only the good die young... and sometimes we never know why, or how.

August 15, 2005

- by richie whitt

Hug your kids and hold on to your faith.

Because sometimes, defying infinite odds and surely God's will, very bad things happen to very good children.

"Chandler lived so fast, played so hard, loved so much," trembles the voice of father Rick Jackson between trickles of tears. "It's like he knew he was a special angel … one that would only be on this Earth a short time."

Chandler Hugh Jackson hit, caught, threw, dived, kicked, leaped, rolled, birdied, danced, sang, prayed, joked, laughed, loved and crow-barred 12 lifetimes into his 12 years. He was equally adept at making the long throw from shortstop to first base, making you laugh by putting on his mom's skirt and high heels, making the par putt to win the hole, or making you feel like a part of the team even though your right arm and leg were paralyzed from a childhood stroke.

"Boys at that age can be so brutally honest, so cruel. But Chandler had a sense, a gift, knowing how to make people feel loved," said Hilary Lueck, whose handicapped nephew, Jake, continued playing baseball only at Chandler's urging. "He always demanded to play catch with Jake. Always helped him get comfortable around the swimming pool. He could sense when Jake felt left out, and he brought him right into the group. He gave Jake self-confidence at a time when it was absolutely priceless. And I don't even think he knew why he did it. Chandler's instincts just told him that it needed to be done."

With his big talent, huge heart and contagious smile, was Chandler the next Alex Rodriguez? The next Brett Favre? The next Adam Sandler? The next George W. Bush?

Then, just like that - before you could comprehend his present or calculate his future - he was gone. In a tree-lined Kentucky ditch on a July 6 blackened with morbid misery and mind-boggling mystery, Chandler instead became the next All-American Tragedy.

"My faith is really, really being tested," Chandler's mother, Charmane Jackson, admits while staring blankly at a sweating glass of ice water and a box of her son's photos in the kitchen of her Frisco, Texas home. "Why take away someone who was doing so much good for so many people? People say he's in a better place, but I hate that. He was having a great life, and he was making life great for so many other people. How could it be better? All Chandler wanted to do is love and be loved. Look around, there's not enough people like him in this world. And for him to be taken away? Like that? I just don't know anymore …"

It's been 33 days since Chandler's death. Mutters Rick over a plate of food that will go untouched, "I'm still not sure it's sunk in yet."

And it may never. Because an unfathomable accident, a freak fatal wound, an invisible investigation and a pre-teen funeral were never part of the grand plan.

Chandler's next stop was supposed to be Cooperstown, not a coffin.

"You never know how things might have turned out, but, boy, were there a bunch of us who couldn't wait to find out," said Chandler's long-time baseball coach Rob Feeback. His 5-foot-3, 110-pound frame, family history, doctors' projections and whopping size 11 shoes at age 12 suggest Chandler would have reached 6-foot-6. "He was the fastest runner, the hardest thrower and one of the best hitters. And he was such a great kid. It hurts to think about it, because his potential really was unlimited. By that age you can start to tell who has it and who doesn't. And it was obvious to everyone that Chandler had all the makings of a big star."

The fact that Chandler raised eyebrows and lowered his ERA while constantly playing against boys two years older shouldn't surprise. Since the time Rick and Charmane took one look at the bulky, vibrant sonogram and nicknamed him "Peanut", Chandler demanded attention while doling out affection.

Born Sept. 14, 1992 in Plano and named after Happy Chandler, Major League Baseball's second commissioner, Chandler came out swinging. He immediately became a '90s "Baby Boomer", hammering plastic baseballs over the fence into his neighbors' swimming pool. Not long after, he blossomed into the kid who stole second base on the field, and stole the spotlight off it.

He started playing organized baseball at three, smashed the front windshield of his grandma's Nissan Stanza with a wild throw at five (instead of going for his belt, Rick fetched his camera because "I don't think I could've thrown the ball hard enough to break that window!"), parred his first hole at six and fed the world out of the palm of his hand during water breaks.

