Sunday, September 27, 2009

While you were sleeping

Superior Twp. firefighters stand guard over the charred remains of the Thompson block warehouse in Ypsilanti's Depot Town, Wednesday morning. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

While you were sleeping a whole other world came to life...

While you were sleeping the owl outside your window turned into a vicious killer. The homeless man on the corner slept outside on a bench in relative warmth … if only for a few more days.

While you were sleeping your local hospital delivered three newborn babies … and pronounced four patients dead.

While you were sleeping drool ran out of your mouth onto your pillow, a huge house spider crawled across your face and four millipedes mated on your kitchen floor.

While you were sleeping your motion-detecting front porch light was set off six times by a family of raccoons, then skunks, as they made their nightly rounds from house to house.

While you were sleeping a fire destroyed a historic building in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town, a Japanese teenager got ready for school, a rotted-out tree fell in the forest.

While you were sleeping you soaked your sheets with sweat, had four dreams you won’t remember, rolled over 14 times in bed - and stopped breathing twice.

While you were sleeping the dew fell, another wrinkle began to form on your face, your arm fell asleep, you passed gas without knowing it, a possum got hit by a truck.

While you were sleeping your neighbor beat up his pregnant wife, two cats fought in your backyard, a drunk driver slammed into a telephone pole and your power was out for 15 minutes.

While you were sleeping your eyes were rapidly moving, your foot was twitching, you snored without knowing it and you involuntarily scratched your knee.

While you were sleeping, the moon arced across the sky, the temperature dropped 15 degrees, your bladder slowly filled.

While you were sleeping your TV was still on, you got up to empty your bladder, you turned off the TV.

While you were sleeping, earthworms were hard at work, your fingernails grew, you scratched your other knee.

While you were sleeping two teenagers were making out, an old barn collapsed in Wisconsin, somebody famous started losing their fame, the latest trend began forming in someone's head.

While you were sleeping all these things were going on as you chiseled away a third of your life – the best third.

Go back to bed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

National Pastime: Batman

Ron Reed, Milan, hits baseballs at Elbel Field in Ann Arbor earlier this month. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

The following is the final installment of a two-part series on our national pastime. The first part, "Arms Race" dealt with my decision to coach my son's Little League team. This story "Batman" is about Ron Reed, a 61-year-old Milan man who enjoys nothing more than hitting baseball after baseball in an empty park.

There was nothing special about last Thursday as I drove down Hoover Street in Ann Arbor. Just another summer day like any other.

Sunny, fairly warm, puffy white clouds dotting the sky. A good day to get lost in a daydream, which was exactly what I was doing when it was interrupted by a loud CRACK!

I’d heard that sound a million times before. It was the unmistakable sound of a baseball being hit hard with a bat, and not just any bat- a wooden bat.

Soon after, another loud CRACK filled the summer air, then another … and another. I spun my car around and drove toward the source of the sound, which turned out to be nearby Elbel Field.

There in the field, well off in the distance, a solitary older gentleman was tossing baseballs in the air and whacking them across the field, one after another - CRACK! … CRACK! …CRACK!

I’d heard tell from some of my baseball friends about an older fellow roaming around local ballparks, smacking balls into the distance for no apparent reason. They said he was strong as an ox with forearms bigger than Popeye’s, toting a bag of baseballs on his hip and a wooden bat on his shoulder. Apparently his goal was to pick out a target several hundred feet away and proceed to pepper it with perfectly hit baseballs.

Up to that moment I thought he was just an urban legend, but it had to be him. Who else could it be?

Even from a distance I could tell he was older, and he sure enough had a bag of baseballs hanging from his hip. I couldn’t really tell if he was aiming at anything in particular, but he most definitely was making solid contact with each and every ball he tossed into the air and smacked into the field.

Quickly, I parked my car on the street and set off toward the middle of the field. Needless to say, the older fellow was surprised to find a guy with a camera walking toward him.

