Their Spirit Lives On

I stepped outside on a cool, calm Thursday evening.  Days removed from the busyness of the prior weekend, I sat down with a couple of books, and pulled a thin blanket I had grabbed from the basket over my legs.  Suddenly, I saw the phrase Always in Our Hearts.  Thomas Lehman.  1942-2018.

Instantly, I saw a vision of her walking outside on the porch in a plain white cotton dress at 934 Wessel Lane.  Although it was June 3rd, she could already feel the warm air that would push the high to an uncharacteristic 94 degrees that day, sending many kids out of school for the summer to cool off in the nearby watering holes.  Pushing aside her hair, her focus was far away from the schoolhouse and golf course that intersected her gaze.  Elvira Lehman was pregnant with her fourth child, Thomas Darrell, who would be delivered in the home two days before the year would end.  But while a life was growing in her womb, her mind was thousands of miles away.  The United States had just entered World War II six months prior.  As a hub of wartime production, Elvira’s anxieties and that of many Evansville residents was on the news of the warfront, which was that an impending conflict in the Pacific, later to be called Battle of the Midway, was just beginning.  Over 3,000 Japanese airmen and sailors would die along with 317 servicemen from the United States in a battle that would rage for 4 days.  It would be a major victory for the US forces as it overturned the Japanese offensive against the US that began at Pearl Harbor. 

A decade or so later, the Lehman family would move across Helfrich golf course in a small house on Mesker Park Drive, where Tom would spend his days roaming the Westside in search of camaraderie and adventure.  He began dating his future wife, Mary, and they eventually moved in with her mother on Dreier Blvd.  Shortly before Tom and Mary were wedded, Marvin and Elvira relocated to a small home on Maryland St., just a few houses down from Hose House #5.  After Tom entered the Evansville Fire Department (EFD) in 1972, he eventually was transferred to the #5 station, where he spent at least half of his tenure, before retiring in 2005.  Five years earlier, his oldest daughter, Amy, and I married in the summer of 2000 at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where Tom and Mary had, too.  After retirement from the EFD, he became a deacon in the Catholic Church, and among his many ministries, Tom could often be found talking about the “poor souls in purgatory” who needed our intercession as they made their way toward full union with Our Lord.  Thousands of times over the years, he would repeat the Fatima Prayer:  “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.  Amen.”  Tom passed away in April of 2018 at age of 75.  His mother, Elvira, passed away 9 years before in June of 2009, at the age (not temperature) of 94.

Eighty-one years after that blazing June day, I found myself on the banks of the Ohio River.  Months before, about 10 weeks out from the Carmel Marathon, I had a growing sense that if this marathon went well (which it did), that I was being called back to an Ironman as I had done over 12 years before, starting in that same river in Louisville, Kentucky.  And so, on April 11th, the Monday after the marathon, so began the most intense 8 weeks of my life.  As part of this early premonition, it was clear that if “Ironman Evansville” was to occur, it would be on the first Saturday in June, which happened to be the 3rd of the month.  As the weeks got closer to the event, and the crew was assembled, two last pieces of the puzzle fell into place.  One, it would be a charity event, in honor of Kate Bruggenschmidt (and her foundation), who passed away in an accident on July 26, 2015.  Two, thanks to a friend on the EFD, the Evansville Fire Department, in 8 different districts, would provide support for the third leg of the Ironman, the marathon at the end. 

As the days grew closer to the event, one other factor became increasingly salient in this particular pursuit.  It was the weather.  While almost all of my training had occurred in relatively moderate, springtime conditions, a forecast for unusually hot weather loomed on the horizon, in addition to an ozone alert due to smoke in the atmosphere from the wildfires in Canada.  By days end on June 3rd, the temperature would reach 93 degrees an hour or so after the marathon began.  This would turn out to be the biggest challenge of all. 

That morning, the sun shone brightly in the sky as we prepared for a 6 AM start on the river. —  See here a video recapping the day. — With two friends escorting me in kayaks, it was a beautiful trip down the river, and at a little over 6:57 AM, the swim was done, and just after 7 AM, I was off with another friend on the bike.  As the temperatures rose during the ride, on a three out & back bike course, it was clear that the marathon was going to be a “trial by fire.”  At 1:13 PM, I pulled into the parking lot with the 112 bike miles complete, and at 1:38, my crew and I took off on the run, which led us away from the river toward the east side of Evansville.  At mile 2, we met our first EFD team, and at no less than 12 junctures the rest of the day, they were there providing nourishment, hydration, encouragement, and a shower courtesy of the fire hose.  At around mile 10, I suddenly turned east onto Maxwell Avenue, and I heard the sound of the bagpipes piercing the air.  I choked up, and instantly thought of Kate, and Tom, and others that had passed on.

At mile 14.5 (128.9 of the Ironman), I made the difficult, but prudent decision to end my solo pursuit for the Ironman that day, and we decided to make it a collective finish with the crew as we headed back to the river in downtown Evansville on their way to Sacred Heart.  The EFD kept coming and at around mile 19, the running crew crossed over Maryland and headed down Wessel Lane, where they would loop through Golfmoor Park and head west on Maryland St, passing twice by that oh so familiar home.   As they headed west down Maryland St., the firemen at station #5 were waiting for them and my dad, who in biking the entire marathon, would finish his longest ride since he had two hips replaced and a triple bypass surgery.  Just before reaching the man-made shower, they once again passed through the timeless gaze of Elvira Lehman, standing on her stoop at 2516 Maryland St., waiting for her son, Tom, to come down and check on her during his fireman shift.

On the collective Ironman crew went, passing St. Boniface and Sixth Avenue Park for their last shower of the day, and onto the Greenway trail for the final 4.1 mile stretch.  By the time they reached the last ½ mile of the day, our entire crew, even little Kate Schroeder, born one day removed from 4 years after Kate Bruggenschmidt had passed on, walked and ran toward the finish line next to Stringtown Rd.  The day would end with photos, stories, hugs, and even an unexpected visit from an enthusiastic member of the Evansville Police Department. Lessons would emerge from it all.

Eighty-one years removed, there hadn’t been a hotter day in Evansville on June 3rd since Elvira Lehman, with child, walked out on a Wednesday morning into a whole new world, one of much uncertainty and much promise.  A family would be born that year.  Loved ones would pass away.  As Wendell Berry once said, slowly I have learned that my true home is not just this place but is also that company of immortals with whom I have lived here day by day. I live in their love, and I know something of the cost.“ In the midst of our sorrow, their spirit lives on, and we grow stronger and more steadfast in the long run, with God as our cornerstone. Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord, as certain as the dawn is his coming.  He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth. Hosea 6:3. 

One Reply to “Their Spirit Lives On”

  1. Mary

    Thanks for sending this today. I usually read your posts but I had not seen this one.
    It’s fascinating how you connect passing all these locations with Tom’s mother and
    his birth and death. Yes, we are all connected in the Communion of Saints aren’t we?
    And how thankful I am that God blessed me with 54 years with Tom and for our beautiful children and grandchildren and their spouses.
    I’ve been wanting to tell you how I appreciate you and all you do and thank
    you for being a good father to eight of those beautiful grandchildren.
    Love you, Mary


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