From Owen in Japan

How to put into the words the jumbled mass of memories and emotions swirling inside my head about Chris… I may have never faced such a daunting task. I will make my best effort, though, and please bear with me if I lapse into stream-of-conscious rambling. Owen and Chris

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Owen Stinger. Chris was my childhood playmate. I went to school together with his sister Shana for one year of grammar school (7th grade) at a neighborhood public school whose name I can’t remember, and nearly all of my high school years together with Chris at City Honors School in downtown Buffalo.

To be young and full of dreams and fantasies was a great time in my life, and Chris was there to share most of those flights of fancy.

I’m grown up now, college educated, married, good paying job, and I have fulfilled my teenage dream of settling in the country of Japan on what looks likely to be a permanent basis.

As I sit here and type this though, it brings tears to my eyes to think of Chris’s untimely passing and to peruse the pages and photos on this website that his uncle Jon graciously manages. Here I see pictures of Chris, all grown up, his sisters Shana and Janna, and his brother Ben. These are people I knew personally! I was there for the wedding of Fred, Chris’s father, and his new bride Susan. I remember their new son Ben when he was just a baby, then a toddler, and then a little boy. I remember when Janna was just a little baby! (I don't think I met Bobbie, but it could be my memory playing me up). It sends pangs of nostalgia and wistfulness through my heart to see all of you grown up. If I had stayed in the USA, would I have kept in better contact with Chris, and thereby all of you as well? I can only wonder and perhaps regret about what might have been.

I think I’ve done pretty well for myself. I left Buffalo (left the entire country for that matter), went places I never dreamed of, made life-long friends, settled down, got married, but I am only now aware of the blank space left in my heart by the people I once knew who I seem to have left behind, one of the most significant of course being Chris. And it brings me to tears to think that Chris passed away before I had the chance to tell him that I have never forgotten him.

I don’t know exactly how Chris felt, but I grew up kind of on the outside of the main social stream. I matured later than most of the other boys, never really got into sports much, and stayed in “geek” mode nearly all of my prepubescent years. Most of those years, I shared with Chris. He lived perhaps not even ten doors down on the same street, on Highgate Avenue in Buffalo. We were constant companions as we shared our geeky fanaticism for all things Star Wars, GI Joe, fantasy and super hero comic books, and all other manner of adolescent nerdy science fiction escapism.

Our forays often involved tree houses and forts (and their construction) and fanciful role-playing “pretend” games. “Hey! Let’s pretend,” either Chris or I would say, “that we’re shipwrecked on this deserted island and the tree house is our only home and….etc. etc. etc.” And we did this for hours and hours and sometimes days.

Chris was so incredibly creative and inventive. He got the idea for us to use all manner of used wood construction materials to add pieces on to our one-speed bicycles to make them look, and more importantly, feel, like the high-tech “speeder bikes” in Star Wars that floated on air. And boy, did we do it right. We weren’t just making believe. To Chris and me, we were riding speeder bikes.

We spent days and months and even years like this, in endless pursuit of boundless fantasy. Gosh, being a pre-teen kid in the 80s was great!

Chris was in turns funny, sincere, silly, creative, rebellious…the adjectives could go on and on, but the primary linking factor in all this is that Chris was so full of life! Everything seemed to be a chance to find something new to laugh at. And where there’s laughter, you know there’s bound to be happiness.

Not everyone understood Chris’s well developed sense of humor, but I appreciated it thoroughly. He would carefully get me wound up to the point that just one odd look in my direction would send me to the floor laughing. I don’t seem to laugh like that anymore these days.

My move to Japan, my successful settlement here, and the initial interest in Japan that prompted me to pursue Japanese studies in college all stem back to my chance encounter with the novel Shogun, by James Clavell. It introduced me to the mysterious alluring culture and history of Japan, and I was hooked. 20 odd years later, I speak and read Japanese fluently, I reside in Japan pretty much permanently now, have a Japanese wife, and many loving friends, but I realize now that my decision to follow this path was in a large way solidified by my friendship with Chris.

At some time or another, Chris taught me a word I had never heard up to that point in my life: “ninja.” How Chris got interested in all things ninja-related in the first place I don’t remember. I don’t think I bothered to ask. It was just too interesting and enthralling in itself to be told about what ninja are and explore even more together with Chris. Years later, of course, I slowly learned that most of what Chris and I believed about ninja was the product of the active imaginations of western fantasy authors, but that mattered not at all at the time. Along with my long and arduous (for a 12-year old) read through the monolithic block of pages (more than 1,100 in total) that was Shogun, Chris’s introduction of the ninja mythology helped consolidate my interest in all things Japanese.

And then came the coup de grace. All those cool, neat, geeky science fiction animated cartoons and toys that Chris turned me onto were originally from Japan too! Again, this news came from Chris! That revelation did it. He had solidified my determination to learn everything I could about Japan.

That choice, or perhaps destiny, more than any other has made me the person I am today. And it saddens me to the core to realize now, too late, that I owe I huge chunk of that to Chris, and that I will never again be able to thank him in person.

