Tribute: Are there tennis courts in heaven?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

On New Year's Eve, Claudia was anxiously awaiting a black-tie concert with Itzhak Perlman at the newly opened Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Because we were also celebrating our thirty-sixth anniversary, I promised myself that, at least on this occasion, I would refrain from sleeping through the performance. That we might celebrate in style, our boys had gotten us a suite at the Vanderbilt Loews Hotel. It was mid-afternoon, as we passed Vanderbilt Medical Center on a return trip to the hotel, that I received the call.

Arnie Woodhams' name appeared on my iPhone screen and I assumed he was calling to set up a tennis match. When I answered, I was surprised to hear a woman on the other end. Identifying herself as the bereavement nurse at Vanderbilt Medical Center, she said that Arnie was in a motorcycle accident a few hours earlier, that he had just passed away, and that he would have wanted me to inform his many tennis buddies.

It was one of those surreal moments with heart pounding, hands shaking, and the brain rapid-firing messages like "I misunderstood her in the noise of the traffic" or "It's a cruel practical joke." However, the call came from Arnie's phone and Arnie was too self-possessed to be a practical joker. I had to pull over in the heavy traffic to catch my breath. When I spoke a few minutes later to Renee, Arnie's wife, through tears she said that Arnie had always wanted a motorcycle and that, though concerned, she relented.

From mid-afternoon until late that night, I was on the phone. I was on the phone when the fireworks exploded over the Cumberland River. Arnie was the animating and organizing spirit behind a tennis league of GM employees which over the years had expanded to include retirees, friends and friends of friends. We played regularly in Spring Hill, Columbia, Franklin and the indoor sports complex in Brentwood.

All responded to my calls with a sense of shock, bewilderment and disbelief. All of us had either talked to Arnie or played with him over the course of the two preceding days. He had called me on the 25th to wish my family a Merry Christmas and two days later I photographed him on the courts of the Spring Hill Recreation Center. In that photograph which accompanies this piece, he stands on the far left (in knit cap) with Gary Roberts, Tom Murphy and Dave Bramlett respectively to his left. As in every photo I have ever taken of him, he beams with his characteristic smile that reflects an outgoing personality, an enthusiasm for life, a sense of camaraderie, and a soaring spirit. That day, December 27, was the last time I saw Arnie Woodhams.

I have to thank Tom Murphy for introducing me to Arnie. They were good friends since the early nineties when they began work at Saturn. I occasionally played with Tom back in the mid-nineties but our paths hadn't crossed in years. When I saw him again four years ago, I invited him to join my tennis league in Lewisburg. He began playing doubles with us and it wasn't long before I began playing doubles with his GM league. Arnie immediately made a strong impression. It was more than his obvious athletic prowess, his physical endurance and his leadership role in the group. He was emblematic of the self-sufficient male, brimming with confidence, energy, intelligence, and practicality.

It was also his affable personality, his sense of humor, and his genuine concern for those around him. He would compliment his opponents on their shot-making skills while cleaning their clocks. When we were playing with the heat index well over 100, he would insure that everyone had enough water and that we would take longer breaks during court changeovers. He never began a doubles match without first calling out "Let's have fun, guys." We always did.

It's a characteristic of our times that our harried lives tend to be compartmentalized. I knew Arnie well as a tennis player but I didn't know much about the other facets of his life. He would occasionally talk about his wife Renee or brag about his daughter Amanda or describe his two grandchildren. He spoke a little about growing up in Michigan and about an older brother in Vietnam and another at Michigan State on athletic scholarship. He didn't talk much about the details of his work.

However on Monday afternoon, in preparation for the trip to Lewisburg for the memorial service at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, a number of our players came to my home where Claudia served lunch and where we spent several hours reminiscing. Because these friends had worked with Arnie and known him since the early nineties, I learned much more about his life at home and in the workplace. This information was helpful when at the memorial service the family asked me to speak on behalf of the tennis group.

With the church filled to capacity, I finally met the family members about whom Arnie so often spoke. I could see Arnie's face in the features of his mother and his siblings. It was a pleasure at long last to meet Renee and daughter Amanda. Both are stunningly attractive women. When Amanda smiled when Claudia and I greeted her, we could see Arnie's smile in hers. A slide presentation from the family's photo albums was extremely moving, featuring Arnie as exploring child, questioning teen, affectionate husband, loving father, attentive grandfather, and enthusiastic sportsman. All features of a multifaceted and multilayered life suddenly emerged. He was no longer compartmentalized.

When I spoke on behalf of the players, it was helpful to see so many of their faces in the crowd. I could see Tom Murphy, Gary Roberts, Jim Bubb, John Young, Dave Bramlett, Russell Hendrix, Mark Newland, Tim Baker, Danny Bencivenga, Jeff Tanner and Mike Rehage. I said that it would be difficult to pick up a racquet without thinking about Arnie but that I would play and enjoy the game. I also said that I could never imagine having as much fun as I have had with Arnie over the past couple of years.

As a believing Christian, I know there is an afterlife and I know "eye has not seen nor ear heard" what is in store for the faithful. However, if I'm well behaved - problematic if the past is prelude - and if I enter the Pearly Gates, then I hope there are tennis courts in heaven and I hope I can play Arnie again. Even better, perhaps I can beat him without cheating which would also be problematic in that umpires and line judges there are likely as scrupulously angelic and meticulously unerring as I imagine them to be.

A native of Marshall County, Dr. Andrews works at Columbia State Community College and has written other columns for publication.