Category Archives: From Childhood

Papa and the Braves Redux

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Papa Wham’s Atlanta Braves cap hangs right where he left it, 15 18 over 20 baseball seasons ago.

Today would have been my beloved Papa Wham’s birthday, so I’m re-running this post from a few years ago in his honor.

I take my love of baseball in general and the Atlanta Braves in particular from my Papa Wham. In 1978, Granny surprised Papa with a special present when she signed their house up to be the first “Cablevision Equipped” residence on Weathers Circle. Now Papa could watch the Braves on the new Turner Broadcasting Channel out of Atlanta right from the comfort of his favorite couch instead of having to go sit in the car and listen to the games on the car radio.

From that first season until I was old enough to stay by myself several years later, Papa and I didn’t miss a game through the week and I’d often make Mama take me to Granny and Papa’s on Saturday or Sunday or both so he and I could watch the weekend games together.

If you call yourself a Braves fan, I have one question for you? Who are Chris Chambliss, Glenn Hubbard, Rafael Ramirez, Bob Horner, and Bruce Benedict? If you don’t know those names, you are not a Braves fan, you are a BANDWAGON jumper who attached yourself to Papa’s beloved team AFTER their meteoric rise from worst to first and the subsequent instant classic that was the 1991 World Series. Those names are the starting infielders from the 1981 Braves team that finished a miserable 15 games back of the NL WEST leaders and eventual World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Papa and I watched them all. I lay on the floor next to his couch and listened as Papa told Bobby Cox how to manage a game through the television.

Papa and I claimed we would pay any price for tickets if Atlanta ever went to the World Series. For all the years we watched WTBS, however; the Braves making the post-season, much less the Fall Classic, seemed about as likely as country ham and cheese grits as the breakfast special of a kosher diner. Still, we watched faithfully. Dale Murphy was a bright spot and when he won the MVP in 1982, we two were deliriously happy. I got my license a couple of years later and stayed by myself at night while Mama worked, but come summer, at least twice a week and one weekend day I’d pull in to the driveway and run in just in time to watch some new hotshot throw the first pitch of the game.

I went off to Clemson in the fall of 1990. The Braves were on their way to a fantastic finish a mere 26 games out of first. Papa and I groused about that season all winter. Then came 1991. All summer, I’d cut grass, wash cars, and ride up to Granny and Papa’s to see the Braves play. It LOOKED like they’d finally put an awesome team together, but 15 years of utter futility had taught us not to be optimistic. Still, they kept winning and by the time I went back to school, the woe-begotten Braves were making a run at the NL West pennant.

I can remember this next part just as easily as if it were yesterday. I was standing in front of a big screen TV in The Tiger Town Tavern. It was after midnight; the Braves were playing the Pirates in the National League Championship Series. The winner of THIS ONE GAME, unbelievably, would go to the WORLD FREAKING SERIES. A new kid named John Smoltz pitched a complete game and shut out the vaunted Pirate batting line up — including a young (and much smaller pre-steroid Barry Bonds). The Braves were going to the Series!

I almost got in a fist fight pushing my way to the front of the pay phone line (this was way before everyone had a cell phone) and called Papa. Granny answered the phone and just as I asked her if Papa was up to see the game winning run, I heard him call from the den, “World Series, Shannon; we’re going to the World Series!” Granny just laughed and took him the phone where we replayed every crucial at bat during the entire game.

Unfortunately, Papa took sick later that week. I’d scraped up enough to get us tickets to at least one game, but he was under the weather and Granny said “NO.” So that was that. I ended up watching three of the seven games of the Series against the Twins with him and we were on the phone talking as we watched Gene Larkin break our hearts with the winning hit in that unbelievable game seven.

Papa and I never did get to see the Braves play in any of the World Series of that awesome 15 year run when it seemed the Braves couldn’t be beaten anymore. He was on oxygen by the time little Francisco Cabrera’s pinch hit and Sid Bream’s slide sent us to the 1992 World Series, but I sat with him and together we watched Joe “Touch ‘Em All” Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays beat us. A baseball team from CANADA. The shame was too great to bear.

Papa was gone by the time the Braves made the series again in 1995. He died of a heart attack in Daddy’s arms right after the All-Star break. His beloved Atlanta baseball cap hung on the top peg of the hat rack in the kitchen right where he’d put it the week before . . . the last time he’d worn it before he became bed-ridden. I wanted to bury it with him, but Aunt Cathy couldn’t stand the idea of parting with it, so we didn’t. I’m glad now. It’s still right where he hung it. In two decades, it’s never been moved. Cathy will gently dust it off every now and again, but it’s waiting for him.

I sat alone in tears and watched the Braves beat the Indians in game 6 of the 1995 World Series to win the only World Series they would win during their streak. The next day, I cut the box score out of the local paper, had it laminated, wrapped it in a plastic bag and buried it under the gravel in the corner of Papa’s plot. The Braves haven’t won another series since. I guess all the magic of their greatest fan just petered out once he was gone. I miss him terribly and to this day, fifteen eighteen over twenty years on, I can’t watch a Braves game without thinking of him.

So to all you fathers and grandfathers out there, take in a game and make some time for each other. I love you, Papa; and happy birthday.

And I love y’all!

Keep your feet clean now!

The Last First Episode Is Coming

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Star-Wars-Episode-7-VII-LogoA long time ago at a drive-in theater long since buried under an I-85 interchange, a great adventure took place. It was the summer of 1977 and I sat on the roof of Mama’s 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix hugging a speaker and watching the huge Imperial Star Destroyer Devastator inexorably close in on the tiny, defenseless Tantive IV. Three years later, Daddy and Teresa took me to the now defunct Astro Twin on Pleasantburg Drive where I watched Luke Skywalker battle the evil Darth Vader right before the greatest plot twist surprise in cinema history. Then, as a high school freshman, Robby and I sat in the — once again, defunct — Oaks Theater in Laurens to see Luke reunited with his friends amidst a sea of dancing teddy bears.

Star Wars played a MONUMENTAL role in my childhood and the childhoods of a big chunk of my generation. To give you an idea of just what a cultural touchstone those films are to Gen-Xers everywhere, when I called one of my college roommates to tell him I was marrying a girl born in 1978, the first thought out of his mouth was not “Congratulations” or anything like it. Instead, Chris Hoppe shouted at me, “1978! Good God, Wham! She’s never seen Star Wars at the movie theater!” He was right, of course, so as soon as Budge and I left the theater in the summer of 1997 after watching the re-release of Star Wars: A New Hope, I called him up to let him know my beloved was now bona fide.

Now, if George Lucas had possessed the sense to get a prenuptial agreement with his wife, the Star Wars universe would probably have remained the exclusive unsullied cultural icon for Generation X. Unfortunately, the erstwhile Mrs. Lucas took ol’ George to the cleaners financially leaving him in relatively bad straits — no small feat to nearly bankrupt a man responsible of Luke Skywalker AND Indiana Jones. So, rumors started flying around the newly-burgeoning internet about something none of us Baby Boomer Babies ever dreamed we’d live to see — George Lucas was going to MAKE THE PREQUELS!!

