Requiem for a Heavyweight
On Wednesday, February 21, 2018, I went to the graveside memoriam for Rex Hall Nebel. Never thought I’d do that. Never thought he’d die. But there he was in a rather small box, sitting over a deep hole in the frozen ground in the Lovell Cemetery. Oh God, it was cold. By one in the afternoon the thermometer was hovering around three degrees Fahrenheit. There could easily have been twelve or fourteen inches of snow on the ground with a slight breeze blowing into the south off the Pryor. Sun was up. It was uncommonly bright. No clouds and as grave ide services for the dead go, there were a lot of people. Most were dressed in black, either because that is all they had for such occasions or because it was death appropriate. I tend to think that is all these mourners had.
I stood on the outside of this circle of humanity, watching. On the far east side of the gathering stood his three boys, their wives and Rex’s grandkids. On the north east corner was Rex’s sister, Cameron and a small group that surrounded her. Hadn’t seen her in fifty years, since 1964, anyway. I wouldn’t have recognized her if she was standing right in front of me and said, “Hi my name is Cammy.”
The rest of us completed the circle. Folks were standing five or six deep. And my toes were beginning to have a tingle in them, getting cold standing in the snow. I noted that Larry (Ellis) and Bill (Baxendale) were there along with me. That meant three of us who grew up with Rex or tried to grow up together in Kane, Wyoming.
The preacher began talking. I noted that Rex’s casket was a little over five feet long. I had the thought that he must be uncomfortable in that box; it being so small, so short. It dawned on me, rather sharply that Rex was actually a small, a short man. I thought I’ll be damned. It wasn’t the way I saw him; it wasn’t the way I remembered him. Looking at that wood stained box, I realized that is the way he was. It was an epiphany of sorts. Something I’d never considered. What I remembered of Rex was an illusion of six foot eight, two hundred eighty-four pounds of pure muscle and bone and anger; a monster hiding in the shadows.
The Reverend Kurt McNabb was giving a talk about Christ and how we all knelt at his feet hoping for redemption. It brought to mind one element of Rex’s life that I truly admired. Growing up, Rex only had to go to church on Easter and Christmas. My folks were of the Mormon faith so I went to church every Sunday and midweek, every week. When Larry went to the Baptist Bible School in the summer so did I. My mother was also a Baptist. Nothing like covering the bases. Don’t know what faith Rex was but he didn’t have to go to church but twice a year. He was so lucky. I was so envious.
The Reverend McNabb, a short man himself, turned the microphone over to the attendees saying, “Who knows Rex? I haven’t seen him in a long time myself.” One fellow mentioned that he knew Rex when he was five, went to Rex’s birthday party. Rex was ostensibly five himself. This fellow rode the school bus to get to the party which was at Rex’s home in Kane. In the evenings Rex’s house fell in the shadows of Katie’s Nipple. He noted that Rex was the kindest “kid” he ever knew and how exciting it was to ride the bus. Rex’s dad was the bus driver and anyone going to the party had a free ride. Funny how things work that way. Dorothy Nebel threw some parties for her kids, I can tell you that.
When Rex died, he was living in the same “party house;” the house he was born in, except he wasn’t born there. He was born in Lovell North Big Horn Hospital courtesy of Croft or Horsely. In 1965, when the government bought everyone living on the river out, Harvey moved that house to Lovell and Rex moved in, living there until he died from a heart stoppage a week ago. How many folks live their lives in mostly the same house they were born in? Oddity, that.
I remember the young Rex as being slightly overweight, quick to beat the hell out of who ever crossed him or who he thought may cross him, or who he simply didn’t like. He had a crew-cut, a flat top. He was a James Dean guy that’d roll his cigarettes up in the short sleeves of his white t-shirt. There were exceptions. In our little group Rex didn’t ever push Bill: life apparently being too short for that kind of danger. You see, during elementary school Bill and Pete (Gams) got into it every day at the noon hour, at the doors where kids were lining up to go inside at grammar school. They’d do each other bloody, rip each other’s shirts, smash each other’s lips and noses, black each other’s eyes. Honestly, I loved watching them. They were good. In the end, Mrs. Baird would have them both by the ear leading them inside to her office and the consequences of the paddle. Rex saw that and Rex didn’t want any part of it. I don’t blame him. Rex stayed away from Bill. Bill had no fear. Mrs. Baird and Bill were buddies and Bill wasn’t the least bit afraid of her. So “Bill having no fear” sums up Bill, but not Rex.
