When I was growing up in Warner Robins, Ga, we didn’t have a lot in the way of public art. I can’t think of any statues, no fountains (except the one inside Houston Mall). There was no cathedral with #gargoyle sentinels peering down on the people below. What we did have, however, at the base of the water tower, was a bank of boxwood bushes planted and pruned to spell out EDIMGIAFAD. That’s the initialism for the city motto, “Every Day In Middle Georgia Is Air Force Appreciation Day.”
When I was in fifth grade, the Houston County Board of Education rejiggered the school districts, which brought a lot of students from Centerville Elementary over to Miller Elementary. As you can imagine, that had unintended consequences within the well-established social order at Miller. For one thing, Centervillian Pat Chastain completely upended the hierarchy of which tennis shoes were cooler than which. He informed everybody that Pony shoes were cooler than either Nike shoes or Reebok shoes, which was helpful to know, but it would have been helpful to know before we had done our school shopping. Pat, I probably don’t have to tell you, wore Pony shoes.
One happy consequence of this redistricting was that my old friend Lynwood, whom I had only ever seen on Sundays at church, was now a classmate. He was a big golden retriever of a boy, always happy, always enthusiastic, always glad to find himself in whatever situation he found himself in. So on the first day of school, I was very happy to have him on the row right next to me.
At lunch the veteran Millerites groaned to see that we were having hamburgers. Everybody hated the hamburgers at the school cafeteria. But Lynwood was in heaven. These burgers were so much better than the burgers at Centerville Elementary! These were amazing! You don’t want your burger?! Can I have yours then?!
We all gladly gave Lynwood our hamburgers. He ate five that I saw. He ate them with relish. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. His enjoyment, in fact, made me wonder if I had made a mistake in giving him my hamburger.
We trundled back to our classroom and sat at our desks. As I mentioned last #inktober, Miller Elementary wasn’t air-conditioned. And it was August. In Middle Georgia. Which is to say, it was hot. I looked over at Lynwood, and he wasn’t looking so good. “I think I ate too many hamburgers,” he said. And the sentence wasn’t out of his mouth before he leaned over (in my direction) and vomited a great splashing column of hamburger vomit onto the floor. Fifth-graders scurried, but I didn’t #scurry fast enough. Lynwood vomited all over my shoes, which, thanks to Pat Chastain, were the wrong kind anyway.
I first experienced organized sports as a member of the Americans, a tee-ball team competing in the Warner Robins Rec Center league. The other teams were mostly named after Major League teams—the Cardinals, the Tigers, the Orioles etc. That made no sense to me, naming a team after another team. I loved the fact that we had our own, original name: The Americans. I was proud to be an American, even before Lee Greenwood made it fashionable.
I was highly patriotic, even at age 6. This would have been the summer of 1976, our nation’s Bicentennial. So every time I came up to the plate, I swung my #bat for George Washington or John Adams or Betsy Ross.
I swung my bat, but only rarely did I hit the ball. I lacked the coordination even to hit a baseball that was sitting on a tee. My poor parents cringed in the stands as I struck out time and again. The (American) spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.
Of all the terrors of the sea, none was more terrifying to my younger self than the giant clam, the world’s largest mollusk. These enormous #scallop -like bivalves can be up to four feet across and weigh up to 400 pounds.
No giant clam has ever swallowed a deep-sea diver, but, as you can see from the attached drawing, it easily could. I first saw a giant clam in the “Guinness Book of World Records” or “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” or the “That’s Incredible” tv show, or possibly a rerun of “Flipper.” I knew right then that I would never be a deep-sea diver (unless the Navy SEALS begged and begged).
Giant clams are one of those dangers that don’t get nearly the respect they once did. In the same category are quicksand, killer bees, piranhas, and the Bermuda Triangle. I LOVED being afraid of the Bermuda Triangle. And piranhas…I did my own research. Let’s just say if you’re afraid of piranhas you do NOT want to look at a world map. The Amazon River dumps out into the Atlantic ocean, which gives piranhas a straight shot to the Altamaha River, then to the Ocmulgee River, and ultimately to Warner Robins. And that doesn’t even take into account the possibility of some idiot flushing a mating pair of piranhas down the toilet, or a Russian agent introducing piranhas into our freshwater streams. When one considers the scenarios, the blood freezes.
But somehow I escaped all those dangers. And here I am, and here are you, who have come through many toils and snares of your own. Let us rejoice and be glad.
It was a late fall day, just cool enough to justify a fire in the fireplace. My dad usually did the honors at the fireplace, but he was over at the neighbors’ house, so when the fire got low I took it upon myself to get more firewood. I picked out three sizable logs from the woodpile—as much firewood as I could carry. Except that these weren’t, properly speaking, fire logs. They were chunks of fat lighter. Do you know about fat lighter, also called lightwood or fat wood or lighter knot? It comes from the stumps of pine trees and is absolutely saturated with rosin and turpentine. It is highly, highly flammable. Lightwood splinters are perfect for getting a fire started: with one touch of one match, even wet lightwood burns, and quickly.
My dad hadn’t gotten around to splitting these chunks into splinters. So to the undiscerning eye, they looked like misshapen pieces of firewood. Reader, my eye was undiscerning.
I threw the first two chunks on the fire. I never threw in the third chunk: before I could get to it, the whole fireplace had become a wall of #flame, roaring like a blast furnace. Remember the time Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego got thrown in the fiery furnace? “Therefore because the king’s commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flames of the fire slew those men that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.” It was like that.
I stood transfixed, waves of heat hitting me in gusts. My mama sprung into action. She gathered up all the family photo albums and threw them in the yard so they wouldn’t be consumed in the conflagration that seemed inevitable. My sister Melanie snatched up our dachshund and carried her out the front door. My sister April and I started filling pots and pans of water and flinging them on the fire. Once the family photos and the dog were safely out the door, Melanie and Mama joined April and me in our seemingly futile attempts to douse the fire. The pans of water just disappeared into steam as they got close to the leaping flames.
The heat and noise and chaos were like something from Dante’s Inferno. The dachshund, meanwhile, was slamming against the door and howling, angry that she had been shut out of the excitement.
I mentioned that my father was over at the neighbors’ house. He glanced over at our house and saw flames leaping out of the TOP of our chimney. He ran over and burst through the back door and into the room where we were fighting the fire. The dachshund was right behind him. She had a great time cavorting between everybody’s legs and barking and generally adding to the pandemonium.
I guess we finally poured enough water on the fire to douse it. In any case, the fire burned itself out before it burned down the house.
When I was tiny—three years old? four?—my father took me to visit a friend named Sid, who lived way out in the country, beside a railroad track. Sid’s hot, sandy patch abounded with prickly pear, a low-growing variety of cactus. It must have been early summer, because the prickly pear were in full bloom, covered in beautiful red and yellow flowers. I thought my mother would enjoy a #bouquet of prickly pear flowers, so I picked a few and put them in my pockets. The big spines on a prickly pear aren’t so terribly hard to avoid. But there are finer prickles that aren’t so obvious; those are the ones that really get you. They can dislodge and cause significant irritation. Especially if you’ve put them in your pants..
My first #trip to New Orleans—or, indeed, anywhere more distant than Daytona, Florida—was in January of 1978. The Treasures of King Tut traveling exhibit made a stop at the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. We were big fans of King Tut in our house, so we made the trek.
When we got to City Park, the line to enter the museum was agonizingly long. It snaked around the park, underneath the live oaks with their dangling moss, down a pea-gravel path and around a lake. We literally stood in line for seven or eight hours that day. Also, it was miserably cold. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t get very cold in Louisiana. Well it was cold that day, I assure you; I checked an historical weather site for the first week of January 1978, and the lows were below freezing, highs in the 40s. And we were out in it all day long.
I had seen parts of Doctor Zhivago, so I had some idea of what that kind of cold could do to the human body. But you can’t really understand it until you’ve experienced it. When it started to sleet, I decided the easiest thing might be just to lie down there on the pea gravel and die of exposure. They could carry my cold-stiffened little body straight to the French Quarter for a jazz funeral. I envisioned the trumpets and trombones puffing out frosty white clouds, the lady marchers’ parasols fringed with icicles rather than tassels. Later, people tried to explain to me that Louisiana was not the coldest place in the world. They spoke to me of Minnesota, of Siberia, of Cincinnati, Ohio. I don’t think any of those people had been to New Orleans in January.
