By Joe Rector
I checked my Facebook page the other day to see what was going on in the world. As usual, plenty of posts discussed the brilliance or ignorance of the president-elect. A passel of recipes showed up as well. Of course, birthdays were listed for all my friends who survived another trip around the sun. The most upsetting post appeared on Sunday evening. It announced that one of my childhood friends had passed.
Ray Claiborne was an amazing boy. He was wiry and strong even at ten years of age. Ray played on our neighborhood ball team. He filled in at first base, the position I always wanted to play, but where I couldn’t stop a hard-hit ground ball or stretch to snag a high throw, Ray managed to play the position with agility and confidence. He could hit the ball as well, and most of the time he would wind up on second base by stretching a single into a double that was capped off with a slide into the second.
Ray’s most amazing talent was his ability to run. He not only ran; the boy cruised at speeds about which most of us only dreamed. Ray would take off, and within a couple of strides, he was zipping down the field or road. Much older boys challenged him to races, and Ray silently accepted. When the contest ended, he trotted back to the start line after having smoked his competitor. Sometimes the other runner would demand another race; at other times, a different person would be waiting to test Ray. He always accepted all the demands for races, and he defeated all comers. No, he never bragged or said a mean word. Ray let his legs do his talking.
In high school, Ray ran on the track team. He and three others set the school record in the 440, now known as the 400. They blew passed other school teams and notched victories. A couple of team members played other sports, but Ray didn’t. I never knew if he wasn’t interested or if he had work to do at home that kept him from joining playing other sports. Still, his running abilities were grander and more developed than those of most other athletes who had chosen one or more sports.
I lost touch with Ray after high school. I went to school out of town, and I think Ray stayed in Knoxville to help his family operate their fleet of school buses. For some reason, I want to say that he took up smoking, something that surprised me greatly. The rest of us were never quality athletes; most of us were average at best. We smoked because it was the cool thing to do. Why Ray would pick up a habit that might jeopardize his running always puzzled me.
Ray Claiborne isn’t the first boy from that neighborhood ball team to have passed. Over the years, several have gone before him. Tommy Robinson died in a car accident as he traveled to pick up his date for the junior-senior prom. Pat Wright passed several years ago. He became a carpenter and always was as laid back as any person I’d ever known. Steve Turpin died not long ago after a battle with cancer.
Each year, more of the childhood friends that I had end their times on this earth. I know that we are reaching the age where death comes much more often to folks of our generation. The problem is understanding that. You see, in my mind’s eyes, I see these senior citizens as the young boys who they were so many years ago. Their passings leave me sad and more than a bit unsettled. No, I am not afraid of death, but neither am I in a hurry for it to arrive. With each death of an old friend, my history shrinks a bit. My past world loses another piece.
Ray Claiborne was one of those boys who made my childhood good. I appreciate his talents and the memories he created for me. I’m sure that now Ray is in a better place where illness no longer smothers him. I hope to see him some day and watch him run like the wind.