The plane ran down the runway at about 6:30 p.m. I left the Epply Airfield in Omaha, for the two and a half hour flight back to my world. I had spent a long weekend visiting my hometown in Iowa to celebrate by father’s 80 something birthday. Iowa in October is a tray of sensations which is brazenly forced upon a person. The climate is changing in dramatic ways, the greens of the summer are turning quickly into the golden and browns of harvest season, and everywhere one travels the ancient activity of bringing in the crops is present. Morning, noon and night the farmers swing back and forth with their large impressive machines and take from mother earth more than enough food stuffs to feed the world. Growing up in the agrarian world is much like being a member of the Masonic Lodge, if you have not been admitted as a member and are an outsider the entire proceedings are a secret and a mystery. I have never encountered a city person who understood the secret handshake of the farmer.
One of the outcomes of my return visits to my home state is that I take the time to drive throughout the countryside. I always visit certain places which hold exclusive memories for just me – no one else cares about or knows of these places, and that is just fine, for to explain their significance takes way too much time, and is really no bodies business except mine. These spots are mine and no one can pollute them or fiddle with them, or destroy them, and hence my return visits back home to Iowa are not just a duty call to family, or a business purpose, or even a reunion, they are today primarily a spiritual renewal, they are a place and occasion to jump start my attitude, to renew the very visceral makeup of my DNA by sights, sound, sensations from a thousand and one stimuli. I am always sad when I leave for I never can totally shake off my haunting feelings concerning the would of, could of, should of, about my life. Questions like; What if I had? Why did I do that? Why didn’t I do this? I should have done this? I should have said that? It is always an unsettling feeling when the plane takes off leaves the ground which I first set foot upon, and which also helped set the foundation of my life.
June of 1970 was a great time in my life. This was a brief period in my life when everything seemed to come together. It was great! I had just graduated from High School the month before, I had a gorgeous girl friend who lived in Omaha, and I was working for the prestigious Heafey & Heafey Mortuary at 3522 Farnam Street on what was then called mortuary row, called that due to the fact that the majority of all the Omaha funeral homes were located within a eight block radius of this historic street. Everything was wonderful. It was so wonderful that my boss used to allow me to borrow the lead car to take my “city chick” out on the town in downtown Omaha. That fall I was enrolled in college and then I was going to go on to Mortuary College in Boston, and then I was going to eventually own my own chain of funeral homes in Southwestern Iowa. As I saw things, the sky was the limit. That’s how I saw things back then.
Was I ever happy to shake off High School in Avoca! With all candor and honesty I must say that I was a terrible student and I know of only two teachers in my entire career as a student at the AvoHa High School who liked me. The rest I well remember viewed me as a complete loser. When I walked across the stage in the old gym at the school to get my diploma at first I was surprised I got one and then I remember looking out at the crowd of teachers and thought “Thank God I am rid of them!” “They never took the time to get to know me and understand me!” It was a real self pity fest which I enjoyed then and still enjoy today. While I was standing in line waiting to get my diploma I was talking to a fellow student by the name of Tom Sewing. Tom and I always stood next to each other because in high school they followed a penal type of organization structure whereby students were always lined up alphabetically, even in fire drills! Someone yelled SEWING – S – Sewing, yes Tom was where he should be. There were no T’s or U’s, in our school, but there was one V – VAN BECK someone yelled, VAN BECK, IS VAN BECK HERE? I was day dreaming and talking with Sewing. After more Van Beck calls, and some rolled eye balls from faculty I finally raised my hand. They all looked disgusted with me and I tried to read their lips and I think I caught something like “What a loser!” and “Did you ever have him (meaning me) in class?” Tom and I chummed around all throughout our time in school together. Tom’s parents were formally connected to the Underwood, Iowa community but at this time his father Marvin worked a farm southwest of our town, they were RLDS and were mighty fine people. Tom also had a beautiful little sister, two years younger named Renae. I used to do odd jobs for the old man who owned the farm where the Sewing’s lived and when I had completed my farm work I would go to visit the Sewing’s. I really liked them all, for they seemed to always laugh at my stupid stories, jokes or remarks, and they let me play their small little electronic organ. I made terrible mistakes in playing but the Sewing’s always clapped and told me how great I was. It was great!
Tom Sewing was the envy of the entire AvoHa High School. He did not have a girl friend, he did not have money, he did not have great athletic power, he did not have an acne free face – none of these trophies of a teenager, he had something else, something much, much better – Tom had a car! Tom Sewing had a Barracuda, an honest to God 1960 something Barracuda and he drove that machine with top notch skill and speed. He could spin the wheels and burn rubber; he could pop that clutch and he could whip that machine around and turn it on a dime. Students lined up to get rides. I meekly suggested that he charge a 25 cent fee to the poor kids and a 50 cent fee to the rich kids for a ride in his impressive car. I also out of the goodness of my heart kindly offered to help him by collecting the money for him and then I would split the profits 60/40 with him at the end of the day. I would take a paltry 60% of the cash for marketing and financial handling charges. Tom firmly declined my offer, and happily our friendship survived his rejection. Tom Sewing was just a nice, uncomplicated 18 years old that night when we received our High School diplomas.
