Freedom Writing

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Is It Over in Austin?

The recent series of bombings in Austin — and one in San Antonio — appears to have ended overnight. The suspect blew himself up in the wee hours of the morning, and authorities have expressed confidence that he was, indeed, the serial bomber.

That, of course, is hard to confirm this morning. What can be confirmed — but has not yet been made public, pending notification of the 24–year–old suspect's kin — is the identity of the individual.

It has been reminiscent of the 2001 serial anthrax attacks, which were made through the mail and remain unsolved.

I have also been reminded of the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002 that terrorized the Beltway for three weeks.

Investigators may also know other things that point definitively to his guilt, but the only way for anyone outside of law enforcement to be sure that this reign of terror is over will be if there are no other explosions.

Investigators can't be certain at this point that there are no other bomb–laden packages out there so they are still urging caution. Consequently, I expect folks in Austin — and, given the explosion that occurred in San Antonio a couple of days ago, the rest of Texas — to be on edge for awhile.

It is strong circumstantial evidence that the suspect blew himself up rather than be taken into custody — but, while such evidence carries substantial weight in the court of public opinion, it is far less conclusive in courts of law.

Perhaps authorities have forensic evidence that links the suspect to the bombings. If so, we may learn about this evidence in the days and weeks ahead.

But questions will remain until such evidence is made public.

And some questions may never be answered. For example, the greatest question on the minds of most Texans, I suppose, is "Why did he do this?"

Investigators undoubtedly will speculate about his motivation, but only the suspect himself could provide the answer. Did the suspect have a grudge against someone? Did he want to see how far he could go before authorities caught him?

Sometimes, of course, there is no answer — and that is something with which the people of Austin and the rest of Texas may have to live.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What Does the Future Hold for Democrats?

We don't yet know the outcome in Tuesday's special election in Pennsylvania.

Well, OK, we do know — probably — that Democrat Conor Lamb beat Republican Rick Saccone for an open House seat — but it is so close that, even after the mail–in ballots are counted, there will probably be a recount. Recounts usually confirm the initial results — but not always so there is still no winner.

But the question will remain — what does this victory mean for Democrats in a political environment that appears to favor them?

Lamb did not run as a far–left Democrat. Indeed he took more centrist positions on issues like guns, and he disavowed Nancy Pelosi, which was the prudent approach in Western Pennsylvania. Other positions would have meant almost certain defeat.

But centrists are a vanishing breed in American politics.

From the days of Jimmy Carter to the days of Bill Clinton, the area was fairly reliable territory for Democrats, and that was frequently seen in its House representation as well, although two future Republican senators represented the district in the '70s and '90s, but it has been trending Republican since the turn of the millennium.

Much was made of the fact that Donald Trump won the district by 20 percentage points in 2016 even though Trump's share of the vote in that district was the same as Mitt Romney's four years earlier. Barack Obama fared slightly better in 2012 than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 only because Libertarian Gary Johnson siphoned off 3% of the vote in 2016. John McCain received 55% of the district's vote in 2008, and George W. Bush carried 54% of the district's ballots in 2004.

An extreme–left stance probably would have resulted in Lamb's defeat, which leads us to the question of what the immediate future holds for Democrats. The assumption is that this will be the Democrats' year, and extreme positions will work in some places like San Francisco and New York, but they won't work in places like Pittsburgh.

Midterm election years are quite different from presidential election years. It is easier to nationalize campaigns when there is a presidential race on the ballot. In midterms everything is more localized. Yes, to a degree, midterms are referendums on the president, but they are more about issues that concern the voters in specific states and districts.

Obviously, what works in one place won't necessarily work in another, but the midterms will be crucial for Democrats to establish their identity for the 2020 election, when the presidency will be on the ballot. Now is when the Democrats need to decide if they are going to take a more moderate approach or veer farther to the left.

If they want to take a more inclusive approach in the hope of luring disaffected Democrats who abandoned the party in recent years, they may risk a rebellion from the radical fringe.

It will be interesting to see which direction they choose.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The First Time the World Trade Center Was Attacked

History tells us — correctly — that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

But that was not the first time terrorists targeted the iconic towers.

Terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Center 25 years ago today with a car bomb in the basement of the North Tower (which would be the first of the towers to be struck by a hijacked airplane in 2001). The plan was for the North Tower to collapse into the South Tower, killing tens of thousands of people in the process.

That plan did not succeed. It caused some damage, killed half a dozen people and injured hundreds more (most of the injuries occurred during the process of evacuating the tower), but the Twin Towers remained standing for more than eight years.

Outraged initially, Americans became distracted by other things, and they went on with their lives. The terrorists learned from the experience and returned with a far deadlier plan in 2001.

The names of the conspirators on that first occasion — Ramzi Yousef, Mahmud Abouhalima, Mohammad Salameh, Nidal Ayyad, Abdul Rahman Yasin and Ahmed Ajaj and the financier Khaled Sheikh Mohammed — became infamous in American history. Most were convicted in U.S. courts.

Osama bin Laden, who was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, was not found to have any connection to the 1993 bombing.

The body count 25 years ago today was significantly lower than the one on Sept. 11, of course, and that seems to make forgetting about what happened in 1993 justifiable — but it is instructive in evaluating the mentality of the terrorists.

The 1993 attack didn't produce as many casualties and the damage wasn't as extensive, but these people weren't like jilted boyfriends who impulsively acted on urges to get even with their exes. The terrorists were — and, presumably, still are — very patient and willing to devote as much time as necessary to learn from their mistakes. They waited more than eight years before trying again, but their attack in 2001 was far more productive from their point of view.

That will be worth remembering if the terrorists attempt something else in the future. If they fail, don't think that it is over. They will almost certainly be back.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The First Impeachment

It was 150 years ago today that an American president was impeached for the first time.

It has been fashionable in recent years for those who lose presidential elections to start calling for the impeachment of the winner — even before the winner has taken office — but impeachment had never been attempted before this day in 1868. Only two American presidents have faced the genuine prospect of impeachment since that time, and only one (Bill Clinton) faced a trial in the U.S. Senate. The House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against Nixon in the summer of 1974, but Nixon resigned before the full House could vote on them.

Four years earlier, Johnson (a Democrat) had been selected as the running mate for Republican President Abraham Lincoln in his bid for a second term. Not only was it unprecedented for a major–party nominee to pick someone from the other party to be his running mate (they actually ran under the National Union banner), but Lincoln's choice was the military governor of Tennessee, a state that had seceded and was still not a part of the Union (it was occupied by the Union army). Tennessee did not participate in the election of 1864.

Johnson was an inspired choice for a president whose mission was to preserve the nation. While a supporter of slavery, Johnson was an unapologetic Unionist who had been the only Southern senator to oppose his state's decision to secede.

I don't think vice presidents deliver inaugural addresses anymore, but they did in Andrew Johnson's day. At least, Johnson tried to deliver such a speech, but he wasn't feeling well so he drank some whiskey, believing that would help. Instead, he got gassed and gave a rambling speech. Thus, the inauguration of 1865, which is remembered in history for Lincoln's magnanimous call for "malice toward none" and "charity for all" in the North's treatment of the vanquished South following the Civil War, was an awkward introduction for Johnson to his fellow Americans.

That was particularly unfortunate since Johnson became the nation's leader a month and a half later.

Six weeks after the inauguration in 1865, Lincoln was assassinated, and Johnson became the 17th president. Things didn't go well for him, and by this day in 1868, 11 articles of impeachment, largely related to Johnson's efforts to dismiss the secretary of war, were adopted by the House. The case was sent to the Senate for trial — where Johnson was ultimately acquitted by a single vote.

Johnson failed to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1868 and left office in 1869.

He returned to the U.S. Senate in 1875 and died shortly therafter.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Billy Graham Passes Away at 99

"When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost."

Billy Graham (1918–2018)

It has been more than a decade since Billy Graham's last crusade; consequently, there are many people living today who have no memory of the evangelist in his prime — when he routinely drew huge crowds to massive stadiums and counseled presidents at critical times in our nation's history.

