39 Years of Memories: A Retrospective (PART 1)

Guest post by Grant Chastain

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This is a huge undertaking.  I know this going in.

I am going to set about the relatively impossible and completely absurd task of cataloging my life.  This isn’t a memoir, so much as a life in temporary review.  I am hoping that this exercise will help me discover something about myself.

I got to thinking about memory recently.  As I approach 40, I’ve of course discovered that my memory is beginning to flag.  This isn’t in any kind of worrisome way – just the general-purpose CRS that affects us all.  But it occurs to me that I remember less with each passing year.  The events that I found most important, or the ones I promised myself I’d always remembers… they fade a little each day, like a yellowing Polaroid.

I wish I could still remember all the little moments when I looked at something and thought, “This… I’m going to remember THIS for the rest of my life.”  Instead, we’re going to look at the defining moments that I truly REMEMBER, and well.  Those little milestones that made me the person I am today.  I will leave nothing on the table.  This will include the important and the not-so-important.

Maybe it’s all important, and I’m just too close to it.  I suspect I’ll never know.

In order to make this readable — hell, ACHIEVABLE — I will break it into four equal parts.  This is the first of those, encompassing my first 10 years.

This is what I remember about my life.

1975:  I am born, the son of Eugene and Dianne Chastain.  Her second marriage, his third.  My parents would remain together until my dad’s passing in 2008.  I was born in St. Louis County, and lived the first years of my life in Arnold, Missouri.  I have little recollection of it – what little I do is classically suspect, and may well be simply my memory of an old photograph, taken in the backyard next to a white picket fence.  We would subsequently move from this home to another just outside Bonne Terre when I am 4.  This is the home I would have until I was 9.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  Drinking from a bottle.  Terrorizing the dog.  Missouri in September is flat and grey and boring and wonderful and quiet and it is my home.  Now and forever.

1978-1979:  I have jagged shards of memories from this time.  Memories of lost pets, and an endless grassy backyard that seemed miles in length to my tiny legs.  I remember getting bitten by a mother dog while trying to pet puppies, and how I cried more from the perceived betrayal than the actual bite itself.

We lived on what was, more or less, a de facto farm – but I remember little farming taking place.  It was, essentially, a repository for animals.  We also lived less than a mile from my paternal grandmother, and a short drive from my maternal grandparents.  I could walk to one grandmother’s home, and we frequently visited the others a short drive away.  I remember my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side of the family.  Our visits were filled with love, and hugs, and other pets, all of whom I adored.  I remember giant fields spanning miles in distance.  I remember the warmth of the sun on my cheeks as I walked the footpaths from my home to my grandmother’s home.  I remember cookies when I arrived, and hugs when I left.  I remember my grandmother’s cat, Boots.

In 1979, I started Kindergarten at the age of 4.  I remember being told that I HAD to drink my white milk, even though I hated it passionately, and still do to this day.  I remember at recess accidentally dropping my Han Solo action figure down a deep drainage grate, and my teacher refused to retrieve it.  This led to somehow – through sheer cult-of-personality – convincing my classmates to work as a team to lift up the heavy metal grate, so I could drop down into the sewer cistern to retrieve it.  I remember sitting in the principal’s office waiting to know whether I’d be punished for having organized the effort… and yet secretly proud that I managed to get my Han Solo back without parental intervention.  I remember laughing at a little girl that cried because she was late to school one day, thinking how silly she was… until I was late a few days later, and found myself suddenly bursting into tears while others laughed… for reasons I did not understand.  I never laughed at someone for crying ever again.

I also saw my first movie at the local theater – “The Aristocats.”  I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for Thomas O’Malley, the Alley Cat.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  Sometimes people will try to make you drink your milk even though you hate it.  And it seems unfair, because you hate it, and because the world seems unusually cruel to milk-hating folks.  But sometimes people try to get you to do things for your own good, and failing to do something worthwhile just because you hate it sets you up for a lifetime of disappointments.  At other times… knowing when to fight for something you love, and convince others to help you achieve your goal, teaches you a completely different lesson.

