He should be dead. Instead he's singing karaoke. Sometime after midnight, he grabs the microphone in the smoky back room of Terri's Place, a honky-tonk bar with a concrete floor and blinking beer signs on the main drag of Colwich, Kansas (population 1,400). The furnishings are purely functional: a pool table, folding chairs, walls covered with Nascar and Budweiser posters. Sunburned guys with tattoos stare unapologetically at a handful of girls in low-cut tops, their cleavage enveloped in clouds of perfume.
Truth be told, Chase Kear looks a little ragged. Two years ago, he was what the waitresses in the local diner like to call a "sweetheart," a kid who graduated Andale High with state-championship rings in three sports. Now his Abercrombie & Fitch frame has gone schlubby. He once dreamed of becoming a fireman, but at age 20, he finds himself rethinking his goals. Molasses tan from long days of landscaping, he wears a puka-shell necklace, a baby-blue T-shirt, board shorts, and sandals. His dusty Miller Lite ball cap is tugged over the shaggy brown hair that covers the crown of scars on his head. One by one, the locals approach to pay homage. Curvy women lean in close and whisper that they have prayed for him. Burly guys buy him beers and shots, bumming cigarettes just to linger beside him.
Kear never asked for all this attention, but he takes full advantage of it. He's well on his way to surpassing his 10-beer limit when "Sweet Home Alabama" hits the speakers. A group of girls in tight T-shirts rush to join him as backup singers, their bodies rubbing up against him as they sway to the music. He flashes a smile. It's like that now. "A lot of people want to touch me, give a hug, put a hand on my shoulder," he says. "They want to touch a miracle."
For the last half-century, in their times of need, folks in Colwich have turned to the memory of a long-dead priest. Born 80 miles to the north in Pilsen in 1916, Emil Kapaun grew up dirt poor, raising chickens for spare change and trapping skunks in the woods for fun. He was always adventurous: As a boy, he backed his father's new car out of the garage to take his playmates for a ride.
To Kapaun, the priesthood was not simply a calling but also a means for exploration. He wanted to see the world as a missionary. After enlisting in the service near the end of World War II, he toured India and Burma. He re-upped in September 1948 because he felt compelled to help the troops. By mid-1950, he had landed in North Korea as the pipe-smoking chaplain of the 8th Cavalry Regiment of the First Cavalry Division. The relentless slog of infantry suited him. "You know—walking and marching!!" he wrote to his brother. "I love it."
As the sun set on November 1, 1950—All Saints' Day—Kapaun's mettle was put to the test. His unit was pinned down under heavy machine-gun fire for more than 36 hours in the North Korean farming outpost of Unsan. While many of his colleagues retreated, he stayed behind to tend to the wounded, an act that earned him a Distinguished Service Cross for heroism. After Kapaun was captured, he refused to cooperate, brushing aside Chinese soldiers to lift and carry bleeding American soldiers during a two-week, 100-mile death march to Prison Camp No. 5 in Pyoktong, a warren of bombed-out, lice-infested cabins along the banks of the Yalu River. About a thousand men were held there, and fewer than half would survive the brutal winter. Kapaun did what he could to comfort them, teaching them how to fold scrap metal into tins that could be used to heat snow for water. He harvested ice from the river to wash their soiled undergarments. After praying to St. Dismas, known also as the "Good Thief," he'd steal provisions from his captors' stockpiles. He became a sort of gruff guardian angel, one who cussed and joked that when God said we should love our enemies, he'd clearly forgotten about the Communists. When a guard proclaimed that it was Mao Tse-tung who now provided the daily bread, a fellow POW reports, Kapaun scoffed: "Well, [Mao] is a terrible baker."
In May 1951, the chaplain contracted pneumonia and the Chinese quarantined him in a sick house. That's where his journey ended, from illness, starvation, or freezing to death—no one knows which.
Fifty-eight years later, Father Kapaun is a man in search of a miracle, maybe even two. For his valor, he may soon receive a Congressional Medal of Honor. But officials in the Diocese of Wichita would like to see him honored as a saint. To qualify, a servant of God must usually be credited with a pair of miracles, one for beatification and one for canonization, but Kapaun could be beatified as a martyr, says the Reverend John Hotze, a judicial vicar for the diocese who's conducting the investigation into the priest's life. Even so, an authority outside the church must confirm that each act of divine intervention defies all scientific explanation.
Over the centuries, hundreds of Europeans have been credited with performing such works and thereby declared saints, but only two Americans have passed the test. The shortfall is a result, in part, of the nation's relatively brief history, but it also has something to do with the burden of proof. As medical science has advanced, so have the standards for confirming miracles.
On October 2, 2008, during track practice at a community college in Hutchinson, Kansas, a young pole-vaulter misjudged a jump. Instead of propelling himself over the bar, he launched himself outward beyond the crash mat. He fell face-first onto the pavement, splitting his skull from ear to ear. Chase Kear was airlifted 50 miles to Via Christi Regional Medical Center in Wichita, where he was given last rites and put into a medically induced coma to stop his brain from swelling. Twenty-four hours later, in a last-ditch effort to save his life, doctors removed the right side of his skull. They cut two quarter-size purple chunks of matter from his right frontal lobe, an area of the brain that helps control emotion and short-term memory. If he awoke at all, they said, Kear would likely be a vegetable.
Kear's mother, Paula, hung a laminated prayer card at the foot of her son's hospital bed and the Colwich community rallied around him, joining hands and invoking Father Kapaun's name. Kear's younger brothers, Cole and Clay, posted the prayer on a Facebook get-well page and more parishioners joined the chorus.
