Saturday, November 08, 2014

Hey, Dad...How 'Bout Them Vols!

Dad in his 30s talks with his father, Milum, and Brother Robert
    When Tennessee came from behind last Saturday to beat South Carolina, I had a fleeting urge to call my father, who died 10 years ago, just to talk about the game.  Dad and I never really had ordinary conversations. We never talked just to talk. Not that I can remember, anyway.  He just wasn't wired that way. Stoic mountain roots and all that. Displays of affection were rare, too. In the half-century we knew each other, I can count on one hand the times we embraced, and they all seemed awkward and forced. 
When Dad and I had conversations there was always a buffer, an insulating wall.  We had to have something to wrap the dialogue around - usually some inanity like the weather, the best road to take somewhere, or food.  If I had him back for just one day, I would pry out of him stories about his youth just to fill in some blanks.  
For example, I know that in 1939, when he was 19, he left Tennessee for New York City where he worked as a bus boy at the Brass Rail Restaurant in Times Square.  I don’t know how I know this, but I do. It had something to do with the 1939 World’s Fair, but I don’t know what.  There is more to that story, but it was buried with him.
Talented running back Jalen Hurd scores
He attended East Tennessee State University (Teacher’s College back then) for two years but dropped out. What happened? Who knows?  
When I was 12, he went through some kind of emotional crisis.  He lay in bed, reading. My mother cried a lot. When he finally did emerge, he sat for hours at a time just staring out the picture window in the living room.  It was depression, I suppose.  One day he just snapped out of it.  He shaved, put on his best suit, and got a job selling Edsels. I never saw him spin out like that again, and I never knew what caused it.  
But the one thing Dad and I could always talk about was University of Tennessee football.  I have an early memory of my father listening to a Vols game on his car radio.  He sat in front seat of the parked car – a black 1950 ford sedan – with the door open and one leg dangling out, staring at the dashboard and listening intently.  He was 31, well muscled with coal-black hair. I had to be five years old. I know this because we lived in Rogersville, Tenessee at the time. That would put the year at 1951, which was an exceptional year for UT.  The coach back then was the legendary Robert Neyland – the one for whom the stadium is named and the coach who led the Big Orange to an undefeated season and a national championship that year.  It was a feat that would not be repeated until 1998, under Philip Fulmer.
When Dad saw me, he lifted me up and sat me down beside him on the front seat.  It was a new car; I still remember that distinctive new-car smell. Although I didn't know what it was about, I remember the cadence of the sports announcer’s voice – slow at first as the players lined up and then suddenly frenetic and excited as the ball carrier went into motion.  Although I was only five, I somehow knew, judging from the urgent sounds coming from the radio and my father's reaction to them, that this was something important.  It was only natural that as I grew up I would become infected by the same orange virus.
 We didn’t have a television until 1959.  It was the “Devil’s eyeball,” my father said. When we finally did have one, it was because Dad wanted to watch Tennessee play their arch-rival Alabama on the tube.
In the early 1960s, he took me to a game at Neyland Stadium. It was utter excitement, even though the Vols lost to Ole Miss by three points. The most emotion I think I ever saw my father display was when the boys in the pumpkin-colored uniforms scored a touchdown.   
As the years passed, I called Dad several times, especially during the glory days of Peyton Manning. We spoke after every game during the magical 1998 season when the Vols went undefeated and beat the Florida State Seminoles for the national championship. The Volunteers began to struggle after that.  There wasn't much to talk about when they lost.  Dad went downhill too after 2000, and died of a stroke in 2004. 

Last Saturday, when the Gamecocks scored with four minutes left on the clock, putting Tennessee two touchdowns behind, I just turned the game off.  I didn't want to see them lose again.  It’s only a game, I told myself.  Just before I went to bed, however, I decided to check ESPN on the computer just to see what their margin of defeat had been.  I couldn't believe what I saw!  “Are you kidding me??!!!” I said out loud. They had won the game by three points in overtime!  Joshua Dobbs, their new mobile quarterback, had somehow put them in the end zone twice in two minutes and tied the game with 11 seconds left.  Their field goal kicker put one through the uprights to put them ahead by three in overtime. Then the Tennessee defense pushed the Gamecocks back out of field goal range and the kicker’s attempt was a duck that wobbled short.  What an unbelievable comeback! That’s when I thought of Dad.  He wouldn't have abandoned hope like I did.  He would have stayed with them until the bitter end.  He also would have called me, if I didn’t call him first, to rejoice over one of the few things we had in common.  

