“I feel that books, just like people, have a destiny. Some invite sorrow, others joy, some both. ”
Eddie Rose was a pilot who loved words, stories and books. As a writer, that was enough on its own to endear him to me. I would sit in the co-pilot seat beside him as he flew his bush plane over the mountains of Kodiak, and we’d talk books. Theology books, history, a book of the Bible, whatever Eddie was reading at the moment. Books and ideas were enough to enthrall both of us, but as we flew, there was music too over our headsets: bagpipes and Scottish drums, classical guitar, playlists he had created just for his passengers. Somewhere in the conversation, with music in our ears, while floating over glaciers, with whales spouting below and mountain goats prim on rock cliffs out our windows, Eddie would launch into a poem in his lilting Scottish tongue. After the poem, he’d glance below and tell the history of the cannery we were passing before dipping down to see bears fishing for salmon in the headwaters of the bay. Eddie was radiant .
Last week, on Saturday, he flew his passengers safely to the village of Old Harbor. He visited and joked with all who gathered to meet the plane, he unloaded the plane, and not long after, before climbing into the cockpit to return home for dinner, his heart stopped. When he was found by his plane, it was too late.
I flew in from our fish camp island to his service in Kodiak this last week. At the service, with standing room only, the speaker, Victor, asked, “How many of you have heard Eddie recite a poem?” Almost every one of the 400 there raised a hand. In honor of his love for stories, his son, himself a father, read “How the Camel Got his Hump.”
“Can anyone be that joyful?” his dear friend asked us. “Did you ever wonder that? Do you know where his joy came from?” Victor asked us all, sitting with heavy heads and joyless hearts. Most of us nodded our heads slowly.
He continued. “Yes, we know, because Eddie wasn’t shy about his love for Jesus. But that joy didn’t come easy. Eddie fought the demons . . . ” Victor stopped, looking around at all of us and suddenly unable to speak. He took a deep breath, blinked hard, looked out at us again and finished: “Eddie fought the demons, sometimes every day-----and he won. “
After, outside, in rare sunshine, a bagpiper played in full regalia while four planes flew over in a missing man flyby. We held our tears until we could hold them no longer.
A pilot’s job is to fly us safely from one place to another. A big enough job when flying the tumultuous skies over the wilderness of Kodiak Island. But simply getting us there safely wasn't enough. Eddie wanted more for his passengers. He wanted joy. The book of Eddie’s life invited joy.
One week after Eddie passed, Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner died. As a teenager, I read Night, his painful and horrific account of his time in Buchenwald. He recounts the night his father was beaten to death in the bunk below him while Elie, 16, lies unmoving, to save himself from the same fate. The book chronicles the death of everything:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.
But his book-of-dying lives on, translated into 30 languages, now a cornerstone in holocaust literature. Wiesel went on to write 56 more books, becoming a voice that resisted oppression and genocide wherever it was found. A voice that forced us all to remember and to resist the evil man is endlessly capable of. I wonder if he ever tired of being a prophet of memory, horror and sorrow . . .
Both men lived and wrote what was given to them, but they had to fight for it. Eddie fought hard against the demons for joy. Elie fought hard against the demons to remember. Both men knew the real enemy of life is apathy and ingratitude.
At the end of my life, I wonder how my books will read. I wonder what my life invites. I know mine contain pages of apathy and ingratitude, but I’m not giving up. I’m playing music and reading poetry and flying over Kodiak with held breath and eyes brimming. I’m reading Psalms and I’m reading Wiesel. I’m trying to smile and I’m trying to write the truth.
I’m trying to do what these two men did so extraordinarily well: to give full witness to the joys of life and to the sorrows of life, in whatever measure they came. They didn’t give up, either one of them, prodding us all to wider eyes, to deeper hearts, to kinder hands, to swifter feet.
Because of them, we felt more, we saw more, we lived more.
Because of Eddie and Elie, our own books will tell a richer story.
We will never forget.