I arrived at his small grouping of well-placed baseballs sitting in the middle of the field before he did, so I reached down and scooped up a few. When he got closer, he put up his hand and signaled to me. I tossed him a ball which he effortlessly caught and deposited into the bag on his hip.

“I’ve heard about you.” I said. “You’re the old guy my friends have told me about - the guy who loves to hit baseballs.”

The old man smiled and held out his hand.

“Ron Reed.” He said, introducing himself.

“Hi Ron, nice to finally meet you.” I replied.

I shook Ron’s hand and immediately wished I hadn’t. My hands aren’t small, but Ron’s large, powerful, meat hook swallowed my hand whole, grinding my knuckles into powder with his bone-crushing handshake.

“You’ve got a pretty strong grip there, Ron.”  I said, freeing my pulverized paw, then rubbing it to try and bring it back to life.

Ron held out his hands and began to examine them. The top of his hands were raw and cracked, the undersides were a mountain range of thick calluses.

“I do have strong hands,” Ron said. “you wanna know why?”

Before I could guess, Ron gave me the answer.

"It’s from being a tradesman for 32-years – that, plus I hit 500-600 baseballs a day.”

“That's a lot of baseballs." I said.  

For the next five minutes Ron, a 61-year-old from Milan, went on to tell me how God had blessed him with a very special skill and that very special skill was his ability to hit a baseball with both power and precision.

His voice became excited as he talked about his hitting prowess.

“I still got a lot of major league skills.” Ron proclaimed. “I can really thread a needle, in fact, God has blessed me so much I can stand right here and drive a ball up into that light post.”

Squinting in the sun, I looked up to the light post some 300-feet away and nodded politely, but I was somewhat skeptical.

“That’s pretty intense, isn’t it?” Ron said.

Again, I nodded.

Then he promised to put on a show for me.

“Let me warm up, then we’ll have good time.” He said.

After scooping up the remainder of his baseballs, we walked over to the far side of the field where Ron had a blanket laid out in the grass. On the blanket were five brand-new Louisville Slugger baseball bats, a Rawlings glove and an equipment bag.

It was a strange site to say the least. The bats were fanned out in a perfect pattern on the blanket as if they were sunning themselves - much like the co-eds not far from where we were standing.

All the bats were long and skinny – they were, in fact, fungo bats. The type of bat a coach uses to hit fly balls to outfielders during practice. The five bats sunning themselves on the blanket looked as if they’d never been hit. The same couldn’t be said for the bat in Ron’s meaty hands.

“Look-ee there,” Ron said, pointing to the barrel of the bat, “I’ve hit the sweet spot so many times the bat is starting to splinter.”

He was right, the barrel of the bat looked pretty shoddy - as did the handle. It was rubbed raw, right down to unstained wood from his powerful grip. Even when he was talking, Ron would grip, then re-grip the bat, grinding the handle in his powerful hands with nervous energy. I half expected sawdust to fall from his palms when he finally let loose.

After stretching a bit, Ron decided he would hit some balls from the edge of the outfield grass at Elbel’s softball field. To start, he picked out a target nearly 290 feet away – a trash can sitting against the fence separating Elbel Field from a set of railroad tracks.

“I’m gonna put this one in that trash can.” He said.

Ron reached into his bag and pulled out a brand new baseball. He put the tattered bat on his shoulder and took a deep breath before tossing the ball high in the air. As the ball reached its apex, Ron locked his focus on the ball, squatted down a bit with his muscular legs, then began his ferocious attack on the ball.

His left leg strode forward, planting firmly in the grass as he spun his hips toward the target. His shoulders began pulling the bat into position before his thick forearms took over. Before long, the lag created by the quick, unfurling of his body, snapped the bat through the impact zone like the cracking of a whip; his powerful wrists and hands delivering the 36” long Louisville Slugger onto the ball with a thunderous smack.

The ball soared high into the background of the beautiful blue sky. Ron paused as the ball kept climbing. At first he looked concerned, then he began to smile.

“That one’s a good one.” He said.

The ball started well left of his target, but soon it began slicing back a bit, and before long it was heading right for the trash can.

