#TBT: Of Starfish

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Once upon a time, I was a teacher and a librarian. That was a long time ago, but back when I was and I started this blog, this post got more views than any other had up to that point and it is still in the top five ten years later.

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things and doing some intense soul searching over the last few weeks since finding out my position has been cut at school and I don’t have a job next year. To be honest, I’ve been seriously considering some field other than education just because the endless politics and prurience keep dragging me down. So I’m publishing this article that I originally wrote for my state association’s newsletter. I’ve been rereading it to try and boost my flagging spirits.  I hope y’all like it.

“Of Starfish”

Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam;
butterscotch clouds, tangerines, side order of ham.
If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you’d understand
Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam. (Music and lyrics by Prince Rogers Nelson)

Most everyone in education has or has read the poster / cup / screensaver about the young boy throwing starfish back into the ocean as the older gentleman watches him and comments on how useless the boy’s efforts are. Many of us, especially after a hard day when the children (and faculty) have tried our patience, are sustained by the hopeful last line of that free verse that says, “It made a difference to that one.”

We all have starfish in our careers. They are our life’s blood and they keep us going; their very existence validating our best efforts and giving us the desire to come back in August even if we left in May or June swearing we’ll “never come back again.” Our starfish, our precious students and even teachers, in whose lives we have made a noted, tangible difference, are the most valuable revitalizing resources we possess.

I got to pondering starfish last Saturday after eating with my wife at one of the nicer Italian restaurants in town. Our regular waiter at that particular eatery happens to be one of my first, and still one of my most beloved, starfish. Jason (not his real name) was a sensitive, broody young man in my honors English class during a particularly bad year for me professionally. He thought deeply of subjects far beyond the purview of many of his classmates. He pondered much more than proms, power, and the popular crowd, of which he was an abject outcast. Jason had problems at home where a burly stepfather insisted he play football even though Jason had precious little athletic aptitude and even less interest. To make his life even more stressful at the time, Jason was also extremely confused about his sexual orientation. For some reason, he chose to confide in me. In all honesty, it wasn’t a subject I liked, was comfortable with, knew much about, or wanted to discuss, but something in me knew that Jason wasn’t going to go to anyone else, at school or out.

So, I listened before school, after classes and at the end of the day as he talked through what he was feeling. I felt terrible because I didn’t think I was being much help other than as a sounding board. Then one day, whether by luck, intuition, or some latent librarian skill, I gave him a copy of a book that had come to me in a box of classroom library donations. The title character was a teenaged boy with an emotionally abusive stepfather and confusion about what sexual orientation he had. It wasn’t a famous book; if someone put a gun to my head and demanded I tell him the title, I’d be shot dead.

Be all that as it may, the book seemed to be a key for Jason. He took solace that someone, even a fictional someone, had similar thoughts to his own. I don’t know why, but whatever the reason, he seemed to regain a little more life and a bit of zest. I remained his unofficial father confessor through his senior year and he stopped by quite often during his first year of junior college. We lost touch for about two years until he walked up in his spiffy waiter’s uniform and apron to be our waiter one night about two years ago. Between the breadbaskets and the ice cream desserts, he told Budge and me that he’d dropped out of college, gone back, dropped out again, started waiting tables in good restaurants and got certification as a physical therapy masseur. He now has a wonderful live-in girlfriend, whom I have met, so apparently, as I’ve kidded him, he has a handle on his orientation. We see each other about once a month, either at the restaurant or at a bookstore or ice creamery. He mentions those bad times every now and then, but no matter how many times he says it, I still get shivers and Budge says my face lights up when Jason says, “Coach, you listened when no one else did . . . I appreciated it so much.”

Jason was my first memorable starfish, but I’m glad to say, not my last. I hardly have space to talk about the wonderful parade of miscreants and misfits, talkative and taciturn, popular and pauper who have made my career as a teacher and now as a librarian incredibly interesting and unbelievably fulfilling, like the five boys who demanded I sign their diplomas because they felt I was the only reason they got them or the young lady and her beau who asked that I perform their wedding after graduation. Then I had the two tough middle school football players who say I’m the only one who could ever get them to read a book, the list could easily go on. They are all my starfish.

I suppose my reasons for focusing so much on starfish have a lot to do with one particular young student I knew well once upon a time. He was very overweight and had pasty white-pink skin. His middle school playground nickname was “The Great White Marshmallow.” Overly smart for his age, non-athletic to the extreme, bookish, he was simply not a success in the shark tank of middle school. I can see him now in sixth grade huddled in the back of the small library poring over a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, hoping earnestly that the large eighth grade jocks wouldn’t come inhere after him.

The young man’s best ally was the school’s librarian. She was the picture of kindness to him, even lending him her personal first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring because the school’s library didn’t have one. Looking back, he can understand how incredibly busy she was at the time and he knows now that she was going through tough times of her own, but she always took as much time he needed to talk about elves and dwarves and hobbits.

Because of the love of books and learning she imparted to one lonely starfish, that starfish had the desire to go on to college, then to library school and become a librarian himself. The librarian is now at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory as a psychometrician on the venerated faculty of Harvard University, but the boy starfish is now a middle school librarian and he’s never forgotten what it felt like to be burning up on life’s beach only to have a caring set of hands take him back to the cool ocean.

In closing, my esteemed colleagues, remember your starfish. Some of them may drive you crazy while some may make you smile and laugh, but either way, remember you never know the difference you make in someone’s, some starfish’s, life.

Love y’all and don’t forget to wash your feet.

A Decade of Grocery Store Feet

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10 yearsToday marks ten years since the first post I made on this blog. It’s easy to remember the day because my first post was about Labor Day and how it’s vital to teachers. I talked about teachers in many of my posts back then. Then, the blog name was “Books, Bytes, and Grocery Store Feet” because it was aimed at my colleagues — other school librarians. I had no way of knowing at the time, but 2008 would be my last year in education. Actually, it would be the last time I was in anything. After a lifetime fighting my mind, my mind finally won so I’ve spent the last ten years on the sidelines.

