The last time we talked, I was getting ready for the funeral of my 98-year-old grandmother. You’d think that this wouldn’t be that big of a deal with her being so old and all, but all that the get-together did was remind all of us that much younger people than my grandmother died and left us all grieving and wanting.
Keith and Kevin Brown came in from Utah, where they work as union millwrights. They used to work around here as union carpenters, but for some reason they’re millwrights now.
Their dad was Charlie Brown, or Carl Brown. My uncle Charlie grew up in the Frogsville section of Hammond where the rest of the clan lived. Charlie was a really good running back when he was younger, but as he got older he got into things like smoking cigarettes and driving around in hot rods. He would have been known as a “hood” back in the day. He could beat anyone’s ass but never made it to high school football.
His sons, the twins Keith and Kevin, did make it to high school athletics here in Indiana. They wrestled and made it to the state tournament a few times. But there real passion was and always will be motocross racing. One of them, I can’t remember if it was Keith or Kevin, just raced in a national race.
“It was in the rain. Us Midwesterners, we know how to race in the mud. You open the throttle all the way and you don’t let up until the race is over, or you kill yourself, whichever comes first.”
Kevin, I believe it is who is still racing, says that in a year or so he’ll be old enough to race at the Masters level. Look for his name in the national rankings when that happens.
There are a couple of sad stories behind my cousins, though, and we were reminded of these even though we didn’t talk about them. Their mom died a long time ago. They were raised for the most part by their dad, at least after their teenage years. They lived in a big house in St. John. My uncle Charlie built it himself in the late 1970s. They were one of the first houses in that one subdivision on 93rdabout halfway between Sheffield and US 41.
There is an interesting story about the big tree that sits between the house and the pond that’s part of their land. In the late 1970s, my uncle Charlie was on a tractor clearing the land. It was nasty, muddy earth.
All of the sudden, my aunt Ceclia comes walking up.
“Seal, get the hell outta the way,” Charlie yelled from the tractor. She didn’t listen. She bent down, kneeled, and stuck this itty bitty branch in the ground.
“Goddamit, Seal, get that branch out of the way,” Charlie yelled.
“No way, Charlie. That’s gonna be a big tree someday.”
And it is. You can drive down 93rd, go north a couple blocks on a side street, hang a left and right between the house and the pond is this huge tree. Aunt Seal put it there.
But there is sadness in bringing both of these people up, Charlie and Seal. They both died of cancer. Dave Kusiak, you know him, the three or four of you? You should. He appears on WJOB almost as much as I do. The Dedelows and the Kusiaks have been friends for generations, if you can imagine that.
One link is that my uncle Charlie used to be the running back for St. Stanislaus school in East Chicago. Kusiak’s dad blocked for him. They won the city and every other championship because all they had to do was hand the ball to Charlie behind Kusiak’s dad and no one could stop them. That’s a bit of history that warms my chilly Region heart just a little.
Dave Kusiak is a talker. He can, literally, talk about anything, even stuff he knows nothing about. He and I did a show for a while called, “Jimmy D. and the Kooz.” It was in the afternoon. The show was decent. But after a while I bought a newspaper and couldn’t do the show anymore.
When Kooz and I go out to announce a basketball game, you know it’s a pretty big game just because the two of us are there. We announced the entire Lake Central sectional a month ago. Go watch it. Dave Kusiak is quite possibly the best color analyst that you ever heard. He knows basketball and he can talk.
Kusiak often comes up with some farfetched theories, though. They’re not exactly conspiracy theories. It’s just that Kusiak can bring in disparate bits of information into a cogent theory of why something happened. Most of the time, you shake your head and tell him:
“Shut the f--- up, Kusiak. You’re crazy.”
But at my grandma’s funeral on Wednesday, Kusiak was on a roll. He came with my brothers and cousins and aunts and uncles and the rest of us to a funeral home in Merrilville to say goodbye to our 98-year-old grandmother. Afterwards, part of the family retreated to Alexis and my house, where we ate John’s Pizza and drank beer. That’s when Kooz started telling us his theory of why so many people from the Frogsville section of Hammond and the Roxanna section of East Chicago keep dying from cancer.
It’s pretty easy to just look around and see that there’s a huge chemical plant in the neighborhood. The East Chicago sanitary district is across the South Shore line and there’s a couple junkyards and some more small factories in the neighborhood. You drive over the huge, rebuilt nine-span bridge, and if you live in a place that doesn’t have a bunch of industrial shit around, you can’t believe that people actually live among this kind of combustion. But they do. It seems normal.
Kusiak went on about his theory of the link between what was going on then and the cancer that is going on now and has been going on for more than 50 years. It makes a decent amount of sense. I didn’t know exactly how much sense it made until my daughter Jeanie, who just left here a few hours ago for her apartment in New York City, said:
“Mr. Kusiak is often a bit farfetched with his conspiracy theories. But I think he be onto something with what he was talking about on Wednesday.”
“The one about why so many of our relatives have died of cancer.”
How does that sting you?
I hugged hundreds of people on Wednesday night. Almost all of us lost someone who grew up in Frogsville or Roxana and died of cancer. Imagine that. The story cuts even deeper. My mom and her brothers, two of whom have already died of cancer, lived for a while in the Calumet section of East Chicago. Does that sound familiar to the three or four of you?
It should. That’s the site that’s in the national news. It’s contaminated to the hilt with lead and other poisons, and it has been that way for generations. Finally, the federal government is in town attempting to clean it up. My mom and her siblings lived there as kids.
So where was the poisoning done? In Frogsville or Calumet? I have no idea. I just know that I hugged a whole lot of relatives who lost someone to cancer way too young.
Kathy and Robin and Ronnie Hedrick – their mom, Aunt Shirley, dead of cancer at age 60 or so.
Seal Rex, my grandmas’s sister – dead of cancer. I remember her walking around with a bandana from the chemo. I don’t necessarily want to remember her that way, but I do. I prefer to remember her and uncle Kenneth laughing and drinking at picnics than remember her with a bandana on, watery eyes.
Evelyn Smith, grandma’s sister, dead of cancer – she left behind John Smith, who still pines for her. And several kids who do the same. Dennis, Debbie, Denise, John, they were all at the funeral.
Charlie Brown – dead of cancer at 60 or so, leaving Keith and Kevin.
Dennis Brown – dead of cancer at 60. His three sons were at the funeral. Sean and Noah live in the Ann Arbor, Michigan, area. Their brother, Jason, was there, too. He lives in Knoxville. The sister, Monica, couldn’t make it. She lives in Los Angeles.
I could go on. The list is long. For me personally, at the top of the list is the death of my mom at age 47 of cancer. She fought it for years so there was really only 42 or 43 healthy years of life. I feel the loss every day, but no day as poignant as Wednesday. Hugging my cousins, my siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews. It was as if with each hug, we transferred the pain of environmental cancer from one breast to the other. A chain not broken by time or distance. Just don’t talk about it. Only Dave Kusiak can do that with any sort of credibility or eloquence.