It’s late afternoon mid-November and I’m traveling down the interstate in northern Kentucky on the backside of a journey I started with a heavy heart. Like the rest of the trip, the remains of this day will be filled with the unexpected.
I left Jacksonville to make a 14-hour drive to Edinburgh, Indiana to attend the memorial service for Pat Pankey, a high school classmate and teammate on our basketball team. At 6’3” and muscular, Pat was our center. He was a decent shooter, a relentless rebounder, and a ruthless enforcer. Our practices and games were like the Coen brothers’ film, “There Will Be Blood.” Some guys delight in trash talking to get inside an opponent’s head. Pat’s approach was more direct. He would get inside by going through your forehead or nose with one of his elbows. Recipients of his physicality rarely played their best afterward and I suspect several of them contemplated their own mortality while recovering on the bench.
Following graduation, Pat enlisted in the army during the Viet Nam war and became an MP. At his service, we heard Pat was often tasked with retrieving soldiers who did not show up for roll call. The story concluded with the line, “When Pat brought them back, they weren’t late again.” When his hitch in the Army was finished, Pat took the only job he wanted…law enforcement. He spent 33 years on the Edinburgh police force, much of it as Town Marshal. That the meanest guy I ever knew would have a career where he would have the law on his side and access to lethal weapons was more than a bit ironic.
In high school, Pat was an serial prankster and someone who delighted in keeping people mentally off balance. He brought this forward into his career as Edinburgh police officers told stories of being on foot patrol at night and Pat jumping from the shadows to give them a scare. Interviewing for the job, a former dispatcher told Pat that he had neither the experience nor the skills for that position. Pat's response was, "When can you start?" Classic Pat. He was a great teammate, so it was not surprising to hear Pat's law enforcement comrades talk of his dedication and love for his community. In a time when protests against police are commonplace, people from Edinburgh were lining the route to the church, hands over their hearts or holding American flags. Unexpected and uplifting, just like the sunny weather and temperature in the high 70’s this time of year.
I’m looking forward to seeing Monica, but not the drive home. It’s long, over roads I’ve traveled a lot, and filled with scenery I’ve pretty much memorized. But there is something different about this late afternoon. There is a marvelous, golden light coating everything. Sugar maple trees are ablaze in orange and yellow, backlit sumac leaves look like neon chili peppers, and the bushy tassels of the tall grasses appear to be on fire. A flock of turkeys in a wheat field are silhouetted as they slowly make their way toward the woods. Solitary hawks on fence posts and power lines keep watch over their domains. These sights are repeated for the next two hours until the yellow light turns orange and eventually fades to blue.
Winter will be here soon enough, but for the past two days I’ve been warmed by more than the weather. I’ve watched a small town honor a good man, been in the presence of loving friends, and seen things so beautiful that it almost made my eyes hurt. Blessings often come when and where you least expect them.