Chris Stephens: The Pitcher with a Cigar


Jenny Fromer

Chris Stephens will be remembered fondly by the British softball community

Chris Stephens will be remembered fondly by the British softball community

About a week ago I got an email to tell me that Chris Stephens had died. I have known Chris for almost 20 years, for the majority of which he was the pitcher for SPAM, the softball team I run. First and foremost though, he was a friend. Chris stopped playing a little over a year ago, and in between then and now we had lost touch. Needless to say that isn't a good feeling. I got the news from an old friend of Chris's, Paul Montefiore. Paul and Chris have known each other even longer as they were teammates on Mojo, a long-standing Ad League team, back in the early nineties.

Wanting to put together a story in memory of Chris I asked Paul if he could help fill in the gaps in what I knew about his life. Paul did much better than that. After speaking to Chris's mother, Ivy, he wrote the following. It's a long story, but I have chosen not to edit it down as it's both fascinating and beautifully written - and the perfect note on which to remember Chris....

Chris was born 18th November 1944, 2 and a half years after his parents, Ivy and Will, were married. Will, in the army had come back via the Dunkirk evacuations in 1940. These had marked him, as he and his chums managed to make their way back to the coast to the evacuation beaches in the cover of hedgerows, Will vividly remembered the strafing of mothers wheeling pushchairs with babies along the route of the evacuation. This was probably the first experience which would be passed on to Chris to form his perspective on the depths to which humanity could descend. Chris was born the day before Will was sent back off to fight in the Pacific. He did not tell Ivy he was going as he didn't want to upset her before the birth. Will returned home 18 months later and, as Ivy put it 'we had to get Chris used to him'. Chris always told me that his father was very reluctant to talk about his experiences.

Life was hard back in England. Will's sister married a US soldier and moved to California with him. By 1956 Will and Ivy had made plans to join them. Chris, barely a teenager, was overwhelmed by the luxury and ease-of-living in the States. His aunt picked the family up from the airport in her convertible and Chris played with the electric windows and marvelled at the gadgets. School was vast, the corridors endless, the sports fields straight out of the movies (and the movies themselves were made just down the road). Chris took to the American way of life instantly, devouring comic books, TV programmes, films and the music scene. He knew which model year of every car had the best chrome, the snazziest fins.

When he left LA for Berkley in San Francisco in what must have been either 1962 or 1963, the whole counter-culture movement, which would lead to the Summer of Love in 1967, was really coming to the fore. Not having come from the prestigious, private High Schools, Chris never had great faith in his ability to perform at Berkley. He was rarely in his Humanities class if a good party with good drugs were going. He claimed that the Free Love element of the counter-culture was more wishful thinking than reality. He remembered watching the race-riots from the window of some all-night campus party through a haze of marijuana smoke and acid tabs. He recalled shaking Richard Nixon's hand as he made his way through the crowds at some gubernatorial election rally some buddy of his had dragged him to. He didn't pass his first year exams. Unsurprisingly, but stupidly. He always claimed he wouldn't have been good enough, and maybe, at that time in his life, he wasn't ready to study in preference to continuing to revel in the inordinate energy that American youth culture had to offer an English kid from the working class dreariness of post-war London.

Shortly after, Chris got notice he was to be drafted. Vietnam had been festering for the last few years, but by 1965 the troop numbers were rising fast and the casualties were going the same way. Alongside this there was the drop-out culture, the music-scene, the surfing parties, sometimes across the border to Mexico where the beer was cheaper and the dope too. By then Chris had seen all the greats of jazz and rock 'n' roll at all the best clubs along the California coast. He'd bought himself a primrose yellow E-type which he'd wound up to 150 on the freeway. He'd bought a drop-top Corvette. California was the place to be. Vietnam definitely wasn't. Two of his friends had been killed in Vietnam. Chris took the medicals, sat the Army exams, came back saying they were a cinch but that he hadn't even tried. He went back to the UK on a trip. Two of his friends killed themselves rather than be drafted. One drove into the mountains and shot himself. Another took a load of pills. The results of the exam came back and his mother started getting a string of phone calls from military departments who wanted Chris. He'd come 5th in his exams. He was prize recruitment material. The Airforce wanted him. The Marines wanted him. Chris's friends were fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft. Ivy told Chris to stay in England, but he didn't see why he should. Stubborn, and revolted by the arrogance of the administration, he came back to California, where his father, Will, whose brother-in-law's family were Mormons, found a pacifist Mormon doctor to certify that Chris was a bona-fide conscientious objector. Saved from posting to Indochina, Chris belonged to the authorities for the next 2 years. They were determined that conscientious objectors shouldn't have an easy ride

Year one. The Space Race was on since Kennedy had announced in 1961 the US intention to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Chris, fit (despite the partying) and sporty, was perfect to represent the kind of candidate who might be an astronaut. Only he wasn't down for the moon launch. Chris spent the next year confined to bed in hospital, never allowed to get up, in order to study the effects of weightlessness and confinement on the physical condition. He read a great deal, watched a lot of television, didn't get the usual drugs. It could have been worse. It could have been Vietnam. But when Chris was told that his next year would be spend on janitorial services, scrubbing floors in some government facility, Chris decided it was a mugs game. He wasn't even a US citizen. He was British. It was only his Green Card, which he had barely been old enough to put to any gainful use, that had made him a candidate for the draft. With a British passport the natural thing was to call it quits. He got on a plane back to London.

