Saturday, January 15, 2011

Retired fireman Neil Starke, 90, offers words of encouragement and kindness from the North Woods while vile cretins fan flames of hate

Neil Starke has no idea how much it mattered to this cynical and sometimes sour soul that he wrote that note.
Constant blood-drenched, hate-filled news reports have me mentally replaying the too many times when I have seen bodies on the ground, bullets in the head.
Or bodies of young women I knew burned up in a car, the only thing that didn’t turn to black ash was a Bible.
Or a teenage murder victim in a casket while a mom who remains my friend, these almost three decades later, wails so hard my heart still hurts to think of it.
The day the Klan protested the newspaper I worked at and I had to interview the puss-filled venomous Imperial Lizard or whatever.
Or picking up a phone at 4:30 a.m. and hearing James Earl Ray, calling from Brushy Mountain Pen, wanting to talk with one of my reporters. “Charlie’s not in yet, you ignorant, murderous asshole…” I’d say. Or at least think. It was 13 hours until I’d be home and be able to wash away the filthy leavings of speaking with this vile slug. I think of those frequent, not-brief-enough conversations with Dr. King’s killer often, even more frequently as the day that honors the preacher who changed the world approaches.
We Shall Overcome?
Maybe. The hate in our country flared up in Tucson the other day. Pure horror. The fruit of a country teetering on hate’s brink where people believe they have the constitutional right to violently disagree.
A land ruled, apparently, by the spiteful, soulless principles of Beck, Limbaugh on one side and the increasingly irrelevant posings of Olbermann on the other.
I got nasty habits. Take tea at 3, but I don’t watch that crap. Why does anyone? Perhaps because they need to know how to think?
The hate is growing in this country where a future wannabe president espouses the targeting of certain states and congressional districts – like Gabby’s in Arizona – for “takeover.” Of course, Sarah says it’s the media’s fault.
Perhaps, in most fetid fashion. Because “the media” nowadays is not the media of the Huntley-Brinkley-Cronkite-Sevareid bunch or the many fine newspaper reporters. Remember newspapers? Used to be the source of information rather than maps and diagrams and internet links to bra sales.
Guys like Seigenthaler, Battle, Russell – and, I flatter myself, Ghianni -- staked their reputations on what was in newspapers.
Of course that was before editors began having their reporters “tweet” at their readers (or is that twit on their readers?) to make flimsy publications lively. Before shopping for shoes, finding the best price on third-hand edible underpants, the best worm-free sushi and viewing Nicole Kidman’s breasts became the morning’s dose of “reality” delivered in a plastic sack.
OK. Gone off track again. But back to the subject of dumb twits (or words that rhyme), return with me now to the thrilling paragraphs above and the discussion of the gun-toting moll of hate and division whose very white followers and her own ghost writers want to take back this country from the likes of you and me. Yes, I thought this land was my land… Not anymore, eh, Chico?
Oh yeah, I’m white enough. But, you know, I’m no WASP. Too many vowels in the wrong places. (Talk about wrong places, let me tell you where I’ve been in my life and what I did there. Nah, not today.)
I used to think the followers of the shotgun-toting reality star and John McCain’s gift to America were restricted to WWII veterans, the so-called Greatest Generation that as they enter the doddering years have turned out to be the Gang that Can’t Think Straight. A deadly mob of faltering heroes in stained trousers, pulled up over their bellies, who wear flag lapel pins and believe this woman is “smart.” (I actually believe it’s a hankering for the return to their testosterone-fueled days of five-day passes to Tokyo bath houses and Brussels brothels.) She would have been a hot commodity in those joints. Right at home, too.
Anyway, I felt horrible last week when I heard the news about the shootings in Tucson. But I felt more horrible that it didn’t overly hit me in the gut.
Sad, sure. Vile. For sure. A product of the hate in our land fueled and fanned by the few who are ruining what the country was supposed to stand for. Remember that old “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” thing? Don’t you think that 9-year-old girl had a right to grow up and flourish in this country?
But then again, what about the boys and girls, perhaps twice her age, who occupy those caskets that roll down the cargo belt at Dover AFB? Give Peace A Chance? Yeah. Sure.
Another story, of course. But dead is dead. A bullet to the head is just as deadly when fired by some wacko in the wild, wild (radical right) west as it is when coming from the rifles of Osama’s Pakistani pals.
Anyway, I lament the fact that the news out of Arizona didn’t bother me so much. It has come to seem almost routine in this cruel divided and divisive land.
Of course, my own senses are somewhat numbed because of a life spent as a newspaperman. Before the corporate slaughter, I may have been the last one left… I don’t know.
In my life, there are faces and places I remember. Rapists. Murderers. Burned corpses. Plane crash victims. I’ve been to the field where bodies lay. The killing fields.
One of my reporters once wrote a story about how a murder victim was skinned. Another story revolved around the sexual assault and murder of a young woman … and the tools for the assault and the murder were, respectively, a wooden mixing spoon and a steak knife.
I’ve stepped, or so I was told by police, on the brains of a wreck victim at 3 a.m. on the bypass. Which bypass? Doesn’t matter. The bypass from life?
I have held the moms of teenagers who lost their lives senselessly. I’ve described the scattered bones of a beautiful high school junior as they were dragged out of the woods by blue-tick hounds.
And these things don’t turn me cold. But they make me put up a barrier, a way of dealing with calamity as only newspeople (remember them?) do. Perhaps there was laughter when the exploding cigarettes filled the newsroom with smoke and noise. But there were tears later, over a long, deep breath of nicotine while watching the bats converge back into the downtown church steeples.
And I’ve written before about my personal mood of late. And it’s not that good.
The economy.
“Friends” who don’t come through when I need a pal or a plate of eggs.
Wars that I abhor and don’t understand. Big O: please explain this “floating” promise to bring the troops home.
The “holiday” experience of my friend Rob Dollar’s 4-year-old great-nephew who was hospitalized for ear infections and for a time was in dire straits (the condition, not the Knopfler band).
The cancerous bladder and kidney of an older fellow (yes there are some older fellows left) I like to joke with when they occasionally find me in church. I’m easy to spot: the nice old man with the pony-tail and the Jerry Garcia necktie.
The fact that some kids are mean to my own kids, partly, I believe, because my children came from Romanian orphanages where the closest thing to silver spoons were the fingers with which they ate their nasty, slushy meals.
The list goes on. I was reading a book recently where a guy I admire described one of the worst events in his life that occurred when he fell off a tree while vacationing in Tahiti. He suffered a concussion and other injured-noggin woes.
Hell, I can’t get to Tahiti. I’m still suffering from the concussion and related noggin woes caused by the famous T-bone a mile from the place I like to call home.
All of this leads up to why I’m so glad (I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m glad) I have made a friend in the Northern Woods, a 90-year-old retired fire investigator named Neil C. Starke. Remember him? He was at the top of this story.
One of my regular delights each year is to write a story for a well-regarded national magazine about the kindness of people who, through simple, heart-driven acts, help others. We’re not talking about lung transplants here, but simple random acts of kindness.
Folks nominate others and then I track down those who did a kindness. It is heartening. Here is part of the tale that I wrote about Mr. Starke:
When the phone rings at the 90-year-old retired fire captain’s house in rural Wisconsin, Neil C Starke answers, smiles and, when he hangs up, counts his blessings.
“I have several neighbors living within three miles of my home. Every day I get a call asking some question of me or telling me about something or someone.
“They’ll ask things like ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ Or they’ll call when they are on their way to work to say ‘Just wanting to make sure you didn’t oversleep.’ ”
Starke, who worked for 34 years as the captain in charge of the Oshkosh Fire Prevention Bureau, began getting these calls not long after his wife of 57 years, Gladys, died in 2002.
He says Randy and Becky Gramse and Jon Barthel, are the ones who most frequently call his house that’s 12 miles outside Wautoma.
Starke, who spends some of his free time trying to lift the spirits of area nursing home residents, can’t overstate how important those calls are and that he even looks forward to them.
Without saying so, he knows what they are really doing is checking up on him, making sure he’s OK. But since he’s an independent sort, they don’t want to put it in those terms.
Course, he’d be disappointed if he didn’t get those calls now.
“I think they know I’m onto them now,” he says, as he prepares to sample a bit of the strawberry pie brought over by Donna Goldsmith, another neighbor.
“You can’t imagine how good I got it,” he says. “People are always talking about how good heaven is. I feel like I’ve had a little heaven here on earth.”

