10 Leadership Secrets Whispered by Horses

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Thoughts on Mortality

The following story was a chapter in a book that I wrote. I discarded this chapter because it didn’t fit the book. However, something like it may show up later.

When I was twelve, I grew seven inches in six months. My pants were always too short. But, my swimming times improved dramatically. I started winning more races in bigger meets.

By this time, it was no big deal to go to Oklahoma for a meet. The meet in Tulsa that summer was at a pool that had slippery walls. Most pools had concrete walls that had some texture to them that allowed good traction. However, this pool seemed like it had been painted with dozens of coats of light blue paint, making it really smooth and slippery. This wasn’t much of a problem for most races, because you only touched the walls at the turns, and if you placed your feet carefully, you seldom slipped. However, backstrokers start their races in the water, facing the wall. We put our feet on the wall, and our hands grasped the handles on the starting blocks. On the “Take your marks” command from the starter, we pulled ourselves up into a tightly coiled position to prepare for the start. When the gun went off, we would spring quickly out and over the water and re-enter in a shallow reverse dive.
In the 100 meter race this day, I pushed off really hard and my feet slipped to the bottom. I started the race more than a body length behind the field. Boy, I was annoyed. It made me swim even harder. I ended up third place, and disappointed that I might have been able to win.
I remember that race and that pool, not because of my slip off the wall, but for something completely different. The announcement on the P.A. system said,
“Rick Koch from Wichita Swim Club, please come to the front office for a phone call.”
No one gets paged for a call for good news. By the time I got to the front office, my dad was just picking up the phone. As he listened, the muscle on the side of his jaw repeatedly clenched and relaxed. I watched him for what seemed a long time. “Who was driving?” was his only question. I knew then it was a car wreck. After he hung up, he told Mom and me,
“Jack Chesky was killed in a car wreck last night. Bill was driving and fell asleep.”
Jack and Bill were identical twins. The only way I could tell them apart was that Jack parted his hair on the left, and Bill on the right. Their brother, Eric, was in my class. Two weeks before, the twins had just graduated from high school. They lived in Halstead, 45 minutes from Wichita. They had been on a double date on a Saturday night. It was late, and Bill was driving them home. He fell asleep and the right side of the car slammed into a bridge wall. Jack was killed instantly.
Jack was the second young person I knew who died. The first was my sister. She died at seven from cancer. I was four. Either I was too young to understand, or my parents did a good job of protecting me from the pain of having a child die. Mom told me that Dedra’s heart had stopped beating, which means she died and she wouldn’t be coming home. I don’t remember feeling really sad. It was just a fact. I knew that Dedra had been sick and the she had operations that made her hurt a lot. But, I don’t even remember my parents showing a lot of emotion. That was a habit in my family. Emotions, especially bad ones, weren’t displayed easily. And the kids needed to be protected from them. They didn’t let me go to Dedra’s funeral. I think it was a good thing to protect me from that. I didn’t know until a lot later how much pain my parents were in during Dedra’s illness. I learned a lot about that pain when we discussed it in relation to Jack’s accident.
My parents spent a lot of time with Jack’s parents because they could relate to what it was like to have a child die. True, my folks watched their daughter in a lot of pain and die by inches, and Jack’s death was sudden, violent, and unexpected. The circumstances were different, but the loss of a child was a common denominator that both couples could relate to.
When I would tell my friends in subsequent years that my sister died of cancer, many would say, “Did she smoke?” As kids we only knew cancer as a disease that killed smokers. I had to explain that it was a leukemia related disease, neuroblastoma.
In contrast, Jack’s death hit me pretty hard. I learned that life could be over in an instant. At twelve, I became in touch with my own mortality. I wish I could find the poem that I wrote that had the rather maudlin refrain, “Because today could be last day of my life.” It was a carpe diem type of poem to appreciate every moment because you can’t assume you are going to have any more time. I read it at a sunrise Easter service the following year. Maybe that wasn’t the most appropriate time to read a poem like that.
Three years later, my dad picked me up from the bus station. I had been visiting some of my swimming friends in Oklahoma City for the Labor Day weekend. I had had a great time. The bus got in just in time for me to get to football practice. As soon as I got in the car, Dad asked if I had heard the bad news.
“I guess not.”
“Doug Carroll drowned this weekend at his sixteenth birthday party.”
Whoa. That turned a great mood into a bad one in a hurry. Doug played defensive nose guard. I was the center. We banged heads in practice in practically every single snap in practice. He was probably tougher than any one I had to block in a game, and I was glad he was on my team.
That evening in practice, I was in kind of a fog, as I am sure that most of my teammates were, too. It felt like a betrayal to Doug to keep playing. I was angry that the coaches even continued with practice. But a football player plays through and with the pain. It doesn’t matter if you are crying. You just keep playing. The genuine thing to do would have been to just to walk off the field and go cry alone in the locker room. I came close. But, I just sucked it up and kept hitting people.
Unlike a lot of the wealthier people at my prep school, Doug’s family had to really struggle to send him to private school. This made us close, because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to afford to go to that school if my dad didn’t teach there. Doug’s dad gave me a knee brace that I wore with pride during the next three seasons, even though that knee got well enough that I didn’t really need it any more.
Seeing Doug in his casket was a shock. Bill Cosby has a comedy routine where people say about the deceased, “Didn’t he look like himself?” I didn’t think that what I saw in that casket looked like Doug. Rather than the wry, one-sided smile that I was used to seeing, his face was stiff and waxen. But, what really seemed odd was that he was wearing his glasses. Why does a corpse need glasses?
I broke down and cried hard at Doug’s graveside service. I was one of the last to leave the grave site. Beyond the silver casket, I could see mid-afternoon traffic zipping by on Highway 54 just beyond the edge of the large cemetary. It annoyed me that they were so oblivious to my pain, our pain. I noticed birds flitting around the cemetery. It was just another day to them, too. The sky was blue with a few clouds, and the eternal, infernal Kansas winds were blowing. The earth didn’t stop rotating on its axis because Doug died.
If Jack’s death made me aware with my mortality, Doug’s death helped me be at peace with it. Our pain was real, deep, and sudden. The whole school was in mourning. Doug’s parents were bent over with pain. But, as much as it hurt us, the cars on the highway and the birds in cemetery made me realize our pain is just ours. The rest of the world didn’t really care.
When I die, my family will be sad and will miss me. A few dozen people who know me well will be hurting, too. Maybe a couple hundred people will acknowledge my death in passing and read my obituary, and will only notice because it will remind them of their own mortality. But, most of the world won’t notice. After my funeral, there will still be 500 channels on TV that evening. There will be another football, basketball, baseball, or hockey game the next day. The Olympics and a Presidential election will still come around in the next leap year. Children will be born. Other people will die. There will be wars and treaties to end them.

It was on the hot September afternoon in a cemetery in view of a busy highway that I realized that my ground time here will be short, and I should make the most of the time I have. I need to make what contribution to the world that I can while I am around.