J. Arlen Ecker
West Point, 1989
Be Thou At Peace
Posted by Peter Dunn on February 3, 2010:
Peter Dunn's Eulogy for J. Arlen Ecker
(This was read at Arlen's funeral service on Jan.28, 2010. Another beautiful eulogy was given by Arlen's friend, Douglas DeLancey, and another by his friend David Scott.)
The truth is, I don't remember meeting Arlen. We were two years old. In fact, I really don't remember a time in my life when I didn't know Arlen. He grew up three doors down the street from me. We were more like brothers, as were our other closest friends in the neighborhood like Craig, Scott, Jimmy, Bart, Billy, Jeff and Robbie. I met my lovely wife Heather in that same neighborhood. She and her sister Holly were part of that same group of close friends.
One of my very earliest memories, is of Arlen. We were squaring off in my front yard for a rock fight. We must have been five years old. My mother was saying, "Now Arlen, you put those rocks down." Arlen refused. When my mother demanded to know why he wouldn't listen, Arlen was quiet. Finally he insisted to my mom that I drop the rocks in my pocket too. My 88-year-old mom still loves to tell that story about Arlen. She couldn't imagine that her dear son was equally at fault. That was Arlen even as a five-year-old. Tough. Determined. When he knew he was right, he never backed down.
When we were young, we did the normal things that kids did in '60s and '70s. This was before the era where kids had every minute of the day scheduled for them with soccer, karate classes, art classes and French lessons. There was lots of idle time to hang out with your friends. Long summer days.
We grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts. Wilbraham was beautiful. We entertained one another with pick-up football games, kick-the-can, playing Army and basketball or pick-up hockey games at Bennett's pond in the winter. We wore out the Hansons' front yard with a permanently broken-in wiffle ball field. Heather's family's house was next door to the Hansons' and made up the outfield of this diamond, and there was this corner of their fenced-in yard that was part of left field. We considered that small corner of the field our Big Green Monster... our version of Fenway's famous wall. Arlen had this amazing knack for hitting the ball just perfectly, between two oak trees to that small corner of the field, for the only probable way to get a home run -- popping it just over that corner of the fence. It was beautiful to watch. He would do that again and again, and no matter how hard the rest of us tried, we just couldn't do it.
Arlen was a natural athlete. He admired great athletes, as you all probably know. He loved college football the most. But we all admired him. He was a hell of a baseball player and hockey player as a kid and played hockey in his adulthood, as well. He was a good skier too. But he could run like a deer. Even in his 40s and a bit out of shape, Arlen at a moment's notice could throw on some New Balance sneakers and shorts and go run 12 miles like it was a couple laps around a track.
His childhood was not an easy one. Arlen's father died when he was young and that made his high school years pretty tough. I think he viewed that extended neighborhood family as really important to him. Our parents all loved him, too. I know that our friend Todd Labine also helped him through this tough time, as did Todd's lovely parents.
Though brilliant, the distractions of his father passing and troubles at home hurt his academic life in high school, so he finished up at a prep school in his beloved New Hampshire, not far from his family's summer home. He thrived, securing a 4.0 grade point average for his senior year. Classic Arlen. Struggling a bit, then parking that wiffle ball out to left corner field like it took no effort at all.
Arlen and I reunited at UMass for a year, where he was accepted into a very exclusive engineering program. One year into it he horrified me with the news he had quit school and enlisted in the Army into the famous 82nd Airborne Division. Where did that come from? He had never even mentioned the Army to me once, and I saw him every single day that year. I pleaded with him to no avail to reconsider what I felt was a bad decision.
This was the early '80s, not long after Vietnam. Those images were all still in our heads. But once again, he thrived. His natural athletic ability and toughness came through immediately. This was a kid who had broken every single finger in both hands from hockey fights between the age of 10 and 12. When I say tough, he was the real thing. The Army liked that about Arlen.
A Major noticed him and recommended he apply to West Point Prep, which could potentially lead him to West Point. That's all Arlen needed to hear. He had his new goal to reach. And as you all know, he went on to West Point, which many believe is as hard, or harder to get into than Harvard, since it requires being great at many things, not just academics.
Heather and I attended his graduation from West Point. To say we were proud of him is a total understatement. His mother and brother Lenny were there and everyone was beaming. Especially Arlen. I personally must have bragged about my friend Arlen at least 200 times to anyone who would listen to me. His ability to rise above adversity was an inspiration to me. And it still is.
He went on to graduate from U.S. Army Ranger School, which only the elite can pass. He scored so high on his academic exams that they made him take them again to see if he was cheating. He wasn't. He was just smart.
Arlen served honorably in the First Gulf War. He wrote me many times from the desert. As time went on, he became more introspective and grew tremendously in his view of the world. This boy I grew up with had become one of the most interesting men I have met in my entire life. His time in the Middle East changed him and he had a lot to say about the struggles of the human race. But he'd sign his letters with something funny, like a drawing of himself riding a camel and a joke thanking Saddam for inviting him to his country.
Even now in our mid-forties, we would talk for hours on the phone every few weeks. Without a doubt he was the best at staying in touch with old friends, including, to my great fortune, me.
When he finally found Paula, I was so happy for him and the life he was building in Dallas. When his little boy Ryan and then Jack Arlen came around, it just made all of us so happy for him. Nothing meant more to him than his family. Seeing Ryan and Baby Jack Arlen, I can't help but think about Arlen as that little guy in my front yard.
Those are my special memories of this good man and my good friend.
We will miss you Arlen. May God bless you.