Last minute Christmas shopping, and a last stop by the National Outdoor Leadership School issue room. There’s Kevin McGowan, in his little office by the entry. Fireplug of a man with a white thatch. Seems like he’s been there as long as I’ve been in Lander, which is three decades now.
Browsing the racks: how about a green shirt of mysterious outdoor fabric, to remind my wandering son to get his butt back here to finish our climb up Fremont Peak, and, while you’re here, help me build a yurt platform out in Red Canyon?
It’s hard to bring them back, but you keep trying. My spouse Berthenia and I are not Wyoming natives, which means the only relatives populating our little mountain town are the ones we spawn. With all three of our “kids” now adults working far from Wyoming, we currently have no relatives nearby. Nick is half a world away, at a newspaper in Istanbul.
Sons can be difficult. They take risks. (Daughters do too.) They do it on a bike when they’re three years old, with our encouragement. They do it with their lives when they get a little older, deaf to our discouragements. Whitewater, drugs, mountain blizzards, war zones, skateboards, bad friends, bad luck – there are lots of ways.
Often they don’t hear our warnings because they tuned us out during The Wretched Years. Remember? When the silky cooing child became the zitty, snide teenager? The timing is usually terrible – teen madness strikes right when the parent’s job starts to suck, the spouse is getting bored, and you’re marooned in a little mountain town with no nearby wise aunt or grandparent to perform an intervention.
The kid will say, “My math teacher sucks” and I’ll say, “Don’t say sucks – and maybe if you studied –“ and he’ll say, “He’s the sucking soccer coach, dad, I NEVER get in,” and I’ll say, “Maybe if you practiced –“, and he’ll say, “F*ing shut up!” and kick a hole in the door while slamming it. Really, he could score some goals.
Unable to find an exorcist, I took his ungrateful, ungraceful 13-year-old carcass to the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) Rocky Mountain branch to get some gear for a dreaded father-son fishing trip, sitting as far from each other as possible in the car. He slunked to the back of the issue room and looked at knives. He had a terrible frown. He didn’t smell good.
Kevin McGowan came out of that little office. A solid, rolly-polly guy with an earing, leaning into his walk with his arms hanging, his head down and bobbing a little. Grumpy looking face. We’re friends. But he went right by me. To Nick.
“Hey, how are you. You playing any music?”
Pretty soon they were deep in conversation. I stayed on the other side of the room, watching them in the mirror on a bicycle helmet, pretending to be interested in mysterious outdoor fabric. I saw Nick shrug and smile. I saw Kevin’s serious, inquiring face, tilted to look at him.
It went on for a good while. I felt anxious at first – would my awkward son say something stupid, or pretentious, or profane? No. That wasn’t what was bottled up in him – that was all in me. Then I felt a little jealous. I like talking to Kevin. He was finding Nick more interesting than me. He seemed to know how to reach him.
Finally, after we bought some socks and a camp stove and some mysterious outdoor fabric, we started out the door, and Kevin briefly put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. And I thought: That’s how I want to treat my son.
We got in the car. I moved a little closer, asked him, “How’s the music going?” Nick looked over at me, gave a little snort, and looked out the window.
In November, at the new Lander Community Center, they played a video of Joe McGowan, Kevin and Ann’s son, skateboarding out in the meadows and aspen groves and sagebrush in the mountains around Lander. He and his friends Willy Ratz and Henry Austin had to carry around boards and plywood sheets to these unlikely settings – it’s amazing how hard young people work to have fun (and, sometimes, take risks).
At one point in the video — loud loopy music on the soundtrack — Joe stands facing the camera in his wide-brimmed straw hat with his skateboard in hand. He raises the board up, smiles, and takes a big swing at a pitched cow pie, shattering it.
There was a long line in community center parking lot, a sunny November afternoon, and I noted how the people assembling – greeting, smiling, talking quietly – represented all the different decades I’ve lived in Lander. Some were from old Wind River ranch families. Some had come in the 1980s to take a NOLS course. Some came with the recent migration of rock-climbing nomads. Many were kids – young adults, really – who had spent their entire young lives in Lander.
We who moved here from more crowded parts of the country know that this is a genuinely small town of about 8,000, which perhaps doesn’t need such a big, high-ceilinged community center as this new one. But on that day, it didn’t seem big enough.
When we finally got inside the building, and the video of Joe and his friends started to play, people were standing up against the wall and out in the foyer – there were no chairs left, no empty space.
And few dry eyes.
Joe, son of Kevin and Ann McGowan, age 21, a student at the University of Wyoming, was trying to quiet a fracas on the street outside his house in Laramie, by inviting strangers into the party rather than have them make a disturbance outside, as I understand it. One of the strangers hit him, he fell and struck his head. He died.
Addressing such a big crowd would give most of us stage fright, but it was not hard for Joe’s relatives and friends to think of laughs and adventures and stories about the smiling kid with the skateboard. Even Ann and Kevin spoke, generous words from the unknowable underworld of grief, for a crowd of people who sat helplessly on the perimeter of that darkness, wanting to help, and needing help.
Weeks go by. It’s December. Kevin McGowan is back in his small office at the issue room, on the wall above him a colorful reminder of his son’s talent as an artist. I’m back at the sale rack looking for another green shirt of mysterious outdoor fabric.
We talk a little bit. I want to recall to him that moment in the Issue Room where he showed me how to be a father. But where does that lead? We shake our heads in wonderment about all those people who gathered in the big room on the hill after Joe’s death. Much more than the local food workshops, or the Christmas music show — that was the moment the building was baptized a community center.
It doesn’t fix what was broken in the McGowan family and among his close friends. But it makes our choice – to live in a little mountain town, and grow families here – graspable. Our sons were born here. This is their hometown.
It’s hard to bring them back. Impossible to bring Joe McGowan back. But we keep trying.