Boyishly handsome with a strong jaw, giddy white smile, stylish brown hair and electric blue eyes that could blend in to Times Square or light up a desert sky at midnight, Chandler tested up two grades at Carrollton's Arbor Creek Middle School despite battling ADHD. He attended Hebron Community Church though he was uncomfortable in anything other than baseball cleats or his No. 4 Kentucky basketball jersey. And, at an age when most boys are still firm believers that girls are indeed infested with cooties, his best friend was schoolmate tomboy Jessica Clothier.

"We'd go skateboarding at Eisenberg's (in Plano) and he'd try to get me to do all sorts of tricks," said Jessica. "And I usually wound up trying. The only time I saw him back down was when we snuck out his room onto the roof. There was a 10-foot drop-off and he was like "Uh, let's go back'."

While the two weren't to the point of stealing kisses, Charmane sensed the natural chemistry.

"They weren't boyfriend and girlfriend," she said, "but you got the feeling it would have gotten to that point eventually."

Chandler was a unique blend of a child blessed with loving parents, plentiful resources and the innate humility to boomerang those gifts into generosity. (After a two-year separation Rick and Charmane divorced in May. But they remain friendly and when Rick moved out of their upper-class house he leased an apartment within walking distance to stay close to his son, both literally and figuratively.) When Chandler won a wad of prize tickets at Dave & Buster's, he bought nothing for himself but instead an ash tray for his mom and matching baseball pillows for 11-year-old twins Connor and Caleb Massie. When he earned yet another game ball for three extra-base hits and a diving catch in center field, he instead gave the award to teammate Scotty Klimm, who struggled with the sport but on that night managed a rare base hit. While on a Spring Break snowboarding trip to Angel Fire, New Mexico, Chandler ransacked the resort gift shop. Not for himself, but for friend Megan Lucas.

Reasoned Chandler to his dad as he unloaded an armful of souvenir trinkets on the counter, "I got this trip. But Megan didn't get to go anywhere for Spring Break."

And then there was the time when Chandler gave his dad something special - a promotion.

It was one of Lexington, Kentucky's most posh, exclusive events of the year, the wedding of Robinson Swearengen Brown IV - of the Jack Daniel's-owning Brown-Foreman Company - and Jennifer Jackson, Chandler's only female first cousin. Grand ballroom. Black ties. Mannered tables heavy on silverware and free of elbows. Guests arriving in stretch limos - most that weren't rented.

After Robinson Swearengen "Pappy" Brown II, the family's 87-year-old patriarch and two-time honorary chairman of the Kentucky Derby, gave his toast, something happened. Something right out of a Will Ferrell flick. Something that forever endeared down-to-earth Chandler to a pie-in-the-sky family.

"I have a toast too!" stood Chandler as the needle scratched violently off the Sinatra vinyl.

Chandler, it seemed, had a story. And, boy, did he also have charisma.

When Robinson was first introduced to the Jacksons, it was in the parking lot of a tailgating party before a UK football game. Understandably nervous to fit in, Robinson meticulously prepared his hamburger. Bun. Cheese. Ketchup. Pickles. Onions. Lettuce. Bite.

"But he forgot the meat!!!" howled Chandler, loosening the stuffy guests into side-splitting laughter. "At first I thought he was a vegetarian. But I knew right then that Robinson would be a fun guy to have around. Welcome to our family!"

Soon after, Rick realized his promotion.

"So, you're Chandler's dad?!"

When Chandler wasn't cracking up friends and family with marginal decisions to put on his wet suit to clean the swimming pool in February, put on his mom's blouse, skirt and heels to cheer her up while she was sick in bed, or hide his clean basket of folded clothes in the attic for two months because he so hated to put them away, he was knocking down conventional emotional barriers with his relentless heart.

Just behind hits, Chandler loved hugs. He loved wrapping his arms around anyone from 14-year-old friends at school, to his Aunt Martha and her two black Schnauzers Hershey and Babes, to his sister veggin' out in front of the TV.

