The General and Mary Jane

At the small Catholic school I attended from Grades 2-8, we had the same three teachers for grades 5-8. Year in and year out, Mrs. Fish taught English, Mrs. Kern taught Social Studies and Religion, and Mrs. McGill taught Science and Math. Mrs. Kern punched her ticket to heaven twice dealing with me for four years in subjects that I wanted to constantly argue. According to a radical catechist who ended up getting thrown out of the room by Mrs. Kern, I punched my ticket to Hell at least once.)  Mrs. Fish, more than any other person in my life, made me the writer I am today, and deserves a gold star for patience at least. Mrs. McGill took enough stitches out of my ass that she got hers over four years, but I still learned plenty.

Mrs. Fish was a slightly reformed 55-year-old hippie by time she was asked to teach me. She’d grown up barefoot on a small farm in Iowa with an alcoholic father, and became a hippie in response.  On her road in life, she became a phenomenal writing teacher as well as a devout Catholic. I remember vividly for some reason, that she went on a tear about ouija boards once, and how we should always stay away from such tools of the devil. I’d never heard of an ouija board before and immediately jumped onto our 28.8k dialup when I got home to figure out what she was talking about. Speaking to the dead sounded fun, but a 15 dollar piece of cardboard seemed like a questionable method of doing this at best.

After getting back from Seattle on July 4, I was still wired for west coast time, and I couldn’t sleep. I wandered over to my bookcase and found Season on the Brink, a famous book by John Feinstein about the 1985/86 IU men’s basketball team. Actually, it was a book all about Bobby Knight, told through the lens of one season in the locker room. In local Bedford lore, this was the book that put Damon Bailey into the national spotlight as an eighth-grade guard at Shawswick.

In Christianity, there is the Holy Trinity. In the very religious town of Bedford, there is the Holy Quadrarchy, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Damon Bailey. His 1990 state championship game still stands as the most people to ever watch a high school basketball game. His 3,134 career points still stand as the one untouchable record in Indiana high school basketball. Every day of my high school career, I walked past the shrine to Damon nestled between the two gyms at BNL.  As much as I would’ve given to be a great basketball player, I’ve often sympathized for Damon. No one should be asked to be a god at the age of 13. In my interactions with him, he deserves much praise for dealing with it with poise and grace.

Bobby Knight was a tyrant in the Roman sense of the word. His word was absolute law in Bloomington, and in that respect, he had no equal. A line in the book makes reference to this, when speaking about the Athletic Director at IU (nominally Knight’s boss) and how grateful he was that Bobby allowed him to keep his job for as long as he did.

Coach Knight was coming off a disappointing season, dramatically capped with his infamous chair toss during Purdue’s Steve Reid’s free throws. Feinstein somehow finagled unparalleled access to Knight in his element, the basketball court, and talked at length about the complex man that had so much success on the hardwood.

As I opened that book and read voraciously, I started thinking about the date. Two years ago, as I was sitting in Koh Lanta between Muay Thai sessions, I got an email from Dad saying to call home. I did, and the first words out of his mouth were, Mary Jane died last night.

Mary Jane was my great-aunt equivalent, wife of Uncle Bill, who may or may not be living a second life in Buenos Aires. Skinny as a rail with a voice that would cut through galvanized tin, she was my paternal grandmother’s best friend since grade school. The Moormans were Purdue people through and through, but Mary Jane was a Bobby Knight disciple to the max. I was looked at as an apostate growing up in the hometown of Damon being a Purdue fan, and it hardened my heart greatly towards IU. It was really the only method of survival.

Mary Jane and my grandmother were the quintessential “Hoosiers” in the sense that they lived and breathed college basketball. I don’t know if Meemaw’s husband Dr. Fred was what brought her over to the rabidity of Indiana’s state religion, but by time I could remember, she could talk about the deficiencies of a 2-3 Zone or the magic of a motion offense with any of them. Mary Jane would actually take her phone off the hook during IU games. Her family was far enough away that there was nothing she could do about an impending death that couldn’t be dealt with AFTER IU was finished.

As I read through Season on the Brink, I found myself laughing out loud about Bobby’s tactics. Today, Bobby would’ve been locked up for his near constant mind games (or verbal abuse) of his players. He believed in doing things the right way, and he graduated something like 95% of his players while at IU. His temper was matched only by his acts of kindness, and Feinstein has many examples of Bobby reaching out to the less fortunate and giving them VIP treatment at IU games. This was the Indiana equivalent of Thor inviting you to an all access tour of Valhalla.

Bobby believed in loyalty over all else, those who were loyal to him or the IU basketball program were given the opportunity to ask anything of the General. Those perceived as disloyal however, were treated as enemies to be crushed at all costs. Former players who made cameos in the book talked about how they did absolutely nothing right for 4 years playing for Bobby, but were immediately elevated to sainthood upon graduation.

Reading the book, I found myself wondering if this was Mary Jane, calling back from the hereafter, letting me know that she was still thinking about me. To pick up that particular book on a shelf with hundreds on the second anniversary of her death seemed like more than coincidence to me. Given my disbelief in the ouija board, I felt like I had finally found how the dead speak to us. It isn’t the shaky hands of those looking to engage with the occult, it is the echos of lives lived and how we find them every day.

