When he was a boy he liked Johnny Horton’s 1960 song, “The Battle of New Orleans.”
“In 1814 we took a little trip … we ran so fast that the hounds couldn’t catch us.”
The song lyrics about alligators in place of guns fired his imagination. Big Bad John also empowered him, a man who stood alone like a mighty oak tree. That was our friend.
He found a glue in the Cubs and saved the old baseball cards of Ernie Banks and 1950s and ’60s heroes. Even Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn found his way into the tiny metal box in his drawer. He gave his friends that glue. Of many accolades we will give to him since his passing, the remarkable loyalty showed in devotion to all things Cubs, and dedication to those he knew, these are hallmarks of a life.
When he died in the second week of October, he held his hand out in unconscious friendship while he was asleep under the morphine that kept the ravage away. The cancer had made him unrecognizable, skin pasted to bone, sores spending their time painting his arms and neck, hair falling away like he was hosting a monster bash at Halloween. But his big hand had slipped to the bedside and asked to be held. It was his great right that pitched him to grade school baseball trophies and high school basketball trophies. The one he placed over his heart when the anthem played before our games.
He was tall. His shoulders held an angle as if he carried water by a yoke, walking with his two-bucket treasure from the well to home. Home was a proud, small town where we bragged about the big city but denied that city’s pastel light that painted our small section of sky.
Legend said our town was named for the spring water and its location. All we knew was streets with stones, the lady who kept goats and chicken, the horse barn on the Burlington tracks and the diamonds and courts where we found ourselves.
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“All things in moderation,” he’d tell us. Oh sure, this in 1969, Woodstock screaming at us, the year after the terrible assassinations, and now free love and that crazy smoke that made you criminal. We friends would call him Calvin like President Coolidge, the leader before the Great Depression known for his quiet persona. Then the nickname morphed to Cautious Calvin, and finally Cautious. His refrigerator was a Kelvinator and that helped us to name our stalwart friend. Something was strong about the past and values we seldom discuss anymore.
Our times were rolling and colliding, war and peace, black and white, us boomers and the old values. Bruce held the old values, keeping as many as 10 of us friends measured and in line. When we get together, and this will be soon, we will laugh about being alive. Experience again our 18-year-old innocent eyes and dreams but remembering one of us stilled the water when we were nabbed by police for beer in the basement of a parent out for the night. We will recall that for everything, the season includes a pillar and a post.
The time is leaving as he did, love and sorrow blend, toughness and open hands weld together. Small town and city now one landscape, that small place only another stop light on an endless trail headed to the setting sun.
• Timothy Trenkle is a freelance writer who teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College