"Everybody talks about his athletic gifts, but Chandler was blessed with an abundance of spiritual gifts, too," says his 23-year-old sister, Lindsey Brunsman. "He wouldn't enter or leave a room without hugging someone. I'd be watching TV and he'd just come up behind me, hug me, tell me "You're the best sis in the world", and then he'd start scratching my back. With just little things like that, he'd light up everyone he was around."

Outside adults, Lindsey was Chandler's prime role model. He both missed and admired her while she went on a six-month missionary trip to Australia last year. He sat in on her guitar playing and singing, became a rabid fan of her Oklahoma University and flashed their special "I Love You" hand signal when words seemed cumbersome. While at OU, Lindsey made Chandler a mold of the sign in ceramics class, never imagining the gift would wind up in her brother's casket.

"He helped make everyone around him a better person," said Lindsey. "There are not a lot of people you can say that about."

When he wasn't inhaling Reese's chocolates, the movie Angels in the Outfield or the cartoon Kim Possible, Chandler spent Fridays eating Brooklyn's Pizza and watching war movies with dad and most every chance he got singing "You Are My Sunshine" with his mom.

"He won lots of awards and accomplished so much," said Charmane. "But I think my happiest times with him were just playing with his hair and singing to each other."

You Are My Sunshine,
My only sunshine.
You make me happy,
When skies are grey.
You'll never know, dear,
How much I love you.
Please don't take my sunshine away.

Said long-time family friend Tammy Koch, "He was just so sweet, he'd love on you no matter what. He was always coming up behind you with a hug and a "Guess who?!' He was just the happiest kid in the world. And it was a gift, because he always wound up making you happy as well."

Like all 12-year-old boys, Chandler wasn't perfect. He could be hard-headed, rambunctious, disruptive and, thanks to the ADHD, disinterested in school work. At home, keeping him focused was Lindsey's chore. At Arbor Creek that job fell to 14-year-old friend Kelsey Van Horn.

"He definitely had trouble concentrating and staying on task," said Van Horn, who had been counting on watching Chandler start the 7th grade last week. "If I sat with him and went through his folder and we worked together, he was fine. But if it was up to him to do his work on his own, he'd find excuses to go outside or start singing or something."

Though Kelsey was both tutor and playmate, Chandler also showered her with love. Every day, in fact. At precisely 9:36 a.m.

"He'd come from the band hall and be waiting for me between classes in the exact same place by the water fountains," she said. "For no real reason, just to say "Hi" and to give me a big hug. I guess I was drawn to him like a little brother."

Chandler slapped especially big smiles on the faces of his baseball coaches. And, sooner than later, you get the feeling he was going to have college and even professional scouts drooling at his raw talent and passion for the game.

Whether playing for Feeback's Giants, the Plano Select All-Stars or, in the end, the Texas Lightning, Chandler often dominated games with his mouth-watering combination of David Eckstein's hustle and David Ortiz' power.

"He was the most competitive player I ever coached," said Feeback, who played at Hardin-Simmons and began coaching Chandler in T-ball. "And pretty close to the most talented. There was nothing he couldn't do on a baseball field."

His room was adorned with framed pictures of old-school heroes like Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. His on-base percentage was .800. His uniform was never without a grass stain on the knee or dirt on the butt. He was buried wearing a bracelet that read "Eat. Sleep. Play Ball."

Last May in Mesquite, Chandler slammed a home run that three witnesses marched off as landing 155 feet beyond the field's 230-foot fence. (A 385-foot shot would be a homer in almost every part of the Rangers' Ameriquest Field.) On that game ball, an amused Chandler scribbled, "Dang, I hit this ball far!"

Playing as a 10-year-old in the 11-12-year-old league championship game, Chandler displayed both his pop and pedals. With his Giants trailing by a run in the last inning, Chandler laced a line drive into the right-field corner. Halfway around second base, he looked up to realize he was about to pass a teammate who had been on first base. Despite momentarily stopping, Chandler - with Rick coaching third base - was thrown out in a close play at home plate in a game his team would eventually lose in extra innings.

