Getting Happy... when you wish you were dead

There are a lot of things you can do when you're in a town for the first time. Only one of them is thinking.

Some of the time was used exploring the east end of Loredo. My thought was to find a place where I could leave the car and wander off into the plains of Texas. It turns out the plains of Texas are used for cows with big friggin' horns, so they're all fenced on the east end of Loredo. You could ruin a car running into one those brutes.

A little bit of time was invested in walking around downtown Loredo near the Juarez Lincoln International Bridge. Loredo seems like a lovely place to spend a few days if you aren't driving a car you've virtually stolen from the rental company, getting divorced, thinking about suicide, close to broke, and being completely self-absorbed. It was Thanksgiving weekend, and the downtown was alive with shops, bazaars, restaurants, and people enjoying their time.


It was Thanksgiving weekend then, too. Beautiful weather, but chillier and a different city.

I was on a government exchange program for teenagers. You live in three different places around the country with the idea of seeing different cultures and having interesting experiences. The program runs for nine months, and my most interesting experience was never part of the program.

We were staying in a small town called Kemptville. It’s a pretty place on the Rideau River about an hour south of Ottawa, Ontario. Thanksgiving weekend rolled around and I decided I wanted to go to Ottawa for the weekend.

Now, this government program puts twenty teenagers from across the country into one house. Boys and girls together, sharing bedrooms, and freighted with all the joys and miseries of being teenagers. We were a delightful little group of insecure, posturing kids away from home. Our one source of “stability” was the house supervisor.

We all arrived in September. By the time Thanksgiving arrived, I was ready to have some time away.

Roger, the house supervisor, was very much into the touchy-feely mindset of let’s all get to know each other and ourselves. That was completely alien to me, and very uncomfortable. I had no idea how to handle it.

So when Roger announced we could do anything we wanted for Thanksgiving weekend, I immediately asked a couple of the other guys if they wanted to go to Ottawa for the weekend. They decided to stay in Kemptville.

The bus dropped me off in Ottawa on Friday, and I found may way to a hostel. It was a cool place in the old city jail. Instead of rooms, you stayed in a cell with bunk beds. Washrooms were at the end of the cell block, and the kitchen was in the basement.

I picked my cell, left my backpack on a bunk, and went out to wander the city. I remember finding a rooftop plaza at a mall called The Rideau Center. It was chilly enough that the plaza was deserted.

I was 17. I’d grown up watching big, grand movies with lots of dancing and singing. Seeing people like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly dance like it was a college sport. And here was an empty plaza with lots of benches around the outside edges. It was empty, I was alone, and it felt like an empty movie set.

I danced.

Alone and uninhibited. I heard the music in my head. I copied the moves of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Danny Kaye. For a little while, I was free. Everything was possible.

Then I spotted someone watching me from an office window. They were just watching. They might even have enjoyed my private little performance. I don’t know because they were too far away to see facial expression. Not that it would have mattered. It was an adult.

I went from free and uninhibited to judged and embarrassed. I tried to keep going for a little bit, but the music was gone. There was just me being self-conscious.

I wandered off the roof, strolled around the city, and eventually wound up back at the hostel. I remember showering, reading a book for several hours, then going to sleep. There was maybe a little disappointment, but it was a good day.

That evening I met Ernst Peter Ziegwald from Dragonvedge, Germany. He had already crossed the country several times, and was a few days away from returning to Germany. Being an outgoing fellow, he invited me to join him the next day for hiking in Gatineau Park.

We left early Saturday morning and came back Sunday afternoon. It was a great experience and one of the five best memories of my life.

We talked about a lot of things, camped out Saturday night, and had a great breakfast Sunday. But the thing that makes it one of the five best memories of my life is a piece of one conversation from Saturday afternoon.

Ernst Peter was a forest ranger in Germany, and he was talking about the wonderful stretches of forest he had seen. Then he asked whether I enjoyed the scenery.

It seemed like an odd question to me because only Aunt Geri and Grandma Charters ever asked if I enjoyed anything. So I told him what I thought he wanted to hear, “I get a lot of pleasure seeing other people enjoy the forest. I’m just happy to be along.”

Ernst Peter’s reaction was swift and strong. “That’s too bad,” he said. “You should enjoy it for yourself, because you like it instead of letting other people decide what makes you happy.”

That was a big surprise for me. People in my life didn’t generally care about me enjoying anything. Here was a complete stranger who seemed genuinely concerned for me.

It wasn’t some kind of miracle cure, but our conversation planted the seed that it’s okay for me to like something just because I like it. That’s why it’s one of the five best memories of my life.

There have been a lot of times – like being in Loredo, TX – when I’ve held that memory like a lifeline.


Being around all those happy people and families did increase my feeling isolated, and feeling like an outsider. But the positive parts were stronger. To me, there was hope and life in the air. The weather was warm enough for shorts, there was lots of laughter, and people were having a good time. So even though I didn't stay downtown very long, it did help to raise my spirits enough to really start thinking.