Whatsa pissa poopsa!

Whatsa pissa poopsa!

So it was I sat in Theater 6 of The Hollywood 20 Theater with Budge on May 19, 1999 and watched the familiar opening crawl wind its way up the screen. I was more excited about a movie than I’d ever been or ever would be . . . at least until 2001 when I waited in line for hours to get tickets to Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. I quickly lost myself in the film’s first fifteen minutes; I was a kid again on the roof of that ’73 Grand Prix. Then, out of the murky green depths of one of the many planets in the Star Wars universe, disaster overtook my beloved franchise. Jar-Jar Binks appeared on the screen. Since Jar-Jar hate is widely documented, I’m not going to waste your time adding my opinions, but let’s just say, when it comes to all the negative things said about the bumbling Gungan, “I concur and then some.” I was delighted and crushed when the movie ended — delighted it was finally over and crushed that I’d waited 22 years for such a turd to plop onto my lovely memories.

After Phantom Menace, I realized Lucas was just going for money so I didn’t bother to see Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. I figured it would be a waste of time. In all honesty, I do wish I’d seen RotS on the big screen though, just to see the climactic fight on Mustafar between Obi-Wan and Anakin, but since that’s the only part of the movie I care anything about, I’ve just learned to content myself with YouTube. As a side note, if the prequels hadn’t shown Lucas’ money-making bias, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proved to me he had completely blown up the refrigerator.

The cast . . .

The cast . . .

Well, Lucas sold the beloved space opera franchise to the ONE entity more concerned with money than he is — Disney. Less than a year after the sale, The Mouse has announced Episodes VII, VIII, and IX are in the works with Episode VII to be released next year, probably around Christmas. Today, the official casting announcements came out. The good news is Han, Luke, and Leia are all back aboard although I wonder if Harrison Ford will live long enough to finish all three films. The bad news is JJ Abrams is directing and co-producing Episode VII. So, this movie could be absolutely amazing with incredible visual effects and only slightly less boom and bang than a Michael Bay CGI-fest OR we could end up at the end of Episode IX discovering the entire nine film series actually took place in the imagination of some homeless Earth kid playing with broken action figures someone left lying in the park. To anyone who thinks I’m being silly and overreacting I can only reply with two words: Lost finale.

Hopefully though, the number of original cast members along with the addition of Gollum will pull the final three movies in the Star Wars nonology through. At least John Williams is doing the scores!

Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Papa and the Braves

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Papa Wham’s Atlanta Braves cap hangs right where he left it, 15 18 over 20 baseball seasons ago.

Today would have been my beloved Papa Wham’s birthday, so I’m re-running this post from a few years ago in his honor.

I take my love of baseball in general and the Atlanta Braves in particular from my Papa Wham. In 1978, Granny surprised Papa with a special present when she signed their house up to be the first “Cablevision Equipped” residence on Weathers Circle. Now Papa could watch the Braves on the new Turner Broadcasting Channel out of Atlanta right from the comfort of his favorite couch instead of having to go sit in the car and listen to the games on the car radio.

From that first season until I was old enough to stay by myself several years later, Papa and I didn’t miss a game through the week and I’d often make Mama take me to Granny and Papa’s on Saturday or Sunday or both so he and I could watch the weekend games together.

If you call yourself a Braves fan, I have one question for you? Who are Chris Chambliss, Glenn Hubbard, Rafael Ramirez, Bob Horner, and Bruce Benedict? If you don’t know those names, you are not a Braves fan, you are a BANDWAGON jumper who attached yourself to Papa’s beloved team AFTER their meteoric rise from worst to first and the subsequent instant classic that was the 1991 World Series. Those names are the starting infielders from the 1981 Braves team that finished a miserable 15 games back of the NL WEST leaders and eventual World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Papa and I watched them all. I lay on the floor next to his couch and listened as Papa told Bobby Cox how to manage a game through the television.

Papa and I claimed we would pay any price for tickets if Atlanta ever went to the World Series. For all the years we watched WTBS, however; the Braves making the post-season, much less the Fall Classic, seemed about as likely as country ham and cheese grits as the breakfast special of a kosher diner. Still, we watched faithfully. Dale Murphy was a bright spot and when he won the MVP in 1982, we two were deliriously happy. I got my license a couple of years later and stayed by myself at night while Mama worked, but come summer, at least twice a week and one weekend day I’d pull in to the driveway and run in just in time to watch some new hotshot throw the first pitch of the game.

I went off to Clemson in the fall of 1990. The Braves were on their way to a fantastic finish a mere 26 games out of first. Papa and I groused about that season all winter. Then came 1991. All summer, I’d cut grass, wash cars, and ride up to Granny and Papa’s to see the Braves play. It LOOKED like they’d finally put an awesome team together, but 15 years of utter futility had taught us not to be optimistic. Still, they kept winning and by the time I went back to school, the woe-begotten Braves were making a run at the NL West pennant.

I can remember this next part just as easily as if it were yesterday. I was standing in front of a big screen TV in The Tiger Town Tavern. It was after midnight; the Braves were playing the Pirates in the National League Championship Series. The winner of THIS ONE GAME, unbelievably, would go to the WORLD FREAKING SERIES. A new kid named John Smoltz pitched a complete game and shut out the vaunted Pirate batting line up — including a young (and much smaller pre-steroid Barry Bonds). The Braves were going to the Series!

I almost got in a fist fight pushing my way to the front of the pay phone line (this was way before everyone had a cell phone) and called Papa. Granny answered the phone and just as I asked her if Papa was up to see the game winning run, I heard him call from the den, “World Series, Shannon; we’re going to the World Series!” Granny just laughed and took him the phone where we replayed every crucial at bat during the entire game.

Unfortunately, Papa took sick later that week. I’d scraped up enough to get us tickets to at least one game, but he was under the weather and Granny said “NO.” So that was that. I ended up watching three of the seven games of the Series against the Twins with him and we were on the phone talking as we watched Gene Larkin break our hearts with the winning hit in that unbelievable game seven.

Papa and I never did get to see the Braves play in any of the World Series of that awesome 15 year run when it seemed the Braves couldn’t be beaten anymore. He was on oxygen by the time little Francisco Cabrera’s pinch hit and Sid Bream’s slide sent us to the 1992 World Series, but I sat with him and together we watched Joe “Touch ‘Em All” Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays beat us. A baseball team from CANADA. The shame was too great to bear.

Papa was gone by the time the Braves made the series again in 1995. He died of a heart attack in Daddy’s arms right after the All-Star break. His beloved Atlanta baseball cap hung on the top peg of the hat rack in the kitchen right where he’d put it the week before . . . the last time he’d worn it before he became bed-ridden. I wanted to bury it with him, but Aunt Cathy couldn’t stand the idea of parting with it, so we didn’t. I’m glad now. It’s still right where he hung it. In two decades, it’s never been moved. Cathy will gently dust it off every now and again, but it’s waiting for him.