"He was going to score on an inside-the-park homer and we win the championship," recalls Feeback. "Chandler could really motor. I don't think anybody could have kept up with him that day."

In his last tournament, Chandler went 8 for 14 with the Denton event's only over-the-fence homer and seven other extra-base hits. In his final at-bat, on June 26, he lined a nasty curve ball off the left-field fence for a double, knocking in the winning run that allowed the Lightning to beat the No. 2-ranked Super Series team in the nation and qualify the Lightning for the National Tournament.

Chandler's dramatic heroics set up a perfect summer vacation. A trip to the family's farm in Kentucky for the annual July 4th reunion, followed the next week by the National Tournament in Memphis.

But on July 1 as Charmane ran to Rick's SUV with a piled-high BLT for Chandler to munch on during the 9-hour drive to Cunningham, she was bathed in an eerie sensation that made her mind race and her skin crawl.

"Out of nowhere I had the worst feeling," she said. "That I might not see Chandler ever again. I always worried about the long drive on holiday weekends, but I was really scared. I gave him a big hug and prayed for the best."

It was the last time she would see her son alive.

Though he sparkled in the bright lights of the big city just north of Dallas, Chandler was just a good ol' young country boy. Fell asleep listening to crickets chirping, courtesy of his nature sound machine. And would often make a tiny circle with his hand and put it up to his eye while Rick was speeding along bustling North Dallas Tollway.

"If you make the circle small enough," Chandler answered to his dad's flabbergasted inquiry, "you can block out the city and only see the country."

At the heart of Chandler's love affair with The Rural World reality show was the Jackson family's 300-acre farm in the bluegrass state. Tucked in the far western corner about 35 miles from Paducah, the corn and soybean farm was surrounded by Missouri, Tennessee, Illinois and sprawling Kentucky Lake.

Chandler spent all 12 of his July 4ths and most every Christmas at the farm, shooting fireworks, playing baseball, riding tractors, boating, golfing and piggin' out on hot barbecue and cold homemade ice cream. Like a rooster at sunrise, at least once a day during his stays Chandler would blurt out his trademark pronouncement:

"This is the best day of my life!"

In what became a rite of summer, Rick stopped at Boom Land, a giant fireworks store in Missouri, and let Chandler go crazy. He was, after all, the choreographer of the farm's traditional show atop a patriotic, grassy stage known simply as "The Hill." It was atop this hill - where from the old wooden swing you can peer out over the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers -- that in 2003 Robinson had proposed to Jennifer, and just three years ago Chandler and Rick buried their own time capsule complete with coins and baseball cards.

This July, the farm felt better than ever.

"Chandler was always a ray of sunshine on the outside, but he internalized things, too. And with the death of Gramps (Rick's dad) in January, and then the divorce, he'd had a tough year," said Lindsey. "But once he got to the farm, and up on the hill … that was his little slice of heaven."

And Chandler's love was in full bloom. On his way outside the day before the accident, Chandler saw his 83-year-old grandmother hunched over the stove frying some breakfast bacon. Noticing her obvious back pain, Chandler eschewed his morning baseball plans and instead pulled up two chairs alongside the stove - one for her and one for him.

"They sat and talked for an hour," said Rick. "He was so in tune with the people he loved."

This year's fireworks show was on July 3, with the traditional family golf tournament - followed by the ice cream, of course - on the 4th. On the morning of Wednesday, July 6, Chandler played baseball with cousins Stephen, 16, and Matthew Davis, 14, and Evan McLemee, 14.

"He was working on the double-play pivot," Rick recalls between the temporary soothing of a Bud Light. "Until he finally got it perfect."

At lunch, Rick laid out afternoon options to the boys. Since some family members were preparing to leave and it would be the last day with access to a boat, he anticipated taking the group skiing on the lake.

"Chandler never passed up a chance to be on the lake," Rick said. "But we'd played golf on the 4th and, for whatever reason, he really wanted to play again. So we let him pick the teams and off we went."

