Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Born Loser - The sorry life of a Cleveland Browns fan

Welcome to Cleveland! (photo by Sports Illustrated)

There’s not a whole lot you can do about heredity. Like it or not, you may grow up to be short and fat, or skinny and bald. It’s possible you could go your whole life eating nothing more than grass and bark and still have high cholesterol. Genetics determine quite a bit about our future as we plow through our lives – and there’s not a darn thing we can do about it.

But what about where we grow up; geography instead of genealogy - does that have any impact?

Is it possible our lives are destined to be better or worse because of where we’re born? I’m not talking about the Congo … or Uganda … or anything obvious like that. I’m talking about Pittsburgh, Chicago, or, God forbid, Cleveland.

Could being born in Cleveland, Ohio, specifically in July of 1965, actually lead to a life of misery, disappointment, mistrust, angst, and severe depression? I’m no anthropologist, but I do know my life has been riddled with all of the above thanks to Cleveland, Ohio, and more specifically, its football Browns.

It’s silly, I know. How on Earth can a stupid football team lead to such a lousy existence?

I’m not sure I can answer that question. I only know that it does.

It’s funnier still when I think about the sport. I don’t like the football mentality; in fact, I despise it. I hate the macho behavior, the references to battle, the clichés, the thanking God, and just about everything else that goes hand in hand with professional football – but I love the Cleveland Browns.

As best as I can remember, I’ve loved them my whole life. And that’s unfortunate really, because no professional team in all of professional sports has dealt their fans more heartache than the Cleveland Browns.

Oh, it wasn’t always like that. The Cleveland Browns of the 1940’s and 50’s were the most successful franchise in all of professional sports. They dominated their competition, winning seven titles in ten years. They continued their winning ways into the 60’s, winning the NFL Championship in 1964 behind the powerful running of the legendary Jim Brown.

Jim Brown (photo by Sports Illustrated)

My dad must have been in heaven. His childhood was filled with championship after championship. He was only 23 when the Browns won the title in ’64. I’m sure he was excited when his first son (me) was born in 1965. Certainly, he must have daydreamed about taking me to games with him. What could be better than sharing the future glory of the Browns with his own son?

But the Browns went dry after that ’64 championship - dry as a popcorn fart!

After 1964, the Cleveland Browns began a 45-year journey of gut-wrenching losses and horrible luck. It was tough to watch at times, but it was all I knew and I still loved it.

My dad? Not so much.

I remember one particular Sunday afternoon; must have been about 1976 - the Browns were in the midst of blowing a huge lead against Pittsburgh at Three Rivers Stadium; a venue they’d never tasted victory up to that time. The Steelers tied the game and sent it into overtime. Of course, the Browns promptly fumbled away the opening kick, sending my poor dad out of the living room and up to the bathroom where he promptly threw up.

My 4th grade class photo - note the awesome Browns-helmet shirt.

The rest of that season he wouldn’t let me watch the Browns on TV. If he caught me sneaking a peek, he would yell at me. Usually something along the line of, “Turn those damned bums off, you don’t need to be watching that $#*t!”

My old man was a real maestro with the English language, but his self-imposed blackout didn’t bother me much; I knew he’d sneak off to the Patio Tavern around halftime to watch the rest of the game. After that, I had the TV to myself. Of course, around 4:30 he’d be home again - usually in a crappy mood after another Brown’s loss.

It never dawned on me that my dad wasn’t used to losing. It never crossed my mind how easy it was for him to keep track of the number of years since the Browns last championship - because it was my age! To me, even as an 11-year-old, the Jim Brown-era was ancient history, but to my dad, it was “just yesterday.”

Everything Cleveland, everything Browns! (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Despite their horrid play, I still loved everything about the Cleveland Browns. I loved the Mike Phipps jersey I got for Christmas one year. I loved the plainness of their orange helmet - no logo, just one white stripe running down the middle surrounded by two brown ones. I loved the fact the Browns played outside - in the cold - by Lake Erie - on a field that usually was muddy.

The Browns were, and still are, what football should be …ugly!

But in 1980, the Browns actually were good for the first time in my life - not only good, but exciting too. So exciting, they were dubbed the “Kardiac Kids” because of all their come-from-behind victories. Even when they were down, they somehow found a way to win. Luckily, I was far too young to worry about having a heart attack, but I'm pretty sure my poor dad nearly had a haymaker or two watching them squeeze out win after win in the waning moments.

It was a foregone conclusion, at least to me, that the Browns would be going to their first Super Bowl that year. I was absolutely giddy, as were most of the kids in my school. The Browns were the talk of the town, and rightfully so. When my dad burst through the door one morning announcing he had two tickets for their playoff game versus the Oakland Raiders, I nearly peed my pants. Unfortunately, my glee turned to despair when he told me the other ticket was for my grandfather. It took me a while to get over the snub (I’ll let you know when I do) but the Browns were in the playoffs, and that was all that mattered.

When game day arrived, so too, did a blast of arctic air, plummeting temperatures well below zero - 39 below with the wind chill, in fact. At that point, it was the second coldest game in NFL history. Because of the extreme cold, nobody gave a warm-weather team like Oakland a chance, but in truth, it was the Browns who should have been the underdogs.

The Browns kicker, Don Cockroft, was one of the few straight-on kickers left in a league full of imported European soccer-style kickers with names like Stenerud and Yepremian. It was painfully apparent on the opening kickoff that Cockroft may as well have been kicking bricks instead of footballs, because that’s about as far as the frozen ball traveled off his frozen foot.

Cleveland kicker, Don Cockroft. (football card photo)

In the end, Cockroft’s lack of kicking ability in the cold, led to the first of several crushing losses for Browns fans born after 1964. The Browns trailed 14-12 late in the game, but they were driving down the field, just like they'd done so many times that season, for what appeared to be the winning score. But rather than attempt a game-winning field goal from close range, the Browns instead tried for a game-winning pass in the end zone, which, of course, was intercepted by the Raiders. I was only 15, but my life felt like it was over. This time I went upstairs to the bathroom and promptly threw up, but I’m pretty sure, somewhere in the bowels of Cleveland Municipal Stadium; my dad was doing the same.

After that game, I was jaded. The Browns were my first love, and like all first loves, I always would remember them fondly. But my first love also had burned me. I may have loved the Browns, but never again would I trust them.

Chip Banks feels the sting of another Browns loss. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

More disappointment would follow. In 1986 it was “The Drive.” In 1987, it was “The Fumble.” It seemed only the Browns could come up with ways to lose a football game so painfully, that it got turned into a proper noun.

As I got older, in my 30’s, I realized it’s tough to love a team that doesn’t love you back. I realized brown and orange are tough colors, in a fashion sense, to wear anywhere else except to a Browns game. I realized that professional football was nothing more than big business – still, I loved them.

Never was that love put more to the test than in 1995, when their owner, Art Modell, did the unthinkable and pulled the Browns out of Cleveland. He wanted to move them to Baltimore where they were willing to build him a new stadium. In a testament to Browns fans, the NFL granted the move, but wouldn’t let Modell take the team’s name, or colors with him. The NFL also guaranteed the Browns would return to the league in 1999 with a new stadium - but with the same name, the same colors, the same plain helmets, and, unfortunately the same uncanny knack for being a mostly horrible team.

Browns center Steve Everitt in 1995, their last year in Cleveland - at least for a while. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

And that's exactly what they've been. The new Browns have lost, and lost, and lost. They’ve taken losing to new heights – made it an art form even. Even when it looks as if they might actually win a game or two, they’ll find a way to lose. They've lost games in ways I never thought possible.

Like to the Bears a few years back, despite leading by 14 points with only 34 seconds left in the game. Or to the Chiefs in their 2002 season opener, when the Brown’s Dwayne Rudd took off his helmet to celebrate what he thought was a game-ending sack. Wrong! Rudd was penalized for removing his helmet, the ball was moved into field goal range, and the Chiefs kicked a field goal with no time on the clock to beat Cleveland by a point.

I grew tired of losing, and yet, oddly proud of how creative the Browns were when they lost. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, they’d prove me wrong. When Boston fans pissed and moaned about their poor Red Sox never winning the World Series, I didn’t feel sorry for them. When Philadelphia fans whined about how rough it is to be a sports fan in the city of brotherly love, I just rolled by eyes.

Boston? Philly? Are you kidding? What a bunch of wimps! They’ve won plenty, even in my lifetime. Cleveland carries the true torch for losing. It’s something we’ve insanely started to boast about with a misplaced, perverted sense of pride. We’re the kings of crap - the best at being the worst. Nobody, and I mean nobody, even comes close.

When the Browns were defunct from 1995-1999, I actually led a normal life. I got married, had three kids, none of them affected by the curse of the brown and orange.

“Maybe their lives will be different.” I thought to myself. “Maybe they’ll be winners.”

It’s true; my kids aren’t saddled with the stigma of the Cleveland Browns. My eldest daughter cares little about football; my middle daughter likes the Miami Dolphins, my son, the Seattle Seahawks.

As luck would have it, the Browns actually played the Seahawks three years ago in Cleveland and I took my son to Cleveland Browns Stadium for his very first game. The Seahawks raced out to a huge lead. My son was ecstatic. But then the Browns clawed back and tied the game. It didn’t matter; I knew they somehow would blow it in the end and my son would remain happy. But they didn’t blow it; they actually won the game in overtime. My son was crushed. It was a great game and I should have been happy, but I was crushed too.

Was my son also a born loser? I was used to losing, no big deal to me, but somehow my Browns actually had beaten his favorite team. Not only beaten them, but come back from a big deficit to do it. The Seahawks, dare I say it, looked a lot like the Browns in that game – they’d choked.

A horrible thing has happened since that game. The Seahawks are now terrible and my son has become a Browns fan like his dad. That's not what I wanted for my only born son.

The legacy of losing. The Browns bench circa 1985. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

This past Sunday I took him, and my younger brother, to go see the 1-8, Browns play the 1-8, Detroit Lions at Detroit's Ford Field. Going in, I thought it could potentially be the most God-awful game in the history of the NFL. The two worst teams battling it out in what I dubbed the “Suck Bowl.” A 0-0 tie wasn’t out of the question.

