EDITOR’S NOTE: The Union Leader is bringing back some of the late Joe Sullivan’s Union Leader sports columns. This one was originally published on May 22, 2001.
LETTERS are gifts.
Garrison Keillor, writer and humorist, coined that phrase in an essay on letter writing, and it struck me as one of the truest things I have ever read.
One of the joys of my day is opening the mailbox. I reach in and extract bills and circulars, advertisements and solicitations. And then, on those rare days that I discover a real letter, my spirit soars.
This is to put the people — all the people — at New Hampshire International Speedway on alert. You have a gift coming. Do you ever. And your spirit should soar. Scott Sheehan of Manchester wrote a letter to you after he and his son, Ryan, experienced two incredible adventures at NHIS during the year’s first big weekend of NASCAR racing, the week before last.
Before reliving the weekend, a few words on Ryan Sheehan, from his dad: “Ryan is your typical 6½-year-old boy, except for the fact he is autistic. He was diagnosed with this lifelong disorder at age 4. At that point, he was non-verbal, no language whatsoever. He had frequent unexplained tantrums and very few social skills.”
While many parents were out with their children tossing baseballs, punting footballs or shooting basketballs, Scott and his wife, Becky, were working with their son to help him gain rudimentary social skills.
Along the way, Ryan somehow expressed a strong interest in NASCAR racing.
So, father and son started visiting NHIS on qualifying and practice days.
“It seemed to be like a soothing therapy for him to watch the cars and hear the sounds of the racetrack,” Scott Sheehan, who is superintendent of The Union Leader’s platemaking department, writes. Ever pay attention to track stands on qualifying and practice days? There are acres of unoccupied seats. For a dad and his autistic son, that’s just about perfect.
So on Busch North qualifying day — Friday, May 11 — Scott and Ryan arrived at NHIS at 9 a.m. Track officials, who shy from publicity for doing things like this, had secured premium parking for the Sheehans.
A big deal? Absolutely.
“By being up so close, I was able to spend so much time with him without having to worry about a meltdown and the long walk back to the car trying to restrain/console him,” Scott writes.
Meltdown. Restrain. Console. Those words reveal a great deal of what Scott Sheehan has to consider when he takes his son to any event. Fans using umbrellas, people smoking cigarettes, youngsters playing with toys — all of these seemingly small distractions can set Ryan off.
In past visits, the Sheehans arrived early and invariably left early. Not on May 11. Father and son spent 10 hours at the track. This wasn’t big; this was gargantuan.
Scott: “Ryan usually can’t sit still for one hour, never mind 10. So you can imagine the effect the speedway has on him. At many points of the day, I would ask him if he wanted to leave. He would reply, ‘No, stay and watch NASCAR racing.’”
Emboldened by Friday’s success, Scott toyed with the idea of bringing Ryan to the actual race on Saturday, something he had never had the courage to do because of the crowded stands and Ryan’s possible reaction to the actions of the people around him.
But when Ryan Sheehan arose Saturday morning, donned his racing hat and said, “Go to NASCAR racing today, Daddy?” Scott was powerless to say no. Ryan’s stringing words together to form sentences to express his wants was a giant step forward.
With their premium parking pass in hand, father and son headed for NHIS once again.
Here are Scott’s words on the day: “Ryan did absolutely fantastic, better than I ever could have hoped. We stayed for both races, and he had the time of his life!!!!”
The time of his life. So often we throw those words around without considering them carefully.
That wasn’t the case when Scott Sheehan used them to describe his son’s NHIS experience. How often do we ever contribute to the time of someone’s life? Rarely.
Just about everyone at NHIS had a hand in the Sheehans’ incredible experiences. “I want to take time to say what a courteous staff NHIS has working there. From lot attendants to food vendors, it is unbelievable how they can remain so friendly while having to deal with so many people,” Scott Sheehan writes. “There is no other place I can say that about.”
Keillor has it right. All letters are gifts.
I’d like to add, some letters are treasures.
If the people at NHIS didn’t already know that, they are about to learn.