And crying is not what makes us weak.  It’s what makes us human.

1980:  My school earmarked me as some kind of “gifted student,” though I cannot to this day imagine what sort of special aptitude I could have shown in 1st grade that would have warranted special recognition.  This meant that I got to spend a few hours each day in a 2nd grade classroom.  I felt very isolated and alone – no one could satisfactorily explain why I was there, and none of the other students welcomed me in, so I spent much of the day trying to keep up on school work.  One day, my teacher forgot about me while the rest of my 1st grade class went on a field-trip, and I missed my return bus home.  I panicked, and my teacher — whose name I cannot remember — had to drive me home based upon my 1st grader directions, which meant that I drove her down every single road and inlet that my school bus would have taken.  A simple drive to my house, normally a 15-20 minute drive, took us nearly an hour.  I feel less shame about this than I probably should.

I remember seeing two movies this year – the Robert Altman adaptation of “Popeye” starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall, and “The Empire Strikes Back.”  I do not know if I had seen “Star Wars” by this time, but this was the first film that showed me how powerful films can be to a young mind.  I am officially hooked.  I remember seeing my 1st grade teacher at this movie – she says hi to me, and I say nothing in return.  My mother is embarrassed at my having said nothing to her in greeting, but passes it off.  Later I am asked why I did this, and my best guess is that I thought I wasn’t supposed to talk to teachers outside of school.  I’m not certain where I picked up this notion, but it may have been from an old Peanuts comic.

My brother Gene gives me a handful of Mad Magazines.  I am hooked.  It’s one of my first exposures to the concept of comic books or sequential art.  This, along with Savage Sword Of Conan, are the only two comics they have for sale at the grocery store.  Mom refuses to buy me SSOC, but acquiesces to Mad, and I become a faithful reader.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  There is precious little magic in this world, except for the feeling of being transported to another world by masterful storytelling.  So far I have yet to find a way to replicate the amazing feeling of having your breath taken away by a film for the very first time.  I will chase it forever.

1981:  I catch the school bus every single day at my grandmother’s house, at the base of her steep gravel driveway.  This happens at 7:00am.  My routine is to eat Quaker Apples & Cinnamon oatmeal while watching TV.  The only program that plays on KPLR-11 every morning at 6:30am is the 1950s version of “The Lone Ranger.”  To this day, I am the only 39 year-old man that’s seen every single episode, and can instantly identify which ones star Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore.  Every episode features a skirmish in front of gigantic fake-looking boulder, for reasons no one ever bothers to outline.

Among my Christmas gifts that season was included an Atari 2600.  I spent untold numbers of hours playing Combat by myself, despite it being almost solely a 2-player game.  My brother plays with me sometimes, but less often than you’d think.  We are 8 years apart in age, and he prefers to play with the kids across the street — our only neighbors for several miles.

I take part in a single year of Little League.  I am the worst player on not only the team, and possibly the entire league – but our entire team is terrible, so I fit in.  I only cross home plate once during a game, and it’s because a fellow player hit a home run, driving me in from first.  As I instinctually know this will be my only opportunity to do so, I slide feet-first into home plate during my trot down the basepath.  I have zero regrets about this decision.

One day, I find a tiny bird, fallen from its nest – chirping madly for its mother.  My brother and I spend hours trying to figure out how to protect it from the elements that would do it harm, to return it to its nest.  At last my brother manages the feat, requiring a climb up a tree with no footholds and no protection from gravity’s pull.  I do not know if the bird survives its fall, if it ever grew to become an adult.  What I do know is that my brother accepted my proclaimation that this was a necessary and correct feat.  And he is my hero that day.

