Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Center of the world


“I believe you think Kansas is out of the world but believe me it is right in the center,

and God Almighty was in one of His pleasantest moods when He made it.”

– Richard Smith, Sept. 16, 1870


How many ways are there to connect the dots of a life? I can’t recall the first time I stood at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River in lower downtown Denver, but I know it didn’t impress me as much as it would later in my life. Time matures us all, physically and mentally, and spiritually, too, the latter being the most important but not in the way most people think. We are in this world and of it and linked in ways we will never fathom. And later, after walking down the concrete steps from the viaduct to the small platform overlooking the confluence not far from where gold was discovered in June 1858, a deepening sense of the antiquity and permanence of the land and our mystical ties to it settled in my bones, and the world thereafter became a different place.


It took a lot of imagination to picture it as it once was. The Front Range rising in the west, Long’s Peak a sharp canid fang to the northwest, an unbroken tide of shortgrass prairie rolling to the eastern horizon, and perhaps an Indian settlement or two, and the sound of birds, water, and wind in the cottonwoods. Not a lonely place but almost ideal, and now ravaged under concrete, steel and glass, the air choked with exhaust and thrumming with the roar of traffic.


Strange to realize that Kansans created the rough mining village that would grow into the largest city in Colorado. It was November 1858, and a party hailing from Leavenworth, then a part of the Kansas Territory, founded the Denver City Town Company. My wife and I reversed their outward migration to the frontier almost a century and a half later, if you define frontier as any unpopulated area growing ever more unpopulated.


It was a good time for Larimer and the others to leave. The Kansas-Missouri borderland was a freefire zone, blood spilled at the Marais Des Cygnes massacre was still wet on the ground, John Brown had less than a year to live and Abraham Lincoln would soon declare that “No other territory has ever had such a history.” And war was coming, the likes of which no man could imagine.


The territory that would become Kansas was first an idea, then an ideology, then a bloody battleground. That’s what we remember, what school kids are told every January 29th as teachers recount the difficult birth of the state. There’s more, of course, the trails that led settlers into and out of the territory and the immigrants who stayed, the Native American tribes, the mountain men, Pony Express riders and cattle drives. And before them the explorers: the Pathfinder, John Fremont, in 1842, and Stephen Long in 1819—for whom the tallest peak on the Front Range was named--and the most famous of them all, Lewis and Clark, who crossed the northeastern part of the state in 1804. I have no affinity with any of them other than perhaps Long, whose peak graced my imagination and view for two and a half decades. If there are any connections between myself and the early explorers it is with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who in 1541 entered Kansas looking for Quivira, one of the mythical seven cities of gold.


Coronado was well known to me, having been schooled in Albuquerque, not far from where he entered the Rio Grande Valley valley after sacking the Zuni pueblo of Tiguex.


Many years prior to my Colorado experience the same sensation whelmed me while standing in the ruins of Cicuye, a pueblo not far from the Pecos River in northern New Mexico. It was night, and starlight glimmered on the distant snowy mountains. I had walked from the parking lot to the kiva and stared down into that midnight entrance and felt some unnameable thing within me move as if in recognition. I was younger and less certain of myself and chalked it up to the mystery of a vanished civilization. Now I recognize it as a homecoming.


It was at Cicuye that Coronado first heard of Quivira. Not that far, really, from where I first learned of it. But where he went in search of gold I also went, and my search was more successful.


I don’t claim to understand what makes one place intrinsic to our being. All I can say is that there are places of power that speak to us and captivate us and hold us in their imagination.


Perhaps these are tenuous connections at best, faint tracings on a map extant only in my imagination. But imagination is what keeps us here in the face of our adversities, an imagination that blazed when I first crossed that imaginary line dividing one state from the next. And I wonder if these connections may not even be connections but something else entirely.


Edward Abbey wrote, “Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.” For Abbey, it was the deserts of Utah. For me it’s multiple places, a medley of desert and mountain and prairie, of pinyon-juniper woodlands and deciduous hardwood forests, of West Texas scrubland and Yucatan jungles, but always at the center of my known world is the northern Flint Hills where the tallgrass prairie bleeds away into the glaciated regions. Like life itself, it’s a territory of intersections, borders, confluences, connections. It’s Kansas, and for this outsider, every day is Kansas Day.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Resolutions and resignations to reality

Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions,

nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.

