It is Memorial Day, a time which always reminds me of my favorite soldier. Don Clarkson taught me a lot about life during the years we umpired baseball together. And though I’ve run the story about our friendship before, I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing it again.
I miss you, Don.
I was a reporter for a long time and so, like most of my brethren, I carry a skeptical gene. What this means is we need proof, concrete verification from unimpeachable sources. Prove it or I simply cannot believe.
I’m older now, and though perhaps not wiser, have softened up that gene a bit, so that I can sometimes see unexplained light glowing around its edges. What changed me? A strange encounter one day in a classroom at the school where I teach.
But first, I have to tell you about Don.
When I was nearing 40, I was fired from the TV station where I worked. I’d been a sports reporter and anchor for five stations at both the local and national levels. Surely, I’d get another job soon. As the months passed, then the years, and my hopes for a reporting job dimmed, I started applying for all kinds of positions. Despite a college degree and a resume that included a stint anchoring SportsCenter at ESPN, I couldn’t even get a job bartending. One night, I faced the prospect of an early morning gig standing on an assembly line, courtesy of a temp agency.
I did have other skills, though it had been years since I’d spent my time officiating year round. Still, I’d called football, baseball, ice hockey, soccer, and basketball games in the past, and faced with the prospect of standing Lucy-like before a conveyor belt, I’d take a whistle anytime.
One sunny afternoon, I walked toward a baseball field where young players were warming up for a Babe Ruth League contest. As a woman official, I took my uniform and equipment very seriously, not wanting to give the fans and coaches anything extra to harangue me about. So, I was shocked by the appearance of the man behind the plate. Was he really wearing red sweatpants? And using an old-fashioned outside chest protector like the umps in Norman Rockwell paintings?
The man with the snow-white hair saw me. He smiled, raised a hand in greeting, and waved me over. Geez! He wasn’t even wearing a hat. Despite that inauspicious start, Don and I would be umpiring partners for the next five years.
Umpires spend a lot of time in parking lots, before and after games. Often we set up folding chairs and dress into and out of our gear from the beds of pickup trucks or the trunks of our cars. Sometimes, we just relax, have a cold drink, and let the breeze blow away the sweat accumulated from calling a three-hour game dressed in polyester and plastic, exceptionally poor choices for baseball in the Arizona desert. And, always, we talk.
Early in my friendship with Don, I spent a great deal of time feeling sorry for myself. I told him that I feared chance meetings with people I knew from my media days, dreading that awful question: “So what are you doing now?”
In the meantime, I learned that Don was a Vietnam veteran: an Army Special Forces soldier who did two tours in-country. He was a decorated war hero and his profound limp was the result of a bullet that almost killed him. The close-clipped white beard covered scars left from other battle wounds. Then there was the Post Traumatic Stress caused by memories he carried from the war. But it was the mist that rained from American planes that would transform his life, the Agent Orange defoliant that destroyed the jungles and the lives of soldiers the poison fell upon.
Don was married and had eight children. His family was the center of his world. He was devoutly religious and believed that another life waited, one without the pain of his deteriorating body and the nightmares that plagued him. As a non-believer I argued the point, which might seem mean. But Don loved to do verbal battle, trying to convince me that my skepticism was misplaced.
We talked endlessly, often about my failing marriage to an alcoholic, my sadness at the loss of my career, and my inability to pay my bills. Don, meanwhile, almost never complained. He did tell me harrowing tales of his war years, but would always add stories about the wonderful people he’d met and the beauty of Vietnam.
Don died in July of 2010. He was 60. I’d not been to see him often enough since he retired from baseball. The last few occasions he was bedridden, though he never failed to grace me with a huge smile and a warm hand.
During the next few years I would often think about Don and I would sometimes get the feeling that he was somewhere nearby. Though, of course, that was impossible.
Then, one afternoon, I was standing in a classroom. The teacher behind the desk, who I had known for many years, looked at me with a quizzical expression.
“Who do you know that might be wearing an Army uniform?” she asked, her gaze focusing just behind me.
“What?” I turned around. There was no one there.
“Do you know who he is?”
“Who who is?”
“There’s someone here for you. He’s wearing fatigues. I sometimes see things,” she said with a smile and a shrug.
I turned around again. “Don?” I mumbled.
She paused. “Yes, it’s Don,” she finally said. “He’s got his hands on your shoulders. He wants you to know that he’s fine and you shouldn’t worry about him. And he wants you to be happy.”
In that moment, the skeptic in me began to fray. My normal impulse would be to argue and say “prove it,” but I couldn’t, because I believed her.
How do I explain what happened? I can’t. And while the experience didn’t suddenly make me religious, it did cause me to think about whatever happens next in a new way.
I have never sensed Don around me again. Still, I hope he’d be glad to know that I’ve taken his advice. Now, I do my best to find happiness in every day.