The day was darkening by the time they let us in the museum—or possibly hypothermia was drawing a shroud of darkness over my eyes. In any case, I rallied enough to marvel at King Tut’s treasures, and, more to the point, to marvel at central heat. My sisters, both teenagers, were so put out by the line and the cold that they refused to marvel at anything. In an impressive performance of teenage surliness, they fast-walked through to the exit, looking neither to the left nor the right, and waited by the coat-check until the rest of us were finished.
When I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt, I played a lot of darts with my roommates. Occasionally we played at The Villager Tavern, a dark, sticky and loud bar near Vanderbilt with a wall of dartboards in the back and a somewhat raucous clientele in the front (in the early 90s, anyway…it might be perfectly respectable now.)
One night our friend Phil swelled the ranks for a dart #match at the Villager. He was wearing a bowtie and seersucker pants—not an outfit calculated to blend in at the Villager. I don’t mean to suggest that any of the rest of us literature grad students were going to be mistaken for regulars, but at least we weren’t wearing bowties.
The music coming from the jukebox was a short rotation of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, and Marshall Tucker. To me it seemed to match the atmospherics just fine, but that wasn’t Phil’s jam. Between dart rounds, he pushed through the crowd to the jukebox in the corner.
Phil came back, and we started a new round of darts. Halfway through the round, the soothing tones of a Dan Fogelberg song came over the speakers.
“Longer than there’ve been fish out in the ocean…”
Phil hits the triple 20.
“Longer than any bird ever flew…”
Phil hits the double 20.
“Longer than there’ve been stars up in the heavens, I’ve been in love with you.”
Phil hits the bullseye*
The change in atmosphere was palpable. A few of the regulars cocked their heads, but they soon returned to the conversations, no doubt warmed by Dan Fogelberg’s declaration that “We’ll fly through the falls and summers with love on our wings.”
By the time the last notes of Dan Fogelberg’s falsetto faded away, Phil had posted a big lead. Then ANOTHER Dan Fogelberg song came on, sweeter than the first. It’s a tribute to Dan Fogelberg’s dad. “Your blood flows through my instrument,” Dan Fogelberg crooned, which creeped me out but it seemed to be strong tonic for Phil. He was wiping the floor with us. I noticed some grumbling among the clientele of the Villager.
When a THIRD consecutive Dan Fogelberg song came on, the regulars started looking around for somebody to blame. They guy with the bowtie and seersucker pants—and his friends—seemed obvious candidates. We gathered up our belongings, paid our tab, and sidled out the door as Dan Fogelberg began yet again: ”Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean…”
*The part about Phil’s dart game improving with the change in music is completely made up. I just couldn’t resist the idea of a person who transforms into a dart-throwing ace when he hears Dan Fogelberg. The real story, I think, was that Phil just liked Dan Fogelberg. I apologize for misleading you. The rest of this story is true to my memory.
One spring a few years ago, a pair of doves built a #nest in a tree right outside a window of my parents’ house. My parents were able to watch as the birds built their nest, as the mother dove sat on her two eggs, as the two babies hatched, as the parent birds fed the babies, as the babies grew, as the first one flew away. The second one, the one my parents called Junior, didn’t fly away. He stayed in the nest and grew and grew. The parents kept feeding Junior, and before long he was as big as they were. No amount of nudging by his parents could convince Junior to fly. So finally the parent doves started disassembling the nest around him, one twig at a time. My parents watched as, day by day, Junior’s cozy nest grew smaller and smaller and smaller, until one day fat little Junior was sitting on a single twig. Soon thereafter, he flew away.
In third grade I had a truly horrible teacher I’ll call Mrs. C.. On the best days she was #crabby, and many days she was cruel. If I told you her real name, you would think I was making it up to sound like a witch’s name. Now that i think about it, maybe SHE made it up, it seemed so perfectly calculated to terrify third-graders.
Here’s a story Mrs. C often told: She had a chihuahua named Cherry Pie. One day she was baking an actual cherry pie. Her son came in and said, “Something smells delicious. What are you cooking?”
“Cherry pie,” Mrs. C answered.
Her little boy burst into tears.
I’ll admit, this story has a certain amount of entertainment value. Kids often asked her to recount it, because it represented the only levity she ever brought into the classroom. But if this is the ONLY funny story you know, perhaps you should rethink your life choices. Also, I never thought it reflected well on Mrs. C that her son jumped straight to the conclusion that she was cooking the family pet.
Mrs. C had a classroom management program that was based on check marks. If you laughed or talked or cut up in class, you’d get a check by your name on the board. For every check, you had to stay in for recess. I think you could work off two or three checks by staying in at PE. The problem with the system was that there was a finite number of checks you could work off in a day, but there was no upward limit to the checks you could earn in a day. I sat next to William Lacey that year. William inspired exuberance. Before Halloween we had accumulated more checks than we could work off in a year. At that point, the check-mark system became counterproductive. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, as the old song goes.
One last story about Mrs. C. This one isn’t funny. A boy named Claude* went into the girls’ bathroom, and somebody told Mrs. C. I don’t mean he was peeking at girls in the bathroom; he went into an empty bathroom. The next day, Mrs. C said, “Claude was in the girls’ bathroom yesterday. I guess Claude wants to be a girl.” Then in came Claude, in a girl’s dress and bonnet that Mrs. C had brought from home. To my memory, this was the only time Mrs. C went to any extra trouble for a student. Claude paraded around the room in the dress and bonnet, with a look of humiliation that I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget.
*not his real name
The Warner Robins High School Demons had a bitter cross-town football rival in the Northside High School #Eagles. The Warner Robins football coach claimed that the only blue thing in his house was the toilet paper. (Northside’s jerseys were blue.) I don’t know where one even gets blue toilet paper, but why would the football coach lie about such a thing?
On the week of the big game there were often shenanigans: farm animals released in the other school’s hallways, letters on changeable business signs rearranged to spell out vulgarities about the school on the other side of town, that kind of thing.
One rivalry week, a message was painted on the water tower: “NHS Seniors Rule” or, possibly,”NHS Seniors Rock” or “NHS Seniors Are Rad.” It was signed “Chuck M.”
The crack detectives from the WRPD went over to Northside High School and asked if they had any seniors named Chuck M. They did.
Yep, Chuck M said, he was the graffiti artist in question.
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t that just like a Northside student, to sign graffiti with his own name? That’s what I thought at first too. But it wasn’t stupidity or criminal incompetence that made Cbuck M sign his work. I think he just didn’t have it in him to be underhanded, even though he had it in him to be mischievous.* When the authorities confronted him, he didn’t try to weasel out of anything, and whatever community service the judge gave him, he did it cheerfully.
In short, Chuck M handled the whole thing more admirably and with more nobility of spirit than I would have thought possible in a Northside student.
In these divided times, every week feels like rivalry week. It feels good to believe the pep-rally rhetoric, that the other team is beneath our contempt. The coach had his reasons for telling us that he wiped his bum with blue toilet paper and that the Northside Eagles probably didn’t love their mothers; those reasons did not include the earnest pursuit of truth.
Whatever team you’re on, I hope you’ll try to remember that the other team has more Chuck M’s than you think. They may disagree with you. They may do things you don’t approve of. But that doesn’t make them contemptible.
*For you kids at home, don’t take any of this as an endorsement of graffiti or vandalism. Stay in school. Don’t do drugs.
In 1983, the summer after eighth grade, I went to see Return of the Jedi at the movie theater with a girl. No doubt you’re thinking I was some kind of junior-high Romeo. Not so. My friend Ben, who WAS something of a junior-high Romeo, was going to the movies with two girls, and he recruited me to complete the foursome.
Through a series of events that I couldn’t begin to reconstruct, this girl and I started holding hands. I felt some ambivalence. On the one hand, holding hands with a girl at the movies was very much a bucket-list item for me. On the other hand, I felt a lot like the dog who caught the car. Once you start holding hands, what do you do next? What if your hand gets sweaty? What if hers does? Is this person now my girlfriend? Does that mean I have to call her on the telephone? If so, what will we talk about? Does this girl even want to be holding hands with me, or is she trying not to hurt my feelings?
This rapid-fire inner monologue continued uninterrupted until the movie was over. The credits started to roll, and I realized that I had no idea what had happened in the movie. There were ewoks, I knew, and they had managed somehow to trip up an imperial walker. And a stormtrooper crashed his space motorcycle into a tree. But other than that, the story was a blank, so consumed I had been in my own thoughts.
A few years back, I watched Return of the Jedi with my kids. I figured once it started playing I would remember more than I thought. Nope. It all felt brand new. It came as a perfect surprise when (spoiler alert) Darth Vader died at the end…and I sure didn’t expect him to turn into a ghost. How do you #forget something like that?
