight of Susan going over her wedding list on a picnic table with my Aunt Mari. It was then I felt another hand on my shoulder, from behind. This one lingered and I turned to see it belonged to my grandfather. This was my mom’s dad and, like my mom, I just called him … “Pops”. “Hey, Pops … What’s up?” I said. His intense focus on my eyes did not go unnoticed, as he asked, “How ya doin’, kid?” “Great, Pops! Wouldn’t you be if you were marrying a girl like that?” I said, as I nodded in her direction. Her long blond hair radiated in the moonlight; her cheerleader form accentuated by her designer jeans–an image made postcard perfect by the waist length Hudson Bay’s candy-striped jacket she sported. “She’s a pretty one … that’s for sure.” I had gone with Susan through three years of undergrad at Indiana University in Bloomington. After the wedding, we would finish my senior year and remain there, where I, like my namesake, would attend law school. Who knew where we’d end up after that. Susan just knew I’d finish up at the top of my class and she had us off to Los Angeles or New York City where I was certain to have been offered a job with some fancy, big name law firm. Pops had become very direct in his senior years. “Follow me, kid”, he said. “It’s time you and I had a talk.” He walked around me and headed up the bank of the river, toward the lodge. His orange spotted English Setter, King Henry – who went with him everywhere – trotted behind. I followed the two of them, turning back to look at Susan. She didn’t notice I was leaving, but mom did. I just looked at her and shrugged my shoulders. We went into the banquet hall where we had feasted earlier. The cold night air we left behind was replaced by air warmed by the fire still burning in the huge field stone fireplace. The fireplace was at far end of the long hall, a room which held the musky smell of the old logs which lined its walls. The scent mixed with that of burning oak from the crackling fire. Pops took another log and put it on the fire while I took a seat on the warm hearth. King Henry settled in on the floor, his head resting on Pop’s boot where it was most every time Pops took a seat. Pops made a few statements and asked a few questions I perceived he deemed obligatory for such occasions. (A generous gesture coming from him.) Then he took a seat beside me and got down to it. “You really want to go to law school, kid … or is that your idea of what it will take to make Suzie happy?” “Susan, Pops. She prefers to be called, Susan.” “Seems more like a ‘Suzie’ to me. But what about law?” “Well sure … sure, Pops. Law provides a good living. And besides … our family has a great tradition of producing good lawyers, right?” “Ain’t that the truth”, he answered. “Why between your Great Aunt Mari and all your cousins, my nieces and nephews–that are in that profession–I feel as though I have the numerical equivalent of a Boston law firm on permanent retainer.” I laughed and told him, “as rowdy as you were in younger days, I guess that could come in pretty handy!” He looked down, lowered his voice and said, “Well, that was then, son. Now I’m just an old man trying to pass a little of what I’ve learned on to young buck like you.” He paused and neither of us said anything. I found myself wondering where this was going when finally he said, “Do you really think this ‘Susan, is right for you?” “First law school, now Susan. Do you really think I don’t know myself, Pops?” “That’s what I’m making sure of. Do you?” “Yeah, yeah – of course. Mom raised me with a strong sense of identity, just like you raised her. What makes you think I don’t know my own mind?” He looked at me as though sizing me up. His eyes moved from my boots, past my flannel shirt. Again, they made contact with my own eyes in an earnest and searching, almost disconcerting way. They were dark blue and it was difficult to tell the tan shards in a halo around his pupils from the fire’s flames which reflected in them. “I know this must sound like a cliché, coming from a grandfather, but it’s just that you remind me so much of myself when I was young. And when I look at you and Suzie, uh–Susan–what I see is a young man infatuated with a pretty girl all picture perfect, but not . . .” Then his voice trailed off. “All picture perfect but – but what, Pops? What is it you’re not saying? Is there something you don’t like about Susan? Just get it out!” “He drew a breath then said, “Kid, that girl is about as shallow as she is pretty.” “That’s a pretty harsh assessment, don’t you think, Pops?” “If you really think so – stop me. You don’t strike me as the kind of man that is going to be content with that for long. Three years of college, three years of homecomings, fraternity and sorority parties, is one thing, but when you settle in after a few years of marriage – that’s another. Days will end with you on your way home from an exhausting day at the firm and all you will have to look forward to is a recounting of her hours at the mall or time spent sipping chardonnay with her girlfriends. And heaven help you if you make it until the children you have are grown. At that point you’ll find yourself funding countless trips to the plastic surgeon, the next of which is certain to, ‘guarantee’ her happiness! Only to realize– too late–they have not yet perfected an implant for depth of character and intellect. The thing–and albeit others– from which passion–in