– Samuel Johnson

According to the glut of polls clotting the news each January, Americans of all stripes are in general consensus over the state of their being. It ain’t a pretty picture. Taken as a whole, resolutions—vows, determinations, convictions—solemnly undertaken on the cusp of a new year point to an overweight, profligate, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, slovenly, shiftless, selfish, stressed-out citizenry. As if that weren’t damning enough, resolutions also indicate that a hefty percentage of our friends and neighbors—and perhaps you, too—believe that by merely voicing a series of baseless utterances, their overweight, profligate, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, slovenly, shiftless, selfish, stressed-out lives will suddenly and magically be improved.

Sort of like believing in the tooth fairy with some pitiless self-criticism thrown in.

While I’m unhesitant to poke a stick at such blithering nonsense, I confess to not being totally without fault. At some point in each of our lives we’ve taken stock of our situation and deduced it could stand some improvement, myself included. The resolutions I opted for were no different from the ones advocated by the majority of Americans who resolve, thereby proving the universality of man across gender, race, class, political and religious affiliation. Indeed, making resolutions dates back to the ancient Babylonians and probably farther yet if only written records had survived. Under the skin we’re the same whether we like to admit it or not.

And, of course, in every instance I failed, sometimes before the finish of the first day.

If tradition didn’t dictate starting resolutions at the turning of the year, common sense would. Everything seems new and fresh, the pages of the calendar unsullied, the coming 12 months brimming with promise and hope and the chance for new beginnings and perhaps even a complete makeover from the battered husk we were at the end of the last brutal year. It’s no wonder the new year is characterized as a baby-faced youngster while the past year is a wrinkled geezer barely able to stand without support.

Never mind that at that time much of America is imprisoned in winter with ample opportunity to dwell on whatever physical, emotional, mental or situational defects we attribute to our sorry lot. Once spring comes we haven’t the time to mull over our gross weight or the minor yet nagging concern of drinking ourselves into a stupor each night, or of watching too much brain-deadening TV or spending too much on frivolity. By then we’ve long given up on whatever self-improvement we deemed necessary and found comfort in the fact that the sun still rises and sets quite unaffected and life goes on. Our failures do not halt the universe in its outward expansion and anyway there’s always next year.

Resolutions are merely a mechanism to postpone guilt. For that reason alone perhaps we need them, even if our failures only deepen the guilt.

And yet I’m reminded of a steely-eyed Clint Eastwood aiming a sleek Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum at a scab-faced punk sniveling at his feet. “A man’s got to know his limitations,” Clint sneers, and then blows the punk away when the punk fails to heed his advice.

It’s the same thing with New Year’s resolutions. A man’s got to know his limitations.

Considering the perfect nonsuccess of my record, there are exactly two ways to approach resolutions. The first is the simplest—ignore them. For the past several years this method has served me well. No resolutions, no reproaches. But no successes, either. If the rest of the world followed this tactic we’d evolve past the point of resolution madness and come to terms with ourselves in real time.

However, the chances of that happening are slim to none. So fixed are New Year’s resolutions in our collective psyche that an entire industry supports them—or profits from them, at any rate. Do a Google search on “keeping new year’s resolutions” and you’ll get swamped with 69,600,000 hits. That’s a lot of zeroes. Even our government adds its three cents, providing a list of the most common resolutions with links to hundreds of additional resources.

Their main advice: Be committed, be prepared for setbacks, track your progress.

Yeah, right. Tracking my usual progress would resemble the direction the Titanic took after hitting the iceberg.

The second approach I could take is to set realistic goals. This common-sense method is somehow lost in the wish-fulfillment fantasies provoked by a lazy media and marketers. Still, I figured for 2008 it was worth a try. As always, I took a hard-edged assessment of my few weak spots and charted areas that needed improvement. Then, rather than using the results as a plan of action, I mentally crossed off those that were hopeless. Unfortunately, that left an empty slate.

So I improvised. Rather than focus on improvements, I resolved to perpetuate my faults. It was a brilliant move.

In the past three weeks, I’ve stuck to my resolutions perfectly. I’ve procrastinated, overindulged in junk food, slept too little, spent too much, and have been irritable, judgmental, slovenly and lazy.

A few days ago I drove past the shop on my way to work and noticed an accumulation of snow across the sidewalk. Since I had to return there a few hours later, I figured I’d knock down the snow on my way home. It would free up a little time later and make the day that much smoother.

On my way back I didn’t even slow down.

