Last Saturday was like most spring days in Del Norte. Only a little more so.
After reading some new cases from the week before, I drove up the 101 for the Smith River Band Pancake Feed. Getting out of the car at the Community Hall, I could hear sounds that are born and live timeless throughout small town America in old halls and centers with hardwood floors, where echoes bounce and fly throughout the room joined to memories of wedding receptions, school dances, bake sales, basketball games and the ghosts of good times past.
I walked into the gym, anted up my breakfast money and was escorted to my seat by some of Mr. Swan’s band kids. From being seated to having my order taken to being asked if I wanted seconds or thirds or more coffee or more juice, I swore I’d run into the most polite, engaging and happy group of young folks this side of the Atlantic.
I asked them what they liked about music and was told, “It takes me to a kind of magic place,” “It helps me when I’m sad,” and “It reminds me of Gramma and Poppy.”
I looked out over the room at all the adults and kids raising money for their band and having a heckuva good time doing it and knew something was right in the world and that Kurt Vonnegut had it right when he wrote that all you needed to prove the existence of God was to look to the existence of music. That and some kids in Smith River.
Two hours later, I walked into Cornerstone Church to say farewell to Eric Epperson. I listened as one after another of the standing-room-only crowd spoke of this kindly man and his love for life, family and kids, from the athletic field to the rivers and forest, whose harshest words were to hang tough through life’s challenges and contests.
I listened as his family, friends and students bore testament to the indelible mark he’d left on them and this entire community. I heard one young man talk about how “Epp” taught him to fish and another about how the sun rose and set on his daughter Kelsey and somewhere up in the rafters, I swear I could hear Alan Jackson singing,
“A young girl with two hands on the wheel
I can’t replace the way it made me feel.
And he’d say, turn it left, steer it right,
Straighten up girl now, you’re doin’ just fine
Just a little valley by the river where we’d ride
But I was high on a mountain, when Daddy let me drive"
An hour later, I went to see my Little League team, the Giants. We played the A’s and their 6’3” Randy Johnson lookalike ace was on the mound. The A’s played errorless ball, registering a one-hitter behind masterful pitching. But the Giants prevailed in a display of “small ball,” base-running tenacity and a mentality memorialized by Yogi Berra’s no-quit line about things never being “over ’til it’s over.” Which brought to mind some words Grantland Rice wrote in 1948, how “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” words and a value taught to so many by a soft-spoken PE teacher at Crescent Elk.
By 7 p.m. the sky was darkening, the wind blowing and temperatures dipping toward the 40s, but the bleachers and fence rails were still full of bundled up parents and adults cheering every play. Afterward, I watched the coaches and players honor the game-ending tradition of walking the baseline, congratulating each other on a game well played — real life delivering a message I’d heard hours earlier at Cornerstone Church, that this game, this life, is indeed about how you play the game.
As the players and parents and coaches and fans drifted off to their rides and warm homes, their dinners and their dreams, I sat in the dugout for a while. Then, as I looked out past centerfield, I swore I could see a big guy with a Del Norte jersey with a 22 on it, walking away toward Macken, and for just a minute he turned, waved and smiled, with something that seemed to know his legacy was alive and well and he’d be waiting for us up around the bend.
Jon Alexander is district attorney of Del Norte County.