But an amazing thing happened - it was a great game!

The Browns raced out to a huge 24-3 lead in the first quarter. Of course, none of the Cleveland fans where I was sitting were too excited, we’d see this all before. Sure enough, the game was tied less than 15-minutes later. A seesaw battle ensued. The game truly was exciting, especially when the Browns scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

With less than two minutes to go in the game, Lions fans began to leave Ford Field (where the Lions play). The Lions were out of timeouts, trapped deep in their territory, and apparently, their fans had given up hope.

“Where are you people going?” I asked.

“It’s over,” They answered, "we're leaving."

“Against any other team in the NFL, I’d say you’re right,” I said, “but this is the Cleveland Browns – trust me, stick around.”

The Lions fans ignored the advice and left anyway. It looked as if they'd made the right choice when it came down to one last Hail Mary pass near midfield. Cleveland intercepted the pass and it looked as if the Browns actually had won. But this is the Browns. Within seconds of what looked like a win, the flags came raining down on the field, and for probably the first time ever in the history of the game, a defensive interference call was made on a Hail Mary pass.

The ball was put on the 1-yard-line, and, of course, the lowly Lions scored on the next play. Game over - Lions 38, Browns 37.

It stung.

I know what it’s like to lose. It’s all too familiar for me – almost comfortable even. Losing never lets you down because it always lets you down. But watching the Browns lose is like watching a loved one die from a terminal illness. You already know the outcome, yet, you still feel shocked when it happens.

As I walked back to the car with my son and my brother, I began to wonder if maybe it’s just the city itself. I mean players come and go over the years; they only have to carry the torch of losing for a few seasons, then they’re either cut, traded or retire. It's we, the fans, who have to carry the burden of losing forever.

But how can it be that year after year, no matter who puts on the ugly brown uniform, or straps on the plain orange helmet, they still lose? I bet my brother that if the Steelers and Browns swapped uniforms for one game, the Browns would beat the Steelers because they’d be the Steelers.

"If you want to win, go to Pittsburgh." I said. "If you want to lose, come to Cleveland."

Just once I’d like to taste the fruits of victory; to know what it’s like to be the best of the best; to walk the streets proudly - head held a little higher - chest puffed out a little further.

What could that be like? Would it change my life?

I’ll probably never know. Sure, it’s possible I may taste a winner one of these days; it’s just not likely. Maybe my poor son will live long enough and be lucky enough to feel, what I assume, is the sweetness of victory. Only time will tell.

My dad has given up on the Browns. Too many losing seasons have beaten him down following those successful early years. Now he feels compelled to be disappointed by the Ohio State Buckeyes every January instead.

But not me, despite all the heartaches; the wasted Sunday afternoons; the deep depression from which I have yet to emerge - win or lose ... and lose ... and lose - I still love the Cleveland Browns!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

With this ring ...

A ring on my finger once again!

It was sitting, waiting for me in a small box on my front porch when I stopped home between assignments Saturday afternoon.

I thought I was supposed to sign for the package, but there it was. No matter, I was glad they left it without my signature – mostly because of the hassle I would have been put through if I’d been forced to drive to UPS headquarters across town to retrieve it, but also because it was late Saturday and I didn’t want to wait until Monday to get what I’d been pining after for so long.

All sorts of strange emotions started coursing through my head as I picked the box off the front porch and brought it into the house - a huge dose of excitement, but also a sense of closure, and a tinge of guilt.

I put the box on the kitchen counter and grabbed a pair of scissors from the junk drawer. Before I cut the tape off the box, I took one last look at my naked ring finger on my left hand. It was exactly a year to the day when that finger last wore a wedding band, but that all would change as soon as I opened the box.

… I lost my wedding band at Leslie Park Golf Course the previous November 14th - most likely pulled out of my front pocket by the antenna of my cell phone. The loss of my ring, and the subsequent three-week, metal-detector search over five miles of snow-covered golf course, was well chronicled in a series of columns I wrote for The Ann Arbor News.

The story of my lost ring made the rounds locally, and soon I couldn’t go anywhere without someone asking if I’d found my ring. Rather than answer verbally, I’d hold up my naked ring finger. It got so crazy; one woman even offered the use of her search and rescue dog to help me look, and another woman felt so bad she actually gave me her father’s wedding band (I gave it back).

Most thought I was in the doghouse with my wife for losing my ring, but the truth was, she didn’t really care, she was just upset because she knew how much I loved it – and I did love it! Apart from my Timex watch, I’d never worn another piece of jewelry in my life before my wedding ring. When I got married in 1996, I picked out my ring with little thought while strolling through the mall one day with my wife (then fiancé) Julie.

She suggested I get a band made of white gold instead of yellow. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as white gold. What I found instead was a band with both white and yellow gold. The middle of the ring, the largest band, was white gold, surrounded by thinner bands of yellow gold.

It was simple. It was elegant. It was cheap!

