#TBT: How Can We Stop School Shootings?

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I’m rerunning this post because of the shooting Tuesday at an elementary school in Ulvade, Texas. The current death count stands at 19 students and 3 teachers. I know I’m a generally negative person but I don’t think this is the last school shooting.

This latest school shooting in Florida has hit me hard. I was once a high school English teacher and later on, a middle school librarian. The first five years I taught, we never heard of a student going into a school and gunning down classmates. Then came April 20, 1999. Columbine High School erupted in gunfire as two students brought guns to school and killed 13 people before killing themselves. “School Shooting” entered common American lexicon. Nothing has been the same since.

I don’t teach anymore and while I miss that career mightily, one aspect I don’t miss is the existential dread of wondering when was it going to be my school’s turn. When were my students going to look to me as gunshots rang out? When was one of my students going to snap and bring a reckoning down on our school? I don’t miss that helpless feeling that crouches at the bottom of every teacher’s heart: “What happens when it’s us?”

That feeling lies there because the sad, simple answer to my titular question is a terse “We can’t. We cannot stop school shootings.” I fear that ship has sailed for a few tragic reasons.

First, we can’t stop school shootings because we can’t pass any meaningful gun control laws in this country. This depressing fact doesn’t matter, however, because even if our politicians miraculously put aside their differences and ignored the tidal waves of money some of them receive from the gun lobby, it simply wouldn’t matter. Passing a law, any law, has zero effect on behavior. Legislate that people cannot chew bubble gum and honest people will give up their Bubble Yum.

Unfortunately, another segment of society will cram every stick of gum possible into their mouths. Laws only affect lawful people. Pass a law forbidding anyone under age 21 from owning a firearm and we will prevent exactly zero school shootings because the people who deign to follow such a law aren’t going to shoot up a school anyway. As long as we worship the Almighty Dollar in this country, an underage person who wants a gun can get one . . . someone angry enough to kill his fellow students will find a way to get money and turn that money into a gun.

More gun control laws will not stop school shootings because they will only affect those willing to abide by the laws and by definition, this excludes school shooters.

Some people feel banning “assault weapons” like the AR-15 and its clones and derivatives will end the problem. It won’t help. Just for clarification and to appease any gun nuts who read this, the term should actually be “assault ‘style’ weapons” or guns modeled on military arms. A true assault rifle would be something like the US Army’s M-4 carbine, itself a descendant of the Vietnam Era M-16. Both are fully automatic weapons. Pull the trigger and they will fire til the magazine is empty.

The truth of the matter is banning AR-15 style rifles will only send shooters looking for other weapons. Several semi-automatic handguns have magazines which hold twenty or more rounds of ammunition and these handguns are much easier to conceal and so easier to get into a school, especially a crowded school area, than a rifle. The Ruger 10/22 is a .22 caliber rifle which can be outfitted with magazines up to 100 rounds and at schoolyard ranges, a .22 Long Rifle round is every bit as lethal as the 5.56mm round the AR-15 uses.

So let’s ban all guns! As long as the Second Amendment remains enshrined in the Constitution, that’s not going to happen. Even if it were repealed by some miracle, the bloodshed and division of the country attempting to collect the now illegal guns would entail makes such a possibility deadlier and less palatable than risking school shootings.

Some people have even gone so far as to advocate arming our school teachers. This is a preposterously, unthinkably terrible idea. It is not difficult at all to get a concealed carry permit in most US states. Theoretically, any teacher could get such a permit and, if the laws were changed, be allowed to carry a weapon into the classroom ostensibly to confront and repel a school shooter.

Again, this is a horrible idea. To get a CCP, a person has to sit through a class and then shoot a paper target at a range. To repel a school shooter, a teacher would have to kill someone — possibly someone they know and have tried to help before. Let’s set aside for the sake of argument the problems like victims getting caught in the crossfire or teachers simply missing their targets and hitting innocents. Just focus on one thing; any teacher carrying a weapon MUST be ready to KILL another human being.

Understand, the school shooter has made up is mind. He is here to kill as many people as he can or maybe just mark some specific names off a list. He’s made his choice and confronting him will only put a teacher in the direct line of fire. This is not a pistols at ten paces duel or a gunfight on Main Street out of a Clint Eastwood movie. To take out a school shooter who has already started killing, you don’t confront him or tell him to put down his weapon. You get behind him or outflank him and shoot him in center mass or the head until he falls down dead. If he never sees who shot him, so much the better.

Teachers are not wired up to do that. Teachers, not all, but most, are nurturers. They got into teaching to HELP people, not KILL them. Taking someone’s life will trying not to lose one’s own life is an incredibly difficult choice to make and execute. Hesitate an instant and you die and maybe all the students you are trying to protect. When it comes to actually killing a student, I honestly believe 99 out of 100 teachers are going to hesitate or freeze up and become a casualty. It doesn’t mean teachers are weak or cowardly . . . not everyone is a killer. Soldiers must be trained to kill. Overcoming the aversion to taking another’s life is one of the first things trainers in the military have to overcome. Teachers aren’t meant to kill and putting them into a situation where they have to deal with that choice will not go well.

So does this mean we abandon hope of stopping school shootings altogether and just live in fear? To a certain extent, yes. Practically speaking, absolutely. The only way to effectively stop school shooters is to get them before they start. Schools as they are now are what military and law enforcement people call “soft” targets. They need to be hardened. Schools need metal detectors at every entrance. During the day, schools should be under lock-down conditions. No one in the hall means no one gets shot. No unlocked doors means no one sneaks in. Ban bookbags. Amend dress codes to ban baggy clothes and jackets that make it easy to conceal weapons. If the students raise hell, if the parents raise hell . . . show footage of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora’s movie theater, Las Vegas’ concert, this latest shooting in Florida, etc. Make them answer one question: “Would you rather be fashionable or would you rather bleed out on the floor of the cafeteria with a bullet in your spleen?”

