It’s a Belgian custom to photograph the newly dead and send this photo on to family and friends. Betty, Valere Spetebroot’s widow, asked me to perform this service so there I was camera in hand not wanting to believe what I was about to document.

Valere, in life, was constantly in motion and always the largest presence in the room. His body lying in a casket was impossibly small and still.  That the man I knew was gone, shot dead by his own hand, was more than sad it was infuriating. Sure, I snapped the picture but whatever healing was supposed to come with that final ritual escaped me. More than thirteen years later I’m still trying to put the pieces together.

Valere was one of my mentors at the Cadieux Cafe Featherbowling Club. Featherbowling is a very old Belgian game played in a 60 foot long smoothly packed dirt ditch.  The object is to roll one’s cheese wheel shaped wooden ball closer to a pigeon feather target than the opposing team’s balls. The team that bowls first tries to get close to the feather then block the other team’s path with balls strategically rolled part way down the alley. The second team must weave their balls up and down the concave alley, through the obstacles to that elusive feather.

When I first met Valere in 1981, he was running down the alley chasing his ball, willing it to find its way through the blocks.  He was in his late sixties but had the energy and enthusiasm of a child.  Once, he decided in the middle of a game that it would be fun to kick his balls down the alley instead of rolling them. It was the craziest thing I ever saw and Remi Phlypo on the other team was not amused.  But Valere was pretty much immune to criticism.  If he won he would laugh. If he lost he would laugh, pull out his handkerchief, kneel on it, then kiss the hands of his conquerors.

As a new bowler it was clear I needed guidance so Valere took me under his wing.  He proclaimed that I had common sense and in seven years I would be first class.  He believed of course in playing aggressively and told me, “You can’t win if you bowl too short.”  When I got nervous and bowled tentatively he shook his head and said, “Don’t worry so much. Bowl like you’re playing for pennies.”

Valere knew about gambling. During the Second World War he risked his life smuggling arms from Belgium to France.  A champion bicycle rider, he peddled across enemy lines over and over again with many narrow escapes.

I got a glimpse of the darker part of his psyche when he recounted the one time he was caught and held captive.  Tears rolled his cheeks as he remembered being forced to eat maggot filled meat. It was hard to see him this way. I remember feeling helpless, that he had gone somewhere beyond my reach. Then the moment passed.

Years went by at the Cadieux Cafe and Valere was mostly his comforting, joyous self. We would all gather around when he played late night pick-up games with his only real rival, Leo Van OpdenBosch. They were classic matches. Leo was the great conservative bowler and Valere was the daring risk taker.  Leo had won a couple Grand Championships by then but Valere with all his skills never cared about being the bowler with the most accumulated points… until I started drawing the champion’s portrait. In the fall of 1990 he announced that he was going to win and get his picture on the wall.  He didn’t just win, he won by a landslide.  Then, once his picture was put up, he resumed his old attitude.  A couple years later he was tied with Mike Chateau with two weeks to go.  The next week he didn’t show up. When he arrived at Mike’s coronation the last week, he had an impish grin on his face.

The spring of 1995, I contended for the championship and he was my coach, firing me up and calming me down. Mostly he reminded me to have fun. “Right,” I assured him. “I got it, I’m playing for pennies.” 

The summer of 1995, I went to his home and he played the mandolin for me. Betty sang by his side. It was beautiful but when I left them I felt strangely sad.

When the featherbowling season began just after Labor Day, he started talking about the war again, about prison and maggots.  He was 82 now and a little thicker around the waist.  One Thursday night he showed up with racks of clothes and gave them to me.  “I’m not going to fit them again,” he said.  Shortly afterwards he was out in his backyard trimming hedges and his arms hurt like they hadn’t before. Confined by the real and imagined limits of his aging body, he felt intolerably diminished. Looking into his eyes you could see him going further away than ever before. Possessed by old demons, he was back in prison.

In the fall of 1995, four weeks into the season, Valere Spetebroot, impulsively, put a bullet in his head.

This last, desperate act felt like a betrayal of all that he stood for.  How was this possible?  

Leo said, “It was his nature.”  

I don’t understand all the complexities of his nature, though God knows I’ve tried.  Nor will I ever comprehend the overwhelming, uncontrolable pain he battled.  Now, thirteen long years after his abrupt exit, its enough for me to know that Valere was the very best of friends and that he bravely, passionately embraced life for as long as he could…

Up and down the dirt alley a ball weaves around the blocks, searching for the feather.  Staring through the dust I am haunted by a vision of Valere, laughing, running after his ball, imposing his will. I’m not alone. Others, like Mike Chateau, remember with me and sometimes we find ourselves echoing him.

I don’t have a copy of the photo I took of Valere in his casket.  I don’t need it.  His grinning portrait hangs on the wall of the Cadieux Cafe where he remains one of our greatest champions.