There are people in our lives that we can't imagine living without. They tend to be people with whom we share some sort of personal connection — friends, parents, siblings, etc. My mother's mother was such a person for me. When I was little, I believed everything she said. With the benefit of hindsight, I realize now that there were some things she told me that weren't true, but I understand why she told me most of those things, and she is undiminished in my eyes. She will always be wise and a model to follow, however I may stumble.

One thing she told me — many times and in many ways — was what a wonderful person Billy Graham was, how inspiring he was, how fulfilling it was to be in his presence. She went to a couple of his crusades, and I can recall her vivid description of the experience of a Billy Graham crusade at Texas Stadium.

My personal religious beliefs have been less certain than hers over the years. Let's be clear: I have never regarded myself as an atheist. For awhile, I looked upon myself as an agnostic, but now I tend to empathize with Timmy in "The Subject Was Roses" when he said, "I believe there is something bigger than myself. What you call it or what it is, I don't know."

There may have been a time in my grandmother's life when she had her doubts — most people do — but by the time I came along she was certain of things. She knew what was bigger than herself. I'm not there yet.

Billy Graham gave her that assurance — as he did millions around the world.

There was a time when I thought my grandmother liked Billy Graham because he was a friend of Richard Nixon. My grandmother was an admirer of Nixon, but I realized that her fondness for Graham was entirely separate from her admiration for Nixon. The fact that they were friends was, for my grandmother, a happy coincidence.

Those who were close to Nixon always seemed to suffer for it. I suppose Graham suffered for it, too, because, after Nixon left office, he tried to avoid the appearance of partisanship. He was mostly successful, too, but he continued to pay a price.

I have written before of people I thought would always be there. That was a foolish state of mind, and I guess I always knew that. Everyone dies. We all know that.

Still, I just always thought that Billy Graham would go on forever. His body did not. He passed away early today after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer, pneumonia and symptoms of Parkinson's. I knew he had been sick, but I figured he was one of those people who would live to be 100. That would have been a suitably biblical age for him. It was not to be, though.

But he built a legacy that will live on — in his writings, recordings and videos — so that those who never knew what it was like at a Billy Graham crusade, even those who can remember when they were still being done but never had the first–hand experience.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Dilemma of Guns

The topic of conversation for the last few days has been the school shooting in Florida this week.

I understand that the process of burying the victims begins today. It's a necessary ritual, but it is sure to fan the flames awhile longer.

It is important for everyone to understand that, in the aftermath of such an event, we all want to feel safer, but individual definitions of safer tend to vary widely. Emotions dominate the discussion. That is precisely the time when cooler heads need to prevail.

I'm going to say something now that is sure to be ridiculed and misunderstood, but I'm going to say it, anyway.

We need to have a rational and logical discussion about this.

Both extremes on the political spectrum go into kneejerk mode when something like this happens, and that gets in the way of having a meaningful conversation. The extremes actually represent a fairly small portion of the population, but their arguments are so shrill and their insistence upon being heard is so dedicated that they drown out everything else. Talk about sucking the oxygen out of the room.

I don't really have to describe their by–now quite predictable arguments, do I?

Deep down, I often suspect that both sides secretly love it when children account for most of the victims of a tragedy like this because it magnifies both causes. Both would deny that, but it is surely true. Dead children give the extreme left a chance to trot out its favorite position — America must outlaw military–grade weapons in civilian hands (psst: That's already been done).

And they give the right a chance to argue that everyone should be armed because a good guy with a gun will stop a bad guy with a gun. Like many things, that looks good on paper but not so much in practice.

Both extremes are uncompromising, and that is simply undemocratic, but it is the inevitable outcome of our tribalistic, polarized culture. It is a clear indication of just how polarized we are that each side blames the other for this. The right blames Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. The left blames Ronald Reagan or the Bushes. The truth is that no one is blameless. This problem predates all of those presidencies. The buck has been passed for many decades.

This nation has faced many problems in the past, and it was through compromise that we found solutions. But sometime — and I am not sure when — it was apparently decided that compromise equals weakness. That is undemocratic.

