Tag Archives: Death

The Profundity of Two Words

17 Nov

We were having dinner when my stepdaughter, out of nowhere, said something that I thought of as profound and true. It was only two words, but it was something that I agreed with. We went on to discuss why she said it and delved deeper into the issue.

What were those two words?

Mortality sucks.

It has been said many different ways.

The only guarantees in life are death and taxes.

None of us are getting out of this alive.

Those are cute ways of saying that each of us will eventually face our demise. We are all different, but that similarity unites everyone. It is nature. It is how the world works. However, that does not mean we have to like it.

I am not one of those people who thinks about death. In fact, it hardly ever enters my mind. However, it is my job to talk about it. As a historian, I talk mostly about people who are no longer alive. From presidents to prostitutes, they are all part of the story, but they are also all part of the past. Their time has come and gone, and they have gone with it.

There are times when I think of the people I talk about and wonder what they would think about the world that has come after them. What would Thomas Jefferson think about the country that started with his Declaration of Independence?Thomas Jefferson

What would the woman who lived in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1842 think about her descendants? Did her family turn out like she hoped it would?

In my mind, that is one of the worst things about death. We miss out on all of the stuff that happens after. I want to see as much of the future as possible. I want to know what technologies will be invented.  I want to know who all the presidents will be. I want to know who is going to win all of the Super Bowls. However, it will be impossible because mortality exists, and mortality sucks.

There is something else about mortality that I find interesting. Our religions tell us that there is something better in the afterlife. It is a paradise where no troubles exist. This imperfect world will be replaced with a perfect one.

What is interesting about that? No matter how much we believe about the wonders of the afterlife, we fight like crazy not to get there. Exercise. Medicine. Healthy food. We have created all kinds of ways to prolong life in this imperfect world and not have to go to that perfect world.

I am not sure where this post is heading, but here are some things that I think.

I think Thomas Jefferson wanted to know what happened with this experiment that he and the other founders put into motion.

I think people of the past wondered what the future would look like.

I think we wonder the same thing.

I think we come up with ways to prolong life because we want to be part of the story for as long as possible.

I think the world of the future will be better than the world of the past.

I think mortality sucks.


Listeria – In Memoriam

31 Jan

This is the season of awards shows, and people tune in for all kinds of reasons. To see who is going to win what. To see who is going to wear what. To see who is going to say what. I watch the shows like everyone else does, but I am looking for something else. I am fascinated by the “In Memoriam” part. It is interesting to see how they are going to pay tribute to the people who have passed away in the past year. Who will get the most applause? Who will be shown in a film clip rather than in a photograph? Who passed away that I did not know about? Who will be left out?

That last question is always the most controversial. It would be impossible to show everyone, and difficult decisions have to be made. Inevitably, people are going to get mad. I even wrote a post about people who I thought were mistakenly left out of an Academy Awards presentation.

With all of that being said, I have decided to provide my own “In Memoriam” for the people who passed away in 2013. To accomplish this, I bought a copy of Farewell, a LIFE publication honoring the deceased. It is filled with people who I know a lot about and people who I have never heard of. As the great decision maker of who should be honored in the SBI World, there will some left out just like on the awards show. However, these are the ones who I want to remember.Candle

You will have to imagine the music in the background.

In no particular order:

Margaret Thatcher – The Iron Lady. I read somewhere that the Steely Dan song “Peg” was about her. I wonder if that is true.

Helen Thomas – the White House reporter who covered every president from Kennedy to Obama.

David Frost – the interviewer who gained widespread fame for his sessions with Richard Nixon.

Dr. Joyce Brothers – the television counselor who paved the way for all of the others. She got her start on television by winning The $64,000 Question.Joyce Brothers

Roger Ebert – the movie critic who gave us “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”.

Annette Funicello – the original sweetheart of the Mouseketeers. She also became the sweetheart of beach movies. My dad and I saw her perform at the Super Bowl.

Esther Williams – the champion swimmer who became the queen of water-based movie extravaganzas. She was one of my mom’s favorites.

Jean Stapleton – the actress who served as the foil for Archie Bunker.Jean Stapleton

Bonnie Franklin – the mother on One Day at a Time, one of the many socially conscious sitcoms of the 1970s.

Karen Black – the actress who was in one of my favorite movies, Nashville.

Jonathan Winters – the genius comedian who is a hoot in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Harry Reems – the porn star who became a household name after appearing in Deep Throat, one of the most famous porn movies ever made.Harry Reems

Bobby “Blue” Bland – the blues singer who recorded, in my mind, the definitive version of “Stormy Monday”.