I fully realize none of that is going to happen though. In fact, give it two weeks or so and everyone is going to go back to business as usual . . . until the next preventable school shooting takes place.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

#TBT: Life is a Circle, but not like Disney

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I posted this originally back in 2013. Now even Ima is gone. I got a Freshly Pressed badge for this post. I think about it a lot now that Budge’s dad is in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s Disease. Life sure doesn’t work out like we plan sometimes.

Nothing prepared me to be bitten multiple times by my grandmother.

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When I entered this world, I had four living grandparents AND four living great-grandparents. Granny Matt (short for Mattie) and Papa Hurley passed before I developed memories of them, but family members have told me both loved me tremendously. It’s not good to grow up with six doting grandparents; it’s not so much the danger of being spoiled rotten — which I was — so much as such excess love doesn’t prepare a person for what a terrible place the world is.

Papa Wham passed in 1995 — the first person so close to me to die. I was attending a wake for a student who’d been killed in a car wreck when my brand new cell phone rang. The first cell phone call I ever received was to let me know Papa Wham was gone.

Little Papa Hughes, my maternal great-grandfather, died on New Year’s Day 1997. He was a tiny man with a heart entirely too large for his slight frame. He was also a bit of “a character” and I have stories on top of stories about him.

Big Granny Hughes, whom Mama (and pretty much everyone) called Maggie-Valmer went Home in February 2001. I call it a testament to her life that it took three preachers — including me — to do her life justice.

After losing those three wells of my adoration, the next few years were quiet. Then Papa John died October 17, 2006. I didn’t grieve Papa’s death for 18 months because Mama was in such a terrible state I wasn’t sure if I was going to lose her as well. I can say from personal, painful experience it is dangerous to one’s mental health to suppress a terrible grief because once Mama came somewhat out of the fog, I had the nervous breakdown that ultimately cost me my job, my second career, and almost my sanity.

I came out of my breakdown just in time to lose Granny Wham on February 5, 2008. As much as I adored Granny Wham and as much as I know she loved me, her passing was easier to take. After Papa died and she became unable to care for herself or be left alone, we had no choice but to place her in a facility. My Aunt Cathy wore ruts in I-385 between Fountain Inn and Laurens going to see her mama; Uncle Larry stopped by on his way to and from the Roadway terminal in Columbia every time he had a trip; and I tried to see her at least once a week, but she missed being home tending her family. Still, miserable though she was, she soldiered on three years at Martha Franks Retirement Home. A week before she passed I went to see her; she told me, “Mama {her mama} came to see me last night.” I knew it wouldn’t be long. Now Granny Wham is waiting on the other side of those Gates of Pearl (with Papa Wham nearby and most likely seated on a golden bench talking baseball with St. Peter).

So Granny Ima (for Imogene) is all I have left. She’s under hospice care at NHC nursing home in Clinton. I go to see her at 10:00 AM every Tuesday, and I leave a sliver of my heart each time I turn from her bed to come home. Ima has dementia. She knows who I am, who Rob is, and who my Aunt Pearl is, but she can’t say our names. All she can say clearly is “yep” and “nope.” I took Mama to see her twice a week as long as she was able, then once a week, then once every two weeks . . . then I took her when she could rally the strength, but one thing never changed — Granny always said, “My baby girl’ whenever Mama asked her who she (Mama) was. I haven’t told Ima that Mama is gone. I tell her the truth — Wannie (her name for Mama) can’t get up anymore to see her, but she loves her very much. Every time I tell her, Granny nods.

Unfortunately, though, Granny’s mind is riddled with holes and she’s lost control of her emotions (especially her temper) just as she’s lost her language. She can’t stand being poked and prodded and she seems to see everything as being poked and prodded. She has a hissy fit whenever she gets a bath — or what passes for a bath when you’re bedridden. I gave my signed permission today for the nursing staff to stop sticking her fingers twice a day for blood sugar samples to control her diabetes. Dr. Blackstone told me years ago diabetes wasn’t what was going to kill Granny. I told the head of nursing today, there are worse ways to die than diabetic coma.

Granny saves a special rage for anyone who tries to clean her hands and especially her fingernails. She cannot abide having her hands or nails messed with, which wouldn’t be so bad, but Granny’s mind wanders now and she will not stop digging in her disposable briefs. Maybe she itches, maybe it’s something else, but whatever the cause, she can’t tell us. I’m not going to be graphic, but you can draw your conclusions as to the state of her nails. Mama cried every time she saw Granny’s nails, but the staff can only do so much because Granny is “combative” which is nicely saying she gets pissed off when you touch her too much.

However, as family, I am not bound by the facility’s rules against restraints, and her nails and hands were so hideous today that I held my precious grandmother while two nurses cleaned and trimmed her nails. I linked my fingers in hers like we used to do crossing the street. She fought but her strength was no match for mine, just as mine was no match for hers long ago when I had to have childhood shots. As I cupped her arthritic fingers gently as I could so as to not hurt her, the tears ran down my face just as they ran down hers long ago. Then I knew with perfect clarity what a parent means when he says, “This is hurting me more than it hurts you.” At one point, she managed to get my hand near her mouth so she bit me. It seemed to make her feel better, so I just left my arm where she could gnaw on it at will — a small bruise or two (she has no teeth) are a small price to pay for her hands to be clean. After we finished, a nurse brought her a strawberry nutrition shake and the nurses were forgiven . . . her look told me I was not, even though next Tuesday she won’t remember a thing. I sat with her a while longer, then kissed her cheek, placed today’s sliver on her pillow, and turned to come home.

The old proverb, “Once a man; twice a child” is painful to see in someone you love.

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Love y’all; keep those feet clean.

#TBT: Goodbye, Mama. I love you.

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Mama and me

Going to miss her so very much.

Mama will be gone nine years tomorrow. I wanted to post this again in her memory.

I’m sorry if this is some of my worst writing ever in this blog, but I hope y’all will excuse me since I buried Mama today.

