Buffalo Droppings

The Life and Times of Jerry Lemenu

Of Cats and Men

When I first met the greatest artist and cat lover I have ever known, LeRoy Foster, he had just moved into an empty storefront on Livernois in his only home, Detroit.

Being great at something like art does not necessarily translate to being materially well off. Old LeRoy struggled and needed the little bit of money we made traveling to Detroit Elementary Schools as part of the Omniarts program back in the ’80s. We drew kids and shared what we knew about art. I was happy to be in his shadow and glad to give this gentle genius the ride he needed.

Just before I met him he had been burned out of his home and a treasure trove of art went down in flames. This was sad for LeRoy but not as tragic as losing his two cats in the fire. He couldn’t talk about it. He communicated the extent of the loss with his eyes, those eyes that would eventually go blind.

When blind, LeRoy kept on living, seeing the world with his heart. We traveled more than a few miles to find the perfect rose for his garden.

But cats? I knew nothing about cats, LeRoy frustrated me at times because he walked so slow and he talked on and on about cats as if they were the Egyptian gods we needed.

Year 2000, seven years after LeRoy died, a kitten was delivered to me. My friend Kim Stroud found him in the street and asked me if I could take him. She and Frank already had four cats and a dog!

So I did. I was newly married, living in Howell of all places because that’s where Kathy and my stepson Steven needed to live. I picked up the cat dubbed McNichols after the street where he was found and off we went to Howell. Howl.

I had this frightened kitten in a box and all the way to our new home he cried. His head kept popping out and I kept poking it in while trying to keep my eyes on the road. This cat was going to hate me.

What a surprise. Now named Ender after a character in a book Kathy, Steven and I all read, this cat bonded with me. He kept jumping into my lap and purred so loud he couldn’t be ignored! And me? Yeah, I fell in love with him. I didn’t want to do it but that’s how love goes sometimes.

Ender is my hero. No thunder or lightning disrupts him from sniffing the air and exploring the world while purring like a motorboat.

Ender has lived up to his name. He taught a bully blue jay a lesson he didn’t live to regret. He chased a pit bull away from our house. He has brought me many a caught feast I’ve had to politely say no to. Ender is all cat and something more.

Among the things he has taught me is the need to adapt.

Life changes. Though Kathy and Steven no longer live with me Ender still does, now in Oak Park. Ender has been a constant these past seventeen years.

Three years ago he wandered next door and I’m guessing that when the dog came out he rushed so high up the tree he couldn’t get down. It was late at night before I figured out where his cries came from. I sat under the tree and heard his fear. Forget the fire department or the Humane Society nobody would help me get him down. Seventeen hours later I borrowed a tall ladder from a neighbor and with gloves went twenty feet up and brought him kicking and screaming back to earth.

We both have seen how scary life can be. He moves on quicker than I do. It took a few days and then he was back in my lap. Ender and I are mortal but he doesn’t care much. I wish I could forget like he knows how to forget.

Six months ago he became blind and like LeRoy it has not deterred him from soaking in life. He still lies beside me and tells me what he needs. He lets me know when it’s time to get up whether I want to or not. Every day we take a walk in the backyard where he inhales the world with a bounce in his step.

He has known fear but lives fearlessly.

I’m a lucky man with many friends and family who I love and who love me but who would have thought that my longest loving unconditional live-in relationship would happen with a cat.

LeRoy Foster is smiling down from heaven.

(There are other cats that came into our lives. They accepted me because they wanted to live with Ender. Petrified Petra and Crazy Kat Charlie have their stories that deserve to be told some other time.)

Max Bidlefield

New Years Eve, 2014

New Years Eve is a reflective day and this one is no different. I woke up wishing my pal Carl Bidleman was here with me so we could reflect together. Carl was with me through many a day like this back in the 70’s and 80’s and other times when God knows we really needed each other.  That we were together on a day like New Years Eve generally meant that neither of us had a woman in our life. This was more often true than not. What we did together on those nights was sublimate. Its a word we learned at Sacred Heart Seminary.

We met at the seminary in the fall of 1968. He was no longer a seminarian having quit after high school and I was a first year college student. He came by to visit his pals; one of my roommates, Greg McCaffrey, in particular. I loved his “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” attitude and we became friends fairly quickly. He played the role of the cynic while secretly optimistic while I played the role of Mr. Silver Lining while secretly despairing about nearly everything. It worked. Greg sensibly left the seminary after the first semester of college to be with May Ellen, the woman he loved, but Carl kept coming back. We invented a game we named “Dog Leg Lemonball.” It was sort of man on man soccer but with a plastic lemon instead of a ball. Because my seminary  room was el shaped there was a dogleg to navigate. My two remaining roommates, Steve Krupa and Jim Krieg were  challenging obstacles. They were very studious and tried to ignore us even when we knocked them out of their chairs.