“I took a little off of that one to control its flight.” Ron said.

Seconds later the ball crashed into the outside wall of the trash can.

“Ohhhh!” Ron screamed. “I just missed it.”

“What do you mean, you hit the can.” I said.

“Yeah, but I wanted to put the ball in the can.” He answered.

As Ron began picking out other targets in the distance, he told me how he’d discovered his knack for hitting balls at specific targets at a young age.

“When I was 13 me and my brother Bob had just finished a Little League game and we decided to stay and play a little longer.” Ron said. “The field was by a dirt road and this old car went by and I said ‘Bob, I’m gonna hit that car right in the side’ – you know, it was all wrecked and everything – and I tossed it up and hit it … BINGO!”

Ron chuckled while recalling the story.

“Well, my brother says to me, ‘You got lucky.’ And I said, ‘No, I tried to hit it.’ So a dump truck goes by and I tell Bob I’m gonna put one right in the box of the dump truck. And I did! I mean it went right inside the box. Ain’t that cool?”

After smacking a half dozen more balls into the stratosphere, Ron and I walked out to retrieve them once more.

On the way back to the infield he showed me how he initialed all of his baseballs with the name of Jesus before putting them into play. He told me how much better he would be hitting if he had on his baseball cleats (he’s wearing running shoes) and was using his favorite bat (a bat he’s dubbed “Silent Thunder”).

Still, for the next 20-minutes Ron hit balls off the cross bars of Elbel’s soccer goals, smacked line drives between the fence and a row of light posts, and rolled balls to a stop on his blanket. It was a true hitting display - cleats or no cleats.

I asked Ron what all of this meant. He is, after all, a 61-year-old man. What was the purpose of hitting 500-600 baseballs a day?

“I’m an athlete – I’m trying to stay sharp.” Ron said.

“My aim is to travel the country putting on hitting exhibitions.” He continued. “It’s all part of what I like to call the magic of baseball.”

Magic or not, I was sold, but it was time for me to go. I said goodbye to Ron, careful not to shake his hand again, I patted him on the back instead.

I then turned and headed for my car on the street, leaving Elbel Field behind me in much the same way I had arrived - with the joyous, unmistakable sound of a wooden baseball bat smashing a cowhide sphere high and far into the air.


Monday, September 14, 2009

National Pastime: Arms Race

(photo by Lon Horwedel)

The following is the first of a two-week series of essays about the game of baseball. This week’s essay “Arms Race” deals with my decision to coach my son’s Little League baseball team. Next week’s essay “Bat Man” is a story about Ron Reed, a 61-year-old Milan man who whose love of hitting baseballs takes on epic proportions.

Arms Race

Not to brag, but I was a pretty good athlete as a kid - maybe even a standout as 10-year-olds go.

I picked up sports quickly and easily - then mastered them almost as fast. In Little League I tossed four no-hitters, batted over .600, and played third base like a vaccum cleaner – nothing got by me. I was so good there was never a doubt in my mind I would become a professional ballplayer when I grew up.

My control on the mound was uncanny for a kid. I beaned only two batters my entire career and rarely walked a hitter unless it was intentional. I threw plenty hard too, chucking 45 to 50 mph fastballs as 10-year-old and 65 mph heaters by the time I was 13.

And then it was over.

By the time I was 15, I had peaked. My fastball never got any faster and my uncanny control had backfired on me. With little fear and faster bats, kids now were smacking my pitches all over the park knowing I would always throw strikes.

It was embarrassing. My no-hitters had turned into “no-outers.” I was lucky if I lasted three innings before my opponents put up a 10-spot on me. My dreams of a major league career were dashed, but my love of the game never waned.

As a fan, I faithfully suffered through losing season after losing season of Cleveland Indians baseball while they consistently gave up 10-spots to their opponents in a manner which I was all too familiar. As a player, I had a resurgence of sorts playing co-ed softball in college, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing against softball, but it’s just not baseball. So after college I put the glove in the closet and went on with my life.

