On the day of America’s greatest race, I would like to take a moment to share a memory of one of its victims.
I grew up on a hill in Wisconsin located in the fine city of Rothschild. It was a nice place to grow up, and I often take a drive past the old house a couple of times of year, quietly reliving my moments as a whole, allowing only a few blocks time to take it in.
Like many children we had a basketball hoop hanging on the garage.
When I do drive by, the first thing I always check this out is this childhood fixture. It most likely isn’t the same board my father struggled with twenty some years ago, but the last time I checked, it still remained as it had for decades.
One would expect this story to continue with the follies of father and son, or the battling of brothers in the heated spirit of sibling competition. It certainly could, as there are many fond recollections of that nature to go around as well. Yet, to this day, that basketball hoop will forever remind me of one thing.
My neighbor-Lyle Kurtenbach.
Since the time we moved to Rothschild we had lived across the street from the Kurtenbachs. Lyle, his wife Karen and daughter Dawn, were permanent fixtures as you looked out the large bay window on the front of our own proud homestead.
Lyle, who kept a remarkably well kept home, always made a point to wave, or stop on over and talk to us kids on the weekends for a minute or two, as he faithfully attended to whatever daily chores were on his docket. Lyle was a lawn guy, and could often be found outside on a regular basis, attending to this and that as it needed attending to.
My brother and I would often be outside as well, standing in the street, heaving our basketball great distances in an effort to make the worlds longest, and most incredible shot possible. We would occasionally hit one here and there, and Lyle would sometimes walk on over to join in the game. Although nothing was ever said, I think he enjoyed chucking that basketball up there just as much as we did.
I always thought that Lyle was a pretty cool cat. He was into car racing, and as a young kid fascinated with everything that went zoom, he pretty much topped the chart of the “That guy is pretty awesome” category.
I slowly grew up with the Kurtenbachs, as we mostly watched each other in unison while occasionally stopping to converse for a moment or two.
It was nothing more than life in motion.
In 1987, I was fifteen years old. It was a May afternoon mid-week when Lyle once again took a moment to try his hand at an ultra amazing shot to the netted rim on the garage.
We chatted about our perspective weekends; our family was to head to Illinois for a weekend gathering, while Lyle and his would head out on the yearly trek to watch the Indianapolis 500.
We were enamored with his story and insanely jealous that we would be spending time at our grandmothers house, while Lyle got to watch the idols of our television and electric race track scream around the black beast at breath taking speeds. We listened to his story with undivided attention as we tossed the ball a few more times before the evening ended.
We would return from our excursion a couple of days later. We resumed our lives as normal, but as the day wore one it was noticeably quiet across the street at the Kurtenbach residence. I had started if wonder if something was wrong, as Mom and Dad seemed unusually subdued for some reason.
I don’t remember exactly how the conversation transpired, but I believe my parents pulled me aside alone at first. I was the oldest at fifteen and perhaps the first test subject of the conversation before the younger siblings would hear the same.
Lyle Kurtenbach was dead.
Lyle had made it to his annual outing at the Indy Five Hundred. He was at the top of the grandstand when Tony Bettenhausen’s race car lost a wheel in turn 3, and Roberto Guerrero hit it head-on at full speed with the nose cone of his machine. The loose wheel was thrown over the safety fence and struck Lyle in the head, killing him instantly. He was the first spectator killed at the race since 1960, and as of this moment is the last one as well.
Things were never the same in the neighborhood after that day.
The lights at the Kurtenbach residence would never shine as they had before, there would be no more half court shots, and eventually the remainder of the family would leave our bay window forever.
I would never be the same either.
This was the first time I experienced death. This was the first time I learned that the unknown will always play a factor. This was the first time I lost someone I knew.
This was the first time I knew what it felt like to bring a casserole across the street. This was the first time I watched sadness truly manifest itself. This was the first time I realized that life was so fragile.
One day I was shooting hoops with the man, and the next day he was gone.
It was reality that even a fifteen year old boy understood.
It was a lesson we all learn, but still, even right at this moment, remains a painful one for me at best.
There are many old basketball hoops, on many homes, in many a neighborhood, in many a city.
Mine reminds me of Lyle Kurtenbach, and I hope somehow he knows that
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