She finally succumbed to complications from COPD Monday night, March 25, 2013 at around 10:30 PM. Budge and I were holding her right hand and my cousin Rhonda who was like a daughter to Mama was holding her left hand when she passed from this world into the next. We buried her next to Papa John in a pale, almost translucent pink casket. We didn’t have a viewing and we only had graveside services. That is how Mama wanted it and since I am her only next of kin, only son, power of attorney, and executor of her will, no one was going to have me do anything differently. I didn’t even have her embalmed because her body was in such poor condition. Fletch — Alan Fletcher — the owner of Fletcher’s Funeral Home in Fountain Inn, agreed with me about not having her embalmed. He said she wouldn’t look right and there wasn’t much he could do. I’m glad, because that’s not how I want to remember her.

I managed to preach her funeral myself, which is what she wanted me to do. I really didn’t have any choice because all the other ministers who knew and loved Mama are in such poor health themselves it would have been hard for them to do it. I read the 23rd Psalm and spoke about the Easter story since Easter is Sunday. I talked about how Mama loved Jesus and how she was ready to go to her Heavenly home. I read a letter a friend of hers had emailed me all the way from Las Vegas. Of course, at the funeral, I transplanted Las Vegas from Nevada to California, but Budge and Deuce caught the mistake in time for me to smooth it over. I had the mortician put a copy of the letter in the casket with her.

Rob — my beloved stepdad — is taking Mama’s loss incredibly hard. They were together for almost 20 years, which was three times longer than she was married to my dad. Thankfully, he’s had family and dear, dear friends rally around him the last few days. I know he has a very long road ahead of him. As much as I don’t want to admit this, I’m actually afraid Rob may grieve himself to the grave with Mama. I know he misses her that much.

For me, the grief has been unpredictably breaking across me in waves. I broke down in the hospital right before she died when it was just Budge and I alone with her as she was fading fast. Since then, I’ve had a meltdown per day, except for today. I’ve actually been happy all day, even during the funeral because it was a picture perfect crisp Spring day. I know the happiness isn’t permanent. I have some dark nights to look forward to, I’m sure. I also have a lot of responsibilities to attend to that will give me ample cause to fall to my knees and wail a gut wrenching sob from my heart for nearly an hour as I’ve done twice already. I’m trying to keep in mind this is all normal and I don’t have to be Superman. I’ve just lost Mama — my best friend, my oldest friend, my main cheerleader . . . it’s normal and okay for me to be bereft, but it doesn’t make it prettier or easier.

Reunited Monday, 3-25-13.

Reunited Monday, 3-25-13.

I’m also having to contend with guilt as well. Several times I’ve heard a voice inside me I recognize as my old friend The Black Dog whispering, you could have done more! You should have done more! Why didn’t you move in with her? Why didn’t you bring her to live with you? Why were you not with her more? Why were you reading or eating or playing a stupid computer game instead of sitting beside her in her recliner holding her hand? Why didn’t you cook meals for her? Why did you leave her alone? Didn’t you know she was lonely? Didn’t you know she was hungry? On and on and on this voice spits vitriol and accusation at me and it’s been pretty much nonstop for the last 72 hours.

Of course, there’ve been other voices as well and these have been from the outside. People have told me time and again how proud they are of me for following through with Mama’s wishes and for being strong enough to preach her funeral. I’ve had several people tell me of conversations they’ve had with Mama when she told them how proud she was of me and how thankful she was to have a good son. I’ve had nurses tell me this week of the numerous people they’ve seen die all alone even though family was available.

In the end, I have to decide which voice or voices to listen to. I will say this, though, when I have been at the heartwrenching depths of despair, when I have been sobbing uncontrollably, even in the dark hours at Mama’s deathbed, I’ve found one deep, deep well of strength and comfort — God’s written word. The only thing that has been able to pull me out of the waves of grief that have wracked me with sobs and crushed my soul with emotional pain too great to bear has been reading from the Bible. I’ve read out loud and silently to myself and every time, I’ve found balm in Gilead. For that I am thankful.

I am also thankful for 42 years with the most wonderful mother a boy could want. I am going to miss her tremendously and I’m not even going to try fighting that battle, but I cannot let losing her destroy me and break me in the way losing Papa John broke Mama. I must carry on and if it means I have to limp because I’ve lost one of the major muscles I’ve stood on for all these years, then that is what I have to do. Mama is gone from me, but she is never going to be forgotten.

I love y’all. Sincerely, Me.

#TBT: It Can All Be Gone In An Instant

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This post goes all the way back to lpppAugust 2008. It’s the 3rd post I ever made on this blog. I wonder sometimes whatever happened to Beth.

Many times I think educators in general and librarians in particular get so consumed in minutiae that we don’t realize the really BIG picture. We get caught up in book orders and classes coming in and out and trying to keep up with the latest Web 2.0 tools that we often don’t pick our heads up long enough to take a look at who and what’s around us. We aren’t just working with colleagues, some of whom we love dearly and some of whom were put on this earth to be the bane of our existence. We aren’t just teaching and waiting on students, some of whom we dearly love and some of whom were put on this earth to be the bane of our existence. We are interacting with people who have issues and hopes and dreams and lots of times our library and our schools are not an ingrained part of that dream. The bright new teacher who comes in the library workroom to get coffee may be dreaming of writing a novel or moving to a tropical island. I say all this to say this: we need to dream and we need to hope and we need to laugh and love because as much as we may or may not care about our jobs or careers, one thing is certain . . . they buildings will outlast us, but the people may not. Pick your head up tomorrow and look around. Everyone you see could be gone in an instant and what was the last thing you said to them? You may be gone in an instant and what is the last thing people will remember about you?

I know this may seem morbid, but I’m melancholy and slightly morbid by nature. That has nothing to do with this post. This frailty and mercurial quality of life was just brought home to me in a brutal and shockingly upclose and personal way on my ride home this afternoon.

I saw the black pickup crest the hill and I saw the teal sedan pull out of my subdivision to turn left and I knew that the laws of physics were about to be put to the test once again. The crash was absolutely horrific. The pickup struck the sedan full force in the driver’s side door. The driver had no time to brake after topping the hill. The sedan careened across the road in a crazy spiral and came to rest in the ditch on the far side. I pulled around the carnage and up into a driveway of the subdivision. I already had my phone in my hand dialing *47 for the highway patrol. The dispatcher asked me a series of questions that I barely remember, but judging by soon to come events I must have answered them well. All I clearly remember until reaching the girl was saying to the dispatcher, “You need to get an ambulance rolling RIGHT NOW because this does NOT look good at all.”