I sat alone in tears and watched the Braves beat the Indians in game 6 of the 1995 World Series to win the only World Series they would win during their streak. The next day, I cut the box score out of the local paper, had it laminated, wrapped it in a plastic bag and buried it under the gravel in the corner of Papa’s plot. The Braves haven’t won another series since. I guess all the magic of their greatest fan just petered out once he was gone. I miss him terribly and to this day, fifteen eighteen over twenty years on, I can’t watch a Braves game without thinking of him.

So to all you fathers and grandfathers out there, take in a game and make some time for each other. I love you, Papa; and happy birthday.

And I love y’all!

Keep your feet clean now!

Happy Birthday, Beren!

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jrr-tolkienJ.R.R. Tolkien would be 121 — “twelvity-one” in hobbit-speak — today were he still with us in body. I say “in body” because any person moderately interested in the fantasy genre knows full well just how omnipresent Mr. Tolkien is in spirit and influence. I am not, however, of the faction who feel Tolkien created the world of high fantasy. Certainly Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle — to name a few — blazed part of that trail before Bilbo set off on his most unBaggins-like, unhobbitish  journey.

Tolkien, though, picked up their trail and turned it into a superhighway traveled by the “usual suspects” of fairy tales like shape-shifters, dragons, and elves — though Tolkien’s elves wouldn’t have been recognizable to the Grimm brothers, but also by new wayfarers like orcs, wargs, and — of course — hobbits. I can’t say much that isn’t already written in the multitude of volumes in libraries today extolling Tolkien’s works and cutting into the minutiae of Middle Earth. I have nothing in my poor hack writing to add to them. What they cannot do, however, is tell what Tolkien, hobbits, and Middle Earth meant and still mean to me.

I read The Hobbit for the first time thirty years ago when I was a fat, awkward kid in sixth grade. The library at Gray Court – Owings School was a welcome refuge for me since I was nonathletic, unaesthetic, and borderline neurotic. One October afternoon, I had just finished off the last book in the World War II section of non-fiction when Ms. Goodhue, the finest school librarian to ever hold the title, sat me down and asked if I’d ever read any fantasy. I could honestly reply in the negative because I wasn’t really sure what fantasy even was. Without fanfare, she went to the paperback section of the “big kids” side of the library (supposedly for 7 – 8 graders) and brought back The Hobbit. She told me to try the first few chapters and let her know if I liked it.

Much to the chagrin of my 3-6 period teachers AND my grandmother, I read the entire book before bedtime that night, stopping only to take a spelling test and eat supper.

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Just in case you’re wondering who in the world is Beren and why is he in the title of a post about Tolkien.

The next day, Ms. Goodhue took my glowing report of how much I loved the book then reached into her book bag and pulled out HER PERSONAL COPY of The Fellowship of the Ring for me to borrow. I read it — and The Two Towers and The Return of the King — by the end of the week. That Saturday, I went to the now-long-defunct Waldenbooks in the now razed-to-the-ground Greenville Mall and bought a matched set of all four books with my entire piggy bank . . . and a little “advance” from Papa Wham. To this day, they sit in an honored place on my office bookshelf. I’ve read and reread those four books AT LEAST sixteen times cover-to-cover in the intervening years. In fact, that set is so precious to me, it nearly caused my beloved Budge and I to “have words.” The movies were due out and she wanted to read the books beforehand so she asked me if she could read MY set. Having seen how she was prone to treat other paperback books she read — crushing their spines and bending pages — I flat-out told her NO to her (and my) utter shock. In my defense, we’d only been married about four years and I did not possess the wisdom and knowledge a husband of more years would have displayed. I immediately recanted and told her she could, but as every woman reading this knows, I couldn’t have PAID her to TOUCH “those books of mine” so I took her to dinner RIGHT THEN and we bought her very own set — which I have not touched to this day.

That incident is just a taste of how The Lord of the Rings has been a thread through my last three decades. I think the major reason is I discovered the books at a time when I was in profound need of seeing someone small and insignificant use wits . . . and a bit of Tookish luck . . . to overcome tons of negative stuff being hurled at him. Even though it had been five years since my parents’ divorce, I was still unable to process why my mother and father were not together. To top things off, Daddy had remarried and so had Mama and now Mama was realizing exactly what the wise aphorism “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” really meant. In short, I was at a time of overwhelming mental and emotional turmoil. Tolkien gave me a place to go. When I was in Middle Earth, I was aware of the dangers, but they were dangers I could face on equal terms with sword and steel instead of lying helpless before words and people more cruel than any orc. Middle Earth was my refuge at a time when I desperately need one and it has sheltered me from many more woes and foes this world has offered.

So thank you, Professor, for turning the horror of WWI’s trenches into a world where a little boy could escape, if but for a little while and join a heroic quest to a Lonely Mountain because, as writer G.K. Chesterton so eloquently stated, ““Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

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

For Such a Time as This?

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My little buddy’s biography!

The mighty Sea Lions came away with a hard-won victory today in our Upward Soccer match. Our scrappy little bunch played hard even though we were short-handed. Turns out my little home-schooled “right fielder” decided soccer just wasn’t for her so she’s done for the year. {Just a note, if you don’t know what a “right fielder” is when used as a yard stick for an athlete’s skill, you never played t-ball or coach’s pitch; if you must have some other analogy, the proper football one would be a kid who is “end, guard, and tackle.”}

But I digress.

In addition to my little star-gazer, we also missed Tru this morning. His mom sent Coach Thomas an email earlier in the week letting us know they had a family vacation planned and wouldn’t be at the game today, but I still missed him, mostly because of last week. I felt like he and I bonded during our trouncing by the vicious Otters.

To really understand this story, first, you have to know this — Tru HATES soccer. I think he’d rather slide down a jagged envelope and put the resulting paper cut into a vat of vinegar rather than play. All you have to know is his mom had to CARRY him from the car to the field for the first game. He’s done a little better since then, but he still has pretty much zero interest in the game. In our first game, we could barely keep him on the field because he kept wanting to go sit in his mom’s lap. Even when he’s on the field, he’s not crazy about sticking his leg into the cleated, shin-guarded blender that is the scrum for the ball in this level of soccer. Most of the time, he’ll be at the opposite end of the field from the action picking dandelions or looking at the clouds. If you’ve ever read the marvelous children’s book Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf, you have a COMPLETELY accurate picture of my little Tru.

Last week though, he seemed more Ferdinandesque than usual. He seemed downright sad. When it was his turn to sit out a segment, I sat down next to him on the tarp / bench. He was picking at a scab on his knee just as any little boy would, but I could tell something was serious so I leaned in to him and said, “Tru, dude, what’s wrong with you today?”

I guess this is how we looked to everyone else.

