Saturday, February 5, 2011

How Ronald Reagan Helped Me Overcome My Brother's Death

[The following section is an excerpt from my memoirs entitled Profiles in Courageousness: The Jack Kimble Story. This is still in draft form, but it tells the story of how Ronald Reagan helped me to overcome the untimely death of my older brother Joe Kimble and how he ultimately brought our family together.]

Chapter Three

Remembering Joe

Monday night, July 17, 1978 was a scorcher. An angry sun was beating down most of the day reminding us all that California had once been a desert and despite modern attempts to the contrary, the state was a mistress that you could never really take home to meet your parents. In a game played under the unrelenting sun, the Heritage Valley Tigers defeated the Hampton Jazz 5-2 behind their star Joe Kimble. It was summer vacation and the Heritage Valley players were looking to celebrate.

Around 10:00 the players were able to buy some Schaefer’s Beer. They headed out behind the school and began drinking heavily. The sun had set and the night air was refreshingly cool. Tank McBride the catcher on the team had suggested going to the zoo and with everybody’s minds clouded by alcohol consumption this sounded like a terrific idea.

Just after midnight, 8 members of the Heritage Valley baseball team hopped the fence at Canyon Point Zoo. When that awful night was over, only 7 would leave. The players made their way through the park and were immediately drawn to the big cats that Canyon Point was famous for. The players began to heckle the Bengal Tiger who growled a few times, but for the most part ignored their taunts. Finally, it was decided that the tiger should have a pair of pants on instead of running around a public zoo naked. As leader, it fell to Joe to put a pair of baseball pants on the tiger.

Even through a drunken haze, the players displayed amazing teamwork as they slid Joe down the 14 foot wall encircling the cat habitat. This should have been their finest moment as a tea—the type of crazy stunt the cements bonds and fosters a one for all attitude for years to come. Unfortunately, tragedy intervened. Joe snuck up behind the tiger and managed to get the legs of the pants over the tiger’s hind legs. He even managed to stuff the tiger’s tail down one of the pants legs. It was only when he attempted to zip the pants that the tiger exploded with primal ferocity. Joe never stood a chance. The other players called for help, but by the time rescue workers arrived on the scene, Joe was already dead..

For years, my dad carried the weight of Joe’s death on his shoulders. People took one look at him and could tell he changed. He continued to rail against the communist takeover of America and fluoride in the drinking water, but you could tell that his heart just wasn’t in it anymore. My mom seemed to take things pretty well on the outside, but she had her doctor double her Miltown prescription. Bobby seemed to throw himself even more into his studies hoping to make dad proud of him. I remember that Gladys was sad about Joe’s passing too. It seemed like the whole Kimble family had been turned upside down.

A month after Joe’s passing, I tried to comfort my father, but he wasn’t ready to be consoled not would he be for quite sometime to come.

“It’s hard to lose Joe,” I said, “He was like a brother to me, but life has to move on, doesn’t it dad? You’ve still got Bobby and me and a daughter too.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head in resignation. “This probably makes me a horrible parent for saying this, but Joe was special.”

“Sister Agnes said that I was special too,” I beamed proudly.

“That’s just because you couldn’t figure out shoe laces until you were 11. Joe was the best hope this family had of really making it big. He could have been an astronaut, or President, or owned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You and Bobby can’t compete with that. I don’t expect you too.”

”You’re wrong dad, I’m going to show you,” I said storming out of the room. I’d like to say that moment changed my life and that after I stood up to my dad I was forever inspired to make something of my life to prove my father wrong. The truth is, like the rest of my family, I was spiraling into an abyss. Tragedy hits everybody differently, but my 14 year old backbone was too weak to struggle against the grief that was holding me down for long.

When I returned to school in September, my grades immediately began to plummet. If not for my father’s skillful cross-examination of teachers during parent-teacher conferences, I probably would have been looking at more Fs than I did receive, but I certainly was no longer the B student that I had been during my freshman year. I had trouble concentrating on my school work with what was going on in my home life and knowing the lowered expectations that my father had for me didn’t help. In retrospect, it seemed that every time my father had told me about the great Kimble lineage or dreams for the future he was also addressing Joe. When he talked to me alone, it was usually about mundane things like taking out the trash.