Anyway, Return of the Jedi turns out to be a pretty good movie. You should check it out.
I don’t know a whole lot about crystals, but I do know a thing or two about Krystal burgers. To call them “burgers,” I realize, is a generous interpretation. As you can see from my drawing of a Krystal burger, it’s mostly bread (a very soft bun) with a thin sheet of beef (or something like it), plus pickles, onions, and mustard, steamed until the whole thing is slimy. Actually, gooey is a better word than slimy to describe the consistency.
I loved Krystal burgers when I was little, and I still love them, for the child is the father of the man. In the twenty-seven years since I got married, I probably haven’t had Krystal more than three or four times (though the family did take me through the drive-thru on my fiftieth birthday). But it has been good to know that Krystal was there.
Only now the Krystal isn’t there. The locations in Nashville, at least, are shutting down, one after another. Sic transit gloria mundi. What I’m saying, friends, is that we shouldn’t take good things for granted.
When I was growing up, my father and I often went to the Ocmulgee River to fish. Once when I was quite young—10? 11? in any case, too young to be piloting a boat on the Ocmulgee River—my father let me pilot the boat.
It was a little jon boat with an outboard motor that you steered with a tiller that was also a throttle. Dad sat in the front, I sat in the back, and we puttered down the river while I tried to get used to the fact that you had to push the tiller to the left when you want to go right and push the tiller right when you want to go left.
I got a little more confident, and we went a little faster. My father pointed me toward a spot where we could tie up and fish, but between the current and my inexperience as a boat pilot, I was getting a little discombobulated. “To the left!” my father shouted. “And slow down!”
I pulled the tiller hard to the left. Which made us go right. Also, I pulled the throttle all the way open. We careened into the bank. My father was flung from the #vessel and did a full flip into a bush. As he lay there motionless, I wasn’t sure whether I had killed him or only maimed him for life.
But he got up, pushed the boat back into the water, resumed his place in the front seat, and instructed me to drive on.
One of the earliest books I remember reading was an illustrated book of life skills with a title like “How To Do Everything,” or something similarly grandiose. It covered such topics as “How to Eat an Ice Cream Cone without Dripping” (lick around the top of the cone) and “How to Weigh a Dog” (weigh yourself on the scale, then pick up your dog, get back on the scale, and subtract your own weight from the combined weight of you and the dog). Those are the only two skills I can remember at the moment, but its surprising how often I do something and realize that I learned it from that book nearly fifty years ago.
I think that book was the first place I encountered the distinction between the square knot and the granny knot. Unlike ice-cream-cone-licking and dog-weighing, however, square-knot-tying is a life skill that I still haven’t mastered. When I go to tie a square knot, I get it right about 50% of the time, and about 50% of the time it comes out as a granny knot. That is to say, thanks to random distribution, I get it right with the same frequency as a person who wasn’t even thinking about whether the knot would come out square or grannified.
Here’s an indication of how poorly I understand the concept of the square knot vs. the granny knot: to draw the attached picture, I just pulled up a picture on the internet and copied it. I took a picture of it and was about to attach it to this post when I realized that I had gotten it wrong. I can’t even copy a picture of a square knot reliably. I got it right the second time (I think)…thanks, 50% random distribution!
Ravens, crows, and magpies, from what I understand, collect shiny things and keep them in their nests. I once heard novelist Leif Enger give this advice to writers: “When I read, that’s kind of how I am, I’m kind of a crow…I look for the shiny things. If I’m reading a book and something glints off the page, I collect it. I think readers tend to do that. You remember it, and later you pull it out and look at it in the light…Because I think you should only write what you want to read yourself, I recommend looking for the shine. Be on the hunt for it. If you see something shiny, if you hear a shiny phrase, pick it up, grab it, stick it in your nest. You’ll find a use for it.”
Back when a nap was part of my daily routine, I slept one afternoon in my older sisters’ room. I think maybe they were at school and I hadn’t started school yet. When I woke up from my nap, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln was sitting in a chair on the other side of the room. This was broad daylight, and he was right there, not diaphanous and #spirit-like, but as solid as you please. He was wearing his black stove-pipe hat and that black frock coat. He had the same wise, kindly expression he has in the Lincoln Memorial.
I wasn’t exactly afraid of Abraham Lincoln. But I wasn’t glad to see him either. I would have run from the room, but that would mean running right past Abraham Lincoln. I pulled the covers over my head and thought about my situation. Did Abraham Lincoln have some message for me? That didn’t seem likely. Was he usually in my sisters’ room? If so, why hadn’t they mentioned it to me? Maybe he only came in the afternoons, while they were at school…
Then it occurred to me that there wasn’t any reason in the world that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln would be haunting a house on Spruce Street in Warner Robins, Georgia. That made no sense at all. (It has since occurred to me that it could have been the ghost of an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, but that doesn’t seem likely either.)
When I peeped back over the covers, Abraham Lincoln was gone.
I didn’t walk uphill to school both ways in the snow. I did, however, go to un-air-conditioned schools. In Middle Georgia. (Full disclosure: my junior high was air-conditioned; those were three glorious, pubescent years. But my elementary and high schools were not air-conditioned during my tenure.)
Friends, Middle Georgia can be hot. Desks near a fan were valuable real estate in August and September. I distinctly remember sitting near an oscillating fan one especially hot day. The fan was on high, and as it swept past, papers on each desk would go flying. But even on high, the fan was no match for the heat. We were all so sweaty and sleepy and miserable. The teacher asked a question to which I knew the answer. I raised my hand, and a paper on my desk stuck to my sweaty forearm. It was like a white flag of surrender raised on the flagpole of my arm. A second later, the fan oscillated past and blew the paper off my arm. It flipped once, then see-sawed to the floor.
In 1987 I went to the Rama movie theater to #watch Raising Arizona. I loved it. It was the first time I had ever really given any thought to the fact that movies were written by somebody. I still love that movie. I don’t suppose any other movie has had more of an influence on me as a storyteller.
Bonus Raising Arizona trivia moment: When I moved to Nashville, Tex Cobb (who played the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse) lived here. From what I heard, he hung out at the Perkins pancake restaurant near Vanderbilt. I thought I would go to Perkins one day and see if I could, I don’t know, strike up a friendship the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse. But I think Tex Cobb moved away, and Perkins closed (actually, it may have been vice-versa). I never met Tex Cobb or ate at Perkins.
I was at the mall once, and two girls were hurrying in my directions. I’m pretty sure they were an older sister and a younger sister. The younger sister had a finger on her mouth and her cheeks were distended about as far as cheeks can distend. Her face was plum-colored; clearly she was trying to keep from throwing up. The older sister was steering the little sister toward a place where she could throw up. They rushed past me, and the obvious thing would have been to politely ignore them. But I was curious how this thing was going to turn out.
I was happy to see that they made it to the trash can by the fountain the middle of the mall. The little sister released her finger to throw up in the trash can. But so much #pressure had built up that she overshot the trash can by a good four feet.
Our dog Roxy turns 12 today. My son Henry won her as a prize for selling tickets to his school’s spaghetti supper fund-raiser. Having six kids, we had always resisted the temptation to get a dog. But a puppy was one of the rewards for top spaghetti-supper ticket sellers, and Henry asked if we’d be willing to let him have the puppy if he managed to sell the tickets. We told him sure…but knowing that he was up against boys whose parents bought spaghetti-supper tickets for everybody in their law firms or for all their employees, we thought we were pretty safe.
Henry, however, went to work selling spaghetti-supper tickets door-to-door in the neighborhood; he recruited his siblings to the cause. And together they managed to sell enough tickets to be eligible for the puppy.
As it turns out, a dog was exactly what the Rogers family needed. Now that Roxy is twelve years old, she moves a lot more slowly than she used to. But she’s still a good, good girl. Happy birthday, Roxy. #pickofthelitter
When I was in college, I briefly had a girlfriend. If you blinked, you could have missed it. But even though we only dated for two or three months, I carried a torch for her for two or three years. Shortly before graduation, I asked her out in a now-or-never bid to win her back. Somehow I thought a Chinese restaurant would set just the right tone. I’m not talking about a fancy Chinese restaurant either—just a regular Chinese restaurant, about three steps down from a PF Chang’s or a Pei Wei. I had the sweet and #sour chicken. I don’t know what she had.
After a painfully awkward meal, the server brought the check and the fortune cookies on the little black tray used in such establishments. My fortune cookie read, “If you want to know the future, look at the past.” That gave me something to think about: which part of the past would give me a glimpse the future? The two or three months when we were a happy couple? The two or three years when I was pining for her, long-faced and gloomy?