This particular family feud featured three, three-member teams playing a scramble at the local course, Dogwood Hills. It's the perfect setting for gene-friendly golf with its semi-private 9-hole course tucked along Highway 62 amid rolling hills and $15 weekday green fees. Chandler's hand-picked teammates included Matthew and his mother, Angela Davis.

"Chandler was his happy, goofy self," said Angela, a 35-year-old Kindergarten teacher in Cunningham. "We hadn't even teed off yet and he was already asking if we could play again tomorrow."

Oblivious to the 90-degree, cloudless heat in dark denim shorts, a red "Skater Dude" T-shirt and black low-top sneakers, Chandler took the competition seriously. In between shots, however, he entertained his teammates by singing and dancing to the Venga Boys' "We Like To Party" theme song from Six Flags Amusement Parks' summer TV ads. You know the one, with the catchy "da-da-da-da-da-DA-da" hook and the dancing tuxedo-clad bald guy.

Said Angela, "It's hard to tell him he's getting on your nerves when you keep laughing at him."

For little more than braggin' rights around the supper table, the groups teed off around 5 p.m. Angela took off in her cart while Matthew and Chandler drove the other. Rick's threesome would follow a hole behind.

On their 13th hole of the day -- No. 4, the course's toughest - Matthew sank a 9-foot putt to save par. In a playful taunting of Rick's group back on the tee box, Chandler and Matthew began dancing and high-fiving off the green and all the way to their cart.

"I thought they made a long putt for a birdie or something," said Rick. "He was doing some kind of jig. Typical Chandler."

It was the last time Rick would see his son alive and well.

No. 5 at Dogwood Hills is a tight Par 3. There are thick trees to the left and, along the right side, a 6- to 7-foot deep gulley where run-off water drains and a line of Sycamore, Sweet Gum and Oak trees grow to form a natural separation from the No. 2 fairway, which runs in the opposite direction. From the kids' tees, the downhill hole measures 130 yards.

Using his 9-iron - a U.S. Kids Golf Performance Light Gold club -- Chandler sliced his shot wildly to the right, through the trees and over onto the 2nd fairway. Angela yanked her shot left into the trees while Matthew managed to put his ball on the green. Since the scramble format dictated using Matthew's tidy shot, Angela and Chandler would pick their balls up and meet Matthew on the green. With the No. 5 path winding around to the left side of the green, Angela and Matthew drove their carts while Chandler, mildly disgusted with his uncharacteristically errant shot, held on to his 9-iron and took off walking to the right through the trees toward his ball.

What happened next is as unthinkable as it is uncertain. Only thing for sure: Two hours later Chandler Jackson would be dead.

"In your wildest imagination you wouldn't have an inkling of what happened," said Dogwood Hills Chairman Tommy Reddick. "It defies explanation."

With Chandler out of sight, hidden by the slopes of the gulley, Matthew hears a distinct "snap" while helping Angela look for her ball to the left of the green. According to Matthew, two seconds later he hears a distinct cry for "Help!" coming from the gulley. Immediately following was a second cry, this one muffled, garbled and weak.

"I ran down toward him," said Matthew, "but when I got about 10 feet away I just saw blood shooting in the air. I knew it was bad."

Alertly, Matthew yells for his mom to call for help while he hops in the cart to head back to Rick a hole behind.

Said Matthew, "I floored it, but it seemed like I was going in slow motion." Told that "Chandler is hurt really bad and bleeding", Rick leaps out of his slow-moving cart and runs up the fairway toward the gulley.

While calling 911 at 7:28 p.m., Angela enlists the help of Mike Hogancamp, the Carlisle County District Attorney who had been playing No. 1 nearby and who, ironically, made the first hole-in-one in club history at the same 5th hole. When they reach Chandler less than 15 seconds after the initial "Help!" they are almost paralyzed with fear.