Now I was expecting a typical “Tru” answer along the lines of “I hate being out here” or “Can I go sit with my grandparents?” Instead, I got a blurting, sprawling answer that hit me like a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick. Tru said, “I just don’t feel right, Coach Shannon. I feel weird.” Not surprisingly, Tru didn’t know the word he was hunting was “depressed.” How could a little boy know such a huge word?

He continued, “I just moved up here from a place called Lexington. My mommy and daddy aren’t living together anymore and now I’ve got a new daddy and he’s okay, but he’s not my real daddy and all my friends are back there and I want mommy and daddy to get back together and I want my old room back but mommy says that’s never going to happen so I just want to go back to Grammy’s and sit in my room and play with my toys ’cause I don’t want to be around anyone but daddy is going to come get me this afternoon and Mommy seems sad about that.” He never cried. Never broke. Never even whined. Just stated the facts with all the emotion and vocabulary at his 5.5 year old disposal.

But this is pretty much how it felt.

For a long few seconds, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t trust my voice because as I sat on that paint-smeared blue tarp with a gorgeous blue sky overhead and a fresh breeze in my face, I went back. I literally saw the years melt away in some parody of a Hollywood flashback sequence. The decades fell away until it was no longer a 5.5 year old little boy and a 41 year old coach sitting side by side; it was a 5.5 year old little boy and a just barely turned 6 little boy who reached out and put a hand on Tru’s shoulder. The six-year-old was once again watching a spray painted sky blue Chevy pickup truck with two bags of clothes in the bed pulled out of the gravel driveway of a little single-wide trailer as HIS daddy drove away and began the upheaval that would define the next 30+ years of that little boy’s life.

Then just as quickly as it happened, it was over and I was “there” again. I looked at Tru and dared my voice to crack as I talked to him. I said, “Buddy, if anyone on this field right now knows what you mean, I do.”

He looked up at me and he looked so small, “My mommy and daddy split apart when I was just a tiny bit older than you. It was awful and I cried and cried for days.” He looked even sadder, “Tru, it’s never going to be ‘okay’ again. I can’t lie to you and you are way to little to understand what all I wish I could tell you, but I can tell you this . . . your mommy loves you, your daddy STILL loves you and your second daddy loves you as well and that is ALL that matters. Right now you are sad and hurting because the world has fallen apart and no one bothered to ask you what you think about any of it, they just dragged you along ’cause they’re bigger than you.”

At that, Tru looked up at me an nodded knowingly, “But Tru, even though it’ll never be ‘okay’ you will be okay. You’ll get through this. It feels like the end of the world and it’s probably the worst thing you will ever go through for a long, long time, but it will get better. It’ll never make sense until you are too old for it to matter anymore. In fact, it’ll probably NEVER make sense, but IT WILL GET EASIER. Just hang on. Love your mommy and keep loving your daddy. It’ll be okay.”

By that time, the game was over and everyone was shaking hands and giving out “effort stars” so I didn’t get to say much more to the little fellow and to be honest, I’m not sure he’ll come back to soccer anymore — he hates it that badly. Still, for those ten minutes, for the first time and the only time in the last 36 years, all the agony, all the anger, and all the pent-up angst FINALLY seemed to have a purpose. I have no idea why I would have to endure all I’ve endured since Mama and Daddy divorced so long ago. It seems as though any chance at being happy drove away in that sky blue truck.

Hang tough, little bro, hang tough.

BUT, for ten minutes, all that misery allowed me to DIRECTLY connect with a little boy who is just setting out on the path I’ve walked for as long as I have clear memories. It is a lonely path and a dark path and when I started my journey, I didn’t know of anyone walking ahead or behind. Maybe THIS little act; this ten minutes of absolute understanding of another human being. Maybe I went through it all for just such a time. I didn’t have a guide, but at least for Tru I could call back across the years to say, “It’s hard, but you can make it. It’s a sad time, but it’ll get better, kid, you just have to keep walking. Keep on walking.”

For such a time as this.

Sorry for such a long piece. I try to keep them under 1000 words, but I got carried away on this one. Love y’all and keep those feet clean.

Rest In Peace, Mr. DuPree . . . and thank you.

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Seventy years ago today, the Empire of Japan launched a successful sneak attack on the US Naval Station at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Most of us know the bare facts of the attack. Most of us have heard of the USS Arizona and how she blew up at anchor from a well-placed bomb. Slightly over 2,400 servicemen and civilians were killed that day and the moment FDR had waited for — and some say helped orchestrate through intentional inaction — had arrived, America was entering World War II. We were over two years late to the party, but once we got the blood out of our eyes from Pearl Harbor, we made a big entrance.

As a young boy, I sat on a Coca-Cola crate in the back room of the Napa Auto Parts store where Papa Wham was the sole employee and listened as a group of older men lounging around on similar crates played checkers, told fish tales, and exchanged updates about their lives. These were members of America’s “Greatest Generation” who had grown up during the REAL Great Depression and who had marched off to battle in World War II. If I were quiet enough — difficult for me even then — so that the men forgot I was listening, I could get quite an education on some topics.

If, in between customers, Papa came back to the gathering ; however, to hear Mr. John regaling the crowd with a memory of a certain “ladies’ home” he once visited in France right after “The War,” Papa would clear his throat and the men would remember my presence and Mr. John, red-faced, would probably ask me if I would go across the street and get him a Coke and some crackers, which I was always glad to do. I was rather older and Mr. John had already answered the final muster before it occurred to me that I was being kindly “gotten rid of.”  One of the men who frequented those back room gatherings, though he seldom stayed very long, was Mr. Andrew Dupree — universally known, for reasons unknown to me — as “Gump.” To me, he was Mr. Gump, unless Granny Wham were around, in which case, Papa had instructed me to say, “Mr. Dupree.”

The men who gathered in Papa’s back room often reminisced about their service during the war. If the story was deemed mostly harmless, I would be allowed to stay and listen. Most often, however, I would be asked to go on a Coke and crackers run. One time, however, Papa was asked to let me stay for the story and that is why I heard Mr. Dupree’s eyewitness recollection of December 7, 1941.

Gump was a young sailor in the navy stationed at Pearl Harbor the day the Japanese attacked.

Papa Wham had placed his hand on my shoulder as soon as Gump said, “Today’s ‘boom-boom’ day, boys” in his usual low, sad voice, “been a long time now.” The hand on my shoulder was my cue to go to the cash drawer, get a fiver and go to Alverson’s Drug Store for Cokes. This time though, Gump looked at Papa and I remember him saying, “Frank, let Shannon stay if you would. We’re getting old and someone needs to remember this.” I remember Papa nodded slowly then sat down on the crate next to me and whispered in my ear, “Don’t tell your grandmother, okay?” I nodded and turned to hear Gump tell this story.

Please remember I was 8 years old at most and my memory is very good, but not perfect.

It was Sunday, as you all know, and I was on my way to chapel walking along the shore next to Battleship Row. Mother had worried that I would take up a bad lifestyle in the navy and made me promise her to always go to church whenever I could. We had all heard rumors about a possible attack, but that’s all we figured they were. I was just glad to be in Hawaii. None of us figured we’d stay out of the war forever, but we all thought when it got started for us, it’d be over in Europe.