While I was trying to think through the implications of my fortune, my date was becoming conspicuous in her efforts to seem inconspicuous about her fortune.
“What does yours say?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said.
“Come on, show me,” I said.
“If you insist,” she said.
It read, “He loves you all he can, but he doesn’t love you much.”
I mostly left her alone after that.
This anecdote is one I got second or third hand, so I can’t personally vouch for its accuracy. But if it’s not true, it ought to be. I want it to be. We live in hope.
A brother of a former co-worker of mine was a small-town lawyer in Missouri. He says that on the way out of the courthouse one morning, he saw a man standing outside with a little girl. The man was wearing a tank top and had a parrot on his shoulder. He said to his daughter, “Wave to Granddaddy.” She waved toward the courthouse, he waved toward the courthouse, and from between the bars of a courthouse jail cell waved the wizened hand of the old man, #stuck in his cell.
Their filial duties done, the little girl said, “Diddy, can we go to the McDonald’s and get some french fries?”
“We sure can,” her father said. Then he gestured at the parrot on his shoulder. “But first we got to take Freebird home.”
I’ve never wanted a parrot. But I kind of want a parrot, just so I could name it Freebird.
One of our favorite trips to my in-laws’ farm in South Georgia was the time Dolly the bird dog had puppies. Our Betsy was three or four at the time, and a dog-lover from way back. She especially loved to pick #ticks and fleas off the puppies. We called her Puppy Mama.
The Warner Robins Junior High Warriors were having a bad time of it. The Perry Junior High Panthers were running away with the game. Really, it was Quinn Lumpkin, the Panthers’ running back, who was running away with the game. He was a man among boys—fast, big, agile. Defenders fell like bowling pins before him.
Shortly before halftime, Quinn Lumpkin broke through the line, outran the linebackers, and had only one man to beat. That man was Martin B. Pinckney. (I have tagged Martin so he can correct my memory or refute it completely). Martin B. was more of a golfer than a football player, but he was out there bravely doing his part for the Warner Robins Junior High Warriors. As Quinn Lumpkin approached, Martin B. put himself in position to make the play. When Quinn Lumpkin got closer, Martin B started to lose his nerve. When he could see the whites of Quinn Lumpkin’s eyes, Martin B. realized there was no point in trying to be a hero. He dropped into a protective crouch.
At that point, all Quinn Lumpkin had to do would have been to zig a little or zag a little, then go straight to the end zone. But he was feeling his power that day, so he vaulted straight over Martin B’s crouching form. As he did so, however, his foot just nicked Martin B’s #helmet, and he tripped and fell to the ground.
When Martin B opened his eyes and saw that he had successfully stopped Quinn Lumpkin from scoring a touchdown, he was amazed and overjoyed. He whooped. He hollered. He beat his chest.
At halftime, the coach ranted and raved. “Yall look terrible out there!” he said. “You don’t even look like you want to win! Nobody’s hitting!”
“But Coach,” Martin B protested. “I’m hitting!”
It was Mother’s Day. On his way back from visiting our grandmother, my cousin Todd arrived on the scene shortly after a car and an alligator collided on Highway 247. He stopped the car and got out to get a good look at the poor alligator. It was a big one–eight or nine feet long with a great scuted tail and the same dreamy smile in death that it had worn in life. Todd marveled at the thing for a while, then got back in his car. His friend Brad was expecting him.
When Todd got to Brad’s apartment, the television was on, tuned to a National Geographic nature documentary called “Realm of the Alligator.” Brad, fascinated by the program, didn’t even take his eyes off the screen as he greeted Todd and motioned for him to join him on the couch. A scientist was swimming in a lagoon full of alligators and snapping their pictures. “Look at him,” Brad said, gesturing toward the screen. “They could eat him right now. Can you imagine?”
“That reminds me,” Todd said. “I saw a dead alligator on the side of the road today.”
Brad snapped around and stared wide-eyed at Todd. “A real alligator?” he breathed. “Dead?”
“It was there today?”
“It was there half an hour ago. On 247, almost to my Granny’s house.”
Brad was already getting up from the couch. “We’ve got to go get it!” he said. “We’ve got to go get it this minute!” Brad was a young man of great enthusiasms, almost to a fault. He was determined to wring every bit of life out of each day. That particular hour he was more interested in alligators than anything else in the world; he wasn’t going to let an unclaimed alligator molder by the side of the road.
It took some doing to get the alligator in the back of Brad’s truck; an adult alligator weighs several hundred pounds. But they managed. Todd’s dad’s house wasn’t far from where they picked up the alligator, so they went there to skin it out. Todd got the alligator hide, since he was the one who found it. Brad got the head; he hadn’t decided exactly what he was going to do with it, but at the very least he planned to scare girls with it. They cut up the tail meat and put it in Todd’s dad’s refrigerator to marinate, planning to reconvene in a couple of days for a gator fry.
Todd didn’t know much about tanning an alligator hide, but he figured drying it out was surely one of the first steps. So he flopped it over the privacy fence behind his apartment.
When Todd left for work the next morning–he was assistant manager at a shoe store–the flies were already buzzing around the gator hide in the growing warmth. Hmm….he thought to himself as he got into his car. I probably need another plan for curing that hide.
Shortly after lunch a man in khaki came into the shoe store. “I’m looking for a Todd Minter,” he said.
“That’s me,” Todd said. “I’m Todd Minter.”
“Mr. Minter,” the man said, “I’m Officer _________ from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Could you step outside with me?”
Somebody from the apartment complex, perhaps offended by the smell and the fly-buzz around Todd’s gator hide, had ratted him out.
“Mr. Minter,” said the game warden, “did you know it is a violation of Georgia law to possess an alligator carcass?”
“I didn’t know that,” Todd said.
“Well it is,” said Officer Osborne. “It’s a serious violation. I confiscated an alligator hide from from a fence in the Sandpiper Apartment complex. I have been given to believe that it was your alligator hide. Was it your alligator hide, Mr. Minter?”
“Well, yes, it is. But…”
“I’m going to need to confiscate the remainder of the carcass,” Officer Osborne said. “And I’m also going to confiscate the vehicle you were in when you harvested the alligator, as well as the gun you shot it with.”
“The gun I shot it with?” Todd fairly shouted. “I didn’t shoot any alligator! I found it. Dead. It was roadkill.
A sneer curled the game warden’s lip. “Roadkill,” he said. “You’re not the first to tell me that one.”
“It’s the truth,” Todd said. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“Can anybody corroborate your story?”
“Sure. My friend Brad was with me. He helped me get it in the truck. Or I helped him.”
“This Brad,” the warden said, “you tell me where I can find him. If he tells the same story you tell, you might be off the hook.”
It was a long and worrisome hour that Todd waited for Officer Osborne to talk to Brad. He hoped Brad would just tell the truth and tell it straight. But Brad, in his youthful exuberance, had had occasion to speak with officers of the law before this. He could be a little cagey.
In the end, Brad’s story and Todd’s story and Todd’s father’s story all checked out, and all was well. But Officer ________ insisted on confiscating as much of the carcass as he could. He already had the hide from his initial visit to Todd’s apartment. He drove to Brad’s place and pulled the alligator head out of the freezer, never to frighten a girl or anybody else. He even drove out to Todd’s dad’s house and got the tail meat out of the bowl in which it was marinating.
The gator fry was cancelled.
“Ball,” he said, and he gestured to the heavens. I looked where my little boy was pointing and saw a full #moon hanging high in the winter sky.
“That’s right, you brilliant boy,” I said. “It is a ball. The moon is a great big ball.”
He didn’t know more than four or five words at the time: Mama. Daddy. Ball. Dog. Plane. What a remarkable thing—to have words only for one’s favorite things in the world.
“The moon is a ball,” I told my boy, “and so is the earth we’re standing on. This whole world is one big ball set spinning in the universe.”
He smiled at me. It was not a smile of comprehension, but of contentment. It seemed to say, “Of course this whole world is a ball! And why shouldn’t it be? It’s a great ball where dogs trot and planes soar overhead and my mama loves me and my daddy holds me in the cold night and tells me what I suspected all along: that the moon is a ball, and the world is too.”
One Sunday afternoon my friend Ben and I were driving around town. Well, Ben was driving around town. I was riding around town. When he drove us past Shirley Hills Baptist Church, I sat up straight. “Ben!” I said. “Don’t drive us past Shirley Hills! My mom’s in a meeting. She might come out and see us.”
I neglected to mention: Ben and I were fourteen at the time. That’s the main reason I didn’t want my mom to see me driving around.