I hadn’t gone two blocks before I was pumping my fist in the air. “Woo hoo!” I screamed. “I’m right on target, right where I resolved to be!”

New Year’s resolutions are a piece of cake if you just know your limitations.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Robert Glenn Bennett (Photo courtesy of Judy Burkett)


Dancing on the edge—the final journey of Robert Glenn Bennett

A story, like a life, does not end but goes on and on like a river.

But people need ends. They need things neatly wrapped and tied. In the case of Robert Glenn Bennett, they need closure. They need to know what happened. Where he disappeared to. So here is an end, but it must be understood that it’s really just a beginning.

Two adults and four kids enter the woods south of Washington. They’re on an autumnal hike, taking in the changing colors, the coolness in the shadows, the birdsong. The mother, Janice Radford, poses her children on a log. She snaps the shutter on what will become the iconic image of this tale, and they march off again. Her daughter points to something beneath a tree and asks what it is. Something to do with hunting, Radford says. Something camouflaged. On they go, but Radford turns and looks back.

“I think he wanted me to find him,” she says later. “It was like he kept trying to point himself out to me but not to the kids. First the picture taking. Then walking by him and still not seeing, and then it’s like he told my daughter to tell me. It was like he was saying, ‘Look, here I am. I want to be found after all.’”

She sets the photo on her work desk. It’s a typical family shot except that the tree behind her daughter has a faint blue-green thread looped around a fork. A small dark lump rests against the bottom of the trunk, obscured by her daughter’s smiling face.

“If my daughter wasn’t there you could see him,” she says.

***

The discovery of Bennett’s body on Nov. 11 brought to a close the longest search for a missing person in recent local history. “Other than on rare occasions when someone goes missing for a few hours, usually an elderly person, I can’t remember anything like this happening in the county,” said Washington County Sheriff Bill Overbeck.

Bennett was reported missing on Aug. 2 by his father, Robert S. Bennett.

Overbeck’s reaction to the news mirrored that of many others, and not just that of the family. “I was relieved,” he said. “Then I was disappointed.”

His disappointment had more to do with a young couple finding the body and how close the search had come to finding him, but he was not alone in his feelings. It’s one thing to believe the rain-swollen waters of Mill Creek swept him away, as most did, and another to learn he died at his own hand. But to those who knew him best, it wasn’t at all improbable. Indeed, it was almost surprising that he made it as far as he did.

After the funeral, his mother, Margarette Bennett, reminded her husband of something she’d said 25 years before: “Robert will die young and at his own hand.”

It might not have happened if events had transpired differently. If his vehicle hadn’t broken down 1,200 miles from home. If he hadn’t left home under such circumstances. If he hadn’t been so alone.

“This was the only door open,” said his wife, Judy Burkett. “I don’t feel he had a choice.”

***

Robert Bennett, 46, Hazel Green, Al., was born in Ft. Benning, Ga., lived six years in Germany and thereafter moved frequently. He received straight A’s in college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Control hired him as a software engineer, a contract position that left him time to pursue his interests. He was a bookworm, a pilot, a scuba diver, a dancer, and, near the end of his life, a freelance photographer. He enjoyed exploring caves and once swam in manatees off the coast of Florida. He was, his mother said, “an adventurer.”

He was also manic depressive.

A marriage lasted seven years and collapsed when his wife left him.

Treatment did little to help him and medication left him feeling empty, a friend recalled. Sometimes he was irrational, obsessed with fiscal debt, government spending, things he had no control over. He would leave for days or weeks or pace the floor all night—he called it “working,” part of his spiritual journey. After dabbling in square dancing, he progressed to contra dancing, a traditional early Americana form of English country dances. Contra dancing did something no other hobby could do: it drew him out of his self-imposed shell.

In contra dances, dancers form a parallel line and join together to live music, usually reels or jigs. Eye contact is encouraged, partially to keep tabs on your partner’s next move. By the end of the evening it’s likely every dancer has danced with every other dancer at least once.

“Bob was an introvert,” Burkett said. “Dancing gave him a reason to meet people.”

More than that, it was a chance to meet happy people. “You never see mad people dance,” Burkett says. “Dancing gave him happiness and pleasure. It was a positive experience.”

So positive that he took up photography to try to capture that happiness. He specialized in dance photography, capturing that effervescence, that melding of people and motion. In his photographs the dancers’ eyes are the focus. For the first time people noticed him and commented on his work. And it was at a dance in River Falls, S.C., that he met Judy Burkett.