Tom’s little sister Renea was just a sweetheart. She had the most beautiful smile, was a talented student, and excelled in athletics. I could tease her and she was always a good sport. Also she like to ride on the back of Tom’s other vehicle – a motorcycle – and the two of them would fly like the wind on the back roads of Southwestern Iowa. Tom liked to go fast. What 18 year old doesn’t?
My fathers birthday dinner was held on a Saturday night in October of 2005 at a well know landmark restaurant in Omaha known as Johnny’s Café. Our family has patronized this eating and drinking establishment for many years. On Sunday after the party my brother flew back to Houston, and I was scheduled to stay one more day and fly back to Atlanta on Monday afternoon. About five o’clock Sunday afternoon I decided to take a ride around the places of my boyhood so I could refresh my spirit before I left the next day.
I decided to drive into Council Bluffs and then planned to continue into Omaha for my memory tour and dinner. As I was driving alone down Highway 6 I entered the town of Underwood. Suddenly a feeling came over me which I have learned to pay attention to over the years. The feeling is always the same. It is a feeling of great peace, sadness, reverence yearning for something. It is a pleasantly haunting type of experience and happens all simultaneously. I now felt this familiar feeling, this significant feeling overwhelm me – it was just about 5:30 p.m. the sun was setting, the sky colors were spectacular and the farmers were still in the fields working.
God I wish I could remember the exact date when the phone call came in, but I cannot recall it exactly. I am confident, however that my gorgeous girl friend in Omaha called me in the late afternoon. I was working and living at the Heafey & Heafey Mortuary and was in my apartment above the carriage house when I answered the phone. “Todd?” “Yes.” “It’s Patty.” “Yes, I know.” “What’s up?” “I don’t know how to tell you this.” “What?” “What’s wrong?” “Todd, oh, its terrible news, Tom Sewing and his sister were killed this afternoon in an accident.” I stood in my apartment stunned, no body else there but me, I got the news all alone. “Both of them?” “Yes.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, my Aunt Georgia just called and said that I should let you know before you saw it on the news.” “Both?” “Are you sure?” I repeated the questions.
It was truly a beautiful June day, that day when Patty called me to inform me of Tom and his sister Renea’s accident and deaths. I remember it distinctly because Heafey’s had conducted a funeral that morning for a priest out at the Dowd Chapel on Boy’s Town campus and Msgr. Wegner had commented on the beauty of the day. When Patty called I had just finished washing the funeral coach because we had another large funeral service the next morning.
Tom and Renea must have thought it a beautiful day also and of course it was summer, Tom had just graduated and Renea had the entire summer off. As best as I was ever able to piece the story together Tom and his little sister took off on the motorcycle sometime before noon. They were traveling up a town road in Minden, Iowa and were just crossing Interstate 80 when a truck pulled out in front of them. The collision was horrendous and while I remember my two young friends were taken into Council Bluffs to the hospital the trip proved futile and in time both were pronounced dead.
The next several days were full of activities. I was asked to assist in conducting the funeral and remember that I had the honor of driving the funeral coach in which Renea’s body rested. The funeral was held in the sanctuary of Trinity Lutheran Church simply because it was the largest building in our town of a religious nature. The school gym was larger and available, but the Sewings’ were religious people so to church we went.
Tom and Renae Sewing were buried side by side on the Sewing plot where at least two generations of the family rested in the H.D. Fisher Cemetery outside of Underwood, Iowa. I left the cemetery at around 5:30 p.m. with an empty funeral coach, drove back to Avoca, parked the vehicle at the local funeral home, drove into Omaha that evening to see college friends and drown my sorrows and for thirty-five years I had not stepped foot in the H. D. Fisher Cemetery until the day after my father’s 80 something birthday.
5:30 p.m. October, 2005 Sunday afternoon and my overwhelming feeling has got a vice grip on me. As the car inched down the main street of Underwood I could see the evergreen trees which mark and identify the H. D. Fisher cemetery to the west. I turned to car to the right and started down a gravel road. I came to a four corner and stopped. A woman jogger ran by me sweating, I smiled and waved, she just waved. I have never seen a happy jogger in my life. I turned to the left and went up and down two hills and vales and finally stopped on top of the third hill. I got out of the car and stood there for a moment. It reminded me of playing “King of the Mountain” as a child. I could see for miles and miles. The farmers were working the land to my right and left, and my front and back. One farmer drove by on his John Deere and waved to me. Everybody in Iowa waves at each other. I waved back. The farmer’s expression and wave told me that he knew that I was not some tourist. The farmer, I could tell, knew that I had a connection to the place.