Ben said, “Yeah, right. Your mom is going to come out right when we’re driving past. And she’s also going to recognize my sister’s car. Then she’s going to realize that it’s you riding around in my sister’s car, and me driving. Stop being a baby.”
Point taken. I didn’t want to be a baby. So we kept driving. We continued on our #loop around the south side of Warner Robins.
We were sitting at a stoplight on Houston Road, waiting to turn right onto Watson Boulevard, when Ben’s eyes got very big. He ducked down below the dashboard.
“Ben,” I said. “What’s the matter with you?”
Ben gestured with his head and his eyes. “Over there,” he said. “That’s my uncle and my Granny.”
I looked where Ben was gesturing, over to the right. Indeed, there were Ben’s uncle and Granny in his Granny’s car, waiting for the light in the turning lane.
By now, our light had turned green. The cars in front of us drove on, and there we sat, two car lengths from the intersection, with two or three more cars behind us. Ben was still ducked down below the dashboard. The only part of him showing was his knuckles on the top of the steering wheel.
“You’ve got to go,” I said.
“I can’t go,” he said. “We’ll go right by them. They’ll see us.”
“Well, if you just sit here, you’re going to make yourself more conspicuous.”
So Ben took his foot off the brake, we rolled forward, and he slowly negotiated the right-turn that took us right by his uncle and his Granny. Only he never raised his head above the dashboard to see where he was going, for fear of being recognized. We bumped onto the sidewalk, narrowly missed a light pole, and bumped back onto the road. In short, we failed in our effort to be inconspicuous. As we passed by the other car, I saw Ben’s Granny staring open-mouthed, pointing, and elbowing Ben’s uncle.
“We’re going home,” said Ben. “Now.”
“Don’t be a baby,” I said.
William Lacey and I had just finished sixth grade and were staring down the barrel of junior high. We went to the Houston Mall a lot that summer; I suppose we had outgrown some of the bike-riding, neighborhood-wandering, and woods-walking that had marked our elementary-school summers. As I already mentioned, we were about to start junior high. We weren’t #sprout‘s any more, but men about town.
On one of those trips to the mall, William had a brilliant idea. There was a t-shirt shop near the Orange Julius that could make any kind of t-shirt you wanted. There was a whole wall of decals they could iron on for you—howling wolves, Molly Hatchet album covers, the Keep On Trucking guy, whatever. Or if you didn’t want one of their decals, they could iron on whatever words you wanted. William’s idea was for us to get matching t-shirts that read “Class of 87” on the back.
I thought that was the cleverest thing I had ever heard of. This was 1981, mind you. We had to count on our fingers even to know that we would be the Class of 1987. 1987 seemed so far away, I assumed we’d all be zooming around in flying cars by then.
We bought the t-shirts. We wore them. And I thought junior high was going to be just all right.
A few springs ago, I got a beehive. I set it in my yard right by the patio and eagerly awaited the arrival of my #fuzzy little bees. They arrived on a truck, which I met at the Exxon station beside the Tennessee Titans stadium. The truck was stacked high with a hundred or more shoebox-sized cages (“packages” is the lingo), each containing about five thousand bees.
You have heard a bee buzz; imagine the buzz of five hundred thousand bees, agitated from an hour’s ride on the interstate. The bee truck, thrumming with so much life, was the first great spectacle of my beekeeping career.
When I got the bees home, I put on the bee veil and goatskin gloves that a friend either loaned me or gave me (I was a little vague on this point). I opened up the top of my hive. Then I opened up my box of bees, just enough to remove a tiny cage containing the queen, and shut it again before the other five thousand bees came blurring out. The queen cage I attached to the frame in the middle of my hive.
The queen is the center of the whole operation; wherever she is, the rest of the bees will want to stay. Bees are free to come and go from their hive, but they always come back to their queen. The queen is held captive in the hive for the first few days to ensure that the whole hive doesn’t light out for the the next county as soon as they’re out of the package. The means by which the queen gains her freedom is quite ingenious. The exit from her cage is plugged by a piece of marshmallow that takes several days for bees to chew through. By the time she is able to get out, she is accustomed to the hive and chooses stay. And therefore the rest of the bees stay put.
Once the queen was secured, I opened the bee package, turned it upside down, and shook five thousand bees into the hive. I stood there in a swirling cloud of bees. It was thrilling, I don’t mind telling you.
My bees hadn’t been on the premises 24 hours before they started stinging me. I am willing to accept at least part of the blame here; I wasn’t always diligent about wearing the protective gear. I watched quite a few Youtube videos in which beekeepers handled their bees with neither veil nor gloves. It seemed so peaceful and symbiotic and, well, right. It later occurred to me that perhaps those beekeepers had smoked their bees to oblivion before turning on the camera. I don’t know. I just know that my unsmoked bees were surprisingly active–more active than some folks care for.
The first time I opened the hive top after installing my packages, one of those enterprising little rascals flew into my right nostril and stung me. I cavorted and windmilled in ways my alarmed children had never seen. Also, I cried. If you can get stung in the nostril and not cry, feel free to consider yourself my better. I don’t think you can do it. There were four or five other stings on that first day, but the direct hit to the nostril was by far the most memorable.
The next day my upper lip had swelled like a prizefighter’s. I congratulated myself that I had survived the worst bee sting I was likely ever to get. Later events would prove me to be wrong on that count.
I am a forgiving man, and I bore my bees no ill will; the principal offender was dead in any case. The bees had a lot of work ahead of them: they needed to “draw comb” before they could start storing honey, and that would require a lot of energy. So even though it was May and the nectar was plentiful, I installed a hive-top feeder made from an aluminum turkey pan to help them along, regularly filling it with a syrup of sugar and water that I mixed in a five-gallon bucket. You may be surprised to know that it only takes a few days for a hive of bees to empty a turkey pan.
The bees began to do what bees do. They zoomed out of the hive and zoomed back in with pouches of pollen tucked behind their back legs. On the frames they began building those precise hexagons that almost look too perfect to be natural. As often as I could, I sat on the patio and watched the bees come and go. Most days I found an excuse to open the hive and have a look inside. It seems cliched to speak of their busyness, but the impression is unavoidable. Bees look like they know exactly what needs to be done, and they are on it. Watching honeybees quickly became one of the great pleasures of my life.
A couple of weeks into my beekeeping career, I left to spend a month at a boys’ camp. I left the bees in the care of the house sitter. My nostril healed. I missed my bees. I thought about them every day and assumed they were thinking about me. I texted the house sitter for reports on the bees, and he assured me that they were doing fine. My leaving them for a month, I figured, was the best thing that could happen to them. They could establish their hive in peace, without my taking the lid off every day and bothering them.
The whole drive back from camp, I envisioned a happy reunion with my bees. I could hardly wait to pull the frames and see what my little colonists had accomplished in my absence. Would there be comb drawn on every frame? Would the queen be laying eggs? Would there be honey?
We didn’t even have the camp trunks out of the car before I was at the hive. If the bees were as glad to see me as I was to see them, I figured, there would be no need for any veil and gloves. I opened the hive and saw the bees busily attending to the matters at hand. And, yes, they did seem glad to see me. Inspired by a strong sense of my oneness with nature, I began to pull one of the frames out for a little peek-a-loo. Within one second I found myself in a cloud of bees that sounded to me exactly like the buzz-roar of the bee truck. One of the bees stung me squarely in the left temple. Reeling, I dropped the frame back into the hive, which caused a whole new commotion. Within minutes, the swelling from my stung temple produced a pretty impressive black eye. It really, really hurt.
I believe in facing one’s fears, getting back on the horse. So the next day I returned to the hive–suited up this time. When it comes to bees, however, I discovered one problem with facing one’s fears: bees smell fear. It whips them into a frenzy. When I opened the hive, it was as if I were a pork chop and they were a pack of 5000 hungry dogs. They covered me up. But what did I care? I had my veil. I had my goatskin gloves.
Apparently, the gloves that my friend gave me were some kind of gag gift. Four bees stung me through the gloves. Through the gloves! One of those four stings got infected. My middle finger looked like a thumb, only bright purple. When I went to the Kroger Minute Clinic for medical attention, the nurse practitioner looked at my black eye and purple finger and said, “Wait–you’re saying that you have these bees on purpose?”
My black eye healed. The infection cleared up (thanks to a course of antibiotics). I left the bees to their own devices for a while. We left for another two weeks of travel. I brought a couple of beekeeping books to read at the beach, but I didn’t open them. The wounds were too fresh.