Burkett’s marriage was near its end. There was no attraction between her and Bennett, yet when he complimented her on her dancing it gave a welcome boost to her ego.

After her divorce, while she lived in Hendersonville, N.C., a fellow dancer invited her to a dance in Memphis. Bennett was there and asked her two questions: how was her husband, how about a second dance. Before the night was over he invited her out.

“He swept me off my feet,” Burkett said. In short order she sold her house and moved to Alabama. Bennett moved in the same day.

***

He wasn’t working at that time, having quit his job for a dancing and photographic sabbatical. A van outfitted with a computer, 30-inch monitor, generator and satellite dish served as his mobile photo lab, and a small trailer was always packed to embark at a moment’s notice. Burkett’s spacious yard had plenty of room for his rig.

It wasn’t long before they exchanged wedding vows. As she slipped the ring on his finger, Burkett told him, “I love you for who you are. You’re unpredictable. You’re there for me. You care about life. You’re passionate, full of love, you’re giving, you’re kind, you’re spiritual, and you are loved.”

He was all those things and more, she said. His unpredictability manifested itself in many ways, from an occasional desire for seclusion, a penchant for misplacing things and an obsession about government spending. His passion for hobbies flared white-hot only for so long and then abruptly burned to ash. It was a moment-by-moment mode of life, spontaneous, unrehearsed, extemporary. Because of this nature, he insisted on not being caged by a controlling relationship, something Burkett was only too willing to accede. For Bennett these weren’t faults but part of his spirituality, integral to his personality.

“This was very important to him,” Burkett said. “He worked hard at figuring out his spiritual beliefs. He felt in the spiritual world more than the material world.”

And he could be romantic, such as the time he set an orchid arrangement in the center of the bed and scattered photographs around it. “It just took my breath away,” Burkett said.

Smoking was a vice he could not overcome. Determined to finally break the habit, he told Burkett he was moving to the van for a few days, that he wasn’t going to be bearable. When that failed, he went in search of an isolated place where he could get completely away from people. Like everything else he did, it was impulsive and without a known destination. He ended up on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota, the stomping grounds of the legendary Crazy Horse, whose biography Bennett was reading.

What transpired there is unknown. When he returned he was able to concede to his habit by rolling his own cigarettes and using organic tobacco.

“It didn’t bother me that he wanted to go off by himself,” Burkett said. “It didn’t bother me that he sometimes left his tools out in the rain, or tracked mud onto the carpet. The thing about Bob is I could see and feel something about him. He was so wonderful I was able to accept him with all his imperfections. I never knew what to expect of him.

“I didn’t see his mental illness, his depression,” Judy said.

Until it was too late.

Bennett had been at his parents’ house for a few days and returned home with a promise of a nice supper. When she arrived from work, he was asleep on the couch. Perturbed that he’d broken his promise, she drove to the store, bought groceries and returned to start cooking. She was not a happy camper.

He realized it. It was the first time he’d seen her this way, and he reacted by calling his dog, Oscar, and loading him in the van. Burkett knew he was leaving and didn’t try to stop him. He’d left before but always made a point of keeping in contact.

This time was different. It was July 13, 2007. Burkett would never see him alive again.

(Continued next week)

Dancing over the edge – the final journey of Robert Glenn Bennett


He is rended, he rends himself, he dances,
he whirls so hard everything he is falls off.

– ­Jim Harrison

Suicide is what the death certificate says when one dies of depression. – Peter Kramer


Robert Glenn Bennett phoned his wife, Judy Burkett, one day after walking out. He told her he was confused and had to get away. The date was July 14, 2007.

Leaving was an impulsive act but well within his nature. “He lived very much in the moment,” Burkett said. Clara Welch, a friend who struggled with depression most of her life, warned him of his impulsiveness, especially when dealing with the illness. “When casting out demons,” she said, “don't cast out the better part of yourself.”

But those demons are resilient.

Those afflicted with clinical depression have described it as a sensation of drowning, falling down a mineshaft or being buried in a dark tunnel. An utter absence of light or hope is universal. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than two million Americans suffer from manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder. Twenty percent of those die at their own hands. Many others consider it.

