My first 5th grade class. The Millenium Class.
Well, I had hoped to have a great Viking-themed post written last week, but some unexpected events delayed that plan. Hopefully I’ll have something ready for you in another week or so, after I finish getting caught up on my classwork. Why do I need to be caught up, you ask? Well, as some of you may or may not know, I was actually back in Illinois for a week. Here’s why…
On Tuesday the 2nd of October I got an email from my mom about my great-Uncle Fred. He had suffered a massive stroke. It didn’t look good.
I spent the next day or so half-listening in class, as I thought about Fred, and home, and some other events that were happening back in suburban Illinois. There was a wedding I had hoped to attend, and it just killed me to miss it due to me being over here for a year. After looking at ticket prices, and finding one incredibly cheap, I decided to come home for a few days. I could afford to miss a week of school, and with everything that was going on, I felt it important enough to return home for a bit.
I was able to visit Fred one final time, although whether or not he knew I was there is tough to say for certain. Fred is a guy that I had an enormous amount of respect for, and he was always a favorite of mine from that side of the family. Fred served as a navigator on a C-47 during World War II and I always enjoyed talking to him about his time in the service. Last December we celebrated his 90th birthday.
Fred and the C-47 model everyone mistakenly thinks I gave him.
Mike and Liz were in my very first 5th grade class. Liz I had known already, as she was in my 4th grade class the year previous. Mike was new that year. By the end of the year I was in the process of starting up a new theatre program for the Oswegoland Park District, and both Liz and Mike were a part of that program in its first year. (Still are, as a matter of fact.)
Liz as Sarah from our 2003 production of The Last Dance, my first full-length original play for Limelight.
Eight years later, we were in the process of producing a new play called Heroes and Villains. It was the third and final part of a trilogy of shows I had written. Mike and Liz were in all three. This one was about growing up and moving on, and it was the last play I did with that original company of players I worked with year after year, show after show. It was time to start fresh, and I thought it was time for them to start doing other things as well.
Mike and Liz started dating that summer. During rehearsals of my last show with Limelight, they visited me to announce that they were getting married. And they had a request: would I write something original to read at the ceremony?
Mike visiting my classroom for a college assignment.
When I decided to move over to Dublin for the year, one of the hardest parts was knowing I wouldn’t be able to be there on their wedding day. I had flirted with coming back, but I didn’t think I’d be able to afford it. Someone else would read my piece at the reception.
So with all that, and with me wanting to say goodbye to Uncle Fred, I woke up very early on a Thursday morning and flew home.
I spent Friday working on class assignments down in my parents’ basement. I hadn’t said anything to anyone about coming home, and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. It didn’t seem right to make this big announcement about me coming back; I was supposed to be in Ireland, right? It would upset the new order of everything! Plus, I was coming home for fairly solemn reasons, and it would seem cheap and dishonorable to turn Fred’s illness into an “I’m BAAAAACK!” moment.
Still, I was anxious to get out of that basement and see some friends, so I impulsively drove over to my place of employment to surprise an old friend. Turns out I surprised a few former students as well. I think Nick is still picking his jaw up from the sidewalk outside the school.
Caught up with the doings at work, then grabbed some drinks and dinner with friends at my favorite restaurant in Oswego. It felt like hardly any time had passed. And through the miracle of Facebook, people started hearing about my return.
On Saturday I cobbled together whatever fancy clothes I could find, and I drove to the Hardest-To-Find Wedding In The World. The service was supposed to start at 5:15. I got there around 25 minutes past and just made it.
Right around the time Mike and Liz said their vows, Uncle Fred quietly passed away, surrounded by his wife and children.
During the reception speeches were made and toasts were given. It came time for me to read my piece, and…well…I would say that reception was mixed, at best. The crowd had been primed to expect something short and funny, and instead I gave them something long and heartfelt. Maybe some of the crowd wasn’t expecting a short story catching up with Liz and Mike’s characters from those plays we had done, but that’s what they got.
When you have two former elementary students, two founders of the only family I’ve ever created from scratch, two people who I’ve shard a lot of life with getting married...well, you don’t get up and make a sarcastic joke out of everything. You stand up and you say something true and heartfelt and earnest. You try to find words that sums up everything about where you were, where you are, and where you’re going.
A few days later I put on a black suit, and my step-Dad, Uncle, cousin and I wore white gloves on our hands and we laid them on Fred’s casket and we helped escort him into a small Lutheran church and we said our goodbyes. And true and heartfelt and earnest words were said about a quiet, decent man who did extraordinary things with his long life.
Last year Fred gave me a tour of his exhibit at the Plainfield Historical Society. After looking at his artifacts displayed in a glass case, I spent some time looking at the other historical pieces from that era. There was a woman’s uniform on display, either a WAC or a WAVE. In the story that accompanied the uniform, a woman talked about how when they were on leave for a night or a weekend, they would continue to wear their uniforms, because of how proud they were of the work they were doing.
I remember tearing up a bit when I read that, and even now I get a little lump in my throat thinking about her words. They were just so…genuine. I remember thinking: how different we are these days. We stick our heads in the sand and we ignore the ugly truth about our current wartime situation. We go shopping. We keep an ironic distance from everything. This woman was so proud of what her uniform represented, what her country was doing to rid the world of an ugly, unfathomable evil.
When the war ended, Fred flew repatriation missions in Europe, helping bring displaced peoples back to their homes. He called it the most fulfilling work of his life.