On our return, I ventured back to the hive. I suited up, removed the top, and pulled a couple of frames. The bees were much calmer this time. Actually, they were more than calm. They seemed listless, even aimless. The only thing sadder than a bee with no sense of purpose is 5000 bees with no sense of purpose.
There were very few eggs or larvae in the hive. But there were hive beetles. An experienced beekeeper like me knows how much heartache hive beetles can cause. I immediately went to YouTube to find out how to make hive beetle traps.
But it wouldn’t be necessary. My opening the hive, it seems, was the last straw for the honeybees. I was still looking at YouTube when my son said, “Look! The bees!” My lethargic honeybees had come to swarming life. They streamed out of the hive and formed a bee tornado. They looked like the bees you’d see tormenting a bear in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. They were still swarming when we left for church that morning. I told my family to get a good look at them, for it would be the last we would ever see of our bees.
When we got back from church, I opened the hive. Five or ten bees crawled around the frames, looking confused and lost. They were far outnumbered by the beetles, who seemed glad to have the place to themselves.
I was consoled by the fact that the absconding bees left behind two frames of capped honey–a good three to five pounds, probably. But when I crushed it out of the wax, it wasn’t even honey. It was straight sugar syrup. The bees had taken my sugar syrup from the feeder and deposited it directly into the combs where other, un-fed bees would have put honey.
It was their final insult: “So long, sucker–and you can keep your sugar syrup.”
Still and all, I hope they’re happy. I hope they have found a hollow tree beside a blooming field of clover. I hope they are busily drawing new comb and filling it with nectar they have had to work a little harder for. I hope they find purpose in their work. And I hope they know I meant well.
In eighth grade, my cousin Brett got his pants pulled down at football practice. The coach was elsewhere–wrapping up bus duty or finishing one last cigarette in the teachers’ lounge before facing the barbarians. Fred, the starting fullback, snuck around behind and snatched Brett’s pants down in front of God and everybody. It was a beautiful pantsing, not one of those awkward affairs where the victim clamps his knees together and goes into a squat, clutching at his britches and his dignity. No, this was clean and quick. Brett’s pants went right to the ground.
Fred whooped and cavorted in his triumph. It was easily the best pantsing of the season. The other boys howled and pointed at Brett.
Who just stood there.
The hooting mockery swirled around him, but Brett stood his ground–pants around his ankles, arms akimbo, a look of perfect serenity on his face. The howling became nervous laughter as the mockery gave way to confusion. The boys had never seen such a thing before: the one boy who maintained his dignity was the one whose pants were crumpled around his ankles.
Fred looked fitfully toward the school, whence the coach would soon be coming. “Hey, Brett,” he said, his voice broken by a nervous chuckle, “pull up your pants, man.”
Brett crossed his arms and stared off into the middle distance, as grave as a statue.
“Brett, man,” Fred repeated. “Pull up your pants. Coach is gonna see.”
Brett shifted his weight but didn’t otherwise move. “I didn’t pull them down,” he said, with withering dignity, “and I’m not going to pull them up.”
Fred looked from Brett to the school building and back to Brett. The fascinated boys had gone silent. The door from the equipment room swung #open, and the boys gasped in unison at the sight of the coach’s lanky form emerging. Fred hesitated. For an instant it appeared he would run away. He took one last look at the approaching coach, then circled around behind Brett. Sighing grimly and rolling his eyes, Fred pulled Brett’s pants back up where they belonged.
It was one of the great moments in the history of eighth graders.
There were four or five of us who got the notion to camp out in an abandoned farmhouse about an hour down the interstate. It was a Friday night, Christmas break, I think. In any case, it was cold—not frigid, but plenty chilly and windy and raining. It was well past dark when we pulled into the drive (if you could call it a drive). As we drove through the broom sedge, the car lights revealed a rickety house with broken windows and a front door hanging open and vines growing up the porch. If you were looking to film a haunted-house movie on location, you could do a whole lot worse than this place.
There was a #leak in the roof—or maybe it was truer to say the whole roof was a leak. It was raining less inside the house than outside, but still, it was wetter in there than I cared for. We had one flashlight between us, and it gave us enough light to find dry spots for the sleeping bags. We used a towel to clear away the broken glass and pigeon guano (or was it bat guano?) one sleeping-bag-sized area for each of us.
There wasn’t really anything else to do, so we crawled in our sleeping bags and turned out the flashlight shortly after we got there. I lay there in the pitch blackness smelling the guano, listening to the rain (inside and out) and trying to think of one way this experience was an improvement over being in my own house, warm and dry, watching Miami Vice and eating a nice snack, when Robert, in the next sleeping bag over, said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you what my dad said when I told him we were going to camp out in this house.”
“What did he say?” asked Darrell.
“He said it was a terrible idea.”
“Why so?” I asked.
“Oh,” Robert said, “he said you never know what might be going on in an abandoned house.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like drug smuggling,” Robert said. “He said an abandoned house right by the interstate, halfway between Florida and Atlanta—it’s a perfect place for a stash house, he said. Ha, ha.”
“Ha, ha,” the others said.
“Ha, ha,” I said. But I didn’t actually mean it.
Robert continued. “He said Friday night would be a great night for drug smugglers to come to the stash house, just as the weekend’s getting started, and they wouldn’t be very happy to see us in their stash house! Can you believe that guy?”
Actually, I could believe that guy. I had seen enough Miami Vice to know how these things worked. We were almost certain to get murdered by drug smugglers.
“Well, good night,” said Robert, and within seconds he was snoring with a stentoriousness that rattled the few window panes that weren’t busted out.
For the rest of the night I lay there in the blackness, eyes wide open, praying that the morning would arrive before the drug smugglers.
Warner Robins is an Air Force town. I don’t mean it’s a town where the Air Force decided to put a base. I mean the Air Force built a big base on an empty spot on the map, and a town grew up beside it. That’s how much of an Air Force town it is, especially when I was growing up, in the middle of the Cold War.
In the 1980s, a rumor spread that we were Number 3 on the Soviet Union’s list of places to blow up in the event of nuclear war. Number 3! I was never clear on who Number 1 and Number 2 were…I guess it was Washington DC, then New York City, then Warner Robins. All the kids in Warner Robins seemed to believe this rumor (I know I did), as well as a surprising number of the adults.
You might think that the threat of #extinction at the hands of a nuclear superpower might create a pervading sense of existential dread. Not at all. It was quite exhilarating, actually. Folks in Macon might speak badly of us. Folks in Atlanta might not even know we exist. But the Soviet Union—they understood that the people of Warner Robins were not to be trifled with.
My grandmother’s brother and brother-in-law were driving across Florida in a Model T Ford. This was ninety years ago or more. The car had no windshield, so the bugs that would normally get #splattered on the windshield were instead getting splattered on my uncles’ faces. They were resourceful young men; they got paper bags at a grocery store, cut eyeholes in the bags, and pulled them over their heads like hoods. Then they went on their merry way, bugs popping against the paper bags like pistol shots every few seconds.
They hadn’t gone very far before a policeman stopped them. I suppose they pulled the bags off their heads well before the officer strode up to the driver’s side of that Model T–surely they did–but I like to imagine them turning to face the policeman with the bags still over their heads. They lean back and adjust the bags with their hands to line up the eyeholes so they can see the policeman. “Hello, Officer,” Carl says, his voice muffled by the paper bag. “Was I speeding?”
The policeman gives them a long squint. “You weren’t speeding,” he says, “but with them masks over your heads you look more like two bank robbers than anybody I ever seen.”
Bonus broken windshield story: My father’s uncle Buddy was tearing down a dirt road in a Model A or Model T when he saw a buzzard picking at something in the road ahead. Buddy didn’t slow down, confident that the buzzard would flap off before he got there. The buzzard tried to flap off, but it miscalculated the speed of the car’s approach. It has scarcely gotten off the ground when there was an explosion of feathers and flying glass. The buzzard crashed through the windshield and landed in the passenger seat beside Buddy, still flapping and clawing. The car hadn’t quite come to a stop when Buddy jumped out the driver’s side. “That buzzard was welcome to the car,” he said. “I just didn’t want to ride around with it any more.”
When I was in second grade, my classmate Danny (name changed) got sick and ended up in the hospital. So our teacher gave everybody a sheet of construction paper and assigned us the task of making him a get-well card. I wrote a poem on mine. I don’t remember all the details, but I was particularly proud of a couplet that went something like this:
He laid in the bed in his hospital room
And looked out the window at the yellow moon
On the front of the card I drew a picture of Danny in a hospital bed, #connected to tubes that were sticking out all over the place, looking dolefully at a crescent moon framed in the window (and wondering, no doubt, if he would ever stand beneath an open sky again; I could be a melodramatic boy when I had a mind to be).
