Thoughts on Veterans Day

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https://tce-live2.s3.amazonaws.com/media/media/a8dde221-64c3-48cf-b6d0-248d0ce4d539.jpgIn Flanders Fields
By: Lt. Col. John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
.

From one who has never known the smell of battle and the stench of blood and fear to every veteran of every American war, popular and unpopular, won or lost, concluded or continuing, thank you so much for risking your lives and many times giving your lives in the service of your country. You did not ask if the fight was a cause you believed in for it was enough that you believed in the country that gave the call.

Bless you, each and every one of you.

I’d wash all y’all’s tired feet if I could.

Thank you again. Love y’all.

#TBT: Halloween at Aunt Nell’s

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I originally published this on Halloween 2009. Since then, Aunt Nell’s grandson, who was living in the house has sold it and left Greenpond for the suburbs. Halloween gatherings at Aunt Nell’s belong strictly to the realm of memory now.

When I was growing up, we lived in the back forty acres of the boondocks. I took some friends home from college to meet my mama over the holidays once and two of them swore we lived in a different time zone, if not another space time continuum. Living that far from nowhere meant that social events were scarce, but for a kid with a sugar craving on All Saint’s Eve, it was death. I LITERALLY had no where within walking distance of my house and we lived so far out we’d have to eat all the candy we got driving around just to survive the trip. So in the era of my childhood, preceding all the newfangled “Trunk or Treats” , the highlight of Halloween for me, my brother’s generation, and my dad’s generation was the annual trip to Greenpond to visit Aunt Nell and drink her Witch’s Brew.

the boys at halloween

Over twenty years ago in Greenpond. My baby first cousin, Blake, is the Blue Dinosaur; my brother, Nick, is the redhead behind him; Aunt Nell is in the witch’s costume; my second cousin, Anna, is next to Aunt Nell and is holding a child I don’t recognize; and Zach, my oldest first cousin, is standing behind Anna.

See, when Daddy and Aunt Cathy, as well as all the First Cousins, were children, they lived in the boonies as well; so they didn’t have anywhere to get candy on Halloween either. In an effort to give the children somewhere to wear their costumes and get some candy, Papa Wham’s sister, my great-Aunt Nell, started dressing up in a witch’s costume on Halloween and hosting a small gathering. She’d put a huge (well, huge for a five year old) cauldron of what she swore was witch’s brew on an open fire in front of her open and detached garage then pop up a huge amount of pop corn and lay out a great stock of candies.

Children — first my daddy’s generation, then mine — would come with their parents and eat popcorn and run around the pitch black yard in our costumes playing hide and seek until we vomited. It was our unofficial family reunion and most Halloween nights, just about every lineal descendant of Granny Mattie would make their way up Aunt Nell’s winding driveway. Rain or shine, she always turned out.

The Witch of Greenpond became pretty much a local legend. Aunt Nell made the cover of the local weekly newspapers and in all the years I can remember, she never missed a Halloween. Time comes for us all though, even good witches, and the year finally arrived when Aunt Nell simply couldn’t take on the night’s festivities. Alzheimer’s Disease had robbed her of the memory of the wonderful times she’d given all of us and the rest of the rural children of the surrounding countryside.

That year, about six or seven years ago now, I think, the pointed hat was passed. Anna, the adorable little blonde standing next to Aunt Nell in the picture, took up the mantle of the Greenpond Witch from her grandmother. Now she presides over the ceremony that has meant so much to so many people for so long. Now, rain or shine (and tonight was a frog-floater) the cauldron still gets lit and the children still come to eat popcorn, chase each other, and drink a cup of Witch’s Brew . . . which still tastes suspiciously like cherry Kool-Aid.

Happy Halloween, y’all, and don’t forget to wash your feet after you come in from trick or treating!

I Remember

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tower-of-voices-chimes-flight-93-national-memorial-620According to family stories, my great grandmother was listening to her daily gospel radio show at 11:00 on November 11, 1918 when the announcer broke in to say the Great War was over. Granny Wham always told me she was at the kitchen sink washing the breakfast dishes on December 7, 1941 when the news came over the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Until the day she died, Mama would tell me about being in gym class at Gray Court – Owings School when the principal announced over the PA system on November 23, 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Memories of where you were and what you were doing.

Eighteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, I was a thirty year old English teacher at Woodmont High School in Greenville County, SC. I was standing in front of a class of sophomores transitioning from our silent reading block to our daily lesson when Pat Harvey, the school receptionist, tapped on the window in my classroom door. I stepped into the hall to speak to her; she had tears in her eyes. She said, “Two planes have hit the World Trade Towers in New York. They thought the first one was a terrible accident, but then the second one flew straight into the building a few minutes later.”

I remember wishing I had a television in my room. Instead, I went back in class and tried to explain to a group of 15 and 16 year olds that likely the biggest event of their lives had just taken place. America — land of the free and home of the brave — had been attacked by terrorists on an unimaginable scale, not in some foreign airport or embassy, but right in the heart of our largest city. They had questions and I didn’t have any answers. It wasn’t long after though that the calls started coming in for students to be dismissed as parents came from all over to pick their children up, to hug them, to remind themselves their babies were safe.

But were they?

The world I grew up in died on 9/11/2001. I woke up that morning in one country and went to bed in another. Something unthinkable happened. Terrorists had attacked us on our home turf and had killed — all total — over 3000 people in the deadliest action against our homeland since Pearl Harbor. But Pearl Harbor was different. It was a sneak attack, yes, but it was an act of a conventional war. We understood Pearl Harbor; many even predicted it. We didn’t like it of course and we paid the Japanese back in kind, but this attack was something else altogether.

