(Note: I was commissioned by the friends and family of Lance Bell to write this memorial tribute for his service. They have given me permission to share it here. He was a good guy.)
“Liked to fish & roller-skate.”
Paging through the memories of the friends and family of the guy I first called “Poontang” – I couldn’t remember his nickname was “Pogley” on our first e-mail acquaintance – I had to smile.
Here were pages of memories of the school kids Lance Bell mentored.
And the deep-war memories of his old hitch-hiking and hemp buddy Terry Kirkwood (“Captain Kirk” to me).
Then there is the page of basic obituary information that his sister-in-law Sue Bell begins with “Here are the facts on Lance.”
DOB: 11/12/1949. DOD: 11/06/2012.
Parents: William (Ty) Bell (deceased 11/15/2007) and Ginger Lee Spina of Barrington, Illinois. Born in South Bend, Indiana. Brother: Micky (Sue) Bell of Mishawaka, Indiana. Sister: Billie Bell of Portland, Oregon. Nephew: Nicolas (Kate) Bell of Chicago, Illinois. Great niece: Audrey of Chicago, Illinois. U.S. Navy: 1969 to 1971. Formerly of Lakeland, Florida. Liked to fish & roller-skate. Mentor to kids at Rolling Prairie Middle School. Donations to VA Hospice at Hines VA Hospital, Hines, Illinois.
That’s something like 80 words, mostly names and basic facts summarizing, quickly, the sometimes belligerent little man who died of lung, bone and brain cancer after for too long ignoring his own health concerns while helping to take care of his mom and enjoying his time with the school kids.
“Lance enjoyed going to school, helping where he could and the friendships he found with you kids,” wrote his old friend, Kim Zahrt, a teacher, on a Facebook posting to let those same young people know he had died.
“Some do not understand why he did it for no pay,” says Kim. “He valued the experience above money and felt it was where he should be. I’m so glad he had you to call his friends at his departure.”
No sense listing every Facebook comment from the kids who Lance had voluntarily mentored the last couple of years of his life.
But here are a few: “Lance was a good guy,” writes Ronnie Braman.
“He always pushed me to do my best,” says Brenden Bashore.
“Thank you for bringing him into our lives. He is missed and loved,” writes Brian Meadows.
Or perhaps this one from Steven Jacobs sums it up best: “Lance was an awesome guy. He has done so much for so many people. But we must keep our heads up. That’s what his hard ass would want.” I have to admit that Steven used asterisks to self-censor “hard a**), but today isn’t a time for self-censorship.
That hard ass wouldn’t want it that way.
Gotta say I didn’t know Lance. Never shook his hand or hugged him. At least not physically. Perhaps with words, as we were brothers running against the wind. Yeah, Captain Kirk used that song to help describe his late friend. “Against the wind/ We were runnin’ against the wind/We were young and strong, we were runnin’ against the wind…”
Course that old Bob Seger tune goes on to have a little bitter loneliness in it, the price of “living to run and running to live.”
Captain Kirk plays that on his harmonica in memory of his old Vietnam buddy. He also plays Jimmy Buffett’s “We Learned to Be Cool from You”: “Maybe I can parlez a little Francais/Maybe I can write a whole page a day/Do a crossword puzzle in a second or two/But I learned to be cool from you….”
All the sudden, I’d be working in my basement, where I try to hammer out a living as a writer after being run out of the newspaper business for being too old and principled, and a note would pop up on Facebook: “Hope you’re having a good day, Mr. G.” And I’d smile. Because of that note, I would at least have a better day, knowing that old Pogley was thinking about me.
Other times he’d write that he was going up to Jamie Waldo’s lake house. To fish.
Maybe he’d write: “I had a great day at school today. Love these kids.”
Other days, he’d write that he was enjoying working with the students, but he needed to find work for pay soon. Problem was, well, it wasn’t a problem. Duty was that he was helping to take care of his mother. And that came first.
Not false nobility here, folks, but there was something special about this stubborn little man and his devotion to doing right by his mom. We get one mother. And Lance spent the last couple of years putting her first. Just as she put him first back before that DOB all those years ago.
As I go through these pages of memories about a guy who was a brother I never met, I keep coming back to that one line in his “obituary information” that Sue wrote. “Liked to fish & roller-skate.”
Somehow, while I read Captain Kirk’s memories of the shared time as radar men on a guided missile destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War, I keep thinking about that.
The two old salts turned into hippies when they came home, quietly, to no parades, from a war they didn’t start and didn’t finish. Hitchhiking like Kerouac, across America, forth and back. “We experienced many things,” writes Captain Kirk. What those are, he leaves to the imagination.
“Lance was a brother I never had biologically,” the good captain continues.
Pogley was twice divorced. He was owner of a pool maintenance business in Florida. He loved the Sunshine state and he liked to deep sea fish and snorkel. And perhaps roller-skate?
“He, Bill Michael and Captain Bruce (Dunsmore) were tight mariners,” Terry writes, adding that his “dear friend from South Bend, Linda Baumgartner, came to live with him in Florida until Lance returned to South Bend a few years ago to take care of his recently widowed and homebound/now bed-ridden mother, Ginger.”