Danny recovered, and there was much rejoicing when his mother brought him back to Mrs. Curry’s classroom. My rejoicing, however, turned to bewilderment when Danny’s mother grabbed both my little hands and started speaking to me with a tearful earnestness that I had only seen on television.
“Jonathan,” she said, “I can’t tell you how much your card meant to Danny and to me—that you would take the time to write such a lovely poem.”
Well, for one thing, I hadn’t taken a lot of time. I had just found some words that rhymed and strung them together into something that made grammatical sense. For another, hadn’t everybody written a poem or something?
For the first time it dawned on me that my classmates had probably scrawled “Get well soon!” on their construction paper, scratched out a picture, and moved on to the next activity. Obviously I had overshot the assignment. And this woman, overwrought with worry and relief, had mistaken my poem for a gesture of particular loyalty and friendship.
“You’re a sweet boy,” she continued. “Danny is lucky to have a friend who would write him a poem to cheer him up. A poem!”
Except that I hadn’t written a poem for Danny. Yes, Danny’s illness was the occasion for the poem, but I wrote it because I liked writing poems. I drew the picture because I liked drawing pictures. I liked Danny and wished him well. But this woman was misreading the evidence.
“Danny’s father and I wanted to give you a little something to show you how much your card meant to us,” she said. She started digging around in her big purse.
Now, this was getting interesting. I had heard of people getting paid for writing. I even had aspirations of writing for a living one day. But I had never dreamed of going pro at seven years old! What does a get-well poem fetch, anyway? Ten bucks? A hundred?
“We looked around the store for something we thought you’d like.” Danny’s parents owned a convenience store. “And with Halloween coming up, we thought you could use this.”
In two outstretched hands, she presented me with a tube of vampire blood. Vampire blood! Who pays a poet in vampire blood?
What I didn’t understand at the time was that however feeble my offering, it met Danny’s mother in a way that didn’t have a whole lot to do with me. Because coming and going, art is a kind of grace.
Living in Nashville, I have been friends with a lot of people who make art for a living.It has been one of the great gifts of my life to see, over and over again, how the artist does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Over and over again, I’ve seen people get what they need because these artists have stayed faithful to their calling. I have seen them pour their hearts out, sometimes in elation, sometimes in exhaustion or discouragement. I’ve seen them wade back into the fray, going back into the dark cave to write another story or song, or loading up the van and hitting the road again.
A few years ago, I went through a writer’s block that was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I was overdue on two books–not just behind schedule, but past the due date (and the extensions) on one book and then the book that I was supposed to write after that one. And the due date for a third book was barreling down right after that. The pain of it was multiplied by the fact that I had always been so dismissive of the idea of writer’s block. “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block,” I used to say. “Lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block. If you’re a writer, sit down and write.”
If I could have scraped up the money to pay back the advances, I would have just said “forget it–the world doesn’t need another biography of Flannery O’Connor or another novel about the ugliest boy in the world.” The youthful exuberance of the second-grade get-well card artist was utterly fled.
In the end I managed to push through and deliver the manuscripts, in part because of the example of my friends and fellow artists, and in part because I remembered people like Danny’s mother, who, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, need what I can bring.
In the middle of that hard season, a friend of mine, quoting somebody else, told me, “Writing is easy. You just open up a vein and bleed onto the page.” Yes. Amen. I envisioned Danny’s mother, that patron of the arts, holding out that tube of blood and saying, “Here, kid. You’re going to need this.”
Lou Alice and I hadn’t been dating very long when she and a friend left for a backpacking trip through Europe. She said she was going to miss me, but shortly after she got overseas she called to say she was extending her trip by a couple of weeks. The main reason she was extending her trip (though she didn’t say so at the time) was so that she could have some extra time away from me.
I should have mentioned: just before she left for her trip, I let it slip that I had been thinking and praying a lot about getting married. To Lou Alice. This was our fourth actual date (though, in my defense, we had known each other for a long time). So Lou Alice was justifiably alarmed and felt like she needed some extra time to think about things and/or for me to chill out.
So, Lou Alice and her friend were having a lovely trip backpacking through Europe, riding the trains, eating good food. I was having a lovely time teaching freshman English, writing papers for graduate school, and playing darts.
I answered the phone one afternoon; it was Lou Alice. Her voice was very shaky, and between that and the noise in the background and the time lag on the overseas call, she hard to understand. “I’m in Germany,” she said. “I got drug by a train.”
“You got drugged by what?” I asked.
“Are you saying you got drugged on a train, or are you saying you got dragged by a train?”
Things went sideways for a minute, because Lou Alice thought I was being a grammar pedant while she was trying to tell me about a highly traumatic event. But I was genuinely confused. It was hard to hear, as I said, and I had initially pictured some neo-Nazis drugging my girlfriend on a train.
Here’s what actually happened: When their train stopped at the station, Lou Alice and her friend almost didn’t realize it was their stop. They jumped out of the train as the it was starting to move. The friend got out fine, but the door closed on Lou Alice’s backpack. She ran along with the train, trying to get herself loose, but as the train picked up speed she couldn’t get loose and she couldn’t keep up, and the train started to drag her along the platform. The end of the platform was coming up fast.
Somebody pulled the emergency brake. #Spark-s flew as the train stopped just short of the open track, where Lou Alice would have certainly been pulled under the train.
In those moments of mortal danger, Lou Alice said, her life flashed before her eyes—the life she had lived thus far, but also the life that she hoped she would be able to live thereafter. And that future life, I am happy to report, included me after all. She decided not to extend her trip but came home as planned. Then she came up to Nashville (Date #5!), and we decided we’d get married.
Eight months later we married. Then we had six kids.
During the Florida Land Boom in the 1920s, my grandmother’s family, the Dowdys, pulled up stakes in South Georgia and moved to South Florida. The Dowdys who were old enough to work went looking for jobs. My aunt Aline, a young teenager at the time, saw that a hotel in Fort Lauderdale was looking to hire somebody to bake pies and cakes for the hotel restaurant. Aline wasn’t much of a cook* but her sister Leone, a teenager herself, had a gift for making perfect cakes and pies—flaky and #crispy on the outside, moist in the middle. Aline told the hotel manager about Leone, and she was so convincing—or the hotel manager was so desperate—that he hired Leone on the spot. Aline went home and told Leone that she was now a hotel pie-baker and should report for work in the morning.
Leone was surprised, of course, but she had plenty of reason to be confident in her skills as a baker. When she got to the hotel, the busy manager showed her to the kitchen, told her to start baking, and hurried off.
Leone stood before the big commercial oven and stared. She opened the oven door and peered in. It wasn’t even hot. She looked on either side of the oven and behind it. No box of stove wood. When another hotel employee came through the kitchen, Leone stopped her. “Where’s does the stove wood go?” she asked. “I don’t see how to make this oven get hot.” It was the first time she had ever seen a stove or oven that didn’t burn wood.
Apparently, somebody showed Leone how to turn on the oven, and she figured it out from there.
*Bonus Cooking Story
We’re coming to the end of Inktober, so I’m not going to be able to give this old family chestnut its due, but since I’ve already mentioned Aline and cooking, I’ll squeeze this one in…
Aunt Aline had a reputation in the family for being a) preternaturally thrifty and b) not a good cook. I should also add that she was much beloved and very kind. But also preternaturally thrifty and not a good cook.
One time the extended family went on vacation, the expectation being that everybody would bring food to be shared more or less potluck style throughout the week. Aline brought a cabbage. And not a good cabbage either. It was clearly on its last legs, limp and blackening around the edges. But Aline was of the “Waste not, want not” school. Actually, I think she was the school principal.
On the first day of vacation, Aline pulled out her suffering cabbage, cut it in half, and made slaw. But people had seen the cabbage (in fact, people had been keen to see what Aline had brought so they could avoid it). None of the slaw got eaten that day.
On the second day of vacation, Aline boiled the other half of the cabbage and set it out on the communal board beside the slaw. No takers.
As the week went on, each day everybody put out their offerings, Aline put out her slaw and her boiled cabbage. They didn’t look or smell good even on Day One, and they didn’t improve with age.
At the end of the week, there was the same amount of slaw and boiled cabbage as there was at the beginning of the week (minus, perhaps, a little that Aline had eaten herself). As she loaded up her cabbage products to take back to Warner Robins, she said, with no apparent irony, “You know, I think the Lord must have blessed and multiplied my cabbage. I put it out every day, and we still have this much left!”
