Saturday, August 22, 2015

Mom's Mysterious Photo

     All seven-year-old boys are in love with their mothers. It is a special time. They hold hands unabashedly. It won't be long, however, before such PDAs will embarrass him. His mother will reach for his hand, and he will look both ways to see if one of his pals is watching. All too soon, that sweet time will have passed.
     One winter day in 1955, my sister and I missed the bus. Mother would drive us to school but had to get dressed first and put on her makeup. While Judy found her way to her to fifth grade, Mom walked me to Mrs. Campbell's second grade. She was explaining our tardiness to the teacher when I noticed that some of the kids were looking at her admiringly.
     “Your mom is really pretty,” whispered the boy behind me. “Yeah, she looks just like Marilyn Monroe,” said another. In the 1950s, the famous MM was epitome of womanly prettiness. I remember feeling both proud and a little jealous.

     When Mom died last year at age 92, I was pawing through old photographs to use for her memorial program and came across a rather mysterious snapshot of Mom walking on a busy sidewalk. I guessed the city was Dayton, Ohio, where she and my father lived in the early days of World War II. But I wasn’t sure and there was no one to ask. Her clothing style suggested the 1940s. I wondered who had taken the photo. She clearly didn’t know she was being photographed. She had been shopping; her arms were full of packages. She was in her early 20s, a beautiful young woman, hurrying somewhere, deep in thought.

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.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A matter of inches

A 15-pound piece of metal sliced through the windshield of our car 
last Saturday,narrowly missing my head.  Turns out it was a piece of
a brake drum from a tractor-trailer truck that had  enough velocity to
to punch a neat hole through the windshield and gouge a  2-inch hole
in the upright  portion of the  rear seat.   I stuck the piece of metal
back in the hole it made just for this photo. 
   Talk about your close calls...If the thing that came through our windshield Saturday afternoon had been just two or three inches to the left, I wouldn't be here to tell you about it. I would be on a cold metal slab in a morgue somewhere and the family would be making, uh..arrrangements.
   Saturday afternoon was bright and sunny here.  Lorraine volunteered to drive.  I wanted to work on the computer on the way to Greensboro where we were to attend a surprise 40th anniversary party Steve and Eileen Nester.  Eileen is Lorraine's sistter. ESPN radio was on and I was listening to the broadcast of the UNC - Louisville football game.  My game, Florida - Tennessee, wouldn't come on until 6 p.m. that evening.  I would try to sneak away from the party and catch pieces of the game on Steve's upstairs TV.  The laptop was open and my attention was on the screen, so I didn't see a thing.  Lorraine, on the other hand, couldn't speak as she saw what looked like an large, spinning axe blade hurtling toward us.  Later, she said her thoughts were, "That thing's going to hit us..." when suddently there was a loud crack and the cockpit of the Prius was filled with glass from the shattered windshield.  Many of the particles were so small that they created a kind of glass dust cloud. Both of us were momentarily dazed and functionless but unhurt. I thought the object had bounced off until closer inspection of the back seat revealed a big gouge in the upright portion of the back seat.  Then I saw what turned out to be a piece of a brake drum from a semi truck lying on the bench part of the back seat.  It was about the size of a dinner plate and weighed around 15 pounds.  I eyeballed the trajectory from the back seat gouge to the new windshield vent and gave a low whistle. I estimated that it had missed me by mere inches. "Close call" just doesn't seem to express it. 
         Later that evening Tennessee lost for the eighth time to their hated rivals from Gainsville.  But, for some reason, a near death experience puts even a tragedy of those proportions in perspective. 

Friday, December 30, 2011

Hobie Cat's Last Ride

 Our cat of 10 years ago, Hobie (get it, Hobie Cat), was certifiably insane. We got an inkling of this when she began to eat plastic dry cleaning bags, or portions of them anyway, and throw up disgusting things in the house. So she was banished to (shudder shudder) the outdoors. This necessitated that I become involved in the logistics of making her excommunication as humane as possible. We didn’t want to be cruel. So I had to put in two cat doors that would allow Hobie to come into the garage to get warm, and on into the laundry room where we would keep bowls of water and cat food for her.

*insert here clip from The Godfather where Vito Corleone says to Tom Hagen “We’re not murderers, regardless of what this undertaker thinks”*

A determined albeit unskilled do-it-yourselfer, I began the task of installing the two cat doors (not good for resale) starting with the laundry room door. I discovered that they sell pet doors but they don’t tell you how to install them. So, under the influence of that old handyman adage: “measure twice – cut once”, I measured and measured and measured. Only problem was, I had the door off its hinges, lying across two sawhorses when this measuring was done. So it was only after I had finished installing the pet door and had begun to put the utility room door back on the hinges that I discovered a problem.  I had installed the pet door, not in the bottom left corner as planned, but in the top left corner.  I told no one. I just sneaked back to Lowe’s for another door.

Hobie grew progressively worse in the psychiatric department. She hid in the crawlspace beneath the neighbor’s house and uttered moans that could only be described as macabre. Maybe blood curdling. Anyway, they were loud, long and guttural sounds that frightened the neighbor's two small children in the middle of the night. The neighbor’s name was Jamie. He came over one day while I was outside and began the conversation with, “Is that your cat?” I knew this wouldn’t turn out well.

