There aren't too many people who come from where I come from. It's simply not a large place. Nor does it produce a large number of people. Most importantly, it's not the kind of place the average person chooses to leave.
It is the kind of place where the gravitational pull of family, friends and the numbingly familiar prevents most people from wandering too far away. The ones who do wander tend to act as emissaries. They are the people who got out. The people who were a little bit bigger than the small towns that birthed them. The people who are celebrated as favourite native sons and most cherished daughters.
Norm Van Lier was one of those people. Norm Van Lier came from where I come from.
He died yesterday at the age of 61. Alone in the City of Big Shoulders, as the news reports tell it.
While the cause of his death has not yet been announced, the culprit is believed to be a heart that had faltered frequently during the later years of his life. An ironic fact given the ferocity with which Stormin' Norman was known to play. Back when he was a skinny kid dropping dimes on the playground in front of Midland High School in southwestern Pennsylvania. All the way to the Chicago Bulls, the NBA All-Star Game and a pugnacious career as a broadcaster. His heart was the one thing that all of us who know the place he came from had always counted on.
It takes a different kind of heart to escape the kinds of places Norm Van Lier and I come from. For these hearts, love is not enough to sustain them. Their valves are configured differently to direct more blood to the parts of the brain that control things like ambition and curiosity--making it impossible to be satisfied only by what is known and what is comfortable. I think. Maybe it's that their hearts have four chambers like a Bar-Tailed Godwit sailing above the Pacific Ocean and not like a simple flock of Finch ambling in search of a convenient new watering hole. That could be it, too.
What we know for sure is that Norm Van Lier's heart has stopped beating. It took him far from the place he and I come from and, in doing so, helped make the people who stayed behind in that small, steelbelt town feel just a little bit bigger than themselves.
Life there will go on. As it always has. As it always will.