Friday, October 03, 2014

Remembering Ron Nixon

Ron on the subscription wrapping machine on the 12th floor of building 2
     A good friend of mine died this week.  Cancer got him – an unusual type that moved fast and was inoperable.  Up until now, death had only picked the old ones from my small, close circle – the ones whose time had expired. Ron Nixon had plenty of time left and was not through living. Six months ago we were we were laughing on the phone about some silly thing that happened when we were Bethel boys together.
     Ron and I had a deal.  If you get a party invite, I go with you.  If I get a party invite, you come with me. You could say we had an active social calendar.  One party (the euphemism “gathering” hadn’t been invented yet) took us all the way to the outskirts of Philadelphia.  No problem – subway to Penn Station, train to the Red Arrow Bus stop, bus to the party.  What else did we have to do on a Saturday afternoon?  It was dark by the time we got there.  Ron, always conscious of social protocol, insisted we bring a bottle of something.  We chose an affordable bottle of sake and wrote a note on the bag that said, “Sake to me!” It seemed high comedy to us at the time.
Ron in 2012 on special assignment for the branch
      When the clock struck 12, and it was time to go, we figured we would just retrace our route. Catch the Red Arrow back to the train and the train back to New York. We discovered to our horror that the busses didn’t run after 10 p.m. and the next train to New York wasn’t until 7 a.m.  I made a kazoo out of a pocket comb and a crisp dollar bill, and played a fuzzy version of “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” while Ron made an impassioned plea about helping two lost Bethelites find their way home.  A pretty sister and her friend volunteered to drive us all the way back to 124 Columbia Heights.  
      We were waiters together at Le Fleur de Lis. Our routine was to combine our tables and put on a show.  The other waiters couldn’t figure out why our tips were so high.
       In 1984, I was on my back deck in Louisville, Kentucky zipping open the congregation mail.  One letter was from Watchtower telling us that our next circuit overseer would be Bro. R.E. Nixon.  “I wonder if he is related Ron,” I muttered to myself, having no clue that it would be Ron in the flesh.  It had been 15 years since I had last seen him  We had a great three years together.  He was the same fun-loving guy I knew back then, only another side had emerged – that of a deep, spiritual man who knew the scriptures and could wield them like a kind warrior.  We would be Ron’s last circuit.  He and Minta would move to Italy and stay for the next 20 years.
       I know I will see him again, but I don’t do well with these things.  I don’t know what to say to those who grieve.   Words are hollow sounds that may as well be howls at the moon.    