For $300, I got the ring I assumed would stay on my finger until the day I died. It never dawned on my I might lose it on a golf course in a fit of stupidity 13-years later.

Before we got married, the jeweler at the store suggested I wear the ring a week or two to see how it fit. Sage advice, it turns out, because the ring was too big and felt quite awkward – always snagging on my pocket whenever I’d reach in for change, or grinding into the webbing between my fingers.

I returned the ring to have it sized down and engraved before the wedding. When I got the ring back there was a small scar where they had to cut it for resizing. It didn’t bother me in the least. I treated the scar like the tag on a pair of underwear – my ring now had a definitive front and back, and I always made sure the scar faced down toward my palm.

The jeweler also told me the discomfort I’d felt wearing a ring soon would disappear once my finger and the ring figured each other out.

“Your ring will find its place on your finger,” he said, “then it will slowly make itself a groove and you won’t even notice it.”

For the most part, he was right. My ring did find its groove. But it wasn’t like it just disappeared from my attention - I always noticed my ring.

I noticed when I put a few dings in middle band of white gold. I noticed the sound it made every night when I would plunk it in a little dish on my bedside table. I noticed the eye-watering pain it would create when it would sometimes snag one of my beard hairs when I put my hand up to my face. I also noticed how it would dig into my hand whenever I’d grip a golf club, or lift weights – unfortunately, a feeling that led to its loss.

I loved my ring, but I loved it even more because I didn’t wear it nonstop. I enjoyed taking it off at night. It gave my finger a chance to breath, and I enjoyed it even more when I put it back on in the morning – always cold, always sliding over my knuckle with effortless smoothness.

I even loved the way my ring looked when it wasn’t on my finger. I loved putting it in the small pouch in my golf bag with assorted tees and ball markers. I loved the way it felt it in my hand before I put it on my finger - it had a weight to it that seemed perfect.

Then, last November 14th, on an otherwise perfect day, it was gone - just like that.

My brother-in-law Chris was in town and we decided to go and play one last round of golf before the snow started to fly. Normally, I would put my ring in the small pouch in my golf bag with the assorted tees and ball markers, but the small pouch had broken, so I put the ring in my front pocket instead.

For the next three hours, Chris and I had a great time playing golf, but when the round was over, I reached in my front pocket and the only thing I felt was my heart sinking and my stomach getting sick over the realization that the pocket was empty.

For three weeks I held out hope I could find it – in fact I knew I would. I’m very persistent like that. Give me a challenge and I'll turn it into a quest – and my quest was to find my ring.

Unfortunately, with each empty pass of the metal detector, I slowly began to realize I might actually lose my quest. I started to get depressed. I felt guilty for leaving my ring to the elements. I felt mad that someone might already have found my ring and pawned it. I felt helpless and hopeless and stupid.

For the first two months after losing my ring, I’d wake up every morning and habitually reach for it in the little dish on my bedside table. Slowly, that habit faded - as did the tan line left behind by my ring. Eventually, the groove at the base of my finger from 13-years of wearing my ring went away as well - now every finger looked the same.

“It’s no big deal.” My friends said. “People lose their wedding bands all the time, just get a new one.”

“You don’t understand.” I told them, “I can’t just replace my ring - it would be disrespectful.”

“To who?” they asked.

“To the ring!” I answered.

My friends would shake their heads and walk away thinking I was off my nut. Maybe they were right. It was just a ring, after all - a circular chunk of 14k white and yellow gold. It wasn’t like it was alive or anything. It didn’t have feelings (good thing). So why was it so hard for me to replace it?

It didn’t matter. I was broke anyhow. Even if I wanted to replace my ring, I couldn’t afford to, the recession had shot the price of gold through the roof. My once $300 ring now priced in around $850. Besides, it was November, I lost my ring on the very last day the golf course was open so I knew if it was out there, it would lie untouched all winter until the course opened again in the spring.

I decided to give myself the entire month of April before I gave up the search. Even if I couldn’t find it, surely some other golfer or maintenance worker would.

April came, and with it came renewed hope. I alerted the workers at the course to keep their eyes out for my ring. I was hoping they might hit it with their mower blades and flip it to the surface where it would be visible. Of course I also knew they might just as easily run over it with a tire and push it helplessly out of sight, deep into the soft earth.

By the middle of the month, my ring had yet to be found, and now the rough was starting to grow. It was over. I gave up. I no longer reached for my ring in the little dish on my bedside table every morning. I stopped feeling for it with the other fingers on my left hand. The songs I used to tap on my car’s steering wheel with my ring were a thing of the past. My left hand easily glided in and out of my pockets with nary a snag, and I no longer pulled out any beard hairs by mistake.

It bothered me that I was getting used to being ringless. I was a married man, and even though a lot of married men don’t wear rings, I never thought I’d be one of them.

I decided to get a replacement - the sooner the better - now all I had to do was start saving some money (or maybe sell an organ) so I could afford one.

As luck would have it, I fell into a few freelance jobs and actually saved the money by the end of the summer. The only thing left was to pick out the ring. This sounds easy enough, but apparently ring styles change over 13-years. Every jewelry store I visited (and I visited quite a few) had rings similar to my old band, but not exactly the same.