The 12-year-old kid who less than five minutes earlier had been comically mimicking an old, bald dancing man is now laying on his back at the bottom of the ditch. With a puncture through his neck and down toward his heart, thin streams of blood shoot wildly into the air with each weakening beat. Chandler is laying in the shaded grass and weeds, foot-to-head parallel to the 5th hole. His eyes are open and arms are at his side. He is in shock, unresponsive, mostly unconscious, and already his skin color is turning a sickening pale blue.

"Having heard Matthew and seen his face, I knew it was serious," said Angela. "But nothing could have prepared us for that. It was haunting."

Five weeks later, Rick remains reluctant to re-live the details of the nightmare: "I just remember the blood."

Back in Frisco, Lindsey calls her friends to start a prayer chain. Charmane, receiving the call from Rick just seconds after ordering dinner with her boyfriend, Dean Flores, at the Plano Tavern restaurant, has become hysterical and physically unstable.

"Don't let my baby die!" she repeatedly yells into the phone.

Says Lindsey, "I just remember sitting in the grass in my front yard and looking up at the sky. It was the most helpless feeling in the world."

While fast gathering family and friends use golf towels to apply pressure to Chandler's wound, volunteers from the Carlisle County Sheriff's Department and first responders from the Cunningham Fire Department arrive on the scene, followed by an ambulance and, 10 minutes after the 911 call, a Air-E-Vac helicopter that lands on the 30-yard wide 2nd fairway.

Urged to "Hang on baby!" and to "Breathe!" Chandler's condition momentarily stabilizes. He exhibits brief signs of coherence and voluntarily grasps for a couple of shallow breaths. When the helicopter lifts off, medical personnel have a guarded sense of relief.

"He had decent vital signs," said Cunningham Fire Department Emergency Medical Technician Bobby Toon. "I thought he was going to be okay."

But once during the 5-minute flight and one last time in the emergency room at Paducah's Lourdes Hospital, Chandler dies and is revived. On the operating table surgeon Joseph Mayo orders Chandler's chest to be cracked open with a rib spreader. Dr. Mayo momentarily restores a faint pulse and blood pressure through blood transfusions and by manually massaging his heart.

But the efforts are futile; Chandler's wound is fatal.

Despite five surgeons working on him for 90 minutes Chandler is pronounced dead at 9:30 p.m., the result of massive hemorrhaging caused by a direct impalement puncture that entered just below his Adam's apple, angled sharply downward after glancing off a bony protrusion of his breast plate, and completely sheared off his carotid artery and partially sliced his aorta.

The killer: a 7-inch long piece of snapped, sharp, shaft still attached to the head of the 9-iron.

"The doctors told us that if he'd suffered that injury right there in the hospital, he still would've died," said Angela. "It was that bad. But it gave a small level of peace, I guess. Knowing that Chandler basically died instantly. That he didn't suffer. That there was nothing we could have done."

Told of her son's death by Rick's deafening silence on the other end of the cell phone, Charmane falls to the ground on her backyard patio with a skin-shriveling shriek.

"As long as I live I'll never forget it," Lindsey says of her mom's scream. "I hope no one has to hear anything like that, ever."

Because there were no witnesses, no logical explanation and no high-tech CSI in tiny-town Kentucky, knowing precisely how Chandler died is impossible. Simply put, a one-in-a-million kid was killed by a one-in-a-million accident.

Reads Dr. Mayo's report: "Specifics are unclear."

According to the most recent report by Emergency Medical Journal, there were only 19 golf-related deaths of children under 13 in 2003. On the list: lightning strikes, cart roll-overs, drownings, head trauma caused by swinging clubs or errant balls and even bee stings. But accidental falls onto broken clubs? The odds are infinitesimal.

"For a kid that wonderful to be stolen from us," said Rick, "it had to be something bizarre."

You want bizarre? Despite his head-first slides, scuba dives and snowboarding highs, Chandler never broke a bone or even needed a single stitch. His first trip to the emergency room turned out to be his last.

There's only one thing worse than wondering why your child died. Not knowing for sure how he died.