Still, ten years is a long time for me to have done ANYTHING! This blog constitutes the second longest thing I’ve ever managed. Dana and I have been married 22 years. That’s the only thing I’ve done continuously for longer than I’ve written this blog. It’s longer than any other romantic relationship I’ve had by a long shot and longer than any single job I’ve ever held so I guess I have room to be thankful for this little blog anyway.

I looked up some statistics about “Granny Beads and Grocery Store Feet” that WordPress provides and I’m a little amazed by some of them. I have over 2300 followers, which is strange because I’ve never had 2300 views on a single post so apparently not everyone is keeping up to date. This blog has been viewed and read in 190 countries and territories across the world. Presently, the UN recognizes 194 sovereign countries so I’ve made a tiny ripple in a good chunk of them and since I’ll never travel to a foreign land, it makes me happy to know my ideas have at least crossed oceans.

I’ve managed to post at least one item per month for each of the last 120 months. I’m proud of that streak. It means I’ve been able to stay on top of something, even if it’s something small and inconsequential. I’ve also been featured on Freshly Pressed three times which, considering the sheer number of blogs on the WordPress platform isn’t something I take lightly. It’s one of my happier accomplishments.

I’ll be honest though, more than once I’ve thought of shutting Granny Beads and Grocery Store Feet down. One of the main reasons is I don’t get a lot of views on what I think are good or important topics. I’ve only gone over 1000 views a handful of times. The latest post that went over 1K was my tribute to my Uncle Larry. I’m happy people liked that post, but it makes me a little sad that someone had to die for me to write something a thousand people would want to read. I wish some of my other posts had managed that level of popularity.

For now though, I’ll keep writing. I’d love to have some of my readers suggest something they would like to read about and if I can be articulate on the subject, maybe I can get a post written about it. Anyway, it’s been an interesting ten years to say the least.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

A Matter of Priorities

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Two scandals have blackened the eye of college football this summer. In the first, as many as thirteen University of North Carolina football players were caught selling limited edition shoes gifted to them by Nike and the school. For the egregious violation of NCAA rules and basically trying to make a little bit of money — since they don’t get PAID for putting their bodies on the line for UNC — these thirteen young men received punishments ranging from one to four game suspensions. They’ll have to sit on the sidelines for up to four games for selling their personal property.

The second scandal involved Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer III. A full explanation of the case involving Meyer is beyond the scope of my posting but here are the salient details. Basically, a guy named Zach Smith coached wide receivers for Ohio State. He also has a record of domestic violence towards his wife. After one episode, his wife told Meyer’s wife about the abuse and offered pictures. The upshot is Smith ended up fired from Ohio State and the question came up “what did Coach Meyer know and when did he know it?” He claimed he knew nothing about Smith’s past. An investigation by Ohio State took two weeks during which Meyer was suspended without pay. The investigation found something rotten in the state of Ohio and determined Meyer should be punished. For ignoring a man on his staff beating his wife, Meyer will be suspended for the first three games of this football season.

Let’s review. Young men in their late teens and early twenties who are football players sold their OWN stuff to a third party and some of them will be suspended FOUR games as punishment. A head football coach in his middle fifties ignored an assistant coach’s history of domestic violence and lied about it and he will be suspended THREE games as punishment.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but THREE is LESS than FOUR, I think. Math was never my best subject, but I’m pretty sure of this one. I’m also pretty sure criminal domestic violence is a more serious offense than selling one’s own property through legal channels.

In the parlance of this latest generation — WTF?

Sell your shoes and get suspended four games; ignore a man beating his wife and get suspended three games.

I’m gobsmacked by the complete failure of the system in this case, and lately, it takes A LOT to even mildly surprise me. My questions are why are the boys even being investigated and why isn’t Urban Meyer being fired as head coach?

In the name of full disclosure, let me just go on record as admitting I pretty much hate football. I went to a high school where football players were treated as demigods then I went to a college where they dropped the “demi” and just treated them like gods. It’s always turned my stomach. I don’t hate the players; I hate the game, just like the man said to do. Football players and coaches are just taking what life gives them; it’s the schools and the fans that are crazy.

Ohio State has a slogan painted on the wall of its practice facility for football. It says:

HONESTY

TREAT WOMEN WITH RESPECT

NO DRUGS NO STEALING NO WEAPONS

Is domestic violence treating women with respect? If you are the head coach of a multimillion dollar a year football team do you not have a responsibility to know what’s going on with your players AND YOUR COACHES? What good does it do to paint a slogan on the wall if, by your actions, you demean everything it stands for?

Let’s review, again. If you risk permanent physical or mental damage for your school twelve times in a year for three or four years, BUT someone else can take your place on the depth chart, you get a FOUR game suspension for selling your own shoes. On the other hand, if you get paid $38 MILLION to help your school bring in nearly $1 BILLION in sports revenue AND you’re considered the second or third greatest college football coach in the game, you can ignore your responsibility and LIE about it and you will only get suspended THREE games.

Something is broken in our country when our priorities are so distorted.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

PS: for much better explanations of what is going on at both schools, I’ve got three really good articles I’d suggest you read, if you can stand it. They explain things in much better detail.

Shoe Deals and Double Standards at North Carolina

Urban Meyer stays as Ohio State football coach, but he is diminished after investigation

Why Didn’t Ohio State Fire Urban Meyer?

#TBT: Verbal Brutality: Still Life in Words

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Friend of mine has started restoring his high school ride. It’s a ’68 GTO. I started thinking about this post from November 21, 2011.

You ever get something on your mind and you cannot move on to something else because you can’t concentrate with THAT thought rolling around in your head? You know, kind of like getting “It’s a Small World After All” stuck in your head on an endless loop? I’ve run into such a syndrome this fine Monday morning.

