A lot has happened to Nick Charles since I wrote a back page column about him at Sports Illustrated. HBO had him broadcast one more fight. CNN spent a couple of days with him and wrote this beautiful and heartbreaking story about him. I understand that Dr. Sanjay Gupta had an intimate conversation that will be broadcast soon. Nick and his wife Cory are beginning a charity to fight child labor in the Philippines … more on that soon.
Also, thousands and thousands of people have written to him to say they are thinking about him, they care about him, they are praying for him.
I was talking with another friend about Nick and why it is that his story so moves us. You might know that Nick has Stage 4 bladder cancer, and he will die in the next few months. If that sounds overly blunt, well, that’s how Nick Charles wants it. He has no illusions. He wants no illusions. He tried hard for a long time to beat the cancer. But, he says, sometimes you have to know when the fight is over.
Of course, there’s the touching part of the story. So many people remember Nick from his days as sports anchor during the early days of CNN. So many people know him from his boxing work the last few years. Television, probably more than any other medium, brings us close to people, makes us feel like we know them in deeper ways. There is no doubt that part of it is just the feeling that something terrible has happened to a friend.
There is something more, though. There is something about honesty that I think touches us in places few other things reach. Nick Charles is an honest man. He is honest about his death. And his honest about his life too. “I have made a lot of mistakes,” he told me. “But I never wanted to hurt people. I know that. I know that I never wanted to hurt anyone.”
We were talking about this sort of honesty, this friend and I, and I told him a story from my college days … a story that, for no obvious reason, I have told three or four times in the last couple of weeks. It’s funny what sticks with you from school. It’s funny what lessons stand out of all the classes and all the lectures and all the friendships and relationships and everything else.
“Have you ever written that story?” the friend asked.
“No,” I said.
“I can’t believe you’ve never written that story,” he said.
So, here is that story: I took a film class in college. The teacher, and sadly I don’t even remember his name, was a Vietnam veteran, and he was in a wheelchair. I mention this because it becomes an important part of the story.
The class was amazing, one of my favorites … while so much of college is now a blur, that class still seems impossibly clear to me. I remember the way we broke down Citizen Kane … and Time Bandits … the way we talked about the copout that was the ending of The Color Of Money … I remember a lot of things from that class, and almost nothing at all from most of my others. I know this was because of the professor.
Most of all, I remember watching The Stunt Man. There’s a scene in The Stunt Man, and I will forget the particulars, where the stunt man is running through a battlefield, and a thousand bullets are chasing him, but, of course, none ever hit him. Only the scene is so long, and there are so many bullets and missiles and bombs, that after a while it becomes clear that the absurdity is exactly what is being emphasized. It gets funny after a while. And so, there was laughter in the room.
The professor stopped the movie then, and told us a story. He said that as absurd as that might seem, he’d actually seen it in real life. He had never talked to us about Vietnam, not that I recall, but in that moment he told us this story of a Vietnamese soldier running through a field, and everyone fired at him, but nobody could hit him. The man just kept running and running, bullets whizzing by him, and it seemed utterly impossible, but there it was, the power of fortune in war, the extraordinary authority of chance over everyone’s lives, a man somehow running through bullets.
And then we started watching the movie again and didn’t think much more of it.
The next class, the professor began like this: A couple of days ago, I told you the story about the man running through the field. I have always promised myself, ever since I got back from Vietnam, that I would never lie about the war. That was the deal I made with myself. That was how I was going to keep myself sane. I would always tell the truth.
He paused here, and I remember that the room felt airless, suffocating.
What I told you the other day was true. There was a man. And there was a field. He ran through the field, and everyone fired at him, and nobody could hit him. He ran and ran, and nobody could hit him. I have never seen anything like it. Nobody could hit him.
He paused again. His voice was strong. It did not crack.
And he said this: And then, the part I left out: I shot him, and I killed him.
I don’t think I’ve gone a month without thinking about that moment. There is not another moment from college or high school that I remember as vividly. I remember the shock. I remember the pain. I remember the confusion.
I’m still not sure I know the lesson. It changes on me all the time. Sometimes I think it’s about the horror of war. Sometimes I think it’s about the deals we have to make with ourselves. Sometimes I think it’s about the daily terror and outrage and sadness people must endure while nobody notices.
Now, though, I think it’s about something else. I have not seen that professor even one time in almost 25 years, but I thought about him again and again as I talked with Nick Charles about what to do when you know you are going to die. “I want to feel everything,” he told me, and I thought I knew what he meant. I thought he meant that he wants to breathe in the mountain air, and really taste the calamari, and take in every reaction from his beautiful little daughter Giovanna. And I know he did mean all those things and more.
But I also think he means he wants to feel EVERYTHING. He does not want to lie to himself. He wonders if he has spent too much time lying to himself. He does not want to withdraw even for moment. He knows that people are watching, and they can be inspired. He knows that his wife and daughter are with him, and every moment is precious. He knows that he has so few good days left, and as he told me: “I don’t have time for the BS. I just don’t. I’m dying.”
And if we are honest with ourselves, truly and devastatingly honest, maybe we should ask: Is it really so different for any of us?