Carl introduced me to the United Farm Workers struggle to form a union and the grape boycott that was a means to this end. We once stayed up all night making signs for a demonstration. Viva la Huelga! Unfortunately we used poster paint and it rained during the demonstration. It was not to be the last of our well intentioned gaffes but to our credit it never stopped stopped us from trying yet again.

I decided to leave the seminary on a leave of absence after one torturous year mainly because I was in love with a woman named Diane. Just writing her name all these years later makes me shiver. A week before my final exams a seminary drop out, Nick Kowal, walked down the halls waving a bus ticket to LA. It was one way and expired the following week. I took it. I jumped on the bus an hour after my last exam and freedom ensued. Freedom of course is usually qualified by the kindness of others who aide us and this was no exception. My Aunt Simone in Whittier California took me in and gave me a place to stay in the camper in her driveway. I negotiated for Carl to join me a week later. Both of of us were in desperate need of an adventure.  God bless Aunt Simone who never stopped saying yes, who trusted me beyond any evidence that I should be trusted this much.

We roamed the hills and went to concerts, saw James Brown, the Supremes, and other acts. We both got jobs at Russ Basset’s, a small, metal office furniture factory. I worked the day shift and Carl worked the night shift. Because we were broke we only could afford one pair of steel tipped shoes. As I headed home from my shift I met Carl halfway and we exchanged my steel tipped shoes for his mere mortal ones. On it went until one day at lunch a fellow worker from the day shift, Phil Olsen, spun a  tale about a friend who went to Alaska to fight forest fires. I told Carl that day that I was going to Alaska and that he could join me if he wished. What the hell was he to do? He joined me.

We spent 16 epic, futile days in Fairbanks. It rained and rained. The day we arrived I saw a prophetic scribble on the men’s rooms stall wall that read, “Glen Green from Tucson, Arizona came here in June 1969 to find work but alas there was none to be found.”  The handwriting was literally on the wall.  The Cheat River rose every day. We found odd jobs that lasted a day or so. We went to the Malamute Saloon and heard a recitation of the Cremation of Sam MaGee. We helped prepare for an impending flood. There were no jobs fighting forest fires. Every day I said today is the day we find work as Carl rolled his eyes.  We wended our way back to Whittier. We stopped in Puget Sound and stayed with Carl’s uncle’s family . We stood on a cliff and watched the moon as Armstrong landed on it. We slept on benches in San Francisco. We hitchhiked through the blazing heat of the San Joaquin Valley. One night we found ourselves hunkered down in a park in Fresno. I talked about going back to the seminary and Carl told me that this was the stupidest thing he ever heard. Diane was out there in the world! What was I thinking?  On cue the park sprinklers went on.

We stopped in Delano, the home of the United Farmworkers. We met Caesar Chavez. I drew his dog Boycott. By the time we got back to Whittier we were spent and soon returned to Detroit.  It was a grand adventure, maybe the loudest of our lives together but not really with the most to say. That would come more quietly as the years unfolded.

We worked together at Focus: HOPE. We had adventures like sketching and photographing Tigers at spring training. We started a super 8 movie together in 1973 with our pal Dave Klapp as Nick Danger and me as the villain Bruno Lagoon. It is one long chase scene that involves many of our friends. Someday we’re going to finish this damn thing. Carl is the director/producer/cameraman whose movie moniker is Max Bidlefield.  He has been producer/director for me personally for much of my life. He stood beside me when I married Diane and he stood beside me when she left me.  In and out of relationships we always had each other. On lonely Christmas Eve’s and New Years Eve’s past we would get together and play a game called Two Cushion Bumpershot. We would slide these little pucks off rubber bands that redirected them into the wee hours of the morning. We forgot about what our lives might be missing and focused on what we had. We had each other.

For more than the last twenty years Carl has been living in Mill Valley California with his wife Karen who I also love. We see each other when we can and are no less important to each other.

This New Years Eve I woke up missing him a lot. My lady is out of town and I was feeling alone. Around noon a package arrived at my door. It was addressed to Bruno Lagoon. It is the Two cushion Bumpershot game. The same game that Carl and I played and played a lifetime ago.

I’m not alone.

Thank you Carl. I love you.

 

 

 

Torhout

The woman in the center of the room doing jumping jacks breathlessly asked,  “Does this look like something a 50 year old could do?” My mother, Irene, was celebrating her birthday by laughing at her  fear of aging.  We, her family, laughed along without  a clue that in little more than a month she would die of a heart attack.