guys like you–is born. Try settling for less than you really want and need and . . . that’s exactly what you’ll get.” Indignant, I started to respond, but something registered. Just enough that I paused and tripped over my retort. He closed the gap with the punctuation, “and if you do not acknowledge those things about yourself, son, then, no . . . no – you do not yet know yourself”. We locked eyes as I gathered my thoughts and contemplated my reply. Finally, I managed, “Is that what this is all about? Is that why you brought me in here?” “I brought you in here to tell you a story.” “Well, this is a heck of an introduction. What kind of story?” I asked, my voice rich in skepticism. “A story about the day Jack Benny died.” (You could have driven a John Deere combine through the pause that followed that line.) “Who is Jack Benny?” I asked. “A comedian. A very endearing comedian who was extremely popular with the public, presidents and popes – back when I was a boy.” “And just what in the hell does a comedian have to do with my wedding?” I asked imploringly. “I didn’t say the story had anything to do with Jack Benny, counselor. I said I came to tell you about the day–the day–Jack Benny died.” With that, I reached behind into my pocket and produced a flask. I removed the chrome covered cork from the bottle, extended it to him, and asked, “Would you like a pull on some of this brandy, grandpa?” He maintained his position at first – leaning forward, elbows on his knees and hands folded between them. “That kind of thing can be a liability in this family”, he said. “Then again, at this point, any addiction is bound to be short-lived. Give it here,” he said. He took it, put it to his lips, and took a hard swallow. I figured I might need it and followed suit. “Back when I was a very young man,” he began. “Yeah, once upon a time in America, Pops!” “I can still get a cuff across your teeth before you know it.” I had no doubt he could and might well so I let him continue. “I had a young and pretty girlfriend and, not unlike you and your Suzie, we had gone together quite awhile.” “You’re referring to my mom’s mom, right? Grandma Pam?” “Lord no! This was many mistakes before that one!” “Backed when dinosaurs roamed the planet?” I smiled. He glared back. “Somewhere around that time.” “Anyway”, he continued, “her name was, Judy. Hell . . . even sounds like Suzie, doesn’t it!” he said with a twisted grin. I didn’t bite on that and he continued. “She had the long, blond hair thing going and green eyes. Athletic, feminine body, the stereotypical profile for the cheerleader she was in junior high and member of the drill team in high school. Any way you cut it, she was easy on the eyes and made me the envy of my buddies.” “You’re not going to try and sell me on the idea that you had something against good looking girls are you, Pops?” “Not by a long shot. I’m sure you know better. The feminine body is God’s greatest work. But that was pretty well where it began and ended with Judy.” “So that’s the only reason you were with her? That’s all you saw in her?” “No. She was spirited. Loved the outdoors and ready for just about anything that was fast and dangerous – cars, horses, motorcycles. Me. One of the guys, so to speak, just a lot prettier.” “Well that sounds pretty good so far. What was missing,” I asked him. Those things were fine in high school. We started together when I was sixteen. But when I got into college, my interests expanded and went in directions no one who knew me would have predicted. Judy and I got married and she moved to Bloomington but did not attend college at first. She was happy to work at a clothing store in the mall. Finally, I talked her into going to college but she never really took to it. She wasn’t a stupid girl. She had done reasonably well in high school. That was in large part because she followed instructions and knew how to connect the dots. But she certainly wasn’t capable of anything profound.” “And you were?” “Certainly not in high school, but later – in college – I was always asking questions. One question always led to another with me. I was always pondering the imponderable. I’d come home from class and ask these questions of her. She’d just give me a blank stare. Judy couldn’t ponder the imponderable–because with her-–they really were imponderable! The questions never occurred to her in the first place. And the further I went in college, the greater the divide between us. Our divorce was final not long after the completion of my senior year.” I was checking my watch and getting a little anxious to rejoin Susan and the rest of the party. “So this is a story about ‘what not to look for in a woman,’ is that the moral?” “No, no, not at all. Exactly the opposite in fact.” I took another hit on the brandy and handed it his way, but Pops waived his hand and passed. He continued. “It was Christmas break during my second year of college, December of 1974. My dad, Don Henry, Sr., your great-grandfather, lived in McAllen, Texas. McAllen is pretty much at the tip of the Texas in what is known as the Rio Grand Valley. I don’t need to tell you what the weather is like around here in late December. Everyone, like yourself, starts itching for warmer weather and the sub-tropical climate of that valley started beckoning to myself and family. So, Judy and I, your Great-Aunt Mari and Great-Uncle Mark decided to pay a visit to see “Dad”. Grandma