I also spend a solid 4 weeks in the hospital with pneumonia.  At one point my class takes a trip to the hospital room to see me.  It does not occur to me until many, MANY years down the road — we’re talking in the last 4-5 years — that the primary reason they did this is because there was a chance I might not survive.  It’s probably for the best that I did not know this at the time.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  There is value in solitary pursuits.  Reading, gaming, or simple gazing at stars.  Each of these things can bring joy to one’s soul, and illustrate the power of solitude upon one’s imagination.  Also, Quaker Apples & Cinnamon oatmeal is, at this time, the best thing to happen to breakfasts.  Its introduction to the breakfast aisle is clearly some kind of watershed.  Some people may feel that Cinnamon & Brown Sugar is a superior choice, but they have clearly overlooked the dearth of small dehydrated apples, which makes their opinion invalid in every measurable way.

Also, that there are some feats that seem impossible, and may well be… but that does not mean you should not try to do them anyway.  For the good of one’s soul.

1982:  I watched E.T. and was the only one in the theater that yelled out HEY THAT’S HAN SOLO when Harrison Ford showed up as Elliott’s school principal.  Later, it’s explained to me that actors can play different roles in different movies.  In that same year, I receive the “E.T.” game for the Atari 2600.  For years I labored under the delusion that I was the only person that actively hated this game, when in fact I was part of a larger group of individuals I refer to as “everyone in the entire world, forever.”

My parents also came home with a heavy black box featuring a new gadget they called a “VCR.”  There were all these tapes we could put in to instantly watch movies we liked.  There was also a store in town that allowed you to pay some money to borrow them, like a library.  We ended up with some copies of movies we watched a whole lot.  I watched “Airplane!” and “The Jerk” almost incessantly.  I have also watched “Foul Play” starring Chevy Chase, but there is a little person in the movie, and I shriek like I’m being murdered every time he appears on-screen.  My sincerest apologies to Billy Barty, who I am positive never meant to scare me.

Mere minutes after buying us both an ice cream cone, my mother is forced to run her car off the road to avoid hitting a negligent driver.  To his credit, he pulls over to make sure we are both okay.  My mother responds by launching her ice cream cone at the driver’s windshield.  This is not atypical.

My grandmother has a bunny hutch, inside which are beautiful rabbits for sale.  I routinely climb inside this hutch to sit with the bunnies – I am scarcely bigger than one myself.  It is still one of my happiest memories.  Sitting in a wire bunny hutch as tiny rabbits hop and climb all over me, watching the sun set over a Missouri country sky.  It does not occur to me until many, many years later that these bunnies were being bred to be eaten.  So it’s fair to say my periodic introduction into their universe is not the worst thing that will happen to them, and may well be the best.

On a school field trip, I received my first kiss on the cheek from a girl on the school bus whose name has forever been lost to the sands of time.  A few months later, she bequeaths to me her pet goldfish that she cannot take with her because she is moving away.  On the off-chance that this woman is now stumbling upon my blog entry… let me assure you that the goldfish lasted for quite some time, considering you gave it to a 6 year-old goof with zero survival skills of his own.  But I think that was mostly my brother’s doing.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  There are few joys in this world that compare with being accosted by a dozen small bunny rabbits whose only desire is to hop all over the new obstacle in their way.   Unless, of course, it’s the sudden and unexpected kiss of a pretty girl on a school bus.

1983:  Long days at school, followed by longer, beautiful summers.  I watched my brother try to kill a rattlesnake with a BB gun by STANDING OVER IT and firing downward, which even at the time seemed a little crazy.  I wasn’t allowed to shoot the BB gun myself, but I remember days coming home from church when my brother was allowed to purchase BBs from the local corner store.  I remember holding the container and feeling the heaviness of it, and being enamored with the idea of one day having a gun myself.  At 39 years old, I have yet to fulfill that destiny.

My grandmother comes home one day with a bag of potting soil purchased at the local Wal*Mart, intending to use it to plant tomatoes.  Inside this bag is the aforementioned soil, as well as a rather lengthygarter snake.  I am immediately paralyzed with fear.  My grandmother – who might well have been described by some as a “sturdy woman,” and a woman who did not truck in such pedestrian concepts as fear or hesitation – picked up the snake by the tail and chucked it out the screen door and onto the lawn.  There is never one moment where she considers filing a lawsuit against the store.  She never even considers calling the store manager to tell them what happened.  My grandmother shrugs her shoulders, and moves on with her day.  When you buy a bag of potting soil, you gotta expect a few garter snakes.