I was balancing out the checkbook from the weekend, pretty much the way I do every Monday, and I uncovered a couple of bills had slid or slipped or — knowing me — been placed under a stack of other papers. One was the water bill and of course it was overdue so I went online and paid it immediately since Budge doesn’t ask for much, but running water IS one of her requirements.

Anyway, after settling up those couple of bills and scheduling out the taxes (which were ALSO resting comfortably under the aforementioned pile) I realized we had about a third of the money I’d hoped we’d have for Christmas. Now, please understand, that’s nothing unusual. Since I got fired, money is always tight around here.

It was just a little disheartening to get socked this early on a Monday morning AFTER my awesome new-to-me laptop decided to lose it’s mind (and LCD screen) AND after spilling a heaping cup of Domino’s Extra Fine Granulated Sugar all over the counter and floor as I was making tea. I just wasn’t in the mood to be reminded of this particular incident, but . . . what’re you gonna do? Thanks to a story I saw on the internet, it was rolling around in my head and I’m hoping telling this story publicly will help exorcise this foul mental demon. After all, I need the room up there.

So without further fanfare, I want to tell about the most brutal, most condescending, most intentionally hurtful thing ANYONE has ever said to me. Names have been changed to show how even with BPD, Dysthymic Disorder, anger management problems, and all my other issues I’m just telling a story; I’m not out for revenge or trying to hurt anyone.

My Papa John had a 1965 Pontiac GTO he was insanely proud of. He loved that car. When I was small, he would put me on his lap and let me steer it down the highway. The GTO died when I was in middle school, but instead of getting rid of it, Papa took it down to our little white church and put it up on jack stands (not blocks) and threw a nice cover over it. Our plan was for me to “fix it up” and drive it once I got to high school and got my own job. Apparently, at some point, the antagonist of this story — a filthy rich Pontiac aficionado, found out about the GTO and offered to buy it from Papa John. Now, folks, Israel will give up the West Bank of Jordan and leave Jerusalem before my Papa John would have sold the GTO. So he said, “No thank you.” Undeterred, the guy would make papa the same offer several times over the years.

Then in my senior year of high school, Papa John had his first major debilitating stroke. It wasn’t his first stroke, but it was the first one to take him out of action for an extended period of time. Papa John gave me the title to the GTO and said, in his newly slurred speech, to go ahead with our plans and as soon as he got well, we’d work on the car together.

Unfortunately, I found out restoring cars is a rich man’s hobby. Even repairing the GTO enough to return it to the road proved to be beyond my means with my high school jobs. By then, I’d had it towed from the church to a friend of mine’s house who had a full on shop where I planned to do the work. Fortunately, the GTO wasn’t eating anything, didn’t cost much in taxes, and was more or less safe from the elements. I figured circumstances would change eventually and I could complete the restoration.

Once the Pontiac guy found out about Papa’s stroke, he started turning up the heat on ME to sell him the car. Please bear in mind I had all the same issues back then I do now, BUT I didn’t know anything was wrong with me, I just thought I was a raging asshole with a hair trigger temper. So I said, “No.” When he kept asking, I upped my response to “Hell no.”

Then, one night after I’d had a pretty disastrous day, the phone rang. This was in the pre-caller id days or I’d never have answered it. It was, of course, the Pontiac guy. We started going through the usual preliminary small talk expected of Southern men even if they DO hate each other but this time, he had a different tactic. He went straight for the guts. He said, “Shannon, I’ll tell you, I’ve been trying to buy that piece of $#@! GTO from your grandfather and now you for too long and I’m just going to be straight with you, John’s never going to drive again and you’ll never get that car running on what you make at a grocery store– you need to sell me that car tonight if for no other reason than

(here it comes)

(the ugliest thing anyone’s ever said to me even to this day)

I know you are dirt poor and could desperately use the money.”

I didn’t have anything to say. The saddest part was how right he was. At that particular moment, all the fight went out of me. With tears in my eyes, but not my voice (pride is a dangerous thing) I told him I’d leave the title and the key with Bobby (the guy who owned the shop where I had the car) after school the next day and he could pick them and the car up and drop off a check whenever. What he gave for our beloved GTO wouldn’t buy a set of tires today.

Now here is one of my life’s greatest ironies, I went to high school with the Pontiac guy’s son. Later on, I would be roommates in college with his son and dude became one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I could always count on him and still can.

I never mentioned the conversation with his father to my buddy. He knew where the car came from but not the circumstances. He also knew I loved old cars so he’d update me on his dad’s latest restoration projects. To this day, thirty years later, the GTO sits in a warehouse in Laurens County, protected from the elements, but still far from my planned glorious outcome for it. I doubt it’ll ever see the road again.

I don’t think St. Peter allows driving where Papa’s gone to now. It’s most likely hard to get tire marks off golden pavement, so I doubt Papa could care less.

As for me, whenever I see a 1965 GTO on the road, on TV or in a magazine, to this day, I taste bile and — more than that — dirt in my mouth for hours afterwards.

Love y’all, keep those feet clean, and be careful what you say to each other.

Great War Wednesday: The Hundred Days

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hundred daysAugust 1918 proved a turning point in the Great War, in this case, the final turning point. The German Spring Offensive had begun with a roar in early May, but by July had managed to peter out with a whimper. It had managed to prove the war could become mobile again, but the cost was the cream of the German Imperial Army. At this point, the Entente forces realized the time was ripe for a decisive counter attack while Germany was at her weakest and most overextended. Thus began what we now call The Hundred Days or, so a not to confuse it with the “original” Hundred Days of Napoleon Bonaparte, The Hundred Days Offensive or sometimes The Advance to Victory.