Bill says it was tough to see Lance leave Florida. “I hated to see him move to Indiana, but he felt that was what he needed to do. His Mom and family needed him, so he left Florida.”
Yet there are those decades of enjoyment Lance had with his pals in the Sunshine State. “I met Lance back in the early 1980s. He was my next-door neighbor in Sarasota, Florida,” Bill recalls. “Back then he had two loves: A 1966 Mustang coupe and an old Harley he called ‘Jesse Belle.’
“He was a tough, old bird, didn’t take any shit off nobody, came on to you like a mean old snake, but deep down he was as gentle as a lamb. I can remember many times I told him to his face: ‘I’m glad you have my back.’
“If he liked you he would die for you.”
Bill goes on to recall Lance’s patriotism, his love for the U.S. flag, which he flew on all patriotic holidays, including one Memorial Day when he accidentally hung it upside down. “He immediately had to correct his mistake,” says Bill. “Of course, he was not drinking???”
Lance, he says, loved the pure white beaches of the Gulf Coast and “the babes tanning on the boats.” If not on a boat, he would wade out in the sea and fish, sometimes late at night. Later, he lived on the state’s Atlantic Coast and took his 16-foot canoe everywhere, both in the rivers and out to sea.
“He showed no fear,” says Bill, elaborating that the two also loved fishing with Captain Bruce. “Every time the boat went in the water, Lance wanted to be on it.”
Lance’s influence on young people is apparent. He fathered no children, but he’d have been a helluva dad. Florida housemate Linda Baumgartner’s grandson, Ben, called him “Grampa.” Lance promised the kid he called “Ben Jovi” that he’d be around when he got older. He’ll be around, Ben, not physically but forever in your soul.
His ability to relate with young people gave him a reason for living in his final years. As Captain Kirk says, after he went to take care of his mom, “Pogley couldn’t find a job in South Bend, so he volunteered to become a high school mentor in his old friend, Kim’s, physics class.”
He drank too much and he knew it. Heck, I even knew him well enough to give him a hard time about that on the telephone. He had been a biker, complete with the Harley and the streaming hair.
He looked like Jesus when he went in the hospital. He was bald, hairless and 70 pounds when the hospice’s job was done.
Gotta say, I liked the guy a lot. And I didn’t know him. I called him a few times in the hospital and hospice, wishing him well.
“Too much morphine, Tim,” he’d say. “Call me back when I’m not nodding off.”
Other times he was in pain. One day when I called he was anxious for his brother, Mick, to show up at the VA hospice. “Hope he hasn’t forgotten about me,” he said. “Nah. He’ll be here. Right now, I gotta sleep. Gimme a call back when you get some time.”
Mick made it and that made Lance’s day. After all, he loved his brothers, living and dead. Pat OD’d in 1974. Lance found the body and never got over that.
But he sure loved Mick.
“Terry was trying to kidnap me or something,” Lance said, during one conversation. He described a planned intervention that his old Navy pal had tried to engineer to try to save his soul and perhaps his body last summer.
“I don’t know. Terry keeps talking about this Jesus stuff. I guess it’s all right,” said Pogley. “I can’t take it all the time.”
But, according to Captain Kirk, Lance was happy for the “intervention” from above. Had found his peace with the Lord at the time of his death.
On his final day with Captain Kirk, after he had prayed with his pal and said he was all right with the idea of finding out what’s next, Lance fell asleep.
Captain Kirk didn’t know what to do. He’d come from Des Moines, Bible in hand, to spend time with his friend before he died. Yet here was the slight and exhausted former hitchhiker and biker -- streaming hair long-gone victim to the cancer treatment -- no longer conscious. Sleeping. Or dead.
The mournful silence was interrupted. “Man, Terry, you are a big, ugly fucker, you know that?” Lance whispered.
Terry almost passed out as the dying friend and his pal gut-laughed.
OK. It’s probably time to wrap this up. After all, I didn’t really know this guy. But I loved him, because we were of the same time, sharing the same experiences. We’d run against the wind, for sure.
I liked his little notes: “Mr. G, hope you’re having a good un. “
Mr. G didn’t have a good day a couple of weeks ago. I’d been unable to get through on the phone to the hospice room for a few days.
So I sent out an e-mail note to his friends, asking for an update on this man I liked but did not know.
And then the phone rang. It was about 9 at night. “Lance died at 3 this afternoon,” said Captain Kirk. “He’s in a better place now.”
So when it was first asked if I’d write a tribute for him, I didn’t know if it was appropriate.
Do I talk about his teaching for free?
His Vietnam experiences?
His apparent lifelong passion for the sea?
His love of his family, despite his own crankiness?
The fact he found enough trouble in his life to make it both good and bad?
“How should I remember this man?” I asked myself one evening as The Rolling Stones version of “Not Fade Away” and other classics blasted from my record machine.
The more remembrances I read, the more I liked the little Vietnam radar man (I actually had “little MF” uncensored in my first draft. He probably would have liked that.) Lance had plenty of woes in his life, demons he chased, fought, occasionally vanquished. But – according to all accounts – the little (guy) went out a winner. He was a lot of things, mostly pretty damned good, to a lot of people.
How do I do him justice?
That’s when the line in Sue’s obituary information made me smile and I knew what I wanted to say: Lance Bell “liked to fish & roller-skate.”