Later that year, I will see “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for the first time.  Indy is also afraid of snakes, which makes me feel a bit better about my phobia.  He is, to a 7 year-old boy, the coolest hero in the history of the world.  He’s still that way to a 39 year-old man.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  1)  Snakes are evil and must be thrown out of screen doors in order to establish dominance over the species.  2)  Just because you don’t like something – even if you’re actively afraid of it – does not mean life won’t sometimes throw it your way to see how you deal with it.  3) My family should probably own that Wal*Mart, or at least have a serious discount from here on in.  4)  Seriously, I hate snakes.  Forever.

1984: Teachers identify that I have a mild speech impediment with my S-sounds, probably due to some dental issues.  In response to this, I am put into what is referred to as “L.D.” – a class for those with learning disorders.  This is considerably scarier than the time when I got put into a grade ahead.  I am now in a single catch-all classroom with other kids who have emotional, behavioral and mental disorders.  I am terrified, because I appear to be the only person that realizes that I’m not supposed to be there.  Eventually, through no meaningful intervention on my part, I am moved back.  My speech normalizes once my teeth grow back in, which is a scenario that certainly could have been predicted by anyone who either A) has teeth, or B) once been a child.

My teacher also takes great pains to point out that I’m “holding my pencil wrong.”  For months I am forced to write sentences with a little rubber triangle around the center of my pencil, a trainer of sorts that is intended to force me to “hold my pencil correctly.”  I am confused, but acquiesce to this plan.  Each day I write more and more slowly, trying to do it the way my classmates do.   Eventually it is pointed out that “he’s really not hurting anything, is he?”, especially in light of my good penmanship, and I am allowed to hold my pencil the way I currently do.  To the polite outside observer, the way I hold a pencil is by gripping it with all five fingers.  This admittedly looks like I am trying to write with my less dominant hand, or that I perhaps have two broken fingers.  No one ever suggests I change this again.  My penmanship is above average.

One day, I make a remark in my 4th grade class that causes everyone to laugh.  I am instantly – for a fleeting moment – popular.  I file this away for later use.  My teacher is displeased.

My brother and I go see “Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom,” and later I con my mom into allowing me to see it by myself on the pretense that I fell asleep the first time, which I most assuredly DID NOT.

By 1984, it becomes clear that we are going to be moving to Kentucky – my dad has accepted a new job.  My mom and I are traveling back and forth between our old home and our new one.  I will be leaving my friends.  I will be leaving my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.  We are staying in a double-wide trailer while we await the home we will move into.  One night, while we are staying in Kentucky, we receive a call.  Our old home has caught fire, and subsequently burned to the foundation.  All of my pets, and all of my things, are lost.  I remember having to make a list of things I owned for our insurance claim.  All I can remember are toys, and my cat, and my guinea pig.  My mom cries when we see what remains of our old home.  Our path forward is set because there is now no path back.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  1) Just because an adult says that something is supposed to be a certain way… doesn’t necessarily make it true.  We are all of us equally capable of making bad decisions.  2) Some movies require repeated viewings on a big screen.  3)  Your world can change in the blink of an eye.

1985: We spend our summer living in a rented trailer while we await the availability of our new home, a single-story, 3 bedroom ranch home in a quiet suburban neighborhood in Paducah, Kentucky.  The trailer is small, and the kitchen – such as it is – is cramped.  I spend my days outside as much as possible walking the tiny corridors and inlets of the trailer park, and my nights watching TV on our newly-acquired cable TV.  This means hours and hours of HBO and MTV.  Due to the way HBO is programmed at the time, I spend my summer watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at least once every single day.  I would estimate I have seen this movie at least 150 times.

At a yard sale, I purchase an old Yankees baseball cap for fifty cents, mostly because it is similar in style to the one Short Round wore in “Temple of Doom.”  My father reimburses me for the money I spent, and throws it away.  It’s clear that Yankee allegiance is not going to fly in the home of a man raised in Missouri.  Not today, and not ever.

