CHAMPIONS IN GOD’S EYES: The Ironmen of Eagle River (Part 2)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For those who miss high school basketball and love an inspiring story, I am serializing the first chapter of my novel, “Champions In God’s Eyes: The Ironmen of Eagle River,” on over the first five days of July. If you missed the beginning, click on PART 1. I hope you enjoy it (and if you’ve already read it, please leave a review on AMAZON).

PREVIOUSLY IN PART 1: In October 1974, high school freshman Cameron Carpenter was playing basketball on a Los Angeles playground with his father and a friend when tragedy struck. It is now 50 years later.


Thursday afternoon

Cameron Carpenter jerked awake. He wiped the slumber from his eyes and the drool off the corner of his mouth. The delayed flight into Midway International must have taken more out of his aging body than he wanted to admit.

He glanced to be sure the worn spiral notebook still lay beside him on the Uber’s seat and put his hand on it as he gazed out the car window. He watched Chicago’s abandoned buildings, boarded-up liquor stores, and vacant lots flow by like a faded newsreel documenting a discarded generation. They reminded him of his own childhood home. Just like the dream.

The sensations hadn’t faded even ten minutes later when they turned into the affluence of Oak Park.

The still-rising sun warming his adolescent cheeks.

The smooth feel of the worn basketball on his palms.

The musty sweat from his frayed, powder-blue UCLA T-shirt.

Honey’s deep laugh.

Cameron relived the moment often over the passing decades, but like instant replays on TV, the ending never changed. The two loud cracks. The raging pandemonium followed by the empty silence. And finally, Honey’s whisper.

“It’ll be all right.”

“Sir? Excuse me. Is this the place?” the driver asked as the Prius glided to a halt in front of the familiar suburban brick bungalow. The only thing new was the wheelchair ramp that snaked up to meet the porch. As he slowly climbed out of the Prius, Cameron made sure he had the thick notebook. On a whim, he asked the driver, “Have you ever heard of Jonah Jackson?”

The young man thought for a moment. “The singer?”

Cameron shook his head. “No. He was a basketball player. Before your time.”

As he carried his suitcase up the front stairs, Shelly Jackson greeted Cameron at the door with a warm smile and the aroma of warm chocolate chip cookies. Her hug felt like an old letterman’s jacket that still fit nice and snug. She held him longer and tighter than ever before.

“It’s so good to see you, Cam,” she said.

“You look great, Shelly. You know I only come for you. And your cooking.”

She laughed. “I know. But he keeps thinking you’re here for him. He’s been waiting for you.”

Leaving his luggage by the front door, they walked toward the living room through the narrow hallway lined with family portraits. It was a nostalgic journey Cameron looked forward to each year. As always, he stopped at the faded photograph in the chipped wooden frame. It was the picture at the center of the story. It was the reason he was there at all.

Pastor Jackson is sitting, earnest in his brown suit. Mrs. Jackson is next to him, pleased in her Sunday dress. Standing on one side is young Noah, uncomfortable in his sweater vest. Standing on the other side, is mature Ruth, proud in her miniskirt. And behind his parents, taller than all of them, wearing an open silk shirt and bell-bottoms, and sporting a big smile and a bigger afro is Jonah. It was a high-quality Sears portrait but nothing to distinguish the subjects from other black families of the early 1970s.

His voice brought Cameron back to the present. It was raspy and not as strong as Cameron remembered.

“Is that my favorite short, skinny point guard?”

“Don’t mind him,” Shelly said with a chuckle as she led Cameron into the living room. Jonah sat in the easy chair, a Chicago Bulls blanket covering his legs. With his sunken cheeks and bald head, he looked tired, almost gaunt. Cameron didn’t mind and broke into a wide grin.

“Still short but not so skinny,” he said, patting his waist.

Jonah opened his thin arms for a hug. “Excuse me for not getting up,” he said. Cameron leaned down and enveloped his friend. Shelly used the bottom of her apron to wipe away a tear. Then she used the cookies in the oven as an excuse to leave the two old teammates to themselves and their memories.