A warm autumn breeze was my companion as I entered the gates of the cemetery. It did not take long to locate Tom and Renea’s graves. They are side by side, they share one gray granite upright headstone with different birthdates, but the same death dates. I stood by their graves and I felt like I was floating. I studied the stone carefully and the same thought began to radiate throughout my mind, body and soul. “God Almighty is life a precious gift!” Again and again, “God Almighty is life a precious gift!” 1970 was chiseled twice on that headstone. 1970, thirty-five years ago! Then I began to take stock of my life and felt humbled and grateful in the presence of the earthly symbol of my dear friend’s lives which were taken at such a young age, that I have been alive throughout this thirty-five year span of time. What a blessing!
I felt puny and embarrassed in recalling my reactions and responses to certain episodes in my life which I thought were unfair or unwarranted and which caused me stress and unhappiness. I felt ashamed to recall times in my life when I was not able to appreciate and/or to be thankful for everything life threw at me, for the truth is that all the times I thought life was picking on me I was alive, living life, breathing, experiencing – while my young friends Tom and Renae now right here in front of me were all this time laying together in the grave. I looked out at the farmers and thought how many crops had been planted, how many winters, summers, autumns and falls had changed the scenery of this grave yard, and my young friends have been lying together in the grave all this time, while I was so blessed and fortunate to be alive to experience, to be present, to contribute, to try make a difference in this crazy world.
I thought about all my failures and successes. Someone else got my gorgeous girlfriend from Omaha, someone else in Omaha got the chain of funeral homes I planned for in Southwestern Iowa, and someone else, it seems, has always done better that me. However I have a wonderful son, I have a great career which I never imagined would happen, I have many friends and associates worldwide, I have a great church home, I have my health, I have traveled the world over, I came from really good people, I have a great education, I have lived life, and my parents are still my parents, they are not known or referred to as bereaved parents who witnessed their children being buried before they were. There is nothing more difficult than for parents to bury their children. A wise Rabbi from Boston, Earl Grollman once told me when your parents die you have lost your past, when your spouse dies you have lost your present, but when your children dies you have lost your future. Standing in front of Thomas and Renea Sewings gravestone in Underwood, Iowa I was humbled to the core, and said a prayer of thanksgiving for my good fortunes in life. It was a great comfort to let this experience in a cemetery soak into the core of my spirit. Funny I have thought about the Sewings consistently for thirty-five years, and only when I entered the gates of the gentle pastoral scene of their resting place on top of a country hill in Western Iowa did the Holy Spirit move me to a re-awakening concerning a genuine appreciation of the precious gift of life.
Tom and Renae were physically stopped in life during youth. They never experienced the joys of children, the pride of a career, or even advanced education. However they also never experienced the torments and toils of aging, of getting old. They never experienced the frustrations of seeing health pass, of seeing energy wane. Both Tom and Renae had bright quick brains which were, even at their young ages, the center of a thousand subtleties of thought and deed, they both had great hearts and they were both growing into adults capable of seeking truth and creating beauty. But on one June day death was upon them in an instant and no one could stop the life changing intrusion of the pesky Grim Reaper – it just seems he is everywhere. As a funeral director I have learned a few lessons about life; here is one of them: Death wins.
When I was walking back to the car one of the farmers was fiddling with his tractor. I stopped and asked how the crops were looking this year. “It’s another bumper crop!” he responded with a great big grin. I said to him, “It must be great to see life grow and blossom year after year?” He responded, “Yea, I guess it’s the Lord’s work.” I was now standing in the middle of the road I looked left to Tom and Renae’s gravestone, and right to my new farmer friend who was working the land in order to create new life in the spring. At that moment I remembered visiting the Sewings on their farm and seeing the light stream across the corn fields. I remember playing with Tom and Renae and they were so joyous, running madly over the lawn in front of the farm house, laughing, calling, yelling, and panting for breath. What energy, what spirit and what happiness! What did we then care about death? As I walked back to the car I looked one last time at my farmer friend. Ah, yes the work of the Lord, no more true words have ever been spoken. The car turned to the left and then to the right back onto the highway. It was time for a nice cocktail or two or three, and a wonderful Omaha steak. Then something struck me as a type of finality and closure for this life affirming experience. I was not thinking about Tom and Renea in the grave or about my farmer friend across the road harvesting the old and planning to create new life in the spring. A strange connection struck my fancy as I thought of the insects which make their homes both in the graveyards and fields across the globe. I thought how in the midst of life and death, in the midst of creation and destruction the simple murmur of insects is constantly calling to their mates, this unseen to the human eye, yet creates a powerful life force just the same which is God given, that we see this same force also in human beings when lover’s pass through eager and lowered eyes also thinking themselves unseen, a noble madness courses calling to their mates through clasped hands and touching lips. I thought as the sun finally settled behind the magnificent panorama of the western Iowa sky and as the diligent farmers kept up their vigil of work that the other lesson this funeral director has learned is this; Life wins.