We move into our new home.  I have a bunk bed now, but no one to share it with – my brother gets the bigger bedroom at the end of the hall, so there’s no need to bunk in with me.  I alternate between the top and bottom bunks from night to night because I am bored and lonely.  One day, I am looking for a toy in the darkness under my bed — but without a flashlight, I cannot see.  I grab one of my mother’s cigarette lighters to see in the dark space underneath.  The tiny flame licks the plastic underneath the box springs, and a glob of hot melted plastic drips onto my right hand… scorching the skin, and leaving a tiny round burn-mark just below the knuckle.  The scar never heals, and is still visible to this day.  It was a blight for so long, but today… I like it quite a lot.  I have found that there is character inherent in one’s flaws, and I celebrate mine.

My father buys me a Playmobil toy fire truck for my 10th birthday.  It’s disappointing, because I’m clearly too old for this gift by at least 2-3 years.  At the ripe old age of 10, I have realized that my dad has spent so much time supporting his family financially… he’s neglected to learn much about us.  We do not share many of the same interests, because I am not yet a sports fan, and he does not seem to enjoy any of the things I do.  Regardless, I play with this truck on occasion for the next few years, until it finds its way into a yard sale.  I couldn’t say why I would pull it out of the closet and run it around the carpet, even years later.  I guess it felt like treasuring an opportunity to interact with something that my dad bought for me himself.

THINGS I LEARNED THAT YEAR:  The importance of “being there” in the development of a child cannot possibly be overstated.  The relationship we have with our children, at any age, sets the table for the relationship you will have with them when they are grown.  I wish my relationship with my father had been different, and so I take great strides to lead a different kind of life with my own child.  Whether I will be successful in my strategy is not for me to say.  Maybe we are all destined to make mistakes, but mine will, at minimum, not be for lack of effort.  I will show up to this game, ready to play.

Oh, and Midwestern boys are by law not allowed to like the Yankees.  Not today, not ever.

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This is the first of four retrospectives.  I will continue this list later in the year.  I think I need a little distance before I tackle my teenage years.

A Mind Forever Voyaging

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Guest post by Grant Chastain

“Wait… back up a sec.”

It was clearly him.  Completely out of the blue, in perhaps the last place I could have anticipated his appearance.  The first time I’d seen him in better than a decade.  Hell, the first time I’d seen him in digital form at all in perhaps TWO decades.

“What is it?”

“That painting… did you do that?  Where did that come from?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“The painting on the wall in your house.  Is that a standard painting?  Or did you create that yourself?”

“It’s standard.  I mean, you create the PAINTING, but the DESIGN is just something that’s standard in the game itself.  You construct a painting and that’s what you get.  Why, who is that supposed to be?”

I peered at it thoughtfully, and smiled.

“That’s Graham.  He’s a character from a game I used to play called ‘King’s Quest.’”

She frowned slightly, clearly trying to work out in her mind why the sudden appearance of a 30 year-old relic would have necessitated the temporary interruption of the grand design of her newest Minecraft home.

“So… okay.  So what does it mean?”

I looked at Graham and couldn’t help but smile at my forgotten friend.

But I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer to her question.

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The answer to my daughter’s question couldn’t be answered quickly – and after careful consideration, I’m not certain that it can be answered at all.

“What is it” is a relatively simple answer, but it’s not truly the question my 10 year-old progeny really wants to know.

The “what” of the simple glyph on her Minecraft wall depends on your point of view.  To her, it’s a simple 12×24 RGB-style pixel painting, featuring what might be a man, that occasionally adorns a wall beside a roaring fireplace, or hiding a secret passageway leading to – more often than not – an exceedingly elaborate dog kennel.

To me, though, he is Graham, a young adventurer who would one day be king of the land of Daventry.  Noble of heart and quick of wit.  As adept with a blade as he was a riddle, possessing of a kind heart and heroic poise in the face of danger.  And, coincidentally, star of an extremely popular series of PC games in the early 1980s called “King’s Quest.”

