I rotate teaching duties in the Fellowship Sunday School Class at First Baptist Church in Vienna. Attendance in our all-male group usually runs from ten to twenty. We have some youngsters in their 50s, and some seasoned veterans in the 80 range. I’m smack dab in the middle at 65.
Several years ago, we had an impromptu discussion on death before our regular lesson began. It was Paul Prosser’s morning to teach. He stood quietly at the podium, listening to the comments and various opinions, patiently waiting for a lull in the conversation to begin our scheduled Bible study.
When the chatter subsided, Paul spoke in a low and very respectful tone. “I hope that I die like my grandfather,” he said. “He was 95 and went peacefully in his sleep … unlike the other three old men who were screaming as his car plunged off the cliff.”
It’s outside the norm for us to choose the time and circumstances of our deaths. Some are blessed with a gentle passing, while others endure years of suffering. I’ve known those whose final day came far too soon, and others whose merciful relief seemed long overdue. I’m not sure there is ever a perfect ending to life, but Shelly Chastain came as close as I’ve seen.
My late father-in-law, Bennett Horne, had two long-time fishing partners. One was Max Garland, a gentle giant of a man who died in 1997. The other was Shelly Chastain, who died Oct. 22, 2017. I enjoyed fishing with them many times over several decades. We cast for speckled trout and reds where the Econfina and Aucilla Rivers meet the Gulf of Mexico in north Florida. Fishing with Mr. Horne and his friends provided me with a boatload of treasured memories.
Jane and I married December 28, 1974. During the four months before our wedding, she lived with her parents in Thomasville while I rented an apartment in Tallahassee. Every Friday after work, I made the short trip north. Mr. Horne and I fished on Saturdays. On Sundays we went to church, then afterward feasted on Mrs. Horne’s roast beef. Late in the day I would reluctantly head south on 319.
I didn’t fish as often after we married, but still managed six or eight trips a year. A lot of times I fished with Shelly on Saturday, then saw him the next day at church. Before the worship services began he would be standing in his usual spot, often sharing the previous day’s results with his friends, sometimes adding expected exaggerations. My earliest memories of Shelly include him helping take up the offering at First Baptist in Thomasville. He was faithful in attendance and service.
Mr. Horne died January 22, 1995. I didn’t fish much after that, sometimes going only once a year at Thanksgiving with family. Jane and I would leave Vienna on Wednesday afternoon as soon as I got off work. That night I would call Shelly and get the fishing report. He, like Mr. Horne, had a tremendous ability to recall the precise location of places he had caught fish.
He would tell me to go past where the log house burned, and try the deep hole on the left side near the leaning palm tree. He’d remind me to watch out for the big rock just under the water, tell me when the tides would change, and let me know what kind of mirror lure or jig was working best for him. I’d call him Thursday night to give our report, then promise to tell him the truth on Sunday morning.
Besides his passion for fishing, Shelly was an avid bicyclist. Jane and I visited him earlier this year, and I asked if he was still riding. He said he didn’t go on long rides much anymore, that he and some friends took short trips around town on Sunday afternoons, trips of only 15 or 16 miles.
On Friday, Oct. 20th, Shelly fished at Aucilla with his friend Johnny Johnson. He cleaned his speckled trout the next day. On Sunday at church he turned in his contacts card, and helped take up the offering. During his afternoon bike ride he had chest pains and was admitted to the hospital. Shelly smiled and told a grandchild that if he didn’t make it, she could have his brightly colored biking shirt.
Shelly was 90, but seemed much younger. He fished, worshipped, biked, and kept his sense of humor right up until the end. I’m not sure there’s ever a perfect ending to life, but Shelly Chastain came as close as I’ve seen. He died doing what he loved, because he lived doing what he loved. His legacy is not about his death. It is, instead, about his life, and the wonderful example he was for the rest of us.