Two well-meaning passersby had stopped and for reasons known only to God and their animal instincts to avoid car explosions, pulled the young woman from the wrecked sedan. I was livid, but said nothing since their act was not one of malice but of misunderstanding. Kneeling by the young girl’s side, I took her hand as she slowly regained conciousness. Her face was a jigsaw puzzle of glass cuts and she had a LUMP coming up on the left side of her head that promised greatness. Her left leg was gashed a full six inches long down her calf. She was covered in blood. She was wearing one of the tube/halter-tops that are popular now and a pair of short shorts. She had blonde hair rapidly turning crimson. As she came around, she immediately wanted to sit up. I and one of the other ladies gently pushed her back to the ground. She was bleeding out of her mouth but she started talking and begging us to let her up so she could leave. When I bent closer, I knew why.

She reeked of alcohol. This was bad. She was going to jail if she lived for DUI with injury. Plus, the alcohol was making her blood thinner. I got her talking and asked her for her name, which was Beth. She wasn’t really clear on the year, her age, or where she lived, but judging from the car and the sister-in-law I spoke to later, this latter may not have been solely the result of the concussion. I asked her about her plentiful tatoos including one beautiful star on her neck. She kept wanting to touch her face and she kept asking me what was wrong with her face and where all this blood was coming from. How do you tell an obviously very fetching young woman that the next time she can look in a mirror, assuming she ever can, the face she sees will be very different than the one she left the house with that morning? One thing that struck me as incongruous was the way she kept pulling at her top in a universally feminine gesture with bloodstained hands to keep it from slipping down to expose her strapless bra. Drunk and gravely injured, modesty must be preserved.

After what seemed hours but in reality proved only ten minutes, the paramedics and rescue squad arrived. The professionals took over but I must have appeared to know what I was doing because they didn’t order me out of the way. I asked her who needed to be called to meet her at the hospital. She at first said, “no one”, but finally relented and gave me a relative’s number, which seemed a good sign. I called the relative who proved to be a sister-in-law and told her the story. She screamed and cried and then pulled herself together to start calling family and friends.

Then Beth was in the ambulance and on her way to hospital. It was over and I drove the two hundred yards home. It was only when I walked in the house and got to the mirror in the bathroom that the full extent of what had just happened hit me. I had bloody hands and blood streaks on my face from wiping my eyes. I had blood on my clothes and shoes. I wondered if I needed to go to the hospital myself since I’d deliberately disobeyed every rule laid out to us in the annual blood-borne pathogens video. I decided against it and took a shower with antibacterial soap, shaking like a leaf all the while.

So there you have it. Yes, Beth was stupid and irresponsible for drinking and then driving. She may yet pay for that stupidity with her life. Her father called, a prince of a man I am certain, and, after asking if I’d taken anything from her car, proceeded to tell me that Beth was still in the trauma ward with swelling on the brain. This was five hours later. Five minutes to five and Beth had been sitting around a table filled with beer bottles talking with similarly inebriated friends. By five fifteen, instead of being at the gas station like she’d planned, she was lying in a ditch with a face full of glass and a complete stranger holding her hand and asking about her tattoos.

Look around folks. Look around. It really can all be gone in an instant. Don’t believe it, just ask Beth.

#TBT: First You Say It, Then You Do It

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I published this back in 2013 in January the first Christmas without mama. I have since sold the truck to a great friend who uses it way more than I ever did. It wasn’t an easy decision though.

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I almost died Christmas Eve, and I’m told it would have put a damper on the holidays.

Christmas Eve fell on a Tuesday so, like every Tuesday, I went to Clinton to National Health Care to check on Granny Ima and see if she would let me clean and polish her nails. Now Mama and I used to go to Columbia to spend every Christmas Eve with Granny when I was a child so in some ways, I found the whole trip ironic. Granny was happy and she smiled and said a few words, which was the best Christmas present she could give me, but she didn’t want her nails messed with, so I sat and talked to her until her CNA came to get her for lunch. Then, I kissed her goodbye, got in my truck, and headed home to get ready to go to Rob’s for Christmas Eve supper.

I bought my 1994 Ford F-150 with a little of Mama’s insurance money so it’s extremely special to me. Anyway, as I was leaving Clinton on State 308, I called my great-Aunt Pearl (Ima’s oldest sister) to apprise her of Granny’s condition and state of mind. We were talking as I merged onto I-385 and when I gave the old girl some gas, I felt a pronounced thump. I told Aunt Pearl I’d have to call her back, hung up and concentrated on the sound.

It was an intermittent noise, which is aggravating to diagnose, and I’m not an accomplished mechanic, but I was pretty convinced it was a universal joint needing replacing or maybe an exhaust hanger had popped loose when a woman in a PT Cruiser had tapped me in the rear end in downtown Clinton that morning. I sped up to 85 mph and the noise went away. I gently applied the brakes and the noise didn’t come back. So I turned the radio back up, passed a few slow-moving cars, and continued on my way.

When I went under the State Road 92 bridge, the thump became a clunk. I had tons of ideas running through my head and all of them centered on how I was going to pay to fix whatever u-joint or exhaust hanger needed attention. I also considered the motor might be going and just about cried. I call her “Mama’s Final Gift” and I’ve become seriously attached, but all the gauges read okay so I kept on and the sound stopped eventually.

I exited I-385 and turned left onto State Highway 418 about 23 miles later and when I hit 60 mph, the noise came back. I was almost home though, so I just started the “c’mon, baby, hold together” Han Solo talk. Then, quite literally, the wheels fell off the apple cart. I slowed down to a crawl to turn right onto the road to home and saw a tire and wheel pass me. My brain had just enough time to register the thought of “that’s strange; someone’s wheel is rolling down the road,” before the left front end of the truck slammed into the pavement and the truck jolted up and down with enough force to knock my head smartly on the roof of the cab. Then an awful grinding noise filled the air and I realized the wheel in question was mine. I drove on the brake rotor about ten yards until my brain finally got the message to my foot that it was still pressing the gas instead of the brake and I stopped. Then, it hit me.