So I had left the barracks about ten minutes before when I heard the first planes. I didn’t even look up because planes were always coming and going from the airfields around the islands. The first explosion knocked me over and that’s when the screaming and yelling started. I rolled over and looked up and saw the meatballs on the planes. The klaxon was sounding general quarters for the entire island. I wasn’t assigned to a ship because I hadn’t been there long enough. A marine sergeant grabbed my arm and pointed towards an AA machine gun. He and I jumped in with a couple other guys and started shooting at anything we could.

I was scared shitless and was looking around everywhere. That’s when I saw some torpedo planes making runs at the battleships. You could see the fish in the water headed towards the ships. Everywhere up and down the harbor crews were trying to get the ships moving and trying to fight back at the same time. Didn’t do much good though. One of the torpedo planes strafed us after he made his run. We all ducked down but one guy took one of those bullets square in the chest. He exploded all over the rest of us. I had blood and pieces on me. Two of the other guys had some cuts from shrapnel. I just froze, but that old sergeant started slapping all of us around — we were a bunch of kids and God only knows how long he’d been in service — and yelling at us to get with it. He pushed the dead guy over to the side and got us all back up manning the gun.

That’s when the entire world seemed to blow up and go silent at the same time. We all flew against the sides of the dugout and it kind of stunned us all, even the sergeant. When I stood up, I saw a big ball of fire where one of the ships had been. I found out later it was the Arizona. I couldn’t hear. I put my hand to my ear and came away with blood. Found out later my eardrums had blown out from the shockwave.

The attack seemed to last forever. Planes were everywhere, bullets were everywhere. I saw several guys get shot down by strafers when they tried to run across the parade grounds. We couldn’t breathe from all the smoke and oil in the air. You couldn’t believe the smell. The smell was ungodly. Burning diesel oil, hot metal, burning skin. The burning skin was the worst. If you’ve ever singed your arm hair, multiply that about a million times.

We stayed hunkered down in that dugout and shot back until we ran out of ammo. Once it was all over, the sergeant told us — we could hear just a little by then — to get back to our units. I got back to the barracks and it was still in one piece. We had muster to see who was still with us and who wasn’t accounted for. We were kinda lucky and kinda not.

Once things started getting better organized, I was sent out with about six other guys in a small motor boat to search the harbor waters for survivors. We found a few, but mostly, we found parts. The whole time we still had that smell hanging over the water. I think didn’t sleep or eat for two days. Just went around trying to put out fires, help find people, stuff like that . . . it was bad, fellas. It was real bad.

Gump’s voice caught a bit and Papa told me to “go get Gump a Coke.” I could hear the story of parts and gore, but Papa would spare Gump the indignity of a child seeing him shed tears. It was okay for the other men to watch, I guess. They had stories too. They understood.

Mr. Dupree served with distinction in the Pacific Theater. I wish I could say his horror at Pearl Harbor was the worst thing to happen in his life, but that would be a lie. Gump’s life was filled with horror and tragedy even after he came home. When Papa and Granny built their home on Weathers Circle, Mr. and Mrs. Dupree lived across the street from them in a small, tidy white house. They had a son, Jack, who was about my daddy’s age, and had just had a baby. One of the neighborhood whispers was that Mrs. Dupree was “nervous” which was code back then for any mental illness from mild depression to schizophrenia.

One night, Papa answered a frantic knock on the door to find Gump standing in his nightclothes covered in blood. He said Gump told him — rather calmly — to please call an ambulance, that his wife had “hurt herself.” As it turned out, his wife had taken a pistol and killed the baby in the crib, shot Jack where he lay in his bed, then shot Gump before putting the gun to her own head. I think she left a note saying she “wanted them all to be together forever” or something like that.

Gump survived; so did Jack. I can’t imagine the psychological scars they both carried. By the time I knew him, Gump lived in a small mobile home in a grove of trees off McCarter Road between Fountain Inn and Greenpond. Jack had moved away by then. I don’t know if Gump had any grandchildren. I just know he loved fishing. He fished every day except Sunday. Rain or cold didn’t stop him. Looking back, I imagine that’s the way he coped with all he had been through.

Mr. Dupree died May 7, 1983. I am certain of the date because it’s also my little brother Nick’s birthdate. Papa and Granny went to the funeral before they came to the hospital.  He dearly loved my mama; it upset him as much as it did Papa and Granny Wham when Mama and Daddy divorced. I know Gump never really got over the war or his wife’s suicide because the last December 7th before he died, he gave Mama a new purse with a letter in it. I’ve never read it, but it begins “Dear Lawana, Today is ‘boom-boom’ day.”

Mama said Gump was explaining some more things. That’s all she said.

Love y’all. Remember those who have fallen.

An Early Religious Misconception

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Nota Bene: The events and discussion in this post refer to my youth when I was younger and more foolish. I have realized that some notions I held as a much younger man were wrong at best and asinine at worst and, like most of my screwups “worst” was pretty much de rigeur.”

It has been long accepted among those who know me that I was born sans the mental “tact” filter normally present between a person’s brain and mouth. While this lack of parts has proven to be of small consequence to my general intelligence, it has been somewhat deleterious to my ability to form or maintain solid interpersonal relationships. I feel this issue to be largely because the majority of people who ask, “How are you?,” don’t really wish to know and those who ask, “What do you think?,” could generally care less. Normal people realize this disparity and speak accordingly.

I do not.

In what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “my younger and more vulnerable years,” this predisposition towards speaking my entire mind on matters in a plain, unvarnished and unrepentant manner was nowhere more apparent than my conversations with friends, family, acquaintances, and even perfect strangers on the subject of religion.

Now as a boy, my catechismical education was split by expedience borne of necessity between my beloved mother, who was a moderate Pentecostal, and my nearly equally beloved Granny Wham, who was a staunchly conservative Southern Baptist for whom the Martha Wham Bible Class at Beulah Baptist Church remains named for to this day. In strictly moral matters, Mama’s Pentecostalism was functionally equivalent to Granny’s Southern Baptistism. Doctrinally and theologically, however, their lessons with me often met at jarring perpendiculars rather than running in smoothly harmonious parallels.

One day, it is possible that I may endeavor to explore the differences between the faiths of Mama and Granny Wham that caused me no end of anguish in my formative years, but that will not be today. At present, though, I would rather concentrate on one of the few facets of their instruction that was practically identical. This rare accord extended to the dubious claim that Catholics had to salvation.

Please try to understand that growing up in Upstate South Carolina in the 1970s and 80s, I was but slightly less likely to have a meaningful conversation with a Martian than speak to a practicing Catholic. This region of the state was settled by several strains of Protestants who rode north centuries ago to escape the Catholic and Episcopalian domination of Charleston and the rest of the Lowcountry. Simply put, Catholics were as rare as screen doors on submarines. Until I went to college, I knew a grand total of ONE Catholic personally. It would be fair to say I knew more about flying a jet airplane than about the workings and doctrines of Holy Mother Church.