He’s  a bold adventurer, and a cunning warrior.  He’s also a good friend.  No mean feat for a simple 12×24 set of RGB pixels.

When I knew him, Graham had no voice, no eyeballs, and no back-story.  He started his adventuring day without an elaborate introduction sequence.  What we knew of him, we drew from either his outward appearance or his interactions with others.  We weren’t given the luxury to customize his outward appearance, his skill-set, or his demeanor.  His actions were all we could control, and only that inasmuch as keeping him from being set upon by the myriad number of Graham-killing forces in Daventry.

And die he would.  Time and time again, poor Graham would find himself drowning in the moat.  Falling off a cliff.  Tormented by wayward wizards.  Crushed to death by ogres.  Mugged by dwarves.  Baked in a witch’s oven.  Pricked by poisonous brambles.  Drowned by mermaids.

Yet on I adventured, and slowly I came to understand that Graham – and later, his children – were cut from a special kind of cloth.  As gamers, we ascribed emotions to actions, all the better to round out the story.  Which was kind of the point of the games upon which I found myself cutting teeth – as the players, we were not only the catalyst for the story the developers wanted to tell.  To a certain degree, we filled in the gaps of these early stories, becoming just as much the storytellers ourselves.

The founders and developers of Sierra On-Line may have set the stage for the puppet show, but the gamers moved the marionettes.  In doing so, they set the stage for game developers the world over.

As I watched her dutifully begin the slow and arduous task of building a rollercoaster track outside of her home… I wondered if my daughter would enjoy that same experience.

And then I wondered if it truly mattered at all.

Did it?

I’m still unsure.

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I am almost 40 years old.  My first day in my fourth decade is coming up, and fast.

There are days when I feel like I’ve got a good bead on what I’m doing in all the roles I play.  Father.  Trainer.  Writer.  Dad.

Other days, there are clearly more questions than answers.  With the “wisdom” that 40 years brings me, I can definitively say that the one thing I wish I’d known when I was 20 is that you may never find the answers you seek… but the questions just keep piling up.  Today, I’m more sure than I’ve ever been that I know much less than I want, or need, to know.

All I can rely upon to answer the questions I face… are the answers that have served me in the past.

I thank God – or whatever clock-maker exists in our universe – for the gift of an active imagination.  Sometimes it helps me forget that I know much less than I want, or need, to know.

Of the small and unexpected gifts that have been bestowed upon me… the lessons I learned from these early games have paid me such interesting dividends.  These small stories told by masterful craftsmen and woman, working within the amazingly limited parameters of their medium… resonated within me.

I can see her now, from the corner of my eye, putting the finishing touches on an especially crafty-looking twist in her rollercoaster track.

The original King’s Quest was a whopping 9.1 megabytes in size.  In comparison, this blog entry is already twice the size.

It’s tempting to feel as if the limits of one’s creativity are tied to one’s relative medium.  The truth is really anything but.

As I watch her from the corner of my eye, building a dazzling and endless Minecraft UNIVERSE before my eyes… I realize the question I am asking is irrelevant.  She is CREATING.  She is, in the words of Wil Wheaton, “getting excited and making stuff.”  It doesn’t matter to her that the architecture of Minecraft would look well at home on a PC in 1990, running “Doom.”  It doesn’t matter that the form factor isn’t sophisticated.  It’s a platform for creativity.  And even if she’s not slaying dragons, fighting Nazis, or saving the universe… she’s kind of doing something more impressive.  MORE heroic.

As a proud dad… what more could I possibly ask?

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As of the writing of this blog entry, we are now a month removed from the world trailer-reveal of the relaunch of King’s Quest.  A new title, now 30 years removed from the original.  Still featuring Graham, but looking considerably pluckier than the 12×24 RGB sprite I remember so fondly.

The developers of this new game, The Odd Gentlemen, were joined on-stage at the 2014 Video Game Awards by Ken and Roberta Williams, creators of Graham’s original adventures.  Retired for many years, the Williamses opted to step back out onto a brightly-lit stage to applaud and encourage the relaunch.

