January 18, 2008 ©Homer Kizer

 

Commentary — From the Margins

Fifty Years Ago

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On January 18th, 1958, Dad died suddenly. He was forty-two; I was eleven. Officially, he had a massive heart attack. Uncle Jerry [Cloyd Donovan Kizer] said that Grandpa Kizer died of an inherited aneurism, that Kizer males have a kink in the artery going into the heart, with this kinked spot blowing out at some point in life. Uncle Jerry claimed that Dad probably died when this kinked spot ruptured, but whether he was correct will not be known for Uncle Jerry, too, has passed on, taking with him what knowledge he had of Dad, Grandpa, the farm in Indiana, a way of life that no longer exists … Jerry said he did not remember much about the farm house that burned, the one that claimed Dad’s collection of native spear points and knives he had recovered from the buffalo wallow he and Grandpa had drained. Jerry said he was only six years old when the fire occurred, and all he could remember was the house was painted yellow. I remember Dad saying that it was a log house that had been sided over with boards. And I had the only three points Dad had rescued from the fire until I went to Alaska in 1974. I believe those points are now in a collection in Nevada, and are probably misidentified, for the collector obtained them from the house at Abby Creek.

Those salvage points were mounted behind glass in a picture frame with points I had found in Oregon’s portion of the Great Basin. Altogether, there were not many points. The collector from Nevada had not yet retired from Georgia-Pacific’s pulp and paper mill at Toledo, Oregon—he moved into the house after I journeyed north. I suspect he, too, has now passed on, leaving his collections to others who will ponder why there are three flint points among thousands of obsidian, chert, and jasper heads, medicine crescents, knives, and scrapers, the flaked stone outlasting the generations that valued these tools and weapons, the points eventually ending up in a museum where a few people will quickly pass by, noting that Native Americans made arrowheads before they hurry on to some far destination where their kids can get a happy meal.

My younger brother, Dr. Kenneth Kizer, when Undersecretary of Heath for Veteran Affairs, arranged for a plaque to be placed at Willamette National Cemetery, Portland, Oregon, noting that Dad was interred there as one of thousands of servicemen and women whose graves, each marked with a stone, are all that remains in this world of a life lived, and sometimes cut short too soon for others to remember who the person was. A quiet sadness strikes the person who walks among the headstones, reading names, dates of birth and of death, realizing that someday the one who walks will also be reduced to a name on a stone if lucky—and these stones not even the work of the person’s hands, but machine polished granite and CNC chiseled characters spelling out a name given by parents that hoped their child would have the things in life the parents had lacked.

According to Mom, Dad waited in the car while she was in labor with me. He dreamed he would have a son, a football player. Well, he got that son although the only football I played was in high school. I became Homer Jr. … would I be who I am if another name had been given? I’ve been told I have a Greco-Roman mindset, but perhaps the mindset comes with the name.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus crosses the boundary between god and mortal: offered immortality, he chooses mortality, but when in the palace of King Alcinous, he asks the blind bard Demodocus to, “Sing of the wooden horse / Epeus built … the cunning trap that / good Odysseus brought one day to the heights of Troy” (Bk. 8, lines 552-554, Robert Fagles’ trans.). Within his lifetime, Odysseus had achieved immortality in the realm of mortals; for in this world immortality exists only in a valued story, where the life lived never grows older than when the story ends. Odysseus achieved greater immortality than any of the ancient Greek pantheon of gods now possess, so he chose wisely when with the beautiful nymph Calypso on the island Ogygia at the center of the oceans. He left behind the promise of immortality as one of Greece’s minor deities in an already too large pantheon for the uncertain future of a literary figure in the flow of time, its tides and whirlpools more dangerous than any he faced on his journey home. And with the Odyssey, Homer received fame and immortality in this world greater than any poet since.

The Apostle Paul writes to the saints at Corinth, “You are our letter of recommendation, written on hearts to be known and read by all men. You show that you are an epistle from Christ having been cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Breath of a living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, the hearts of you” (2 Co 3:2-3) … in this world, the life of a man or a woman is remembered by the name engraved into a headstone, but the promise Paul makes to the saints at Corinth is that their lives were letters in the Book of Life, not kept here on earth in a humidity-controlled underground vault but kept in the supra-dimensional realm known as heaven.

The breath that sang about the exploits of Odysseus forms the shadow and type of the Breath that will sing about the righteousness of saints when judgments are revealed.

Fifty years is no time at all in the course of human history; yet in the past fifty years, Khrushchev pounded his shoe on a U.N. podium and promised to bury us, but it was the Soviet Union that fell first. On a spy mission in 1960, American pilot Gary Powers in a U2 was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 missile at 65,000 feet, but now both Russian and American satellites orbit the globe, sending down images of sufficient resolution that passports can be read from outer space. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, because of the slowness of communication between the two world leaders a teletype Hot Line was established to link Washington D.C. with Moscow, with this hot line capable of conveying one page of text every three minutes. Now, I write a commentary, post it to the Internet and Google has indexed it within minutes: it is in search engines around the world for all to read before I can drink a cup of coffee. I did not buy stock in Tandy Leather when, a decade or so after Dad died, the company announced that it wanted to sell walkie-talkies in a new company called Radio Shack. A friend did (I bought a leather wallet kit, instead). Today he lives on choice beachfront property, paying more a month in property taxes than I earn in six months.

The world of 1958 lasted no longer than the year. Change has been rapid. Just as galaxies are flying apart at accelerating rates, change has accelerated as if the creation is hurrying toward an appointed destination, eager to arrive, eager to greet a fate spun out when the foundational constructs of this world were laid in emptiness.

Those three salvaged flint points that, I’m certain, have been valued enough to reside in some collection will suggest to future anthropologists that a vast aboriginal trading network existed, one stretching from Indiana’s Wabash River to Oregon’s Steen Mountains. Perhaps such a network did exist, for an axe head forged by Lewis and Clark’s blacksmith at Fort Mandan crossed Montana and Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains months before the explorers staggered into Weippe, hungry, needing the help of the local Nez Perce and of an older woman who had been treated well by frontier Americans along the Mississippi when she was an escaped slave.

The world is smaller than it was. There is less room for each person, less game, less water, less freedom to start over in the margins of civilization. Bombers fly directly from bases in Kansas to level buildings in Iraq, or if necessary, cities anywhere in the world. On-Star will unlock car doors in parking lots from Seaside to Charleston, and the backdoor into the computer chip for On-Star’s GPS system will tell Homeland Security where the car is whenever Federal authorities need to know the person’s location.

Silicon chips have become talking stones, their language a binary code that looks much like ancient Ogam … how much has really changed in fifty years or in the past five thousand years. Men have carried stones home from the moon as Dad carried three flint points across a nation. Who knows how far those flint points were carried before they were lost in a buffalo wallow by an errant throw, or lost in an animal that was not retrieved. Regardless, mankind has released words into this stone world, these words bubbling forth as escaping vapors above the hot springs of Yellowstone, each as lethal as a flint point, but with most imprisoned in stilted texts as if they were collected arrowheads.

Dad’s words went to the grave with him. They now lay silent in the dust of the earth. I would like to have heard them before they were petrified. Perhaps I will hear them in the great White Throne Judgment, in which every person who has drawn breath will get to say as much as one or the other of the two thieves crucified with Jesus said. I will certainly labor long and hard to have the opportunity to hear whether Dad will seek to save a life lost fifty years ago, or whether he will asked to be remembered. His immortality will rest on the few words he will then speak.

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