Oddly, I found other styles I liked just as much, if not more than my original band. This created another problem. Should I just part ways with the original design and go for something completely different? Or should I stay true to what I had in the first place?

In the end it came down to two ring styles, both similar, but one very much resembling my original band. I put it to my family to decide (something I didn’t have the luxury of doing when I got married). My 13-year-old daughter swung the pendulum for me. She liked the style that was more akin to my original band. When I asked her why, she replied, “Because it reminds me of your first ring … and you really liked that ring.” She was right, and her words sealed the deal. I ordered the ring.

Now, exactly one year to the day after losing my ring, here I was, about to pour its replacement out onto the kitchen counter. After shredding open the bubble wrap, I pulled out a plain white box. Inside that box was a smaller green box, and inside that box was my brand-new ring.

It was shiny and bright, but not really all that much like my old one. The band widths were much different than my original, and it didn’t have the roll of my old ring - this band was pretty flat.

“Oh well, I guess this is it.” I said to myself as I pulled the ring out of the box and slid it on my finger.

The fit was snug – maybe too snug. The jeweler told me I was a size 9, but this ring barely, and I mean, barely fit over my knuckle. It had been a year since anything had occupied the bottom third of that finger, but now my new ring was trying hard to fit in – to find it’s groove.

At some point in time, I’ll most likely own this ring longer than I did the original - it’s my wedding ring now. I may even grow to love it (even though it didn't even exist the day I was married).

In the meantime I’ll try to enjoy the occasional snag on the front pocket, the tapping on the steering wheel, the clinking sound as I drop it into the little dish on my bedside table, and, of course, the occasional pulling of the beard hair.

My year of being ringless is over - long live the ring!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembering Andy

Mi Hea Kim caresses her son Andy's face during his funeral.

United States Marine Lance Corporal Andy Kim never saw the barrel flash from the sniper’s rifle as he walked point on a road patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, the first day of November, 2006.

He never heard the sizzle of the bullet as it seared though the air, or felt the burn as it tore into his neck, dropping him instantly dead on the ground just three days after his 20th birthday.

Kim’s death was no more or less spectacular than any other death suffered in any other war. He was just a soldier following orders and serving his country before he was killed in the line of duty by a carbon copy of himself at the other end of a rifle.

Just another tombstone in a cemetery marked with a flag - another kid who will never get married; never have kids; never get old and fat, and yet, his death was so much more than ordinary.

Three years ago this month, Andy Kim’s story unfolded before my eyes. I never met him while he was alive, but for two weeks in November, I got to know Andy very well in death as I traveled with his body to both his funeral in Ann Arbor, and his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Kim’s mother Mi Hea and his father Don were kind enough to invite me, and Ann Arbor News reporter Jo Mathis, into their lives as they grieved the death of their eldest son. They told us they were “honored” by our presence. Can you imagine that? Honored by our presence.

By them saying that, it changed everything for me. Instead of feeling like a vulture, exploiting their grief, I felt a sense of responsibility to share their grief with our community – with the world.

People needed to know that Andy Kim’s casualty was far from ordinary. It was a death to be felt deeper than just the Anbar Province in Fallujah, where Andy was killed, or South Korea where he was born, or Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he went to school, or Arlington, Virginia, where he was buried. Andy’s death needed to be felt by everyone. His death was our death … my death.

The two weeks I spent with the Kim family are something I’ll never forget, even now, three years later when his death seems more and more trivial as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to spin their wheels and go nowhere.

The images of those two weeks are forever burned in my brain. The irony of his situation has never escaped me.

Andy Kim was not the stereotypical Asian kid. He didn’t excel in school and he got into his fair share of trouble. He was lost, like a lot of 18-year-olds, and then he found God - our God - the western version. Andy tried converting his parents to his newfound Christianity. But they didn’t understand and they resisted.

Soon after he found God, Andy also found the United States Marine Corps. He felt at home there, older and more mature than his fellow plebes because of his strong belief - a belief that made it easy for Andy to voluntarily walk point on road patrols. He had God on his side. He was saved; born again. Andy would take one for the team if he had to. He was expendable.

The other Marines in his unit may not have known that, but his parents did, and so did his kid brother Isaac. Andy told them so in his numerous letters home from the front lines. He may have been afraid of a lot of things, but he was not afraid to die.

The sound of Andy Kim’s lifeless body falling to the ground arrived before the sound of the bullet that took his life. It was a quiet death. The sniper had done his job cleanly – taking out the Marine point man completely undetected. He got his kill - an American, but his fatal shot started a series of events he never could have envisioned when he set his gun sight on Andy Kim’s head.

The news of their son’s fate numbed Mi Hea and Don. They’d left Korea for America when Andy was a 2-year-old. They didn’t want their son mandatorily serving in the South Korean Army upon his 18th birthday. Now their son had been shot dead wearing the battle fatigues of a country they weren’t even from. They struggled with their decision; they struggled trying to find answers and reason. They didn’t have Andy’s God to turn to. They were lost, much like Andy had been after high school.