On April 30, 1976 the eve of her departure to Belgium mom’s bags were  jam packed. My mother was never one to visit empty handed and had decided to bring her relatives in Torhout some United States Bi-Centennial souvenirs. She was proud to be a naturalized American. Her enthusiasm was on display the year before when she took her kids with her on a pilgrimage to Washington DC.  Her deeper roots, however, were even more important in forming who she was .  She was born in Canada to parents that had immigrated from Belgium.  When I was growing up we made frequent trips to Blenheim, Ontario to see her parents, her brothers and all the others she knew when she labored on the family onion farm as a child. She beamed and stood a little straighter when the Canadian national anthem was played and when mom was in Blenheim it was largely Flemish, the language of Flanders, Belgium that she spoke. As a little girl stories she heard were about that far away land where she had aunts and uncles and cousins she never met.   Her mother, Valerie, was one of seven children most of whom had stayed in Belgium. Some had passed on but Oscar, the  patriarch, was still thriving. To meet Uncle Oscar and hear his stories was the primary objective of the most important trip of her life.

The last time I saw mom she was both excited and tired.  She wasn’t feeling well but we all assumed it was due to the extensive preparation for the trip.  True to her role as the family member who brought people together she had hosted her own farewell party inviting all her family from this side of the ocean. She was to travel to Belgium the next day with Buffy, a friend and the wife of cousin Lou.  When I gave her a long hug goodbye I was happy for her, and curiously mixed in how I felt about the state of our relationship.  I had by this time been married and divorced and was a bearded, long haired, grape and lettuce boycotting cynic yet somehow in my mother’s eyes a Norman Rockwell, All-American boy.  I was saying bon voyage to  more than her parting for Belgium. I was saying goodbye to a way of being with her. Mom’s growing independence made it easier but it was still hard. The morning of her flight I felt like calling her before she left for the airport but I held back thinking it was better to avoid undue sentimentality.  Besides we had already said goodbye.

Her family back home didn’t know it but she became more ill when she arrived in Torhout. We learned later that Irene didn’t want to worry anyone or miss anything  so she rested as little as she felt she could get away with. On May 8, 1976 mom traveled to Mechlin with Buffy for the next leg of their trip.   At 9:00 p.m. she sat down to write postcards. Before she could write a line she suffered a massive heart attack.

When her body was shipped back  in a custom built oak casket one week later all of us who loved her were still struggling to believe she was dead. Because the Belgians did not have the same embalming methods as the US and her body was more than a week in coming home, we were advised not to look at her.  A photo found in her camera that showed her standing next to Uncle Oscar was to be the last image of her we would have.  It was tempting to pretend that her death was an elaborate hoax and that she was happily pursuing a new life somewhere far away. It was also tempting to blame the Belgian relatives for not taking better care of her and for the delays in getting her body back home. Something this crazy-awful had to be someone’s fault.

The restlessness that overcame me when my mother died wouldn’t go away.  When 1977 rang in I set off for a year long adventure in London, England.  I had found a small art school there that was willing to take me in.  Besides studying art I intended to make London my base for traveling all over the British Isles and to parts of the European mainland.  Traveling to Belgium, however, was not on my agenda.

My friend Alex Kennedy and I arrived in Paris late one early August night.  When we woke in the bushes beneath the Eiffel Tower we set out to pursue the serious business of seeing every piece of art in the city.  We ambitiously figured that if we kept at it from morning to night we could do it in about a week. The only other thing on my agenda was to find a place to draw on a Paris sidewalk. I found the streets full of competing artists.  A big letter “A” was a suitable Eiffel Tower and some desperate artists would chase people down the street drawing them on the run.   Disillusioned, I never took my pastels out of the suitcase.

As we walked back toward the Louvre on the morning of our fourth day in Paris I suddenly knew that I had to go to Belgium.  It was more than a thought it was a voice inside giving an urgent command.  That day I was on a train to Torhout.

When I walked off the train I felt that I was crossing over to another dimension,  that I was as much a ghost as my mother.

The tallest building in Torhout was Saint Peter’s Church and without thinking I entered and plopped down in a back pew. Alone and not yet ready to contact relatives I sat staring off towards the stained glass without really seeing it.  On my way out I glanced at the bulletin board and saw the notice: “RIP OSCAR CLOETENS.” Uncle Oscar was dead.

The first phone number I called was to a relative who spoke no English but who eventually figured out who I was.  She ran down the street to Louie Cloeten’s home. Cousin Louie had no phone but could speak English.  He gathered me up, took me to his home then brought me right back to the church the following morning for Uncle Oscar’s funeral.  The center of the simple ceremony was a brass trimmed oak casket slightly larger but otherwise exactly the same box mom was shipped home in.  The casket was carried to the church cemetery by pal-bearers followed by a procession of fifty or so men women and children. It was both a solemn ritual and and a celebratory parade.  After the casket was placed in the ground each of us walked up to the burial site and tossed in a red rose as we said our last goodbye. I never had the chance to say hello to the man but the importance of my being there was not in doubt.  I was my mother’s ambassador.

