Saturday, May 8, 2010

Slipping into Silence

Legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, lies in repose inside the main gate at Comerica Park in Detroit, Thursday, May 6th, two days after his death at the age of 92. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Two old men died this week. Both about the same age, born some 90 years ago. They roamed the planet at the same time, drew the same air into their lungs, and beat out the same rhythm with their hearts before they wore out and quit working.  But that’s where the similarities stop.

All knew the one old man; his voice entrenched deep into our souls for years and years. And he knew you too, or at least he said as much. Whether you were from Inkster, or Trenton, or Grand Rapids, he’d call you out on the airwaves if you were lucky enough to have a spherical chunk of rawhide tumble from the heavens and end up in your lap. He was kind and gentle - as genuine as any person on the planet, and if you ever got the chance to meet him, you’d never forget, because he made you feel like you were the most important person in the world.

People wept when this man died, even though he told us not to. He announced he was terminal last fall and told us not to shed a tear. He told us he had lived a great life, as great as any man could wish. He just wanted to die peacefully without any fanfare.

But the people cried anyway. And there was fanfare.

Thousands and thousands came from as far away as Alpena, Traverse City and Muskegon to say goodbye to him. Some brought flowers to lie at the foot of his casket, some brought the same spheres of rawhide the man had so pleasurably described for 55-years of his life, but all had brought their memories.

Memories of a little girl sneaking her transistor radio to bed so she could listen to her favorite team until she fell asleep. Memories of long car trips across the state listening to a ball game with nothing more than that familiar voice to keep them company. Memories of those chance meetings where he’d made them feel so important. Memories of looking up into an old stadium’s press box to see if they could pick him out – the man with that familiar, old Greek fisherman’s cap.

He wore that same cap as he lay in his casket next to a statue of himself inside the main gate of the new stadium. Up the street, about a mile, was the old stadium, or what was left of it. The place where he really made his name. The place where his magical voice still resonates through the weeds and the rubble where Tiger greats like Cobb, Greenburg and Kaline once roamed.

They came from sunup to sundown to pay their respects to the man they felt they all knew. The man, they felt, knew all of them.

The other old man was no less a man. But his life was hard. As hard as it could be before he slipped silently away while sitting on a corner bench in the city. The years of racial slurs and injustices he’d endured as a black man, growing up in a time when civil rights were hardly civil, were gone now. His friend pleaded for him not to die as two other homeless men sat on a bench nearby completely unaffected.

But the old man didn’t listen. He’d had enough – seen enough. It was time for him to go, to be done with it all. Dressed in fine slacks and a dark blue cardigan, he looked at peace now, almost as if he were sleeping. But he wouldn’t wake up, no matter how much his friend shook him and begged him to do so. He was gone.

The old man had picked a beautiful May morning to die. The sun shone brightly on his lifeless corpse, keeping him warm, even in the absence of pumping blood.  Flower petals from the blossoming tree above him, flitted off the branches and landed at his feet, which no longer bore any weight. His head, topped with a fine derby hat, sunk heavy on his chest. His right hand still clutched tightly to the handle of his cane, but his left hand fell limp at his side.

Cars drove by and didn’t stop. People walked past him with Starbucks in one hand and cell phones in the other. Apart from his pleading friend, no one seemed to notice. No one seemed to care.

Forty miles away, people stood in a long line to say goodbye to the one man. But here on this street corner, on a beautiful May morning, no one even knew this man was dead.

Two lives, no less lived, no less important, were gone now. And for one brief moment, the world fell silent.

(note: To watch the slideshow of images from Ernie Harwell's public viewing, push the play button on the first image. To see them full screen, click on the box with the four diagonal arrows in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.)



  1. Lon, we are so lucky that you have chosen to share your gift of "words" with us..... They are beautiful.... thank you....

  2. So sad that some of our fellow citizens pass without anyone caring or mourning them...

  3. Lon, another great job. You need to write a book. You have a great gift that I hope will reach more people.