John Skinner was born a few years shy of the Great Depression. He was eight years old when at the height of America’s economic tragedy, his father fed eggs to strangers who’d taken to the road.
“Fry ’em hard, sir”
“You heard the man,” said his father. Fried eggs take longer to digest and fool the belly into staying satisfied, longer. John had more stories from his youth and would tell them without shame or hubris.
John joined the Navy and flew aircraft over the Pacific in the second World War.
“Keep your feet dry,” was the mantra weaved through every story he told. He’d seen jungles and deserts but spoke about both with the same rhythmic tone of honesty. He told about flights and crashes, heroism and fear. He spoke in a way that was so honest, you couldn’t believe it true.
John came back and became an engineer, designing many of the freeway overpasses, criss-crossing Alabama and somehow inconsequential to the millions of people who pass over them, as if they were natural designs in the country side (always there and self-forming… self-preserving).
He married a small woman, “itty-bitty,” Mary who served as a nurse in the Army and smoked until she died. They never had children.
John lived a life. He lived every single day and never stopped living, even after being sliced up over the decades by so many surgeries he had scars that rounded his body both vertically and laterally, in complete.
The halls he drank in, the fields he fought in… the women he loved, and the rooms he slept in; John was a man with adventures to tell. Perhaps that is why he struggled in the nursing home. Every day was the same as every other day. The routine and monotony seemed to hurt his health more than the cancer.
I met John several years ago and sat with him several times a week. I think the only comfort or outlet he had, was telling me about his life. I must have heard over a hundred tales before he started to repeat himself. And that’s when I feared the worst. John was out of stories. He knew it and I knew it and somehow that meant something…
Then, a month ago John told me about one last story. He told me about the stories nobody knows…
The Stories Nobody Knows
When John was a young man he somehow found himself 100 miles west of Barcelona, in a small town, San Adrian. It was 1949 and he’d missed his bus, run out of money and was wandering a little after sunset when he came across a derelict mission with flaked white plaster and semi-rotted wooden doors. Not speaking Spanish, he was barely able to communicate to the people inside he was lost, hungry, and unsure. They took him in, not knowing quite what to do with him.
Upon entry, he realized he was in a hospice with a few dozen beds, caring for the elderly, disabled, and poor. It was run by six or seven men ranging from teen to twilight (soon to have a bed for themselves). There was also one nurse. She may have been nineteen or twenty and certainly not more than 120 lbs. She was short with dark hair that fell in a ponytail that came over her right shoulder. She was a serious woman who was only concerned with her patients, rarely noticing the other attendants. Nobody spoke English.
Through hand gestures and a tattered calendar, John was told that someone would come for him in a few weeks. He was welcome to stay in the meantime if he could help with basic chores like working in the kitchen or sweeping the floors. This arrangement suited John fine.
As the days passed, John noticed something unusual. The young woman spent all her time with the most ill patient in hospice. She was there from morning until night, but John never really knew what she was doing. He saw her do this with three individuals until the patient died. At some point in the middle of the night, she left with a shovel and came back in the morning with dirt under her nails and eyeliner streaked from tears.
His curiosity was overwhelming, but language prevented him from understanding what was happening. John tugged on the arm of a gentlemen next to him and pointed to her with an expression of confusion.
“She… digs los muertos.” was all the male attendant could muster.
John was perplexed. How (more importantly, why) was the smallest, of all that worked there somehow responsible for moving the body and seemingly burying the corpse by herself? He only became more confused each time he saw the same event twice, and then thrice while he stayed at the mission, in the middle of nowhere.
Then, the day came when a priest returned with food rations and medical supplies. He had been in Madrid and traveled back and forth seeking donations to keep the little sanctuary going. The Father spoke English and agreed to take him to Zaragoza, where John could catch a bus back on his journey.
With great appreciation he gave his thanks to everyone there and was rushed into the tiny automobile, owned by the priest. They rode mostly in silence, listening to the motor and squeaks of the springs and the dips in the road. Finally, as if compelled by pressure from within, John broke his silence and explained to the priest what he had seen of the girl and politely demanded an explanation.
“Does she really bury… the dead?”
“She does,” replied the priest.
“You see, none of the people you saw had friends or family. They are all the people forgotten by the world, except unto each other. But they are still people, with lives and stories, and thoughts. Their experiences create a wisdom worth sharing, which the world would be wise to learn from. They deserve the same place in history as anyone else. So Isabella spends their last days together and records their entire life on paper.”
Isabella was creating time capsules. She asked questions and listened. She wanted to know everything those souls wanted to share. Just before they died, she made sure they knew their lives had meaning. They would not have a fancy funeral or crowds cry over them. Instead, in 100 or maybe 200 years, people would discover a field of stories and life, Isabella had been planting for almost ten years. Future generations would discover that field, pour over every word of every capsule and exclaim to the world, “Look what we have found!” They would be remembered and revered as any sage, philosopher or king.
This brought such joy to the dying, who had given up hope or cried because they thought they were forgotten. Now, they knew they wouldn’t be and their life did matter; it did have purpose. Someday, the world would hear the stories nobody knows and rejoice.
When John finished, I understood what he wanted. I understood what he feared. I understood what I needed to do.
John is dead now and there’s not much left of him. He was cremated last week and I don’t know what they did with his ashes. The facility he was staying at packed his life into boxes and did with them what they do with all the other boxes without owners or family.
But in a hundred years, I hope somebody wanders around the backwoods of Lynette Alabama. I hope they find a small tin lunch box, buried about 4 feet into the ground. Inside they will see about 50 pages, sealed in a plastic sandwich bag.
That’s where I buried John Skinner and that’s where they will find more stories that nobody knows.