It was all a blur of people reaching out, hugging mom by holding me.  I was shown my high school graduation picture by a delightful old woman who chatted to me in Flemish.  I understood the affection and that the picture came from mom.  Cousin Louie gave me a ceramic tile depicting Torhout that he intended to give to my mother. Besides St. Peter’s tower the tile depicts trees and two keys.  The tower was destroyed during the first world war. It was rebuilt and destroyed again during the second world war. Again my ancestors rebuilt it.  The intended meaning of the keys remains unknown to me but the meaning they assumed was that Torhout held the key to understanding my Belgian mother’s state of mind when she took her last breath.

In the days to come I retraced mom’s last steps.  In Bruge, Cousin Louie stopped me in the middle of a bite of a pastry to tell me that it was the identical pastry mom ate.  And so it went.  At night in Mom’s bedroom I worked on a posthumous portrait of Oscar. This was the purpose for the pastels I had been carrying with me.

At the time it was more than I could fully absorb.  Gradually I came to understand that my mother’s last trip was a profound homecoming. It was as miraculous as the  journey of a monarch butterfly. It takes generations of these butterflies to complete the  migratory circle and arrive at the birthplace of their ancestors.   Though my mother had never before been to Belgium it was somehow as much her home as her parents and mom’s death there finished what they began. If she could have written that postcard I believe she would have said that even while weakened she was content. I believe that the souls of her parents were beside her when she died.

I believe that mom’s soul was beside me as I  fluttered in her path.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

January 8, 2010

My portfolio of art supplies had passed uneventfully through the metal detectors and I was seated on a bench inside Detroit’s U. S. District Court. Outside the doors there were demonstrators and cameras and more cameras; people talking and shouting in languages from around the world. Inside the cameras were banned and it was eerily quiet. Federal Marshals walked by with eager but silent sniffing dogs.  Other artists sat near me trying and failing to read magazines. There was nothing to do but wait. In a few hours the famed “underpants bomber” Umar Farouk  Abdulmutallab would enter the courtroom down the hall and I would be counted on to draw him for ABC, CBS, FOX, AP, EPA, and the Detroit Free Press. The word was that the arraignment might take only a couple minutes.  I was on edge because  I’d never had so many counting on me to create courtroom art with so little time to do it.  As if this wasn’t enough, I was placing further pressure on myself for personal reasons.  I hadn’t produced court art in a year and I was less than satisfied with my last effort. I wasn’t sure I still had what it took.  Further complicating things, I was out of touch with WDIV, the local NBC affiliate which since 1981 was my TV home.  It bothered me that for the Abdulmutallab arraignment they  decided to switch to someone else. I suppose that I was naive to think of people at a TV station as family but thats the kind of thing I did and once one feels betrayed by family its terribly hard to compensate for it, even with overwhelming support from other sources.

At one o’clock the artists were allowed into the courtroom and allowed to set up in the jury box.  This was great news for a couple of reasons.  It meant that we would have an hour to prepare a background sketch of the courtroom and we would be in the best possible position to see Abdulmutallab at the podium.  I had called days before asking for this seating but was unsure we would get it.   I was seated in the upper row of the jury box at the far end. In front of me was an artist who curiously also claimed to be working for AP.  To my right were the artist for NBC Network News, and an artist for the Detroit News. To the right of the other AP artist was the woman who had locked up all the local affiliates including WDIV. Both the local affiliate artist and I  had worked the Detroit scene for many years and I had considered her a friend as well as a rival.  Now she wanted to be chatty and I wasn’t in the mood. “Why haven’t you called?” she asked. I didn’t respond but thought it might have been nice if she called me before she went after my job at WDIV.

We all were busy drawing people seated in the courtroom when the clock struck two and on cue a door opened and Abdulmuttalb was led in. He was chained at the ankles and moved awkwardly, painfully.  He was small and looked like a teenager in a large white T-shirt and baggy pants.  His shoulders were bony and his head was shaved.  Abdulmuttalab’s  face was locked in a blank stare as if he was in a trance.  He was shuffled over to a table where his lawyer sat waiting for him.  He seemed to be listening intently for a couple of minutes but his expression never changed.  Then it was up to the podium.  This was it; the moment we had been waiting for that no preliminary sketch could capture.  A little voice in my head said, “don’t screw this up.”  My hands were on their own as my brain was of little help. Doubt had crept in. I didn’t draw his attorney or the guard or even the judge. I was locked in on Abdulmuttalab’s profile.  He was asked a couple of questions and it was over.  True to form no more than four minutes had elapsed as he was steered out the door. Just before he disappeared he took one look back towards those seated in the courtroom.  His family, most notably his father who had tried to warn authorities about him, was not  there.  Nobody in the world was more alone at that moment than this skinny young victim of fanaticism.