This wasn’t a strike by a nation with borders and cities and ships we could retaliate against. This was a blow from the shadows. Everyone wanted to get back at “them” but this wasn’t World War II. We didn’t have a Tokyo we could sail to and bomb. For awhile, we didn’t even know who “Them” was until Al-Queda and their front man Osama Bin-Ladin stepped up to take responsibility for attacking “The Great Satan.”

I don’t have anything to offer about that day other than what I’ve already written. It was a day of victims and heroes of all stripes and even species. How many epitaphs could include the phrase, “the last anyone saw him, he was climbing up”? How many ordinary citizens carried people down multiple flights of stairs on their backs. I can’t add to that. I’ve been thinking about something different.

I’ve been thinking about the children of those sophomores. The Towers fell 18 years ago today. That means that right now we have a generation of 18 year olds who just became eligible for a military draft who have never known a world of peace. In their lifetimes, America has been in some sort of conflict related to what’s come to be called The Global War on Terror. They don’t understand the irony of scenes in movies with people running through airports because in their lifetimes running through an airport without really good reason might get you shot by security.

Security. Now there’s a word for this new generation. For the last 18 years people have been preaching “never forget; never again!” We’ve developed a bunker mentality. Air travel used to be one of the most carefree adventures a person could take. Now it’s a chaotic mess of ounce bottles and full pat-down searches to get on a plane. It has to be that way because once you realize you live in a world where evil men are willing to use jumbo jets as guided missiles, you live in a world where ANYTHING is possible.

The next attack could come from anywhere. Sadly, we are so scared of the next attack, we’ve lost large chunks of what made us a place to envy. Not only did 3000 people die on 9/11/2001, huge swaths of our freedoms did as well. Under the guise of protecting us from another 9/11, we have become a virtual police state. Now don’t get it twisted; this is the nicest, freest police state in the history of the world, but Big Brother is still watching everywhere all the time because He wasn’t watching in 2001 and people died.

I don’t know if there will ever be another attack the scope of 9/11, but there really doesn’t have to be. For 18 years, our peace of mind as a nation has been non-existent. People are scared of everything now and we are willing to do whatever it takes to whomever it takes to make us a little less scared. With our present mentality, the bad guys don’t have to attack . . . they’ve already won.

Love y’all, and keep your feet clean.

50 Years After 3 Days of Peace and Music

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250px-Woodstock_posterImagine waking up in the morning and looking out your window to see the population of Cleveland, OH gathered on your back lawn. Now imagine seeing that sight for three days. That mental exercise will give you an idea of what Max Yasgur saw back in August 1969 as he looked out over his dairy farm at what became known as Woodstock after the nearby town which was supposed to host the gathering but ultimately turned the promoters down.

Woodstock is so massive, so important, and so well documented that it’s hard to write about it and say something someone else hasn’t already said so I’m not even going to try. I’m just going to share some history but also my thoughts about the event that became a touchstone in American musical and countercultural history.

Let me begin by saying this unequivocally — I don’t consider myself anything of a hippie person. I’m certainly not countercultural, but if I had a time machine and a list of the top places in history I’d love to personally visit, Woodstock’s music festival in 1969 would be number four. Imagine seeing almost anyone who was anyone in the music scene on one stage over three days? CCR, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin — over thirty bands and artists culminating in a never duplicated performance by the legendary left handed guitarist, Jimi Hendrix! I definitely would park the Delorean and sit down awhile.

I can’t help contrasting the mood at Woodstock with what’s going on in America today. Back then, the Vietnam War was burning hot and protests were popping up all over the country. The country was as divided at that time as it hadn’t been since the Civil War and yet 400,000 people got together and stood in the rain and mud and generally horrible physical conditions to enjoy music and each other. The local sheriff went on record saying how calm the whole thing was. He said, “Something about the marijuana just keeps everyone real calm; if it had been beer or other alcohol, things would have gotten ugly I believe.” Imagine getting that many people together today? The National Guard would be on scene before the first act went on stage and probably for good reason. Half the people would want to fight the other half over something political and you’d be lucky if one or two mass shooters didn’t smuggle in something bad and kill a few people.

You know who worked security for Woodstock? A commune out of New Mexico lead by a charismatic guy who went by the nom de plume of Wavy Gravy. A commune. No one needed anything else. He also helped run the aid stations where the job description often included hugging out people in the middle of really bad trips on LSD.

Over all, in three days with 400K people less than a thousand accidents or injuries were reported and 900 of those were from bare feet stepping on glass or other impediments. Two people did die so it wasn’t bloodless. One overdosed on heroin and one for reasons known only to him went to sleep behind the rear wheels of a tractor and the driver didn’t look behind him when he backed up and rolled over the young man’s head. Two babies also were born during Woodstock, but not on the grounds as popularly believed. One was born in a car during the attempt to get to the venue and the other mother was safely airlifted to a hospital to give birth.

Now it’s fifty years later. A lot of the artists who graced Woodstock’s stage have gone on to that great amphitheater in the sky or maybe in the other place, who am I to judge? Janis and Jimi both died the next year the rest succumbed to overdoses in some cases and old age in others.

Still, for a shining moment, Woodstock lived up to the billing. It was, truly, three days of peace and music. To be honest, I believe we need a Woodstock today. In any event though, I don’t think Woodstock will ever happen again. People can’t get along long enough to get together in that large of a group without violence. Less than half that many riot almost monthly at soccer matches all over the world today.

 

#TBT: We Are NOT That Broke Yet!

