Mom, Ben, Meredith and I arrived at Grandma’s house in Texas Friday afternoon, joined by the rest of the immediate family by mid-day Saturday. We were very grateful that the family still surrounding Vega had taken the reins on planning this service, so we were able to stay very hands off. We actually didn’t even know fully what it was going to look like. We knew the gist, but had really left it up to them to make the event what they wanted it to be. We really felt as if the service in Idaho was for us, the service in Texas was for them. Without being involved in the planning, it was actually quite easy to forget the reason why we were going down in the first place. It just felt like another trip to Grandma’s.
It was once we arrived that my anxiety kicked in. We’d made so much progress to heal over the past two weeks, I knew this day was going to make it all fresh again.
This was going to be a traditional service in the church he’d grown up in. And in that setting, in Vega, that seemed right. We all gathered at Grandma’s then headed to the church together. Walking in and being met with extended family and friends offering their condolences overwhelmed me. It all came flooding back. To me, the room felt heavy. Serious. Somber. So different than when we’d welcomed people at our home for a barbecue.
And maybe, that element of somber sadness was a good thing. As I listened to the songs, heard from the preacher and watched an incredible slideshow of my father, I was truly sad. It became incrementally more real that he was gone. And maybe I needed that to progress on my path of grieving. I was more emotional that day than during the entire week before. Overwhelmed is the word that keeps coming to mind. That’s not to say that I hadn’t been sad before. It was just a different kind of sadness. It was present in a new way I hadn’t experienced yet.
It truly was a beautiful service, honoring Dad and all he meant to those people in the church that day. We gathered for a small reception where I got to meet more people who knew him. So so special. Then together, as a family, we made our way back to Grandma’s house to prepare our final goodbye.
For the rest of this story to make sense, here’s something about Dad you should probably know: he was known for blowing stuff up. He loved building his own fireworks and seeing what happens when you put gunpowder in certain objects, like an engine block. This led to a number of ER visits for him as a child, plenty of scars, and lots of stories. He also liked shooting. Hunting was secondary, consisting of mostly just birds, to target practice.
An inspired idea came to light as the family was preparing for our first memorial service in Idaho. We already planned to spread half of his ashes at our home, and the rest at his childhood home in Texas. In discussing the “how,” my aunt had an idea to use fireworks…and maybe a shotgun…which quickly led to how we were going to blow Dad up.
Keep in mind, Dad was not what you may call “traditional.” He created plenty of his own traditions, and you could always count on him finding a way to make them his own. So just a quiet scattering of his ashes didn’t seem like him at all … but going out with a bang? Now we’re talkin’. With the whole family in agreement, we got to work on the details.
The short notice gave us a few obstacles but several options were presented, from creating our own fuse and using an igniter to simply shooting him out of the sky with a favorite shotgun. We finally settled on a combination. My aunt Sue, Dad’s younger sister, purchased a canister of tannerite, which for any of you who are like me and haven’t made building explosives and blowing things up a pastime, it’s basically a miniature bomb. It has two ingredients that once mixed, become reactive. So you simply have to shoot the canister and it explodes.
Please note: it was a small canister and we made sure we were a safe distance away. Poor Sue, clearly purchasing this product for the first time, received ample warnings of the dangers and proper usage instructions.
The family has owned land in and outside of Vega for all of Dad’s life. The land north of town, where they still run cattle, we call “The Farm.” Once he moved to Idaho, Dad would always call it the “The Slutz Ranch,” hence why he calls our property here in Idaho “The Slutz Ranch North.” A lot of time was spent on the Farm growing up, including some pretty intense Easter Egg Hunts I’ve been told, so that was our first idea for a location to, well, blow Dad up.
I wish I could include all of the discussions, brainstorming and true development of this plan with you, but that would take a whole lot more pages. So I’ll just say this: we were thorough. And it was a family affair.
Sue, her partner Suzanne, Ben and I took off from Grandma’s ahead of everyone else to scout out our proposed demolition site. After Ben successfully called all the cows in the pasture to our passing vehicle (yelling “MOOOOOOO” in various tones out the window) we arrived at the spot and it was perfect. It was at the start of a small canyon and was easy to drive/walk to. Sue called the family waiting at the house and they headed out.
Arriving with coolers of beer, chairs, blankets and all the supplies we needed to send Dad off, we were ready to get started. It became quite the assembly line. The plan was to place the ashes in a bag with the tannerite, elevate it in the air with balloons, then Ben would shoot the bag to ignite the tannerite and the ashes would scatter across the family farm. Sounds easy enough, right?
As his health declined, Dad began following the “three-try rule.” He began to expect not to get something right the first time, or even the second, and that was all just fine. So we applied this same rule to this particular project, and it all seemed oh so fitting that it took us a few tries to get the balloons and their payload arranged just right. Ben got in position and after taking some shots to get accustomed to the rifle and sight, he nailed it just right.
I’d gotten so caught up in executing the plan, I’d kind of forgotten what we were actually doing. And its significance. As I watched the ash fall, I faced another moment of overwhelm. I hugged Mom and we stood together as a family. And it all sunk in.
More hugs from the rest of the family and another beer opened. A question of what to do with the remaining balloons arose and I quickly volunteered to shoot them down – way too much fun with a semi automatic. We’d also managed to scrounge up some fireworks (illegal in Texas outside of the 4th; shh don’t tell), specifically Dad’s favorite: morters. And they were beautiful. They also started a small fire, but we got it out quick (shhhhhh please don’t tell).
And again, just like that, it was all over. It’s weird to think that celebrating an entire life can be wrapped up into just one event – or two in our case. But I guess that’s not really true either. Dad will be celebrated for the rest of my life. In little ways, like every time I use a skill he taught me to tackle a project, and in big ways, like when his cowboy hat and bolo tie will hold his presence at my future wedding.
He was a remarkable man. Aptly represented in these events. And what a privilege to honor him in all the ways we did.