What happens to the sacrificial lamb when he doesn’t die? Abdulmuttalab will be squeezed for information, paraded before the public a couple more times and then he will be locked up and forgotten.

I looked at my sketch and was relieved that it felt like him.  I embellished it only slightly because I didn’t want to lose the tenuous likeness.  I threw in a vague drawing of the judge who I only remembered as African-American with a mustache. I added some color to my drawing of Abdulmuttalab at the table and I was done. There was no more time to work. The reporters, producers and cameramen were waiting outside for me to emerge with the two scant sketches that I was able to produce.

My sketches were taped to the side of a van and the cameras from all the various news sources that I was working for circled around and, like starving vultures, fed off my images. I even picked up CNN.

In my car while driving away there was time to reflect.  I was ambivalent about my performance. I felt that I had done the job but just barely. I felt that I had captured the best likeness but other artists had more complete sketches. I didn’t fully believe the words of a CBS producer who told me that I hadn’t lost my touch.  Then there was the lingering image of Abdulmutallab.  The success of my performance meant nothing compared to his failure; the failure that began with his decision to attempt a suicide bombing.  My feeling of abandonment by WDIV felt petty.

I’d like to say that the lasting effect of this day is that I am able now to put things in better perspective.  Its more true that what I am left with is a lingering feeling of sadness.

Leo LaMote

When I turned nine years old, December 19th, 1958, my mother told me it would be the best year of my life.  Six days later I had reason to be concerned.  It was a warm and rainy Christmas and my dad started drinking early. Christmas was hard on my dad for it reminded him of his failings, real and imagined.  The tension between my parents was palpable as the family got in the car to visit my dad’s Aunt Auberdine who we all referred to as Maranne.  My brother Ricky, my sister Marie and I sat quietly in the back seat hoping for the best.  We wished for an uneventful Christmas dinner,  topped off with Maranne’s perfect, home made lukken cookies for dessert.  We prayed that the only squawking would come from her parakeet.

Meanwhile, a man my father worked with in the building trade, thirty-six year old, Leo LaMote was having a Christmas I could only imagine.  He was together with his wife Agnes and his young children counting his blessings.  Financially it was not easy but he had much to be grateful for.  Besides his family Leo had dear friends such as Remi Phlypo and Henry Verlinden.  Leo enjoyed playing cards and he may have been playing bien that Christmas afternoon. Perhaps he was thinking about the Cadieux Bowling Club where in only his second season as a featherbowler he was challenging for the club lead. This was good news and bad news because the Grand Champion traditionally hosted a party for the rest of the membership and he knew he could not afford it.

The rain was coming down hard when my father turned into a flooded street on Detroit’s east side.  We were minutes away from arriving at Maranne’s when the car told us it was in serious danger of drowning.  My dad impulsively pulled the car off the road and onto the nearest lawn. He proceeded down the street tearing up every lawn in his path.  Neighbors emerged and became an angry mob. They chased us all the way to the end of the block screaming and cursing. At the corner my dad drove back into the street where the car promptly stalled out.  When I looked out the window back to the curb shore I saw hideously contorted faces spouting words I had never heard before. This, I thought, is not in the spirit of Christmas.  I rolled down the window and said, “Merry Christmas to you too.”  It was not the right thing to say.

Then into the fray came Leo LaMote.  His lawn was one of the many torn up by my father’s ill advised turn.  Leo said,  “I know this man, he’s a good man and will make up for it.”   Leo gave my dad a gift more precious than all the lukken in the world…

Twenty-three years later I met Leo LaMote again at the Cadieux Cafe.  When I joined the featherbowling club he embraced me.  I learned that my dad had indeed made good for those damaged lawns and I discovered that with some help from the Cadieux Cafe owner, Elia Calmeyn, Leo hosted the featherbowling club party as the 1958-1959 Grand Champion. He would  bowl for fifty seasons before his legs finally gave out on him.

I was never able to repay my debt to Leo except to love him back. Yesterday, December 11, 2009, Leo LaMote died.  Every Christmas for as long as I live I will think of him.

Strangers

It was a bitter winter night in Detroit and I was exhausted. I had just finished sketching a play at the Attic Theater and was in a cold fog as I stared at a newspaper coin box in Greektown. I was broke, I didn’t even have a coin for a paper.  A disheveled, middle aged and apparently homeless Native-American man approached me and asked for a handout.  I told him that I couldn’t help him. Hell, I couldn’t even buy myself a paper.  He smiled, reached into his pocket and handed me a quarter. He walked off saying, “What goes around comes around.”

I never saw him again.

Years went by and I forgot the man with a quarter.  I had by this time grown accustomed to holing up in my  dimly lit apartment. I would occasionally get out but when I did I carried the cave inside me. I believed the adage that fundamentally we are alone.