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Friends don't let friends wipe with dollar store toilet paper.

Friends don’t let friends wipe with dollar store toilet paper.

This was the last post I wrote before Mama passed away. Two weeks later, she would be gone from me. Sad as that may be, this post does still tell the truth.

I went down to check on Mama recently. She’s been suffering for a good while now with C.O.P.D. and if God is not merciful to her, it will eventually take her from me. I try to keep watch over her and I’m thankful for the hospice organization and my wonderful step-dad for helping me. Now before you go getting bummed out, this post is only tangentially connected to Mama’s health.

Anyway, while I was at Mama’s the salad from the night before and the large bowl of Raisin Bran from earlier in the morning both decided to end their tour of my colon. I told Mama I had to go see a man about a dog then grabbed my phone to have something to pass the time because I figured this might take a bit. The phone was my undoing because I was so focused on pulling up Angry Birds I forgot to check the toilet paper. Big mistake. Now you’re probably thinking the roll was empty, leaving me stranded. Actually, that would have been a better scenario than the one confronting me as I finished my lengthy constitutional because had the roll been empty I could have called Mama from the bathroom and asked her to bring me some paper towels using her scooter chair. No, the holder was full. Unfortunately, it was full of the worst substance known to man.

Dollar store toilet paper!

Now long time readers know I am a restroom connoisseur. Were I to become wealthy enough to build my dream home, I already have the bathroom completely planned out. Budge can design everything else. My exquisite taste in all things water closet related extends to toilet paper as well. At home, having a septic tank keeps me anchored to the pedestrian but adequate Scott Tissue, but I do have a couple of rolls of White Cloud Ultra Soft stashed away for those “occasions” when my stomach has risen up in rebellion and constant use of the facilities begs for something more tender than Scott 500 grit special. When the economy and civilization collapse, it won’t be lack of food, water, or power that does me in; it will be the dearth of bathroom facilities and the end of manufactured toilet paper.

Wonderful but frivolous luxury.

Wonderful but frivolous luxury.

Sadly, the fake dollar store toilet paper ended up in Mama’s bathroom because her illness necessitated turning the shopping over to my step-dad. Now I won’t lie. Money is very tight at our two households. Budge and I have been helping Mama pay her bills for over a year now. Rob, my step-dad, knows this so he’s always trying to cut corners and save wherever he can, which is perfectly reasonable since we are more or less broke. However, as bad as it may be, we are NOT dollar-store-toilet-paper-level broke yet. We can’t necessarily afford luxury like Charmin or Quilted Northern, but we can certainly afford some Scott Tissue. Granted, Scotts isn’t the softest on one’s bottom but at least it is absorbent enough to do the job while being strong enough to not have to wrap a hand in half a roll just to keep the wiping fingers from bursting through mid-stroke.

I don’t know what dollar store toilet paper is made of. Based on its absorbancy, I would guess wax paper, but wax paper is many orders of magnitude stronger than dollar store TP, and that’s where this stuff really starts to wreak. Apparently, dollar store TP is woven from unicorn farts, angel burps, or something else comparably rare and insubstantial. As a general rule, I shouldn’t be able to read a newspaper through a ply of decent TP, but laying a sheet of dollar store rubbish on the funny pages doesn’t even dull the colors much. At the risk of sounding a bit gross, if this stuff is all you’ve got, you’re better off just bare-handing it and cutting out the middle man, so to speak. Dollar store TP is really that bad.

The bare-a$$ed minimum acceptable TP. (see what I did there?)

The bare-a$$ed minimum acceptable TP. (see what I did there?)

To make matters worse, this  “paper,” which is so useless in its intended hygienic function because of its lack of strength and absorbancy in the hand turns into some sort of uber-wadded concrete blob once you drop it in the toilet. It might not take poop off a goose, but two or three handfuls of this stuff will clog up a toilet tighter than the Chihuahua that ate a whole cheese and peanut butter sandwich. Plunging only makes the stuff multiply like some sort of soggy, stinky Hydra. Dollar store TP truly is a mystery substance.

In any event I managed to finish up and get myself reasonably ready to reenter the world so I went in to Mama and begged her to have Rob stop buying dollar store TP. She reiterated what I already knew — he was just trying to save us money. My reply was simple and heartfelt. Buy REAL toilet paper and I’ll give up cable and internet or cut us down to one car to make up the difference. It’s like I told Mama and I’m saying it again to y’all, I’m a simple man. I don’t have many needs. All I ask for to make me happy is decent A/C in the summertime to keep my fat butt cool and some good quality TP to keep the same fat butt clean. Is that too much to ask? When the day comes we can’t afford at LEAST some Scott Tissue, it’ll be time for me to start paying close attention to Breaking Bad reruns.

Love y’all! Keep those feet clean . . . and all the other parts as well!

The Holy Grail of TP! It has THREE PLYS and Shea Butter!!!!

The Holy Grail of TP! It has THREE PLYS and Shea Butter!!!!

#TBT: Papa’s Day plus 75 years

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Papa wham

Frank B. Wham, Sr. circa 1944

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, aka: D-Day. My beloved Papa Wham was there. I wrote this post June 6, 2015 for the 70th anniversary and I wanted to rerun it in memory of Papa and all the other brave boys who hit the bloody beaches all those long years ago. We will never see their like again and precious few remain.