Patty Andrews – the last surviving member of The Andrews Sisters. If you have ever heard “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, then you have heard them at their best.

Patti Page – the singer of “The Tennessee Waltz”, one of my state’s official songs.

George Jones – the Possum. In my opinion, he is the greatest country singer to ever live. Unfortunately, his life was not as smooth as his voice.George Jones 2

J.J. Cale – the writer of “After Midnight”, “Cocaine” and a bunch of other great songs.

Lou Reed – the iconic singer who led The Velvet Underground and invited everyone to walk on the wild side.

Stan Musial – the Man. He was one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

Earl Weaver – the baseball manager best known for being thrown out of games. He was also a lover of the Earl Weaver Special, the three run home run.Earl Weaver

Art Donovan – the Baltimore Colt who gained more fame from his appearances of NFL Films.

Pat Summerall – the voice of the NFL who was also a fair placekicker.

Elmore Leonard – the writer who could create great characters and put great words in their mouths. His work was the inspiration for Justified, currently my favorite television show.Elmore Leonard

That is the completion of this blog’s “In Memoriam tribute”. Who would you put on the list?

Those Who Have Come and Gone

15 Dec

Last week marked the end of another semester and also marked the retirement of two outstanding individuals.

Through the years, Pace Pope fulfilled many capacities at Cumberland University. However, her greatest role was being herself. She cared for the students – especially the internationals – and was their collegiate mother. Everyone loves Pace, and Cumberland will not be the same without her.

She has held up the world and has held up the university.

She has held up the world and has held up the university.

Pete Peterson taught Biology for a long time and also served as the Vice President of Academic Affairs. He was a tough but fair teacher who sent many students on to graduate school. You haven’t lived until you have hiked a New Mexico trail with Pete.SONY DSC

Their retirement made me think of the other people who have come and gone during my time at Cumberland. Some of them have faded from memory, but others left a distinct impression. It’s strange to see people who you have seen on a daily basis suddenly not be there. As I type this, their faces are popping into my mind. How many have their been? I have no idea. However, there are two that I would like to write about. They were my teachers before they were my colleagues, and they have both passed away.

Dick Henderson was a geologist who worked in the oil industry before making his way to Cumberland. He was a great man who cared about the success of his students in the classroom and in life. I first knew him as a teacher, and two instances stand out.

He took our class on what was my first college field trip. We hopped in a van and headed to the southeast corner of Tennessee. Along the way, he explained the landscape and the rock formations. We went through the town of Cleveland and made our way past the Ocoee River. We also went to Copper Basin. Each time I travel to that area I think about the things that Dr. Henderson told us on the trip.

The other instance involved a test. We had my grandfather’s funeral one day, and Dr. Henderson had a test scheduled for the next day. I showed up to take the test because it was my responsibility. I didn’t do well on the test because my mind had not been on studying. After grading and returning the tests, Dr. Henderson called me to his office and asked what happened. He couldn’t understand why I did that badly. When I explained, he said that he wished he had known. I could have taken the test later. He even offered to make out another test for me.

I didn’t take his offer, but I never forgot the gesture. That day, I had no idea that I would one day be hi s colleague. I also had no idea that I would serve as a pallbearer at Dr. Henderson’s own funeral.

Jim Dressler taught history at Cumberland for three decades. He was an institution. In fact, my first college class was taught by him. He sat on the desk with his feet dangling and rattled on about world history. He never had notes. All he had was a cigarette. Like all of the other students, Dr. Dressler intimidated me. He was tall, strict and didn’t take any crap.

When I started teaching, he still intimidated me. It was probably a combination of things. His knowledge. His stature. A combination of it all. However, I learned that he also cared about the success of the students. He was strict for a reason. He wanted them to stay focused on the goal of graduating. After a while, Dr. Dressler and I became better acquainted a realized that we had a lot in common. We liked the same era of history. We agreed on politics. We both loved Cumberland University and wanted it to thrive. His death was sudden and left a hole in the history department.

There is one thing more about these two men. Of all the people I have worked with, they are the only ones who I never called by their first names. I think that was out of respect for who they were and what they represented. To others, they may have been Dick and Jim. To me, they were and always will be Dr. Henderson and Dr. Dressler.

Conversations at a Funeral

13 Jul

This week, we buried the father of my good friend. His death was expected, but that did not lessen the grief of the family and friends. The visitation and funeral were held in what I believe is our town’s best funeral home, housed in a stately manor that was the home of the Confederate Governor of Tennessee. He never took office because Union troops took Nashville rather quickly.