One early spring day I decided to go for a jog.  Early spring in Detroit  meant that the weather could be comfortable or freezing.  This day was far colder than I had anticipated and a short ways into my run around Palmer Park I realized I wasn’t prepared.  My hands were like ice but once one started jogging it was bad form to turn back.

I was about a mile away from finishing when  a van pulled up in front of me and a rather large  and intimidating African-American man got out.  He waved to me.  Damn, he was motioning for me to come over.  I was sure he had something to sell and I thought the best thing to  do would be to wave stupidly and run on by.  For some reason I didn’t do that.  I stopped running and walked towards him.

He was smiling.  He said, ” It’s too cold to be running dressed as you are.”  He reached into the back of his van, pulled out a pair of gloves and gave them to me.

Its hard to stay cynical when strangers keep pestering me with kindness.

The Smoky Mountains

Mid-August , 1995

Darkness was setting in as I sat by a fire facing Pretty Hollow Creek in a remote section of the Smoky Mountains. I sat munching my trail mix and  was lost in thought.  As the bear crept closer I was remembering the first time I came to these mountains twenty years earlier.

I was 25 years old in September of 1975. It was seven months since my divorce was final and I was searching for peace of mind. It wasn’t going to come easily.  My mind was racing and the rain made trudging up Spruce Mountain difficult even for my young legs.  When I arrived at the top of the mountain I sat exhausted under a red spruce.  I was sitting some time before I noticed the miracle that was right before my eyes.  An ancient tree had fallen two thirds of the way to the ground. It was held up and alive by virtue of a smaller version of itself that propped it up like a crutch.  I had found my sacred spot.

Every five years for the next twenty years I returned to visit. The large tree fell and the little tree was obliterated by time. I witnessed the remaining tree grow smaller as it began its journey back to the earth. Much of the bark was gone and it was cool to the touch the last time I was there. The insides were  rotting and someone had carved his name onto its bones but the tree could not be shamed. New life was growing out of the bits of itself that fell to earth…

Now, two decades since that first trip, I was one day’s hike away from returning to the site.  What would I find?

I was startled out of my reverie by the snapping of a twig. I turned around found myself face to face with a black bear not four feet away. I yelled, “HEY!” and the bear ran 50 or 60 feet under the light of my flashlight. He then abruptly stopped, looked at me and slowly sauntered  into the thick woods.  I knew he had made a decision. He would be back.

I tied a rope to my bag of food and tossed it over a branch a good 15 feet up and 4 feet away from the trunk. I lay in my tent wide awake listening to the insects and the creek and the wind.  I was clutching my pocket knife when these sounds gave way to loud cracking branches. Something was circling the tent. The sound faded then erupted again with a louder CRACK and then a thump.  I gathered myself then went out with my light.  The food was gone. The bear had climbed the tree and snapped off the branch that the food was hanging from.  He had bit off the rope where it was tied to the bag and run off with his loot. I was left with a choice of either turning back or proceeding for what would be two nights and three days without food.

I decided to fast.

It was very hot and the little stream I remembered on the way up Spruce Mountain was dried up.  Water was also going to be a problem.  When I reached the top of the mountain I wiped the sweat from my eyes and stared in wonder. I couldn’t believe what I did not see. There would be no touching my old friend this year. The tree was gone.

What remained visible was impressive. Yellow birch and red spruce reached high into the sky and all around me and other fallen trees lay in the dense growth repeating the cyclical journey.  I knew, however, that my time with the site had come to an end.

Clearly a ceremony for the tree was called for.  I started out tamely by saying a rosary.  I then retold my history with the tree to the woods. Candles were lit to honor the four directions.  To the sound of squealing wild pigs I danced around the campfire waving a lit smudge stick of sage and cedar.  Filled with gratitude… even for the bear that asked me to fast, I blew out the candles and said goodbye.

The hike the next day was grueling. It would be at least ten miles to my next campsite and there would be no more streams until I arrived there.  The path was rarely used and overgrown with tall bushes and fallen trees.  A third of the way there I had a stare down with a wild pig. By this time I was as wild as he was and he blinked first.

When I finally arrived at the stream I threw myself in. One hundred small moths rose into the air creating infinite patterns of flickering blue. I had found my new spot.

Dad

May 26, 1986, Memorial Day

My father would die this day. I knew it was coming.  We got the word in January that his cancer was terminal and shortly thereafter he was a hospice home care patient.  I was his primary caregiver and had by this time moved in with him.  Though morphine helped some his pain was hard to witness. Hospice workers lamented that it was not supposed to be like this.  What hospice could not know was the degree of his mental anguish.  Here was a pain beyond the help of any drugs or social worker’s good intentions. Never in my life have I known a man with so many regrets.