My wheel fell off my truck!

I just lost my freaking wheel!

I followed my first instinct when something crazy like that happens to me and started to call Mama, realizing just in time my long distance plan wasn’t quite that good. So I switched gears and called Budge six times and she didn’t answer the phone. It didn’t bother me though; I think I was still in shock because, you know — wheel fell off and all. In fact, some primitive part of my brain still functioning correctly posed a very good question: what was Budge supposed to do if I DID talk to her? Raise the truck with telekinesis? Realizing I had not, in fact, married Carrie White, I called Rob, my stepdad, just as he was pulling into the yard from work. I explained my predicament and he said to sit tight, he’d get Baby Huey (my 6’6″, 375 lbs “baby” stepbrother Travis) and he’d be right on.

By then, Budge had finished her shower and called me back. I think all she heard was “wheel fell off.” Ten minutes later she found me sitting on the lowered tailgate of my truck having spoken to a few friends I’d called just to pass the time. It was while sitting there calmly drinking a bottle of water the reality and gravity of the situation. The noise I’d heard coming out of Clinton was the wheel wobbling as one or more lug nuts decided to take a vacation. The second noise was the exodus of even more of these vital little hunks of metal. The terrible vibration I felt on the off ramp and 418 was the wheel wobbling on the studs devoid of attachments.

I started to shake a little. As slow as I was going as I turned onto the road, the wheel leaving still caused a bad jolt. Now, imagine for a moment: What would have happened if that same wheel had flown off while I was on I-385?

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I KNOW what would have happened because I’ve seen it happen during NASCAR races. The rotor would have dug into the asphalt, Newton’s First Law of Motion would have taken over and I’d have started either flipping end over end or doing some sweet barrel rolls down the highway. Since I wasn’t wearing my seat belt (they are under the seat cover) I’d have been ejected through the shattered windshield or the shattered side window, the truck would have hit me or the care behind would have run me over, I would have died on Christmas Eve 2013 and that would have sucked.

I don’t know why the wheel stayed on until I was going slow enough to survive the results. I know a lot of people would call it a neat coincidence. I don’t. See, as I was putting the wheel back on the truck, I asked myself why the lug holes in the rim were threaded while the studs were smooth. That’s when I realized the rim had ridden on the studs long enough to smooth them out while cutting threads into the rim. That’s not all; when I borrowed a lug nut from the other wheels, I discovered every lug nut was loose. Y’all skeptics think what you want and call me whatever you please, but I think Jesus and Mama were watching out for me one more time and I’m certainly thankful they were.

Love y’all and hope the new year is off to a great start! Keep those feet clean!

#TBT: The Agony and Ecstasy of Christmas Lights

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I originally wrote this in November 2017. I did toss those lights at the end of the year and the end of the next year tossed some more. Budge and I haven’t managed to put up a tree the last two years but I do have three new boxes of lights ready to go so maybe next year will be the year!

I love Christmas lights. I remember when I was little, Papa and Granny Wham would take me out riding every Christmas season to look at lights in Fountain Inn. We’d always ride out to a place called Stewart’s Lake. Now today, places like Stewart’s Lake are everywhere, but back then it was the only game in town. The entire yard was lit up like, well . . . a Christmas tree! They had elves and Santas and three or four Nativity scenes, just lights everywhere. It was breathtaking to my single digit eyes. I remember even then asking Papa Wham who put all those lights up every year. He said he didn’t know and I was amazed because Papa Wham knew everything.

I used to “help” Papa put the lights on their Christmas tree every chance I got. I would always be put out when he would put the lights on without me while I wasn’t there. I realize now I was as much help to him then as my big fuzzy Keaudie dog is to me as I try to accomplish the same task!

Papa and Granny had those big lights on their tree. If you didn’t clip them on right and they lay against the artificial tree, they’d melt the plastic “needles” to the bulb. Granny always worried it would start a fire. As for me, I blistered my finger more than once touching one of the bulbs while it was lit. You can’t buy those kinds of bulbs anymore; I don’t think the safety gurus would let them get by.

Now, I am responsible for stringing lights on my own tree and I appreciate Papa’s toil more and more as the years go by. For the last two years, Budge and I have been so proud of getting the lights on the tree that we dispensed with putting ornaments on afterwards. Actually, what happened was we were so tired and frustrated at finally wrestling the lights onto the tree, we stopped to take a break and go eat dinner and just never made it back. So we had a 500 light green lamp in one corner of the room for the past two Christmas seasons. This year we swore would be different.

This year, Budge and I had a plan. Now as anyone knows, a plan – no matter how well thought out and put together – never survives the first contact with the enemy. In this case, the enemy happened to be three 600 bulb strands of lights. These lights were troopers. We’ve had them for five years, which honestly is about a hundred years in Christmas light years, and, with a little tweaking each year, they answered the bell and looked great on the tree. Still, they were part of the plan.

Now our grand decorating plan called for me to get the lights out the Monday before Thanksgiving to inspect them and make sure they were ready to roll onto the tree the day following Turkey Day. For some reason, I put it off until Tuesday. Then I gently removed all three strings of lights from their cozy year long slumber lying perfectly flat and undisturbed on top of the Christmas tree box. I’m serious, I’ve treated these lights better than some people treat their children.

When the lights last made their appearance, every bulb shone brightly. All three strands worked beautifully. They should have because I spent three hours last year cannibalizing a fourth strand of its bulbs in order to make sure three strands would work. Given all the effort I had put into tuning the lights and carefully storing them, I felt confident I would have no problems this year. I’d simply plug in the lights, replace a wayward bulb or two and all would be well. Budge and I would put the tree up on Black Friday and the lights would just spiral right onto the branches.

Nope. My optimism was sorely unrewarded.