Germany’s greatest fear materialized in the middle of 1918. Even though the war was down to only the Western Front, Russia having capitulated, that one front was now loaded with men and most of them were not wearing German uniforms. The Americans had arrived in force with more arriving every day. The presence of so many new men, especially so many new men seemingly suicidally rash, invigorated the Entente forces. Even though General Pershing insisted on American troops remaining in American units instead of spreading out to replace other countries’ troops, the Americans turned the tide. Once the British and French realized the doughboys were not going to break up, they happily placed American units in the line and pretty much let them go at it pell mell. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

The Entente also acquired numerous troops from the Middle Eastern and Italian Fronts. Those sectors had been largely abandoned as everyone realized for good or ill this war would be decided where it had begun, on the Western Front.

The usual starting point of the Hundred Days is fixed at the Battle of Amiens. For the first time, and eerily foreshadowing future events, five hundred tanks accompanied the infantry into this battle. They managed to blow a hole in the depleted German front and the tanks poured through the gap much as the cavalry of old and attacked the rear lines. The first day saw the Entente troops gain back twelve miles of territory and, more importantly, for the first time in the war, German morale shattered and the proud Imperial Army showed its back as it began what would become the final retreat.

By mid-August, Germany had lost the entirety of the gains it had made during Operation Michel and was in a fighting retreat. British General Haig took two weeks to consolidate his position and launched the Second Battle of the Somme on 21 August 1918. Unlike the massive casualties suffered in 1916, the British had great success against what was becoming rapidly growing numbers of raw German recruits and lesser reserves. Now the painful losses of the Spring Offensive began to tell against the Germans as the new troops forced into the line were in no way capable of replacing the quality of first line troops lost in the doomed attacks. By the time the Entente troops stopped to regroup in late August, the entire German front line had collapsed. Nothing remained between the Entente and a final victory except the massive Hindenburg Line. Here, Germany would make its final stand.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

 

Requiem for My Uncle

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Uncle Larry at 60

Larry R. Dickson, my uncle. December 22, 1951 — August 12, 2018. Rest In Peace.

I lost one of my favorite people Sunday. My Uncle Larry — my only uncle — drowned in a boat accident on his favorite lake. He’d spent the night on the lake, and Aunt Cathy spoke to him around 10:30 pm. That was the last we heard of him. His boat drifted into a cove with Dabo, the golden retriever, standing in the bow confused. A person who lived in the cove called the local police and a search began with all the bells and whistles: helicopters, boats, sonar, the works. A fisherman found his body about 7:30 yesterday morning. Cause of death was freshwater drowning.

All of us will miss him. He was one of those people who was capable of filling up a room whenever he entered one. He loved everyone. I don’t remember ever seeing him not smiling. He was always full of mischief. I told his oldest son, my cousin Zach, I didn’t believe Uncle Larry was dead until he told me he’d seen his body. We both held out hope he would show up looking bedraggled and contrite having pulled some foolish stunt to worry everyone even though he meant no harm. This time though, it wasn’t one of Uncle Larry’s pranks; he was really gone.

Sunday was Uncle Larry and Aunt Cathy’s fortieth wedding anniversary as well. As a tow-haired eight-year-old I had been the ringbearer in their wedding where I refused to walk down the aisle right before the wedding started because I learned the rings on my little satin pillow were fake. By that point, Uncle Larry had already been a part of my life for years.

I have many memories of Uncle Larry — entirely too many to list them all, but three stand out in my mind particularly strongly. One was when I was a preteen and he and one of his friends took me to Commerce, GA to the Thunder National Drag Races. Uncle Larry was a car fanatic. He was never quite as happy as when he was behind the wheel of a fast car like one of the Corvettes he drove. We went to the races in his little Dodge Omni and the day was cold and overcast; I almost froze and we went to Wendy’s on the way home. Uncle Larry let me walk around the cars and grounds to my heart’s content. I wasn’t used to such freedom. Whenever I went anywhere with an adult, I was usually chained by a stern look to her side, but then, Uncle Larry never exactly passed for an adult.

Uncle Larry also taught me to drive, which is a good thing because if I’d had to wait on Mama to teach me I’d still be riding a bicycle. The first car I ever drove on my own was his and Cathy’s 1978 Chevy Camaro which was special ordered with a more powerful engine. I remember being fourteen years old (not a legal driving age in South Carolina, by the way) driving down I-385 doing about 80 mph (not a legal speed in South Carolina, by the way), because it wasn’t a car to be driven slowly. We passed a highway patrolman in the other lane and I panicked. I asked Uncle Larry what I was supposed to do if the trooper flipped around and came after us. He smiled and said, “Take the next exit, turn right, and floor it. He can’t catch us!” Much of my driving attitude as a teenager can be chalked up to my driving instructor.

The last memory I have of Uncle Larry is also one of the earliest. It showed me more than anything what it was I loved about the man. I was six years old and we were eating dinner at Granny and Papa Wham’s house to celebrate Aunt Cathy’s birthday. Dinner was over and I was playing with my Hot Wheels in the floor near the old, nonworking stereo. Voices started raising. It was the time my parents’ marriage was disintegrating. All the adults were either yelling or crying and I just tried to concentrate on my little cars — making them go in circles.

Suddenly, two big arms scooped me up and I was on Uncle Larry’s shoulder going out the back door. He said we were going to get ice cream. I know I beamed because I loved ice cream as much then as I do now. We got in his car — this Corvette was blue — and he sat me on his lap in the driver’s seat. He let me “drive” all the way to The Community Snack Bar where he got us both a big Styrofoam cup of soft serve vanilla with Hershey’s syrup on top. We ate slowly and he let me “drive” back to Granny and Papa’s house. It was quiet when we got back. I realized once I was old enough to process it how Uncle Larry had wanted to shield me from all the anger in the house and he did it the only way he knew how, with a car and ice cream.

Now he’s gone and it is a tremendous loss.

Don’t misunderstand me, Uncle Larry was great and I loved him dearly, but he had his flaws and his demons as we all do. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t dwell on any of them here. As it is, they don’t really matter anymore. All that matters is he was beyond a doubt one of the people I loved most on this rock and he’s also one of those people I never really imagined ever not being around, until he was gone.

