This is part 2 of a series of tributes to my childhood friends who have passed too soon from this world. You can find part one here.
Kent Kiepe was my cousin actually, but I also consider him one of my closest childhood friends as well. He was a few years younger than me but we had the best time together whenever I would spend a few weeks on my grandparents’ farm each summer.
We spent hours each day playing down by the creek, building forts, catching fish with string and safety pins, skinny dipping in the swimming hole, smoking our Uncle Charlie’s old cigars we found in his dresser drawer, skimming through old National Geographics (for the articles, of course), walking up to the little store at the end of the road for penny bubble gum, riding mini-bikes through the cow pasture, climbing hay bales in the hay loft, carving sticks into totem poles with grandpa’s sand grinder, riding in the back of the pick up truck to check on the crops down at the river bottom, riding into town with grandpa to get a rootbeer at A&W, sleeping over and watching home movies and eating grandma’s pancakes in the morning, playing whiffleball until the bat fell apart, riding down the hill in grandma’s red wagon until it fell apart, driving Uncle Glenn’s Chevy Corvair through the hayfield, riding bikes on Interstate 55 before it was opened to traffic, stealing cookies from grandma’s cookie jar, and exploring Victor’s abandoned house up on the hill.
In reality, Kent and I didn’t have much in common, other than we were related. He was athletic, a straight A student and always open for adventure. I was none of the above. He excelled in sports and could pretty much beat me at any game we played. But we had fun together, none-the-less.
What we did have in common was something we never really talked about. It was an embarrassing little secret that only a few members of our family knew about. We were both habitual bed wetters. That’s right, the secret is out. But somehow, that one little secret seemed to bind us together in an awkwardly intimate way.
The thing that made Kent so special to me was the way he genuinely loved and accepted me as a cousin and as a friend. He never teased me for not being good at sports. He never showed any frustration over my disinterest in his little league games. He always seemed eager to hang out with me even if what I wanted to do wasn’t on the top of his fun list. He was a great friend.
Years passed and I grew too old to spend the summers on the farm and Kent and I lost touch. I went off to college, got married and started a family. Kent joined the Navy after college and quickly rose up through the ranks as a pilot. The family was so proud when we got the news that he was tagged to become a member of the Blue Angels. But unfortunately, he never got his chance to fly with the elite team, due to his tragic death in a plane crash. Because of budget cuts, the Navy wouldn’t allow him to fly his plane to and from his teaching assignment across the state so instead; he was forced to hitch a ride in a single engine Cessna. On one particular flight, over Death Valley in California, that single engine Cessna went down. It was a devastating tragedy for our family. One we would never fully get over.
I remember the day of his funeral vividly. After the service, I excused myself from the family gathering to take a walk down to the creek. The cool breeze painted such a different landscape from the memories of my summer adventures with Kent. The forts were long gone and the swimming hole seemed much smaller than before. The hay barn was gone after collapsing under a heavy winter snow. My walk ended out back of my grandparent’s house where Kent and I used to smoke those old cigars and I began to cry uncontrollably. I cried over the loss of my cousin, my friend and our shared childhood that would never return. But I also cried in gratitude for having had such a great childhood friend in my cousin, Kent.