Winston Churchill called it “the Black Dog,” and confessed to keeping safe distances from the edges of train platforms and ship rails. Franz Kafka was so miserable that he found joy in imagining a knife twisting through his heart. “The thought of suicide is a great source of comfort,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Abraham Lincoln described himself as the “most miserable man living. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die or be better.” It was familiar terrain for Bennett.

Anyone familiar with depression will tell you that being alone leaves them defenseless against their demons. Bennett would be alone for the rest of his life, and his demons were gathering.

***

A week went by without another word. When he called Burkett it was to say his van broke down in Valentine, Neb., a town of 3,000 straddling the Nebraska-South Dakota line. The transmission failed and the vehicle could only maintain a speed of 25 miles per hour. He asked if she was angry with him. She told him she couldn’t wait for him to come home.

For more than a week he called her every day. He holed up behind a hotel in Valentine and tried to sell photographs through a local art dealer. Then, in desperation, he started limping home.

On the way, a sympathetic rancher gave him $65 and two meals for loading hay.

By July 29, he reached Washington County. His emotional state was volatile, a pendulum of ecstatic highs and devastating lows. When he wasn’t driving, he e-mailed Burkett nearly continuously. “My goal is to get home as fast as possible,” he wrote. “You are the only person who has ever loved me and I’m going to focus on our life together.”

Two days later his mood darkened. “I’m sorry I failed you so badly,” he wrote. “I’m stranded and I don’t see a way out.”

Bennett’s presence in Washington County didn’t go unnoticed. After seeing a van driving on the shoulder of U.S. 36, Deputy Corey Riggs pulled it over. Riggs noted expired tags and gave Bennett a warning. He suggested seeking help at the Pony Express Truck Stop between Washington and Marysville.

In vain Bennett searched for a pay phone. The truck stop didn’t have one but he heard that Wal-Mart in Marysville did. “I will risk arrest if I try to get there,” he wrote. “I have no idea what to do. I’ve been crying for days.”

On the evening of July 31, Bennett’s e-mails to Burkett were rapidfire. “No more spiritual journeys,” he wrote. “I think I screwed up bad this time. I’m afraid I will die here.”

He discussed calling AAA, having his van towed to Wal-Mart, finding a job when he returned to Alabama, renting a Ryder truck. The mundane planning seemed to calm him.

“This trip taught me that you are the only person I will ever love,” he wrote. “My spiritual journey is over. I will no longer be looking for a community. You are all the community I need.”

Three minutes later he wrote, “I got where I need to be! This trip was awful, but I finally defeated my demons!”

Almost at once the demons regrouped. “I am too depressed to think,” he wrote. Burkett agreed to call his parents to see if they could help.

The next morning, Aug. 1, Burkett greeted him with a message. “Here is something to look forward to when you get home,” she wrote. “The garlic is ready for a taste test.” Bennett’s favorite snack was pickled garlic, an expensive treat he had tried unsuccessfully to emulate. Burkett had perfected a recipe that needed 21 days of refrigeration to infuse.

Bennett responded with a message saying he had contacted his parents. “Wish me luck,” he wrote.

He gave his parents the address of the Pony Express, where he was staying temporarily, and promised he would seek psychiatric help on his return. Worried about his spiraling mood swings, he asked his mother, Margarette Bennett, if he suffered from schizophrenia. “I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with me,” he said in an e-mail.

“Dr. Mom thinks you are bipolar,” she wrote. “You can go to the health clinic and get medication for that. We love you, son, and you are going to come out of this just fine. Hang in there and we will see you soon.”

“I’ll be here,” Bennett wrote.

When asked to leave the truck stop, Bennett relocated to the campground beside the Mill Creek Dam in Washington. He called his parents to tell them of the change.

“Mom, something is wrong with me,” he said. He was nearly hysterical. His mother assured him that his father would arrive the next afternoon to bring him home.

His final e-mail was sent at 8:40 a.m. “I am afraid for Judy,” he wrote. “I love her very much and I fear I’ve lost her. I fear she will never trust love again. She is a wonderful woman, mom. She is the best I will ever find.”

“Depression exhumes our shames,” wrote E.M. Cioran. But it does more than that—it flays its victims with them, methodically stripping away flesh and tendon, each lash reveling in another bloody layer of their own worthlessness. In his e-mails over the past 28 hours, Bennett had agonized over his failings, or what he considered failings, and though he was able to hold them at bay for a while, when at last alone, stranded, faced with returning in disgrace, of having again to be subjected to therapists and medication, of finding another job, of trying to prove himself, he instead gathered a length of climbing rope and walked away. One of his last e-mails lamented, “I am sorry for all the pain I caused.” Impetuous, in the moment, tormented, he would do the one thing that would defeat his demons for good.

