Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Storyteller

An old friend stopped by last night.

My wife brought him to me as I was sitting down in front of the fireplace - its winter now and the nights are much colder on these old bones.  It was great to see him, his smiling face and twinkling eyes, open and friendly, just as I remembered him.

I poured myself a little taste of heaven, two-fingers worth, and we sat together in front of the fire, just like the old days, the house quiet, the night close and soothing as we reminisced, just the two of us, deep into the evening.  The stories, his stories, though shimmering with nostalgia, were once again fresh and new, holding me mesmerized as if I was the wide-eyed child he once enthralled.
  
I laughed out loud when he spoke of his childhood buddy Elick O’Bannion and their baseball team, the Circle Nine Club out of Kansas City.  My friend’s team was so bad they once recruited his Grandfather to play first base, while Elick had a penchant for visiting the mound, a roll of nickels tucked into his massive fist, menacing opposing pitchers if they threw anything but the “soft hanging stuff.”  
  
And if that didn’t make me laugh hard enough, there was always their football team, the Circle Nine plus two.

As the evening progressed he once again whisked me away to far off destinations, where sparkling dreams are held close and lived to the fullest, where the glimmering silver of a tarpon explodes from the deep blue sea in a spray of water that gleams like diamonds in the hot sun of the Caribbean or to the mysterious continent of Africa where a lizard, “small and frightened, and rather a harmless little fellow,” shared his shower stall in the heat and dust of Zaire.  He captured my imagination, touched my yondering heart and let me tag along to long forgotten haunts on secluded tropical isles gently kissed by the trade winds, far from my everyday world, where the scotch was smoother, the women lovelier, the nights warmer and the stars more beautiful than any I ever hoped to dream of.
  
He spoke fondly of his old friend George Halas and the glory of the Chicago Bears and I saw him smile when he remembered Abe Gibron, the jovial, lovable, friend-of-all-foods bear of a man who coached Mr. Halas’ football team.  He had met them all, from legends Muhammad Ali and Vince Lombardi to a seemingly insignificant young man phoning his Dad from an NFL training camp, telling him “I’m still here.”  To my friend no one was insignificant - to him, everyone's life was intertwined with his, their adventures, their dreams , were his adventures and his dreams, and by living them out loud he touched us all.
  
But it wasn’t always about sports.  My friend was open and honest and in front of the fire he continued on, speaking in low tones about the “big hurt” that fell upon the lives of him and his Son – The Big Guy - and though it saddened me that my friend and his Son must go through this, my friend never looked for pity, even when, in the end, his own body betrayed him.
  
And so, into the night it went, my friend gladly spinning his yarns, for this is what he has always done best, what he enjoyed most, and as the hour grew late he finally came round’ to those stories that he knew delighted me most, recounting his late night ruminations with his roommates and close friends, the cantankerous Big Charlie and the shy Little Charlie, red belly piranhas both, while Barry the Barracuda (who was so downright mean he was forced to live down the hall in the dining room aquarium) took great glee in antagonizing them all.  There is nothing quite so funny as the time that Big Charlie escaped the bath tub on aquarium cleaning day, terrorizing the neighborhood and those trying to recapture him while Barry egged on his finned brethren from down the hall, screaming at the top of his lungs - or how those three sets of meat eating teeth might help solve my friends pigeon problem.
  
And then, all too soon it seemed, it was time to say goodnight.
  
As I bid goodbye to my dear friend, it saddened me to realize it’s been thirty-nine years since we last talked, thirty-nine years since he last regaled me with new stories, thirty-nine years since the Big Man upstairs called him home to the greatest adventure of all.  But Jack Griffin, the Chicago Sun-Times “sportswriter,” my friend, will live on in his words, his stories and the lives that he so deeply touched with every keystroke on his battered typewriter.

I was a young boy when I began to read Jack Griffin’s column and each day my Father came home with the Sun-Times I would spread the paper on the floor, anticipation welling up, and let my good friend take me away to wherever he was in the world that day – from tarpon fishing in Parismina, Costa Rica to taking birds on the wing in Minnesota to fighting peacock bass in South America or covering a Heavyweight Championship fight in Africa – and all stops in between, spanning time and imagination.  It seemed to me the term “sportswriter” was much too bland for a man who wrote on a much bigger stage, as did Jack Griffin... no, he was an outdoorsman, an adventurer, an explorer, a modern day voyager and though I never met Jack Griffin in person, I never doubted that I knew him, for he was kind enough to bring me with him daily, letting me peek over his shoulder from the comfort and safety of my own home, into the other side of the world, his world.  I was seven when I met him, twenty when he died and after thirty-nine years more, he is still my friend.
   
Late last night with the winter wind howling and my mind far away on a sun bathed boat in the middle of the Sargasso Sea, reel screaming,  I put the book – his book - back on the shelf, gently turned out the light and whispered a promise to my friend that we would talk again soon.
  
A short while after Jack Griffin’s death from cancer in March of 1976 at the too young age of 58, his son – The Big Guy – Woodson Jack Griffin, gave his Father’s many friends a special gift, a book of his Father’s columns, compiling a lifetime of storytelling into 178 pages.  My Mother bought that book for me and it sits on my shelf still.  The book, titled – GRIF – was published by Great Lakes Living Press and can still be found in online used bookstores.  
  
You should pick up a copy.  If you love the outdoors, sports, adventure and life,  Jack Griffin would love to entertain you with a story… and please, when you see him, tell him his good friend says hello.  

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