My friend Jack McDonald received an award at the North Dakota Newspaper Association convention last Friday for his tireless legal defense of freedom of the press. Our freedom. Your freedom. We listened in the great ballroom, elbows on white tablecloths among the cake crumbs and carcasses of Chicken Cordon Bleu.
In his speech, Jack pondered the “what if’s” in life. The paths traveled. The detours. And he wondered how his life might have changed had he made different decisions. Is it destiny? Free will? A crapshoot with 8 billion other crapshooters? I dunno, but I think about such things, too. We all do.
What if my girlfriend hadn’t gotten pregnant and what if I hadn’t dropped out of college anticipating that I needed to get married, get a job, start a family at 18, and what if she hadn’t miscarried? These events detoured me into radio, a 12-year adventure that took me to Denver, Juneau, Alaska, and Myrtle Beach, S.C., and points in-between, but all along I knew I would write. In time.
The gang knew it before I did, but I wonder if I’d have done so had they not been so certain and so insistent that someday, “You need to write about us!” My English teacher, Bernice Rollo, encouraged me, too. We never had a conversation about it, but every composition I wrote, she read aloud to the class. In those moments, even the hooligans listened with rapt attention. Like they were in church. Inexplicably, my columns are occasionally quoted from pulpits. Don’t they know I’m on the other side?
What if my newspaper journey and an NDNA convention a thousand years ago hadn’t led me into the arms of spectacular redhead, a skilled newspaperwoman? Would’ve I decided to buy my own publications? Would I have taken the leap without her? I wonder.
I wonder, too, about The Poet, the Tiny Dancer with China doll features, and I remember the Saturday I awoke, peered from my second-story bedroom, and saw her climb out of a new, laughably huge jet-black GMC pickup — she almost needed a ladder — and begin moving in across the street. I just knew. And when we see each other these days, we still know.
But then I was offered my first decent radio job and I knew I couldn’t take her with me. She’d recently lost her parents in a car crash and I understood she needed to be close to her brother and sister. Somehow, the 100 miles between us seemed insurmountable, and I still wonder why I didn’t drive that stretch every weekend. But then it was off to Denver and Juneau and Myrtle Beach, and, well, life goes on, and these days I’m at peace with lost loves.
Things would have been different because she couldn’t have kids and being a father is the best job I’ll ever do. I’ve told Dylan and India about her, but how could I have regrets? “Because, then,” I tell them, “I wouldn’t have you.”
What if I’d joined that rock ‘n’ roll band in Aberdeen? Jon, my friend, the guitarist, was convinced I could learn to play bass. Maybe. But I remember a high school music teacher, 20 years ago, sighing at my ineptitude after numerous guitar lessons. “Tony, I just don’t know what to tell you.”
I could’ve handled a tambourine, the microphone and the spotlight, and I have a hunch that we’d have made it, but if so, I might be dead in some hotel room because musicians work like rented mules. Then again, only the good (guitar players) die young.
I still buy guitars, drums, trumpets and saxophones, and I give them to my kids who are brilliant when they take them to the stage. I’ve become a stage mother.
What if … I counted my near-death experiences recently, and all I can say is that comparatively, cats are pikers. I was losing a fight in an RV park populated by custom combiners when I was in my 20’s, on my back being strangled to death until I got pissed. “I am not going to die in effing Oklahoma!” Whatever motivates you to win. To live. In this case, rage.
India’s decided that we need to get family tattoos — a cockroach — because like them, we’re survivors, and until proven otherwise, immortal.
Different turns, different timing, would surely mean I wouldn’t be here. Now. In this sun. In this solitude. Birds singing.
It feels right. Maybe it’s destiny. Maybe these chapters were written in the sky before I took my first breath. Maybe the angels got it right.
© Tony Bender, 2022