***

Bennett’s father, Robert S. Bennett, arrived the next afternoon, Aug. 2, to find the van unlocked and the generator running, both things his son would never do. He grew frantic when Oscar, his son’s dog, emerged matted and muddy from the woods. When he called his wife for advice, she told him to contact the sheriff. Nine hundred miles away, Margarette Bennett walked over to the calendar and penciled in, “Robert left me today.”

***

From the start, Washington County Sheriff Bill Overbeck had no idea what to believe. He could have a murder on his hands, a drowning, a confused stranger wandering off into unfamiliar territory, or even a man looking to start a new life elsewhere. The search began the next morning.

Overbeck was half-right on all counts though he wouldn’t know most of it for several days, nor would he know the rest until three months later, when Janice Radford posed her children on a log in a wooded area south of town, raised her camera and snapped the shutter.

***

“In hindsight you wonder what you could have done differently,” Burkett said. “There’s all this guilt. But I really don’t feel guilty. I feel sad. And I miss him like crazy. I wish I could have known him longer. He taught me so much that I can’t even put words to it.”

When her husband was in Washington he was dealing with a lot of dead ends, she said. “He wasn’t working so he didn’t have much money. He was in debt. His van wasn’t working. He was so alone, so desperate, in so much despair, that he didn’t see any other way out. I wish he would have called me, but he was in such a terrible, terrible place he couldn’t.”

“He was a tortured soul,” his mother said. “It wasn’t in our power to help him. I don’t blame him for what he did. He couldn’t survive in this world.”

***

On Dec. 1, the remains of Robert Glenn Bennett were laid to rest near Weaver, Ala.

His memory remained very much alive.

Margarette Bennett and her husband attended a memorial service at Burkett’s home, where more than 150 cards arrived the day of the service. Strangers approached her with stories of how Bennett helped them through their own personal crises. “I didn’t realize how many people he had touched,” she said.

When she canceled the annual Christmas family reunion, her other son, Robbie, vowed to keep the tradition alive, even if it meant doing all the cooking himself.

“I really felt young until this happened,” she said. “It has aged me 10 years. My hair had a little gray in it before. It’s completely white now.”

The State of Alabama refused to recognize Burkett and Bennett’s common-law marriage on grounds they hadn’t filed in time. Burkett contacted Overbeck and asked if her husband’s wedding ring had been found with the remains. Having no record of it, the sheriff returned with a metal detector and located it a few feet from the tree. He subsequently mailed the ring to her.

Friends told Burkett that Bennett’s death was a tragedy. She disagreed.

“Part of me thinks maybe it wasn’t a tragedy just because he struggled his whole life and that he tried to live and survive on this earth as we know it,” she said. “And it just wasn’t working. Maybe his tragedy was being on earth, if that makes sense. Who knows what happens after you die? But he struggled so much that part of me thinks of him as being brave to be able to do what he needed to do.”

After a quiet pause, she added, “I need to believe that for my own way out.”

“It was an amazing chapter in my life, like a whirlwind,” Burkett said. “Those 15 months I was with him, I would do it all again, I would do it all again in a heartbeat, even knowing what I’ve gone through the last three months. He really was a good guy, but he probably didn’t know that.”

***

Radford keeps the photograph on her work desk. Bennett’s death haunted her for weeks, especially the coincidences involved with finding the body.

“How else do you explain them?” she asked. “I think it was meant to be. Why we were chosen to answer that question I will never know. I don’t get too upset about it anymore because I remind myself that his family now has closure. The question ‘where is he?’ has been answered.”

We will always have sticks

In the aftermath of our mini-ice age I gathered my bow saw and went to work on the larger limbs littering our yard. The afternoon was warming toward the high forties under a sky veiled with thin clouds. My shirt was quickly soaked with sweat so I stripped off my jacket and tossed it on the picnic table. The saw blade easily ripped through green boughs but rasped sharper on the deadfalls. Blanched bits of sawdust freckled my trousers and floated in the air like motes of dust.