I have always found the actions of people at visitations and funerals interesting. I tend to sit back, observe and eavesdrop on conversations; and, in the process, I discover something interesting. There will almost always be an old lady who says, “It’s an awful good turnout.” It’s like she is talking about the crowd at  a ballgame or something.

Since I brought up sports, I should mention that it is the main topic of conversation among the men at a visitation. What’s going to happen this season? Are you going to watch the game tonight? There is also talk of work and travel. A constant line is “I haven’t seen you in forever.” On and on, the conversations go, but there is one topic that is hardly mentioned – DEATH.

The funeral service even stays away from death. The preachers talk about “the next life” and “everlasting life”. There is talk of this not being the end but rather the beginning. I realize this is done to comfort everyone. People at visitations avoid the topic of death because they are facing it at that very moment. Family and friends don’t want to hear about the ending of a loved one’s life, so people talk about the opposite.

Heck, I did it myself. My friend and I talked about funny stories from our past. The best one I had actually forgotten. In high school, we played a lot of backyard football and basketball at his house. Just picture a bunch of nerdy, non-athletic kids pretending like they could do something without falling all over themselves. His driveway was concrete, and that is where we were playing basketball.

One of us nerdy, non-athletic kids (not me) wanted to be like Mike and threw a behind-the-back pass. Unfortunately, the kid he was throwing it to had never heard of a behind-the-back pass and caught the ball with the bridge of his nose. The same bridge that supported his glasses. As you can imagine, glass, metal and blood went everywhere. As we stood in stunned silence, the bloody kid bent over and kept saying over and over, “I’m going to bleed on your driveway! I’m going to bleed on your driveway!”

There was another story from when were in college. My friend and I were picking up some girls to take to a party, and they answered the door wearing nothing but towels. However, I won’t bore you with the details.

Only the Rocks Live Forever

3 Jul

My dad and I just finished our multi-week project of watching Centennial, the 1970s miniseries covering the history of a fictional Colorado town. Lasting over 26 hours, the movie follows the lives of people who influenced the area and help found the town. Native Americans. Trappers. Mountain men. Pioneers. Farmers. Cowboys. The list goes on and on. All of the people you can think of from the history of the West are represented.

As we watched Centennial, several ideas swept through my mind. First was the fact that this was a well-made movie, and, although it was based on a work of fiction, accurately portrayed the history of the West better than just about any movie I have seen. It showed the lives of ordinary people and the complexities they faced. After all, they were living in a hard land that was taken from someone else.

Once my mind wrapped itself around the quality of the movie, the storyline began to remind me why I chose history as a profession. In the final episode, a historian shows up to research the town for an article. When he arrives in the village of 2,000 people, he wonders why he has been given the assignment of writing about a town he had never heard of with founders who only the locals remembered. Then, he began to hear the stories of the characters that we had been watching.

I suppose that I am not making sense, but the historian discovered that the little town of Centennial had an interesting history of regular people living regular lives. That’s what history is really about. Sometimes, we get caught up in the deeds of famous people and forget that history is made by everyone.

My next thought – actually, feeling – was a sense of sadness that hit me on several levels. Centennial takes the viewer through several generations of families, which means we are watching their lives and their deaths. We see them starting life with youthful exuberance and ending it after triumphs and tragedies. History isn’t just about the lives of people but also about their deaths.

As I watched the lives of these characters pass before my eyes, I also realized that my dad, like the older men in the movie, has already lived the majority of his life. He is the rock of our family and has accomplished more than I could ever imagine. Yet, he is getting more feeble as time passes, and there will be a time when he will pass away. Then, it will truly be up to my brother and me to carry on the beliefs and ideals of our family.

My dad and I have done a lot of things together. He took me to my first University of Tennessee football game when I was 6, and we have been going ever since. It’s just that he doesn’t make it to as many games as he used to. Together, we have traveled through all 50 states because he wanted me to see historic sites and natural wonders. I saw that watching this movie is another thing that we could do together. As we watched, he would have me pause it to tell him the real history of what the movie was portraying.

As the last episode ended, I was sad because a movie that I enjoyed and invested in had come to an end. I was sad because this experience with my dad had come to an end, and I fear the time when I will not be able to have more experiences with him. I was sad because the movie reminded me something that I had forgotten as I teach about people in the pages of history books. As a line in Centennial says, “Only the rocks live forever.”