Patrick White In awesome circumstances, words fail

“I don’t have the words to explain it.” Last Wednesday, as I stood at the bottom of a gargantuan hole west of Hastings that will become the new cell of the Hastings City Landfill in a couple of months, these words crossed my mind.

The magnitude of the place was overwhelming. Bulldozers roared around me. I was hemmed in on all sides by 100-foot walls of earth. Humans standing at ground level looked small silhouetted against the sky.

As the landfill supervisor pointed out how high above my head the future trash would eventually pile, I thought, “Wow. I don’t have the words to explain this.”

Mere days later, the phrase crossed my mind again. Only this time, I was suspended hundreds of feet above ground, walled only by piercing blue sky and high-strung autumn clouds.
I was riding in a helicopter. Chopper blades roared around me. I was hemmed in by a snug-fitting seat belt. Humans standing at ground level looked smaller than pencil points.

What had started as an assignment to cover a special helicopter flight given to two Adams Central boys fighting cancer turned into an invitation to share the skies with them.

Seth Ostrander, an eight-grader with a kind heart and a love of football, and Austin Engel, a spunky and playful 5-year-old, are both battling a disease that has stumped people triple their ages, and yet the young men exuded a quiet strength as they climbed into the body of the helicopter and buckled into their harnesses.

Soon, we were airborne. I looked below and saw the house where I live, our highways and supermarkets and normally-bustling shopping centers, all incredibly miniature and seemingly part of some other-worldy dollhouse from my point of view.

Words failed me.

When I looked away from the incredible view toward my flight companions, I saw little Austin sitting wide-eyed in his jumpseat. The sound-protecting headset he wore was sitting heavy and low on his small head, restricting him from casting more than a sideways glance at the scenery so far below.

Beside him, Seth was all smiles. He snapped pictures on his cell phone and peered down at his neighborhood, his route to school, even Walmart.

To see the wonder on the faces of these boys was the highlight of the evening for me. Yes, I was floored by the beauty and perspective I ingested on what was my first helicopter ride. But, more importantly, I got to share the experience with two boys who have learned to glean joy and strength from life’s most ordinary circumstances.

As I reflect on the extreme “highs and lows” I experienced last week alone, I am reminded of many other experiences I have shared with members of the Hastings community since I began my full-time position at the Tribune in May.

I have taken a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hastings Museum, and an equally interesting tour of the Adams County jail. I have picked fresh herbs alongside a longtime city employee in her backyard garden. I have walked through stalks of corn at the Prairie Loft Center with kids who only measured up to the towering plants by half. I have sat in the well-loved booths of the former OK Cafe, chatting with the owners about the history and legacy of the business they loved and pioneered for decades. I have walked through debris-riddled streets and crept around grain bins that had been crumpled and warped by a tornado.

In these circumstances, words were — again — fleeting, which proved to be somewhat of a conundrum when I sat down to write about them. However, in the few months that I have worked as a full-time journalist, I have found this field of work to be little what I expected it to be.

I was thinking I’d be desk-bound for much of my work, conducting interviews in various offices and conference rooms around the city. I had no idea I would be taken on what feels like a full-scale, behind-the-scenes, no-holds-barred tour of our community, led by people who were formerly complete strangers and who, thanks to my job, I now consider friendly faces.

As is the case with many humbling and moving circumstances in life, it is hard to express my gratitude in words.

I am reminded again of my friends Seth and Austin.

When our helicopter ride concluded and the boys were reunited with their family members, I watched their joy from the experience they’d just had seep out and flow into the spirits of others.

I watched Austin run into the arms of his mom, and Seth rejoin his siblings and parents. I walked over to them and asked Seth what he’d thought of the ride.

“It was amazing,” he said with a candid smile. “I don’t have the words to explain it.”

Friend, my thoughts exactly.

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