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Life is real: Chapter Two: Author hopes his story lives on through his poetry

By Ken Raymond - Staff Writer Modified: February 23, 2009 at 8:24 am •  Published: February 22, 2009

photo - Jim Chastain receives a hug from his grandmother during his birthday party at Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City on Dec. 10, 2008. Photo by John Clanton
Jim Chastain receives a hug from his grandmother during his birthday party at Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City on Dec. 10, 2008. Photo by John Clanton
There’s a place where love
and tears meet and meld,
where love actually becomes tears
and each teardrop holds years,
no decades, of vivid memories.
(from “The Place,” by Jim Chastain)

Jim Chastain’s eyes sweep across the bookstore, landing for a moment on each face.

There’s LeAnn, his wife, chatting with a friend near the gelato counter. His daughter, Maddye, 17, talks with Jim’s parents, just in from Bartlesville. His sister and grandmother sit near his 14-year-old son, Ford, who is strumming quietly on a guitar.

Surrounding the Chastains are dozens of guests in rain-damp tweed or leather. Some mill around a table laden with snacks, coffee and Arizona green tea. Others find seats in front of the fireplace.

A day ago, Jim turned 45. He has terminal cancer, and this is, in all likelihood, his final birthday party. His lifetime cast of characters has gathered here at Full Circle Books to listen to his poems and wish him well.

They fall silent as Jim approaches the mike. With his unruly hair and gray stubble, he looks like a roadside prophet, eyes aglow with nervous energy behind black plastic spectacles. The right arm of his Hulk-green sweater is tucked in on itself. He fumbles through the pages of a poetry book with his left and only hand.

Jim’s gaunt face breaks into a smile as he begins to read aloud, drawing energy from his audience, turning death into a distant shadow. As long as his words remain, Jim believes, the essence of who he is will live on, enduring on the printed pages of his books and in the lives of those who hear him.

All these people, all these memories, immortalized in beats and meter.

Tonight, this crowd will hear Jim’s life story, told in verse, intended for eternity.

But these people can tell their own versions of Jim’s tale, too. In their own words, in their own voices — and every bit as true.

We spoke of days gone by.
They complimented me on how well
I looked. I laughed. Exaggeration was
an inevitable part of this. We avoided
the grim, the sad, the what-ifs, vowing
silently to celebrate this rare day
when we gathered as old friends do.

(from “Seven Conversations,” by Jim Chastain)

“He was so mean.”

The words slip out as if they’ve spent the past 38 years rehearsing on Cindy Crosslin’s tongue. Ask Cindy what her brother was like as a boy, and you get a litany of childhood injustices.

“He knew that I had this thing about germs,” laughs Cindy, who is seven years younger than Jim. “I hate drinking after anybody. He used to sit across the table, and he’d say, ‘Hey Cindy,’ and he’d pretend to spit across the table into my milk. I’d sob, and I wouldn’t drink it.”

Other times, he’d climb up the laundry chute leading from the basement to the upstairs bathroom of their Bartlesville home. He’d wait for Cindy or another sister to walk in before leaping out of the chute with a shout. He was, in short, a brat.

One outrage, in particular, lingers in Cindy’s memory. Jim and some friends were downstairs playing a record of scary noises.

As Cindy crept down the stairs, her brother’s head popped into view, eyes wide with terror. A monstrous hand seized him and began dragging him into the closet at the base of the steps. Jim struggled, trying to resist, but screamed as he lurched backward, disappearing into the shadows. His voice cut off abruptly.

She wailed.

As much as he tormented her, Jim was her brother. She loved him. And she’d just watched him die, killed by a monster. Monsters were real!

Then he and his friends began laughing, and she knew she’d been fooled again. That creepy hand? Just her brother's hand covered by some pantyhose. He'd pulled himself into the darkness to frighten her.

He was so mean.

I turned and walked away,
leaving that tree swing of my childhood
still swaying in the autumn breeze.

(from “Passage,” by Jim Chastain)

Looking back on it, Sharon Chastain can smile about the spray paint incident.

Wasn’t always that way.

It’s hard to grin when you get a call from the cops telling you that your son, the light of your life, the star of your firmament, is a criminal. A vandal, thank God, not a robber or something worse, but still — it’s not as if she dreamed, during those long months of pregnancy, of birthing a baby boy who’d grow up to be a vandal.

Yet here she was, sitting beside her husband as they drove toward College High School, the scene of the crime. Tomorrow, Jim would begin his senior year at Sooner High School, the rival school on the other side of Bartlesville. That is, if they let vandals go to class.

Jim wasn’t exactly Mr. School Spirit. Smart, funny and popular, he made good grades without trying very hard. He’d played football, basketball and baseball, so he’d been part of the school rivalry, but he wasn’t about to start a pep squad or glee club. If anything, he would’ve shot spitwads at the pep squad, then openly laughed.

So why in the world had he done this?

Earlier that evening, Jim and some of his friends armed themselves with spray paint. They snuck onto the grounds of Coll High, as it was commonly called, and painted “Sooners #1” across the facade.

What their plan lacked in cunning it made up in stupidity. The boys hadn’t waited for full dark. Their painting party was easily visible.

“Of course, the neighbors saw it,” Sharon says now. “And he got caught.”

Sort of. The neighbors called the police. An officer drove past the school with his bubble light on, and the boys scattered, fleeing on foot. Somehow Jim was identified as one of the culprits. Jim’s parents were notified; they headed for the school.

At some point, the Chastains found Jim, the criminal, walking down the street with one of his conspirators. They took Jim into custody.

The punishment fit the crime. Jim and the others had to paint over their handiwork, using materials they paid for themselves.

But if Jim learned a lesson from his scrape with the law, it didn’t stick.

Before Sooner High and College High merged into Bartlesville High School after Jim’s senior year, “he stole the Sooners flag,” Sharon says, a touch of exasperation lingering in her voice after all these years. “We still have it in our closet upstairs.”

I’m like the high school kid no one remembers
friends and family phone from long distances
but there are no familiar faces nearby
no one to touch or hold or send a smile my way
so for now I sit looking out from the window
while time’s clutch remains stuck in neutral

(from “From the Window,” by Jim Chastain)

By the time Jim started college at Oklahoma State University, Weird Al Yankovic was on his way to becoming a household name.

“I Love Rocky Road,” Yankovic’s parody of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” cracked the Top 40 in 1982. Over the next several years, Weird Al grew into a pop culture icon, appearing in videos, TV shows and a movie.

No coincidence that Jim began parodying pop hits, too.

“Evenings and weekends, he and ... another musically gifted guy would pick their guitars, crafting clever and usually smarter than Al Yankovic type lyrics to existing popular songs,” says Scott Petty, who first met Jim at OSU’s Delta Tau Delta fraternity. “It was not unusual for the guys in the house to pick up on those lyrics and, during a social function or when a song would come on the radio, chime in with the Chaz version.”

Chaz, short for Chastain, changed relatively innocuous tunes, such as Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” into hilarious novelty songs so obscene that he and his classmates will not repeat the lyrics for outsiders — even though they still know the words.

“Most of them were lyrics you could only sing among the guys,” says Don Greiner, Jim’s big brother in the fraternity.

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