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As far back as I can remember, I’ve been taken with the human person—the ideal, the reality, the individuality. Not unnaturally, I first remember being in awe of my mom and my two older brothers. They seemed to do everything so well, and I admired each for his (or her) talents and grace. But, then, there were also my mom’s parents. My maternal grandfather was the most dignified man I’d met (to this day), and my maternal grandmother was as much a friend as a grandmother. She talked with me all the time, and she walked me to the 5 and Dime where I could almost always get a candy or a Batman comic book. Plus, she was an artist, especially in the kitchen. It was her domain, and she wielded it with beauty and integrity. Then, there was also great-Aunt Lonnie (my grandmother’s younger sister) and her husband, great Uncle Steve. Lonnie was queen of the kitchen just like her sister, and I remember meals with Lonnie and Steve were also somewhat sacramental. Interestingly enough, it was Lonnie who first explained to me what the Blessed Sacrament was. We went to church early one morning, and I asked her what the red candle meant. Her explanation of the Body of Christ remains with me to this day, and the memory is tinged with the holy twilight colors of stained-glass.
I don’t have good memories of either my kindergarten or first-grade teachers (I just remember how mean they were), though I have great memories of my friends from those years. In first grade, especially, I thought Joel Haskard the coolest boy there was. He was tall, he was smart, he was funny, he read comic books, and he lived next to our hometown’s only amusement park. The guy seemed to live in a realm of magic. Joel and I have stayed close ever since, living together for a while during graduate school and traveling much of the American West together. He remains one of the best conversationalists I’ve met. He also had wonderful parents who very much took me as one of their own.
I had a deep crush on my second- and third-grade teacher (the same person), and, in part, to look good for her, I did my best in every subject. I think I inherited my love of reading from my mom, but Miss Mackey did much to shape my literary tastes. She also raised African Violets, which, even as a kid, fascinated me.
Eating (again, so many sacramental moments) and reading probably propelled my love of the human person more than anything else in my late-grade-school and junior-high years. Specifically, with reading, I became entranced by Ray Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkien. I, of course, knew nothing about their actual biographies, but I devoured all I could from each man, and that gave me an imaginative connection to their respective souls. Asimov, Clarke, Huxley, Orwell, Leguin, and Herbert inspired me, too, but no where near to the extent that Bradbury and Tolkien did. Not having a father (my dad died when I was two months old), I used to imagine Tolkien as mine, and, in my very young Catholic fashion, I prayed for him every night.
My best friend in later grade school was a great guy by the name of Tim O’Sullivan. Not only was he full of life and energy (rambunctious and a bit ornery), but he had a wonderful mom, dad, and sister. His dad, Joe, especially inspired me. He was the county attorney, and we used to say goodbye to him when he’d have to go on raids or do police work. Joe just breathed a kind of Clint Eastwood cool. It was Joe who first took me out to drive on ice. After a storm, we drove to a major parking lot, and he taught Tim and me to do spins in the station wagon! Tim’s mom, Diane, was as nice as they come, and she always treated me with great care and kindness.
I also greatly admired my grade-school principal, Sister Patricia. She wasn’t a warm and fuzzy guitar-playing nun, but rather a serious and detailed one. She demanded everything—morally and intellectually—from us as students, and I did my best to live up to her example. She was from Mexico, and she even taught several of us some rudimentary Spanish. Most of all, though, she taught us to be respectful of our faith, to make our faith real.
I had some close friends in junior high, but I remember those years more with dread than with joy. Those close friends, however, served as a kind of lifeline in a rather “Lord of the Flies” public-school setting. I had attended grade school at our parish school, but I was switched to Liberty Junior High in seventh grade. I never really made the transition. Being fully nerdish, my few friends and I went to every possible science-fiction and fantasy movie together, and, in our considerable free time, we played Dungeons and Dragons. Believe it or not, playing D&D gave me great insight into human psychology, especially as the game’s Dungeon Master.
In high school (much happier than junior high), I again met some extraordinary teachers. Mrs. Pierce fiercely taught us about the horrors of ideologies (fascism and communism), Mr. Thompson taught us to love the Constitution, and Mr. Story (the actual name of the head librarian!) taught us to research as well as to laugh at ourselves. Plus, I made some lasting friendships (especially in high school debate): with Ron Strayer, Clay Lindwall, Heather Anderson, and Becky Pichler.
It was, however, high school debate and forensics that taught me ways to appreciate and understand the dignity of every person. In debate, I learned how to cooperate with colleagues, clash with opponents, and persuade judges. In the study and practice of debate, every person became both unique and individual. I certainly can’t mention my debate experience without mentioning the wisdom and dedication of another great individual, Greg Rehmke, who introduced me to so much I consider vital in this life: the nature of rights, the nature of liberty, the nature of individualism.
For those of you who have made this far in my rather personal and autobiographical essay, thank you. As a way of summary, I can state that my life has always been interesting, and it’s been interesting because of the very people that God and life have put in my path. Each of the persons mentioned above meant not only a great deal to me, but mysteriously entered into the very fibre of my being.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.