Today more than any day of the year, I think of Papa Wham. More than his birthday (July 7), more than Christmas or Thanksgiving, more than Father’s Day, more than the anniversary of his passing (July 17), the anniversary of the D-Day invasion is my memory of Papa. This year is the 70th 75th anniversary of the Operation Overlord invasion that finally opened up the second front in Europe the Soviet Union had been so adamantly insisting upon for years. Seventy-five years since the beginning of the end for Hitler and his 1000 year Reich. For Papa Wham and thousands of young men like him, it was another day away from home and the people they loved. I’ve seen the news coverage of the ceremonies in the Normandy cemeteries and I’ve marveled at the large number of veterans of that day who made the trip back to those stormy cliffs to remember. None of them are younger than their late 80s, but every single one of them stands as straight as age and appliances will allow as the colors troop past and the national anthems play. These are not young men and for many of them, this will be their last tour of the battlefields of their youth. It’s nearly a cliché now, but this is the flower of America’s Greatest Generation and those flowers are quickly fading.

If Papa were still with us, he’d be 97 102. This year will mark twenty-five years since his passing. It’s been two decades since I’ve seen his gentle smile and heard his sweet voice. To have known my papa when I did and as I did — as my beloved grandfather and one of the two greatest men I’ve ever known — was not to picture a warrior primed for battle. Papa ran a service station then an auto parts store. He vacuumed the house for Granny Wham on Saturday mornings and dozed off sometimes in church on Sunday mornings when Preacher Jeff wasn’t holding his attention. He loved baseball — especially his Atlanta Braves. He loved me and each of his three other grandsons (though I’m pretty sure I was the favorite.) I just never viewed my precious Papa Wham as anything other than my papa.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve often wondered what Papa thought about “his” war. I never asked him for any details. I was too young to know how to gently and politely ask an older man about his service and Papa never volunteered his thoughts on anything but the most innocuous incidents, the funniest stories. I wonder about things now though. Papa was in his middle 20s when he went to fight the Nazis. He was a small town South Carolina boy riding to war on the Queen Mary ocean liner. What was he thinking 70 75 years ago today as his LCI splashed towards the narrow strip of sand? If I’ve heard correctly, Papa was in the third wave of the invasion, which meant the beach was still “hot” in terms of enemy action. Was he scared? I can’t imagine Papa Wham being scared any more than I can imagine Daddy being scared, but having watched the invasion scene of Saving Private Ryan time after time, I can’t see anyone in one of those boats not being terrified.

I know from his service record that D-Day wasn’t Papa’s first rodeo. He’d landed in North Africa during Operation Torch. He had been at Anzio and had taken part in the Sicily campaign. Still, this was attacking Hitler’s Atlantic Wall of Fortress Europe. I wonder how many friends he’d made in the two years of serving with the First Infantry Division, “The Big Red One.” I wonder how many he had seen maimed or killed in terrible ways. Had he ever killed anyone? I simply can’t see Papa as a killer, but it was a war and a terrible, bloody war at that. I know he could shoot because I’d seen him do it, but did he ever shoot a man? If he did, I never knew and I was brought up too well to ask.

What did he do in England during the build up for the invasion? What about during the days on the road in France when every American soldier was a liberator and a hero? Papa was dashingly handsome; especially in his uniform. Did he turn the head and catch the eye of a pretty English shop girl? Did he spend a quiet hour with some lovely French maid? To me, it’ll always be “Papa and Granny” but Papa wasn’t married to Granny yet and he was a long way from home with the possibility of being killed dogging his every step. I know it would seem scandalous to some — especially my Aunt Cathy — but I would hardly think less of my precious Papa Wham if he’d spent an evening with a European girl. He was kind and sweet and if Granny Wham loved him, why couldn’t a red-headed Scottish lass have been taken with him as well? I think entirely too much of Papa and his steadfast integrity to even entertain the idea I may have some kin on the other side of the Pond I don’t know about. That’s just not the kind of man Papa was . . . but if it did turn out I had a Belgian relative or two, I certainly wouldn’t think any less of Papa. It was a war.

A war he fought 70 75 years ago thousands of miles from home. Oh the questions I wish I had asked.

Rest in Peace, Papa, and Rest in Peace to all the brave fallen of that terrible war.

Love you all and keep those feet clean!

Thirty Years Gone

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89At 7:30 tonight, it will be exactly thirty years since I graduated from Laurens District 55 High School. It was hot that night, June 3, 1989 and the green polyester robes and my borrowed necktie didn’t help matters much at all. The ceremony was in the gym since our auditorium would barely hold the graduating class, much less the ten visitors each graduate was allowed. I was second from the top in class rank, but “Wham” put me third from the bottom in getting my name called. I joked with Stacy Wilson sitting next to me that some of our A and B named friends would be at the beach before they got to us. All 399 of us.

It was to be the capstone of a high school career which had started off with great promise, but somehow had gone off the rails to become a complete trainwreck by the time I walked across the stage. What I didn’t realize then was I was suffering from clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, and borderline personality disorder. I needed a lot to put Humpty Dumpty back together and by the time someone sat with me long enough to figure out what was wrong with me, it was basically too late to matter much. As bad as things were, I had no idea how much exponentially worse it could get.

I wish I could go back and talk to the kid I was then. I could see me materializing next to him that night long ago and, after the shock wore off, taking him by the arm and guiding him to one of the benches around the courtyard to sit down and warn him about what was coming so it all wouldn’t blindside him the way it did.

I’d tell him the downhill spiral was going to pick up speed tonight. In just a few minutes, our AP English teacher is going to pull us aside and tell us just how much of a disappointment we’ve been. She’ll call us overrated and go into how we squandered our massive potential. Then she’ll go off and get ready to go in with the rest of the teachers.