In the words of JK Rowling through her incomparable character Albus Dumbledore: “You think the dead we loved truly ever leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly in times of great trouble?”

Pulling that book off of the shelf at a time when I needed discipline and vision more than anything else, I find her words to be true. Thank you Mary Jane, for leading me to that bookcase for exactly what I needed.

If I can give one piece of advice to my readers, remember those who came before you, and live your lives as a testament to their example.

Mary Jane Kay was just another one of the fine examples I was given in this life, and I’ll never watch a Purdue/IU game without envisioning her shrieking at the television with her “Dammit IU” doll getting tossed on the floor after a poor play.

Few things can bring a smile to my face when Purdue is losing, but at least I’ll always have that.

 

Old Friends in New Places

A lack of internet, power, and time has conspired to get me way behind on my blogging. There is a heap of activity to recount.

Last week we went out to Halong Bay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the more awe inspiring places I’ve ever been. Imagine Norwegian fjords surrounded by crystalline blue waters. It is the cliff of every Bedford limestone quarry chopped into 1969 islands and speckled with jungles. It was both home and a surreal land wrapped into one place.

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"This is where the dragon lay"

“This is where the dragon lay”

We took a 4 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay, which was…intriguing to say the least. The theme of Vietnam being a hodgepodge of old/new, rich/poor, Eastern/Western continued. Most of the drive was a trek through vivid green rice paddies. Upon close examination though, one sees graves interspersed throughout the watery fields. When I say graves, I’m not talking a mere headstone, I’m talking full up marble sarcophagi sporadically placed throughout otherwise virgin fields. I haven’t pinned any locals down on the “Why?” yet, but it is a fascinating wrinkle in a place wrinkly as a slept-upon bedsheet.

Upon arriving in Halong Bay, we stood at the quai for about 15 minutes before embarking on the boat. Much to my delight and surprise, I started hearing my name be called out through the din of the crowd. Suddenly Mark Schneider, a giant of a friend from home started wading through the masses to where I stood. Mark and I knew that we were going to both be in Halong Bay, but the fact that I was getting on a boat, and would only be on the mainland for a few minutes, coupled with the lack of cell phones for either of us made meeting up an improbability to say the least.

Bedford Boys in Vietnam

Bedford Boys in Vietnam

Apparently Vonnegut was correct in his description of the Indiana accent when he said

“where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.”

Ah, we lucky Hoosiers. An accent recognizable anywhere.

I figured the chances of two native Bedfordians being in the same spot in Vietnam independently of one another were far less than one in a million. It was a poignant moment for me, to see a guy I’d grown up with for years and years in a place so far from home. Standing next to 3 Australians diminished it somewhat, as those people travel like mad and run across one another in countries both near and far, but to understand where Mark and I came from, a place where Vietnam is a nightmare to be forgotten, not a sliver of earth to be seen, really put the whole trip into a more focused perspective.

It was a meaningful hug between two men an awfully long way from home.

Upon embarking on the boat, we quickly realized that we were in for a treat. Our Kiwi guide Jack was “on” from the moment the tinder pulled away. The junk was owned by a woman affectionately known as “Mama” who lives and operates the boat 19 out of every 21 days. She has an incredibly profitable enterprise, between renting rooms on the boat and selling what we’ll politely call “liquor of dubious strength.” She plays her part to a T though, smiling and laughing through whatever nonsense this crew of backpackers gets themselves into. She employs 7 family members, all of whom sleep on mattresses on the back of the junk including Mama’s 7 year old granddaughter Hai, who looked at our crew suspiciously through her cutting dark eyes.

Many Westerners would consider this living arrangement barbaric, but as is always the theme in Vietnam, everyone seems quite happy with their lot in life. Again, it puts into perspective what one really needs in life. This is a family that eats every meal together in a place as majestic as I have ever encountered. Sleeping nightly under the stars seems a small price to pay.

Once we arrived on Castaway Island, we were greeted to “rustic” living facilities. Our huts were placed mere meters from the beach, and as I woke up, huddled under my mosquito net with the sun glaring off the white sands I considered how far I’d come. Gone was the 5:15 wakeup in a -15 degree Chicago. I was seeing the world and taking what it had to give.

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That’s what I came for.

We climbed and kayaked, ate and drank, and shared stories under the stars on the edge of the beach. Our crew of about 20 was made up of Scottish, German, English, Spanish, Bulgarian, Australian, Vietnamese and 2 Americans besides myself. With a group that diverse, there are constantly new viewpoints and experiences to be discussed.

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Through my travels, I’ve gotten a chance to discuss Scottish independence, the situation with Ukraine, German thoughts on the Euro, the impending World Cup disaster (the Braziallian’s words), and the viticulture of New Zealand. These weren’t articles read on an iPad on the way to work. They were real conversations with people who LIVE the realities of different situations. Boots on the ground, no profit motive or pretensions, timely and candid.

Being the former trader, I always want to put a price on this kind of interaction but it isn’t possible. These are experiences that can’t be bought and sold like a newspaper at the bodega. The world becomes smaller but more intricate with each passing day on the road.

And so the conquest continues.

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It was great to have a run-in with a friend as old as Mark bookended by an experience like Halong Bay. It puts into clearer perspective how unique it is for the two of us to have interactions with people from all across the world. It makes me appreciate the Conquest even more.

And so it goes.