Monday, December 26, 2016

A Guy Named Chuck

I Thought I Knew a Guy Named Chuck

Occasionally a name appears in the obituaries that triggers a memory, a face looks out that is faintly recalled, a forgotten connection is restored. The deceased may not have played a significant role in your life, yet he or she shared a part of your past. You may not even recognize the photo next to the name. Frequently the family pulls a picture from an album or a dusty frame that shows him "in better days." Yet there is an echo, like a song or a voice, faintly distinguishable but impossible to ignore.

Such a name showed up not long ago in the local papers. Charles "Chuck" Murphy. I knew a guy named Chuck Murphy. Played senior softball with him, years ago. But I didn't recognize the small, square photo. A young military man, he wore what looked like a Navy cap, the dress kind with a bill and, on the front, an anchor, the Navy symbol. This was not the Chuck I knew. This guy was a kid, barely old enough to shave, a smile and a look that held all the promise of a bright future. An American flag headlined the short obituary that began "Beloved husband for 70 years to his soulmate..."
Truth be told, I'm not in the habit of reading the obituaries. I think it's a lousy way to start the day. I don't want any reminders that my name and photo will be in there one day. Hopefully not next Thursday. But sometimes, when I'm standing in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to perk, the water to boil, or the toast to pop up, I'll skim the dearly departed. It's like a treasure hunt where you hope you don't find the treasure.

I read the complete obit, maybe 180 words, including information about the memorial service coming up on the following Sunday. This was Thanksgiving weekend, certainly a time to give thanks for being alive. What I learned about Chuck in those few words made me realize how little I knew about him.

The year I met him was 2000. I had discovered the Senior Softball League at Kirkwood Park. You had to be 65 or older to play. I had barely made the cut. So I tentatively stuck my bat into the sport I had been absent from for many years. In fact, I didn't have a bat. Or a glove. Or the right kind of shoes. I had nothing but curiosity and maybe a modicum of ability. I would be one of the young players. I signed up at the Community Center. Games were to begin in two weeks. My next stop was Sports Authority for a fielder's glove, a can of Neatsfoot oil, and black shoes with plastic cleats. The bat came later, when I discovered that most players brought their own bats.

Of the 30 or 40 guys who showed up two or three days a week for the morning games, one of them struck me as supremely gifted. He hit the ball solidly - to right, left, or up the middle. Anyplace he figured they were playing him too deep or too shallow. He ran the bases with a deceptive speed, often stretching a single into a double, beating out a ground ball on a slow throw from third. But it was his dominance of left field that made the greatest impression on me. He was graceful. In the same way that Joe DiMaggio had been graceful in the Yankees' outfield.  At the crack of the bat, Chuck had a sixth sense where the ball was going. He immediately knew where he had to be, how quickly he needed to move to get there, where to hold his glove to snare the ball. He scooped up line drives, chased down long balls hit between him and the center fielder. No hesitation, no false steps. Just a sureness as beautiful to behold as Joltin' Joe. If you were on the opposing team, the word was "Don't hit it to left."

I knew very little about Chuck beyond his athletic skill. He wanted to win but not at the expense of friendship and fun. One day, someone mentioned to me that Chuck was 81 years old. I was astounded. Eighty-one belonged in the upper tiers of life. On the softball field it achieved even greater importance. Age, they say, is only a number. For Chuck, it was a number to be ignored, not even given consideration.
I didn't talk with Chuck much. No conversations, at least nothing any deeper than the play of the moment.  The only words we exchanged were "Nice catch" or "Good try" or "Way to go." Sincere but expected phrases revealing very little of either one of us.

No, I didn't know Chuck. After reading his obituary, it hit me just how precious an opportunity I had let pass by. In that short column in the paper, I learned that Chuck was a four-sports varsity letterman. That was evident on those summer mornings in the fields of Kirkwood. What wasn't evident was that he had served as a Navy pilot during WWII. That he had won many medals in the Senior Olympics. That he loved jazz. That he travelled extensively.
Right there were two of my favorite areas of interest: the War and Jazz. I wondered, What did he fly? Where was he based? Did he see combat? How did he end up to be a fly-boy in the Navy? Would he be willing to let me do a video of his stories and life? Questions I would never have an answer for.

And jazz. What kind of jazz did he like? Who were his favorite artists? Did he like big bands, or small groups? Did he ever see Benny Goodman or Louis Armstrong in person? Where did he go to hear jazz? Could we go out together some night to hear jazz? I was too late. The sounds had faded.

I loved the last sentence of his obit, a strange place to find poetry. It said, "He was a man of his generation: honest, kind, generous, ethical and responsible."
Those seem to be qualities more rare these days, attributes that should be imbedded in our DNA if we are to succeed as a nation and a race.

I am now 81 years old. I still play softball. I sometimes stand where Chuck stood. But not with the grace and talent of Chuck. I'm sure no one looks at me with awe. But that's not the point. Here's the point. We know so little of the people we think we know. We don't take the time or trouble to learn more. Only at their passing do we realize what we have truly lost, what rich and interesting lives are no longer available to us to absorb, to fascinate, to make us revel in the full wonder of what life can mean to us. And to others.

So what do we do?  Maybe all it takes is a word, a question, a shift of focus from yourself to that someone else. Perhaps it's as simple as listening for that small detail in someone's life, like a partially open door that leads you into an incredible room where you finally see what that person is all about, where their life journey has taken them. Quite possibly, you may find one or two items in there that compels you to know more about them. In fact, you might just meet one of the most interesting people you've ever known. You will have enhanced your world. Then you won't have to read about what you missed.

(I took this photo of Chuck in 2001, when I was photographing many of the softball players for an exhibit at the Kirkwood Community Center. It remains one of my favorite portraits.)