Being outdoors and productive felt exhilarating. I threw myself into the work, sawing the larger limbs into eight-foot lengths and dragging them to the roadside like some landlocked beaver. Those in the shadow of the house had to be ripped from the ice. I tried methodically clearing backwards from the street, a plan which worked until I reached the side of the house. There, it appeared as if an entire forest of narrow single-trunk trees had collapsed across the fence or speared into the grass. Several were meshed into the fence itself, requiring a bolt cutter to remove.

My immobile profession was telling within a short span of time. Muscles I’d forgotten scolded me for my woeful lack of exercise. They tightened and tensed and ached. Like a clock winding down, I incrementally slowed, each heavy branch a heavier burden than that before, the distance from origin to destination yawning greater with each. Looking west along that fenceline was a depressing sight, with broken and splintered trees lying athwart the barbed wire or piled haphazardly along its length like bodies stacked in a Civil War photo.

And that was only the larger pieces, the trunks and branches big enough to see from the road. Beneath them was an irregular carpet of smaller twigs and sticks, hundreds of thousands of them that needed to be raked into piles and carted off in a wheelbarrow. It was a daunting task that stopped me in my tracks. I hung the saw on a broken branch and surveyed the yard. Everywhere I looked were sticks. Long sticks and short sticks, thick sticks and narrow sticks, sticks with reddish buds and sticks with fractures. Sticks and more sticks.

The beginning of this project was abrupt enough—freezing drizzle endlessly raining down in the dark hours of a winter night. The end would be endless. I removed my gloves, retrieved the saw, and called it a day.

***

There are always fewer beginnings than ends. Real beginnings, true beginnings, are fresh, pristine, raw universes unfettering our imaginations. Endings are theories more than actualities. Endings echo and reverberate, pulse and resound, regenerate. Endings remain, even if sullied by memory or bleached by time. Endings are instilled in our tissues, infused into our cells, woven into our memories. Beginnings occur exactly once and no more.

I can’t pinpoint when Robert Glenn Bennett first weighed on my heart. Mid-November or thereabouts, plus a few weeks or even months where the man was less a man and more an abstract thought. A missing man, with all the baggage and suspicion that brings. A gone man. But at some point he became a real man, a beginning, and everything that followed was connected to his being.

Certainly crossing Mill Creek south of Washington twice a week kept his presence alive. Somnolent, drowsy, a minor prairie stream of occasional moodiness and rampant wildness, which many of us feared bore him away—blameless, it turned out, but destined to be forever linked to his story and by that link forever bequeathed. Mill Creek forever and ever, without end, amen.

Finding Bennett in the shadow of that hill should have been an ending. It was, I suppose, and it wasn’t. Bennett turned into a face and a person and a man I both admired and recognized. And pitied. And when I pursued his story a strange thing happened: Bennett turned into Bob.

Writing is a slow process for me. It begins with an idea and expands from there like a seed germinating and sprouting into multi-branched stems. As it grows, as more information is gathered, the stem thickens into a trunk. A weeding process then occurs where pertinent facts or quotations are retained and extraneous material is pruned away. When the story is finished, what’s left are the branches. The sticks are discarded. But oh, sometimes there are so many sticks, a carpet of sticks, and each stick reinforces a memory.

With the Bob Bennett story, after hours of interviews, reams of notes and e-mails, research into depression and suicide, and one scary walk to the brink of madness, I had a rough draft. Weeks of pruning followed with input from others close to Bob. In many ways it was the most difficult story I’ve ever written and not merely because of the enormous amount of information to be whittled down. I was cutting too close to home. One slip of the saw and blood would flow.

This last weekend I had an ending to the story. There was only a final copyediting and revision to do, and then I could move on to other things. The relief I felt was exhausting. Which was why taking the saw to the downed trees proved such exhilaration—it was a catharsis of sorts, and anyway strenuous activity following mental wrangling clears the head and, perhaps, the heart.

I fear I did not succeed in telling Bob’s story. No matter what I do he is still with me, even as our yard is blanketed with the remains of trees that once provided shade and beauty. These are the sticks of our endless endings. We will always have sticks.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Falling night, fading sound, moon rising

Woke to a gray half-light, the couch below and a warm fleece blanket shrouding my face. Tentatively poking my head out to peer through the open blinds, I studied shattered trees latticed across a gunmetal sky. It wasn’t quite dark but near enough to make me queasy.

I’ve never been one to care for waking at such an inauspicious moment. What’s worse, it’s the second time in as many days. Something about regaining consciousness at dusk fills me with dread. I fear if I die at that ill-fated hour I’ll be forever cast out, forced to wander the world a disembodied wraith.

