Cumberland Times-News

Columns

December 14, 2013

Fare thee well, my earthbound friends

Few things are more energizing than the sight of 80,000 pounds worth of tractor-trailer barreling across the median strip in your direction at 60 miles an hour.

We were on our way home from Gettysburg when a snow squall came up. Our southbound lane of the interstate was dry and clear, but the northbound lane was not.

The results were strewn all over: cars, vans, tractor-trailers jackknifed and overturned, some mangled almost beyond recognition.

The tractor-trailer driver saw what lay ahead of him and dodged it, managing to get his rig turned and stopped — still upright — in the median. Fine piece of driving during what some folks call, “The moment of maximum pucker.”

We found out later a woman had died and 10 vehicles were involved. No idea how many were injured, or how badly.

As quickly as it came, the snow was gone. Capt. Gary and 1Sgt. Goldy rode home without further incident.

On this day, Death was in someone else’s lane — not ours. Thank you, Lord, for Your mercy to my friend and me. Please do what You can for those who were not so fortunate.

Time was, I tried to find meaning in such things, but no longer. Sometimes, there may be no meaning.

And, sometimes, Death is in your lane — as it was for Gary’s daughter Mandy, and his grandson Thadius four years ago.

“Thadius was my Gettysburg buddy,” said Gary. “I was ‘Pappy.’ ” (Having been a grandson, I know how that works.)

Thadius would have been 15 by now ... maybe the private soldier who runs errands for the captain and his first sergeant and acts like he doesn’t love being picked on by old guys.

Gary and I and some of our friends went to Gettysburg just a few days after the funeral.

“Thadius would want me to go,” Gary said, and it was the best thing we could have done — for any of us. When one of us grieves, all of us grieve.

When we went back a few weeks ago, the cell phone rang while we were talking to some tourists at Little Round Top.

I had a good idea what the call was about, but the details were in doubt. The look in Gary’s eyes told me all I needed to know.

Tinker had been Thadius’ cat, and “That little (four-word Anglo-Saxonism) always hated me,” Gary said. “It bit me!”

As time passed, though, she became Gary’s cat — “a loving cat,” he said — and a buddy to his Lhasa Apso dogs, Spike and Gizmo. (Remember the Gremlins?) All four of them often wound up on the couch or in bed together.

Lately, Tinker hadn’t been well. A few hours after Gary and I left for Gettysburg, a friend came to take her to the vet and let the dogs out.

Well, Spike and Gizmo didn’t want to go out. As soon as Gary’s friend walked in the door, they started barking and raising pure hell and led her straight to Tinker, who was lying motionless with one paw in her water dish.

Our first day at Little Round Top, all we knew was that Tinker was in the hands of people who cared for her. They stroked her softly, talked to her with gentle voices and let her know they were trying to make her well.

It seemed like the message got across. She raised her head and acted like she was grateful to be with friends and not alone.

But it didn’t work, so the phone rang. Directly, some of our friends visited us, we had tourists out the yazoo, and for a while it was business as usual.

“Goldy,” said Gary in a voice you had to hear to appreciate, “Tinker was all I had left of my little buddy.”

I found out a lifetime ago that it doesn’t matter how many legs a creature has, you can still love it — and it surely can love you.

The most unconditional love usually does come from somebody who goes about on all fours, rather than the bottom twos. I feel sorry for humans who don’t understand this, or never have been exposed to it.

No sooner than we got to Little Round Top the next day, I pointed to the sky and told Gary, “Look.” It was a hawk.

Gary and I started seeing hawks almost immediately after Mandy and Thadius died; the first was perched on the church steeple near Gary’s house.

When we came out of the motel room a few days after the funeral, another was sitting in a nearby tree, staring at us.

Our buddy Reggie says the only time he sees hawks at Little Round Top is when Gary and I are there. Make of that what you will.

This latest hawk descended and passed less than 10 yards away from us at eye-level, then flew off — actually waggling its wings like an airplane does when its pilot is saying, “Fare thee well, my earthbound friends.”

“Did you notice,” Gary asked me, “that we were here all day yesterday and never saw a hawk. First time we’ve ever been here and didn’t see a hawk.”

I said I had noticed, but wasn’t going to mention it.

“I think it’s like Bill (our friend, who owns Gettysburg Eddie’s) said: Thadius and Tinker are together again, and they’re letting us know.”

Why not? As St. Paul told the Corinthians, “Love never ends.” It survives ... even if nothing else does. I have ample reason to believe this.

One evening, Bill brought Andy to the bar to visit with us — the guy who was run over by a train and lived to talk about it.

He lost his right leg below the knee and now has a prosthetic leg and crutches — what I guess you could call a step up from the wheelchair he was riding the last time we saw him.

Andy was Bill’s chief cook and has vowed that as soon as he and that pegleg get to be partners and the crutches go away, he’ll be back fixing our dinners.

I told Andy that Bill had been torn up as a man could possibly be about his being hurt. (So were Gary and I, for that matter.)

I said, “Best friend,” was a term I heard Bill use more than once.

“He’s my best friend too,” said Andy, “and you and Gary are family. I love you guys.” We said the feeling was mutual.

He said he had been telling folks at the bar, “You know how they talk about people being able to drink like they’ve got a hollow leg? Well, I’ve got one.”

If you’re going to bet Andy on the over-and-under, take the over.

My advice — and he liked it — is that when folks ask how he’s doing, he should tell them this:

“I’m just gonna keep puttin’ my best foot forward!”

Really, that’s all any of us can do.

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