"Only two people know exactly what happened," said Toon. "God and Chandler."

The best guess about Chandler's accident?

A courteous kid not wanting to keep Matthew and Angela waiting on the green, Chandler was in a hurry to get his ball and re-join the group. More than likely, after picking up his ball, he began jogging - perhaps running - down the decline toward the bottom of the gulley in order to build up enough speed to make it up the incline on the other side and up to the green. According to Toon, the slopes into the gulley are about 30 degrees. Gentle enough, in other words, for disabled players to drive their golf carts through and, certainly, for superior athletes like Chandler to navigate on foot.

"It's a natural area, but it's certainly not a jungle," said Reddick. "We maintain it with a weed-eater. There's nothing there you can't run a mower over."

Said Rick, "He was fearless. Running through that area wouldn't cross his mind twice."

According to Angela, Chandler earlier in the day had been playfully brandishing his club like a sword, holding the head in his hand and swinging the long shaft and grip toward Matthew's general direction. Just minutes earlier on the No. 4 tee box, he accidentally swung his "sword" through some landscaping.

"He knocked the top right off a peach Gladiola," said Angela. "Then he put it in his mouth and presented it to me. Chandler's way of saying "I'm sorry." It's something I'll keep forever."

Perhaps Chandler, who was right-handed, was holding his 9-iron the same way - like a cane -- as he descended the slope. With considerable speed going down the decline, he somehow lost his balance. He could've became entangled with the club, tripped over his own feet or stumbled over an otherwise hidden tree root or hole in the ground and began falling forward down the slope. In an effort to break his fall, he might have put the grip end of the club into the ground. The force of his body weight and the momentum from his inertia could have snapped the club off near the head. As Chandler plunged head first, he might have again tried to break his fall with his right hand - still clutching the club head - and forearm on the ground, which instead turned the splintered shaft at the perfectly deadly angle to meet his falling, flailing torso. The initial "Help!" came when Chandler initially tried to get to his feet but made it only to one knee, explaining his blood-splattered shorts and his right shoe's bloody sole. The second, softer cry came after he instinctively pulled the club out of his neck and chest, then fell back to the ground on his back.

"It goes down in the record books as one of the all-time freak accidents," said Carlisle County Sheriff Steve McChristian. "The poor kid had a better chance of being struck by lightning on a sunny day."

McCracken County coroner Dan Sims has worked with fatalities for almost 30 years. Never, he said, has he seen an accident as unique and devastating as Chandler's.

"And I'll probably never see one like it again," said Sims. "You couldn't re-create those elements, that terrain, those angles, those circumstances again if you had to. Without any eyewitnesses we'll never be able to pin-point exactly how it happened. But the bottom line is that people just don't survive nicked arteries, much less severed ones."

Adding to the bewilderment: Toon said he arrived at the scene to find less than a teaspoon of blood on the ground around Chandler. Approximately 90 percent of his fatal bleeding took place internally.

"It's really thrown me for a loop," said Toon, an EMT for 14 years. "I mean, there was nothing in that area you could look at say "Yep, he tripped over that." There were two or three trees nearby, but that part of the hole is basically open. For a boy to die in those circumstances, it just doesn't make any sense."

As with all speculation, of course, other remote possibilities and unanswered questions fester.

Could Chandler have broken the club when he hit his ball from the 2nd fairway instead of picking it up, and then began proceeded down the gulley with the two pieces of broken club in his hands? The answer would be in the location of his ball, which was never recovered. Could it have been a defective club that snapped during a swing or even a gentle lean?

Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No. Mysterious? Forever.

"It's like if somebody walks in front of a train, what's to investigate?" explained McChristian, in his ninth year as sheriff. "It was a terrible accident. The doctors said the kid would've died in five minutes even if it had happened at the hospital's front door. People are still pretty shook up about it, but I didn't see a compelling reason to conduct an intense investigation into what everyone believes was a freak accident."

Instead of a fatal accident, Chandler's death was treated like an accident that later turned fatal.