I don’t think I ever again had friends like I did when I was 12, friends like Chris... Does anyone?

Those that do are a blessed few.

As time marched on and years rolled by, Chris and I reached our mid-teen years, and then all those fanciful pursuits that seemed so integral to our lives up that point one by one fell by the wayside to be replaced by… girls. More specifically, girls and all the things we needed to be deemed “cool” by girls: clothes, music, hanging out with the right crowd, etc. Unfortunately, being “cool” also meant conforming to the rules of strictly stratified high-school society. Above all, what this meant was that Seniors don’t associate with Juniors, neither Juniors with Sophomores, and of course no one with Freshmen. Few of these rules applied during summer vacation though, and Chris and I would be back to our old antics. I remember how lonely the summers were when Chris was away in Myrtle Beach. Fortunately, for many of those summers it was his sister Shana who came back to Buffalo which meant Chris and I had the entire summer to goof off together, sometimes with Shana joining us too (it still makes me blush to remember the crush I had on her then). Unfortunately, when autumn rolled around and school started again, it was back to the rigid confines of high school society. I may be attaching more importance to this development than is fair, but I do believe this slowly drove a wedge of sorts between Chris and me and gradually separated us.

It seemed like I spent nearly all of my free time with Chris as a child. Now I only wish I had spent more. In 1995, when the Great Hanshin Earthquake rocked western Japan to its foundations, other than my family, Chris was the only one of my friends from back home to actually get on the phone and call me personally to verify my safety. The fact that I, living in Tokyo far removed from the epicenter, felt not even a quiver when the quake struck mattered not in the least. Chris actually cared enough to call me! And I hadn’t spoken to him in something like seven years!

In retrospect I think I kind of tread water for most of my twenties. In contrast, during that time, based on what little contact I did have with Chris, he seemed to grow and progress by leaps and bounds. I remember how he developed a passion for economics and business management (yes, a passion!) and how proud he was of his job as a Wal-Mart manager. Then he switched gears to start studying to be a scientist (if I remember correctly). Chris’s ambitions knew no boundaries. It seemed a bit puzzling then, a few years later, to learn that he had enlisted in the Army and was headed for boot camp. But he was also so proud of getting through it and of making it to graduation. And I couldn’t help but be proud of him, too, as the jubilation he must have felt shone through in all of this correspondence.

Chris was also the first person to even hint to me the real possibility of an impending war with Iraq. I didn’t want to believe it. I have always been a Democrat and liberal-to moderate politically speaking, and I rued the day George W. Bush was elected, but I held out hope that even his administration would not be foolish enough to march headlong off to war. Obviously, history had other ideas, and my hopes were dashed.

I read with tremendous anxiety Chris’s often harrowing tales of the front line that he faithfully emailed me a pretty regular basis. It was hard to picture my childhood playmate living and surviving through such a life and death situation for so long.

Naturally, I was relieved that he had returned home alive in one piece. What an enormous tragedy then, to succumb now to such a silent but awful malady. When I read the word “leukemia,” I suspected right away that it was probably connected in some way with Chris’s service in Iraq. You see, a dear friend of mine in the Marines has contracted the same terrible affliction, which he suspects is down to accidental exposure to depleted uranium in Iraq. Fortunately, medication and treatment have kept the disease in remission, but who knows for how long? What’s worse is that severe post traumatic stress disorder has kept him volunteering for further Iraq missions even though his condition qualifies him for honorable discharge with benefits. So you see, news of Chris’s passing hit home almost doubly hard.

It will pass into history as one of my deepest regrets that I was unable to attend Chris’s wake in Buffalo. My parents were there and they have told me that they paid my respects for me, but I wish I could have been there in person. More than that though, I wish I had reinitiated contact with Chris and gotten to see him in person just one more time. Looking at these various pictures, I am amazed to see how huge he got to be! I knew that Army training built up muscles, but Chris’s form was extraordinary! By contrast, I seem to have not grown at all since high school. It must be the calorie-poor Japanese diet keeping me small.

Its hard to put into words what I am feeling now, or perhaps a lack of feeling that I am experiencing, with the knowledge now that my childhood playmate has departed into the great unknown. With or without regular contact in the later years of our lives, he was and is a significant part of what makes me the individual I am today. Is he out there somewhere looking after all of us? Is this message somehow getting through to him? I certainly hope so. Because I want him to know, from my heart to his, that he may be gone, but he will never be forgotten. At least not in my lifetime.

It’s getting too hard to hold back the tears, so I think I will sign off here, but thank you those of you who have patiently read this far and listened to this rather incoherent deluge of memories and feelings.

To those of you I knew in my younger years, Fred, Susan, Shana, Janna, Ben, I hope our paths cross again someday before too long, and to those of you I have yet to know, I hope I will be blessed with the opportunity to do so. May sun shine on all of you wherever you may be.

With warmest, sincerest regards,