There’s a nostalgia that burns within me for the icons and glyphs of my youth, and so I will undoubtedly play this game.  If for no other reason than I owe it to 9 year-old Grant to follow up on the goings-on of a former hero.

I showed both the original game, as well as the trailer for the new edition, to my daughter… but neither of them stirred especially strong feelings in her.  She will likely play it with her dad, perhaps out of a sense of obligation to indulge me.

And in 30 years time, a small child may ask her what kinds of games meant something to her.  She will undoubtedly show this child Minecraft, and delight in showing this younger version of her the proper way to dig for minerals… build shelters… hide from zombies.  This child – my grandchild – will undoubtedly be non-plussed.

But that’s how it goes.

And it’s awfully fun to see the delight in her eyes when that rollercoaster ride ends the way she designed it.

Water Works

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Guest Post by Grant Chastain

“Are… are you crying?” she asked me.  There was more bemusement in her voice than bewilderment.  Genuine concern.  Not fear.  Not yet.

I looked over at her, my face bathed in the soft glow of a computer monitor, and silently nodded my head.

She put the Xbox controller down, and frowned.  A Minecraft ocelot impatiently paced back and forth on the screen.

“She” is a lot of things.  But in the context of this conversation, “she” is first and foremost my 10 year-old daughter, whose preoccupation leading to that question was entirely focused on excavating the Minecraft minerals she would need to make pretty blue armor for her horses.  And when she asked if “you” were crying, she meant her father – a 39 year-old man in a white t-shirt and track pants, sipping from a cup of orange juice, and learning for the first time that longtime ESPN anchor Stuart Scott had passed away at the even now impossibly young age of 49.

This was my Sunday morning.

I gasped when I found out.  Lots of people use that phrase in the abstract, but in this case, The moment had caught me completely off guard.  I did not know Stuart Scott personally.  I knew him the way that many of us “knew” him.  By his work on ESPN’s “SportCenter.”  By his seemingly-ubiquitous banter, and the way he infused the business of sports-entertainment with a distinctive urban flavor.  By the way he seemed approachable, and likeable, in ways the other anchors of the time were not.  Chris Berman was the elder-statesman.  Dan Patrick, the knowledgeable straight-man.  Keith Olbermann, the acerbic variable.  Rich Eisen, the merry prankster.

But Stuart Scott… he was the buddy.  Friendly, and approachable.  And now, gone entirely too soon, leaving behind two teenage girls and a host of what-ifs.

I did not expect to cry.  I did not know Stuart Scott personally.

“Are… are you crying?” she asked me.

This is NOT an article about sports.

It’s an article about love.

___________________________________________________

Eugene Chastain passed away in 2008, at the equally impossibly-young age of 69.

“Passed away” might suggest it was a swift death, or a painless one.  As if someone simply slipped beneath the waters, or disappeared into the shadows like a formless spirit.  I can assure you that dying of cancer is NOT painless, and does not warrant the phrase “passed away.”  It takes from you everything you have, and everything that you consider YOU.

Gene Chastain succumbed to a brain tumor that robbed him of his strength, his motor skills, his ability to form words and thoughts.  To a man whose career – his very LIFE – was built upon a natural aptitude for sales and persuasion, this latter indignity was undoubtedly the worst.  One may as well have cut off Beethoven’s fingers.  Da Vinci’s hands.

He was many things in this world, my father.  Rest assured that “emotional” was not one of them.

It’s easy to say that men of his age simply did not wear their emotions on their sleeve.  It just WAS NOT DONE in the strictest sense of the term.  My father was a salesman who possessed a storyteller’s tongue and the easy gift of persuasion.  He was Don Draper.  Emotions paid him, and the other men of his era, exactly no favors.

I saw him cry exactly twice in the 34 years I knew him.

The first time was in 1987.  I was not quite 12 years old, and serving as a pallbearer for my grandmother, Thelma Chastain.  This impossibly strong woman, who had raised her four sons alone after the sudden death of my grandfather… brought down by the very illness that would come to claim her son a little over 20 years hence.