I’d tell him this ceremony was going to be long but he had people watching him who he thinks right now are going to be around forever. Papa and Granny Wham are in the crowd. Mama is in the crowd. They aren’t going to be around as long as you think they are. They’ve got a few years left still, but not nearly enough.

You’re going to be sitting with your friends one last time. You’ll see some of them in college and some of them who aren’t friends now will be best friends before it’s all said and done. Take a good long look. You’ll never be together with them again. You’ll also never have friends like these ever again. Not in college and certainly not once you become an adult, whatever that means.

The ceremony will end and you’ll hug some necks and take pictures with family and friends, then it’ll be time to go. You’ll go out to the Chevelle and just before you get in you’ll see the first girl you ever loved parked with her new boyfriend three spaces away from you. You know she’s pregnant by the boy and the knowledge is like a sliver of glass in your eye. You walk over and give her one last hug and you tell the boy if he ever hurts her you’ll hunt him down and kill him like a rabid dog. He laughs and nods. He knows you won’t. Even when you find out months later from her brother how baby daddy now husband has been beating her black and blue, you won’t do anything and you’ll feel like chickenshit for being a coward for a long, long time. No, you’ll just go back to your car and watch her drive away. It’ll be the last time you ever see her.

I’d tell him things are going to go crazy now. You’re going to get moved from your great store to a ghetto store on the backside of Greenville so you won’t last much longer. You’ll work a first stint in a textile plant and realize what you don’t want to do with your life but other than that you won’t have a clue. Oh, you don’t go to college that first year with everyone else because your new girlfriend is crazy and doesn’t want you to and you don’t know how to say no. Instead you’ll do 13th grade at Greenville Tech until you realize it’s taking you nowhere.

The good news is you do get to Clemson. You’ll have forfeited all your scholarships and grants so you’ll be drowning in debt but you’ll get there. Engineering isn’t going to work out though. Calculus just isn’t our strength. You’re going to be a teacher instead. College is interesting. You’ll meet some great people and you’ll meet some assholes and you’ll spend a lot of weekends and some weeknights too filling that growing empty hole inside you with Jack Daniels and vodka. Overall though, you have a good time, but it’s over way too soon and you’re own your own again.

That teaching degree doesn’t turn out to do much. You’ll send out over fifty resumes and go on one interview. When it doesn’t pan out, you’ll go back to textiles. About this time you’re going to meet a woman you will do well to walk on by, but you won’t and you’ll end up in a mess like you wouldn’t believe. In general, women have been and are going to be a sore spot in your life up until you meet Budge, but she’s in middle school right now and doesn’t know you exist.

Next to women, your biggest downfall is going to be money. Your credit score will be shot by the time you get out of college because of credit cards and to be honest, you’re never going to recover it, especially when you see what’s coming a few years down the line. Nope, you’ll be riding the paycheck to paycheck train like a champ, just like Mama always did and for a while, you’ll make it work, but it’ll catch up with you. It always catches up with you.

Eventually though, you catch a break. An old friend’s dad works for Greenville County Schools and he mentions your name to a principal and Bob’s your uncle, you get a teaching job at a country high school with students a lot like you. You’re gonna meet Budge your first day there, but don’t be discouraged when she blows you off. You end up growing on her after awhile.

You grow on her so much she agrees to marry you. Seven years out of high school, you are on your way to the American Dream. You’ll have a wife. You’ll have a singlewide trailer and eventually you’ll have a cat. You and Budge will go to church together at Abundant Life Church of God.

For the next ten years, things are going to seem good. Your life consists of Budge, teaching at Woodmont, coaching wrestling in the winter, and going to Abundant Life with all the other young couples you know there. You’ll have some rough spots. Depression and anxiety haven’t gone away. You self medicated them all through college and the first few years out, but now you’re married and a respectable church goer. You can’t pour whiskey in that black empty hole anymore.

Budge is going to notice and she’s going to sit you down and tell you to either get help or she’s leaving. You get a little help. You start taking your first real regimen of anti-depressants. They help some — more than you’d expected them to and things rock on for awhile longer. You’ll see the new millennium come in; you and your class will watch the towers fall. Students will love you, administration won’t, and your fellow teachers will split somewhere in the middle, but it’s a good time. Until it isn’t.

You’re going to say something people take wrong. You’ll end up in front of your principal, then you’ll end up in front of the school board. Then you’ll get fired from teaching. That black hole is going to open up and threaten to swallow you whole. You’re going to turn to your church family but suddenly you’ll be a pariah and you’re never going to know why. Basically everything you’ve lived for for the last ten years collapses in less than six months.

You declare bankruptcy to keep the trailer and car, but at the cost of ever having any kind of credit rating good enough to buy a house. You’ll drive a truck for your cousin for a year to make ends meet. You’ll get a masters degree in school librarianship and then against all odds, you’re going to go to work teaching at this very high school where we’re sitting now. It will cause you some cognitive dissonance for that year, but the NEXT year, you become a SCHOOL LIBRARIAN! You got fired from teaching and now you’re a librarian — that never happens but it’s happened to you.

Now you’ve got good meds, a great therapist, and your dream job. Looks like the worst is behind you. It was bad, but it’s in the past and things are going to be okay now. Until they aren’t.

You’re going to get fired from being a school librarian in five years. You have a disagreement with the superintendent and you don’t know when to shut up. So you get fired. You’ll try to get a job as a librarian elsewhere, but a friend who sees your application lets you know two people you trusted to give you recommendations have actually tanked you. You’re never going to teach again. The black hole swallows you whole. No light. No hope. No peace.