I took all three strands into the hall so I could lay them out straight one by one. I rolled out the first strand and plugged it in. Half the strand lit up. Now I don’t know why I did this, but I unplugged the strand, waited a few seconds and plugged it back in. I can only assume it was an instinct from my time working on computers and I was hoping to reboot them or something. Instead, the other half of the strand lit up and the first half went dark. So it was going to be that kind of a year, eh?

I have this tool. It’s called a Light Saver or something like that and it’s designed to “fix” strands of burnt out lights. I read about how it supposedly sends a “pulse” down the strand and “rewelds” the contacts or something. I used it to get all the lights going last year and I’m convinced the thing uses some sort of dark magic, but it works. So I get out the Light Saver and plug it into the strand of half lit lights. I give it a few clicks and — like a miracle — the strand lights up . . . for ten seconds, then it all goes dark. I tried the tool again and this time the strand lay there dark, unlit, and mocking me.

I had similar results with the other two strands of lights. What was leading me to question my sanity and the laws of physics is WHY!? I took these lights off the tree last year. I laid them out and carefully made sure each bulb was lighting up as designed. All three strands were perfect! Six hundred little bulbs all winked their beautiful soft yellowish white light at me. Then I ever so gently rolled each strand up on a reel specifically designed for the job, put them away atop the tree box, and they lay there undisturbed for a year.

Now, nothing. One strand which had been the brightest last year didn’t light a single bulb this year. The Light Saver’s magic would not avail me this season. I was looking at another marathon session of robbing from one strand to try making three strands into two. I teared up a little at the thought of sore thumbs and frustration from swapping bulb after bulb. Christmas wasn’t looking so bright anymore.

On a hunch, Budge and I went to Walmart after supper that fateful night. I was shocked to see 600 lights going for $20 dollars! Now I’m not one to throw stuff away, but I snatched up two 300 light boxes as fast as I could, paid, and hit the door to show Budge my find. Forget this whole cannibalization crap.

So, Saturday evening, we put the tree up. It’s our venerable but still serviceable 18 year old artificial we bought when we first moved out from Mama’s. It takes a little longer to put up now because I have to peer at the end of the branch for a few seconds to determine what color the single fleck of paint left on the wire is. Anyway, the tree went up without a hitch. Then came the lights. Oh the joy! I plugged the new strands in and they all lit up gloriously!

The lights went on the tree super easily too, because they were packaged in a zig-zag pattern that just perfectly matched the way Budge likes to see lights on the tree. It was amazing. Instead of schlepping a huge light reel around the tree and handing it off to each other, we just passed around a little handful of lights. What usually took the better part of an hour took us barely fifteen minutes this year. Budge was pleased, which was all I needed.

Now the tree is up and lit. All we have left to do is put the ornaments on her, but we ran out of steam Saturday night before getting the totes with the ornaments in them out to the living room from storage so it remains to be seen if we will have ornaments this year, but regardless, we have a well lit tree and I’ve already decided at the end of the season I’m taking these lights off, bundling them into a ball and taking them to Goodwill. I can swing $20 a year if it keeps my sanity intact!

Love y’all, keep those feet clean, and Merry Christmas!

Thanksgiving 2021

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It’s that time of year again. As distant as it looked in the bygone days of summer, Thanksgiving is here. Thanksgiving is a day with a lot of memories for me.

Growing up with divorced parents did have one advantage, if you can call it that — every holiday was doubled. When I was little, Thanksgiving day meant the opening day of rabbit season. Daddy would come to mama’s to get me early in the morning with the beagles already loaded in the truck and barking up a storm. Then we’d go meet whichever cousins were going to hunt with us that day.

It wasn’t easy going. Rabbits don’t live out in the open and getting to their houses almost always means dealing with briars. My fat little legs in their blue jeans didn’t do much to bust through briars like daddy’s special overalls with the tough canvas on the legs, so I usually stayed to the outside of the patched and walked in the clear spots. According to daddy, it didn’t really matter if we got any rabbits as long as the dogs got to run.

We’d hunt till around 11:00 and daddy would take me back to mama’s where I’d get cleaned up, change clothes, and we’d go to whichever relative invited us for Thanksgiving lunch. We’d get home and I’d take a nap until daddy picked me up again at 6:00 and we’d go to Granny Wham’s for supper. Granny always made a little pan of dressing with no onions in it because I didn’t like onions and she spoiled me.

Things went on that way for years, until I became a teenager and the boys were getting older. Then I had a girlfriend and she wanted to eat with her family and bring me along. I still went hunting and most of the time they would have Thanksgiving lunch so we’d eat there at lunchtime and at Granny’s that evening. This didn’t sit well with me because it left mama out.

What eventually evolved is Granny moved her Thanksgiving dinner to the Sunday after. Mama started cooking a small lunch and if I had a girlfriend at the time we go there for supper. Daddy and Teresa and Nick would go to Teresa’s mother’s Thanksgiving day and Cathy and her family would go to Uncle Larry’s sister’s house then we’d all meet at Granny’s on Sunday.

Then people started dying. Mama is gone now these eight years and I miss Thanksgiving day with her, especially after Budge and I married and we spent the days with her getting ready for our guests. Granny had been gone longer than Mama, but now Teresa hosts the Sunday after and everybody brings something to help out. This year Budge is making deviled eggs which is weird because she has never made them and doesn’t eat them.

It’s just Budge and me on Thanksgiving day now that mama is gone. The last several years we went down to Laura’s house and ate lunch with her and her family. We were like family too I suppose. COVID killed that meal last year and since I haven’t heard anything from Laura, I guess we aren’t gathering there again this year.

So, this year Budge and I are going to get up and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is about her favorite thing about the day. Once Santa rides past Macy’s, we’re going to eat turkey at Cracker Barrel. Then we’re going on a ride while listening to Alice’s Restaurant on WROQ 101.1. They play the twenty minute long song every Thanksgiving at noon and it’s become a tradition to listen to it. We used to listen to it on the way to Laura’s. After our ride we’ll head home for a nap then we’re going to see Ghostbusters at 6:30. If we’re hungry, we’ll eat supper at the new Waffle House just up the road and we’ll call it a day.