He told me about the moaning. He was nice about it, but the message was clear. Also disturbing was the fact that Hobie had begun the nasty habit of bringing home trophy kills and depositing them on the welcome mat. Mice, mostly. Some song birds. One very large Blue Jay. I wondered how in the world she managed to catch these birds. Were birds really that slow? I have to say I was as impressed as I was disgusted.

Although we did our best to care for her, Hobie's health soon began to fail and on the rare occasions when we saw her it was shocking to see her looking so scraggly.

“Just do it and don’t tell me about it until after it’s over,” Lorraine said to me one day.

“Do what?” I asked.

“You know… take care of Hobie,” she said.

“Oh… you mean eliminate her,” I said, doing my best mobster impersonation. “Wax her. Neutralize her. Take her out of action. Do her. ”

“Stop it!” she cried.

I was still going. “The big sleep. Off her. Turn out her lights….”

“I mean put her out of her misery,” she said quietly. I shut up.

I agreed to do it but I was uncomfortable about it. I understood mercy killing….when other people did it. But this was different. I guess my job in relation to the family pets was to serve as installer of custom entry doors and, oh yeah, hit man.

A few days later I caught a glimpse of Hobie, slinking around the front porch. She had just deposited a fresh kill at the front door and was waiting for someone to find it. It was then that an idea was born. It would give Hobie a chance at life and keep me from being a cat assassin. I put Hobie in the trunk of the car muttering, “We’re going for a little ride in the country, old girl,"

I drove west until I found the bucolic scene for which I was searching. There, in the twilight, was a small, friendly wood-frame farm house with outbuildings. A scene right out of “The Waltons” I reckoned. A driveway bordered by a wood fence curved up from the main road toward the front door. It was early spring and a wisp of smoke curled up from a red brick chimney and the windows of the small house glowed orange in the fading light. What an idyllic rural setting for Hobie’s new life! There was a pond nearby and I think I saw another cat or two, but I can’t be sure. In any case, I drove down the driveway as far as I dared, as if to turn around, and popped the trunk and let Hobie out. I wished her well and hoped that some kind soul would adopt her. If they didn’t, I reasoned, she would still be all right, wouldn’t she? Hadn’t she already proven her hunting skills beyond any reasonable doubt? If she was that good at living off the land, then certainly she would come to a better end here than she would at the hands of the evil Doctor VetVorkian!

Satisfied, I headed home. My cell phone rang and I answered it. It was a friend and they asked me what I was up to. So I told them about “taking Hobie for a ride” and didn’t think anything about it. He told his wife, however, and she told my wife and I got the hysterical call at work the following day.
We drove to the scene of the "crime" and combed the woods near the farm house calling the cat’s name, but of course there was no Hobie. I went to the farm house to inquire if they had seen a lost cat. Nope. We eventually sold that house with its superflous cat doors (very bad for resale) and what happened to Hobie is still a touchy subject. Lorraine’s vision is one of a small, helpless, Kibbles N Bits-fed little kitty being torn to pieces by feral dogs. I see a kind hearted farmer's wife, her gray hair in a bun, sitting by a fire, knitting, rocking, with Hobie softly purring by her slippered feet.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hurricane Hype

The following rant is brought to you by the makers of the new anti-hysteria medication, Damitall.  Ask your doctor if you are a candidate for Damitall. You may need a dose if you have been watching the weather channel lately and had your stress level escalated by all the hype and hysteria associated with Hurricane Irene. 

Irene is the first significant storm of the year and the Weather Channel is making the most of it.  I'm right here, aren't I? I mean, the weather channel has nothing to do most of the year, right?  Warm front here, cold front there, highs, lows, rain, sun.  Yawwwwnnnnnnn!  But buddy let a hurricane crank up out in the atlantic and they are all over it like a fat kid on a piece of cake. 

Update!!! (dramatic music) A guy in a flack jacket comes on screen.  He stands in front of a bush (leaves blowing in the wind make for good footage).  If there is no wind, he's not above getting one of the boys from the truck to turn on a big fan.  Maybe toss a few palm fronds up in the air and let them whiz by the camera. No, I don't know that for sure, but you know they're thinking it!  I mean they want it to be bad so badly! 

And talk about your superlatives!  They sling around shock words like confetti on New Year's Eve!  It's not a category 3 storm... It's a category 3 MONSTER. And it's not "moving" across the Bahamas... it's SLASHING across the Bahamas. Their producers must grade them on how many alarming adjectives and nouns they can cram into one sentence. Like:  

"This category 3 "BEHEMOTH" is "PACKING" 115 mph winds and will "SLAM" into the coast tonight, "WREAKING HAVOC" on the southeast portion of the state!!  In other words, "Run for your lives!  We're all going to die!"

We lived in Florida when three hurricanes came ashore in 2004.  We heeded the hysteria and left town for the first two storms.  Nothing happened.  Never lost a shingle.  So we stayed home for the third one.  Lost three shingles.  All I'm saying is hold your fire, weather folk.  If you call 'em all "monsters" then we won't believe it when a real one comes along... like Katrina maybe.