Henry lent us her station wagon as it was the only car which would comfortably hold the four of us. And so, about four or five days before Christmas, we headed for Texas. “We spent the first night in Little Rock and drove into Austin the next day. Austin is my favorite place. The weather was warm and perfect in every way. Much of our time was spent outside shopping at a street fair and market in front of the university. What they called, “The Drag”. AUSTIN THE DRAGThat day, like the entire trip, turned out to be one of the best times I ever spent together with my brother and sister, at once. “I can’t recall when we made it into McAllen. It was either late that night of that same day, or earlier the next. Regardless, we arrived what was probably a couple of days prior to Christmas. “Now, you probably heard, Dad had a drinking problem. He and Jim Beam were more than casual acquaintances. In fact–they had to be brothers! But he loved his kids, and when we showed up on rare visits, he somehow managed to stay straight the entire time, never conveying a sign he had a problem. And he cleaned up real well, obviously taking great pride in our visit and playing the wonderful host, making certain we had a good time. “And we did have a good time. We went shopping across the border and, beyond that, we just did the simple things you do as a family – about the only things you can do in what was a relatively small town back then. Which was how it should be during the holidays. Holidays should be spent in small towns with your family. “I guess everything was going so well that no one noticed, as the holiday approached, I became increasingly preoccupied. Normally, my talk, along with my father’s, dominated a room. But I grew quieter and quieter. Christmas Day arrived and, as to be expected, we all exchanged gifts and settled into a day and evening in front of the television watching bowl games, holiday specials and old Christmas movies. It was easy for me to not say anything as the programs played and kept everyone entertained. “The morning after Christmas arrived and, as usual, my dad was up before everyone preparing a huge breakfast. We awakened to the smell of eggs and bacon frying in the pan and pancakes stacked and waiting. This, along with fresh squeezed orange juice from the oranges we had picked ourselves the day before in a grove next to the house in which my Dad used to live. But I had little appetite. “As the day wore on, we began to think of things to do that evening. We decided it would be fun to walk the mall, looking for after Christmas bargains, followed by a movie. Later, before leaving, the early evening news came on and announced that Jack Benny had died.” “Finally!” I said, “Finally we get to the heart of this story.” “Yes. Yes . . . the heart,” Pops replied. “We watched footage of Benny’s life and career, the others commenting on this or that program, skit or segment for which they most remembered him. I remained silent for the most part. “We left, went to the mall and shopped as planned. We walked from store to store while waiting for the start time of the movie we decided to see. The Godfather II. “I really don’t remember much about it but, it must have been a good one because everyone else was commenting on this or that about it on the drive home. This in spite of the late hour. By now, my dad noticed my silence. Junior, you’re taking the death of Jack Benny awfully hard don’t you think? You haven’t said a word since this morning.” “Yeah, Dad . . . sure. Jack Benny was a great guy,” I replied and pretended to concentrate on my driving. New Year’s Day, we bid farewell to Dad and began the long drive back to Indiana. I remained disinclined to conversation and became somewhat irritable to Judy and my family on that return trip. I know they noticed, but I am certain they just attributed it to too much time together – especially in a car. Even another stop in Austin did little to change my mood. And the weather had changed to reflect it, a dark and cloudy overcast.” “All this because of Jack Benny’s death,” I said. “C’mon – there’s more to this story than you’re telling.” He looked, “that look” in my eyes again and said, “No . . . No, I am telling . . . and that’s why you’re here.” “Excuse me, Pops, but before you get to the grand finale, I have to excuse myself.” “Don’t run off, boy”, he said. “You need to hear this.” I sensed his urgency and, as bored as I may have appeared, the import of what he was about to convey was not lost on me. I had no intention of running off. I returned after taking care of business to find him staring quietly at the floor. He had placed some more wood on the fire and it blazed behind him. “In our lives – if we are lucky – there comes one love to make us forget all who came before and to whom we compare all after. Mine had come four years prior to that trip I just described. I found her where we spent that Christmas. It was in “The Valley”, in that town, in a high school literature class my junior year. Her name was, Yvonne.” He paused and seemed to go somewhere distant. His eyes took on a far-away look and he was chose his words carefully. Later, I would realize he must have thought himself incapable of finding the words he needed to describe her. “I don’t know why it was my good fortune to be assigned the empty seat beside her. I don’t know why I deserved the privilege, considering the culpable and