What I DID know, having been taught by Granny Wham and Mama, was that Catholics probably were not going to

That chalice does NOT contain Welch's grape juice!

Heaven because they didn’t pray to Jesus, they prayed to the Virgin Mary; they didn’t confess to God but to a priest; their forebears had burned our forebears at the stake; and, obviously most heinously of all, Catholics drank  ACTUAL WINE during what we called The Lord’s Supper but they referred to as Communion. Please understand that this final point had nothing to do with the fine points of Transubstantiation versus Consubstantiation. It was VASTLY more simple. Catholics drank REAL HONEST-TO-GOD ALCOHOL IN CHURCH. In my part of the South, where to be Christian is to be a teetotaler, full blood libel could have been overlooked easier than drinking.

In any event, neither Mama nor Granny would ever state unequivocally that Catholics were damned. Both had room in their theology for the forgiveness of even the most mortal sin of wine-bibbing in the House of God.  Had I confined my religious education to their lessons, I probably would have spared myself a slice of embarrassment. Unfortunately,  I was also influenced by a few radio preachers I listened to on occasion late at night when I couldn’t sleep. These men were my first encounter with Fundamentalism and at that tender and impressionable age, I sopped up their neat, accurate determinations of black and white as if it were the best milk gravy Granny Hughes could make. One point these men agreed upon — if they agreed upon little else — was that Catholics were well and truly and eternally headed for Hell, apparently on the express train. These firebrands would have been quite at home in Henry VIII’s court handing down execution and confiscation orders on the heads of Catholics.

I listened and internalized what I should not have, to my embarrassing harm.

It was sometime around my eleventh summer when I was visiting some member of the family in the hospital with Granny and Papa Wham. My memory is vague on the specifics because of what happened during the visit. This particular day, we were not at the local Hillcrest Hospital nor even at the monolithic Greenville Memorial Hospital. We were downtown at St. Francis Hospital. That would be St. Francis as in St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor. That would be patron saint as in CATHOLIC. St. Francis Hospital was, at that time, run by the Sisters of the Poor. Also, at that time, the Sisters had not abandoned the traditional penguinesque habits I was familiar with.

In any event, we were all crowded into this hospital room waiting to see our ailing relative off to surgery for an ingrown toenail or some other equally life endangering procedure. Suddenly, two of the Sisters of the Poor appeared in the doorway with a gurney to pick up our family member. They asked the occupant of the bed if they might pray for him before they left the room. I remember he gave his assent and it was then that I had one of those unfiltered moments I referred to at the beginning.

I said, “Hold on a minute! You can’t pray for him.” The two sisters turned to me. As I said, I was 11. They were ancient. I supposed they were 30 if they were a day. One of them spoke, “and why not young man?” Recalling both my formal Sunday School lessons at Granny and Mama’s knees AND, more importantly, what I’d heard on the late night airwaves from Brother Jim-Bob’s House of Glory Holy Tabernacle of Fire and Brimstone, I stated bluntly, “Well, aren’t you two nuns?” The spokeswoman nodded her agreement so I continued, “and that means you’re Catholic, right?” Again, affirmation followed and Granny Wham finally guessed what was coming but couldn’t reach me in time. Instead she heard me say with all the righteous confidence of an 11 year old Pauline scholar, “Well, it won’t do you no good to pray; you’ll rub your Catholic damnation off on him because everybody knows ALL CATHOLICS ARE GOING TO SPLIT HELL WIDE OPEN AND ROAST ON THE DEVIL’S PITCHFORK! ”

Gentle readers, I won’t describe the ensuing pandemonium. Suffice it to say that for one of the only times in my life, Granny Wham grabbed my arm in anger and pushed me towards Papa Wham, who incidentally seemed desperate to keep a grin off his face, to have me removed from the room but not before both of the sisters managed to let it be known in no uncertain terms what they thought of my ideas AND upbringing.

The incomparable Mark Twain wrote, “A man who picks a cat up by the tail gains knowledge he could get no other way.”

With that in mind, ladies and gentlemen, the moral of the story is this — should you ever have the opportunity to tell a nun either directly or by implication that she is going to split Hell wide open and roast on the Devil’s pitchfork, take my advice and no matter how tempting it may be,  just let the moment pass!

Love all of y’all, my Catholic brothers and sisters especially!

Keep those feet clean!

 

Epiphany of a Vine Tester

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

I was the vine tester.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the last log I ever “tested”.

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

Food Fight

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This is a pretty long post, but stick with it, thanks!

Yesterday was Budge’s first day on her medically supervised six-week weight loss plan. This isn’t the first time she’s attempted to lose weight, but it is the first time she’s gone to this careful extent. My job is to fix the shakes and provide moral support and encouragement. I plan to eat a bigger lunch and forgo supper to avoid cooking and eating in front of her and hopefully that will make this easier on her. I don’t trust diets like this, but she is under an excellent doctor’s care AND — more importantly — she’s promised me this is for HER not ME or anyone else. She’s my Budge no matter what she weighs and that’s all that matters, but her mama fought the battle of the bulge her entire life before dying at 46 of complications from pancreatitis and a final stroke. With 46 looming large in life’s windshield, Budge told me she didn’t want to go out that way so I told her do what she had to do and I’d have her back.

Needless to say, I’m insanely, stupefyingly proud of her.

With Budge starting this diet, many people are pressuring on me to join her and want to know why I’m so resistant to adopting “the healthy lifestyle.” As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a small man. I am slightly south of six feet tall and slightly north of 350 pounds. I believe the medical term is “morbidly obese.” I prefer the much cuter sounding euphemism of “as big around as I am tall.”

Lately, my glib put-off has been “I’m going for the heart attack before the diabetes has a chance to get me.” That statement is anchored in a grain of truth. The men on Daddy’s side of the family die of massive coronaries. Granny Matt had ten children who lived and that included six sons. Of the six, five died at 78 or slightly before of the aforementioned coronary. Uncle Jack was the lone dissenter, but that’s another story for another time. Daddy had HIS first heart attack about nine or ten years ago. Many of Daddy’s male blood related first cousins have already had one or more heart attacks or have perished from the sudden squeezing of the chest.

On the other side of my family tree lurk diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. More of Mama’s kin than I can count have fallen victim to “The Sugar” and the lucky ones died quickly. The unlucky ones left the world a piece at a time. Many dodged diabetes only to succumb to Alzheimer’s and left the world not knowing themselves or their closest loved ones. I have no intention of going out like that if at all possible. Given the choice between slow piecemeal death and quick heart exploding death, my decision is clear.

As I said, that is my somewhat humorous glib smart-ass answer. The pure and simple truth is, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, not so pure and definitely not simple. Fact is, obesity and I are old and bitter foes and after many bloody engagements fraught with pain, sadness, and disappointment, I have bowed to the stronger will and chosen not to fight my weight anymore.