Like every casualty of war, Andy’s body was about to embark on an amazing journey, logging several thousand air miles before finally being put into the earth. His only belongings - dog tags, a crucifix and a Timex Ironman watch - were removed from his corpse and dropped into a red velvet pouch where they would stay in the shipping crate next to him as he began his long trip home. First, he was flown to Germany, where his body was cleaned and embalmed; then it was off to Dover, Delaware, where his death was officially processed; and finally, Andy's body was flown to Detroit, Michigan, near his Ann Arbor home.

Don and Mi Hea were waiting on the tarmac in the pouring rain at Detroit Metro Airport when their son’s flag draped casket was taken off the plane. They would collapse in grief at the site of the coffin – the first of many times their grief would reduce them to hysterics in the coming weeks.

Andy's dog tag, crucifix, and Timex Ironman watch.

The red pouch with Andy’s dog tags, crucifix and watch were given to Mi Hea and Don - all that was left of their son. The Ironman watch was in perfect condition, still set 6-hours ahead to Iraq-time. Now it was keeping a post-mortem timeline. A timeline that began the moment it was slipped off Andy’s lifeless wrist. If only Mi Hea and Don could have those 6-hours back, maybe their son would still be alive.

In two days, Mi Hea and Don would have relatives flying in from Korea and Japan to attend their son’s funeral. The Kim’s younger son Isaac, a junior in high school at the time, became both the family’s travel agent and translator as the family dealt with the business side of death.

Isaac didn’t have time to feel the numbness his parents felt. He didn’t have time to cry. He was too busy gathering photos of his brother for the funeral, picking up relatives at the airport, translating for his parents to the Marine Corps, the funeral home director, the folks at Arlington National Cemetery – anyone who didn’t speak Korean.

The Marines from Lansing descended on Ann Arbor too – dozens of them. No fallen comrade would go unguarded. For the next two weeks, Andy’s flag-draped casket would be watched over by America’s finest.

A private showing of Andy’s body preceded his public funeral. Only Mi Hea, Don, Isaac, and 20 or so family members were there when the casket lid was opened for the first time since it arrived in the states. The last time Mi Hea had seen her son, he was living … breathing – warm. The sight of Andy in uniform, lying dead in a casket was more than she could take. Her grief needed no translation. Instantly she burst into tears and turned away. Then she ran to her son, bending over the casket and collapsing on top of his chest.

There was no sound in the church; nothing to drown out Mi Hea’s quiet moaning as she gently stroked her son’s face over and over. Nothing to block out the emotion of the moment as she kissed his forehead, then wiped her tears off his brass uniform buttons with her handkerchief. Mi Hea wouldn’t leave Andy’s side. She wouldn’t let Don or Isaac pull her away. For 20 minutes she repeated the same ritual of stroking his face, kissing his forehead and wiping her tears off his uniform.

Eventually, Mi Hea’s tears would dry and she found herself stumbling to the first row in the church with Don and Isaac by her side. The public soon would be in to see their son. Within an hour the church would be packed with Andy’s friends and relatives. Several World War II veterans also would show up to honor Andy.

Mi Hea and Don double over in tears as the lid to Andy's casket is closed for the last time.

When all had paid their respects, the lid to Andy’s casket was slowly lowered shut. Mi Hea and Don followed the path of the lid with their bodies, bending over as the lid dropped lower and lower. Soon, they were almost sitting on the floor, trying to savor one last glimpse of their son. Both burst into hysterics when the lid was closed for good. For an hour, at least, they'd seen their son again, but now he was truly gone and it was too much for them to handle as they doubled over in sea of tears.

But Andy’s burial still was a week away. His relatives all would stay in Ann Arbor until it was time to fly to Washington D.C. for the final leg in Andy’s journey. In the interim, I got permission from the local funeral home to visit Andy’s flag-draped casket in the home's basement where he was kept for the week before the burial.

Andy's casket in the basement of the funeral home, waiting to be crated and flown to Arlington.

It was a powerful sight. One that very few get a chance to see. The stars and stripes of the American flag stood out with such boldness in an otherwise dreary setting. For 15-minutes I stayed with Andy’s body. Nearby, another casket containing the body of 19-year-old boy killed in a car accident, waited for its funeral to start later that day.

A Marine guard would be dropping by soon to check on Andy’s body. I was told this happened every day the entire week he was in the basement. I wondered where Mi Hea and Don were at that moment while I was with their son. I wondered what Andy would say to me if he were still alive. I wondered if he knew the young man in the casket next to us. It was strange to be standing between the dead bodies of two young men whose ages didn't add up to mine combined.

I shut off the lights and left both boys behind. Grieving relatives of the young man killed in the car accident already were filing in upstairs. I’d be back at the funeral home in a few days when they would prepare Andy for his final journey to Arlington. I decided to accompany Andy and his Marine escort to Detroit Metro Airport for their flight to D.C.

Driving next to the hearse carrying Andy's casket down I-94 was odd. How many folks passing us could guess the hearse contained a fallen Marine? Once at the airport, Andy’s casket, already packed in a shipping crate, was removed from the hearse at the airfreight warehouse. To us, Andy Kim was a fallen hero; to the airport, he was 450 pounds of air cargo marked “human remains.”