And that’s the way it remained for nearly 20-years. Sure, there was the magical run of the Cleveland Indians in the mid-90’s where they sold out 425 straight home games and went to two World Series (of course they lost them both). But as for me actually playing? I didn’t so much as even play catch.

That all changed when I was lucky enough to get married and have three kids whom inherited their father’s love for baseball. Truth be told, they weren’t much good to me at first. Their throwing was terrible and they couldn’t catch worth a squat. Not to mention our games often had to be put on hold so I could change their diapers. Still, I tried and tried and they seemed to enjoy watching their old man chase after their errant tosses.

It was frustrating, but it was an important lesson for me - I just didn’t know it at the time. My kids were teaching me patience; something I desperately needed – and fast!

Patience, it turns out, is exactly what you need as you watch your once-awful kids slowly turn into pretty good ballplayers in the span of only a few years and a few thousand backyard tosses. And not only did they improve, but I had the nice side effect of getting my throwing arm back in shape as well.

In fact, my youngest son got so good I decided it was time to take my love of baseball one step further and take on the task of coaching his 10-and-under travel baseball team for next season.

This meant I needed to host an open tryout to find the best 10-year-old ball players in Ann Arbor. To get the word out, I contacted every Rec & Ed baseball coach telling them to send me their best players. To try and reach even more kids, I also put an ad in the local paper. I didn’t know what to expect, but I assumed we would have about 25-30 kids show up for the tryout.

Earlier that week I attended a different tryout to see how their coaches ran things. I noticed they used a pitching machine when the kids took batting practice. This was okay, I guess, except every kid knew exactly what to expect after two pitches. At that point, I decided I would throw live pitching at my tryout to see how well the players would adjust to different pitch locations. Besides, I didn’t own a pitching machine.

Two days later, tryout day arrived. My son and I got there a half hour early to warm up. I threw him batting practice for roughly 20-minutes to ease his nerves … and mine. I had no idea what to expect, but it wasn’t much longer before car after car began pulling up and dropping off 10-year-old kids in all shapes and sizes toting gloves and bats.

Within 15 minutes, more than 40 kids had descended upon the park, all looking for a spot on the team. For the first hour I had the kids run the bases, field grounders and shag fly balls. Then it was time to see what they could do with the bat. To be fair, I told every kid I would give him 7-10 pitches figuring that would be enough to see if they could actually hit.

My son, who’d already done plenty of hitting, volunteered to put on his catcher’s gear and sidle in behind home plate to help out his old man on the mound.

“Better give me a few warm ups so I don’t drill anybody.” I joked to the waiting batters.

They laughed nervously.

I reached down and grabbed a brand-new Rawlings baseball out of a 5-gallon bucket sitting near the mound. The ball felt good in my hand. Its seams fit perfectly under the fingertips of my middle and index fingers; slightly raised from the otherwise smooth surface of the ball, they gave me just the right amount of friction for a perfect grip – not too loose, not too tight. It’s hard to describe the perfect feeling of perfect-sized object, like a baseball, and how it relates to the human hand. I just knew that it felt, well … perfect.

As I stared in at my pint-sized son crouched behind the plate, I realized the last time I pitched worth a darn was against kids this age. Only now I was twice their size, so I had to remind myself I was here to see how well these kids could hit, not how many I could strike out. But just for fun, I poured one in at full speed (still only 65 mph) on my last warm-up pitch leaving a nice, loud SMACK into the pocket of my son’s catcher’s mitt. 

The batter’s eyes widened at the sight and sound of my last offering.

“Okay, I’m ready." I announced. 

Then I shouted, "BATTER UP!” 

The first batter nervously approached the batter's box and stepped in ... sort of.

“Son, you might want to scooch a little closer to the plate.” I said. 

Slowly, he inched his feet to the outside edge of the box.

“Don’t worry," I said reassuringly,  "I’m not going to hit you ... I promise.” 