I like Thanksgiving, don’t get me wrong. I like eating and it’s by far the best time to eat, but it’s also the time of year that highlights all the empty chairs at the tables now. I miss the dinners of my childhood. I miss Mama, Ima and Papa John, and Granny and Papa Wham. I’m thankful though and blessed that I still have my Budge through the holidays. She means the world to me.

So happy Thanksgiving! Hope it’s a great day for all of you. Love y’all, and keep your feet clean!

#TBT: Sport of the Gods

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This came out way back in ’09. It’s that time again for practice to start in earnest. Hopefully by Thanksgiving everyone will be ready to go.

Volleyball is for girls. Football is for boys. Wrestling is for MEN!

At least that’s the way we always phrased it back on the mats when I was a wrestler. Please, before I go any farther, do not confuse nor make the tired joke about wrasslin’. NOTHING annoys a real wrestler more than the question, “Where’s the ropes?”

Tonight was the first Monday night after Thanksgiving and ever since I was a freshman in high school, that has meant the first match of the wrestling season. Ever since late September, wrestlers all over the country have been counting calories and donning sweat suits to get down to whatever magical weight they want to compete at for the coming season. Tonight, they got to step on the mat and see if their hard work has paid off.

I don’t miss much in my life as much as I miss wrestling. I was a varsity wrestler for my high school for three years and I had the pleasure of coaching as both an assistant and a head coach for nearly ten years. No other sport comes close. Wrestling was on the agenda at the first Olympics and the basic equipment hasn’t changed much . . . except we don’t wrestle naked anymore — although the first time you ever put on a Spandex singlet and step out in front of a crowd of people, you may FEEL naked.

Everything great and wonderful about my high school years revolved around wrestling. I went out for the team as a freshman in the hopes of catching the eye and impressing a girl named Kim whose brother was on the team. I was the only heavyweight that year so I started every match . . . and LOST every match except the lone forfeit I got because the opposing wrestler tripped getting off the team bus and got a concussion. Needless to say, I didn’t get the girl, even though she was impressed that I didn’t quit. At the awards banquet that year, I received the Silver Flounder Award for being the biggest fish on the team.

I dropped weight and wrestled great my sophomore and junior years. I even placed second in our region my junior year. I was one match away from qualifying for the state tournament when I came down with stomach flu. That was the end of that year. My senior year was a disaster. I was already having a REALLY BAD year and the first day of practice, I found out the weight classes had changed. My coveted 167 was gone. I was now in the same class with two monsters who I never could hope to beat. They tried to kill each other and the loser dropped down to the next lowest division.

I was odd man out. I was a senior with three bars and twenty-two pins on my letterman jacket and I was relegated to the bench. It was at that point that I gave up on my entire senior year and the wheels well and truly fell off the apple cart, but that is a story for another time.

So, men, gird up your loins, put your foot on the stripe inside the circle and wait for the whistle.

When you finish, roll up the mats . . . and wash your feet! Love y’all.

#TBT: Adventures in Cast Iron Cooking

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I published this a long time ago. Budge hasn’t cooked okra in awhile but I’d still eat it!

When Budge and I first married, we lived with Mama and Rob for a while until we got on our feet a little better financially. Budge helped Mama with the housework and laundry, but Mama did all the cooking just because . . . well, just because, I guess.

Anyway, one weekend about six months into our nuptials, Mama and Rob went to visit Grandma Lowe for the Lowe Family Reunion up in the hills of North Carolina. Since we had the house to ourselves, Budge decided she’d make us dinner. She’d cooked a few things for me before and they hadn’t be half bad. Tonight, she planned to pull out all the stops. She knew my favorite side item in the world was breaded, fried okra, so she obviously planned for that to be prominent on the menu. It was here that things got interesting.

Now, as a side note, my Budge is a wonderful wife. God knows she’s a whole lot more than I deserve and I am deeply appreciative of her. One issue she had early in our marriage, however, was putting way too much pressure on herself to be a modern day June Cleaver complete with pearl necklace and apron. She liked things to be perfect. Unfortunately, Budge never had much hands on experience cooking. Her mother passed away suddenly when Budge was 15 and she just hadn’t had time to learn much about the culinary arts. The second factor adding to this tense situation was the fact that Budge had only seen Mama cook fried okra for me and Mama always fried her okra in Granny’s cast iron skillet.

Now from that sharp intake of breath, I see that y’all, at least the cooks out there, realize what’s going on. In this day of non-stick, space age polymer pots and pans, a cast iron skillet has mostly been relegated to baking corn bread. The reason for this demotion is simple — it’s hard as crap to cook in a cast iron skillet! Budge did not know this.

So, blissful in her ignorance of cast iron cookery, she filled the pan about a third of the way with Wesson oil and waited. Once the oil started smoking and looked about to catch fire, she dumped the bag of Southern Home frozen okra into the pan. I didn’t know Budge knew some of the words that came out of her mouth when some of the hot oil spit out onto her arms and bare feet. If you wonder what I was doing at this time, I was sitting at the kitchen table watching intently and keeping my mouth shut like any intelligent new husband watching his wife cook.

Time passed. Budge watched the okra for several minutes with no discernible results, so she decided it would be safe to prepare other parts of the meal, just like she’d seen Mama do. Now, for the laypeople out there, here is a VERY important fact — the interval of time between “perfectly golden and delicious” fried okra and “blackened pea gravel” fried okra in a cast iron skillet is about three tenths of a second. Those three tenths of a second passed as Budge was pouring up the glasses of tea. I knew something was amiss by the way Budge looked at the frying pan when she crossed back to it.

I couldn’t see her face, but I thought I caught wind of a slight “sniff” as she carried the pan of okra to the sink to strain the oil off it. As she used Mama’s aluminum colander, I heard the unmistakable sound of river rock being ground in a coffee grinder. Still, how bad could it be? She set the rest of the meal on the table and it all looked extremely tasty. I fixed my plate then asked, “Baby, where is the okra?” She didn’t answer, but sighed heavily and brought over the bowl.

