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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A little Shelby for Christmas ...


It did not matter that the wind-chill was life threatening. It was Christmas morning, and a bright sun stabbed the frozen land. And children were playing.

The decision over which to play with - the official World Cup soccer ball or the Turbo Football - never materialized. With all the snow, a soccer match was out of the question. So spirals of pink and black performed in the most sincere imitations of Rodney Peete and Joe Montana floated back and forth in the yard.

What a nice sight.

The Annual Second Chance is near - it's called New Year's Eve. It is the window of opportunity where the hopes and fears of all the year (not to mention the mistakes) can be erased.

But Christmas Day is a time of reinforcement and the essence of tomorrow. And children playing with toys are the finest examples of what that tomorrow looks like.

I look out the window. I've been in that yard. All young boys have. Sports become such a part of childhood. Santa is aware of all of this, naturally.

This particular day is exquisite, I think to myself. I take personal inventory, not only of blessings and personal satisfaction, but of the presents of Christmas past. Still the kid, I suppose.

I got my first basketball when I was six. I made my first basket a year later. There was a tetherball set; I must have been eight. And a football helmet when I was ten. A Carl Furillo-model baseball mitt at eleven. There were tennis rackets and fishing poles and boxing gloves and shrimp nets and a Mickey Mantle 32-inch Little League bat and one time, even a badminton set.

Every Christmas, I'd play out my dreams and my mind would fly over the rainbow, imagining my propulsion. Of course, I would become a major-leaguer, an All-Star, an all-time great, a Hall of Famer. We all would. My vision extended well beyond the day.

My athletic ability, alas, never kept stride. It was not the worst realization I would ever make.

But I have noticed a direct correlation between Christmas gifts and sporting dreams. The dreams are for the young. So are the gifts. Usually, the two disappear in unison. The rare few who project into greatness discover they do not need imagination to make those lofty flights of fantasy. Hope is not the co-pilot. Expectation is.

It must be a wonderful view.

I was thinking about all of this when another memory nudged me. My 17th Christmas I got a typewriter.

It was about the same time that I'd maneuvered my fantasy a few extra miles. I'd received a baseball scholarship to pitch at a small school in Florida. There were other opportunities, other colleges available. But none that would allow my athletic vision to continue.

I had expected a Christmas of more games in the yard. More dreams to celebrate. I got a typewriter instead.

"What am I going to do with a typewriter?" I asked.

My mother said I'd need it for college. But she also said, "Sometimes you get too old to play games. But you never get too old that you can't use your imagination."

Sometimes Christmas is taken for granted. Almost always, in fact. I think Christmas music, and I hear bells. I turn on the radio and I hear someone named Elmo and Patsy lamenting their grandmother's head-on collision with a reindeer. I think of the meaning of Christmas, and I think of the most special birthday in the history of the world. But I turn on the TV and there are all these Claymation raisins doing Doo-Wop homages to the joys of buying machines wherein a microchip can seize command of entire generations.

Christmas (will soon) be gone, 364 days to go. But children still play. They chase the wonderful image of themselves as they would like to be seen. Christmas is their favorite arena. But they settle for lesser stadia.

But remember this - the present is sometimes confused with the package it comes wrapped in. Sometimes the gift is simply the freedom to imagine. There may be no greater one.

It was a great typewriter. I still play with it.


Notes: For those of you who did not know Shelby Strother, I pass these little tidbits along; He was a very good friend. I've lost a father, I've watched close relatives and friends of the family pass away, but he was the first friend in my life who went out, got cancer and died. Shelby attended the 1991 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte, NC. That Sunday night, he said that he didn't feel well and was going to bed early. That was about Feb. 10, 1991. The next month was a bad dream, each minute live and in color. Shelby died in Detroit on March 3, 1991, leaving his wife, Kim and two great little guys, Tommy and Kenny (the latter joined Shelby in heaven a few years back but that is a terrible fact of life to be told another day). Shelby grew up in the great State of Florida and loved it. I met him when he was a writer for the Denver Post. He went on to be a sports columnist for the Detroit News, but when big news was breaking and the News needed a writer, they sent Shelby. Berlin Wall coming down, off went Shelby. I could go on.

If you want a great Christmas present for a friend or yourself, type in to "Amazon" or "Google" the words "Saddlebags" and "Shelby" and "Strother" and see what comes up. Buy it. Saddlebags is where the story above was written. There are a few dozen others just like it.

I really relate to his column. I think of Shelby every time I read it, shed a deep sigh or tear wondering why he was taken from us at such a young age. I've read it every Christmas Day since 1992. I've never had the forum to share those facts, share the column itself or the work of Shelby Strother.

Now I do.

I remember when my Mom and Dad bought a bright, shiny, "Brother" electric typewriter and wrapped it up for me. It was a tough present to gift-wrap. I remember typing term papers on it, long before the "IBM Selectric" or even an invention like a word processor came along. I remember it very well. Somehow, my typewriter didn't work quite as well as Shelby's did. But, I'm working on that fact, practicing, striving to be a better writer each and every day.

Shelby was a good friend. I wish he could play with his typewriter this Christmas.

Maybe, he can. Maybe he just did?


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