Cameron sat down on the couch next to Jonah and said, “You’re looking good, Jonah.”

“Well, I won’t be dunking for a while, that’s for sure.” They both snickered. “But I won’t lie. This thing is kicking my butt.”

Cameron understood. Cancer was now part of their lives, like deadly gunshots in a busy park or a fatal crash on a secluded highway. But he also knew Jonah wouldn’t let a stupid disease defeat him any more than he would let those stupid rednecks from Mount Diablo beat his Eagle River Warriors.

So they didn’t dwell. Instead, they spent the next hour talking about grown children and growing grandchildren, Cameron’s previous year as Eagle River High School principal, and Jonah’s community work with teen gang members that had earned him another civic award. 

Finally, Jonah brought it up. He did every year.

“Do you have it?”

Cameron leaned back on the couch. He knew the question would come.

“Why do you keep wanting to listen to all that baloney? I think you just like hearing your name.” Cameron was ready for a quick-witted comeback from his friend, but Jonah’s voice was solemn.

“I just need to hear it one more time.” Cameron reached for his friend’s hand, a hand big enough to still palm a basketball but now limp in Jonah’s lap.

“You know it’s way too long,” Cameron said. “How about I just read the good parts?”

“Don’t care. I want to hear the whole story. Put your stuff away and go get the Great American Journal.”

Shelly came from the kitchen and announced, “The Great American Journal will have to wait until after dinner. Cam, is iced tea still okay?”

Jonah aimed a sly grin at Cameron and said, “Or maybe a beer?”

“Funny guy. Shelly, did you know you were marrying a comedian?”

“Do you two think you can stop joking long enough for Cam to wash up? Dinner’s almost ready.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Cameron said. He wished he could visit his old friend more than once a year, but Washington state is a long way from Chicago. Still, seeing Jonah in person for the first time since the diagnosis reminded Cameron these annual visits would not go on forever.

If reading through the journal made Jonah feel better then read it they would.

First, they sat down for Shelly’s delicious dinner. Cameron scarfed up the breaded veal cutlets, but Jonah managed only a few bites of the mashed potatoes and brown gravy. After clearing the table and returning to the living room, they settled in. Shelly placed a plate of her baked treats on the coffee table—their tantalizing smell almost a dessert itself—and sat next to Jonah.

“Shelly, you know you don’t have to listen to this again,” Cameron said, opening up the notebook.

“I know, but I enjoy hearing how you naughty boys got in so much trouble.” She offered her own naughty grin. “I’m glad someone recorded it so I could keep Jonah here humble.”

“Now, sweetheart,” Jonah said. “You know Cam made all this up to make himself look good. I just like—humoring him.”

Cameron put on his reading glasses and turned to the first page.

“Yeah, whatever. I’m still not sure why she stays married to you after hearing everything you did.” As soon as it left his mouth, Cameron knew it was the wrong thing to say. They both knew. Even Shelly, who wasn’t part of the story, knew.

However, before Cameron could apologize, Jonah said, “Yeah, I wonder myself sometimes,” and he slowly put his hand in his wife’s lap so she could squeeze it reassuringly.

“Okay, you two love birds,” Cameron said. “If you really want to hear this again. Just let me know when it gets too boring.”

“Oh, we will,” Jonah said. “We will.”

Cameron looked down at the familiar title in his teenage semicursive handwriting, and he began reading: “Cameron Carpenter’s Journal, 1974–75.”

Continue to PART 3

For a signed copy of the book, e-mail or click on SIGNED COPY. You also can order it online or find it at your local book stores.

Jim Carberry of Whatcom Hoops

Jim Carberry is a former Bellingham Herald sports editor and author of several books on Whatcom County prep basketball. Follow him on Twitter @whatcomhoops and visit the Whatcom Hoops Facebook page.

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