When in the Army during World War II he wrote home often.  Much of the time he complained bitterly about the war.  What galled him most was that he was in London, an ocean away from his sister and parents. Family was everything to him.  He ultimately enrolled in flight school not so much to learn how to fly as to return to the States, closer to home.

When the war was over home had moved from Detroit to Huntington Beach, California.  With a new bride in tow my father went west to seek his fortune working construction side by side with his father, Jerome.  My grandfather was more than a little bit intrusive.  He accompanied my parents on their honeymoon and kept my dad out fishing all day.  In California a feud broke out between my young mother, Irene, and crusty, Jerome.  My father had to choose between his father and his wife.  He chose his wife.  After a bitter fight, my parents packed up their belongings (which included  2 year old me) and moved to Detroit.

My father and grandfather hadn’t spoken when dad got the news that Jerome had died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 60.

Dad turned to the bottle.  His work life as a building contractor and most importantly his marriage disintegrated. Though he never stopped worshipping my mother, he hated himself and took some perverse pleasure in getting her angry at him. When I would presumptively  try to talk to him about his life he made it clear that he didn’t care whether he lived or died.

Dad was a good man but he was lost and had little energy or know-how when it came to marriage or parenting.  As the first born son I received more attention than my brother or sister.  Near the end he confided to me that he felt especially bad about his treatment of my brother, Rick.

When mom died suddenly of a heart attack 1n 1976 he was beside himself with grief.  As far as she was concerned he would never have another chance to redeem himself.  Ten years later as he lay dying he confessed to me that he wondered whether there was an afterlife and if there was whether Irene would want to see him.

We talked a lot in those final months and to our surprise we developed a closeness we never had before. He was more alive to me as he was dying than before we discovered the cancer.  When his sister, Simone, came to see him a month before he died he exhibited a tenderness towards her that came from the deepest part of him.

When Father Bill Cunningham administered last rites he told dad that God forgave him for his sins. With tear filled eyes dad looked looked into the priest’s eyes and asked, “really?”

Memorial Day came and dad was in great pain.  I left him with Rick and my sister Marie to make a morphine run. The last words I heard him speak as I left the house were, ” I don’t want to die.” By the time I returned with the morphine he was gone.  The last words he heard came from my brother.  Rick told him it was okay to let go, and so he looked at Rick, shrugged his shoulders and died.

The Lost Lamb

Autumn, 1969

It was a warm, cloudy Autumn morning and I was restless.  I emerged from Akers Hall at MSU determined to exercise away the demons. Newly free of the seminary I had discovered that being in a relationship with the girl of my dreams (who now lived across the street) was more complicated than I thought.  Diane was moody at times.  My commitment to pursue her had caught her a bit off guard and she had yet to figure out what she was pursuing. One thing she had decided was that she was going to Washington DC the following semester to serve as an intern for a congressman. This she was thrilled about.  Her favorite song was “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” I was less than thrilled by this prospect, and  Peter, Paul and Mary were my enemies. There was also the small matter of what I was intending to do with my life besides being with Diane as much as possible.  I was a pre-med student who didn’t care for biology or chemistry. 

I laced my shoes and jogged off towards the woods behind Diane’s McDonnell Hall.  The woods were a place of peace for me.  I didn’t try to think things through when I went running through the trees. I would sink into a sweet trance,  aware and not aware of the smells the sounds and the sights of the changing season.  This morning felt vaguely ominous as the skies darkened but that feeling dissipated as I got into my rhythm. I was about a mile into my run down a narrow path when I was stopped in my tracks.  I was startled out of my trance by a sight that went beyond my wildest daydreams.  There, stock still as if waiting for me stood a white lamb.  He was in the middle of the path.  We stared at each other in the silence for what seemed a long time and then I took a step towards him. He took a step back.  I then took a couple steps back and he stepped forward.  We continued this dance at a progressively faster pace until we found ourselves running, chasing each other through the woods.  He was baaing and I was laughing my head off. On and on we went. I was leading and he was following when we came to the edge of the woods.  I kept on running into an open field. The lamb stopped.  I turned back a couple times and saw him frozen in place by the last tree, staring at me.

I got a lump in my throat that I can still feel forty years later. I turned my back and continued to blindly run away from him until I had to stop and turn around one more time.

He was gone.  

There was a clap of thunder as I turned back to search for him.  Then it began to rain a loud steady rain. I cursed myself as I bleated, “BAAA, BAAA!”  For an hour I searched….

I walked back to my dorm sopping wet.  I felt like I had failed some cosmic test.  Here, literally, was a lost lamb and I deserted him.

There was another part to my sadness that I didn’t immediately recognize.  I identified with that lost creature and wanted to be saved myself. 

So the years pass. Now, instead of focusing on a failure I can focus on the gift.  For that moment in time when I danced with the lamb I was as happy as I’ve ever been.  