Andy's Marine escort, and Northwest Airline employees salute his body as it's loaded onto the plane.

I wasn’t allowed on the tarmac with the Marine escort or Andy’s body, but I’ll never forget how every person at the gate pressed their faces to the window as they watched his casket get loaded into the belly of a Northwest Airlines jet. Several saluted once they saw Andy’s Marine escort and realized it was a fallen soldier being put on the plane. The next day I was on a plane myself with Mi Hea, Don, and Isaac, bound for our nation’s capitol.

Whatever grieving the Kim’s had set aside for a few days, came rushing back at the site of Marine Honor Guards carrying their son’s casket through Arlington National Cemetery. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. The rows of grave markers stretched out over the hillside in perfect white lines behind Andy’s gravesite. Apart from Mi Hea’s soft sobbing and birds singing, it was quiet. 

The pace and precision of the Marine Honor Guards was a true thing of beauty. The ceremony was short, maybe 15-mintues, but it was powerful. The sound of Taps ringing off the grave markers broke the silence and reduced everyone to tears. Andy Kim deserved such a burial – every fallen soldier deserves such a burial.

United States Marine Corps Honor Guard members carry Andy to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.

Television crews from Washington were there; photographers and writers from the Washington Post were there as well. I asked them why they were interested in covering the death of a Michigan Marine. They told me anytime they get clearance from the relatives of the deceased soldier; they cover the burial.

A half an hour later it was over. Before we had left the cemetery grounds, U.S. Marince Lcpl. Andy Kim was lowered 6-feet into the same Virginia soil that thousands of other soldiers from several wars, as well as several U.S. Presidents, now call home.

Three years later, I still think a lot about Andy Kim, especially today - Veteran’s Day. I think of all our veterans, my brother included, who have risked their lives, or have given their life, for our country. It makes me humble. It makes me proud.

Andy Kim died a quiet death on November 1, 2006. But it didn’t go unnoticed, and it never will.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Hello Hudson" - Cemeteries, Halloween, Ouija boards, and the fine art of all-out sprinting!

West End Cemetery by the light of the full moon on Halloween night. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

There are two kinds of scary in this world – good scary, and bad scary.

Bad scary is when you turn around in a mall and can’t find your son or daughter who was just standing next to you, or hearing sirens when your daughter is an hour late for her curfew and you can’t reach her on her cell phone. Thankfully, nine times out of ten, those instances turn out to be nothing more than a false alarm, and all you’re really dealt is a heaping dose of perspective.

Good scary is going to see a slasher flick with your friends, or playing a practical joke, or walking into an old cemetery at midnight illuminated by nothing but the light of a full moon … by yourself … on Halloween!

I can’t say I’m much a fan of slasher flicks, after high school they kind of lost their appeal – and practical jokes never flew well with me either, but as far as walking into a creepy cemetery at midnight is concerned? Well, that’s something I’ve never outgrown and still really enjoy.

At least that's what I was trying to tell myself as I made the long walk through the moonlit, grassy field leading to the old West End Cemetery behind my childhood home in Berlin Heights, Ohio, shortly after midnight on, you guessed it - Halloween.

My goal was to stroll into the cemetery and find the gravesite of Hudson Tuttle - a name that sounds spooky enough, but is even spookier considering Tuttle’s history.

Tuttle, who was born in Berlin Heights in 1836, made his living like most folks in my hometown did in back in the day; he was a farmer and a horse breeder. What made Tuttle unique was the fact he also was a spiritualist. Never a big believer in organized religion, Tuttle attended his first séance as a young man and apparently fell into a trance, writing spirit messages “automatically.”

Despite his lack of formal education (he only attended 11-months of school his entire life) at the age of 18, Tuttle wrote a book on spiritualism “Arcana of Nature” that was quoted from by famed author F. C.L. Buchner. Tuttle also was quoted from Charles Darwin from one his later books “Origin and Antiquity of Physical Man.” Ironically, neither Buchner nor Darwin had any idea they were quoting from an uneducated, 18-year-old, Ohio farm boy. On top of all that, Tuttle was the inventor of a Ouija board-type device he called the Psychograph. Tuttle and his spiritualist buddies used the Psychograph to contact the dead during their numerous séances. 

So I figured, what better gravesite to visit at midnight on Halloween under the light of a full moon than that of Hudson Tuttle? Believe it or not, I was alone because my kids were too scared to accompany me on the trek – wimps!

What was there to be afraid of? Just because West End Cemetery was perilously perched high atop the cliff bank leading down to Old Woman’s Creek and half the gravestones were either tilting this way or that, or cracked completely in half, was no reason to be frightened. And just because the most recent burial at the cemetery took place long before I was even born, was of no concern. And so what if there was a whole section in the cemetery devoted to children who died from scarlet fever – or small pox – or cholera - or even just childbirth. And just because the cemetery should be condemned because continual erosion is making it a matter of time before caskets start tumbling down the cliff bank and into the creek, doesn’t mean the place is spooky!