circuitous path I’d taken to arrive there. Considering anything for that matter! What right had Zhivago to Lara, except to find himself in the same room with her? “Huh?,” I said. He ignored me and continued, “I think the teacher introduced me to the class. I can’t remember for certain. But I know she invited me to tell the class a little about myself. Not yet seated and, in a class of and about words– gazing at Yvonne . . . I had none. I could not to break the transfixion I felt with that dark haired beauty across the aisle. She was like no girl I knew back home. There, we had German and Nordic Queens with eyes of ice. In the north we had none with long and raven hair or eyes black as night yet soft as a warm breeze off a southern sea. Her frame was long and slender and, even under the modest school girl dress she wore, I could see her body was a gift of nature meant only for young boys like me to gaze upon and dream of as they might beautiful planets in distant galaxies they would never travel to. Later I would learn it was sculpted by her love of dance. Finally, the teacher just told me to take my seat. The one next to Yvonne. My breath was taken that day and has never quite returned.” “Dang, Pops don’t put anymore wood on that fire cause it’s getting hot in here.” He didn’t crack a smile. He was lost somewhere. “I was shy back then, but even so somehow I got to know her, talking in class whenever we could get away with it – before and after in the hallway. “When did you ask her out?” I questioned. “I couldn’t,” he replied. “I lived six miles out of town and my dad wouldn’t let me drive the old Plymouth. It really belonged to his girlfriend, a woman that lived with us on occasion. Even had I access to a car decent enough for her to ride in, I am not certain I could have found the courage to ask her out. So in awe was I of her, my relationship was all of adoration and nothing of pursuit. Internally, worship warred with guilt. I knew I could forget the girl back home but was just as sure Yvonne would never have a real interest in an average boy like me. “Weeks and months passed. Life with my dad wasn’t easy. His drinking led to fights and moments of embarrassment when he would show up drunk to pick me up after school. I missed my mother, brothers and sister in ways I never thought possible when I had lived with them. “Eventually, early in the following semester, my mom got word that Finn’s Landing High School, back home, agreed with her to take me back. Arrangements were made for me to withdraw from McAllen High and fly home to Indiana. Mom told me my best friend, Mike, would be along to greet me at what was then Weir Cook Airport in Indianapolis. The night before I left, all I could think of was Yvonne. That and all the words I had so rehearsed but never had the courage to say to her. Leaving (which was something I had prayed for so long) so suddenly did not seem right. The timing seemed Shakespearean. I wondered, were the gods testing me? “I lived off a caliche road, bordered by an irrigation ditch on one side and the orange grove, I mentioned earlier, on the other. Unbeknownst to me, Yvonne and another friend, Mary, drove up and down that road that night looking for me and one last chance to say good-bye. In the dark they never found me. “Cursed fate,” I mumbled under my breath. The next morning, Dad got me up around four in the morning. My flight left very early, around six or six-thirty. At the airport, I said my good-byes to him and Nova, the girlfriend I affectionately referred to as, “Deuce”. I couldn’t help but notice the mist in his eyes. As much as he struggled in the effort, he so wanted to be a father. I took a deep breath and bordered the plane. Such was the hour of the morning and the size of the McAllen airport, I was about the only passenger on the plane. Perhaps, because of this, the flight attendants seated me toward the front near them. I heard the noises a ground crew makes in preparation for a plane’s departure and knew this meant we were preparing to taxi away from the gate. Just as an attendant was preparing to close it, there was something of a commotion at the main door through which we boarded. I could hear the pleading voices of what sounded like young girls. Then . . . there she was. Yvonne, accompanied by Mary, had somehow talked her way onto the plane. They rushed to greet me and I rose speechless from my seat. They looked like young angels coming from the darkness of that morning onto a plane they turned into a little piece of heaven. Yvonne was radiant. Her beauty was never so evident. She carried a card and, after the two of them took the seats in front of me, on their knees and facing me backwards toward me, gave it to me. Nervously, I opened it and read. “How could such a beautiful and perfect thing be happening to me just as I was preparing to leave. A million thoughts were racing through my mind at five times the speed of light. I looked at this woman-child and thought, to show up here at this hour, she must be feeling some of the same things I was feeling. Still, I could not find the courage to ask. A young, shy boy, there was a part of me that was so afraid I was flattering myself and, if I told her I loved her, she would laugh. Maybe tussle my hair or something. “I thought of my mother and how she would take it after working so hard to get my school at home to take me back. Lack of confidence in what I wanted to believe Yvonne was trying to tell me, coupled with the anxiety and fear of hurting my mother, caused me to freeze. “Even though I was oblivious to them at the time, I know the flight attendants clustered by the door were watching every second of our good-bye. Did they appreciate the gravity of the moment? Having let the girls on, I’m certain they must have. Were they watching, rooting for me to say, ‘I have to get off!’ I’m sure they did. But it was all too fast to listen to my heart. Rather–not to listen–but to answer. Reluctantly, the attendants called the girls to the door, gave them a hug and urged them through it. Waiving all the way, they disappeared. The door shut, I heard the distinct sound of the cabin pressurizing and I felt the vacuum created in my heart. I clutched and read that card the entire twelve hundred miles home. It’s words were innocent and few but a million were the things I read into them. I keep that card still. It’s in the trunk my mother gave me and I carted to military school and later to McAllen. The trunk lies in the big closet at home where I store my Christmas ornaments and a lifetime of photographs. I often wonder what would have happened if Yvonne and Mary had found me the night before I left. … If I had gotten off that plane. How would my life have changed? I might have raised a family of the handsomest tall children with eyes . . .” His voice trailed off again as he lowered his eyes to the floor. “You think, no–you know–you loved this girl and you never saw her again . . . you never told her?” I was incredulous at the thought of this. “I saw her several times afterward. And we wrote, quite often at first. I used to live for those letters. They came in beautiful blue envelopes. Like her card, I still have every one. Suffice, it to say, I never found the courage to ask if she felt the same toward me. If she did, she remained the lady she was raised to be did not allow herself to answer questions I was not man enough to ask. The last correspondence I received from her was her wedding invitation. “Little did my dad, Judy, Mari or Mark know I carried that invitation with me in my suitcase that Christmas in Texas. Little did they know it was her wedding that so occupied my mind that day after Christmas 1974. The day Jack Benny died. Yvonne was married that evening while I attended the movie with my family. “The thought of that wedding haunted me every mile of that trip to Texas. But even without Judy along, I could not have attended. That is one marriage through which I could not have held my peace. And no peace did my heart have for even one mile of the trip home.” “And, yet you held your peace for so long, ” I said to him. “This is the first I have heard of any of this.” “The sight of her being given to another would have killed me,” he resumed. “I could not have witnessed her marriage. The entire trip, until the end of the evening of the 26th, I had fantasies of crashing the wedding and, like Dustin Hoffman in ‘The Graduate’, taking the bride and escaping the church with her.” “Wow! That was a movie? I’ll have to start watching that old stuff!. . . How do you think that would have gone over if you’d actually tried that?” “Oh–her family would have strung me up for sure. Used me as a piñata.” “I take it Yvonne was Mexican-American?” “Yes.” “From what I’ve read, wouldn’t that have been something of a big deal back then – if you two had stayed together – married?” “To some people for sure. Particularly to our parent’s generation. Even to many of our own. But not to me. I knew beauty and goodness when I saw it and, when I looked at her, that’s all I saw. When it came to my brothers and sister, I knew it would be a non-issue, as it was with me. I knew my parents would come to feel the same. They might have blinked at first. Then, once they knew her, like me, they could only have loved her. The bigger problem probably would have been her family. Her mother was always very gracious to me. But good families like hers are steeped in tradition. Now . . . It matters not. “The point is – I had my chance. A person makes choices and there comes a point he has to live with them. I’ve been living with that poorest of choices ever since. Countless nights for all these years, my heart has awakened me to the words, ‘fool . . . fool – for having forsaken me.’” “Damn, you make your heart sound like a monument to lost love – ‘The Heart of the Unknown Lover’ – like an ‘Unknown Soldier” or something!” “Well, that’s a bit dramatic! My heart is no tomb. Most of it has been filled with the love of my mother, your mother–my daughter–and the rest of my family. But . . . there is a flame that burns there. “Once again that brings me to you. This story is really about you. Not about some old man who passed on someone he continues to believe was the love of his life. That’s the well deserved consequence of someone not true to himself. And that is what I’m talking to you about. What I am trying to save you from.” “First tell me–I have to know–did you never talk with Yvonne again? Surely, somehow you must have tried.” “Thirty-one years it took me. It was around two thousand and five. We had a slow but efficient means of communicating back then. Not at all like a message from an implanted telepathic enhancement device. It was something called, “electronic-mail”. Through it and another thing – called a website – former school mates