Monday, June 16, 2014

Remembering Mama

Mom and me in November 2013
      My mother doesn't have much longer to live and that's the sad truth of it.  She is 91 and Alzheimer's has just about won its 12-year war with her, stealing her mind a little at a time.
       I sat by her bed at Shannondale Nursing Center in Knoxville, Tennessee last week and watched her sleep. The doctor told us that she is in the "final stages" of Alzheimer's.  That's when they they forget how to do such basic things as swallow.  She barely eats.  Her chart says she is only taking in 750 calories per day.
       Only eight months ago she was able to sit up and roll around in her wheel chair.  She spoke in mumbles and could even feed herself.  Now she can't leave the bed.  
     A nurse comes in to check her vital signs and change her. I excuse myself and walk down the hall to speak to the floor nurse.  A wheel chair convention is in progress at the nurses station.  They let them do that at Shannondale.  Residents in wheelchairs gather in the lobby of the third floor where there is an aviary and a flat screen TV. Inevitably, the party spreads to the common area in front of the nurses station.
2005 with her "memory" notebook
      Five years ago, when mom was still able to walk and talk, she used to laugh at the "roller derby" as she called it, never imagining that she would join them in a few years.  In those days, because she knew her memory was fading, she kept a notebook close by and would try to capture on paper what her mind could not recall.  I looked at it one day and saw that she had written my name, my wife's name, the names of our children and grandchildren multiple times. On the top of one page she had put: "This is TOMMY'S family...DON'T FORGET!!"  She filled up five or six notebooks with memos like that before she lost the ability to write.
        As I stood at the desk waiting for the head nurse, several pairs of eyes stared at me from the wheel chair traffic jam.
      "Can you help me?" I heard a plaintive voice say.  I turned to see if the question was directed at me.  A pert woman who looked to be in her mid-80s was looking at me with panic in her eyes.  "Can you please help me?" she said again.   She had coiffed silver hair and wore light purple velour pants suit. She looked as though she had been elegantly pretty in her youth.  My inclination was to ignore her - the way you would a drunk or a beggar but I bent down to her.
      "How can I help you, honey?" I said. I had no Idea where this would go but it seemed rude to ignore her.  By the way, "honey" is a form of address in Appalachia and can convey many things.  In this case, I meant it to convey concern and sympathy, but it sounded condescending and disingenuous when I heard myself say it.
       "I want to go home."  she said earnestly, reaching up for my arm with her frail, age-spotted hand.   "I've been here at Levi Strauss for 31 years and I never thought it would come to this!"
       In its middle stages, Alzheimer's plays devilish tricks with the mind.  In her dementia, the woman imagined she was trapped at work; "they" would not let her leave.
       "What's your name?" I asked , attempting to calm her.
      "Jenny," she said, brightening.
      "Is that because your name is Jennifer?" I asked.
      "No, Virginia,"  she clarified.  "My son Dan is supposed to come and get me and I think he is in the lobby waiting for me. Can you help me?"
      "How many children did you have?" I asked her.
      She was sharp enough to know that I was deflecting and gave me a shame-on-you look that said, "I know what you're doing.  She released my arm and held up one bony index finger, indicating that Dan was an only child.
      "And where does he live?"  I asked.
      "Right here in Knoxville," she said impatiently, as if that was the most ridiculous thing to ask.
      The pleading look returned. "Can you help me get out of here?  I've been here with Levi Strauss for 31 years as a supervisor, and I never thought it would come to this!" she said indignantly.
Mom as a young woman in 1942
       I was saved by the arrival of the floor nurse.   I asked about my mother's condition and she showed me her chart.  Her vital signs were relatively stable, considering.  Although she could rally (she had seen patients do that in the end stages of Alzheimer's), it would surprise her if my mother lasted another six months, but they were doing all they could to keep her comfortable.
      One reason we hold onto memories so tightly and for so long is because memories don't change even when the people the memories are about do.  I remember a beautiful woman in her 30s who always made sure I had new school clothes every year and helped me do my homework.  I remember a blond-haired angel hovering over me and worrying when I was sick.  I remember holding her hand when she took me to see movies at the Strand Theater.  I remember the cherry Cokes we sipped together at Freel's Drug Store afterward.  I remember helping her plant flowers in the spring.  I remember feeling so proud when she took me to school one day and  all the boys in the second grade told me that she looked just like Marilyn Monroe. I remember a woman who taught herself to play the piano and loved to sing.
      When I was 13, Mother had a nervous breakdown followed by a bout with depression that lasted for about six months.  I'm sure there are fancier words for it now, but that's what they called it then.  She lay in the bed and couldn't stand noise of any kind.  I don't think she ever saw a doctor for it.  She just suffered through it until the cloud lifted enough for her to continue with life.  During that spell, I was playing with a BB gun in the house and accidentally shot the mirror over the fireplace, chipping the glass.  She didn't scold me.  She just went into her room, closed the door and sobbed.  I stood at the door listening to her for a few minutes and then gingerly opened the door to tell her I was sorry.  She sat up and motioned for me to come to her.  She hugged me fiercely and, still weeping, told me that she knew it was an accident and that she loved me.  That was rare.  Our family did not hug.  We never said "I love you" to each other.  That just went without saying.  It was understood.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was as if saying it out loud somehow cheapened it.
      I go back to see if she is awake.  Her eyes are half open but they don't see me.  Her mouth sags and she looks so weak and pale.  I lean over and kiss her cheek and stroke her forehead, smoothing back strands of thin, white hair.  Even though she doesn't hear, I call her Mama, and tell her quite loudly that I love her.