The editors, top-notch pros, cut some of that out for the magazine – I always write long, as you likely notice today --but they left the heart of it in.
And when the edition of the American Profile magazine came out, I was asked to send e-mails, including the link to the story, to the seven different subjects of the acts of kindness to make sure they’d seen the magazine.
Problem is, of course, most 90-year-old retired firemen living in the deep woods don’t spend a lot of time on the internet.
So I called Mr. Starke (pronounced “Starkee,” kind of like Richard).
During the course of the half-hour that followed, we talked about many things. I told him about my family and my dreams. He talked about his most recent visits to the nursing homes, to cheer the old people. He talked about the dreams he already had fulfilled.
He had remembered I had just had a car wreck before our last conversation. He asked about that and the flood.
And we talked about the Wisconsin Badgers – one of the players, I can’t remember which – began as a pee wee player on the firefighter-sponsored team in Oshkosh and Mr. Starke used to go to all the games.
I told him I was pulling for his Packers this year. And also described my own ramblings across Wisconsin, either to baseball games in Milwaukee when Henry Aaron played there or to football camp in Eagle River or cruising through the Dells with my mom and dad and my big brother, Eric. (He is much nicer than I am in general -- even if the girls always liked me better, for good reason.)
I smiled so hard during our conversation that my dimples, which disappeared in recent weeks due to frustration, deepened and ached.
I told Mr. Starke that I wished he was 10 minutes away instead of 10 hours. I’d be over for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee.
He told me the same, adding that the fact I wrote about him in a national magazine was the highlight of his year, among the highlights of his life. People from all over the country who had forgotten about him as their lives progressed, had read the story and called.
“You made my 90th year,” he said.
“You made my 59th, Mr. Starke,” I said.
“Neil,” he said. “My name to you is Neil. Mr. Starke was my dad.”
A few days later, a note arrived in the mail.
It included the letter he put in his annual Christmas card that listed among his year’s highlights the phone call he got from a nice young man at a magazine and his hopes that a story would appear soon.
He had forgotten my name at that point. And when he saw the story, after he began getting the calls, he wondered how to get in touch with me.
And then, in the handwriting of an older, established citizen, he wrote an addendum on that Christmas letter:
Dear Tim,
Your call was answer for what I was searching for. How to contact you and express my thanks.
The Lord provides all for me. It was a pleasure visiting with you.
Again thanks, Neil.

It was my pleasure. Thank you, Neil, for allowing me into your life and reminding me that most people -- despite the hate and rhetoric and handguns -- are, indeed, good.