I lifted my end of the casket.  Even with five adult men helping, it felt impossibly heavy.  The weight of the casket and the weight of the world, tugging at my 11 year-old wrist.  I yelped and the other men turned their heads to see me.  I pretended that I had to choke back tears, rather than admit I was too young and weak for the burden.  I am, after all, my father’s son.

And I watched as my father, overcome with the emotion of having lost the only parent he’d ever known, cried… his body wracked with tears and sobs.  It was a terrible day.  It was the day I realized that Superman might not need to be exposed to Kryptonite.  Sometimes, the weight of one terrible day was enough.

Seeing my father cry that day scared me.  Not because I associated it with weakness.  I did not then, and I do not now, consider crying to be a detriment to one’s character.

It scared me… because in my 11 year-old mind, if he DIDN’T cry the way I cried, and NOW he was crying, then things were Very Bad Indeed.  I wanted my dad to not cry anymore, but I felt powerless in that moment to help him.  He was beyond the kind of help I could give him.

The second and final time I saw my father cry, it was during one of the extremely few one-on-one conversations we’d had.  Shortly after his diagnosis in 2006, I came to Illinois to visit him.  At that time, cancer had yet to cruelly take everything away.  He was still Gene Chastain – a flawed man trying to improve.

Like we all are, I suppose.

In 2006, I was still a new father myself.  Father to a 2 year-old bundle of raw emotion and pure id.  A child he would never see.  He disliked travel, and we were at that time distant from each other.  In both geography AND emotion.

He cried that day when he told me the prognosis.  Awkwardly, I stumbled over my words trying to find the right ones to comfort him.  I am, by nature, a conversationalist.  My father’s son.  Striking me speechless is not easily done.

He stood from his chair, and retreated inside.  When he returned… the moment was gone.  The tears dry.  The “weakness,” such as it was, purged.

I would never see him cry again.  We didn’t speak of it again after that moment.

I am, as I mentioned, my father’s son.

He would die less than 2 years after this conversation.  But that’s another story for another time.

This is NOT an article about sorrow.

It’s an article about love.

_________________________________________________________

“Are… are you crying?” she asked me.  There was more bemusement in her voice than bewilderment.  Genuine concern.  Not fear.  Not yet.

I looked up from my computer screen and nodded.  And we talked.

There are pieces of the universe – shards of remembrance – that never fail to make me cry.  I do not judge.  Sometimes a good cry is as vital to one’s well-being as a good laugh, or a good conversation, or a good memory.  I am the kind of man that wears his emotions on his sleeve.

I am, in many ways, NOT my father’s son.  I am something entirely different.

And so Kendall and I had a long conversation.  She is 10 years old, and yet her age seems at times to be going on some infinite figure that sometimes instills in her a kind of wisdom well beyond her years.  She behaves in a way that make it entirely possible to forget that she has only been on this Earth for 10 complete trips around the Sun.  She was concerned about dad, but only in the way you’d be concerned about someone having a tough time.  She sees my tears through a different set of eyes than I saw my dad’s.  My tears are NOT an aberration, and they aren’t a sign of weakness.  She needn’t fear for her or my future because they appear.

She asked if I knew the man, and why I found myself so sad.  I explained that I wept at the loss of a good human being that left behind two young girls.  That such an event should be sad for us all, and that I couldn’t imagine ever leaving her in that way.  And that I did not, and never will, be ashamed for owning my emotions.  That it’s okay for even the strongest among us to cry.  That this is our burden as caring, feeling individuals all facing the challenges of life.

And of course I got a hug.  The hug is the salve for all fathers everywhere.  Especially when given freely by the child you have raised from birth.  The child you are watching, day by day, grow into the beautiful, kind, and genuine young woman she will one day become.

As she left the room to go plug her iPad into the charger, she stopped at the doorway and looked back at me.  She smiled as words of wisdom flowed from her lips.

“It’s okay, daddy.  I cry too sometimes.”

This is NOT an article about crying.  Not really, anyway.

It’s an article about love.

Now if you’ll excuse me… I think I’ve got something in my eye.