Al Batt: Life itself can be known as a near-death experience

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

We’ve all had near-death experiences.

Eating your sister’s cooking, trying to break Joey Chestnut’s hotdog eating record, smoking an “It’s a boy” cigar, drinking milk that’s past its expiration date, driving a car whose oil should have been changed, eating suspicious school lunches, or buying a red car after a study found it’s pooped on most often by birds (green cars are the least favorite targets). A buddy and I fell into the creek (Le Sueur River) one day. I’d have drowned if I hadn’t seen him stand up and walk out of the water, but most near-death experiences involve funerals, visitations and internments. Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances.”

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Everyone exits. James Brown sang, “I feel good. I knew that I would.” Despite that, James got out of the canoe, kicked the bucket and bought the farm.

I knew I was going to be unpardonably late getting to the funeral, so I went straight to the rural cemetery and arrived early for the internment. I parked the car where I’d be out of the funeral caravan’s way and made a long walk to where a truck was parked.

The grave had been dug by hand by a couple of brothers. One leaned on a shovel while the other applied finishes to the grave. They might have been named Across and Down not because of their love of crosswords, but because of their digging specialties. They might have been, but probably not.  “I’m early,” I said, stating the obvious as succinctly as possible.

“No problem,” he said as a bead of sweat ran to the tip of his nose. “Jump in.”

He told me a story of a skunk falling into an open grave. He said he’d done his job for 29 years in fits and starts, but he’d never seen anything like that. They needed to get it out without riling the animal. A grave smelling like a skunk wouldn’t have made anyone happy. An old parable told of a donkey falling into a pit. The farmer decided that since he couldn’t free the animal, the donkey was old, and the pit needed to be filled, he’d bury the donkey. He got a shovel and started filling in the pit. After a few hours of furious shoveling, the farmer rested. To his amazement, the donkey walked past him. As each shovelful of dirt had hit its back, the donkey had shaken it off and stepped up on the growing mound of earth. Eventually, the dirt was deep enough for it to walk from the pit. Those fellows used the same technique with the skunk. The skunk waddled off and the brothers dug the grave again at no charge. They couldn’t figure how to include “skunk removal” on their bill.

I was a youngling at Bath, which is a ghost town today, when older kids asked if I wanted to play hide-and-seek. I was thrilled when they told me to hide. A high honor. I wanted to impress them and crossed a country road to hide behind an impressive tombstone in St. Aidan Cemetery. It was the perfect hiding place. None of the kids found me. It turned out they hadn’t even searched for me. I retired undefeated as the Bath Hide-and-Seek Champion. Years later, I was at that same lovely cemetery for the internment of a friend named Joe. Before they could bury him, his brother Tommy exclaimed, “That’s the wrong grave!” It was. The gravediggers had to dig a second grave at no charge.

A family legend recounts my first visit to a visitation, which we called a wake. Everyone walked past the dearly departed’s open casket. Each mourner said something appropriate. My father said, “He looks good.” My mother added, “He looks so natural.” Then they looked at me in a way that directed me to say something suitable. I wanted to say, “Where are the funeral potatoes?” because I liked funeral potatoes, but I thought my comment should involve the deceased. I said, “He looks dead.”

Years later, I attended a visitation of a friend’s father who had lived into his nineties. This time I knew what to say. I said, “I’m glad I knew him.” His son nodded and responded, “He had a good run. You couldn’t rush him. He did what he wanted because he stayed healthy. I expect this is the sickest he’s ever been.”

We start slow and then we taper off.

Al Batt’s columns appear every Wednesday in the Tribune.