Bill DesCamps could have crushed me. Freshmen football players were cannon fodder, and the Frederick Vikings had some monsters on the field in those years. Ivan Schlenker looked like a pro wrestler. His brother Jay was a smaller version of Ivan, which is to say huge. I remain convinced he wasn’t born, just poured from cement.
There’s a certain cruelty that emerges from locker rooms and gridirons: the law of the pack, a hierarchy, a seething, explosive adolescent violence.
I horse-collared our quarterback Mark Oschner during one dusty August practice, bounced him right on his helmet, and when he leapt up and spiked the ball furiously, I was convinced my life was over. I’d spat on the king.
It was an anomaly. I lined up on defense against Bill DesCamps, a junior who was farm-boy strong, broad across the shoulders, barrel-chested and rugged. He could throw a discus a country mile. While he chose not to mash me, he also made sure I didn’t get many tackles.
I thanked him for his kindness some years ago when he stopped by my office and filled the room with that toothy grin and that big, easy laugh. Bill seemed puzzled at first; I’m sure he didn’t remember it at all. His kindness was just who he was.
Was. Ugly word, was.
I was in my office on Saturday when I got the news that a massive stroke had taken my friend. Everybody’s friend, it seems, judging from the grief. It stopped me cold, and I dialed my mother to tell her the news. Bill and Rose once lived across the street from my folks in a classic old stone house, and Bill and my father became friends.
I imagine them now standing in our backyard one summer day, these two bruisers, talking about flowers. You see my father drove a truck to Minneapolis for a stretch, and he was always struck by the beauty of one small Minnesota community that had flowers planted along the boulevards.
So when my father was in his final months, hospitalized, dying of cancer, Bill remembered the flowers and told my mother that he was going to plant some across the street.
“Won’t it be wonderful for Norman to look out and see those flowers when he gets home?” he said.
He planted irises.
“I don’t think Dad got to see those flowers, did he,” I said to Mom.
A pause. “No.” Another pause. “But I did. And I knew what they meant.”
I told that story about her “sweet Papa Bear” to Bill’s daughter Megan. There were lots of pauses in that conversation, too. And I told her how he saved my life every day in football practice by not taking it.
I asked her about something that my mother had mentioned, that Bill had been a miracle baby, a premature, sickly thing with Rh disease, an allergy to his own blood, requiring several blood transfusions for him to even have a chance.
Bill would later joke that when he did or said something dumb that he had an excuse. “My brain ran dry for a while.”
Yeah, maybe, but not his heart.
I told Megan, searching for some consolation as we do in these times, that we were fortunate to have him for those 64 years. His mother Peg, now 103, had said the same thing, she told me. Peg lost four babies before Bill, and a sister at birth when he was 9.
As I drove home, snow sweeping across the blacktop like a veil, I felt the eyes of my co-pilot, Gus the Wonder Pug, upon me. He looked concerned, it seemed, by my sadness. He knew.
What I was thinking was that we write our own epitaph, don’t we? How will you be remembered?
Bill DesCamps will be spoken of with smiles and superlatives, all earned. I’ll remember him for his kindness.
I’ll bet Dad has planted flowers.