harlandaily.com

An empty chair and a life that ended much too soon

By John Henson jhenson@civitasmedia.com

June 2, 2014

Returning to my classroom Thursday on the last day of classes at Harlan County High School, I headed toward my desk only to find there was no place for me to sit.


My chair had somehow found its way halfway across the room where a group of boys were enjoying a game of ping pong in the final hour of the final day of school.


Most days, the 21st Century room at HCHS would not have been so active, but everyone was more than a little excited about the end of another school year. After I asked why my chair was not where it belongs, one of the boys explained that “Fultz took it.”


I promised then to have a discussion with Cody Fultz about moving my chair. It’s a promise I won’t be able to keep.


After seeing a note on Facebook, I found a story on the Enterprise Web site that explained the shocking news that Cody Fultz wouldn’t be attending his graduation ceremonies Sunday because he died Saturday in an accident on U.S. 421.


I’m trying to sort through my memories of Cody as I attempt to understand what happened.


Cody and I had numerous conversations over the past three months while he attended the after-school program at the high school that I oversee. Cody was in my newspaper class last winter and often stayed after school for tutoring, even though he was a good math student and an even better musician.


I would probably have never met Cody if I hadn’t started working at the high school three years ago. In 25 years of covering local sports for the Harlan Daily Enterprise, I’d had numerous discussions with high school athletes, usually the best of the best, which means that we had very little in common. My athletic career ended in junior high school, and anyone who remembers me from those years will tell you I was lucky it lasted that long.


Cody and I discovered we both liked movies and had numerous discussions since the spring about some of the best ones of all time he had not yet seen. He promised before leaving one afternoon that he would find Cool Hand Luke and report back to me. He thought it was OK but needed more action. I told him that proved he had a long way to go before he could be a movie critic.


We were working on a list of must-see movies to help him catch up on the decades of classics he had yet to see, one of the few negatives about being 18.


He still had doubts about my knowledge of what qualified as a great movie, so one day while we were both on the treadmills at HCHS he checked my recommendations on a site that listed the best movies of all time.


High school students have taught me that history is only a Google check away, and Cody was testing my recommendations.


I promised The Godfather I and II and Goodfellas, the best mob movies of all-time, would be on any top 50 list he could find.


They were.


I told him Citizen Kane and The Graduate would be there, too.


They were.


Since the Internet agreed with me, Cody grudgingly started to trust my judgement about what he’d missed by not being able to remember the 20th Century.


Cody was looking forward to college after working through some personal issues that I couldn’t have imagined dealing with at his age. Teenagers like Cody have driven home the realization that I had it easy when I was their age.


I remember telling him how much he had to look forward to with his brains, talent and desire to succeed. Cody was smart, funny and courteous and never seemed to have any trouble getting along with everyone. He had nothing but time to watch all those movies, meet new friends and discover what he wanted to do with the rest of his life while he was in college.


I missed what would have been my last conversation with Cody by minutes, maybe even seconds. I remember smiling at the time when promising to discuss Cody’s breach of etiquette. It’s a conversation I was looking forward to and one I was taking for granted.


I’ve got a feeling the memory of that empty chair, and the one at the Harlan County High School graduation on Sunday, will stay with me for as long as it takes me to understand how something like this could happen to someone so young with so much life ahead of them.