Ten days later, the young pole-vaulter woke up. He was partially paralyzed and unable to talk but soon commandeered the remote control. The following week in a rehab unit, he pulled the trachea tube from his neck. Before long he was asking for Mountain Dew. He was fitted with a protective helmet and spent 30 days learning how to walk again. On November 21, he stepped from his hospital bed for the last time and, with a police escort, returned home. Friends and neighbors lined the streets.
He's not exactly sure why, but he proposed to his 21-year-old girlfriend, Teal, and she accepted. By mid-December, the swelling in his head had subsided to the point where he could be fitted with a prosthetic skull plate. "I'm really hard-headed," he jokes.
When Kear emerged from his coma, his father, Paul, tried to set him on a new course in life. But his son couldn't resist all of his old vices. He started attending parties and rejoined his hard-drinking softball team. He was soon sliding headlong into second base and balancing on the balls of his feet atop empty beer cans. At each landscaping gig, friends tested him with frat-boy movie quotes to jog his short-term memory. "I'm kind of a big deal," Kear likes to say, quoting Ron Burgundy in Anchorman.
In the years since he started investigating Emil Kapaun's deeds, Hotze has uncovered dozens of "favors granted," the Catholic term for unproved miracles, but virtually all were impossible to confirm. He talked with a soldier who survived a bomb blast in Baghdad, but there was no way to demonstrate how he'd dodged the deadly shrapnel. And the girl with the inoperable cancer that went into remission? Well, the medical records didn't adequately illustrate her remarkable recovery. And even if they had, doctors are notoriously reluctant to admit when they can't explain what happened. Kear's neurosurgeon, Raymond Grundmeyer, had no such qualms. He acknowledged to the Vatican and the press that the young man's recovery was "miraculous."
For Kear himself, the turning point came in a dream: He remembers floating through a white tunnel to a set of ornate golden gates where he saw his grandfather. "Why am I here?" he asked. "I don't know," the old man said. "Go home." So he did.
These days, the Miracle Man—as folks in the Colwich area like to call him—is watched like a messiah. A year ago, they gave him his own day of honor. In August, they named him grand marshal of the Heritage Festival parade. During SummerFest in nearby Andale, they let him throw candy from a custom-made monster truck, high above the John Deere tractors and antique roadsters. All the while, they scrutinized him for signs of something bigger.
Kear understands this, but he's determined to conduct his second life on his own terms. No longer engaged (Teal dumped him in April), he prizes the week in June that he met with a Vatican investigator more for the opportunity to see the hallowed Country Stampede Music Festival and make out with three different women than for the opportunity to break bread with a member of the Pope's posse. "Before I met Teal, I was kind of a man whore," he says. "It was not that hard to get a girl. Now it's kind of weird, I'm not that guy." He's philosophical about the breakup. "They say there's more fish in the sea, and I love fishing," he quips. Not long ago, he offered this Facebook status update: "Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy . . . Save a Cowboy Ride a Miracle."
That Kear doesn't pretend to be an altar boy seems to be precisely why the people of Colwich embrace him. Rather than preach about second chances, Kear dispenses his own peculiar brand of wisdom: He used to go out with his buddies to get wasted; now he goes in search of camaraderie. To demonstrate the beauty of life, he pulls on a pair of cut-off work gloves and wades bare-chested into the local waters to wrestle catfish. During a coffee break one day, he sits down and eyes the pesticide backpack he's been lugging around all morning. "I get to have a workout while I'm at work," he says, shrugging.
Kear may not sound like much of a miracle, but as the faithful are fond of saying, God works in mysterious ways. The Reverend Hotze hopes to review his findings with the Vatican investigator in January. If all goes as planned, he'll send his final report to Rome in June. Then it's up to the Pope's Congregation for Saints to make a decision.
Assuming he did intervene to save Kear's life, it's fitting that the offbeat Kapaun would choose to pin his hopes for sainthood on such a colorful character. In late summer, his young disciple breaks out a sleeveless T-shirt, a black Kenny Chesney-style cowboy hat, and cargo shorts, and leaves home with his parents to meet with a traumatic-brain-injury support group in Wichita. He still has issues, he confesses. His weight gain is in part due to the steroids used to treat the swelling in his brain. He recently suffered two seizures; the first knocked him off a bar stool, the second laid him out in the flip-flop section at Wal-Mart. As a result, he had to stop driving for a while, so his mom shuttled him around as if he were 14 years old. His short-term memory still deserts him. One minute he'll joke that the greatest gift from the accident is that Miller Lite tastes like cherries, and the next he'll say, "Did I ever tell you Miller Lite tastes like cherries?" But most of the other patients in the room are worse off. Some are in wheelchairs. Others struggle to eat their complimentary cookies. When a fiftysomething drunk-driving victim jokes that the football team at Kear's alma mater is worthless, the former defensive back decides not to give him a pass. To his parents' horror, he stands up from his chair and leans across the table.
"What's that, old man? You can't say that if you can't back it up."
There's a moment of silence as the man processes this. "Oh, yeah?" he barks. "And what do you think you can do about it?"
No one recognizes what Kear is up to, not until he cracks that gap-toothed grin and both men lean back chuckling. In this part of the world, guys like to get rowdy, to bond by flexing their muscles. It's a strange way of operating, of course, but much like Father Kapaun before him, Chase Kear has made a connection. He's inspired someone to keep on living. When he returns to school in the fall, he thinks, he just might want to become a teacher.