Red Smith & Uncle Gene

es, this is a sports column. And yes, this is still ACE Weekly. Welcome.

With this being my - and the publication's - first sports column and all, I had hoped to demonstrate that I could very well prove to be the literary progeny of Walter "Red" Smith - who earned a Pulitzer in commentary the year I was born. Or prove to be the reincarnation of Henry Grantland Rice, who stallioned Notre Dame's Four Horsemen.1 (Can you footnote a sports column?)

Both those guys were great, whether you care about sports or not.

At the very least, I had hoped to start out with something slick and wowing. Something that would grab readers, shake them, and make them wish that tomorrow was already next week.

But the truth is I don't feel like being slick now. Truth is that I can't. More truth: This initial column isn't going to be that much about sports. Because I don't feel particularly sporty at the moment.

I bet you're thinking a sports column certainly should be about sports aren't you? Yeah, I pretty much thought the same thing myself, but I've decided to break that rule right off the bat (no sports pun intended).

I also told my editor that I wouldn't be writing in the first person - well, not too much anyway. Guess I already broke that promise too. 'The writer' apologizes.

And guess what else? I don't know how long this column is supposed to be. I don't know if or when it will run. I don't know if I will be paid to write it, and if so, how much. I don't even know what my editor looks like.

And for this one moment, I don't care.

My uncle Gene died today. And I am not professional enough to simply neglect my feelings. And I never want to be.

This - writing - is my therapy. This, fortunately or not for you and me, is also my first sports column here. The crossbreeding was not foreseen or hoped for.

So if all you care about is sports, or if you do not wish to read on, please excuse me for and politely excuse yourself from this column. But God help you. And not because of the part about not wishing to read on.

Compared to death, sports are petty. Then, compared to death, everything is petty. Except life. And I'm not referring to the regular stuff that comprises life. Rather, I mean "life" in the sense of the substance that is the antithesis of death.

We often forget about life. But death has a way of sticking to your ribs. Just like you won't forget where you were when Kennedy was shot or when the Challenger blew up, I won't forget where I was when I heard the news about Gene.

I was/am sitting right here at my desk.

I won't forget the email my mother sent to tell me. The subject line read: news. The content: Uncle Gene died at 11:30 this morning. Acute Leukemia - Mom. I guess that was all she could muster.

This was the first personal tragedy I have learned of electronically. Can't tell yet if it was more or less disturbing to find out that way.

What does seem disturbing to me now is that the first thing they teach you how to write in journalism school is an obituary. They think that's the easiest kind of journalism.

Complaining of weariness, uncle Gene nonchalantly checked into the hospital Sept. 5. He died unexpectedly Sept. 7.

Now I don't know exactly what acute leukemia is or how it kills you. But none of that matters anyway.

What does matter is that my grandfather and I took two weeks in January to drive out to Cape Cod. That was the last time I'd see uncle Gene, and we had a blast.

On our final day together, he took us to Harvard but first to Fenway. Although he'd lived only about an hour from Boston a good deal of his life, he couldn't remember going to a game there. Interesting.

Then we drove by the Fleet Center - the highway literally pretzels around it, with a gap no more than five feet between car and building. "Terrible they tore Boston Garden down for this," Gene rattled.

He had a clockmaker's license and tattoo... anchor, I think. He flew planes in WWII, got shot down, and came home a German P.O.W. His daughter's name is Joy - his only child. He reminded me of Popeye - the Robin Williams Popeye, not the cartoon.

I really don't have too many other distinct memories of uncle Gene. What I do remember, though, is that he was always, always laughing (especially when my grandfather told him he drove too fast), and he always made us laugh too. And I guess that's about as good of a thing to be remembered by as a guy could ask for.

Well, I'm stopping now. Not because of a word count or deadline. I'm just finished. And I have to book my mom a flight to Massachusetts.