Sometimes on cloudy days I’m back there, laughing all over again.

God bless that magic lamb.

Bob Schulte

Christmas, 1993

The 75 year old hand that gestured was steady.  It belonged to a strong arm and chest still thick with muscle, but pain had crept into all his joints.  Movements that once were automatic now took great effort.  

“Don’t go back there.” Bob’s voice was gentle melodic and firm. “Its full of things that bite, sting or are poisonous.”

He was pointing to the woods behind his spacious one level home on Sewell’s point.  This thin peninsula juts into the Atlantic 100 miles north of Miami off Florida’s Treasure coast.  The treasure was once the loot of shipwrecked sailors. The treasure today is not off-shore. It is the land, a place of shelter that watches the sea and waits.

The shelter Bob sought was from memories of a time when he was a young man of German descent at war with Germany.  

The draft notice came Christmas day, 1940.  He was 22 then, older and more physically developed than most inductees. His basic training totaled six months, twice the normal amount because he was being trained for Special Forces. From Camp Breckinridge to Camp Forest, Tennessee, with one more year in the field, his preparation included demolition, mine laying, weapons and all military vehicles.

When he hit Omaha Beach he was a First Sergeant and section leader. It was the rank he maintained throughout the war.  The military tried to promote him but he refused as it would have required leaving his company of 184 men.

Through France, Belgium, Holland Luxembourg and finally Germany he walked across Europe, always up front where death was most near. Regulations limiting the number of days at the front were ignored. From the day the first foot was planted on French soil there would be no rest. Not then, not ever.  

The most remarkable thing in Bob Schulte’s life was that he was alive. 

” Ten times, there were ten times that I know of that I should have been killed.  Many times it was when I relaxed some. Once I went for a walk near an airstrip when I was tapped on the shoulder by a German soldier. He was turning himself in.  Another time I was resting at the edge of the the woods outside an evacuated German town when a bullet struck a tree one inch from my head.”

They didn’t always miss. Bob was wounded at Aachen, Pine, and on the line in Germany. He was in the hospital in LIege, Belgium when it exploded at 2:00 a.m.  The hospital was all but destroyed. Bob survived and was returned to his unit with his ribs every bit as broken as when he left it.

A bridge at Remagon hung at a 30 degree angle and was expected to fall as the Germans continued their artillery fire.  In six hours the combat engineers put a pontoon bridge across the river. The Quartermaster Corps, however, would not use it to bring critical supplies as the pontoon bridge was under constant fire.  It was Bob who would cross the bridge.  There were inches to spare on either side of the truck wheels. Halfway across Bob spotted an enemy plane bearing in on him.  He opened the door of the truck and with one hand still on the wheel he climbed outside.  He continued to drive as the waters raced below his dangling body and the plane came ever closer.  He was about to jump when the sky erupted. Saved by artillery he arrived at the other side.

Two thousand dead Russians, executed and left in piles were stumbled upon in Germany near war’s end.  So he began days of digging graves for hollow eyed, unnamed corpses. Rags dipped in gasoline wrapped across the face masked the smell of death.  

Civilian snipers are also the enemy, the generals said, so down main street his company went tossing grenades into what were once German homes and businesses.   Some of the dead, he believed, were children… 

When the war did end, Bob’s unit was declared by our government to be too dangerous to re-enter civilian life.  They were held on occupation duty and extensive debriefing.  The first day home Bob gathered all the letters that he had written to Geri, his wife, and burned them delivering them back to the hell from which they came.  

While the memories can not be so easily despatched, Bob found again the gentle loving man that was always at his core.  He carried on not with rage but with a lingering sadness beneath the smile and an appreciation that each moment alive is a blessing.  Each of the seven Schulte children have memories of crying at night with an illness or a nightmare.  All remember dad at their side, holding them, comforting them, fixing a magic potion to ease their pain.  He understood.

More than 50 years after he married Geri, Bob waited on her like a lovesick schoolboy. After cooking his specialty, potato pancakes, he refused help as he washed each dish and placed everything in order.

50 years after the war Bob went to the ocean or stayed up late to stare at the stars and contemplate the vastness of the universe.  He said, “All my life I’ve been thinking about the universe with no end. Everything here seems to have an end but the universe goes on forever.”

Sometimes he wondered what he would tell God if he met him face to face. His eyes cracked wider full of tears as he said, “I’d tell Him I did the best I could.”

Three bronze stars be damned, the most heroic thing he has done is maintain his ability to love… the people, the milky way, God and himself.  

As he walked back into the forbidden woods behind his home he passed by a gnarled old tree.  The mound at its feet was sawdust bits of itself returning to the earth.  Beside this tree was a poinsettia.  It was all green in the Florida sun except for the top where there was a star shaped cluster of brilliant red leaves. Why these leaves and no others?  Why not?