Actually, this will undoubtedly change, inasmuch as I have experienced my own series of “medical events”. I sort of wrote it under the watchful eye of two critics/editors/great friends and it rolled out in a day as nicely as I could want.
Writing about Jack Hicks is an emotional experience for me, beyond a doubt. Our talks were full of laughs and life, with unruly interruptions from dogs and people which anarchy simply made it all more memorable.
All I really lack in finishing the book are facts……….a lot of them. Jack dearly wanted to “name names” of his ballplayers and to try and make sure everyone felt a part of his life – because they were. Once my medical issues are finally overcome, I will be spending oodles of time in Owensboro in an effort to clean up the loose ends. With that in mind, I wrote the following:
“The miles burn by through a lush and gorgeous maze of green forests, untended fields and manicured farms as I drive the 118 miles to Jack Hicks’ home in Owensboro. I reflect on the beauty of Southern Indiana countryside along Highway 65, then South on Hwy 231, a gorgeous pastiche of nature and agriculture. It is shamelessly intoxicating, riveting entertainment in all months of the year except for the Winter months. I often attach earphones as I drive and listen to the interview tapes Coach Hicks and I created together. I digest the “fresh” news; I have 40 hours of recordings, and I almost always dig up nuggets previously missed on the colorful history of this man and his times. On the seat beside me, I keep both a notebook and a recorder handy to note my thoughts and reflections. Altogether, the drive has become a deeply personal, heart-full experience, the biographical work, even including the physical act of the travel to the source. The work he and I have done has caused me to reflect on my own life in the silence of this unfolding amid this deeply evocative movement of the land around me. I often think of my travel as a testament to the America of roads, automobile power and my own well-chronicled personal and powerful wanderlust.
It becomes an accounting.
The irony of my current situation strikes me with the brutal realization that there seems to be so much mortality around me these days. My mother, who is 95, is someone I help and care for back home in Louisville, where I relocated to help her and my brother Tom. Her medical struggles are similar to Jack’s. Each are failing and a little frightened. Each has become in need of caregiving, even as Jack still hosts loving friends and family. Each might have jetted off this mortal coil and well could have years ago, yet both hang on in ways which are unselfish and rather refreshing for that. Each of them exist because the fire of their curiosity is still alive. Each are “waiting to see how things come out.” Each is also surrounded by an absurdly caring tribe who relish their remaining moments on Earth and who ask nothing more than that they stay mentally active. One cannot miss the impression that each still very much enjoy living. Both now feel well beyond desperate, and far more grateful than resentful. Their proud exhaustion fuels my sadness.What they have grown to understand is beyond me..
When I took on the project of writing Jack’s life story, I had no idea my own mother’s medical fate would parallel his. The days spent in Owensboro interviewing Jack, recording his words and recollections, kept us both fresh with newly-recorded reminiscences. Each meeting became richer than the last until all this momentum “stopped on a dime”.
Last September, while going to her weekly lunch with ladies who had shared the tradition together for long years, Mother broke her hip in a terrible fall. She shattered her hip. Her situation quickly deteriorated in the hospital hastened further by kidney troubles. She was on heavy pain-killing medication and she suffered from hallucinations. Her helplessness was something new to my brother Tom and me. We each struggled with our emotions and we felt the grimness of the absolute finality we faced. Mortality haunted us for a while, an uncomfortable revelation of Nature’s power.
I cut off my Owensboro visits with Jack to attend to Mother at home in Louisville. She eventually found herself in a rehab facility where she slowly but effectively returned to some seriously robust health. We each visited her two times a day to keep her spirits up and to encourage her improvement. Caring for Mom became our job.
Mother became one of the exemplary rehabilitations of her rehab facility at the young age of 94, full of spit and vinegar She improved by leaps and bounds every day. She got to where she read the most of a book a day, and she was insanely and absolutely delighted to finally get her release and return to her own bed. Honestly, it was very cool.
However, Mom’s broken hip set my work with Coach Hicks back five months, which would stretch to longer as Winter descended and made traveling perilous. I lost momentum and barely communicated with Jack, who knew and had taught with Mom at Owensboro High School. Jack asked about her often and fondly..
At the same time, Jack’s health began to decline. He had landed at an age and condition where the only question is “when?” not “how?”. The question was most certainly not “Why?” Few others could have made it so long and far as he had.