After he actually got in the box, I peered in at the plate, 46-feet away, and started my windup. My motion was as fluid as ever. Nothing had changed in my 33-years away from the mound except my size. My mechanics had remained the same. The first pitch slid effortlessly off my fingertips and soared across the middle of the plate. It was only a 45 mph fastball, but it was a beauty. The poor kid never swung the bat.

“STEEE-RIKE ONE!” I yelled. “Remember, you only get three and your out.”

Three more beauties followed, but soon the kid in the batter’s box, as well as the hordes of kids on deck, slowly began to realize that not only would the full-grown man on the mound not kill them, he was, in fact, giving them nothing but flat, right-across-the-middle-of-the-plate, 45mph fastballs.

By my fifth pitch the kid foul-tipped one to the backstop. By the sixth, he fouled one down the first base line. On my seventh pitch, he cracked a single right back up the box.

“All right, that’s more like it.” I said.

With that one single, the confidence of every batter waiting on deck grew by leaps and bounds.

“Next!” I yelled.

Batter number two came out swinging. A big kid and a good hitter, he jumped on my first pitch and drilled it deep to left field. The sight of the ball sailing over the left fielder's head sparked a bad memory of my last year in Little League when kids were spanking my pitches all over the park. A little perturbed at the thought, I dug my foot a little deeper into the loose dirt on the mound and reached for the next ball.

“Okay kid,” I said under my breath, “let’s see you hit this.”

Inside my glove I gripped the ball with nothing but my fingernails, then I proceeded to float a beauty of a knuckleball toward the plate. It was like watching a butterfly as it flittered and darted this way and that on its 35 mph journey to my son’s glove.

I couldn't help but watch in admiration as my pitch approached its destination. The ball hadn’t spun at all - not even once. It was so without rotation, you could read the Rawlings on the ball’s cover as it floated through space between the mound and the plate.

Suddenly, my admiration was shattered by the sharp, stinging sound of a metal bat crushing a cowhide baseball into the stratosphere. The kid hit the ball so high and so far I think it burned up on reentry. 

“Throw that pitch again coach,” the kid yelled back at me, pounding his bat on the plate, “I liked that one.”

“Damn!" I said to myself. "This little bastard is making me look like a fool." 

Three more 45 mph fastballs were followed by three more blasts to left field.

“Next!” I yelled, as sweat began dripping from my brow.

Now the kids were licking their chops to get into the box and take their cuts. There was no doubt I still had my uncanny control, but I wasn’t any better than a pitching machine at this point. The kids were far from afraid - they were eager.

For a second, I thought about using my uncanny control to dust off a kid or two. The problem was most of the parents had stayed to watch the tryout and throwing a little “chin music” to their sons probably wouldn't sit too well. I thought about speeding up the pitches, but that didn’t seem like such a good idea either. I was, after all, trying to throw at roughly the same speed they would see from the average 10-year-old.

Instead, I decided to start working the ball in and out a little, then up and down - all the while throwing strikes. Then I started to mix up the speeds while still tossing the occasional knuckleball. It was a good plan and I soon realized that even though the kids could hit me, they still had problems when I moved my pitches around the strike zone. I was getting what I wanted – a good sense of who had good bat control, but not so good that I looked like a fool.

I had become a Little League Greg Maddux.

For an hour this went on. Batter after batter strolled to the plate getting 7-10 of my best pitches. Thinking we were near the end, I asked the kids who hadn’t hit yet to raise their hands - at least ten kids thrust their hands skyward.

“Holy crap, ten more.” I thought to myself.

The sun was getting low in the sky and we already were a half hour past the time I told parents we’d be done. But it wouldn’t be fair to cut it short and deprive a kid a chance to bat. Luckily, the parents seemed to understand this, so on we went.

For the next 20-minutes, it was more of the same.

Throw - hit.

Throw – miss.

Throw – hit.

Throw - miss.

Finally, as darkness began to fall, the last batter took his last cut and the tryout officially ended.

There was plenty of data to pore over after the three-hour tryout. Who could catch, who could throw, who could hit. But all that could wait. I was starving; and so was my son who’d spent the better part of the last hour crouched behind home plate being his old man’s battery mate.