I will miss him and mourn his loss for a long, long time.

Love y’all, and keep those feet clean.

#TBT: On Rest Areas

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I originally ran this post back on November 10, 2010. I hope it’s held up well.

One of my good friends currently lives downstate from me a ways and I ride down to check on her every so often. One Friday in the spring, I asked Budge if we had anything planned for the next day; she told me no, so I got up early, went down to see my bud, found her doing well, and headed on back to the house.

Footage from my last endoscopy.

I had just left the main interstate for the spur leading towards home when the problems started. From well within my innards came The Burble. The Burble is the early warning sign meaning, in this case, last night’s spicy Italian meatballs had reached the end of their sojourn in the Wilderness and were ready to cross the river into the Promised Land.

Over time, I have learned The Burble is ignored at my peril. My body is being polite to me, but he doesn’t repeat himself often. The Burble is the reason I carry a roll of shop quality paper towels in my Element at all times. Even though I was a Boy Scout for only a scant three months, their motto — “Be Prepared” — left a deep and abiding impression upon me.

In fact, a one-way conversation with The Burble on an overnight trip to Camp Old Indian led to my enlistment in the Scouts being so preternaturally short. No one told me until we arrived said camp lacked indoor plumbing. All manner of numbers 1 and 2 would be addressed in the cozy confines of the various privies and outhouses scattered throughout the grounds. I was forced, at The Burble’s insistence, to venture — flashlight in hand — to one of these shanties where I encountered a dearth of bathroom tissue and a plethora of sable-hued eight-legged denizens with bright crimson bellies. As soon as the bus wheels stopped rolling in front of Gray Court Town Hall the next morning, I turned in my uniform.

But I digress.

By some degrees of trial and error, I have discerned The Burble gives about a ten minute or ten-mile heads up. As I had already passed the last exit with nice restaurants, gas stations, and — consequently — clean facilities, I was forced against my will upon the mercy of the SC Department of Transportation. Briefly, I had to resort to a Rest Area.

Any port in a storm, eh?

I don’t like rest areas. First of all, I’ve seen too many episodes of Criminal Minds and spent too much time watching true crime stories on the Investigation Discovery Channel. Pulling off the highway at a rest stop to me, especially as I was alone at the time, seemed an engraved invitation to become the next lead story on the Channel Four WYFF News at 6. I could already hear Mike Cogsdill reading the tagline, “A fat man was found strangled, butchered, and partially eaten in an upstate rest area this afternoon — a serial killer or rabid polar bear [too much Lost] is suspected in the brutal slaying.”

Unfortunately, serial killer and wild animals or not, The Burble would not be denied or gainsaid so off the road I eased.

As luck would have it, this particular outpost of indoor facilities was remarkably clean and block glass walls and windows let in copious amounts of cheerful noonday sunshine. My optimism was short-lived, however, as soon as I made the turn into the restroom stall area and discovered waiting for me the SECOND reason I despise rest areas — a gleaming row of four “standard sized” stainless steel restroom stalls with a single “special needs” stall on the end.

For the record, so-called standard sized stalls were designed before the standard sized human bottom had expanded to its present dimensions. All over the news and internet is the cry Americans are becoming more and more overweight and larger . . . public rest room designers apparently didn’t get the memo.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am in no way laying claim to a standard sized sitter downer. In point of fact, I cannot boast of a single standard sized body part of any real consequence. As I have reiterated in this blog before, I am NOT a small man. I was born 10 pounds and 5 ounces back in the day when such super-sized offspring were vastly rarer than they are today.

It’s safe to say I haven’t shrunk in the intervening years.

So, I began the onerous task of choosing a stall. Stall 4 was disgusting. Some people don’t know what a flush handle is. Stall 3 had a water leak seeping from the back of the toilet and soaking the floor. Stall 1 was out of T.P. Process of elimination pointed to Stall 2. So, I shoehorned my double-wide rear end and equally broad shoulders into the stainless coffin, placed my cell phone within reach on the floor, and, forcibly cock-eyed on the seat by the idiotic placement of the T.P. dispenser, proceeded with, to quote Bachman-Turner Overdrive, “Taking care of business.”

Now those who know me are well-versed in my hatred of cell phones. To me they are invasions of my privacy and solitude and a general nuisance and if it were not for possible emergencies involving my family, I would throw mine into the nearest body of water. However, I always carry one into public restrooms with me to guard against the very real possibility of my becoming hopelessly lodged in the stall . At least with a phone near to hand, I can call *HP and order up some help. Wouldn’t you love to hear such a call go out on the radio? “Car 54, we have an obese man trapped in a rest room stall in the rest area at mile marker 13, please meet the EMTs there to begin extraction with the Jaws of Life.” Sure, I’d be the laughing-stock of the aforementioned 6 O’Clock News, but at least I wouldn’t have to wait there until I starved down enough to stand on my own and walk out.

But again, I digress.

Samuel L. Jackson Toilet Paper: It’s rough and it’s tough and it don’t take any crap off anybody.

So “my business” being a fait accompli after spending the better part of a half-hour wrestling with the roll of Samuel L. Jackson T.P.,  my posterior was adequately serviced, and I found I, in fact, wasn’t stuck this time and managed to rise, adjust my clothing, and leave the stall to wash my hands, return to my car, and go on my merry way having killed two birds with one stone to wit, taking my daily constitutional AND getting in my cardio for the day. It was an unusually simple affair all the way around.

Now, some of the more astute of you will no doubt ask me why I didn’t just avail myself of the much larger “special needs” stall and save myself time, trouble, and stress. The answer lies in my fatalistic viewpoint. I know with absolute certainty the moment I ever succumb to the spacious temptation of the “special needs” stall in all its roomy glory, a bus carrying the entire U.S. Army Paralympics Team will pull into the rest area and I will emerge from the SINGLE stall available to these heroes standing on my two wholly undamaged legs to face a group of our nation’s finest seated in stoic silence in their wheelchairs. NO THANK YOU! I have enough bad karma in my life without that little scene playing out.