You’re going to give up. You’re going to qualify for disability based on depression and anxiety. The next ten years are going to be the toughest of your life. You’re going to take care of Mama for two years constantly then you’re going to watch her die. You’re going to take care of Granny Ima for two more years and watch her die. You’re going to wish YOU could die. The days are going to drag on in an endless parade of darkness.

Next thing you know, you’re going to be almost fifty years old with nothing to show for it. Budge tried to keep you going but you know it’s hard on her. You’re going to be taking almost 800mg of THREE antidepressants to get you out of bed in the morning. You’ll have a great therapist and a wonderful psychiatrist and they will do their best to keep you going, but even with all the people pulling for you, that blackness still envelopes you. Washed up. Lost two careers. On the government’s dime. That’s what I’d have to tell that kid with the mullet getting ready to graduate thirty years ago.

I’d have more to tell him. Some of it good, most of it not, but just with what he’s going to know now, it’ll be enough for him to go home and dig a hole in the backyard to climb in and forget life. He won’t though. He’s going to try. Now he’s going to fail miserably, but he’s going to try because it’s all he can do.

Love y’all. Keep your feet clean.

Thoughts This Mother’s Day

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Avalance-White-Rose-Close-500_39e2bbb7Today is the sixth Mother’s Day since Mama died. I always made a big fuss over her on Mother’s Day and the last six years, this day has stung like a hornet sting in my heart. It’s been a hard day around our house ever since we got married because Budge lost her mother when Budge was only fifteen years old. Budge has hated Mother’s Day for as long as I’ve known her. It only got worse when Mama died and now neither of us have a mother to celebrate.

It doesn’t make it any easier on Budge that we don’t have children of our own and we never will. Mother’s Day is about mothers and when you don’t have a mother and you never will be a mother, well, sometimes it seems like the best thing you could do is just stay in bed. We’ve done that before, too.

It’s times like this I’m thankful we go to a non-traditional church. All over the country and especially the South, many, if not most, churches make a big deal about Mother’s Day. The pastor or some suitable representative will acknowledge the oldest mother and the youngest mother. They will recognize the mother with the most children. It gets pretty ceremonial and when you’re like me and Budge, it’s just harder than a hard day already needs to be. Our church doesn’t do anything but congratulate mothers briefly and not all our campus pastors do that. So that helps.

I’ve been thinking about Mama a great deal lately. Some friends of mine have had their mothers turn sixty. That’s all I got with Mama. I get angry sometimes even though it’s silly when I think if Mama had just taken a little bit better care of herself she could still be with me this Mother’s Day. It wasn’t meant to turn out that way though. The other day I did something I haven’t done in five years. I saw something and thought, “I need to tell Mama about that,” and I picked up my phone to call her and didn’t realize my mistake until I saw her speed dial icon wasn’t where it was supposed to be. That was a hard day.

People say grief gets easier with time; I’m not so sure. I admit my first thought in the morning is no longer, “Mama’s dead,” but I think about her every day. Now it’s Mother’s Day. I haven’t picked out a card in six years. Mama was crazy about cards. It didn’t matter what I got her for Christmas, her birthday, or Mother’s Day, if I didn’t have a card taped to the steering wheel of the pink Cadillac, she wouldn’t be happy. When I was going through her stuff after she died, I found her card drawer. It was a deep dresser drawer and it had cards in my handwriting from crayon to the year before.

So, even though Budge and I won’t want to, we’ll go to church today. I have babies to hold. We have a new little one who was a premie and he’s a darling.

Anyway, I hope all of you mothers and those with your mothers have a good Mother’s Day. Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

Middle Earth and Me

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This is the set of books I own and have read to tatters over the years.

It was December 19, 2001. Budge and I got stuck in Woodruff Road traffic on the way to Regul Hollywood Twenty and we were hurrying past rows of cars flying American flags in their windows. Feelings were still running high and patriotic over the 9/11 terrorist attacks just a few months old. That night, however, my mind was free from the existential dread the attacks had cast over our country. It was opening night of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

We got to the box office about ten minutes after the movies supposedly started and I questioned the young lad selling tickets, “Have I missed anything?” He said he wasn’t sure. I replied, “No, you don’t understand; I’ve been waiting and dreaming about this night for twenty years. I can’t miss anything.” He told me I might be better off coming back the next night to be sure.

So the next night I was seated next to Budge as Cate Blanchett / Galadriel’s voiceover of the creation of the rings began playing. I was as excited then as I had ever been in my life. This movie, and it’s two sequels — released the following two Decembers — was the culmination of my love affair with Tolkien’s work, The Lord of the Rings.

I blundered onto The Hobbit totally by chance. I was browsing the shelves at Gray Court – Owings School library when I found it. I liked the cover because I like eagles. I was in sixth grade and at a time of nearly unparalleled stress in life. Soon as I got to Granny and Papa Wham’s that fall afternoon, I sat down on the cold concrete slab of the carport with my back to the half-wall and started reading. By the time Granny called me to supper three hours later, I was over halfway through. I would finish the book before I went to bed.

The next day, I took The Hobbit back to the library and asked the greatest librarian ever, Ms. Goodhue, if the library had the sequels the back cover of the book mentioned. She told me sadly the library didn’t have those books because they were considered high school level. I walked away dejected.

The following day, Ms. Goodhue called me down to the library and handed me three books. They were hardcover with the dust jackets removed to show what I now know was the One Ring outlined in fire on the covers. Ms. Goodhue said, “You’ve been reading on high school level since third grade. Take care of these and bring them back when you finish.” She was loaning me her personal first edition copies of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The last time I priced a set of those books on eBay several years ago, they were running nearly $100K for a mint condition set with perfect dust jackets. So now you know why Ms. Goodhue was one of my earliest heroes.