“You okay buddy?” I asked as we gathered up our gear. “You did a lot of catching back there.”

“I’m fine dad.” He said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine.” I said surprised. “Why?”

“Well, you threw a lot of pitches dad, how’s your arm?” He asked.

“I didn't throw that many,” I said, “only 7-10 per batter.”

“Yeah, but dad, there were 40 batters.” He replied.

“Forty batters, hmmm, you’re right, so that’s like what?” 

 "That's like 350 pitches dad.” My son chimed in.

 “Holy crap! You’re right." I said. "I threw over 300 pitches!”

I checked the condition of my arm by swinging it back and forth and stretching it up over my head. It didn’t seem to hurt at all. In fact, it felt pretty good. Granted, most of my pitches were barely over 40 mph and I was only throwing from 46-feet away, but still, 350 pitches!

“Hmmm, my arm doesn’t hurt at all.” I told my son. "Not even the least bit sore."

“Good,” he said, “wanna play catch?”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Spirit in the Sky

Cloud formation making a gateway in the sky over Northern Ohio last month. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

I’m not a religious guy. Not that I haven’t had my moments. When I was in the third grade, my mother was certain I would become a priest when I grew up because she said I was so “self righteous.”

Whether or not that was true, I do remember being lured by the buzz of Norman Greenbaum’s guitar in “Spirit in the Sky” as it drifted like magic over CKLW’s AM airwaves in my old man’s car. 

Greenbaum's lyrics made sense to me, even though I was only six at the time. They were matter of fact and kind of happy, despite the fact he was singing about death.

“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best.”

"When I lay me down to die; goin’ on up to the Spirit in the Sky.”

 It was simple, it made sense and it was a catchy tune to boot:

“Prepare yourself, you know it’s a must, you gotta have a friend in Jesus,

"So you know that when you die, he’s gonna recommend you to the Spirit in the Sky.”

That song, more than anything, became my mantra for all things religious. I prayed every night as a kid, even though I rarely went to church. On those rare occasions when I did go to church, I found myself looking at the larger-than-life Jesus nailed to the cross behind the altar of St. Pete’s Catholic Church and I would start to sing the song in my head.

It was like I was wearing headphones or something. When everyone else in the congregation was standing, sitting, kneeling or praying, I was tapping my foot to the sound of Greenbaum’s guitar, buzzing in my head.

I felt a real connection with Jesus back then. He did, after all, look like most rock stars of that era. It was 1970 and long hair, beards, and flowing robes were very much "in" at the time. For all I knew, it could just as easily have been Norman Greenbum nailed to that cross behind the altar because they sure looked a lot alike.

I knew, even back then, I was never going to be the world’s best Catholic (but I may have been the most hip). Where most folks blindly followed with their faith, I always had questions:

How could I know if the things being taught to me in catechism were any more valid than Greenbaum’s guitar solos, or Ian Gillan’s searing vocals in Jesus Christ Superstar?

For example, why was the sky always referred to as the Heavens? Even as a little kid, I knew that the sky was just part of our atmosphere. Was it really possible that God, Jesus, and all the souls of well-behaved dead people were up there somewhere looking down on us?

And what about hell? Could it really be possible that somewhere in the bowels of the Earth, a fiery land of eternal damnation and torture awaits if we do something as innocent as not believe in Heaven?

I was a little kid, but I was curious to know what happened to all the Egyptians, Buddhists, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and American Indians who all believed in something different than what I was being told to believe. Were they all in Hell? Or were they in several different Heavens, co-existing in space separately, but very much equal?

I didn’t know the answers and I felt certain the church wouldn’t give me any objective advice on the manner, so I did the next best thing I could think of, I tried to talk to God.

I vividly remember laying in our backyard looking up at our neighbor’s giant oak tree as it stretched into the blue sky on a beautiful summer day with puffy white clouds drifting along just beyond the tree's branches. It looked like Heaven - or at least the way I thought Heaven should look. But it was a beautiful day - of course it looked like Heaven. 