A 12-year-old dies and all the responsible authorities with jurisdiction come up with is a one-paragraph report and zero photographs? McChristian's office might not have been maliciously flippant, but it was undeniably far from thorough.

"What's upsetting to me is that nobody took the time to try to find out how my son died," said Charmane. "They just chalked it up to an accident, walked away, and we're all left to guess what happened."

The saddest irony? Chandler's parents always feared they were over-protective.

Mom wouldn't let him play tackle football because it was too rough. Per dad's orders, he was one of the few at the skate park wearing a helmet and full pads. He had a 20-gauge shotgun, but was only allowed to shoot skeet on the farm. Rick feared the dangers of deer hunting, one of the few goals that didn't get checked off Chandler's to-do list.

"He had two gears," said Charmane, "asleep or 100 miles per hour. It was a strength and a weakness."

Predictably, Chandler's family grieves in various ways.

While the parents are contemplating grief counseling sessions together, Charmane remains dedicated to uncovering the details of her son's death in search of a sort of soul-soothing closure. In a trying two years in which she's been hospitalized with a bacterial infection picked up while scuba diving in Mexico and in which her mom was diagnosed with cancer, the stay-at-home mom now faces the grim reality of selling her house and, along with it, her precious memories of Chandler.

Struggling to get back into his high-pressure sales job, Rick is diving into the Chandler Hugh Jackson Youth Foundation, with only momentary glimpses back to the accident or ahead to his next visit to the farm at Christmas or a life without his pride and joy. He remains so depressed, distraught and downtrodden that he hasn't yet mustered the strength to return to his son's grave site in Frisco. As of now, Chandler rests without a headstone.

Said Rick, "He never gave up in any situation, and I don't think he did this time either. He must have just had a more important place to go. In the end, I guess it was his big heart that did him in. That's just something I'm having trouble dealing with. Every single day."

Lindsey, who in Kentucky eerily found a mood ring that only days prior she had tried to talk Chandler out of buying, clings stronger than ever to her faith.

"Things happen according to God's will," she says while sitting on the floor of her mom's home, clutching a journal that includes countless entries featuring her brother. "I just trust and pray that good things will come out of this bad accident. I trust that more good things than we can imagine are going to come from his foundation. Chandler's spirit and legacy will touch even more lives than he did."

Chandler had been scheduled to attend the week-long Christian camp, and Rick felt moved to send his son's cousins and friends to represent him. Sky Ranch also plans to plant a memorial tree honoring Chandler later this year.

"We didn't talk about Chandler until the last night," said Matthew. "We had a nightly Bible study and I just got up and talked about my cousin being in a horrible accident. I was crying like a baby, but it felt good to get it off my chest. Now when we think about Chandler it's all good things. Things he did to always make us laugh."

A fund-raising golf tournament is planned at Dogwood Hills in September 10-11, at which time a memorial marker in Chandler's living, laughing memory will be placed on the course. In 2006 the foundation plans a similar golf tournament in Dallas.

"We want Chandler's memory to inspire other kids," said Rick. "We want to send teams to baseball tournaments or just give a kid a chance to make a birdie putt. Something positive they can take with them for strength when they face adversity in their life. We want them to have experiences like he did, and come away saying "It was the best day of my life!' It's the only way for us to make any sense out of what happened."

Inside Chandler's house, his mom has transformed the front office into a shrine with everything from his trombone to his poems to a picture of his Peruvian Paso horse, Dante. Outside in the yard sits a simple flower arrangement with his photo in the middle of a cross. And all over, the cheers that turned to tears are just beginning the patient, painful transformation back to cheers.

"I'd love to take credit for Chandler being who he was," said Charmane. "He was he sunshine of my life. But you couldn't raise a child that unique if you tried."

Said Rick, "He was my son, my best friend and my hero. And I lost them all on that day."

As usual, it was Chandler Jackson's best day. Inexplicably, it was also his last day.

After all, the brightest stars burn out the fastest.

 


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