I the wake of Easter, we are reminded that the reason for this holiday is to celebrate Life. For Christians, this has been a celebration of Life Everlasting and the Salvation that Jesus made possible for Mankind. Pre-Christian traditions also took time at this high point of Spring to celebrate the rebirth of nature after the bleakness of Winter. Familiar Easter symbols such as rabbits, (life abundant) eggs, (life emerging from lifelessness) and bright flowers (life reborn) have their origins in these Pre-Christian celebrations, though the symbolism applies fittingly to the Christian celebration.
Yet, as the Book of Common Prayer reminds us, in the midst of life we are in death. Last Friday, Good Friday, commemorated the crucifixion of Jesus and his earthly death. For many years, each Good Friday is also a time of personal remembrance for me, because it was on Good Friday, 12 April 1974, that my brother Chris was killed in an airplane crash. Though it has now been thirty-eight years, this loss is still with me. It is not a fresh pain, of course, it simply is a loss that I have grown accustomed to, but which nevertheless remains a loss.
Chris was a wonderful brother. The passage of time, as is natural, has caused me to forget any flaws and to remember only the good things.
When Chris was in his early teens, at a time when my father was considering an employment opportunity in Saint Louis, Chris decided to design an old-fashioned flatboat to take on a drift down the mighty Mississippi. He drew elaborate plans, did research on materials and costs, and spent time at the library to learn about similar designs. Ultimately, he built a 1/20th scale model of his plans in balsa wood. This plan was never realized (my father declined the job offer) but we had that wonderful model for many years.
Chris was deeply involved in Scouting and attained the rank of an Eagle Scout. For many years he spent his Summers as a camp counselor at the Boy Scouts’ Camp Emerald Bay on Santa Catalina Island off of the Southern California Coast. He introduced my twin brother Rob and me into Scouting. We three did a great deal of hiking together with our troop, and we “conquered” many of California’s tall peaks. I have an especially fond memory from the Fall of 1972. Our scout troop was hiking in the Grand Canyon. At that time, Chris was attending school at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. As night descended on our first day in the Canyon, I was startled to hear a familar voice call out: “Rob and Jamie Rawson had better answer their older brother!”
Chris had hiked all the way to Phantom Ranch where we were encamped to join us for the long weekend! He led us on several day-hikes where he served as a well-informed tour guide sharing with us younger Scouts things he had learned about the geology of the canyon in a class at college. Chris supervised some pretty fancy meals as well, for he had packed in some steaks and potatoes and other non-standard camp fare. The Scout leaders were especially glad to see him, for he had ensured his welcome by bringing in a case of beer! (Just for the adults!)
Chris had many interests and enthusiasms. He loved drama (he played the comic-relief role of the porter in a production of MacBeth) and he loved stagecraft (he once designed the set for a college production of Jesus Christ Superstar.) He was fascinated by film and the movie business and he made several 8mm films, including his magnum opus, Kincaid’s Gold, a thinly veiled rip-off of a Hollywood film of similar name.
In the last year of his life his great passion was flying. Chris joined the Air Force ROTC. He took training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas in the summer of 1973. The training was intense, but he took the time to mail a small Texan cactus to me and Rob for our cactus garden. During the next year he took opportunities to fly whenever he could.
Good Friday, 12 April 1974 was a stunningly beautiful day in Southern California. The air was clear, the temperature mild. It was a day so perfectly lovely that I well might have remembered it ever after just for that. I even recall thinking that afternoon what a fortunate day it was.
Rob and I had arisen at 4:00 am to accompany my mother to the Los Angeles Flower Market to pick up the stock for the Easter weekend at our flower shop. After we had finished cleaning and preparing the immense load of flowers back at the shop, Rob and I went to a local lunch counter. We ordered chicken salad sandwiches for lunch, only remembering too late that we should not have ordered meat. Fortunately, when the waitress brought the sandwiches, the cook had gotten the order wrong: the sandwiches were tuna! (Which was just fine for Good Friday.) It certainly seemed a fortunate day.
We were watching the broadcast of Ben Hur that evening when the telephone rang, delivering the stunning, tragic news.
At that time, and in the decades since, I tried to understand the “why” of this loss. There was no reason, no purpose, no greater cause served by Chris’ death. It simply happened. In the midst of life we are in death. On the threshold of the Easter celebration of Life and Rebirth a life was lost. I long ago concluded that the “why” of this loss will remain unknown to me in this life. There is no compensation possible, there is no “getting over it,” there is only getting used to it. And it would serve no purpose to be angry or resentful for the loss. It is not unjust; it is not just. It just is.
But I write this not to bring down peoples’ spirits after a wonderful holiday, rather I write this to remember a fine person who has been gone far longer than he lived. I recall him very often, and he well deserves to be remembered.
So as we celebrate Life and Rebirth, as we rejoice in Spring and think of delightful things, we also remember too those who are not here with us. Easter embraces both reflections.
Thank you! “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Here I am at the age of 69 and came upon this tonight. Chris was a good friend of mine when I attended Northern Az. Univ. Myself, Chris, and Lou Haszu use to have some great times, and I still vividly remember hearing about his death on a radio station in the San Francisco Bay area. We spent part of our spring break in 1973 with your family, and then flew up to Oakland to spend time with my family. When we all came to your house on Wednesday, April 24, (two days before Chris’s funeral), your father tried to keep his composure, but broke down when he saw us. This was the first time that I had lost a friend, and I still remember Chris, or as we called him, “Cookie Man to this day. Happy to say that Lou and I have stayed friends this entire time. He and his wife are both attorneys in New Jersey. In 1977, while on a trip to Los Angeles, Lou and I stopped to see your parents. They were great people.
Happy to see that I have been married for 41 years, three kids, and five grandsons. I have shared with my wife numerous stories about Chirs. At school they called me “Woody.”
Will send this to Lou tomorrow.
“Woody!” That name rings a bell, albeit a distant one 🙂 How perfectly lovely to hear from you!
Thank you most kindly for writing to me. It is quite wonderful to connect, even at the remoteness of the Internet; I am so pleased that you came across this.
How very nice to know that you remain in touch with Lou, and that you enjoy a long and happy marriage.
Thank you, again.
Woody, you may have already seen this, but I also posted an illustrated version on the occasion of 40 years: