Go To Project Gutenberg

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Rest in Peace

I have been in avoidance for the past two days.

Tuesday morning, while the kids rushed around preparing to return to school after the two-week Christmas break, I checked email. One was from my brother. There was an Internet link to an article in the Seattle newspaper. The article was about the first American casualty in Iraq since the beginning of 2006. The soldier who was killed was a 37-year-old man named Chris Van Der Horn. The photo accompanying the article was of the soldier holding his new baby.

It took a moment, but then it hit me. Chris Van Der Horn. I know him. Boy, did I know him.

We were in high school together
We were in youth group together
We went on a two-week “mission trip” to Weed, California in high school
Two of my close high school friends lost their virginity to him
He was the only guy I ever skinny-dipped with
He was one of many present at my 16th birthday bash (my parents were in Canada at the time – say no more)

My most initial, visceral response to this news (other than not wanting it to be true), was that it was typical of Chris to make headlines, even in death. If Chris were in fact "fated" to lose his life in Iraq (not a point I have the remotest interest in arguing, or even forming an opinion of), then it is typical that he would do so with style. By being the first casualty of 2006 he is receiving greater attention (deservedly so). I mean no disrespect by this. Everything Chris did was with style and larger than life. (Though I can't remember the specifics - it's been a long time - I'm fairly sure this isn't the first time he's made news.)

I have spent the last couple of days, in bits and pieces, allowing memories from 20-years-ago to come back. It has been a little bit painful, both to think of him being lost, but also the renewed potential that someone who is killed in Iraq may be someone I know.

Several weeks ago, I got an email from my brother, Doug, and his wife, Kathleen. There was photo attached to the email. It was from my 16th-birthday party. It had me in bed with two boys (fully clothed, OF COURSE). It is a compromising picture, but also a fully staged one. I was hideously embarrassed, but showed it to Bruce anyway. “Okay…..” was his response. I can honestly say this was photographic evidence of an event from my life I would sooner not remember.

Except, one of those two guys is Chris Van Der Horn. Looking back, it’s a little odd that this particular photograph would turn up just a few weeks before Chris’ death. It hasn’t been seen for twenty years. (My mom thinks it’s even weirder that I would have kept it in the first place.)

He was one of those people who radiated confidence and vulnerability, charisma and compassion. You couldn't meet him and not be somehow affected by him. It turns out, even Bruce and his two sisters knew of Chris during their high school years.

My secondary response to the news about Chris was wondering whether he was still walking with God at the time of his death. Silently I said a prayer, asking God if Chris is with Him now.

In high school and college, it seems many of the people who went to youth group did so for social rather than spiritual reasons. Though the Chris I knew could be as carnal as any other high school boy (we had an off-color nickname for him – was it “VanDerPorn”?), he always struck me as someone whose faith was genuine.

I was always a little intimidated by Chris. He always looked ten years older than the rest of us. I remember always being a little incredulous that he was actually the same age as us. He was one of those guys for whom it is impossible to be “clean shaven.” He had jet black hair, and even by the time he arrived at school each morning, he already wore a shadow on his jaw. His typical attire consisted of a white tank undershirt and a pair of fatigues. His body was not the lanky, sunken-chested physique of the rest of our peers. He had the body of a man – muscles and hair in abundance. At age seventeen he looked twenty-five.

As a teen, Chris was both a paradox and a nonconformist; a person passionate about people and ideas. He was a complicated person, even in high school. You couldn't put him in a box. He was virtuous and, at the same time, for lack of a better word, sensual, living a vibrant life both inwardly and outwardly. It comes as no surprise to me that so many people loved him, and that he loved them right back.

At that tender age, I did not know how to reconcile his factious personality. I thought then you were either “good” or “bad”. He seemed very much a “bad” boy in a Harley Davidson, Marlon Brando sort of way.

This morning, Thursday, I got another email from my brother. It was a commentary by Robert L. Jamieson, Jr., a columnist for the Seattle Post Intelligencer. The following is an excerpt:

“The Van Der Horn family plans to hold a local memorial service this month at their home church -- First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue. This house of worship was where Chris forged his faith during his teen years. He worked with a youth pastor, reaching out to junior high kids.
In the 1990s, Chris -- a young soldier at the time -- had his religious foundation shaken. Military duty sent him to Bosnia, the site of mass rapes and genocide. Later, he was in Sierra Leone, where marauding thugs used machetes to chop off arms and legs of innocents.
After seeing brutality of man against man, Chris came home wondering where God was.
His faith, family members say, rebounded with help from his wife, Teresa, a devout Christian.”

I confess I am heartened to hear that after all the things he saw in the military that he maintained his faith in God. I am comforted that his family has their mutual faith to sustain them through this tragedy.

I don't remember anyone who didn't like and respect Chris; he who, at an age where the rest of us just wanted to eat pizza and watch MTV, was unique and true to himself. He both fit in and didn't fit in, everywhere.

Even though it has been almost 20 years since I last saw or talked to Chris, my heart aches for the loss of him. Living in Alaska, where a large proportion of our small population are military folks, it is common to know, or know of, many people who have been stationed in Iraq, and even killed. I worry every day about opening the paper and reading the name of a dear friend. I did not expect the bad news to come from so far a distance, and so far in the past.


At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I read this post last night and am still thinking about it. Curious isn't it how threads of our lives somehow get woven in a way that brings us all to confront the ultimate reality. May Chris' memory be eternal.

Steve F


Post a Comment

<< Home

LibraryThing Early Reviewers

web site traffic counters
Dyson Vacuum Cleaners