“What Passing Bells for Those Who Die…”

The quote above is from “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen. He is one of the more famous “War Poets” of the First World War. His poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is arguably the most famous of all war poems (other than the “Iliad” which is a whole different animal). When I was 12, I’d never heard of Wilfred Owen, but I had to face a death.

Death is one of those strange concepts that is almost unreal to a 12-year-old kid. I mean you could flip on TV and watch John Doucette (an old cowboy actor) get killed on “The Lone Ranger”, then a couple of weeks later “Cheyenne” would knock him off again, and finally if you waited for another month or so then he’d get bumped off on “The Rifleman.”

Death was one of those things that occurred when you were playing cowboys and indians or war. You went bang and the other guy did (or sometimes didn’t) fall down dead. Then mother’s would start calling for kids to come home and all the dead guys were magically resurrected and went home for dinner. So death had a certain element of fantasy to it.

I got to the ballyard one evening for a game. There were generally two games on each field per night and we had the early game. Coach was busy passing out black armbands for us to wear. Now I was smart enough to know what they were for. Someone had died. Turns out a kid named Bobby had gotten killed in a car wreck. It was back in the day when there were no airbags and seatbelts were a novelty. The kid was thrown through a windshield and died at the scene.

Even here there was a certain element of unreality to it. I kind of vaguely knew the kid. We went to different schools, lived in different parts of town. He played center field for the Cubs, my team was the Bears. So it wasn’t like I knew him, although what little I did know made him seem like a nice enough guy. It was more that I knew of him.

He was buried in his Cubs uniform and games were cancelled that day. I heard that some of the teams signed balls and added them to the coffin, but ours didn’t so I won’t swear that’s true. All the teams were to wear the black armbands for the rest of the season. Our league was divided into two division cleverly called the National League and the American League. You played every team in your division twice and the teams in the other division once. We were in the National League and the Cubs in the American. It didn’t  make sense having  the Cubs inthe American League, but then if it had to make sense there would have been no team called the Bears. We hadn’t yet played our game against the Cubs so there was some serious discussion among the players about throwing the game in Bobby’s honor. We decided that was a bad idea for a lot or reasons, not least of which is that the kid would be disappointed (and Coach would have killed us). I remember we beat them, but don’t recall the score.

Our league was set up so that the top two teams in each division played a postseason tournament. As luck would have it, both of us made the playoffs. Bobby’s Dad threw out the first pitch in the first game (which we were in). We won. The Cubs had the other game (and I never found out why Bobby’s Dad didn’t throw out the first pitch in that game instead of ours). We won, they lost; so we didn’t have to play each other. After the season ended there was a big picnic where trophies were given out and awards presented. There was a big trophy case in the local Optimist’s Club where the trophies were put on display (as far as I know they’re still there). They added a picture of Bobby to that season’s stack of trophies.

It was my first real confrontation with death. Because he was a peripheral person in my life it didn’t hit me really hard. That came later when family members died and when I lost friends in Viet Nam. But I still remember it.

“Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes/Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.”

Wilfred Owen, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”


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2 Responses to ““What Passing Bells for Those Who Die…””

  1. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    Sad and moving, with a little bit of humor injected. Well-written, V.

    It is true that most of us didn’t know anything about death until after high school. One of the scariest moments of my life was in 1971 (when I was ten), and at summer camp near Poughkeepsie, New York. I was sitting and talking to a kid from Bunk 2 (I was in Bunk 1) named Jonathan Cornfield or Cornfeld or something like that. Anyway, I was familiar with the fact that he had asthma, and apparently this was in the days before inhalers because he had this gigantic device to be used in the event of asthma attacks in his bunk. But we were sitting there alone, talking about something that I don’t recall, when he started to go into this crazy kind of breathing thing where he ended up on the ground. It scared me a lot, but I ran so fast all the way to the infirmary and told the camp nurse, and he turned out to be okay. Thank God. I think that that was my first real close brush with another human being (specifically, someone my own age) dying, and suddenly it seemed like it actually could happen to someone my own age.

    It was scary.


    • verdun2 Says:

      Now that I’m nearer the end than the beginning, I’m aware of death a little more frequently than when I was young. It is, to a kid, very abstract and unreal.
      Liked your story, glad to know the kid made it.
      Thanks for reading.

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