I started in on the first book as soon as I got to Granny and Papa Wham’s house that day after school. Notice I don’t say “home” because when I was in the sixth grade, Mama and I didn’t have a home. We were staying with Granny and Papa — Mama’s ex-inlaws — because Mama had left my first stepfather after a summer in Columbia and we didn’t have anywhere else to go. It was tough on me. At the time, I knew it was exceptionally hard on Mama, but looking back I understand why I had a lot of upset stomachs and Mama kept a headache most of that year. The whole situation exuded stress. Imagine eating Sunday dinner with your Daddy and stepmother knowing your Mama is sitting on the bed with the door closed just across the hall. Just another depot in the rolling trainwreck I call my life.

But I digress. This is about The Lord of the Rings!

I tore through the first novel and was 3/4 through when I got one of the biggest jolts of my young life. Gandalf died. Now I’d grown attached to the kindly old wizard all through The Hobbit and the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring. Nobody said anything about Gandalf dying! They need to tell someone something like that. Nothing had prepared me for the moment he plunged off the bridge of Moria in battle with the balrog, Durin’s Bane. I lost it and started ugly crying. Just sobbing. I was reading in bed with Mama and she turned over and asked me what in the world was wrong. Saying, “Gandalf just died!” didn’t communicate the gravity of the situation to her. She just hugged me and tried unsuccessfully to remind me that, after all, it was just a book.

As readers of the books know, Gandalf doesn’t stay dead and I was as happy when he reappeared as I’d been distraught when he died. I finished all three books in less than a week and safely returned them to Ms. Goodhue. It’s only as I’m older looking back that I realize what it meant for her to trust me with her books like that.

So The Lord of the Rings became a touchstone for me. I would turn to them often over the years. When I was in seventh grade, I bought a set of my own with covers which match the picture at the head of this post. I’ll never forget; they were 25% off at Waldenbooks in the Greenville Mall and I was shopping with Scott Blume and his mother. I still have those books, even though I had to replace The Two Towers after I foolishly lent it to someone who will remain nameless. I’ve got another combined volume bound in leather and complete with a slipcase Budge gave me for Christmas one year. I’ve had others, but those are the two I’ve read the most.

Funny story, when the movies came out, Budge hadn’t read the books and wanted to. She asked me if she could read my set. Something in my face told her no before my mouth could wisely say yes. She couldn’t believe I would value books more than her! That even put me in a pickle for a bit, but I managed to return to her good graces by purchasing her a set all her own. I still read the books. I also liked the movies, but I was disappointed by a few things being left out as well as some things being added. Overall though, I thought Peter Jackson did a great job.

The Lord of the Rings is still a vital part of my day-to-day life. When I’m having a bad day, which happens more often than I wish, I’ll pick up one of my copies and scan a favorite passage. I’ll always stop and watch if I come across one of the movies channel surfing. Most of all though, they help me sleep. I have a difficult time getting to sleep, especially on nights I don’t take anything to help me sleep. When I’m lying tossing and turning in bed and can’t get my mind to shut down, I’ll start going over passages in my head. I’ll refight the Battle of the Pelennor Fields or struggle up Mount Doom with Sam and Frodo. I drift off with the songs of elves in my mind.

So it’s safe to say Tolkien has had a huge impact on me and still does. I have other books I love, but I don’t think anything will ever replace The Lord of the Rings in my heart. It’s always been there when I needed somewhere to run away to.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

#TBTish: A Meditation on Foodstuffs

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I originally posted this in November 2010 under the title “Don’t Ask, Just Eat It.” As happens with lots of stuff I write, I promptly forgot I wrote it. Earlier this week, though I was having a conversation with some folks about favorite foods and it got me to thinking about foods and I vaguely recalled I may have written on the topic. So, I combed through the archive and found this one. It’s mostly the same, but I have reworked it slightly. I hope you like it.

A group of us were sitting around Sunday after an impromptu pizza dinner and we started talking about food. We talked about favorite foods and foods we hated and someone – I believe it was my stepmother-in-law – broached the subject of what kind of -vore humans are. Someone had once told her that we are anatomically designed to be herbivores because of our extended digestive tracts and lack of sizable canine teeth. Apparently, whoever told her that figures all meat eaters have to have short colons and saberteeth, but who really knows? Anyway, I assured her that humans are, in fact, omnivores and I offered as proof the fact that people the world over will eat pretty much ANYTHING.

My Exhibit A was the fact people all over the world consider raw oysters a delicacy. That’s right. You may be reading this yourself thinking how much you’d love a plate of oysters on the half shell right now. Do you know what that means? Sometime in the past, somebody was walking down a beach and probably cut himself (or herself, let’s be inclusive) on an oyster bed. For whatever reason, this distant shore-dwelling ancestor of ours pried the oyster apart and thought the phlegm-like mass lying before him was the yummiest thing he’d seen all day and proceeded to chow down. Raw oysters are proof positive people will eat whatever! It’s that way all over the world. Every culture has delicacies that just don’t sit well with others’ ideas about edibles.

To quote Mr. Jerry Clower, “slick, slimy, boiled okra!”

Just take my wonderful homeland of Dixie. People down here eat something called collard greens. If you Yankees and other foreigners want a good idea of what collard greens are, next time you cut grass, empty your mower bag into a 20 quart stock pot and boil for about four days. Add vinegar. Enjoy. People around here love that stuff. To me, it looks like someone already had a go at it before me.

