I cried that night but only after everyone was gone or sleeping. They probably wondered what the eldest son was thinking behind the stoic demeanor.
It wasn't the first time I had encountered death. Our maternal grandfather died when I was eight years old. But he had lived a long life. There was relief as well as sadness on the faces of the adults at the first funeral I had ever attended. His time had simply passed.
And I had suffered the loss of Willie Galimore. That was the greater awakening. Willie should not have been dead at the age of 29.
I had started watching "Willie the Wisp" play football when I was about nine years old. Even through the 19-inch black and white haze of our old RCA, Willie was magnificent. He didn't just run with the ball. He flew, he whirled, he mocked gravity and inertia.
And then without warning he died. Our father gave us the awful news over breakfast on an oppressively hot morning in late July of 1964.
"Boys, it says here that Willie Galimore was killed in a car wreck," he said after pulling his Kansas City Star below eye level. The paper rose again as the spoon dropped into my cereal bowl.
My little brother, who's not so little anymore, says he doesn't remember this. He also did not seek refuge in his room and he did not tell Mom that he didn't want to go to Vacation Bible School that day. But we were both allowed to stay home. Mom knew nothing about football but she had a remarkable understanding of her 11-year-old son, the one who seemed a directionless dreamer to everyone else.
We lived in a sleepy little town in northern Missouri where imagination was a valuable asset. I spent hours reading my comic books in our treehouse, clumsily constructed from the scrap lumber Dad stacked in the shed that he had erected in our side yard. He sometimes frowned at his losses but he never discouraged us from raiding the stockpile.
Television was a welcome diversion as well but our rooftop antenna gave us only four stations. Fortunately, one of them carried network coverage of a behemoth in the making--the National Football League. I'm not sure when I first experienced it but on Sundays in the fall, I was transported to a Roman Colosseum called Wrigley Field in a Rome called Chicago. And the world was changed forever.
My brother and I watched wide-eyed as gladiators named Ditka, O'Bradovich, Casares and Fortunato fought pitched battles with Lions, Vikings and a particularly evil gang of barbarians called Packers. We had discovered the Chicago Bears and...Willie Galimore.
In 1963, our newfound heroes conquered the world. They slew the Giants from New York to win the NFL Championship. And through it all, Dad sat smiling from his easy chair (it was still "Dad's chair" long after he was gone) and occasionally offering the opinion that Halas couldn't coach offense any more. We knew he was teasing but I think he also wanted us to realize that even a hero is mortal. The point didn't come home until later.
Dad should not have been dead at 49. And he should not have been denied the chance to witness the fulfillment of his prophecy that we'd see the Bears win the NFL again "someday." He had even hinted that we might try to get tickets the next time the Bears played for the title.
That was before the 1969 season, just as I was entering my senior year in high school. It was also the worst season in the history of the Chicago Bears who won only one game and lost 13.
And it was the year when Dad got sick.
He died February 6, 1970. I was away from home when it happened. When I returned I found more than a dozen familiar vehicles huddled in front of the house.
I remained composed when Mom confirmed the news that the parked cars had already imparted. I told the relatives hello and we reminisced. To them he had been the mischievous uncle, the jovial brother-in-law, the old Marine who fought World War II and didn't tell anybody. To me he was Dad. Later, I slipped down to the basement alone.
The Bears didn't win again until 1985. That team could easily have claimed to have been the best in NFL history. Ditka was back. In the new role of head coach, he corralled an amazing team boasting the talents and unbridled character of Sweetness, the Fridge, the Punky QB, Samurai Mike, Danimal, Mongo and others. I sat alone (in my own basement) and watched the 46 defense ravage a hapless opponent in Super Bowl XX.
But that game was an anti-climax. I couldn't enjoy it as much as I wanted. And when my wife chided me for not seeming very excited about my team's rare success, I said nothing. A few football seasons later, I declined to contest the divorce.
I've checked the calendar. Things could change but there's a chance the Super Bowl could land on February 6--in 2033. I don't want to wait that long but I will if that's what it takes.
I'm putting some cash away for tickets. I'll need an extra for an old Marine.