were, for a fee, given the opportunity to re-connect. Through this means, I finally made contact with her.” “You did! Well after thirty-one years, that had to be great! What happened? Did you never get together? Surely by now you revealed your feelings to her.” “You have to realize, she was still married to the same man who took her hand that evening after Christmas in McAllen. I knew she would be – even before I found her. Girls like her marry for life and, unless there is some unfortunate event, you generally only get one chance. One time.” “Then what did happen?” “We corresponded . . . almost on a daily basis at first. In spite of my best efforts not to do so (as I knew I no longer had the right) I revealed my feelings to her. Cryptically at first, then more openly as time passed. In a discreet manner, becoming one like herself, she confirmed the feelings had been there – the ones I had so long hoped she had held for me. Finally, it just became apparent our continued communication wasn’t fair to either of us. It was torturing me to read the words I so wanted to hear in person, from a person I so wanted to reach out and hold … To kiss the woman I had never kissed–except within my mind–and that a million times!” “Pops! – You’re channeling Shakespeare for god’s sake!” “She was worthy of Shakespeare.” “You mean to tell me you never even kissed her?” I interjected, “That can’t be what I heard … you never kissed her? Not once?” His expression was one more of sadness than embarrassment. “Not once,” he said. “Anyway,” he continued, “I said what I had always wanted to say to her. It was time to respect the choices we had made as young people. It was time to move on and leave her in peace with her family. Oh, we still acknowledged holidays and each other’s birthdays for a few years afterward. Then, I guess we just learned to be content with fond memories and dreams of what might have been and the writing stopped. Believe me, if I were writing a story – that is not the ending I would write. In fact, I wrote one last letter to her, and it was story, really. I wrote it the old fashioned way – on paper! The way she and I first wrote each other over sixty years ago. But I never mailed it. It’s in a brown manila envelope in the bottom of that trunk. “Choices, son. . . . That’s what I’m here to talk with you about. I think God and nature give us only so many chances to do the right things for ourselves. They set it up and, if we are not true to the moment and ourselves, a person like the one they planned for us may never come again. Only so many chances to chose the one that’s meant for us.” “Are you saying love is only for the young, Pops?” “No, not at all. Hell no! Not by a long shot! Otherwise I wasted a lot of time at the rodeo long, after my bones were suited for it, hoping for the best ride of my life. But the greatest opportunities for love come when we are young. Before our hearts are over-ridden and burdened with thoughts of bills, careers, our children, dead-lines and physical infirmities.” “But you two weren’t just young, Pops. You were virtually children when you met! Do you really think a love that young could have turned into something truly lasting?” “The problem is,” he answered, “because of my failure to follow my heart . . . to listen to it . . . I’ll never know. The tragedy is not that I failed to have my true love, it is that I was untrue to love and now will never know what might have been. I am cursed to wonder. Romeo and Juliet were young but you never questioned their love while reading Shakespeare.” “Yeah. They were young all right. Real mature! So much so they killed themselves! How is that responsible?” “Mature? – No. Responsible–certainly not! But did you ever question their love for each other? . . . Never! “And now–for now–you are young. And I am asking you to question this love you have for Suzie. There are many that would tell me not to get involved – that we should not be having this conversation. But I look at you and I see myself sixty years ago – young, ambitious – so focused on your actions today you cannot see the consequences they bring tomorrow. And I don’t want you to live as I have – always looking back. And wondering. If you marry that girl, you will find your life captured by a ‘Classic Comic Book’! Don’t settle for a cliché! Be patient. Wait for the real thing. Wait for a masterpiece! She’s out there, just let your mind and heart be open to her when she comes along. You know Suzie isn’t right for you. You don’t need me to tell you that! If you thought differently, you’d have punched this old man in the mouth by now. Don’t respond to me. Don’t talk. Just stop and think for awhile.” I did start to protest. Then, as he requested, stopped and dwelled on all that he had said. By now the fire had died down and was mostly embers glowing red in the darkened room. It was quieter outside and I could not believe we had spoken for so long without interruption. Surely Susan would be checking on me shortly. “If you are right . . . if I decide that you are right – how do I get out of this? We are in it so far – the plans and everything. The dress . . . the cake. It’s a done deal. What do I say to her?” (There was that look in the eye again.) “You go to her door–and I mean–you go to her door and knock on it. None of that ‘i.t.d.’ing crap! And when she answers, you say–with the greatest sincerity–‘I’m here to save your life.’” “That’s