As elements grow cold their atoms slow down in that invisible world where particles dwell, until, at the coldest possible temperature—absolute zero—all motion ceases.
A satellite photograph of a street I lived on thirty-seven years ago fills one window of my laptop (click the image above for a better view). This landscape is frozen in time, not by the desperate cold of space where the photo was taken but by the satellite’s power to capture sunlight as it played upon this spot of the world some bright, clear day who knows how long ago.
I cropped this image from Google Maps. You can switch between an online street map of the area and the satellite photo—from representation to reality, from virtual to actual—in one click.
Streaked by shadows from the early morning sun, the old street runs east to west. The shadows, most of them from trees, point northwesterly.
The trees are skeletal, their ghostly verges in outline, their leaves, burned of living cells by a primordial chemical encoding that might as well be alchemy for all we ultimately understand of it, now fallen and raked away.
There is power in this omniscient viewpoint, but we’re too far above ground to learn anything more.
Were all the houses empty on the morning this picture was taken? Was someone ironing a shirt or napping in a window seat, a languished caffeine high submitting to the warm focused light of the panes? Who was in the car traveling eastbound on the block above my old street? If a soul was present in this scene—someone was driving that car—no one knew this innocuous suburban moment was being captured.
To the east, just beyond the boundaries of the image, the Missouri River divides Omaha from Council Bluffs, Nebraska from Iowa. Here, in the photographed neighborhood, on this street by the university, my family lived in a white house with black shudders in the fall, winter and spring of late 1969 and early 1970.
The first time I tried to go back to that house and that street, while on break from college in 1985, I drove more than a hundred miles off course, a radical detour between two cities—Minneapolis and Tulsa—that do not share Omaha as a stop. In the small hours of the morning, I left Interstate 35 near Des Moines, and headed west on Interstate 80.
A fear of amnesia drove me that night through a shroud of fog so dense I could make out little beyond the hood of the car for most of the 100 plus miles of road.
I ended up on the wrong side of Omaha, wandering a neighborhood too far to the east, near the bluffs, as a patrolman I flagged down confirmed with a quizzical glance. Nearly an hour later, my travel schedule shot, I drifted back on to the empty freeway. A hundred miles later, at first light, I felt a tinge of regret for failing to persevere.
In the summer of 1969 my father, an Army officer who came up through the enlisted ranks and attended Officer Candidate School, was sent to Omaha to finish a bachelor’s degree. He’d served two tours in Vietnam already and his time at the university was the longest period myself or my sisters would ever spend with him.
Those nine months were straddled by Christmas 1969. We played in the snow one night before the holiday. Through a glass storm door, illumined by red, green, and blue lights, I glimpsed my parents. They were arm in arm on the couch. My father gave me two presents: building blocks out of which we constructed a firehouse on Christmas Eve and a toy semi-trailer truck, a British Petroleum tanker, made of metal with working headlamps and warning lights, which we played with—my father and I—under the covers of my bed that night before he put me to sleep.
It was in this house that I became entranced by the Hundred Acre Wood of Christopher Robin and his friends and discovered what remains my favorite word in English: blustery, which never sounds right unless it’s pronounced the way the Disney voice-over artist read the character of Pooh on the vinyl records we played in the afternoon.
In breaks from my father’s studies, driven by an energy later witnessed in his mother, my father built his children a playhouse in the backyard, modeled after the house we were living in, complete with working windows and doors that latched with eye hooks.
About a year after my failed attempt to find the last home in which our family lived with my father, my roommate and I, on leave for spring break, went to interview for a summer of waiting tables and tending bar at Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa. We were driving through Omaha and I convinced him to help me find the house.
This time, armed with daylight and a better sense of where the street was, we found the house, which remained very much like the image burned in my mind. I approached the front door and rang the bell. After telling the welcoming woman who answered the door about the circumstances—that I last lived in the house with my father before he left for Vietnam to never return—she was very kind and allowed me to come in and look the house over. She invited me to explore the upstairs again, but I declined. It was smaller inside than I remembered, but—at the time, just 16 years after I’d last been inside—the house’s interior was the same one retained by my four-year-old brain.
I walked to the back of the house, where the kitchen windows looked out over the backyard. A concrete slab was the lone evidence of where the playhouse once stood.
I asked about the playhouse, telling our helpful hostess that my father had built it. She explained, with what sounded like regret, that they’d had to tear the house down about a year before as it had become unsafe for her grandchildren.
In the spring that followed Christmas 1969, my mother spent a lot of time in the hospital with my youngest sister, and the older children spent time with our father packing and cleaning the house for an eventual departure. None of us knew that by mid-summer we’d be gathered around his grave near Orlando, listening to a 21-gun salute for this highly-decorated Airborne Ranger. One afternoon before we left Omaha, exploring the dank mildew-scented space below the front porch, I came across a caterpillar I’ve never seen in my life since, the larva of a Cecropia Moth, complete with red, blue, and yellow peg-like tubercles. It was preparing to molt and the skin was white in contrast to the brightly-colored tubercles.
Shortly after spying that caterpillar, we moved to a condominium complex in my father’s hometown of Orlando. In the parking lot, by the back of our station wagon, my father embraced me and told me to take care of my mother and sisters, to be the man of the house in his absence. A few weeks later, a couple of soldiers pulled into that same parking lot to tell us the absence would be more final than any of us wanted. The events that led to the death of Major Kenneth Paul Tanner are recounted in a book of the battle in which he perished, on the final pages of Ripcord: The Screaming Eagles Under Siege, Vietnam, 1970.
There have been times when my father’s absence is felt acutely and it’s odd what we remember of our childhoods, especially what latches itself to the mind of a child wakened early by the violent, sudden death of a parent.
I’m grateful for the vivid quality of these memories; thankful that, as the caterpillar found underneath a wooden porch in the summer of 1970 emerged the next winter transformed into something beautiful with great freedom that is drawn to light, my father emerged from the cocoon and penalty of death to life eternal with all the saints in that place that requires no light from the sun for the Lord is its Light and in which the houses prepared for us—the sturdy, unshakable houses prepared for our reconstituted-yet-glorified bodies—do not fall apart, where neither moth nor rust corrupts. As C.S. Lewis put it, Heaven is not less real or material than this fallen world, but more real and weightier; a renewed heaven and a renewed earth.
I can't wait to see you, father. I hope I finish my life as well as you finished yours and that, by some inexplicable grace, I come to live a life worthy of the sacrificial love you demonstrated, trusting that what hasn't met that measure is covered, ransomed, and healed by the Sacrificial Love that binds the cosmos and everything in it together.