By Jerry Bowen
Los Angeles, CA, USA
The Big Man usually sent a couple of cards a year just to stay in touch. Holiday greetings of a sort. Valentines, Halloween or Thanksgiving but always Christmas. So when he went silent on me for nearly a year, I figured something in his life may have gone south.
We've known each other nearly 50 years since we met in college. Iowa State University in Ames. Fraternity brothers. Doug is his real name but he goes by "Chunk." A Triple X-sized small town guy with an easy smile and a low rumble of a voice. And no stranger to some of life's speed bumps.
There was the marriage that ended badly and early. The son he raised as a single dad and wrestled away from the drug culture. The college degree that somehow led to tending bar rather than owning one.
He worked in Las Vegas and later on the riverboat casinos that hug the Iowa side of the Missouri River at Council Bluffs. Never complained about his journey. Wasn't one to brood over the "could have beens." Just plowed ahead and took care of business.
So when he finally wrote, it was to say he'd done it again. Taken care of business. It was a short letter. Handwritten on lined paper. Old style. Chunk doesn't have a computer or cell phone.
He wrote to say he'd retired at age 65, was still tending bar part-time for pocket change and practicing Tai Chi to help heal his mind and body. The Tai Chi thing is a word picture I am still wrapping my mind around.
And then there was the buried headline. The exorcism thing. Chunk had decided to get rid of the demons in his life.
No priest involved. No menacing little girl with a revolving head. Just an old wood frame house he'd shared with his aunt, mom and dad in north Omaha.
A house of death in Chunk's mind. A place he ripped the guts out of, room by room, to remove any reminders of the past.
"This all started when I had to have my old dog put to sleep," Chunk began.
Excerpt from Chunk's letter
"He was my best buddy and I started thinking about all that has happened in this house. Since I've been here my aunt died. My brother and my best friend in Las Vegas died. My mom and dad died. My two cats that I had for 20 years, yes 20 years both died. And both of my dogs died."
Chunk had returned to the Midwest from Las Vegas when his ailing aunt and parents said they needed his help. Truth be told he was looking for a break anyway. The son he raised was now off on his own. The slower pace in flyover country was appealing. The decision was made.
He moved to the north side of Omaha into the basement and began caring for the three old people in his life.
And when they passed he began to take care of himself. Which brings us back to the house and all the death Chunk felt he'd been living with.
"I thought – Holy Shit! I had to exorcize this house. Too much death. So I started doing it."
He tossed the old furniture and brought in the new. Took up the old floors and laid down wood wall to wall. The lighting fixtures. Gone. Replaced throughout. The walls were freshly painted too.
And then the kitchen makeover. Punctuated by another of life's speed bumps.
"New cabinets, floor, appliances, back splash is really nice now that it's done," he wrote. "But then the lady I was dating broke up with me, so I don't have anyone to cook for but me."
Still he says, life is better. The demons are gone and the house is just the way he wants it. A place to live.
And several times a year he hits the road to Denver, a days drive away, to visit the son he raised. Chunk's boy is a computer engineer with two children of his own. Chunk's grandson and granddaughter. The unexpected gifts of a long life.
"Hope all is going great for you, your kids and grandkids. Really makes us cherish them even more with all that has gone on..."
Chunk's letter arrived the week after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. It is shared with his permission.