Playing With Fire

Chris Hummel was the life of the party until he joined Life Christian Center. There, the Holy Spirit set his soul aflame -- and his joy burned so bright it blinded him.

The shot glass slid like a hockey puck -- straight down the scarred wood bar to Chris Hummel. The liquid glowed in the dimmed after-hours light, promising pleasure. Chris stopped the glass deftly (he'd played goalie back at Lindbergh High School) and spun it into a half-circle, gliding the whiskey toward the next employee.

He'd found a different kind of Spirit.

Feeling his friend Kevin Ray's soft, puzzled stare, Chris turned to grin at him, then threw his head back and sang along with his hero, Garth Brooks, on karaoke. "See?" his eyes telegraphed to Kevin. "Nothing's changed."

Most days, Chris Hummel was a cautious slowpoke, but skydiving exhilarated him: the freedom of it, the letting go.
Most days, Chris Hummel was a cautious slowpoke, but skydiving exhilarated him: the freedom of it, the letting go.

Nothing, and everything.

Chris didn't expect to convert anybody at E.T.'s House of Rock, an easygoing little bar in Ronnies Plaza in South County. He'd worked a second job there for five years, and everybody knew his name. But since May, he'd started attending Life Christian Center regularly, and his friendship with Suzanne Davis had deepened, and she'd moved up to St. Louis and come to church with him. In one month's time, he'd felt his whole identity breaking open, the old, restless energy burning away. In its place grew something deep-rooted and pure and hopeful, and as it pushed upward, he could feel the rest of his life shifting, reorganizing itself around a new center.

He was happier than he'd ever been; even the guys at E.T.'s could see that.

Not that Chris hadn't had fun before, going with big groups to wineries, concerts or Six Flags, yelling at Blues games. This past year, he'd even learned to skydive, startling friends who'd teased him for years because he was such a cautious slowpoke that they had to pull over on road trips and wait for him to catch up. Skydiving was different: It exhilarated him, the freedom of it, the letting go. On slow nights at the bar he'd replay the video -- "C'mere, you gotta see this," he'd call to whomever was working. "Just look at that!"

His everyday life hadn't held as many thrills. Chris, now 34, had spent most of his life struggling with epilepsy, the worst of the seizures throwing him to the ground or entwining him in his bedclothes. He'd convulse and jerk in a macabre dance, making a snoring, gasping sound as though he couldn't get enough air -- at least that's what his older brother Bob told him. All Chris knew was that when the electric current stopped zapping his brain, he'd come to feeling blank and disoriented, his only clue the sympathy and horror in his family's eyes.

The oldest known brain disorder, epilepsy takes its name from a Greek word meaning "a condition of being overcome, seized or attacked." For centuries, people blamed demons; today, doctors trace abnormal electrical discharges in the brain. They also prescribe such anti-convulsive drugs as Dilantin, which Chris took every day to suppress any sputtering of electricity in his brain. He hated having to take the pills -- but two summers ago, when his brother treated him to a trip to Daytona to see the stock-car races, he got so excited he missed a few doses and paid with a violent seizure.

The suspense of waiting for the next seizure made the rest of life seem uncontrollable as well. Chris went to St. Louis Community College at Meramec and Southeast Missouri State University but never nailed down a degree. Never found a job he really loved, either. The best had been in high school, when he and his friends worked at his dad's cafeteria in Kirkwood. But cancer killed his dad before Chris could join him in the restaurant business full time. Instead, Chris found jobs selling everything from Toyotas to large appliances at Circuit City. He didn't love selling, but he loved meeting new people and helping solve their problems. When he worked nights at E.T.'s, he faithfully managed the kitchen's chaos, schlepped sticky beer mugs, brought out more ice before the last cubes melted. Even at parties, he usually noticed what needed doing -- turning the brats, running the errand, gathering up the baked-bean-smeared paper plates.

Then Garth would come on, and Chris would hold the plates higher and dance, and everybody would laugh along with him. He had a quiet, dry, Bob Newhart sort of wit, but he could be goofy, too. He wore a glow-in-the-dark Cat in the Hat hat to a haunted house just to make the kids giggle, and when Jackie Butler, a coworker at E.T.'s, broke her foot, he piled her, her crutches, her 9-year-old daughter and her daughter's best friend into his car and drove them to the Six Flags Frightfest, where he bought everybody a silly hat.

His high-school friends already had wallets thick with baby pictures; they couldn't understand what was taking Chris, so obviously the father type, so long. A frustrated knight-in-shining-armor, he'd married young, to a woman who already had two children, but the marriage ended as fast as it had begun. He'd been looking for somebody ever since -- at E.T.'s, he was famous for falling in love with every new waitress, but the women usually wound up choosing men who were not the father type and turning Chris into their best friend.

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