Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Stephen J. Lyons delivered prescriptions for Rosen’s Drugs in Chicago on a one-speed bicycle when he was in seventh grade. He went on to write five books of essays and journalism. His latest is West of East, which features tales of his other jobs. He lives in Monticello, Illinois.
I snuggled closer to him to show my loyalty. See, I am your grandson. I belong to you. Placing my head lightly against his shoulder, I could smell the oil, the sweat, the Old Milwaukee.
You’d think at my age I might realize that the spinning bottle of medical fate would eventually stop and point to me. I have known too many people who have passed away: diseased hearts, prostates, and colons; the effects of Agent Orange; or just plain bad luck. As I approach sixty, Why me? is evolving into Why not me?
I was in a state of denial, of course, not only about the future, but also about the present. For there were many days I didn’t write in my journal, or even look for ways to better my family’s economic picture. I simply did nothing. Looking back from a distance of decades, I wish I’d been more aware that we are given a certain unknown number of days in our short lives.
Not long ago I ran across my birth certificate tucked away at the bottom of an old wooden trunk filled with important papers. I looked again at the signatures of my father and mother next to each other, along with my inky footprints. I was heartened to see all our names together.
I am headed toward Florida as my country heads toward war with Iraq. Protests rage around the world, but I do not join the protesters with their “No blood for oil” signs. Every year I’ve been alive, there has been war somewhere. At the beginning of 2003 there were thirty wars being fought around the world.
The Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety passed out potassium-iodide pills this month for citizens to take if the nuclear plant is blown up by terrorists. If we swallow them four hours before a release of radioactivity, our thyroids will be protected from cancer.
If you have a strong stomach and can listen long enough without fainting or retching, you’ll find that farm-injury stories have an important underlying message: pay attention. Furthermore, when you think things are going well, pay extra attention.
The Sun doesn’t usually report on current events, but September’s terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. marked a turning point for all of us. We put out a call to our writers, inviting them to reflect on the tragedy and its aftermath. The response was overwhelming. As word got around, we received submissions not only from regular contributors but from writers who are new to The Sun’s pages.
I knew Seymour owed money because I’d heard snatches of tense conversations from the bedroom, and I felt the aura of fear about loan sharks that surrounded my stepdad — and now, by association, my family. I kept a sharp eye out for swarthy men in suits and sunglasses carrying Louisville Sluggers.
I’m on my way back to my native Illinois to begin the second half of my life. At this moment, my wife is getting settled into our new home, with our mismatched furniture and 126 boxes of stuff. We are returning to the Midwest to care for ill and aging parents, to create fresh memories with them, and to repay the unspoken debts we as children owe. With only the memory of what I am leaving, and little knowledge of what’s ahead, I’m running on faith.
The first time I hear the voice is in the fall, when the larch trees have just begun to change color. I’m driving out of Washington’s Blue Mountains along Cloverland Road just above the Snake River. Cloverland is a series of hair-pin turns and S curves bordered by a sheer drop into a canyon full of snakes, sage, and yellow star thistle.
A cabby picks me up at the cabstand at La Guardia Airport, but not before I’m handed a bright yellow brochure titled Taxi Information. In three languages, the brochure lists sample fares from the airport to the city’s five boroughs. There’s also space to record the driver’s medallion and license numbers if the cabby is rude or refuses to go to a particular neighborhood — the South Bronx, for example.