it! I’m here to save your life! That’s it?! What am I going to say after that? Am I supposed to just walk away or what!” “Don’t worry about that. You may not have to say anything. Perhaps I’m giving her more credit than I should but she’ll probably have figured out your meaning before you can think of another thing to say. Just say, ‘I’m here to save your life’ and the rest will take care of itself.” “Pops, you have me totally confused. Totally and completely drained and confused me.” “Once again, I’ve said what I came to say. Now get back out there and say your thank-you’s and good-byes. I’m on my way home. I walked outside into the night air, much colder now. I could still hear voices coming from the site down by the river. At the top of the bank, I could see Susan talking with her girlfriends. That was good. It appeared she hadn’t even missed me.

Who would have thought we’d be burying that man a week later. All those words . . . and now . . . just silence. Life plays along to an unheard rhythm. We always kidded that his death would somehow involve pyrotechnics. We should have known the first time the story was told of that incident in his thirties when he poured five gallons of gas on a giant brush pile in his yard. His plan was to let it burn down, then roast hot dogs for all the guests at his party. Knocked him over and singed every hair on his head from twenty feet away! Almost burned the house and woods down! This time it was fatal. Eleven or twelve years ago, back when his King Henry was a pup, Pops was walking him along the creek that runs through his fifty acres. Some beavers had damned up the creek again and Pops was, once again, clearing it to let the water pass. On this particular day, the pup stumbled on a big fat beaver they came to refer to as “Snaggletooth”. They called him that because he was missing one of his two cutting teeth and the remaining one was chipped. That beaver must have had a harem supporting him because it didn’t seem he would be worth a hoot when it came to falling trees. But when King Henry poked his nose right in that beaver’s face, that missing tooth didn’t stop Snaggletooth from ripping a long and jagged gash in King Henry’s muzzle. Sixteen stitches later they left the vet’s office and Pops and King Henry made a pact that, one day, they would get that beaver back for what he did to “Henry”. Ever since, until last week, they had schemed and plotted, devised and tried, but had been unsuccessful in effecting the demise of that wily rodent. Sometimes I believe it was just being together and the sheer joy of the pursuit, more than the stated objective, they enjoyed. They tried innumerable traps, lures and “beaver calling” devices. (For the life of me, I still don’t know what sound a beaver makes. Pops never shared that secret with me. But–whatever–it was, Snaggletooth wasn’t falling for it.)

BEAVER 2 One night, in a moment of liquid campground inspiration and, to the total delight of myself and numerous cousins sharing the fire with him, he wired a beaver pelt to his old barn cat and rubbed beaver scent all over him. Supposedly it was the beaver equivalent of Chanel #5. The scent of a beaverette in season! (This was Pop’s description–not mine.) I don’t know what that cat thought of it all, but the sight of Pops carrying a fishing net following him around in the moonlight must have sucked all nine of his lives right out of him. We found him dead behind the barn not long after. Pops said he was the victim of a violent inter-species love triangle! (A classic “Pops” story if ever there was one.) Pops claimed he wanted to take Snaggletooth alive so that he could tell him to his face what a fine hat he was going to make of him. But . . . to no avail. (I can’t tell you how many young, less cunning, beaver Pops set free over the years.) He deemed a sniper shot from a long rifle – too easy. And poison–totally unsporting! And so, with the years passing and King Henry getting so old Pops thought he might never live to see the day they got their nemesis – Pops decided to ratchet the action up a notch. Who would have thought that dynamite his brother Mark had brought home from a construction job and given him, over twenty years ago, would still be good. I got the message from the Constable. Seems the explosion was so loud they heard it two miles away at Parson’s Feed & Seed and called for someone to investigate. (They had a good idea where to look.) I was the first family member on the scene. So glad it was not my mother. From the empty crate resting on the bank of the creek, we determined that Pops and King Henry had planted the entire box of dynamite in the middle of that beaver dam. There was now a pool the size of Lake Maxincuckee where the dam had been and debris was scattered everywhere. Pops had been blown back and down a ways from the crest of the creek bank. He lay peacefully, almost posed, looking straight up at the blue fall sky. A most unnerving but, when recollected, strangely amusing, little smile curled his mouth. A six inch piece of hickory had pierced his heart. We loaded him into an ambulance before my mother arrived. As it pulled away, King Henry chased behind it making a sound that was less a bark than a mournful, moaning howl. I turned my head over my shoulder for one last glimpse of the scene. I swear I saw a lone beaver peering from behind some brush. I’m sure Pops would have saluted him.