It isn’t like Rex didn’t speak to Bill. During one of those summer years when we were collectively, nine, ten, or eleven years of age, a bunch of us were horseback, no saddles, bent on relieving the proverbial and actual Farmer Brown of his fresh, “hanging in the tree” ripe peaches. Rex was with us. Not a normal occurrence. Mostly Rex wasn’t allowed around Bill. His mother so decreed. We got caught red handed and Mr. Brown had a shot gun. He self loaded his shells with rock salt. There were all sorts of reasons not to stick around, not the least of which was Mr. Brown being able to prove up his accuracy. And we were trying to escape, but Rex couldn’t get on his horse. He tried but the excitement was a little much and he just couldn’t. Bill jumped off and helped Rex get on but Rex slid off the other side. Bill, seeing the mischief, slipped off his painted horse again and again helped Rex back on his horse. We got away, alive and breathing. Thank God. Presently, all except Sexy Rex are living proof. Mr. Brown did get a couple of shots off and I’m not sure that Bill didn’t get hit in the process of helping Rex. It was the first time that I thought that Rex might not be six foot eight and weigh two hundred eighty-four pounds of pure gristle, hard to kill, run amuck muscle; the terror hiding in the shadows. It was bothersome, for in the middle of the fray he couldn’t get on his own horse even when he had to. It was a moment of clarity.
Growing up it is odd the way Rex affected me. He was tough, full of bluster, armed with anger and resolution. Always right behind him was his dad. Harvey threw me off the bus more times that I want to count. Only Bill walked home more often than I. He was a regular, traipsing along 14A. Certainly I was afraid of Rex, afraid somehow I was going to offend him, get crosswise of him, get the hell beat out of me. As a result ,when I left home I studied martial arts every day, for hours on end, moving though the various belts, learned all of the black belt series, learned how to hurt, maim and destroy people, until I realized I didn’t like what I was becoming and simply quit, walked away. It takes too much anger to want to hurt people. This, too, was a moment of clarity.
One thought impressed me about Rex. That was his need, his willingness to do battle regardless of the size and ability of the opponent. In the nineties, I was visiting my folks in Lovell. I was at the Hyart. It was the first of July and there was Rex. He approached me regarding suing the Federal Government. In so many words he wanted me to serve legal notice and evict the Federal Government from the State of Wyoming. I thought about it for about thirty seconds. Indeed, Washington owns three-fourths of the real property in the State. I imagined serving them a notice to quit and considered the fact that the statistical possibility of me evicting the Federal Government was far less than zero. It was a fool’s errand. Not for Rex it wasn’t.
Rex was bouncing up and down, wanting to get started, wanting to beard the lion, kick the holy hell out of the United States, throw its proverbial carcass over the hood of his Jeep and drive up Main Street, Lovell, Wyoming, his windows down, blowing his horn. I was staring at him. Amused. Thinking back to that moment, I realized yesterday thinking about Rex as a short man was maybe false. He was every bit six foot eight, two eighty-four, armed to the teeth, unrelenting and crazy as hell. This, too ,was a moment of clarity.
There are a number of different divisions in boxing. Rex? All hundred forty-five pounds of him? Rex was a heavyweight. That’s what his boys thought. According to them, every birthday, every Christmas they were presented with a firearm; something that went bang. Those living east of the Kane tracks– they may say he was a relentless bully, a pug with no nose. Those who purchased fireworks from him, including all five of my kids, loved him, loved his generosity. They were amused, then awestruck when he told them about their grandfather holding his dad’s hand, patting it, as he died in the North Big Horn Hospital. Nothing is as it seems to be, and this, indeed, is the requiem for a heavyweight. God bless. Grhowe