Still, there I was ... alone, walking the last 50-yards or so to the cemetery gate. The moon was so bright it was easy to see the tombstones jutting out into the night. All evening long I'd been bombarded with Grim Reapers, Freddy Kreugers, Jasons and escaped mental patients. But all of that was expected – this was truly scary.

As I got closer, I started remembering all the times I had visited the cemetery with my older sister and her friends when we were kids. We’d often take her Ouija board with us and put it on top of Tuttle’s grave to try and contact him. Of course there is security in numbers, especially when you’re a kid, so I think we all felt somewhat safe when the Ouija board’s planchette began roaming across the board with our nervous fingertips in tow.

Usually, before the last letter of the first word was completely spelled out, someone would freak out and bail. This would start a chain reaction among the rest of us, and soon it was a free-for-all back toward my house across the long, grass field. 

The speed attained by the average 11-year-old scared out of his or her wits is hard to describe. Any kid knows you can run faster in the dark – it’s a simple kid fact, just like swimming pool water is always warmer at night too - you don’t question it, it’s just a fact. Of course it didn’t hurt that the entire 500-yard sprint back to my house was downhill. Still, I remember my fear turning to absolute glee when I'd hit top speed about halfway home, knowing full well no ghost in the world could keep up with such an incredible gait. 

My feet barely touched the ground - it felt like I was flying, like most kids in my town, I may have been barefoot as well. If we were lucky, someone would have remembered to bring the Ouija board. If not? Chances were pretty good the board would stay there until morning light.

The memory made me crack up as I approached the gate.

“What is it that makes a cemetery so scary at night?” I thought to myself.

“It’s not like the dead care if it’s day or night – it’s dark to them no matter what time of day it is.”

I swung out around the gate that hangs half over the cliff bank - probably the only real scary thing I'd done so far that evening. Plummeting 150-feet off a shale cliff into Old Woman’s Creek wasn’t out of the question, but I’d swung around that gate so many times as a kid, it was kind of like riding a bike – even by moonlight.

Hudson Tuttle's tombstone.

Once inside the cemetery, I had to call on my memory to find Tuttle’s grave. Even though he was born in the 1830’s and died in 1910, his tombstone wasn’t all that old looking or scary. Not like some of the markers at West End that were truly creepy – even in daylight.

The ground was quite uneven in the cemetery, most likely from creep (the actual geological term for when the earth moves due to the gravity of a hillside) toward the cliff bank … or moles. Either way, it was enough to make me stumble a time or two. Once I actually stumbled enough to fall to the ground, this time over a bone. If I were a kid that would've been the time to bolt, but I realized fairly quickly that the femur I'd tripped over was merely a prank by one of the town’s freshly minted group of kids who’d probably just discovered the joy of ghost seeking at West End themselves.

The tall pine trees in the cemetery blocked out most of the moonlight and made it hard to see. But soon my eyes adjusted to the darkness and before long I could have read a book - maybe even a book by Hudson Tuttle! And wouldn’t you know it, my memory and my navigation skills must have been finely tuned, because at my feet was Hudson’s grave, along with his wife Emma’s.

It was just as I remembered. His tombstone was rather plain and modern looking, but still in good shape; clean with no debris or chipping, it was like he could have been buried last week. Before I got caught up in ringing up Hudson, my own cell phone rang. It was my concerned daughter calling to make sure the dead hadn’t abducted me. She’s 13, the perfect age for thoughts like that.

“Liv, it’s past midnight, go back to bed, I’m fine.” I assured her.

“Okay dad, but hurry up would you?”

I put the phone back in my pocket wondering what life would have been like if I had a cell phone as a kid and my mom would've called when I was in the midst of spiritual connection.

It didn’t matter. Here I was standing by Tuttle’s grave. I took out my camera and snapped off a few frames using the moonlight and a flash as my light sources. With every flash the entire cemetery would light up and then vanish in an instant.

On my last exposure I pressed the shutter and the flash lit up something I wasn’t expecting – a figure hanging from the branch of a pine tree. Suddenly, the 11-year-old in me kicked in and, just like I’d done a hundred times before as a kid, I darted up from Tuttle’s grave and began sprinting the 500-yards to my mom’s house.

Of course, tombstones that once stood erect now littered the cemetery grounds and I caught the edge of one right in my shinbone sending me reeling to the ground. No time for pain, I got up and continued on, sling-shotting around the gate with extreme precision before accelerating down the hill toward home. Halfway there I hit top speed, maybe not as fast as I was at 11, but pretty good for a 44-year-old. Once again I felt as my feet were barely touching the ground. A smile crossed my face - this was good scary, and soon I was laughing.

My heart was beating like a rabbit when I reached the safety of the house. Once inside, I walked upstairs and assured my daughter I was still alive, and then I hit the sack.

The next morning, the kids and I headed back to West End to sacrifice our Jack-O-Lanterns over the cliff bank into Old Woman’s Creek. Once inside the cemetery, I peered over at Tuttle’s grave once again, and there; hanging from a branch of the pine tree, was a toy skeleton.

“That was good one Hudson, “ I said to myself, “a good one indeed.”