The next day might be hazy, or gray, or raining. Was it Heaven then? And what if God wasn’t there? What if he was down here on Earth taking care of some business at the time. Would he still hear me? And exactly how do you talk to God? I mean, I assumed language wasn’t a problem, he must know several, including English, but did I need to speak out loud, or could I just think it and let him read my mind?

It’s something I still think about today, some 35-years later. Why is it I still associate Heaven with the sky on a beautiful day? And why is it I still don’t know how to talk to God?

Just last month I was driving along the shores of Lake Erie at sundown when the most amazing cloud formation began to take shape on the horizon. It was so amazing, I felt the sudden need to feel spiritual. It had been a beautiful day, and now it was shaping up to be a beautiful sunset. 

 My whole family was with me; my wife in the front seat, the kids in the back; not unlike my own childhood cruising along with my sister, two brothers, and my mom and dad. 

The days of listening to CKLW on AM radio had long past, but my love of music had not. I flipped on the radio and tuned it in to 94.5, a classic rock station out of Toledo. Lynard Skynard’s Freebird was on, quite possibly the worst song ever recorded. I nearly changed stations but it was near the end of the epic song and I decided to leave it alone.

As the sun continued to fire up the cloud formation in front of me, an amazing thing happened. The last annoying guitar riff from Freebird faded into oblivion and the fuzzy, buzz-saw sound of Norman Greenbaum’s guitar took its place.

“Unbeliveable!” I said out loud.

“What?” My wife asked.

“I was just thinking about Heaven and those clouds up there, and then 'Spirit in the Sky' comes on the radio.” 

For the next four minutes I cranked up the volume and told my kids to listen. Even though they’re more into the world of hip hop and pop music than classic rock, I knew they’d still dig Greenbaum’s guitar riffs and catchy lyrics – and they did.

“That’s a pretty cool song.” My son admitted.

After the song ended, I told them how much it affected me when I was a young kid; recounting my stories of toe-tapping in church and trying to talk to God in my backyard while lying in the grass and looking at the sky.

“That’s it,” I said, “I gotta pull over and take a picture of those clouds, they’re just too amazing to ignore and if I don’t do it, I’m going to be pissed at myself later.”

“Well then do it.” My wife insisted.

I turned right at the next crossroad and headed north toward the lake. I kept driving until I had a clean shot of the cloud formation with no trees or power lines in the way. It was a country road with no shoulder and I was surprised that once I found my clean shot, there just so happened to be a school parking lot there for me to pull into.

At the time, I wasn’t paying attention to anything other than getting my picture before the sinking light levels made it impossible. It wasn’t until I was done shooting that I noticed the name of the school where I had pulled off was Jerusalem Elementary.

“No way!” I said.

“What now?” My wife asked.

“First I’m thinking about Heaven because of those clouds,” I said, “and then ‘Spirit in the Sky’ comes on the radio, and when I finally decide to pull over and take a picture of those clouds, I pull into a school called Jerusalem.”

No one in the car seemed to care.

“C’mon, don’t you think that’s just too weird?” I asked.


“Well, whatever,” I said mockingly, “but if we crash and burn on the way home I’m going up there to them clouds and you heathens are going to be burnin’ down below!”

Five minutes later the amazing cloud formation that had me so entranced, broke up and flitted away as darkness began to take hold. An hour after that, we were back home in Ann Arbor getting the kids ready for bed. I kissed my children goodnight and decided to turn in myself, but before I let myself drift off to sleep I tried to dial up God in my head one more time.

“Lord,” I said to myself, opting for the mind-reading route, “I don’t know what that was tonight – if it was anything – and I don’t know if there’s a heaven up there - or if there’s a hell - and if there is a heaven and a hell, I sure don’t know where I’m going to end up. But God, if you do exist and you are responsible for what my life has become, I just want to say thanks and please keep it up; because when I die and they lay me to rest I wanna go to the place that’s the best!”

Can I get an Amen?