Will and Ivy didn't have the money to go back. Ivy didn't like the States. She is English through and through. Will didn't get brilliant jobs. Their only child, Chris, was back and on his own, and effectively, a deserter from the US Forces. He didn't want to register his presence anywhere. He didn't sign on and he didn't register with any doctor or service of any kind. He shacked up where he could, often in the coolest neighbourhoods. He partied, made money as and when he could and then he met a girl.

Chris went steady. When Will and Ivy returned to England two years behind Chris thanks to the insurance payout when Will fell 20 feet off a ladder at work (the same type of accident which took out Chris' front teeth some 20 or so years later, but without the benefit of an employer's insurance package). Ivy brought back a genuine and very high fashion poncho for the girl she'd heard so much about from Chris. Before Chris could introduce her to his parents, his love had left, without warning, to live in Canada with a doctor. Chris called Ivy every night for a month, anguished, inconsolable.

Some time after, Ivy's brother's wife was knocked down by a motorcyclist. Her head struck the pavement and she was killed instantly. Ivy and Will moved in with the grieving and suicidal brother to keep him from doing the worst. Whilst there they got a call from a man in London. Chris was ill and couldn't pay his rent. Will and Ivy went to pick up Chris, bring him back with them and get him back on his feet. But Chris, having taken years to find comfort and intimacy in a woman's arms rather than the hang-loose, easy living, lifestyle of his buddies; most of then now left behind, killed, self-killed or self-exiled; Chris the only child of a strong, pragmatic, but, at the same time, socially reticent, mother, never recovered his ability to trust. Either that he could love a girl again or that he could be loved.

Chris moved about, an Israeli kibbutz for a while, Scandinavia, Greece, following the young, slightly hippie, crowd. Going where his California days, before the grim realities of life interfered, had instructed him. As youth and money began to run out, Chris moved back to London, decorating, wistful for the US and for youth. Ambling through Regents Park one evening in the summer of 1992. Hearing an American accent in the crowd of people swinging bats, tossing softballs.

For a good 15 years, playing his cards as close to his chest as he could, the US Forces deserter, the victim of love, the escapee from responsibility, Chris found his little patch of transplanted Americana on the softball pitches and indoor arenas frequented by Mojo and SPAM. It took a few years for Chris to soften to Czech rather than US Bud. A few more again for some of the intimacy to creep back. His Dad died, 21 years after his successful aorta operation at the John Radcliffe, but it barely got a mention. It was a Chris problem and Chris didn't burden others with his problems. He didn't want them to burden him either. Like all those line-drives in the ribs, in the leg, in the face, Chris just got on with it. His uncle died and left him £20k. Chris got a new set of teeth to replace the ones that the fall from the ladder took out and took a couple of trips back to see his old High School buddy, Bill Kent, in Simi Valley. We went to a slew of movies and he could reference the long line of antecedents that had informed the director. He learned to cut out the long diatribes and directionless monologues, learned in the hazy campus parties of Berkley and beyond. He learned to live with what he'd been dealt and mellow to it.

He even went back to the States, briefly, ten or so years back, when Ivy won a pair of American Airline tickets in the Donkey Sanctuary raffle draw. Chris has never done the East coast so they flew to Boston, drove down the coast and had a fortnight on the empty beaches eating lobster and reminiscing. Ivy asked him if he wasn't scared to be picked out at customs, but Chris shrugged it off. Customs stamped his passport for a 6 month visit. But he still never registered with a doctor back in England. Ivy nagged him to stop smoking - Will had died of lung cancer. Chris agreed to have Ivy pay for a BUPA check up which he passed with flying colours, so he thought that was good enough. He needn't worry about not having a doctor. He closed any deep gash with super-glue. He needn't worry about his father's leaking aorta. He quit smoking anyway.

And when, work having dried up for a 66 year old decorator, he moved back in to look after his Mum in Milton Keynes, Chris settled down to look after Ivy. Cook her meals, do the shopping. (But he would never allow Ivy to be pushed in a wheelchair in the supermarket). Run the neighbours into town. Feed the birds and the squirrels in the garden. The odd trip up to London. Pitching nice easy ones for my kids in the park. A trip down to Devon with Ivy, earlier this year - catching the perfect April weather. He house-sat for us last weekend of May. Looked after Philip, the happiest dog in the world when in Chris's company. Put another coat of paint on the banisters. Didn't want to be paid. Contemplated the blondes from the shelter of a table and a beer at the Duke of Cumberland on Parsons' Green. Went back to his mother's.

When the back pains in the first week of August wouldn't go with a handful of paracetamols he still wouldn't let Ivy call for a doctor. When the aorta finally burst, the pain was too awful to stop himself calling his mum to ring 999. But the Air Ambulance, the 15 hours of operation, the six weeks in Intensive care, the 10% chance, the time he managed to open his eyes and smile when he saw me visiting, the strength to take his mother's hands and then mouth 'What?' to her whilst pointing around the hospital ward, none of those things saved Chris from leaving it all behind at noon on 17th September 2011 aged only 66 years. Life's a Bitch, as it's been said. Often by Chris.

by Paul Montefiore

tagged under: softball, team, chris stephens, obituary, mojo, spam

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eddie chapman 18:09

very sad to hear of Chris’ parting but also glad to have read the obituary and know more about the gentle man.


Victoria Romero 22:32

Paul, what a beautiful obituary and memoir of a man I am proud to have called a friend. I’m left with many fond memories of hazy days in Regents Park and tournaments all over London and beyond. Chris came to Guildford a couple of times to meet my kids, wish so much we’d made more of an effort to keep in touch.

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