Hard Life in a Small Town

graveWhen my brother, Trent, was in kindergarten, he was completely smitten over an adorable little girl named Katie Milligan.  She was always full of energy and was the kind of kid that everyone always doted over because of her infectious smile and endless curiosity. You couldn’t help but like her and, in our small school, she was everyone’s little sister.

I can’t honestly say that I remember the day clearly or how I found out, but I can recall Trent being sad about something and my mom explaining that one of his classmates had died.  The only thing I can recall thinking at the time was, how is it possible for someone so young to die?  Only old people are supposed to die.  Unfortunately, the cosmos didn’t operate the way I thought it should.

Katie’s dad, Mack, was a farmer and they lived out on a country road that ran between Holcomb and Kings right across from the cemetery where my grandparents would later be buried.  Perhaps Mack had nobody else to keep an eye on Katie and perhaps he just wanted some special daddy/daughter time as he shared with her what his work was like.  I can only imagine the panic Mack must have felt when he glanced over and noticed Katie was no longer sitting next to him on his tractor, nor the horror that rattled him to the core of his soul when he looked back and saw her tiny body that had been crushed by the rear tire.

There was a flurry of talk as is common for a small town and everyone developed their own opinion about the horrific tragedy as if they were somehow entitled to one.  Ultimately, there were two camps of thought: those who thought Mack was irresponsible for letting his daughter ride unrestrained in the tractor with him, and those whose hearts ached for him.  Most people had a leg in each camp. 

I can’t recall if people ran to the side of Mack and his wife to support them during this crisis.  I don’t know if anyone attempted to console or comfort them where no words could undo what had been done.  It seems to me that most avoided Mack and his family altogether.  Maybe this is just the faulty memory of a then eight year-old, but I think there is some truth to it.  Most were probably uncomfortable because they didn’t know what to say.  Others maybe were afraid that what ever bad karma Mack had summoned would rub off on them and the Angel of Death would come for their young, too.  Maybe they were uncomfortable around Katie’s mom who, with a history of mental illness, snapped with the death of her daughter.  It’s hard to say what the reason was, but my recollection is that they were alone as they lowered the little casket into the same ground that my ancestors reposed in.


I’m sure there were other tragedies that rattled the small school’s teacher and student body, but most involved those who had moved on and made it at least into early adulthood.  People like my second cousin Karl who died at 22 when he crashed his homemade Ultralite airplane or when my aunt’s best friend, Greg, was killed in a car crash at 25.  Mostly, though I just remember fighting a lot and spending what seemed like the majority of my time in the principal’s office as a result of those fights.

Bullies were in great supply at Kings School.  With a student body of only about 250, there seemed to be a particularly high ratio of bullies.  I liked to think of myself as a bully-slayer (admittedly falsely altruistic and self-aggrandizing thinking indeed) and, as I continued to grow and become physically stronger, I would find myself toe to toe with them on a regular basis.  One such person was Justin Anders.

Justin and I could never seem to see eye to eye.  He was at least a year older than I was (I believe he was held back) and was an eighth grader when I was in seventh.  He was “dating” a friend of mine who had a certain affinity for bad boys and I was a bit envious.  A fair dose of jealousy combined with a misguided hunger for revenge led me to a fight at recess that left Justin with a fractured eye socket and orders from his doctor not to watch TV all summer lest the ultraviolet rays blind him in that eye.  As we sat outside the principal’s office glaring at each other – me with a venomous stare and him with a swollen eye – I honestly can’t say that I felt any pity for him.

As I ponder the enmity that I had for Justin for being a bully, a loser, and a down-right mean person, I am fully aware that I was far from innocent and that the lens I viewed him through was severely tainted.  Memory flatters the rememberer, but reality holds no judgment. 

Justin didn’t have a life that was any easier than mine.  It most ways, circumstance had dealt him a rather shitty hand.  His parents were divorced, his dad didn’t have much, if anything, to do with him, his mother was mentally unstable, and his step-dad had run over and killed his sister, Katie, with a tractor four years before.  There’s no question about it – life was rough for Justin Anders.

There are a lot of things in my life that, if granted the chance, I would do over.  Unfortunately, we don’t get do-overs.  As the rapper Eminem says, “We only got one shot.”  We merely get to do better the next time, God forbid, such a chance presents itself.  I was far too young to do things right when my life’s path intersected that of Mack and Justin.  I would like to think, though, that if I come across another Mack Milligan that I will put my hand on his shoulder and weep with him for all of the hopes and dreams that would never be.  For the brokenness that only a father can know at the loss of his little girl and that I would say nothing, just letting sighs too deep for words intercede where there is nothing that can be said. 

If I ever come across another Justin Anders, as much as I may be quick to judgment and anger at first, I hope that I will do things better.  I hope that I will extend an open hand of peace toward him instead of a clenched fist of hate.  I hope that I will take his hand in mind, look him in the eye, and say, “Yeah.  Life sucks sometimes, brother.  But it gets better when we face it together.”  Let it be so.  Amen.

2 Responses to “Hard Life in a Small Town”

  1. Great story goes along with what my brother John was sharing. We might not get second chances but we can share our experiences and hard life lessons so others first chances are made wiser. Thanks for sharing B. Keep me coming.

  2. John Lovestrand Says:

    Yep, it may be that the closest we get to a “do-over” is if we’re presented with an opportunity to apologize for past actions, to make amends, and to ask forgiveness. So yeah, Amen Brother. Thx JL

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