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Sunsets Then And Now

At the foot of Euclid Avenue in Erie, PA, the street where my family lived from 1939 to 1952, was a stand of second-growth deciduous trees, under-pinned with wild grasses, ground ivy, and scruffy shrubs blanketing the flat summit of shale cliffs rising thirty to forty feet above Lake Erie. At the intersection with Lakeside Drive which dipped steeply to the banks of Four-Mile Creek, was a wooden sign, painted white with faded black letters advertising Sunset Inn. A narrow gravel entrance road disappeared from view as it curved under the trees.

To my increasingly unreliable memory, we never ate a meal at the Inn, in fact never entered the road. In late Fall and through the Winter months you could see a low building which appeared to have been constructed at the edge of the cliff.

Sunset Inn was aptly named. If watching the sun set beneath the watery horizon of Lake Erie enchanted you, this quarter-mile stretch of cliffs along Lakeside Drive offered outstanding viewing points.

My sister Janie and I were kids in the early 1940s, during the Second World War. Widespread rationing including gasoline drastically limited people’s opportunities for leisure activities.

We and all the families in our neighborhood took no vacations until the end of the war in 1946,

Summer evenings when Dad was home from his sales territory and the sky was clear, we developed the habit of driving to the lake shore and turning onto a dirt path to a treeless spot overlooking the lake to watch the sun set over Presque Isle Peninsula, four miles to the west across the water.

We rolled down the windows to drink in the steady rhythm of waves thumping against the cliff base, and receding over the fine shore gravel with a soft shushhh. The slanting light anointed the brown weeds with shimmers of gold and painted the nearby trees a subtle yellow-green hue.

Just as the sun touched treetops on Presque Isle the dark gray surface of the lake turned a dancing, sparking silver. Some evenings, ranks of whte stratocumulus clouds kaleidoscoped through tints of red, pink, and at the last steely gray.

Janie and I grew impatient during some sunset evenings. Other friends were playing Kick the Can or Capture the Flag. What was so important about watching the sun go down? We didn’t fully realize the weight of anxiety and fear Mother and Dad were carrying.

Mother’s brother was fighting in France. Dad’s nephew was tail gunner on a bomber reported missing and presumed lost over the Himalayas. The blue star flag in the Cunningham’s front window had been replaced with a gold star.

Mother and Dad loved and needed sunsets, an ordinary everyday miracle that strengthened and calmed them. I believe that during those turbulent, frightening years of war, sunsets assured them of the preciousness of life and the miracle of God’s love for all God’s children.

Tyree Nichols, the 29-year-old father of a four-year old son, loved sunsets. He photographed them, he skate-boarded in their dazzling, marvelous ever-changing light show.

On a sunlit evening in the first week of January, in the year 2023, Tyree Nichols was pulled from his car and beaten to death by five ruthless thugs who were employed as Memphis police officers.

“That day, when he left around 3 o’clock, he was on his way to Shelby Farms, because my son—every night—wanted to go and look at the sunset,” Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, said about her son and his trips to the Shelby Farms skate park. “That was his passion. Going to Shelby Farms to watch the sunset and take pictures.”

Tyree’s passion was “watching sunsets and taking pictures.” Not drugs. Not gangs. Not violence. Not hatred of others. Not crime.

“Watching sunsets and taking pictures.”

Were their times when a sunset gave Tyree Nichols sufficient strength and inner peace to deal with tough times in his life? Were their sunsets that assured him of God’s beautiful love for him?

Tonight Karen and I will watch the sunset paint the Organ Mountains from coral to ochre and see the shade of dusk gradually move up the mountains’s flanks to the summit. The fading light will turn the rock crags from shades of pewter to steel to purple. We will try to see this spectacle as Tyree would have seen it. And we will hope to God never to take sunsets for granted.

Bailey Herrington

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