No one is willing to compromise anymore. No one is willing to listen to the other side — or even to acknowledge that the other side might have a legitimate point or two to make.

We need to pull back from the extremes now and have this conversation from a more centrally located perspective. If we can do that, we will have taken the first crucial step to finding an answer instead of making the situation worse.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Turning of the Tide

In hindsight it is neat and orderly to say that the Tet offensive, which began in late January 1968, was the turning point in Vietnam.

And, strategically, perhaps it was.

But public opinion had been turning against the war for quite awhile. The escalation of the conflict in the mid–1960s had spawned Eugene McCarthy's insurgent presidential campaign that would force President Lyndon Johnson to abandon any plans he had to seek another term, and it would lead to Bobby Kennedy's campaign as well. There were protests — and chaos — in American cities. It was a turbulent and terrifying time in American history.

Through it all, I suppose, a majority of Americans continued to believe that victory was still possible in Vietnam — until the Tet offensive revealed the weaknesses of America's war effort. While the Tet offensive failed to meet its military objectives, historian Theodore H. White called it "the shadow on the walls."

Again, in hindsight, it was. But no one really recognized the shadow for what it was — at least at first.

Two days into the offensive — 50 years ago today — one of the most famous photographs of the Vietnam era was taken. It would lead to a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer, Eddie Adams of the Associated Press, who snapped a picture of the execution in Saigon of Nguyễn Văn Lém, a Viet Cong operative who had been involved in the slayings of a South Vietnamese officer's wife and children.

It was a powerful picture, powerful enough to mobilize opposition to the war even — or, perhaps, especially — if the person looking at the picture did not know the details behind it. To the uninformed, it could well appear as if Vietnam was like the lawless old west with people being randomly murdered in the streets. The picture did not say why the man was being executed.

The executioner was Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, chief of South Vietnam's national police. He shot Nguyễn Văn Lém in front of Adams and a TV cameraman for NBC News. According to Adams, the shooter walked up to him and said, "They killed many of my people and yours, too," and walked off.

Film footage of the shooting was subsequently broadcast worldwide, invigorating the antiwar movement and providing the first of many shocking, unexpected and critical moments in what would be a thoroughly unpredictable year, filled with riots in the streets and assassinations.

But it could really be said to have begun on this day with the shooting of one man in the streets of Saigon.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Lessons From the Past

Our political system is an amazing thing.

It really is. Oh, I know we all complain about things that government does or doesn't do, and we get mad at our elected officials from time to time — but nearly without exception our system has permitted us to make peaceful periodic changes in our elected leadership. We take that for granted, but we wouldn't if we lived in many other places in the world.

But our system also has its idiosyncracies.

The pendulum is always swinging, and the out–of–power party always has plenty of reasons to be energized by midterm elections, starting with the clear historical trend that favors the folks who are outside looking in. This time it is the Democrats' turn as the out–of–power party, and everything seems to point to a big year for them. The president's approval numbers remain low, and Democrats continue to hold a lead in the generic congressional ballot.

Along with that, nearly three dozen Republicans in the House have announced their intention to retire, and more seem likely. The terrain certainly looks favorable for Democrats in 2018.

But history has some cautionary tales.

Let's start with the most recent history that Democrats ignore at their peril.

In 2016 polls showed Hillary Clinton with the lead over Donald Trump — and, indeed, Clinton did win the popular vote by a considerable margin.

But the United States has never elected its presidents by popular vote. It has always elected its presidents by electoral vote, and Clinton's popular votes were too heavily concentrated in the coastal states to influence the Electoral College. (In fact, if you took California's vote entirely out of the mix, Trump would have won the popular vote as well as the electoral vote; Clinton's margin in California was about 3.1 million whereas her margin nationally was 2.86 million.)

The same thing appears to be likely in this year's congressional races. Democrats are concentrated in urban districts, and the Democrats' nominees in those districts are likely to pile up impressive margins. Nancy Pelosi, for example, routinely rolls up incredible margins in her Bay Area district. It's even likely in some places here in Texas, where Clinton carried the metropolitan counties of Dallas, Travis, Bexar and Harris by wide margins.

