TAUNTON - Every chess table James Medeiros builds tells a story.
And he knew exactly the story he wanted to tell when he dedicated one to his uncle, Taunton resident Alphonse Araujo, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient.
“After my father’s suicide, many a night I sat at my uncle’s table breaking bread. Now, I have the chance to give him a table back,” Medeiros said.
That chess table was installed last month in Bicentennial Park in Fall River, the eighth table that Medeiros has donated in his hometown.
Medeiros designs, builds and installs the nearly two-ton concrete chess tables, each one a unique work of art as well as an engineering project.
They are much more than tables to Medeiros.
He embeds colorful shards of crushed seashells and sea glass, aluminum and marble chips in them and polishes them over and over by hand.
He wants them to be beautiful, not just functional to reinforce their role as a source of inspiration not just recreation.
“I like to say I’m smuggling chess tables into communities instead of drugs,” Medeiros said.
Medeiros, 39, first realized the power of chess to transform lives when he was working at Corrigan Mental Health Center in Fall River and noticed what a positive effect chess seemed to have on the patients.
One man in particular, a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was suicidal, would get completely absorbed in the game.
It seemed to relieve his suffering, Medeiros said.
“It’s such a focused game. It puts you in another world,” Medeiros said.
It wasn’t until about five years ago that Medeiros started building chess tables.
The first one was for his own backyard.
But then something remarkable happened and he realized he might be onto something bigger than himself – even if it was in his own backyard.
He came home one day to find a child from the housing project next door sitting on the table.
When Medeiros asked him if he liked the table, the boy said, “I want one.”
“One idealist to another, a year later I put one in the project where he lives,” Medeiros said.
That one is at Pleasant View low-income apartments. He also installed one at Bennie Costa Plaza at the request of a mother of two young boys; at Corrigan dedicated to the patients; at SSTAR addiction treatment center dedicated to a friend who died of an overdose; at Bristol Community College dedicated to a professor; at Columbus Park dedicated to a pre-teen crush of his who died of an overdose; and at Heritage State Park adjacent to Battleship Cove and beneath the Braga Bridge alongside Mount Hope Bay to show his love for the city where he grew up in that iconic setting.
Medeiros said he’d eventually like to put two or three in every low-income housing development and park in Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton and Providence.
“I want to turn a one-pound game into a thousand-pound fixture,” said Medeiros, who has come to view chess as a way for human beings to reach for beauty even in the midst of ugliness.
“My goal is to build it right into the infrastructure of a city, like a basketball hoop.”
Along the way there have been some discouraging moments, like when he finds graffiti on the tables.
But there have also been moments of grace, magical moments he’ll never forget.
Like the day he met two children playing checkers on his table at Columbus Park — only they didn’t have any actual checkers so they were using rocks.
Medeiros was moved by their ingenuity — like the Paraguayan children who play heartbreakingly beautiful musical on instruments made of trash because it’s all they have.
He asked the children at Columbus Park what they thought of the table, never letting on he had built it.
One of the little boys, who was maybe 8 years old, said he thought it was beautiful.
When Medeiros asked him why, he ran his fingers across the table and wrapped his arms around it and said, “It just is.”
Medeiros himself had a very difficult childhood, raised in poverty, with a lot of dysfunction in his life, he said.
When he was 13, he found his father hanging from a pipe in his basement. He does not sugarcoat it. His father was very depressed but he could also be cruel, Medeiros said.
It was an experience that could have hardened Medeiros but instead made him more compassionate and empathetic, he said.
“I could have gone in two directions,” he said.
Fortunately, he had some gifted teachers and caring relatives who guided him down the less destructive path, he said.
That’s where his uncle stepped in — like a rock, as solid as the chess table his nephew dedicated to him.
Medeiros always looked up to his uncle, his mother’s brother, Al Araujo, a retired postal worker in New Bedford who lives in Taunton.
Medeiros remembers walking past Araujo’s military medals when he was a little boy, knowing they were something special.
Araujo is not only likeable, but humble and quietly upbeat, his nephew said.
“He’s one of those guys, when you meet him, you never forget him. He’s witty, clever, intelligent, just a great guy,” Medeiros said of his uncle.
Araujo’s memories of his nephew go back even further than that, to the day Medeiros was born.
Araujo remembers taking his sister to the hospital to deliver her baby boy.
In those dark days after Medeiros’ father took his own life, Medeiros would confide in Araujo about his fears that the same thing would happen to him, Araujo said.
But Araujo told him he believed in him and what his father did was no reflection on him.
He could write his own story.
So that’s what Medeiros has been doing through his chess tables — as well as the stories of those he honors through them.
For each table, Medeiros writes a brief history, sometimes sardonic, often poignant, that he posts on his Facebook page, along with other musings about the subtle, sublime, endlessly fascinating game of chess and life in general.
Perhaps his philosophy is captured in the words he spray-painted in giant letters on the wall of his workshop, one of his favorite quotes, from the surrealist artist M.C. Escher: “My work is a game, a very serious game.”
For the SSTAR table, Medeiros wrote: “It's bone chilling how things of this sort can end. I still dream of my dear friend having a six-figure income, being a father and free from being chained to this disease.”
For the Columbus Park table, with a heart etched into its dedication plaque, he wrote: “Looking back with much nostalgia, it was a time period of boyhood friends spray painting boxes on brick schools for stickball games.”
“Much time has passed since then and I have my own daughter to raise in this community. Chess is a game I stumbled upon by mere chance and have grown to love. But hey, some say that this is just a table!”
Medeiros said his daughter, Charlotte, who is 6, is his inspiration and he wants her to grow up with something positive in her life.
He realized, for him, chess is that touchstone, the embodiment of a positive influence — cerebral, non-violent, cathartic and simultaneously exciting and relaxing.
“From that very instant I vowed to take this abstract idea and turn it into a concrete one!” he said in his dedication of the Corrigan table.
Medeiros’ friend Sandy Stets donated the concrete for the Bicentennial Park table.
Stets, owner of Integrity Fire Extinguisher Service in Fall River, said his business has been doing pretty well and he wanted to give back.
A lot of the people he and Medeiros grew up with are struggling — or worse, he said, addicted to drugs or dead from overdoses.
Stets himself is a three-year recovering alcoholic, he said.
It’s nice to see one of his old friends reaching for a dream, he said.
Medeiros said his goal is to get a corporate sponsor so he can work full-time on the donated chess tables, putting them in more and more places. He also sells the customized handcrafted chess tables to businesses and residential customers through his business MindFight Chezz Tables.
Stets said he finally had a chance to check out the chess table in Bicentennial Park.
“Someone had left some sticks and rocks on it. At first I was disgusted, like it was litter. But then I thought, ‘Maybe it’s little kids being creative’,” Stets said.
That was his “Aha” moment.
Now when he drives past kids playing chess at one of Medeiros’ tables, he thinks, “He’s opening their eyes to a new horizon. Maybe he’s triggering little genius brain waves.”
On Thursday, July 5, Araujo went to see the chess table dedicated to him in Bicentennial Park in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Araujo, 69, is not one to talk much about himself but he said his nephew’s gesture means a lot to him.
“It’s really nice. It has the Purple Heart and it’s dedicated to all those who serve,” Araujo said.
He’d like James to know that he’s very proud of him, proud of the man he’s grown up to be.
“I’m glad to see him do something he enjoys and that he’s hoping will help the community,” Araujo said.