See the oh-so-pinchable legs?

I was BORN fat. I weighed 10 lbs and 5 ozs the day I came into the world and I was born hungry. The story is I slurped down an 8 oz bottle in two minutes and started crying for more. After 8 more ounces, I was still hungry so the nurse asked Mama what she wanted done and Mama, probably glimpsing the future, told her to go ahead and get me full. I was over 14 lbs by the time I came home from the hospital with rolls of fat on my thighs that my beloved great-Aunt Pearl delighted in lovingly pinching and patting.

I never looked back.

I think I topped 100 pounds by fifth grade. I may be off a year, but I do know that all my clothes came with the “HUSKY” label. I suppose that was the clothier’s way of trying to salvage the self-esteem of  a fat pre-teen. From almost the start, the family was worried about my weight. I was placed on a few diets by Dr. Monroe, our long-time family physician, but they all required keeping track of calories and such. I wasn’t clear on the concept of “serving size” or “portion control” so I figured a bowl of cereal was “one serving” of “180 calories” when a true serving size was 3/4 of a cup of cereal meaning my punch bowl of Cocoa Crisps with whole milk actually contained about SIX servings.

One of the greatest ironies of my saga with obesity lies in how Granny Wham tried to help me lose weight. She was THE most concerned of all my family, Mama included, when it came to my being — in her words — “a little too heavy.” She would constantly admonish me about eating too much at supper or cutting myself too big a slice of pound cake (Granny Wham made the greatest pound cake this side of paradise), but at the same time, SHE was the one asking me if I’d had enough to eat and did I want more chicken or rice with gravy or roast beef or whatever delicious dish she or Papa had prepared that night. It was like living in rehab with a drug pusher!

God bless her precious heart, it was confusing as all get out when I was a child, but looking back, I understand a little better. Granny couldn’t stand to see me fat but she couldn’t stand to see me sad either and not getting enough of that wonderful food would always make me sad so the doting grandmother in her usually won out over the concerned for my health responsible adult and I’d get another piece of pound cake . . . with ice cream on top . . . and Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup . . . and Cool Whip. You get the idea.

All through elementary school and junior high, I just got bigger. Of course I got picked on and bullied because of being

Mama LOVED to dress me in horizontal stripes. Michelin Man anyone?

fat. I was called “fatty,” “lard-butt,” “two-ton,” and — my all time favorite — “The Great White Marshmallow.” I tried to shrug off the barbs as much as I could. I was dealing with other stuff. Unfortunately, one of my earliest and most cherished coping mechanisms was “escapism eating.” I’d get to Granny and Papa’s after a day at school enduring the shark tank of junior high, grab a book and a bag of Oreo cookies and go hide in the yard until supper. That kind of emotional eating did wonders for my waistline.

That’s the way things rocked on pretty much until my first year of high school. I was a nonathletic 225 pound blob when I went out for wrestling to try to get a date with Kim Robertson. The date never materialized, but I fell in love with wrestling, even if I was getting creamed twice a week at heavyweight. Funny thing is, the more I wrestled, the smaller I got. Who knew?

Then, right after wrestling season, I got braces to fix my crazy teeth. Now, I didn’t get the cute little “invisible brackets” glued to my teeth. I got the full monty of railroad track bands all over my mouth. My head, jaws, and mouth hurt so much that I couldn’t eat. I did good if I could sip some Cream of Chicken soup through a straw. I endured that pain for two months and when summer came and my teeth had finally moved enough for the agony to ease up some a funny thing happened. I looked in the mirror and a skinny kid was staring out at me.

Junior year of HS. This was the best it ever got. Skinny AND hair.

For 24 blessed months — a brief, shining moment — I was svelte. I dropped from 225 to 160. I could shop in the regular men’s section for the first time in my life. My inseam was actually longer than my waistline was round. My acne cleared about the same time and another odd thing happened. Without all the lard in the way, girls began to notice my crystal blue eyes and thick strong blond hair. Oh, and the straight white teeth — shout out to what made it all possible! It seemed like overnight I was being favorably compared to guys like Rick Mathews, our class’s resident Adonis, who played football and wrestled the weight class right above me. I was actually kind of a big deal.

Of course it went straight to my head and turned me into the exact kind of insufferable douche I’d always hated. Not to worry though. As Pony Boy is fond of reciting, “Nothing gold can stay.” Senior year came. My foibles and mistakes caught up with me. My head started filling up with thoughts and voices I couldn’t fight back. I was entering the worst depression I’d ever encountered and starting what was to become a desperate lifelong battle with my mind and emotions — but I didn’t know it. I had no idea what the hell was going on.

The final straw came when wrestling season started and the weight classes had changed. The 167 class was gone. I was now in Adonis’ weight class and Adonis was a better wrestler than I had a prayer of being.  When our 154 pounder went down early in the season with a blown out knee, everyone looked at me to cut the 15 pounds, take that spot, and make us an even greater team. I took a shot at it. God knows I tried, but the more water I drank and the harder I exercised, the bigger I got. It seemed I gained instead of losing. So I became a senior riding the bench when I should have been a captain. I gave up the fight.

I went into a headlong spiral and started drinking whenever I could, but mostly, I started eating whatever I wanted to again. It’s not like I had to keep my weight down anymore anyway. I was a three-year letter-man in wrestling. The only year I didn’t letter was my senior year.

But I’m not still bitter or anything. I’m just saying.

In college, I skipped the freshman fifteen and traded it for the freshman 50. I went from a 34 waist as a high school sophomore to a 40 waist as a college sophomore. I’d look in the mirror in disgust and I’d go on the fat wagon for a week. I’d work out every day down in Fike Hall gym. I took up tae-kwan-do. It helped a little, but in the end, the weight always won.

I was to be skinny and handsome one final time in my life. It would come after college and brought about a similar “senior year type” downward spiral with nearly identically disastrous personal results. A sordid, sad tale — for another time.

I’d started gaining back my weight from that episode when I met Budge. She married me fluffy and has stayed with me fat. I can’t thank her enough for that. These days, from time to time, I’ll contemplate hitting the fat wagon again and trying to get healthier. I don’t keep chips and dip or things of that nature in the house — fleeing temptation and all — but I watch too much Paula Deen and cook like her too much as well.

I gave up pill popping, driving fast cars, hanging out with my Five Favorite Uncles, and chasing crazy women. I started taking meds to try to quiet the cacophony in my head. All of that draws heavily from my well of willpower. For Budge and Mama’s sake, I have to concentrate my energy on what’s going to make me the most endurable. Losing weight, no matter how important I know it is, would take reserves I don’t have.

Fairly recent picture with a good view of the booth-busting belly.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like I revel in being fat. I haven’t bought clothes in over two years because I can’t stand the disappointment of the fitting room. I’m reminded of what, to quote from Full Metal Jacket, “a disgusting, flabtastic piece of fatbody filth” I am every time I try to sit in a restaurant booth and have to ask for a table because of my size. It isn’t like this is a high-ho bunch of fun because it ain’t. I just have to pick my battles and this is one I know the outcome of all too well.

