Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pink Cheeks and Gray Around Their Eyes

There is one truly poignant chapter in the first half of "The Leather Man" _ Chapter 12, in which Ben Steinbrecher is forced to confront the fact that he will never get to play in the National Football League despite having been born with physical gifts bestowed on only a handful of mortals.

That's one of the steps that reduces Ben from Superman to Everyman, and it humanizes him.

As a superhero, Ben would have been just one more comic-strip character in a panoply of fictitious friends of society; a role model born of wishful thinking instead of strategic planning. As a human being, by way of contrast, Ben remains large and forceful, but he becomes someone readers can relate to because his shift in focus from playing a sport to coaching others is an allegory about reaching adulthood _ tutee become tutor, a theme as old as literature itself. Consider Paul's wake-up epistle to early Christian converts in Corinth:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
In Medieval times, an understanding of the common destiny of mankind gave rise to morality plays, in which personifications of moral values try to persuade a protagonist to choose good over evil. "The Somonyng (Summoning) of Everyman," written late in the 1400s, became the flagship of the genre. Its frontispiece describes it as (in modern English) "a treatise how the high Father of Heaven sends Death to summon each creature to come and give account of their lives in this world."

Death also contributes to the poignance of a later chapter, but in a different, sharper context: Quintus LeClaire, whose post-Vietnam adventure of rediscovery begins with the decision to track down the parents of a slain Marine Corps buddy, finally gets to meet them in Chapter 30.

The circumstances are different than he could have imagined when he boarded a bus in Louisiana half a year earlier. In the interim, he has become the starting tailback at a small college in Idaho's Magic Valley, has found friends and allies, including a police chief who understands the horrors of combat, and has begun to put his life back together. As the chapter unfolds, Quintus turns out to be a better ball carrier than anyone expected: He sets a school single-game record for yardage rushing in Canyon State's season-opening victory over Northern Oregon.

What Quintus isn't privy to is that Sam Moody, the police chief, has arranged for a surprise visit by the Royale Evans family of Portland, Ore., the parents and younger brother of Royce Evans. After the game they are escorted down to the field to meet the young man who befriended their fallen family member. In an emotion-charged scene, Quintus shakes hands with Royale and Viola Evans and exchanges compliments with Rindell, a prep-school linebacker.

Royale tells Quintus that Royce called him a white man he could trust _ a weighty homage from a black man during the Civil Rights Movement. Quintus realizes that Royale is looking for something more and begins to describe the reconnaissance mission he and Royce were on:
The point man stepped on a mine and we started taking fire. Royce was behind me, so we wound up on our bellies behind a log until we figured there was a machine gun off to the left.
Quintus says he and Royce were hit taking out the machine gun, and Royale expresses his condolences, saying the letter of notification he received gave him no suggestion that anyone else on the mission had been injured. Then he asks for one more piece of information: Did Royce have any last words? That question leads to what I consider to be one of the best of all the original word pictures in my book:
He had been trying to reconstruct the scene, intuiting that the question would be asked, but it was difficult. There had been trees and tall grass, and bullets hitting them filled the air with fiber like the inside of a sawmill. Noise, confusion, nineteen-year-olds with pink cheeks and gray around their eyes, looking like Death warmed over while the real thing went flying around at Mach Two.
Quintus' attempt to convey a final message, rather than the message itself, brings peace to the hearts of the Evans family, and bringing them to Canyon City proves to be one of the best moves the Purple Stampede booster club could have made.


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