A schism had developed in the audio-visual club over two competing formats. The school had 1960s era film players and wanted to switch to more modern recording devices. My friends and I fought bitterly with another group that thought VHS was the way to go. A lot of the skills that serve me well in politics today, I learned that Fall in the audio-visual club format wars. The debate grew hot and heavy, but finally in January my group prevailed and we looked with pride on the $5,000 that our school district had spent on new betamax equipment for our high school.

That winter Dave Kenny brought a strange box into our Tuesday afternoon chess club meeting. It looked like an ordinary game box, but I could feel the evil that was emanating from the box. Had I been my usual self, I would have cast the box from the club room and called on Jesus to destroy its evil. Instead, in my weakened state I was intrigued. The game was called Dungeons and Dragons and by now it has become quite famous as a tool like Harry Potter for leading unknowing nerds into the occult.

As Dave tore open the game box, I saw dice of the like I had never seen before. While normal dice had 6 sides, some of these dice had 4, 12, and 20 sides. I knew that madness was the gateway to Satan and surely such dice were pure evil. In fact, grabbing one of the dice I noticed it was warm to the touch despite being in a cold locker for the last 7 hours.

“This is Dungeons and Dragons,” said Dave, “My older brother Gary bought it for me.”

“He’s strange. I think he’s taking drugs and he is always mumbling something under his breath,” said Julie. She was one of two girls in the chess club and she usually spoke her mind.

“I guess he’s odd, but this game is great. I’ll be the Dungeon Master and by playing this game you’ll be able to tap into real power,” said Dave excitedly.

“Real power? That sounds scary,” replied Julie.

“I don’t know,” I said, “Won’t this get in the way of our chess?”

“Chess is fine, but this game will be even better,” said Tom.

The others began to share in his excitement for the game as if overcome by some demonic power. If only I had stood up for my faith then, I would have saved us all, but instead I picked up the box and studied it further.

“Wow,” I said, “This is an odd game. It’s printed in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin”

“I had an uncle who lived there once,” said Julie, “The fog rises off of the lake and the townsfolk here the dogs barking and an eerie laughter, but nobody can see what it is. That town is evil. Trust me.”

Against my better judgment, I took to Dungeons and Dragons with relish. The chess club soon got a name change and became the gaming club. Late nights frequently found me sitting at a table with my fellow gamers using our critical thinking to escape the clever traps that Tom was laying out for us. We grew closer together as a group and those table sessions soon became therapy sessions as we shared the many problems we were having. I opened up for the first time about my brother’s death. It was unnatural, but at the time we couldn’t see that.

One of the most insidious parts of Dungeons and Dragons is that you take on the persona of a character. Role-playing can cause the participant to actually experience, emotionally, the role being played. Many of the chess players were extremely introverted and would never say much even to their friends. However, when taking on the role of a hero they began to get more outgoing and friendly both in and out of the game. I could only put this change in their behavior down to a sort of demonic possession or a sample of the occult power that we were foolishly playing with. I found myself lost in a malaise. Like this country, I was going through the motions without any faith or belief or values. I was existing simply to exist. Nothing seemed to matter anymore as I had abandoned my pride, and my values.

Two men changed my life. Coach Jack Bonner was 52 years old, pot-bellied, and he smelled of cigarettes and cheap bourbon, but he knew something about instilling character in young men. I first met Coach during study hall during my senior year. It turns out he had seen me at lunch eating a double helping of Sloppy Joes and he was impressed.

“How much do you weigh kid,” said Coach clearing his throat.

“About 112 pounds,” I replied.

“You’re what 5’10” and you eat whatever you want?” coach asked.

“Yes sir. I’ve got a fast metabolism,” I smiled

“Well, how’d you like to join the wrestling team?” he asked.

In high school wrestling it seems, being able to stay under 103 pounds is an athletic skill. Joining the wrestling team would mean losing 12 pounds so that I could wrestle an assortment of dwarves, freshman, male anorexics, and in one case an amputee. It wasn’t a tough choice for me to make. I took the challenge and began training hard for wrestling season.