But all you need to win an election is a single vote. You'd like to do better than that, of course, but some Democrats are likely to roll up huge margins in some districts — when many of those votes would be more beneficial elsewhere.

In Texas, outside of the metro counties and the ones that border Mexico, Republicans still dominated in 2016 — and likely will continue to do so. Some Democrats are salivating at the thought of the open seats that have been held by Republicans, like the South Texas district that has been represented by Republican Lamar Smith for more than 30 years. Smith is retiring, and there have been rumblings of how Democrats think they have an opportunity there, but one of the Democrats seeking the seat once served on Pelosi's staff. That might help win the Democratic primary, but it isn't likely to be a general–election winner in a district that voted for Trump by 10 percentage points.

That brings me to another point. The Democrats, like the Republicans in the first midterm of the Obama years, are engaged in a battle from within. The battle is between the establishment and the extremists. At stake is the direction of the party.

As the battle plays out, the establishment will prevail in some places, and the loose cannons, who are typically the most energized in the midterms, will prevail in others.

Democrats are certain to try to nationalize the campaign, but midterms are not national campaigns. They are held in every state and every House district, but the issues and candidates vary. It is tempting to vote for the loose cannons because they typically oppose everything the in–power party does, but Democrats need to remember how some of those loose cannons worked out for Republicans in the past.

In 2012, Missouri Republican Todd Akin made his widely reported remarks about "legitimate rape" that helped politically endangered Sen. Claire McCaskill win a second term by 16 percentage points. McCaskill is back, still politically vulnerable and running for a third term in a state that voted for Trump by nearly 19 percentage points.

Similarly, Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock's remark that "even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Mourdock won the nomination by defeating six–term incumbent Richard Lugar in the primary.

Indiana has only voted for a Democratic presidential nominee once since 1964, but it voted for the Democrat in that Senate race, Joe Donnelly. He, too, is up for re–election — in a state that supported Trump by slightly more than 19 percentage points.

McCaskill and Donnelly were originally expected to lose in 2012, and their victories are big reasons why, when Democrats need to win only two seats from Republicans to have a majority in the Senate, they must defend more than two dozen Senate seats in November.

Democrats have a rare opportunity in 2018, but it is not a slam dunk.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Taking Back the House

Democrats face a similar situation to the one Republicans faced eight years ago. In 2010 Democrats held the White House and both chambers of Congress. Today Republicans do.

Granted, the Democrats had larger majorities in both the House and Senate — and they had a more popular president, too — in 2010. Yet they still managed to lose their advantage in the House when Republicans gained a net of 64 seats that year. They lost ground in the Senate and eventually lost that majority as well.

Today many political observers are convinced that the tables have turned — which is based on solid historical data. This is a midterm year, and midterm years almost always go against the party in the White House. That has been true whether the incumbent was popular or not.

Indeed, presidential approval ratings play an important role in midterm elections, but the responses have become increasingly polarized over the years. In the 1950s, for example, an average of nearly half of Democrats said they approved of the job Republican Dwight Eisenhower was doing as president. In the 1980s, an average of less than one–third of Democrats approved of the job Republican Ronald Reagan was doing, and in the 1990s, slightly more than one–fourth of Republicans approved of the job Bill Clinton was doing.

Clinton's successors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, failed to average even that much support from the opposing party.

But Bush's Republicans benefited electorally from the terrorist attacks of 2001. They might have been expected to lose ground in the midterm elections of 2002; instead, they gained ground in both chambers, the first time a president's party accomplished that in a midterm election in nearly 70 years.

(It is unwise to ignore the influence that circumstances can have. At the same time, though, it is not wise to expect too much from things like scandals. The Iran–Contra scandal dropped Reagan's approval rating below 50% in January 1987, but he rebounded to higher than 60% by the time he left office two years later.)

I have a theory about that trend. When it is a president's first — and, in many cases, it has been a president's only — midterm, that president is two years removed from winning the presidency, and his supporters are complacent while his foes are energized. When it is a president's second midterm, his supporters are generally demoralized by something, a scandal or whatnot, and the rest of the country, from those who are indifferent to long–time detractors, is just weary.