“I don’t think it will really work. Do you really think it will work?”
If Mark heard me, nothing in his demeanor showed it. He knew it would work. I was still fuzzy on the details, and I was pretty sure Mark was too. But his confidence had nothing to do with #patch-ed-together details. Mark was an idea man. His confidence came from his grasp of the big picture. And we all agreed on the big picture: when a radioactive spider bites you, you get super spider powers.
From the cartoon on Channel 17, I never really understood how Spiderman got his powers, but Mark explained the whole thing: Peter Parker was in a science lab, and a radioactive spider got loose and bit him, and then he got spider powers.
We ate this stuff up.
Mark was the youngest of several brothers, so even in third grade an air of worldliness attached to him. He knew things the rest of us didn’t. It wasn’t just that he knew things; it was his casual, can-do attitude toward life’s great mysteries. This was a young man, after all, who had baptized his own dog.*
So when Mark came to school with a plan to give us all super spider powers, he had our attention. He had a spider in a jar. All we had to do was to get the spider radioactive and let it bite us.
I thought getting the spider radioactive would be the hard part, but it wasn’t really. Mark had checked out a book of optical illusions from the school library. On the back cover was a swirling spiral that seemed to spin when you rocked it back and forth. He held it a few inches from the spider’s jar and set the spiral spinning.
This seemed mighty low-tech and dubious to me, and I said so. But the words were hardly out of my mouth when the spider collapsed in a curled-up little heap. Mark raised his eyebrows and gave a knowing nod, as if to say, “This is to be expected.”
“Is he dead?” asked one of the boys.
“Not dead,” Mark answered. “Radioactive. Now, who’s going to go first?”
We all looked at each other. In principle, super spider powers were a good thing. But actually to let a radioactive spider bite you…none of us were very sure about that. Even Peter Parker hadn’t LET a spider bite him. It was an accident.
“Look here,” Mark said. There was impatience in his voice. “When this spider wakes up, he’ll only be radioactive for a minute or two.” I’m not sure how he knew this. “We need to decide who’s going to get bit. William, why don’t you go first?”
William appeared to be weighing the pros and the cons. “So what kind of super spider powers will I get?”
“You know, like on the TV show,” said Mark. “You can walk up walls. Jump over buildings. Shoot webs out your wrists.”
William looked carefully at his wrist. “Where’s it going to come out? The web.”
Mark had to think on that one. “We’ll have to cut a little hole. Right there.” He swiped a thumbnail across the soft white underside of William’s wrist.
That’s where he blew it. William wasn’t going to let Mark cut him, and neither were any of the rest of us. Mark cajoled another boy or two, and we all argued back and forth for a while, but negotiations broke off with the recess bell, and we mostly dropped the whole thing.
I don’t know what became of the spider. But I like to imagine him awakening from his swoon and stalking across the Miller Elementary playground, his eyes aglow with radioactivity. He’s looking for an unsuspecting grade-school hero—one who won’t be made to choose greatness or choose against it, but rather will have greatness thrust upon him in the form of a spider bite and the dawn of super spider powers.
*Bonus Mark-related anecdote
Besides being a spider-radioactivizer, Mark’s other claim to fame was the fact that he had baptized his dog. A group of us third-graders were discussing how many people we had in our families.
“Seven,” Mark said.
“Not seven,” somebody corrected. “You have six people in your family. Three boys plus one girl plus two parents.”
“Plus the dog,” Mark said.
“You can’t count the dog.”
“Sure I can,” Mark said. “I baptized him.”
Mark was the only openly Presbyterian person I knew at the time. I understood that Presbyterians were different from Baptists, but I had never known exactly how. Mark seemed pretty much like the rest of us. But now things were starting to come into focus: Presbyterians baptized their dogs.
I was a little resentful. I had tried to get baptized my own self but failed the initial interview. (Preacher: “Can you tell me in your own words why you want to be baptized?” Me: “Because all my friends are getting baptized.” End of interview.) To learn that even Mark’s dog had beaten me to the punch was just too much.
Years later I learned that Mark’s position on canine baptism was idiosyncratic and in no way representative of the Reformed tradition as a whole.
Our next door neighbor, Ms. Sally, had been housebound for years. One day when our other neighbor Sue was over visiting, she mentioned that had heard birds squawking like crazy, so she looked up and saw that a snake had #slithered up high in one of the pine trees in Sally’s yard. It was a big pine snake, six feet long, and fat. Sally wasn’t having it. She couldn’t allow a snake in her yard. Never mind the fact that she hadn’t left her house in who knows how long or that the snake wasn’t offering to come inside, or that the snake was perfectly harmless—beneficial, even.
Sally called some neighbors over to see if they could get the snake out of the tree. We couldn’t. It was way up there. And I don’t know that we would have done about it in any case. But Sally insisted on action. There was enmity between the serpent and the woman. If the neighbors wouldn’t help, she’d find somebody who would.
Sally called the dogcatcher. The dogcatcher rolled up in his Animal Control truck. He was fresh off picking up a dead possum, which was reeking in the back of the truck. As the dogcatcher stood there trying to figure out what to do about the harmless snake in the tree, our dachshund, smelled the possum and came over to Sally’s to see what was up.
The dachshund really wanted to roll in that possum. But how’s a dachshund going to get into a truck? She put her paws on the bumper. She whined.
The dogcatcher, meanwhile, decided maybe the best bet would be to shoot the snake out of the tree. But he didn’t have a gun. He asked around, and one of the neighbors went to get a .22 rifle.
About that time, the dachshund started barking directly at the dogcatcher. Her plan, I think, was to get herself arrested and thrown in the back of the truck with the possum.
The neighbor came back with the gun. But thankfully the dogcatcher thought better of shooting up in the air in our neighborhood. He left the snake in the tree. Sally was disappointed. So was the dachshund.
My cousin Natalie Holley Keadle was the coach of the jump-rope team. They had a competition that afternoon, and one of her young athletes had left her uniform at home. Natalie called the girl’s mother—a woman she had known since high school—and asked if she could bring the uniform before school let out.
“I’m sorry,” the mother said. “There’s just no way I could get away from the office.”
But Natalie is a problem-solver. And you don’t become head coach of the jump-rope team by taking no for an answer. “I’ve got a planning period coming up,” she said. “Is there any way I could go by your house and pick it up? Do you still leave the back door unlocked?”
“Sure,” the mother said. “The back door is unlocked, just like it’s always been. Feel free to come get the uniform. Janey’s bedroom is upstairs, second door on the left. The uniform is on the top of the pile in the dirty clothes hamper.”
When her planning period arrived, Natalie drove over to her old friend’s house. She pulled into the familiar driveway and went to the back door just as she had done so many times before. But to her surprise, it was locked. So was the front door. But Natalie, as I said before, is a problem-solver and the possessor of surprising skills. She pulled a credit card out of her billfold and used it to jimmy the back door open.
As she went through the kitchen, she noticed that it had been redone since she had last been in her friend’s house. It had been years, she realized, since she had been in this house.
As she went up the stairs, she glanced at the family photos that lined the walls. Cousins from the husband’s side, apparently. The people in the pictures looked only vaguely familiar. But she didn’t waste any time thinking about it. Planning period was only an hour long.
The second upstairs door on the left was clearly not the room of a little girl. But the bedroom on the right was obviously a girl’s room. She opened the closet and found the dirty clothes hamper. But the jump-rope uniform wasn’t on the top of the pile. She dug through the rest of the pile. There was no jump-rope uniform anywhere in the hamper.
She called Janie’s mother. “I’m not seeing that uniform,” Natalie said.
“You looked in the hamper? In Janie’s room? Second bedroom on the left?”
“I looked in the hamper,” Natalie said. “In Janie’s room. But it’s not the second door on the left. It’s the door on the right, next to the bathroom.”
“No,” Janie’s mother said. “It’s the second door on the left.”
“Hmm…” said Natalie.
“Wait a minute,” said Janie’s mother. “You ARE at our house, aren’t you? Our current house?”
“Your current house?” said Natalie. “I’m in the house you’ve always been in.”
“The house we’ve always been in isn’t our house any more,” said Janie’s mom. “We’ve moved. You didn’t know we’ve moved?”
So there stood Natalie, in a pile of clothes she had pulled out of some strange girl’s dirty clothes hamper, upstairs in a house into which she had broken and entered. She ran downstairs, jumped in her car, screeched off, and drove back to school to catch the last few minutes of her planning period. She didn’t pause put the clothes back in the hamper, and she didn’t pause to lock the door. She couldn’t #risk it.