Around the same time, I became acquainted with another charismatic man who knew something about character. I had heard Ronald Reagan’s name since I was old enough to talk. California Republicans are sadly not as common as one would like and Reagan had been the state’s governor. However, it was during the 1980 campaign for President that I really began to understand Ronald Reagan and the vision he had for this country. Reagan radiated confidence and optimism and the enemies of freedom sure noticed. Reagan had a passion and conviction that showed his belief that we could be great again and maybe just maybe so could the Kimble family. Through the Teenage Republicans, I began to pass out flyers and campaign for Reagan. I worked towards his election with the fervor of an immigrant landscaper determined to bring Dutch home a winner.

At home, my dad finally started to come around. He could see how hard I was working to be successful with the wrestling and my newfound enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan. Dad had been reinvigorated politically as well. In the 1960s, Reagan had been staunchly supported by the Robert Baird Society when he ran for Governor of California and dad believed Reagan was one of the few people who would root all the reds out of the government. When I’d bring home Reagan campaign literature from the Teenage Republicans, dad would always want to see it. We began to connect again in a way we hadn’t since that horrible night when Joe died.

As a wrestler I wasn’t very good, but I worked hard. I ran everyday to get in shape. I was blessed with extremely active sweat glands. For a wrestler this is a great thing. I was able to start a day at 108 pounds and sweat my way down to 103 in time for the big weigh in. Then as I drank water and replenished my lost bodily fluids, I’d be able to wrestle at 108.

After nearly two months of intense training, my big moment came on a Tuesday in November, when I had to wrestle the team’s wrestler in the 103 pound weight class from the previous year. Jennifer Hillebrandt had joined the team before after a long argument with the school board over Title IX and the lack of a girls wrestling team. She faced a lot of teasing from the boys who never really thought of her as a teammate. She was one of two female wrestlers in our conference and both wrestled at the 103 pound weight class.

Despite being nearly a foot taller than she was, wrestling against Jennifer was intimidating. In addition to the general awkwardness of having to wrestle a girl, Jennifer was an experienced wrestler who had one 3 matches the year before. I was a good six inches taller than she was, but I was the one with all the nerves as everyone watched us take to the mat. I could hear the boys on the team cheering me on and hoping to get rid of the female interloper from their previously all male domain. We stood next to each other in the neutral position and eyed each other trying to look intimidating.

Unfortunately, things went down hill very quickly. Jennifer had obviously been training hard since last season, while I had counted on my natural ability to sweat buckets to see me through. She nearly pinned me twice and soon had me in a hammer lock before the first period had ended. The second period had me starting out on offense, but ended much the same way. The boys on the team were visibly upset and I could see the coach’s disappointment. “I really expected more from you,” he said to me.

Entering the third period down fourteen to nothing, I knew that I had only one real chance to win the competition and that was to get a pin. Complicating matters, if she got one more point on me before I scored, she’d win. I tried to look intimidating. However, with her crouching over me in the offensive position to start the match, I didn’t see much hope of that happening. Then I thought of the words of Ronald Reagan, “The ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets but a test of wills and ideas-a trial of spiritual resolve: the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish and the ideals to which we are dedicated.”

As Jennifer grabbed for my shoulder I bent slightly forward and shot my elbow backwards, connecting dead solid with her nose. Blood began to spurt profusely in all directions. This was before we knew about some of the diseases we know about nowadays or I would not have been so nonchalant as her blood began to soak my wrestling clothes. The blood was just the distraction that I needed to reach back for her hair and throw her to the mat. As she lay there dazed, I straddled her for the pin. Coach was beaming with pride as he raised my hand high above my head. All the boys on the teach jumped up and down in excitement and ran to the mat to congratulate me. I had won my spot on the team.

For the rest of the year, Jennifer and her friends Sue and Lisa would be waiting for me after school. They’d throw my books in the street, give me a pink belly, take my money, and generally bully me. In fact, sprinting home the long way to avoid them became a big part of my training regime. I learned a lot about the value of being a gracious loser from watching how Jennifer reacted to me taking her spot on the wrestling team.

When I got home it was a little after 5PM. My mom and dad were watching television in the living room and they were just projecting the country for Ronald Reagan. The polls hadn’t even closed in California yet, but it looked like a huge landslide for Reagan. They projected him as the winner and my usually stoic dad turned to look at me with tears trickling down from his eyes to say, “He won. Reagan did it!”

“He sure did dad,” I said smiling ear to ear, “He sure did.”

1 comment:

  1. God, that brought a tear to my eye. I hardly laughed at all, either.

    Btw, Betamax was way underrated.