On my next visit to Owensboro, I am left to digest the bittersweet and dueling sensation of loss and accomplishment. I entered Jack’s house without knocking and yelled out my presence: “Anybody home??”
I hear the familiar as I walk back through the hall to Jack’s bedroom.
“Come on in!!”
It is baseball season and Jack scrolls through his beloved Christmas present of 3 year’s ago: The Major League Baseball Channel’. Jack now has access to every single game of the day and he is already smiling.
The vibrant, huge sporting giant who loomed over my youth smiles at me through his never-ending bodily pain from his bed and extends his hand. Jack’s hands themselves are personally legendary and worthy of a story themselves some day. Spare, smooth and bony, large and amazingly strong even still, his hand engulfs mine with sincere pressure. Those hands lifted his polio-ravaged lower body into a society which allowed him to excel. They have worked as hard as any hands in Western Civilization.
His Beagle attacks me with licks, rotating upside down on my lap, schmoozing in even closer, recalling the serious petting I was responsible for for quite some extended time now. The dog never fails to evince a smile out of Jack who will comment about its recent behavior. Our ritual is established and wholesome, our smiles intact as Jack once again wonders why anyone figures he is interesting enough to actually write a book about.
Occasionally we get visited during our meetings by various and sundry folks. Jack maintains a social life in his bed-ridden days which he still relishes. On the days when Randy Embry visits, he has an especially large smile. Randy’s obvious love for Jack is reciprocated, all of which revolves around the nexus of Owensboro sports. In Randy’s case, I am somewhat positive Jack’s admiration is more for his athletic gifts, inasmuch as few people in the world had talent remotely close to his. But Randy was also among the coaching fraternity, fully furthered in his progress and career by Jack. They “go back”, in short. We sit and cut up, swapping stories about our teams, asking questions we may always have wondered about to these days. The time passes effortlessly and fluidly and I suddenly realize Jack’s eyes are drooping.
A couple of “attention rallies” later, coupled with another long story or two, I bid them both a fond good bye, already missing this priceless ambiance.
I stop by Starbucks to sum up what just happened on an informational basis and drop notes on my laptop. A good large espresso primes me for a visit to the Messenger & Inquirer archives on micro-film at the public library where I spend the next 4 hours studying events of decades ago. At times the work seems insurmountable. There is just so much. Jack won 11 American Legion State Championships. He won 4 High School State Championships. His high school record was basically 700-200. This guy won games at an 80% clip. He scheduled everyone from everywhere. So many stories…………..so many athletes……….so many bizarre and impossible situations………..and so much respect this man earned from those who played for him.
Both he and Mom have limited time left. I have long since decided to enjoy what time they give me. That seems a near-perfect solution.
A few years ago I read “East of Eden” for the first time. I marveled at Steinbeck’s ability to paint such a beautiful word-picture of Salinas Valley, California while pecking away on a manual typewriter. Your introductory paragraph had that same affect on me – although it might have been slightly more captivating if you had been driving a convertible Corvette!
Having said that, the most poignant paragraph to me is the description of the “vibrant, huge sporting giant” extending his hand while in pain. Somehow I could sense him smiling at both you and Randy Embry, even while in pain. Just a thought – and you are a far better writer than I ever thought of being so take it with a grain of salt. I’m not saying you should do this, but you might at least consider moving this paragraph to the beginning.
Regardless, it is a great read about a great man and I can’t wait to see the entire finished product!
Thank you so much, Sandy. Some of us discover a sort of unfolding talent along the mists of time and after some substantial effort which never included this destination. Now that I am working with a talent I really never considered to possess, it both elates and frightens me in ways which I was not prepared for. The thing is now, I am old and crotchety enough (as you know, lol) to maybe be able to overcome the lesser demons which fear success and consider my audience with the sort of reverence which I hold for this subject. And, of course, to continue until the Finishline. Thanks for your kind words, Sandy. Oh, and your ideas moving that paragraph to the very front is interesting to me. It does capture a rich moment.
Beautiful. Poetic. Sincere.
Excellent read Steve. Very touching.
I just caught up with this Steve. Very touching and personal. I realize this must take on an even deeper meaning for you at this point, having had to face some difficulty of your own….staring mortality down. Your painstaking work will be rewarded with joy and satisfaction. Obviously this is a passion for you and a labor of love. That reads to be a fantastic forward!