Another godawful Southern “delicacy” is boiled okra. If you don’t know what okra is, Google it. Once you have a picture of this strange vegetable in your mind, picture it boiled and canned. People exist who love it. I believe those people also ate their own boogers when they were small as well because boiled okra is as close to snot as you can get outside a nose — or a raw oyster.

We southern boys don’t have the market cornered on strange stuff to eat though. Look at Scotland. Their national dish is some concoction called “haggis” which I’m pretty sure is Gaelic for “this is made out of what?!!” Haggis is a bunch of chopped up meat bits — the origins of which are better left unknown — topped off with oatmeal and spices. The whole kit’n’kaboodle is chopped up, swirled around, salted, and stuffed into a SHEEP STOMACH, sewn up, and boiled. People in kilts everywhere eat this. You have to go to Scotland to try it though because most countries won’t allow it to be imported for various food safety issues?

My, my, my! Doesn’t that stuffed sheep stomach look delish?

See, it’s dishes like haggis (and raw oysters) that make me wonder about our distant ancestors. I mean, look at eggs. Who is the first caveman to stare at a chicken and say to his hirsute brethren, “Ug, omaoma mooka go mabab mambo,” which loosely translated from Old High Caveman means, “I think I’ll eat the next thing that drops out of that bird’s butt!” You stop to think about that a minute. If these old boys had mistaken a rooster for a hen, breakfast could be a WHOLE lot different to us today.

Truthfully though, people will eat anything that can’t get away from them. In several parts of the world including Iceland, most of Scandinavia, and great swathes of Southeast Asia, people eat fermented fish. Basically, they bury, box, or barrel up a bunch of fish with some salt and stuff and wait. Eventually, the stuff rots enough and they bring it out and slap it on a cracker! Um, um good! REALLY?! Who was walking down the beach and came across a fish carcass riddled with scavenger holes and thought to himself, “I bet this would taste awesome with a little salt on a Ritz,” ?! In Norway, and parts of Minnesota by extension, they mix herring in with lye to make a concoction called lutefisk. LYE, PEOPLE! It comes in a can; we used to use it in chemistry class in high school. It unclogs drains in sinks. Folks, if the recipe says, “add two cups of Drano to the fish mix,” y’all can just leave me out.

Of course, I mentioned Southeast Asia and I know we’ve all heard the jokes, but some of it isn’t a joke. Dog, cat, and rat are all considered delicacies in places like Thailand and Vietnam. The country folk in those nations don’t make a big ceremony out of it either. They’ll just stick a field rat on a skewer and pop it over a fire. Next thing you know, roasted rat.

Now please understand that I’m not making light of anyone’s plight. Some people eat what is available and I understand that, and I also know if you get hungry enough because you’ve been without food long enough lots of this stuff might seem seriously tasty. I’m not talking about those situations. I’m talking about stuff people eat when they could have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or something.

For example, someone explain “fugu fish” connoisseurs to me. For those that don’t know, raw fugu (or puffer fish) is considered a delicacy in Japan and commands HUGE sums of money. Just one little problem — if the chef doesn’t prepare the sashmi PERFECTLY, you will become paralyzed, suffocate, and die about thirty minutes after dinner and that’ll really put a crimp in your movie plans, now won’t it? These people are eating something they KNOW will KILL them if just a tiny little bit of the wrong organ is missed in preparation. The aficionados of fugu claim to like the “thrill” of cheating death as well as the pleasant “tingling sensation” even properly prepared fugu creates on the tongue.

Right! I’ll stick with my Long John Silver’s fried shrimp thank you. I can get a tingling sensation on my tongue eating Pop Rocks and drinking Coke.

Ah! Casu marzo! Smooth and piquant, with a nutty, maggoty overtone!

Still, just to show I’m not trying to bash the Orient, people in Sardinia have a local favorite called “casu marzo.” This is a local cheese that is so “good” it’s illegal. Actually, the legality of the cheese has nothing to do with it’s flavor. No, casu marzo is made by leaving strong goat or sheep cheese out for flies to infest with maggots. Yes. You read that correctly. Part of the preparation is to have maggots crawl through the cheese, eating and pooping as they go. Apparently, the maggots “pre-digest” the cheese and give it a unique taste and texture not possible any other way. Don’t worry though. These people aren’t savages. They don’t eat the maggots. In fact, you can’t eat the cheese with the maggots in it because this particular species of “cheese maggot” is impervious to the hydrochloric acid present in our stomachs.

That’s right. Our stomach contents can dissolve steel, but these maggots just swim right through it. Then, all nice and warm in the digestive tract, they can — and have — munch right through the intestinal wall into the body cavity and introducing the contents of our colons (poop) into our abdomens. That, boys and girls, produces a little condition we like to call septicemia or septic shock. Simply put, forget and eat a maggot with your cheese cracker; die a painful, lingering death.

All for a piece of cheese? Really? So who looked at a hunk of cheese someone accidentally left on the table in the garden and now it’s crawling with maggots and thought to himself, “I bet those maggots made that cheese something special. I think I’ll try some!” Now he probably died of septicemia since he didn’t know about the gut-eating-maggots, so that means someone ELSE thought the same thing. He just thought it might be better to knock the maggots off first. Wow.

So yes. Humans are most definitely omnivores. If it grows out of the ground or beneath it, if it crawls, runs, swims, flies, or even just lies there, someone, somewhere will put some ranch dressing on it, munch it up, and wash the whole thing down with a nice Chianti. All I can say is, “ewww.” I think I’ll just stick with ice cream and McNuggets!

Love y’all and keep your feet clean . . . unless you want your toe cheese to become casu marzo!!