Shifting gears

Published on: March 19, 2010


mitchFrank Kruse died last week. No, you don’t know him. For that matter, I didn’t really know him, either, and it has been nearly 30 years since I even thought about him. I graduated from high school with Frank in 1981. We didn’t hang out but when I heard his name, his face immediately flashed into my mind. He was smiling. That is how I remember him. I also remember a person who appeared to me as being comfortable in his own skin. That is a fairly unique trait for anyone – particularly a teenager. He was a hell of a good baseball player, too.

I don’t know how he died, just that he passed away in his home in Lexington, Kentucky. Over the years I have passed through Lexington a few times – it seems like a nice city. I didn’t know he lived there and it probably wouldn’t have mattered if I had known.

As the years pass there are more reminders of my mortality. There is the muscle pain that doesn’t go away as quickly as it once did. There is the ever-present tinge of knee pain when standing up – and a few other less-than-pleasant reminders that, despite all youthful ideas to the contrary, we all get old.

But few reminders are as vivid as when people your age begin to pass away.

I’ve been shifting gears too much. All attempts to slow life down notwithstanding, the days and years keep going by faster. One day I’m taking pictures at the opening ceremony for the golf cart crossing on U.S. Highway 301 in Sun City Center, a few days later I’m in Des Moines at a conference with Congressman Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Senator Chuck Grassley, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; along with 700 or so other people. The next day I’m driving through cold and ceaseless rain in an old sports car making the 1,350 mile drive back home to Florida.

While the long drive from the north has long since lost its allure, it did provide an opportunity to get away from it all for two days. I had some time to think and to ponder a few deep mysteries of the universe.

For instance, there are three different controls that indicate defrost on an old Porsche 911. None of them actually defrost. The car is air-cooled with the engine in the back so the only way to get heat is to turn on a blower over the engine, flip a switch to open some valves beneath the car and then allow the hot engine air to dribble in through enigmatic openings under the dash that mechanical engineers have spent decades attempting to find. The problem is, the crafty German engineers sealed the car too well. Flip open the heat valves and 30 seconds of warm air makes the trip from the back before the cabin pressurizes, stopping the flow of precious warmth. The only way to actually get warm air is to release the pressure by opening a window. Which, of course, lets in cold air. Fortunately, opening a window also serves as an effective means to defrost the windshield – despite the three controls.

By modern standards, there is virtually nothing comfortable about a 1983 Porsche 911. The air conditioning is marginal, at best. As mentioned, the heat is dependent upon letting cold air in and some might say it smells funny thanks to the engine directly behind the backseat. So why drive it? Why are male mid-life crises defined by them? Because on even the shortest entrance ramp to a freeway, it can easily be beyond the legal speed limit before the end. It turns and tracks like it’s on rails with a mysterious force that can only be from God holding it to the ground. It has brakes that seem almost powerful enough to stop the earth’s rotation. And because it smells funny.

It’s not just a mid-life crisis car. It can’t be because I’m well past mid-life. I have no expectation of living to the age of 94. But it is something that allows an escape from deadlines and expectations and credit card bills. It’s not an expensive car, despite what the name would imply, but it is needy. It needs me just as much as I need it.

Somewhere, approaching a large southern city, I tapped the accelerator lightly, the engine growled behind me and the speedometer instantly shot up to 80. I thought about Frank. According to his obituary he worked as a plumber and a landscaper in Arizona. Then eight years ago he moved to Lexington to train horses. I have a feeling he was good at it. It seems he was where he wanted to be; doing what he wanted to do. A man comfortable in his own skin. Just as I was while driving that old car.

The bravado of my youth has long since worn off. I have driven from the north and back more than a dozen times without a major incident and I wondered how long my luck could hold out. I’ve always believed we have been blessed with life to live life; and, as such, I always planned to leave a battered and possibly bloodied corpse behind. Of course I have no intention of taking anyone with me. Driving at 80 mph was merely an attempt to keep up with traffic. I worry that as I get older I am becoming more protective. Life isn’t meant to be lived sheltered away behind an artificial feeling of safety. Tomorrow is not guaranteed, regardless of whether you hit the accelerator a bit or lock yourself in a closet. Hitting the accelerator is, to me, a lot more fun.

Driving from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, airport to a small town no one has ever heard of, I remembered why we moved there. Parts of Iowa are beautiful and it was a beautiful day. I also remembered why we left.

The woman working behind the counter at the Casey’s convenience store in Marengo, Iowa, had big news: “I’m moving to Florida, too!” she said. I didn’t bother to wonder how she knew we had already moved; that’s just how things work in a small town. Ironically, she was the first person we encountered when we stopped in to check the place out a few years ago. Next week, she will be off to live her life.

I realized that freedom to live your life is a gift we have been given, particularly as Americans – and that is just what I was doing driving that sports car across the country. I settled back into the seat; the engine providing the symphony for my thoughts. Before long, the lights of Tampa illuminated the darkness and I was home. Home to a place where I now realize I can be comfortable in my own skin.

Thanks Frank, for the memory of your smile and for the lesson you gave me. Godspeed.