When I was young, I wanted to be an undertaker. Don’t laugh. Someone has to do it, and they drive really nice cars. Since Illinois College (IC) didn’t offer a degree in mortuary science (even though my experience in IC’s science classes was deadly), I majored in English.
On the day before I graduated, I got a call from Jim Brim at Triopia, asking if I’d come and teach English. Since I needed money to go to mortuary school, I said yes, thinking I’d teach for a year to make some money. I was naïve enough to think that teaching paid. Bill Buchanan had offered to give me a sort of apprenticeship once I’d graduated from the mortuary school and said I’d probably wash a lot of hearses. That was cool with me, but in the meantime, I took the job at the schoolhouse in a Concord cornfield. Brim called back later in the day and asked if I could direct plays. I needed the job and said, “Sure!” I wasn’t exactly lying. I’d been in a high school play. I’d seen little league mothers coach from the sidelines with no training in baseball and figured that my qualifications were equal to theirs.
I’m not sure what sort of confusion took over in the next 35 years, but I never got around to embalming any bodies. I spent a lot of time kicking some dead butts, but they all had breath in them and could be revived with enough attention. But even in my teaching job, I never taught a day in the field of my college major, English literature. Instead, I taught junior high language arts and high school speech, along with directing a few plays. (Interesting side note: I’ve done a few lectures on theatre in front of people who were actually trained in the art, and I try to avoid any question and answer period. Once at the University of Illinois, Springfield, I was asked about my training and smilingly told them that I bucked bales in Pike County. This answer was completely lost on my audience.)
It’s strange how many of us are in occupations that don’t resemble our training. I taught for a hundred years right next door to a fine teacher, Patty Clinton, who was also an English major. Patty now teaches Spanish and speech. To misquote Walt Disney, It’s a Weird World after all.
I had pretty much forgotten about all my childhood dreams until I received a visit from Phil over the Christmas holidays. Phil grew up in Arenzville, graduated from Triopia, then joined the Marines. The shy little kid who’d sit by himself and read all during the lunch period is now a six-foot-three-inch bundle of sinew and muscles. Back then, he was a scrawny little kid who just wanted to be a cowboy. Okay, lots of little boys want to be cowboys, but Phil really, really wanted to be a cowboy. He had his own horse, and he’d been taught the art of roping by Arenzville’s resident steer wrestler, Webb Parlier.
Phil became a leatherneck and served as a sniper in Afghanistan then was sent to Hawaii to train future Marines. He told me, “I taught things like how to sneak up within 50 feet of the enemy, how to hide when there’s no cover, and how to survive in the wilderness.” The muscular young giant who walked into my door on the day before New Years looked capable of doing all these things.
“So Phil….What are you doing now?”
“I’m a cowboy.”
“Nope.” He even said, “Nope” like John Wayne.
I didn’t even know they had cowboys in Hawaii. Phil now moves from ranch to ranch in the Hawaiian Islands, rounding up wild cattle and selling them to the native ranchers. “You hunt ‘em down, then you rope ‘em and throw ‘em on the ground.” But how do you get wild cow down to the ranch? “You tie her front and hind legs together so she has to sort of shuffle.” Phil says that he and his partner have their richest days when they’re called by a tourist resort asking them to come get the feral cattle roaming wild on their golf courses. “They pay us $200 a cow, then we sell the cow for $400.” Phil plans to have his own ranch in Wyoming or Montana some day. I’ve had many young dreamers come to my door over the years, but I know that this young man will truly be living his dream some day. And that made me very, very happy.
After Phil left, I looked around my living room…a stack of costumes in one corner, a banjo and accordion stacked in front of the TV set, a pile of unfinished scripts on my coffee table, and I thought to myself, “I wonder if I’d still like to go embalm a body?”