Remembering A Childhood Friend, Who Died at 59
Mark was born with a big head. My mother told me that he there had been some trouble when he was born and the doctors had to use special tools to help him be born. The rest of his body was fine, but doctors had said he might have some brain damage later on.
I knew Mark since before first grade. He was in Cub Scouts with me. One year his mother was the den mother. The next year mine was.
Mark and I also played a lot together at the fire station. Both our fathers were volunteer firemen. Mark’s dad was even fire chief a couple of years. There was plenty to do at the fire station. We could climb on the fire trucks and run and play hide and seek in the big forest that lay behind the fire station. In the summer, they had water ball tournaments. Teams of fire fighters would point a jet of water from their hose at a big metal ball that hung on a long wire. Each team would try to push the ball into end zone of the other side.
When we started first grade, I was pretty upset. I didn’t want to leave my mom. The first two weeks, as soon as my mom dropped me off at school, I would start to cry. I cried so loud that the teachers had to put me in the hall all by myself.
On the playground at recess, lot of kids made fun of me. They called me “cry baby.”
After several weeks, I stopped crying. The teachers were very nice and there was plenty to do on the playground. I especially liked the monkey bars, and there was a concrete water pipe. We would take turns crawling into that pipe have the other kids would roll you along. It made you really dizzy.
Mark spent most of recess time chasing girls. Sometimes, though, the girls and other kids would make fun of Mark’s large head. They called him “Picklehead.”
Once when we were at the fire station, some of the other kids started to chase Mark. I joined in. Just as I was chasing him past the kitchen, I called out “Picklehead!” At that very moment, Mark’s mother stepped out of the kitchen.”
“Oh, Kurt!” she said to me. “Not you too.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Mark’s mom looked so sad. She turned and walked back into the kitchen. I never chased Mark after that.
Mark got pretty good grades. He was a fantastic speller. Whenever we had a spelling bee in English class, Mark always won.
In sixth grade, we had a school wide spelling bee. Anybody who wanted to could enter. I didn’t like spelling bees, but Mark signed up.
Mark was really excited about it. I thought he had a good chance of winning.
The whole school went into the gymnasium for the contest. The spellers sat in a row on the stage at one end.
Every time it was Mark’s turn to spell a word, the kids in the audience around me would start to laugh.
“Look. It’s Picklehead,” Joey said.
“What’s he doing up there?” snorted Chuck.
“He’ll never win,” said Mary.
“I hope he doesn’t,” Debbie said.
Mark made it all the way to the final five. The judge said the word “receive.” Was it I before E except after C or the other way around? I couldn’t remember myself.
Mark got it wrong.
“Incorrect,” said the judge.
The kids around me laughed. Mark’s shoulders slumped. Mark looked so sad as he walked back to his chair. He was disappointed for days after that.
In seventh grade, Mark started to get in trouble. Sometimes, he got into arguments with people in the cafeteria. He had a loud voice and when he started shouting, everybody would stop eating.
One day, my mother told me that Mark’s mother had called her. The school principal had told Mark’s mother that he would probably do better in special education class. That meant that Mark would take classes in a part of the school that none of us had ever gone to. None of us wanted to see it either.
I continued to see Mark at the fire station. Mark had a big bike that had baskets on it and he rode it everywhere. Sometimes we would pass him in our car on our way to the mall. My dad would beep his horn and Mark would always wave at us.
One summer day, at home from college, I was sitting at the picnic table in our back yard breaking snap beans from our garden. My dad and Mark emerged from around the side of our house. Mark yelled: “Guess, what, Kurt. I’m a published writer!”
“You bet. The Penny Saver newspaper published one of my poems last week. And my church bulletin is going to have one in next Sunday. Too bad you don’t go to our church. Don’t worry, though. I got all my poems right here!”
Mark plopped down a big three-ring binder on our picnic table.
“Here,” he said. “I’ll read you one.”
It was a beautiful sunny day. The sky was really blue with big, billowy clouds. We were sitting at the table under one of my dad’s apple trees.
Mark’s poem was about how beautiful the sky was. How wonderful he felt to be alive. And as he read the poem, I closed my eyes and it felt like his words were lifting me up and I was floating along with the cottony clouds. I could have been a kid again, lying on my back in a field on a sunny summer day, with a friend dreaming of all the great things we’d do when we grew up.
That was about 40 years ago. Mark died today at the age of 59. Back in his 30s, a car hit him as he rode his bike along the highway. He’d had a lot of surgery to fix him us, no one expected him to live, but he did. I never failed to marvel at how he kept up such good spirits. Maybe it was his faith. Or maybe after all the hardship he had to endure, that’s what he got in return.