Who would have thought a tale of star crossed love which began with the death of a celebrity … would reach its near conclusion with his own. We had the funeral at Jackson’s funeral home in Rensselaer, his birthplace. It was the place we had the funerals of his mother and her parents – Grandpa Frank and Grandma Jessie (for whom Pops had named my mother.) Pops looked comfortable in his Irish tweed jacket. No matter the latest mortuary techniques, that undertaker (another in a long succession of Mr. Jackson’s) could not erase that wry smile from Pop’s face.) Some time, before the official start of the ceremony, my mother, Jessie, approached the casket and ever so tenderly began to place something in the left, inside pocket of his jacket. She paused, a look of puzzlement taking over her face, and retrieved something already there. I saw her hold it in her hand. After long and thoughtful appreciation, she turned to look at me. From the front row where I was seated, next to hers, I saw her mouth the question, “Yvonne?” (Pops had spoken of Yvonne to my mother many times. Especially when my mother was in her teens.) With a small, somewhat sad, smile, I nodded and mouthed, “Yvonne”. She gently placed it, along with two other small photographs, one of herself, back in his pocket. And over his heart.

I could feel the tires crunching on the gravel beneath, as the procession came to a halt near the family plot at the edge of the cemetery across the road from the park. We laid Pops to rest under the family monument which bears an inscription noting the passing of his brother, Preston (whose body was never found) and next to his mother along with Frank and Jessie.

HENRY TOMBSTONE II

Two weeks had passed since we put Pops to rest. Christmas break was on and I had three weeks before classes would resume. One week before my scheduled wedding. Standing at that door, I saw my hand, as though someone else’s, knocking, of its own volition in the slowest of motions. Susan answered the door in her robe. “I’ve come to save your life,” I said.

The next day, Mom was with me in Pop’s barn. He had left the farm to her and what was under the dusty canvas tarp to me. It and King Henry. Together Mom and I pulled the cover back and revealed the old bronze 1971 Chevy Camero, just like the one Pop’s dad had given him in McAllen just before his senior year of high school. The old man was sentimental to a fault and when he saw it at an antique show in Auburn, Indiana twenty years ago, he had to have it. He’d change the oil in it once a year and take it out on the country roads around these parts. The rest of the time, it remained under the tarp like some holy shrine to youth. I placed my electronic map, some other items, and the sandwiches my Mom had given me on the driver’s seat. King Henry instinctively crawled past me and into the passenger’s seat. “Mom and I locked our arms around each other in a long and hard embrace. Without letting go completely, gripping my arms, she gave that ‘oh so familiar’ look into my eyes and asked, “Will you be back in time to start the new semester.” “I don’t know, Mom . . . I don’t know.” “Where are you going?” “Well . . . King Henry and I will take one of the historical highways–one on which they’ll allow these antique vehicles to creep along–headed south. We’ll take our time, stopping wherever we like along the way. But we’re headed toward the Rio Grand Valley of Texas.” She looked around me at the brown manila envelope, on the seat, under the map and sandwiches. Her eyes softened and she smiled gently. “What will you do when you get there?” “We’re going to find out if there is really such a thing . . . Such a thing as – ‘Raven-haired girls with eyes as black as night . . . and lips as soft as a warm breeze off a southern sea.’” I gave her wink and King Henry and I were gone.

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