Curiously, I once felt the same about dawn. One morning after driving gritty-eyed across the city to pick up Lori after an all-night shift, I pulled into her workplace as the sun lifted above the flat eastern horizon. It glinted off the steel and glass megaliths of downtown Denver, making me wonder uneasily if I would burst into flame or melt into a viscous puddle as befell the Wicked Witch of the West. That I didn’t had little effect on my disquietude other than to destabilize it yet further, leading me to question if my demise was merely postponed a short while to keep me dangling on tenterhooks. None of it makes sense but we all have our personal superstitions. Some are just more conventional and organized, though certainly no more rational. We exist at the whim of the universe.

I threw off the blanket and roused my grumblous self. The room was cold and filling with shadows and altogether too quiet. The kitchen light improved my mood as would a pot of coffee, which I started. I took a carrot from the fridge and set it in Sheba’s special bowl, but hunkered down in a fluff of gray fur she barely glanced at it. This was her “quiet time,” as I call it, where she prefers aloofness to companionship. Her demeanor wasn’t surprising considering the hour but it rattled me further. I decided to skip supper in favor of a beer and a handful of chocolate chips, a repast slightly less fulfilling than beer and chocolate donuts.

The thought instantly triggered a craving for the one thing absent from our larder. Indulgence and prolonged gratification have been hallmarks since power was restored after last week’s ice storm but they can be taken only so far. Expense alone rules out any permanency, and anyway I’ve lost a few pounds and very much like the feel of a looser belt. If I had a box of chocolate donuts, preferably in a near-frozen state, I’d methodically wolf them down one by one until the container was empty. This wouldn’t help my waistline but it would assuredly take the edge off the early evening, which by any measure has merit.

Besides turning up the thermostat a few notches I’ve also been consuming more coffee. It took thirty minutes for the percolator to do its job on the kerosene heater but only a matter of minutes with electricity. Deprivation wakens us to the marvels of technology as nothing else can. Heat, current, a cold beer, light at the flick of a switch, all were unfathomable to primitive man, and dusk a time of haste before darkness imposed a kind of monastic seclusion. Now we run 24/7 and still I don’t have chocolate donuts. Humanity evolves apace yet is rife with these unavoidable glitches.

Outside, light bled away to a thin red smear lapping the horizon. As it shaded to charcoal a new luminance emerged, a pale aura emanating off the snowy fields. It lent an otherworldy ambiance to the falling night, a moonscape deepening my sense of solitude.

Since Sheba remained incommunicado, I turned on the stereo and selected some atmospheric tunes. From high school on, music has been crucial as a mood-setter. I wasn’t surprised at how much I missed it during the extended power outage but the longer I went without it the more desperate I became, until desire turned to lust whenever I saw Lori with her Nano. One time I snuck a listen and was transported beyond this shell into some farflung universe, but I didn’t remain there long because I wanted to preserve the battery for her.

The computer speakers being mediocre, I switched to my new iPod and twisted the earphones into my ears. The difference was breathtaking.

I’m transported to a stream bank, staring through a spotting scope at a slender buff bird imitating a cattail. It was a least bittern, rare in that part of Colorado, and I’d come looking for it with my gastroenterologist friend, Joe Roller. About the time we congratulated ourselves, a heavy crashing splintered the bucolic scene. Joe Tenbrink, a tall, hulking Frankenstein of a man, floundered through chest-high willows with the finesse of a rhino and boomed out, “Find it?” Shouting was his usual mode of speech, having lost most of his hearing during artillery barrages in WWII. He confided once that he could no longer hear birdsong and wondered which was worse, losing sight or hearing.

And now I’m succumbing to the same ailment.

Music now in my head, going places, the moon rising on a frozen Juganine Creek, on frozen steel tracks leading from nowhere to nowhere, on trees broken and resilient and ghostly and ghostly their shadows stretched thin and wan on snow and ice and on the frozen cold road rutted and half-melted and refrozen and colder still and the music warm as spring sunshine. Going places, up the stairs to the bookcase where I keep unread books, picking one to read, the iPod in hand, past the drawer with the old portable cassette player, that dinosaur, and I think, Joe, if only you could have lived to hear this, to have this miracle in your hand, the music in your head, the moon on the snow, the owl calling from the field, the music, what it does, where it takes you.