It takes truly unusual circumstances for any incumbent to overcome that, and so far such circumstances have not materialized in this election. But it has been observed frequently that the 2016 elections rewrote the rules so I wouldn't rule it out.

In 2018 Democrats need fewer than half as many seats as they lost in 2010 to claim a paper–thin majority in the House. That sounds plausible — and it is — but there is something that is worth remembering.

Unlike Senate seats, which are decided every six years, House seats are on the ballot in every election. There have been 22 elections since Watergate, and a single party has gained that many House seats (or more) in four of them. The rest of the time the gains were less than 24.

It's a tall order — but not one that is impossible to fill.

As Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball recently noted, there is already an unusually high number of House incumbents not seeking re–election — twice as many Republicans as Democrats.

In fact, there are enough open seats in Republican–held districts for Democrats to entertain thoughts of capturing the majority in the House by winning most of them — but that would be a foolish strategy. It ignores the fact that not all districts are created equal.

Some districts have long histories of voting for one party or the other. Like mine, for instance. I live in Texas' Fifth District. It has been represented by Republican Jeb Hensarling since 2003. The only time he was held under 60% of the vote was when he was originally elected in 2002 — and he received 58% in that election. He announced a couple of months ago that he would not seek re–election.

Hensarling is not leaving because he anticipates a tough election. He is highly regarded here and would be sure to win another term if he wanted one. Whoever wins the Republican nomination will be a heavy favorite to win the general election — if he/she is even opposed.

If the voters in this district elect a Democrat to succeed Hensarling, it will be a clear indication that a wave election is underway.

Democrats are more likely to gain ground in districts like Arizona's 2nd District, which was represented by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords before she was shot in 2011 and had to retire. One of Giffords' aides was elected to fill her vacancy in 2012. Voters narrowly chose the loser of the 2012 election — Martha McSally — in a rematch in 2014. McSally was re–elected with 57% of the vote in 2016 and now is running for Jeff Flake's Senate seat.

Democrats are favored to win that House seat this November.

Other open districts are just as evenly divided — and could be prone to flip in the next election with no incumbent on the ballot. The power of incumbency, as I have noted here before, is considerable.

But it is not absolute.

Open seats do present opportunities for the party that does not occupy the White House, but Democrats have to be selective about which ones they pursue. Kondik says they need to net at least half a dozen Republican–held open seats to be on track to seize the majority in the House. The rest, he wrote, will need to be taken from the officeholders. His estimate is that Democrats will need to beat 15 to 20 incumbents head to head.

That may seem like a challenge, but Kondik insists the number is not too high by historical standards.

Time will tell.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Losing Another Part of My Childhood

A snowy day in another January many years ago. Matt is second from right.

Life happens in waves.

Life is also, as John Lennon observed, "what happens while you're busy making other plans."

With that in mind, I have been writing a lot about death lately. I didn't plan it that way. It's just how it has worked out.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I wrote about the death of my favorite journalism professor.

There have been other times when I have been touched personally by death but not lately — until this week. Death is a topic no writer can avoid for long, though. Shortly before Thanksgiving Charles Manson died. A few days ago the mastermind of the notorious 1964 triple slayings in Mississippi died.

As I say, I have enjoyed a respite from personal experience with death — but that never lasts.

And my vacation from the deaths of personal acquaintances ended this week when I learned that a fellow who grew up near me in Central Arkansas passed away. I don't know the specifics, but I have heard it was heart related.

We were friends. I can't say we were best friends or anything like that. He was about six months older, which isn't a lot, even when you're kids and months seem like years — but, because of when our birthdays fell on the calendar, he was a year ahead of me in school, and so he graduated the year before I did. I always felt like that was a bit of a barrier between us as we got older. We went to school each day with different classmates. We had different teachers.

Still we were practically neighbors. We lived in the country — where neighbors has a different meaning than it does in a city or town. We didn't live in houses that were so close that we could see each other's front doors. You had to do some walking through tree–filled hillsides to get from one to the other.