Love ya’ll! Restock the T.P. and keep those feet clean!

#TBT: Manny and the Possum

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My! What big teeth you have!

I originally published this July 5, 2010.

Manny (that’s what we’re calling him) and I attended the same church for several years and one Sunday between Sunday School and preaching service, he asked me about replacing a door in an oven. Now that was a bit of an unusual request and he could tell I thought as much once he saw the look on my face. Before I could ask why he needed to replace ONLY the door, he added, “All I really need is the glass.”

Apparently, Manny had engaged in some sort of mayhem and when I pointed this out, he turned beet red and spilled the beans.

The previous Friday night, in the wee hours of the morning sometime after dark o’clock, Manny’s new lovely wife Vicky (not her Christian name either) shook him from a sound sleep with news of an intruder of some stripe currently invading their home. Wide awake now, Manny lay still listening and, from the kitchen of the double-wide, came the sound of someone knocking over items.

Manny is not an especially brave man and he’s not an especially big man, but his wife was looking at him with big doe eyes that begged him for protection and, it WAS his house so, after a bit of deliberation, Manny reached under the bed where he kept his Ruger Single-Six .22 pistol. He cringed a bit when he remembered it only had the Long Rifle cylinder installed instead of the much more powerful .22 Magnum cylinder. He felt a bit cold as he realized he was going to be facing down a crazed and hardened, albeit toothless meth-head with little more than a pop gun. Still, he WAS the man of the house and this was one of those times he could shine in his new wife’s eyes.

He eased down the hall with his 6 D-cell Maglite in one had and his Ruger cocked and ready in his other. He could feel sweat sliding down his back and puddling atop the waistband of the ridiculous silk boxers Vicky had given him on their honeymoon. Entering the great room, he cursed the open floor plan he had insisted on buying, and dropping to his stomach, did a reasonable imitation of a commando crawl around the perimeter of the room until he reached the entrance to the kitchen. Then, adrenaline coursing through his veins; his heart pounding in his ears and throat, he leapt to his feet and brought the pistol up and switched the Maglite on, aiming both at the spot it sounded like the noise was coming from. At the same time, he bellowed out in his best NYPD Blues voice, “Freeze, you scumbag!!” He later told me “scumbag” hadn’t been his exact word, but he was relating this story in front of two deacons when he told it to me. Anyway, the tremendous beam of the Maglite struck the intruder squarely in the face and lit up two alien green glowing eyes.

It was a possum. A really, really big possum. It had apparently entered through Max’s doggie door, knocked over the trash can, and now was sitting on the kitchen table eating potato chips and leftover crusts from Little Caesar’s pizza.

Folks, at this time I need to bring two things to your attention. One, contrary to everything you’ve ever been told about North America’s only marsupial, “playing dead” is NOT the possum’s first line of defense. Her first line of defense is to suck in poop-tons of air to puff her body up nearly twice its normal size before letting out an unearthly sound of hissing while simultaneously baring some pretty impressive teeth. Two, she often waits to put on her defiant show of force, preferring to see what YOU are going to do first. Well, Manny’s first reaction was panic. He didn’t grow up in the country and pretty much thought possums were born dead in the middle of the road. Still, it WAS his house so he took a step forward and gave a strangled squeak intended as an intimidating war cry designed to send the toothsome creature scurrying back out the doggie door.

Apparently, the possum felt this was a threatening posture and so she did the suck-in-the-air deal with the open mouthed hiss, and she added a little twist of her own — she leapt off the table in Manny’s general direction.  Fearing for his life at the onslaught of this ravenous possum, Manny swung the Ruger up to shoot but in his panicked state, his fire discipline left something to be desired, so his shot flew low . . . into the oven door glass which responded as glass in oven doors usually does when shot and exploded into millions of pea-sized balls of tempered glass.

The possum, being no great fool, took the moment to ease on out the doggie door and disappear into the gloom, leaving Manny, silk boxers now wet on the back AND the front, to sweep up the glass of the shattered oven door while figuring a way to explain the preceding proceedings to Vicky.

Take care, y’all.

Love you and remember to keep those feet clean. 🙂

Time Capsule or Pandora’s Box?

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Mama's LetterI grew up on 18.6 acres of land in rural Gray Court, SC. The story of the land and how it ended up like it did and further on how I ended up owning 6.2 acres outright would be a whole ‘nother long, long post. For now, all you really need to know is a buddy of mine is renovating the old farmhouse on the land I own and when he gets it finished, I’m going to sell it to him.

So here’s the deal. My maternal grandmother lived in the old farmhouse as caretaker for my paternal great-uncle. Believe me, it’s complicated beyond belief so I’m just hitting the high points. Ima took care of Uncle Carrol for a number of years and even continued living in the house for a few years after he moved to a nursing home. Over the course of those intervening years, Mama used some of the closets out there to store some boxes. The boxes were forgotten to history for thirty years.

Here begins our tale.

My buddy found these forgotten boxes with my name on them as he was working on converting a bedroom to a bathroom and was in the closet doing some plumbing. He told me about the boxes and I told him to bring them by the house when he got a chance and I’d go through them. He brought them and I went through them.

Here’s where our tale gets interesting, well, at least for me.

Dana was out for the evening with friends when Carlos stopped by with this load of past for me. We brought the boxes into my office, sat them in the floor, and proceeded to get all Indiana Jones on them. I was half a layer into the first box when I realized I should have told Carlos to take them by the dump and save me the slap in the face from the memories wafting out of those boxes along with the rancid smell of mouse pee and poop.

The four boxes spanned my entire pre-postsecondary academic career from the tin can pencil holder I made Mama in kindergarten to some papers from my first year of college. A lot of items came out of those boxes heavy with memories, memories in more than one case I didn’t want.

