Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Burning Dress (No, come to think of it, I don't want to live forever, that would remove the urgency of now)

Back in the early 2000's, my ex-wife, our children & I moved in to a new custom-built home in south Phoenix. Her Grandfather, Ivan Welty, a journeyman electrician from Indiana was a reluctant new member of our home. At age 91 he wasn't the most fun guy to have in a house full of toddlers and adolescents, but he lived a rich life. Hyper-opinionated, ornery and set in his ways (a fate I fear will befall us all, eventually). Well aware if his surroundings and well versed in life, he had adopted my ex's mother and he and his wife of like, 70+ years, raised her as their only daughter.

In his last years, Ivan struggled to understand the world around him. It was new. It was redefined. Countries he knew (and even fought against in World War two!) were no longer seen as enemies or no longer even existed.

He literally went from playing pick-up sticks and watching Model T's speed past horse & buggy carriages rolling down dirt roads to seeing the US interstate system become a reality, to watching jet fighters break the sound barrier, to men walking on the moon. He lived through World War I, World War II, The Korean War, The Bay of Pigs, The Viet Nam War and saw, at least the beginning of both Desert Storms. He watched as the industrial age gave birth to the age of information. radio replacing newspapers, television replacing radio, computers overtaking television.

One day he comes into my (at home) office and sits down on the love seat I have set up for the very few visitors that came to my over-glorified man-cave.

The ensuing conversation becomes a life event I will carry with me until the end of my days.

Ivan: Arthur, how are you?

Me: Ivan! Good, thank you! How you hittin' em'?

Ivan: Oh, all right I suppose. What are you doing?

Me: Oh I 'm on the internet doing some research on a project I'm working on... (my answer trails off as I am half-engrossed in the results of the latest content search, probably info regarding some free-lance ad project at the time).

Ivan: I just don't get it! (My head and eyebrows lift slowly...) What is it? How does this dang-blasted [he spoke like that] internet thing work?

Me: Well (I ponder), I suppose the easiest explanation is that you can think of it is a world-wide network of thousands and thousands of servers – or fancy computers – linked up wirelessly to talk to each other all over the world. The information in one is available to all and vice versa.

Ivan: So what do you use it for?

Me: I suppose just about anything (not having ever been cornered with such a direct question about such an indirect thing)... information, news, books, music, movies, whatever you might want to find, it's there... or something close to it.

Ivan: [Stares quizzically] I just don't know that I will ever understand it. I want to understand, but just don't. I feel like... sometimes... that I have just lived too long.

Me: Really...? (The rest of my words chokes off as I have no real response to this. I just didn't know how to respond. Then I decide to change the mood and his perspective.) Ivan, lets do a little experiment. Give me the name of something or someone you always wanted to know more about.

Ivan: (As if he was waiting for this) You know, when I was boy there were three of us who loved to play together back in Indiana. Me, my old pal Tom and little Sarah Bordeen. We played in the thickets by the stream, in the fields and the porch of the general store. Not a one of us older than eight. [The fondness in his voice leaving me to feel compelled to hear more]

One time we got a hold of some fireworks, and started pouring kerosene into empty cans... just stupid. Not a lick of sense in our heads. Well, we start lighting these fireworks and poor Sarah's right arm and her entire sun dress is soon covered in bright-white flame. We panicked. Tom & I both ran to her, pushed her to the ground and started rolling around with her trying to douse the flames. Her whole forearm was burned with 2nd degree burns but she lived, we got her to her folks right away, who then rushed her to the town doctor.

We thought we'd be in trouble, but when they came out – we ran to the Dr's office and waited outside a good half a day, yet – Sarah came out and hugged us both, thanking us for saving her. We still got the whuppin of lives later but we were happy she was ok.

Me: Wow! That's quite some story. Would you like me to look her up?

Ivan: No. no she's passed on some years ago. She did have a son though his name was Steven. I only met him once, years ago, when he was a just a boy. I always thought that I sure would like to know what happened to that young man...

Me: (Tapping keys)

Ivan: ... he was a musical prodigy. Smart boy, always learning something new, as I ...

Me: Found him.

Ivan: Huh?

Me: I found him. It says here... wow... he is a part-time conductor for the... hey!... the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Would you like to call him?

Ivan: .....

Me: Here's his number. (As I hand the written down phone number to him, I notice now that two things have happened. Ivan is absolutely speechless and has just begun to grasp the real power behind the internet). You should give him a call.

Ivan: ... you think I should call him right now?

Me: [I hand the phone over to him] Give it a try!

Ivan dials the phone number. It rings, Steven answers.

Ivan: Hey young man, I don't know if you remember me? I am a long-time friend of your Mom.... Ivan Welty... that's right the burning dress, that's right! I wanted to call you for so long.... I know, I.... (begins to cry) I thought so many times 'whatever happened to that boy after his mom died'... how, how are you? what? (Ivan had a hearing aid in both ears) Oh, yes fine, fine thank you! I live in Arizona now with my daughter and grand kids and their family... oh, yes, quite well... (it is evident at this point that both men are crying on each side of the phone call) ... I am, so blesses, blessed... and thankful to be bale to hear your voice, boy. Oh yes, when you return... yes... two weeks... ok, ok .... ok then, you take care young man. God bless...

Ivan composes himself and then shares with me how Steven told him that his Mom spoke of him fondly and often and how he always wanted to thank him for saving his Mom's life and in turn, saving his. The gravity of this statement embeds itself into Ivan's mind. Stephen then went on to say that he and his wife and new child [all news!] were heading to Europe for several weeks with the BSO (The Boston POPS as we in the Bay State affectionately call them), and that when he returned he wanted to have a long phone visit with Ivan and catch up. Ivan thanked me, gave me the biggest hug a 91-year old could muster, and then went off to his study, emotionally drained from a phone call he never knew he could make.

Ivan died several years later at the age of 95. He did indeed live long. His life afforded him living through arguably the most fantastic century of human development in recorded history. He saw the birth of four grandchildren and 10 great grand children. In my eyes, Ivan, you did not live too long. You lived out your time in this world you were meant to. Rest now, your eyes were very busy taking all that in over the 95 years of your life.

Congratulations on a life well lived, Ivan. We would all be so lucky to see and experience half of what you did.


  1. Wow. That is a very moving story...and I can only imagine how it moves you to be not just a story, but a memory.

  2. It was more powerful as a memory than the event itself. You are right...