November 11, 2009
The death of a child
Originally published June 21, 2004
I don't know why I'm in such a morbid mood today. Quinton came to see me yesterday and Jack came to visit today, so I've gotten to visit with my two favorite boys in back-to-back days. Jack watched a movie with me and helped me finish off the last of the boiled peanuts I cooked yesterday. We had a good time.
After he left, I remembered a day from my past that I really didn't want to revisit.
When I was a junior in high school, I went out with a bunch of my teammates from the Jenkins football squad on a Friday night to watch the Benedictine Cadets play Savannah High School at Memorial Stadium. We had a bye weekend, but we were scheduled to play BC the next Saturday and SHS the week after that. We wanted to check out our opponents.
I don't remember who won that game, but I remember what happened later that night. Several friends of mine wrapped a hot-rod GTO around that big oak tree on Dead Man's Curve on LaRoache Avenue. Anybody from Savannah can name numerous people killed on that spot, by that same tree, but that one really hit home to me.
I was asked to go riding with them that night, but I slipped off to neck with a new girlfriend instead. Five people got into that car. One died and the other four were in the hospital for months with severe injuries.
My father was reading the newspaper when I walked into the kitchen on Saturday morning. "You play ball with these guys, don't you?" he asked as he slid the paper my way. I read the story and my jaw dropped. I had seen every one of them about eight hours earlier. I was invited to go riding with them. Now, one was dead and the other four were fighting for life. Holy Bejus!
The phone rang shortly thereafter and it was Coach Atwood calling everybody on the team that he could reach to set up an "honor guard" for our fallen teammate. We met in the Jenkins gym and drew numbers to decide who would spend one hour, starting at 8:00 the next morning, down at Goethe's Funeral Home, and watching people grieve over a closed coffin. I drew #2, which put me on the first shift, along with a guy named Billy Holland.
I spent the longest hour of my life standing by that coffin in my red Jenkins blazer that day. He's been dead for over 30 years now, so I'll go ahead and use the name of the fallen comrade. He was Tommy Spellman, and his father was Athletic Director of the Chatham County Public Schools. Tommy played offensive tackle and kicked field goals and extra points. He was a large, husky fellow.
His father was a big, rough-looking man who appeared to be carved hapazardly from an irregular piece of granite rock. Everybody knew MR. SPELLMAN, and he impressed every schoolboy ballplayer I ever knew. If you were around him for five minutes, you decided that you wanted to grow up to be as tough as he was.
I watched tears roll down that man's face that day. Mr. Spellman, the toughest of the tough, cried like a baby at his son's funeral. At the time, I was disappointed in him. I expected more stoic behavior from "The Rock." But I didn't have children of my own at the time.
Today, I cannot imagine a worse experience than seeing one of your children die young, when their life is still an open highway, filled with opportunity and good times never to be realized. That's got to be totally heartbreaking. I realize now why Mr. Spellman cried that day.
I would, too. I hope only that I never have to.
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