There was a man who walked–or more accurately, rode–this earth 45 years ago. A writer’s dream of a man: motorcycles, invention and adventure the spices of his life.
His name was Dale.
He is said to have been a quiet presence who never sought attention, nor did he offer much conversation.
Come to think of it, it was his death that likely brought him the most attention in his entire life.
Had I been born 40 years sooner, I would have worked through journalism school solely for the opportunity to learn how to crack him.
Now as I sit here wishing to tell his story, I realize I am a fool for waiting this long. I lack the two sources who could have provided the most thorough intel, beginning to end. Both of his parents have already left us to be reunited with their son. His father joined him just this past November, so they’re probably still skipping around Heaven arm-in-arm singing songs about watermelons while his mother, a bit more seasoned resident, likely sits at a table made of gold waiting for her son to come back and finish their game of Battleship.
So instead, his story will be told by a collection of sources who had the opportunity to do life with him for the 21 years he was given.
A firecracker of intellect, invention and a serious type of passion, Dale was born March 17, 1951, into the life of a pastor’s kid. The role would take him to an array of places he called home, including Milwaukee, Canada and Houston.
Of course, home is a transitory word when you have a motorcycle and a tingling desire for adventure.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since he couldn’t jet out on a motorcycle at 8-years-old (though Canadians do have weird rules so who knows), Dale enjoyed a childhood of normal bike-riding. The kind where you dared to rocket down an old bumpy road in Edmonton, Canada, just barely edging out of the turn in an impressive skid cloud of dust.
…And then doubling back to brush off your idolizing kid brother and fix his front wheel when he does not.
The daring, tender-hearted boy was sibling to two sisters as well, but due to an age gap and the nature of his boyish, rough-and-tumble affections… his brother, Doug, was his most sought-out companion. From picking cattails in the swamps of Milwaukee for their Mom, to the elder instructing the younger how to throw a newspaper onto the doorsteps of a Vancouver neighborhood, the two boys were inseparable throughout their childhood.
The swamplands their wild playground, the two brothers wrestled in the mud, chased each other in between the tall grass and raced the sunset playing two-person baseball for hours on end.
Dale led a life of example, which did not go unnoticed by neither his little brother nor the latter’s teachers.
In the midst of dodging flurries of unwanted snowballs, Doug’s teachers very well might’ve coined the now-cliche phrase: “Why can’t you be good like your brother?”
Little did the educators know, their rhapsody of their favorite student did not always make for a two-way street. Especially when it came to their methods of teaching his younger brother.
Grade 3 in Vancouver schools meant learning long division, which to Doug, equaled a multiplication of stress. He fearfully admitted to Dale one night how long division just didn’t make sense to him, and that if he didn’t get it any time soon, he would become one of the victims called up in front of the whole room to display to the class how not to do it.
Protective nostrils flaring, Dale responded: “I hate teachers like that. Go get some paper and a pen.”
The next day, Doug’s previous fears were confirmed as his teacher called him out–her head already cocked and ready to shake in disapproval.
But Doug had a 10-year-old private tutor now. And it showed as he aced each question the surprised woman threw at him, shaking her head with confusion and mumbling as he victoriously walked back to his seat, “I don’t understand it, you did it all wrong yesterday…”
Had Dale been given a longer life, perhaps these early teaching foundations would have propelled him to educate others in his field of civil engineering. But since that’s all conjecture, it’s more fun to look at what his life actually gave us.
While he was a quiet presence, I will dare to say he wore his heart on his sleeve–with one condition. He did so only for those close, and intuitive, enough to see it.
That’s where he left himself vulnerable to others. Dale once chose to unveil his inherent leadership, and inventiveness, by spraying a hose over his snow-packed backyard and shepherding his schoolmates to play on his homemade ice hockey rink. Even more revealing… Doug describes how his father could know whether Dale won or lost solely by the way the seven-year-old trudged through the snow leading back up to the house.
But most telling of Dale’s wordless vulnerability was on a warm, Washington afternoon in 1972. Dale spent his last summer working at a retreat village nestled in the peaks of the Cascade Mountains, and his mother and siblings were able to flee the humidity of Houston for a week to come visit. Because the camp’s daily duties kept Dale away from his family throughout the week, the most significant moment for his oldest sister didn’t come until he dropped them off at the pristine Lake Chelan, the ferry waiting for them. I don’t know any better words to convey the memory than Susan’s own:
Dale was staying, to finish out his service. We got loaded on the ferry, and Dale was standing on the wooden dock watching as we pulled away. Then he started to wave, his whole arm waving slowly back and forth. I waved back, and we just kept waving and waving, and I remember being so touched. Dale was never like this. I remember thinking, “I’m not stopping until he is out of sight.” And we did. After awhile he was just a speck and then too far to see.
Dale would live another two months surrounded by the beauty of that lake and the majestic peaks before his motorcycle crashed on the cross-country trip back home in August of that same year.
Susan looks back and remembers thinking about the enormity of what he had done there on that dock. Perhaps a seemingly small and obligatory gesture to the untrained eye, but to his loved ones: it was his goodbye.
It still seems so real, like everything we missed about knowing each other on earth, was wrapped up in that wave.
I like to imagine his 21-year-old self down by that lake, bent at the waist, analyzing the myriad of stones at his disposal, finally choosing the best one for the job.
He could have no idea of the metaphor for his life that he held in his hands. As the stone leaves his grasp, it skims across the water producing multiple rings that mark each point of impact the rock touches before finally dipping low beneath the surface to its final resting place at lake’s bottom. He watches for several seconds longer as the ripples continue to dance across the water, long after the stone vanishes from view.
That was his life. He may have bounced from one place to another, letting his adventurous heart lead where it may… but he never left a place without creating rings of impact in his wake. And his ripples keep shimmering to this day.
Now you might’ve remembered that he had three siblings, but only two are represented here through their stories.
You see, my mother was the third.
She was only 11 when the man she looked up to–her seemingly invincible, motorcycle-riding oldest brother–was stripped from her life. She has the fewest memories.
So this story is for her. It is for our family that continues to endure his loss. And it is for the little ones that come after us, who deserve to know the man who came before us.
On December 28, 2012, my oldest (and only) brother met his firstborn son. As much as an aunt who frequently moves around can see her oldest nephew, I’ve watched him grow up to be this intriguing and charming little boy. He loves fast things, dares to find the highest point on the Chick-fil-A playground, invents new ways to create a Lego tower and kisses his kid brother on the head when he falls down.
My brother never knew the intricacies of our late uncle’s personality, as this is the first time all of the aforementioned stories have been shared with the two of us. But somehow, four years ago, my brother and his wife knew the best name for their intelligent, inventive, seriously passionate oldest son.
His name is Dale.