Dr. Lopez — my primary care physician — stays on me about losing. He WANTS me to lose down to 200 lbs. I haven’t seen 200 lbs since my junior year of high school. That’s a little over 150 lbs. THAT IS A PERSON! THE MAN WANTS ME TO LOSE A PERSON. He can’t understand how a former wrestler and wrestling coach who knows so much about nutrition and exercise can be so blase’ about dropping the 10% body fat that produces measurable health benefits. Unfortunately, he also doesn’t understand something else — nothing good has ever come of me being skinny.

Sorry for the book length post.   Keep those feet clean, okay?

Love y’all.

Shannon and the Orange Lipstick

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My Apologies to Mr. Johnson and Harold

I have stated on several occasions that I grew up in a ’68 model 15 x 50 single wide trailer with no heat and no central air conditioning. This is not completely accurate. I spent my most memorable and formative years, until I finished college, in the aforementioned dwelling that Mama and I lovingly referred to as “The Little Barn.” Strictly speaking, however, my earliest home was a 1970 model 15 x 50 single wide trailer WITH heat, but still no central air. We lived there from the time I was brought home from the hospital until I was 8. Then we moved into a double wide and then we began what I’ve always referred to as mine and Mama’s “Nomadic Period.”

For today, though, I’m concerned with that first trailer and my early childhood. When I was small (well, small being relative. I’ve always been on the plus size side) I enjoyed three things above all else: eating Purina Puppy Chow Puppy Food, “painting” on the inside of the cabinet doors with Mama’s cosmetics, and climbing. This particular incident involves the latter two pastimes.

I spent hours with Mama’s late ’60s version of a Caboodle laid out in front of me using her eye shadow make up as pastel paints and her rouge brushes as my paint brush. This being the early ’70s, my palette ran to the vibrant blues and pastel browns common on the eyelids of women in those days. Mama wasn’t extremely happy with the way I tended to use up her stuff, but it wasn’t terribly destructive and in my pre-literate days, it was the best way to keep me quiet short of Sesame Street and Mama didn’t like me watching much TV.

One particular color, unfortunately, was always off limits to me and, consequently, NEVER left within my chubby little hand’s reach. I’m speaking of Mama’s orange lipstick. This was one of those colors that ONLY came out in the ’70s (thank God) and has never been seen since (ibid). Now when I say it was orange, I don’t mean burnt orange or Tennessee orange or even my beloved Clemson orange. This was closer to International Hunter’s DayGlo Orange.

It was bright.

I was totally fascinated with the dazzling hue and the smooth oily consistency and Mama, knowing this, kept the verboten lipstick tube in  her pocketbook (“purse” for the yankees in the crowd) into which I was forbidden to reach on pain of my life . . . at least that’s what she told me and, though she’d never raised a hand to me in anger, I wasn’t interested in pressing my youthful luck.

But it sure was bright orange.

So, on the fateful day in question, Mama and I had lain down for a nap in the “cool room” — our name for the master bedroom where the sole window unit A/C was located to help Daddy sleep when he came home from 3rd shift at the glass plant. This day, however, Daddy was working 2nd shift and wouldn’t be home for quite a while.

Under these conditions, something Mama never expected happened. She slept longer than I did. Mama ALWAYS woke up before me.

Not today.

Now I tottered down the hall, closing the bedroom door behind me to conserve the coolness for Mama, and made my way to the kitchen. As God is my witness, my only intention when I got up was to get my glass of Bosco laced milk from the fridge and finish drinking it as I sat at the table thumbing through my Little Golden Book copy of “The Pokey Little Puppy.” That’s how it all started, until I saw Mama’s pocketbook sitting OPEN on the table.

Now I’d like to say I wrestled with my conscience and did the whole angel / devil on the shoulder spiel, but I’d be grossly misrepresenting myself. I was too young for such moral quandaries. I simply looked down the hall to make sure Mama was still in the bedroom before reaching in and snatching out THE ORANGE LIPSTICK TUBE!!

Man, it was ORANGE.

Well, this was way too special an occasion for just painting on a cabinet door. Nope, this required a canvas as close to the Sistine Chapel ceiling as could be found in rural Upstate South Carolina in the early ’70s. I chose to make a mural.

Did I mention the lipstick was orange AND I loved to climb?

Nebulous plan in head and lipstick in hand, I went to the kitchen sink at the farthest end of the house and clambered up onto the counter. Then, I uncapped my ill-gotten booty and, reaching as far as my chubby little legs could push up my chubby little arms, I drew an orange line from the ceiling down the middle of the wall between the two small windows. Then, I ran the line across the sink’s middle divider, across the countertop, and, jumping down, straight down the center of the sink cabinet.

I was so pleased with the beautiful orange line that I decided to extend it, so, dropping to my knees, I crawled backwards across the kitchen linoleum leaving a flourescent trail in my wake. I was careful not to bear down too hard because I wanted the color to last and so far, I was doing quite well.

From the kitchen, my orange lipstick and I extended our line across the dining room linoleum and stopped at the edge of the living room. Had I stopped at that point, things might have been different, but I looked behind me and there lay a vast, virgin floor of genuine 1970s vintage Powder Blue Extra Long Shag Carpet.

I felt the blue could use an accent color, and so the line ran on. I made a nice curlicues in the middle of the floor and, never picking up my color, zigzagged my way to the hall. I was halfway down the hall making lovely swirly orange shapes when I heard the bedroom door open.

Mama isn’t her best when she first wakes up. Never has been.

Now I should point out that neither Mama nor Daddy has ever spanked me despite my needing it more than once. I have my Granny Wham to thank for a lot of that. Today, though, it was Granny Wham’s sister, my Aunt Mary, who was my savior. Aunt Mary lived a football field away from us and kept her doors and windows closed against the heat.

She still heard every word Mama said clearly as a bell in cool mountain air.

She hurried out to the house and found me in the floor at Mama’s feet, orange lipstick in hand, and Mama’s face rapidly turning to match that shade. It didn’t take Aunt Mary long to size up the situation, especially after she noted the bright orange highway running from the kitchen ceiling to where I sat.

She rushed in and scooped me up saying, “Um, Lawana, hon, why don’t I take Shannon out to the house and feed him supper while you work on this? I’ll bring him back when Frankie gets home.” Because of Aunt Mary’s quick action (may God rest her soul) I am still here with you today.

That carpet was Mama’s favorite thing about the entire trailer. She worked for a week trying to leech the orange from the powder blue fibers with no success. A month later, she made Daddy rip the whole thing up and put linoleum throughout the entire house.

Even then, though, Mama knew a day would come when she’d miss that orange stripe so somewhere in one of her keepsake boxes is a hand sized square of Powder Blue Extra Long Shag carpet with a blaze orange stripe right down the middle and from that day to the day I left home, Mama never slept longer than me again.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!