Mama kept every certificate of achievement I ever got from K-12. She kept every newspaper clipping from the Laurens Advertiser with me in it somewhere. They were all still here, right beside pounds of notes and cards from two ex-girlfriends I did wrong. My plaque for being on my junior high school’s championship academic team rested beneath the jumping fish trophy I received from my wrestling teammates after my freshman year. I was the “flopping fish” of the year and the trophy reminded me of a dismal 0-16 record.

One box had a box within it containing loads of memorabilia from Camp Broadstone, the summer camp where I spent two weeks each during my seventh and eighth grade summers. It was full of letters from friends made those four glorious weeks when I was happier than I’d ever been before and than I’ve ever been since. We made crude “yearbooks” and signed them with our undying friendship pledged over and over. Each letter, each rustic “craft” was a dagger in my soul because we didn’t keep up with each other and now those four weeks are getting hazy over thirty-five years later. Tears came to my eyes as I handed the entire box to Carlos and asked him to dump them outside in the trash.

I threw away nearly everything I came across. Ribbons from high school football games. Awards for the best essay in the county on water conservation. In some instances the mice had saved me by destroying things I didn’t want to deal with. I wasn’t ready for this kind of nostalgia. These boxes contained proof I once had a bright future with the chance to be and do whatever I could put my mind to.

They were from before the anxiety attacks. Before the crippling depression. Before I lost one career doing what I thought was right and another because I couldn’t get over losing the first. Before I started down this dark, dismal road.

It hurt to remember. I would have broken down in sobs, but Carlos was with me and I’m still a man with a man’s pride and its accompanying refusal to show weakness in front of another man. So I forged on through the boxes; I beat on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Little from the boxes remained. Carlos filled up the big black rolling trashcan outside with memories I could barely tolerate.

Now only one small box remains and I’m going to have Budge go through it ruthlessly and throw away as much as she can of the things my heart couldn’t bear to let go. She is nowhere near as sentimental as me so she can purge the house of these past haunted relics.

You would think the night could get no worse than meticulously poking around in the scar tissue of my soul. Surely this is as low as it could get? Sadly, you would be wrong.

I hadn’t opened the fourth box.

The fourth box was more Mama’s box than mine. I should have tossed the box then and there and let a dead dog decompose in peace, but I was already in what we southerners call “a state” as it was so I was in no position to stop this plane from full throttling into yon craggy mountain of memory.

I wish I’d been stronger.

You must understand something vitally important to know. Mama married at 16. She had me at 18. She was single again by 25. Also, and this is crucial, Mama was not a plain, homely woman. The fourth box contained proof of that. Years worth of Valentine’s cards and love notes lay in a neat pile. I recognized some of the names; some I didn’t. Two in particular caused me to almost vomit because of the anguish they had put Mama through. I spat on one’s grinning face and shattered the frame of the other. They both had the good sense to die before I ever crossed paths with either of them so my true vengeance was spoilt, but dead they are and no torment is too much for them.

I have an image of Mama that has withstood all life has thrown at it. Her pedestal is not so high as it once was because I know things now I didn’t know then, but I was not so big a fool as to read what other men thought about my mother. I can take a lot, but too much is too much. I gathered up all the cards and letters and gave them to Carlos and into the big black trashcan they went. I still remember Mama as my mama, not as a woman and I don’t think my heart will ever bear to change that.

Now again, you’d think the night was over and it was time to lick my wounds, take a Xanax, and try to recover, but the night still had one trick left to play and it lay in the bottom of the box.

Right at the bottom of the box — the godforsaken box — was another, smaller box. This box, when opened, proved to be full of letters as well, but these were different. They were all in red, white, and blue envelopes. Some were crisp and clean even after fifty years. Some were stained with mud — the mud from the hills of Vietnam. Lying in front of me was a treasure beyond measure. I picked the package up and held in my hand every letter Daddy wrote Mama during his military service. Fifty years on and she had kept them all.

Everything else of Mama’s from the boxes is gone, but the letters sit in a pile on my desk. I don’t know what to do with them. Here is proof positive that once upon a time Daddy actually did love Mama. The pile has a few cards scattered through it too. I’ve read a Father’s Day card I don’t remember signing. Someone got Mama a Mother’s Day card from me as well. It’s all here. The brief moment when my parents had a chance to be together forever . . . before the dark times when love proved to not be enough.

So I have these letters. They are my birthright. They are indelibly connected to my past, but the question is, do I read them? Do I want to see what I would see? On the one hand, maybe I would finally catch a glimpse of young man Mama loved, and loved until the day she died, all others be damned. The young man who never came home the same. The young man Mama told me stories about, but who I never had a chance to meet. Do I want to meet him? Would I even recognize him?

On the other hand, the young man belongs to Mama, just as he did for too brief a time all those decades ago. Should I intrude on their privacy? I barely have any memories of the two of them together and the ones I do are not always pleasant. Would these change years of pain and animosity between Daddy and me? Do I want to know? Can my heart take the answers I might find?

I don’t know what to do.

Love y’all and keep your feet clean.

#TBT: They Aren’t Loaded; They Just Smell Bad

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My Engine looked like this.I ran this post back in summer 2011. Then, Budge and I got pulled over recently and the way the traffic stop went reminded me of this particular event. Hope you like it.

Lately, I have taken to perusing the classified ads gathered on Craigslist.com. Yesterday, I found the car of my dreams could be mine for $25K or the best offer. The car was a 1969 Chevelle SS 396, and it was hauntingly similar to Marilyn, the ’69 Chevelle SS 396 Daddy bought for me after I wrecked my beloved ’79 Mustang.

Like the car in Craigslist, Marilyn had a Chevy big block 396 cubic inch engine under the hood bolted to a racing transmission. I loved that car. I miss that car every day. I sold her to help pay for my last semester of college and to take care of some debts I owed. If I had it to go over with again — knowing what I know now — I’d have kept the car, bad credit be damned, and dropped out of college. By now, the car would be worth more than my degree is anyway and I’m pretty sure I’d be a lot happier with the car than I’ve been with the degree.