But we were neighbors. My brother and I played with Matt and his younger brother in the afternoons. Our parents socialized regularly.

Would we have done that if we had lived in town? I don't know. Options tend to be much more limited when you live in the country.

But what might have been is speculation. What was — well, that is a matter of fact.

And since I learned of Matt's death, my thoughts keep returning to memories of my childhood — and what was.

Matt's father built a treehouse that we kids used a lot in the summer. It gets hot and humid in Arkansas in the summer, but we spent many summer nights in that treehouse, playing card games and doing things that kids do when the seemingly limitless free time of summer stretches out before them. Heat and humidity was a small price to pay for all that freedom.

Sometimes the four of us would spend the night in that treehouse. We would lug our sleeping bags up there, then we would sleep on top of them because it was too suffocating to try to sleep inside our sleeping bags.

That treehouse was kind of like a junior frat house, though. We didn't do much sleeping there, and things tended to get broken. Mostly we played cards — and Monopoly — by the light of a lantern or told ghost stories.

When it was quiet in the treehouse, I would sit and let the light summer breeze wash over me, and I would look at the stars sparkling in the sky and the shimmering moon.

We all learned to ride bicycles at about the same time, and that really was like being set free. That was the first time that we were truly mobile, and from that moment on if we were going anywhere we were on our bikes. No longer did we need someone to take us to a neighbor's house a couple of miles down the road. We could get on our bikes and take ourselves there.

Later on, of course, cars replaced bikes, and our journeys took us even farther from home. But that came later.

Our parents and their vehicles still had a place in our lives. We rarely got snow in Central Arkansas, but when we did, we usually needed Matt's father's truck to take us to school. I remember all of us piling into the small cab of that truck (this was before the days of club cabs) on winter mornings and listening to his tape of Charley Pride's greatest hits as we rode into town.

Matt's family moved to Arkansas from Texas when he was in elementary school, and there was always friction between us when the Arkansas Razorbacks played the Texas Longhorns in anything — but especially football. Both our loyalties were to the places where our roots were.

So it was ironic that Matt stayed in my hometown the rest of his life — and I moved to Texas.

Sports always played a prominent role in our relationship. When we were about 8 or 9, we collected and swapped baseball cards and football cards — as many boys did (and, I presume, still do). We usually watched major sports events together, and we played the games as best we could.

Folks in town had the advantage over us in the latter. They had empty lots and open fields in which to play. We lived in the country, which was rocky and hilly. If we wanted to play touch football, we had to do it in the dirt road that slithered past our homes. That was not a problem, though. People seldom drove along that road in those days, and we could usually hear cars coming long before they reached us, giving us time to clear off the road until they went past.

I remember one unusually snowy winter that brought a significant snowfall, not just the usual dusting, and we couldn't wait to play football in it — because we could actually play tackle football for a change.

We soon learned that playing football in snow is a lot colder and wetter than it looks on TV. But when we had had enough, we went to one of our homes — where there would be tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches to warm us up.

Matt was a much better athlete than I was. He played youth baseball with my brother (who was also a better athlete than I was), and I remember watching his games with a touch of envy. Matt looked like a big–league ballplayer in his Little League uniform, whether he was playing in a game or getting a snow cone between games.

As I understand it, Matt coached youth baseball after he grew up.

Matt and I seldom saw each other as adults. The news of Matt's death, consequently, triggers no memories of my adult years — it seems to me that the last time I saw Matt was at my high school class' fifth reunion (Matt wasn't in my class, but his wife was) — but plenty of memories of my childhood.

While I am mourning the loss of my childhood friend, I am also mourning the inevitable loss of my childhood. Matt wasn't my first childhood friend to die — and, unless I'm the next one to go, he certainly won't be the last.

But it is a stark reminder of the constant state of change in which we all must exist.

It is also a reminder that life is short, much too short to not do the things you love. Matt's life was shorter than I ever would have expected when we were growing up. I hope he spent it doing things he loved to do.

And I hope I do the things I love to do before my time on this planet runs out.