Of course, there were also some realities that only became apparent because I was in a border town.

After scouting the edges of town, and wandering the downtown area, almost all my time was used wandering the grounds of Loredo Community College. It's an open, spacious campus at a bend in the Rio Bravo in the southwest corner of Loredo. There is a beautiful mix of historic and modern buildings, and the campus was quiet because it was Thanksgiving weekend.

The only person I was talking to the whole time was me. You could say I was praying, and I tend to think of it that way, but you'd still have thought I was nuts if you saw me walking along having a chat with nobody around. I didn't even have one of those cell phone earbud things. Well, I had one, but I didn't put it in the phone. There wasn't anybody around the campus to see me anyway.

So for most of Thursday, all day Friday and Saturday, and Sunday morning, I wandered around Loredo, Texas, thinking about what I had done, and what I probably should be doing. And I was waiting to go back and talk to the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Loredo.

"Good morning. How are you today?" The tone was bright and cheerful, but there was no real interest. The world would be a much happier place if people stopped asking questions they don't want answered.

"I'm fine, thank you for asking. I know it's Sunday morning, but is your pastor around and available?" My eyes were wandering over the entrance while I was asking.

"May I ask what it is you're looking for?"

"Oh, nothing in particular. I just wanted to chat before your service." Sunday is always the worst day to try talking with a pastor. Everybody else calls it their day of rest, but it's the busiest day of the week for preachers.

"Let me find Bill. He can help you find what you're looking for."

Not knowing who Bill was, I followed the lady down a hallway. We found Bill quickly, and she introduced us. Bill was (and probably still is) a middle-aged fellow, maybe five-seven, in his early fifties with a round middle and thinning hair. Your typical, successful, middle-aged guy.

"Hi, Bill. This gentleman was asking to have a chat with the pastor," she introduced. And with that task completed, she nodded and disappeared down the hallway with her smile in place.

"Hi. I'm Bill. What's your name?"

"Conrad. So you're the pastor, or are you the one who always knows where he is?"

"Well, actually, as luck would have it, we don't have a pastor right now. We're in the process of trying to find one.

"I'm the treasurer, and I'm filling in to run the office while we look for a pastor. That's why Sarah brought you to me. What can I do for you?"

"I was hoping to talk to a pastor. I could use some advice."

"Well, I don't know whether I can help, but I'm willing to listen. Would you like to tell me what's going on?"

You have to give Bill credit. He wasn't in a hurry, although there were probably a few things that needed his attention on a Sunday morning. And he seemed genuinely interested in listening. I wasn't hugely interested in talking to someone other than a pastor, but sometimes you just have to take what's in front of you.

"Okay. My wife just filed for divorce, and I drove down here non-stop from Chicago. I'm looking for answers and I don't know which way to turn."

To Bill's credit, he didn't show anywhere near as much surprise as he must have been feeling. "Well, I'll tell you straight: That's a lot to talk about, and I don't have time right now. I do want to talk to you, but I have to look after things this morning. Would you be willing to sit in on a bible study, and then maybe join the service? I can make time to talk with you after the service if you can stay."

I had already waited three days, right? What was a couple more hours?

I went to the bible study, but didn't say a whole lot. I sat with Bill during the service, and did my best to not yawn. When it was over, our conversation was shorter than I expected.

"What are you going to do now?" The question took me a little by surprise. It almost seemed like Bill had forgotten why I was there, but I could tell he was quite serious.

"I don't know. That's why I wanted to talk to a pastor. I feel like I should try to work it out, but my wife has made it completely clear she isn't interested in talking. I don't know what to do."

"I think that's exactly what you should do," he said clearly. "Go home, try to work it out, and listen to what God has in mind for you."

That really wasn't what I had been hoping to hear. I didn't want to go back, I didn't want to work it out, and I didn't want to feel brushed off. But those were the things I was getting.

Bill and I talked for a while longer. We shared a little more about ourselves, and who we were. For example, he told me he was the chief financial officer for a major food services corporation. Strangely, that got me thinking about my writing and how it's odd the way people end up meeting each other.

Eventually, we said goodbye to each other, and I agreed to take the advice he had given. It was one o'clock in the afternoon when I pulled turned off North Bartlett Avenue onto East Del Mar Boulevard. I was on my way back to Illinois, but I was not happy about it.

The monologue lasted about four hours. It was the same screaming, swearing, steering wheel banging tirade that started the drive south. Just like the drive south, it was accompanied with a lot of telephone calls to Maria. She didn't answer, so I left messages. Fortunately, I didn't yell or swear at her when leaving the messages. Each message asked why we couldn't talk things through, gave her a lot of blame for having been dishonest with me, and admitted I had done things wrong and didn't know how to make them better. Pretty typical stuff for someone not quite ready to admit having done wrong, and definitely not wanting to be the only one to make the admission.

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