Marilyn looked just like this only with white SS stripes on the hood and trunk lid and a white interior.

Looking at that Chevelle in the classifieds, then looking at the weatherman promising a week of sweltering days ahead led me back in my mind to the summer when I was 17 and had just gotten Marilyn on the road with her newly rebuilt, highly tuned engine.

Back then, gas was hovering around $1.25 for the premium her engine required, which was good because Marilyn would pass anything on the road but a gas station. I used to joke with my buddies how she got 60 mpg, until I dropped the engine and transmission in, then the mileage went down to about 7 mpg . . . downhill . . . with a tailwind . . . and no passengers.

She was NOT an economy car. Of course, I knew that when I built her, but I couldn’t have cared less. Why should I? I was a teenage boy with a decent job and no bills, a pretty girlfriend, and what at the time looked like a great life full of promise ahead of me. In short, life was good and the days were long; it was summertime in South Carolina.

The particular day I remember was exceptionally hot. We’re talking “two hobbits climbing Mount Doom” HOT, and unlike the complete restoration I found in Craigslist, Marilyn didn’t have one nice luxury — AIR CONDITIONING. Now, she had the vent system, controls, and spot on the firewall where an A/C unit had been when she left Detroit, but in the 20 years between that day and the one in question, the unit had disappeared. I had every intention of replacing the climate control right up until I found out doing so would cost $2000 — in 1987 dollars. On my $3 per hour stocking job at Community Cash, the likelihood of me getting such a head of lettuce together was somewhere between slim and none, and slim had saddled up and left town.

Since I didn’t have the factory A/C, I made use of an aftermarket system called the 2WD70MPH model. That was short for “2 windows down going 70 miles per hour.” As long as Marilyn was moving she stayed cool. You did NOT want to be stuck in traffic though. In addition to the scorching ambient heat, it is amazing how much heat a pair of aluminum headers on a 396 cubic inch Chevy big-block generate as they pass right under your feet. My car was HOT in more ways than one.

Due to this lack of climate control, it was my custom in those days to drive shirtless and shoeless. At the time, I could still take my shirt off without getting complaints from the International Space Station about the glare, or some crazy man with a peg leg and a harpoon trying to stab me while shouting “Thar she blows!” I actually had a waist. Like I said, it was 1987.

Now, here’s an important tidbit of information — in the state of South Carolina, it is illegal to drive barefooted. Did you know that? Guess what? Neither did I, and thereupon hangs the rest of this story.

I was on my way to Gray Court from Laurens running about 85 mph up Highway 14 with my AC/DC “Back In Black” CASSETTE TAPE (!!!! remember those anybody? !!!) cranked to 11 when I passed the old fruit market in Barksdale. Did you know that stretch of road happens to be a 55 mph speed limit zone? Guess what? NEITHER DID I! However, the nice man in the grey car with the blue lights who pulled out behind me would enlighten me once all the soon ensuing excitement died down.

So, to set the scene, Smokey Bear was behind me and the road was too straight and the day too bright for me to out run him. I was caught dead to rights. Reluctantly, I pulled over, cut Marilyn off, and waited. Trooper Douglas walked up beside my the car and said, in the same half-bored, half-irritated tone I’d heard quite a few times before, “Son, get your license and registration and step out of the car.” Remember how I said I drove barefooted? Now imagine how hot the asphalt on the highway had to be. No way I was “stepping out of the car” barefooted. I needed to get my pair of blue canvas Nikes (!!!! remember those anybody? !!!) and put them on.

Guess where they were? Under the seat.

But there was just one of him. Of course, he was PLENTY.

Gentle friends, a word of advice — should need ever arise for you to retrieve something, ANYTHING, from under the seat of a hot rod in the middle of July with a large and somewhat aggravated member of law enforcement standing beside your open window . . . tell the man (or woman) what you need and what you are about to do before you move. No one ever gave me such sage advice, so I didn’t say anything; I just nodded, quickly reached down between my legs, and stuck my right hand under the seat almost to the elbow.

At that point, the day got a lot more interesting.

For reasons I now understand perfectly, but had no concept of then, Trooper Douglas took exception to me reaching under the seat for some unknown, unseen object and  being a man of action, reached through the open window, seized me under the left armpit and with ONE ARM snatched me bodily through the open window, flipped me — shirtless and spreadeagled — across Marilyn‘s hood, drew and thumb-cocked his .357 magnum service revolver (1987, no Glocks), then placed said revolver’s muzzle right against my left temple with his hand still pressing me firmly into the sheet metal of the hood.

As a matter of fact, that hole DID look this big or maybe a mite bigger.

Time stopped.

Somewhere off in the distance a mourning dove cooed out his sad song. A lone dog barked. I heard a radio across the meadow playing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”. My nose was filled with the smell of chest and thigh flesh roasting on the superheated sheet-metal of my car hood. I remember thinking two things quite clearly and quickly. First, I thought,”Well, Mama, wearing clean underwear whenever I went out presupposes the underwear would still be clean once they examine my body.” In this case, it most certainly wasn’t. Second, I thought, “This is gonna hurt bad, but at least it ain’t gonna hurt long.”

After an eternity, Trooper Douglas spoke and his voice rolled down like Moses commanding the Red Sea to part for the Children of Israel, “Son, just what in the hell (pronounced in the stereotypical Southern lawman two syllable way “hay-yill”) do you think you are reaching for?”

Somehow or another, a primitive part of my brain realized my survival depended on the careful wording of my answer so I said, somewhere between a sob and a whimper, “Um, shoes, sir; my canvas Nikes, Sir. They are under my seat and I promise they aren’t loaded; they just smell real bad.”

Love y’all. Stay cool, keep your feet clean, and drive with your shoes on in South Carolina.