You know those lava rocks some people use as mulch around their flower beds and trees? Think harder and smaller. The bowl was half full of what can only be described as jet black ball bearings with bits of blackened cornmeal mournfully hanging on to them. I glanced up at my bride’s stricken face where her eyes were just beginning to tear up and did what any self respecting husband would do in such a situation. I poured the entire contents of the bowl onto my plate and began eating.

Under her watchful eyes, I ate the entire bowl of food formerly known as fried okra. It was crunchy. Ever ate charcoal flavored Grape-Nuts without milk? Make no mistake, it was charcoal. I could have drunk a liter of pure strychnine mixed with dioxin and the amount of charcoal in my stomach would have neutralized it instantly with no need for pumping or antidotes.

It was worth every bit though to see the tears vanish from Budge’s eyes as I declared the okra “quite tasty”. We both knew the truth, but that’s what you do when you love someone. You make allowances. Mama later explained to Budge with a smile just how hard cast iron cooking was and introduced her to The Fry Daddy. Budge makes very good deep fried okra. I’ll have to tell you about her peanut butter pie later though!

Keep your feet clean and remember who loves you!

#TBT: Epiphany of a Vine Tester

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I first published this back in early 2011.. I’ve been thinking of my childhood and summers playing in the creek. Some of those summer days involved swinging on a vine and that’s when I became a vine tester. Hope you like it second time around.

I was in Mr. Sublett’s AP US History class on a winter Friday, second period, junior year, halfway listening to The Sub expound on the role states’ rights played in the War Between the States and halfway to Daydream Believer Land when it hit me what a bunch of low-down, four-flushing, underhanded rat-finks my buddies were when we were in the late single digits and very early double-digit years of our lives. The epiphany was nothing short of shocking. I let half the class in on my astonishment by suddenly sitting up straight in my desk and muttering loudly, “What a bunch of sorry . . . ” Well, we won’t go into exactly what sort of sorry they were. This is mostly a family blog.

Just because you’ve got on a cape don’t mean you can fly.

Anyway, this is what hit me. When we boys were young and rip-romping around the woods behind our houses, we had two favorite past-times: splashing in the creek looking for “spring lizards” and swinging on vines over the various ravines and gullies that pockmarked the tree choked hills. As I’ve mentioned many times here before, I am not now and never have been a lightweight. I’ve always been fat to the point of being big around as I have been tall. That made my rip-romping a little more difficult than my lithe and agile blood-brethren. As a result of the large disparity between my ability to cover ground and my lighter buddies’, I often lagged behind the gang . . . far behind at times. On good days, I could stay within earshot; on bad days — if I didn’t know the woods intimately — I’d get hopelessly lost.

Luckily, and here’s where my epiphany kicked in, the boys always waited for me at every vine swing or log crossing. Now all my buddies were raised to be kind and mannerly — just like I was. All of our parents and grandparents had been friends and sometimes even kin. So for nearly ten years, I thought the guys were looking out for me. They knew that I was slow AND (I hate to admit this) they knew I was terrified of getting lost in the woods and eaten by a grizzly bear or worse. It didn’t matter to me that no wild grizzly bear had lived east of the Mississippi River — much less Upstate South Carolina — in over a century. I was just an easily scared little boy. (Who, incidentally, grew up into an easily scared man).

But I digress.

Without fail, I’d always find the group waiting for me at the aforementioned log crossing or vine swing and, without fail, they always let me go first. I figured it was their way of keeping me close enough to hear my death screams as Gentle Ben was having me for lunch. That day in Sub’s class though, the harsh ugly truth hit me. Altruism wasn’t anywhere in their equations.

I was the vine tester.

Quite simply, I was always the first to cross the logs over the creeks or gullies. I was always first to swing across the logless gullies on a vine — Tarzan style. What I had mistaken for kindness was cold, calculating self-preservation. I easily outweighed the next heaviest member of our circle by a good fifty pounds. At some point, they all got together and realized if they sent me across first, whatever material was in question would definitely hold them!

They used me and my fat to keep themselves from cuts, sprains, and wet jeans. I was so certain of their tender motives that I never questioned them. After all, I was a very poor vine-swinger so they would always give me a boost up and a good push to make sure I got across. Once or twice, I didn’t. I would have shoes full of muck and poison ivy all over my legs, but they would be safe.

Why sure, guys! I’ll go first. Hold my drink will ya’?

I would have gone on to my grave in blissful innocence of my “friends'” duplicity had it not been for night hunting. That was what turned my mind to those halcyon days as I sat in that AP History class. Some of my friends from those bygone days had taken up the quintessential Southern “sport” of coon hunting.

Briefly, coon hunting consists of moving rapidly through woods, fields, and creek bottoms in pursuit of a pack of demented dogs — coon hounds — who are themselves in pursuit of a raccoon. To up the degree of difficulty into the stratosphere, this is all done at night. Usually WAY at night. Oh, yes, and the season is also in the dead of winter.

I had joined these acquaintances on a few of these moonlit excursions and, just as in days of yore, I was always invited to cross the fallen log first. Ten years on, I was still “the vine / log tester!”

Thanks to that second period awakening, however, my tenure as quality control for creek crossings was at an end. We had scheduled a hunt for that very night. I went along as I always did and, we came to a fallen log, as we always did. One of the guys called out, “Wham, you head on across so you don’t get so far behind”, just as they always did.

For the first time, however, I spoke up at the crossing.

“Fellas, it’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally figured out this game. Y’all gonna send my fat . . . butt across that log so if it don’t break with me you’ll know it’s safe. Now don’t deny it, I’ve come to this conclusion, but I’ve got one thing to say. I’ve worked over this here shotgun of mine and she’s got a nice easy trigger pull. It’s gonna be a shame if a log breaks tonight or any other night from here on out because I’m pretty sure if I fall, this shotgun is going to go off. Furthermore, despite all our training with guns and such, I’m almost CERTAIN this shotgun will be fall out of my hand in such a way as to be pointed in all y’all’s directions. Just thought I’d let you know. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll cross this log.”

It was the last log I ever “tested”.

Now keep those feet clean and remember how much G.S. Feet loves y’all!