Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sir Charles

     I reckon the Good Lord knew I was going to be a pill so he found fit to weave 3 fathers into the fabric of my life.  My biological father, my Uncle Ralph and my father-in-law Charles.  My own father left before I had the chance to know him adult to adult - he was the parent and I was the kid and that kind of relationship has its parameters.  I knew my Uncle Ralph a lot better than I did my own dad.  Perhaps because he was the kind of person who would let you get to know him.  He was always there when I needed him and taught me that work ethic, honesty and laughter could take you a long way in this world.  It was the year after I'd married Charles Fowler's daughter that my Uncle Ralph left us.  I didn't think I'd have the kind of relationship  I had with Uncle Ralph with any other man.  I was wrong.

     From the day I stood in a towel outlet (yes, a towel outlet) in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and asked permission to marry his only child Charles has been, himself, teaching me...and teaching me and teaching me. It's what he did for a living you see.  First in a classroom and then as a principal who worried a lot more about his students than any of the principals I had in grade school.  I know this because I run into many of the students that walked the halls he guarded and each of them has a story about the impression he made on their life - and not just as the disciplinarian who occupied the office that haunts children's dreams.  Rather, as a constant teacher always giving them the "thumbs up."  He gave me the "thumbs up"  in that towel outlet, but only after he'd taken the time to remind me that he wanted the best for, not just his daughter, but also for me.  And if I thought marrying his daughter was the best thing for the both of us then he had my long as I realized that marriage was a very permanent situation.  "Don't go into this thinking 'well, if it doesn't work out we can always get a divorce' because then you've already lost."  I assured him this wasn't the case and that I'd never been more sure of anything in my life.  He said "go ahead, then...I'm happy for you."  I told him that I wasn't sure people did that sort of thing anymore, asking daddies for their daughters hands in marriage.  He said "it shows that you were taught character by someone...don't ever be afraid of having CHARACTER."  I took it as his approving nod to the other two souls who had served the role of father in my life - they'd done their job well.

     The whole "Sir Charles" title came around as a joke.  Charles went to graduate school, you see, at Auburn University, the same institution that gave Charles Barkley to the world (the original "Sir Charles")  I tried many times to tell him that if the OTHER Sir Charles had played basketball for any other school he'd see him as 98% mouth like the rest of us do.  Apparently, though, even the devil himself would get a pass if he'd attended Auburn.   But I like calling him Sir Charles because it's one of the first things we had between me and him (I mean, you know, other than the time I put a ring on his only child's finger!)   It was our first running joke and I smile anytime I get the opportunity to use it.  I heard someone else calling him that one time and I thought "whoa, whoa, whoa...that's OUR thing!"  I realized I was being a bit selfish, per chance.  Everyone that knows him has immediate respect that would warrant calling him "Sir."

     Since the day in February, 1997 when we exchanged our vows there at the Methodist Church in Stone Mountain he's gone to great lengths so that I'd never, ever forget that I'm family.  There have been bad times that were beyond our control, as there always are.  I was having a heart to heart discussion with him about one of these hard times and I got quite emotional, even started crying.  He said "what's wrong????"  I said "I don't want you to ever be disappointed that your daughter married me..."    He WHIPPED off his glasses and looked me dead in the eye and said (in elevated tone)  "SON!  What in the world are you talking about??????  Bad things happen!  I'm glad you felt like you could talk to me and I don't want you to ever, EVER be afraid to talk to me!  You're mine now and I'm glad to have you!!  Put those thoughts out of your head NOW."   I felt at once scolded and loved and it was pretty perfect.  I realized, then, I still had a daddy.

     So on this occasion of another Father's Day, I'll consider myself grateful that at every important stage of my life there's been someone filling that role for me.  And were he not a tee-totaling Southern Baptist (there's been occasion to celebrate holidays with my family when he asked "which one is the Methodist punch bowl and which one is the Baptist punch bowl?")   I'd raise a glass to Sir Charles and thank him.  But since he does refrain from consumption I'll simply give him a "thumbs up."   Were his predecessors here, they'd do the same and thank him profusely for keeping this knucklehead in line.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Open windows and gardenia bushes...

     In conversation the other day, someone brought up my mother's gardenia bushes that grew by the side of my childhood home.  Even though this person didn't live in that house, she said that anytime she smells a gardenia bush in full bloom she thinks about those bushes growing on Pine Shadows Lane back many years ago.  Funny she should mention them because every year when the weather turns warm I think about those gardenia bushes and their heavenly fragrance filling my bedroom every night.  It did that, you see, because my bedroom window was open and an attic fan was drawing in the night air.   Summertime sure did smell good.  Whether it was the gardenia bushes, the neighbor's freshly cut grass, honeysuckle on the fence or a still-smoldering grill where someone had cooked that night's supper it was hard for a child to dread whatever our imagination convinced us lived out there in the dark night.  You know you're not alone in the world if you can hear the neighbors chatting on their porch swing or smell the cigar you're father's smoking  in the driveway (because Mama won't let him smoke it in the house.)   If one of those summer thunderstorms blew in, the rolling thunder and the fresh wet smell of rain would rock you on to sleep where you'd dream of yet another of those endless summer days waiting on you in the morning, with its creeks to navigate and salamanders to catch and bikes to ride.

     During the summer, if I wasn't sleeping in my own bed I was more than likely sleeping in one of the two beds in my cousin Alan's bedroom.  I spent many weeks at Uncle Ralph and Aunt Nell's house during the summer you see.  They lived "wayyyyyyyyyyy off" in the country in Dawson County (Dawson County has now become another suburb having been swallowed by Atlanta's growth.)   In those dark, country nights, there was a whole 'nother world of sounds and smells wafting in those open windows.  Critters and crickets we didn't have at home had their own concert and I was mesmerized by life in what I thought then was the middle of nowhere.  Even the stink of a cat dining on a fish head  (from the catch we'd just cleaned) up on the porch wasn't a bad thing because well, it just smelled like summer.  Alan and I would lie there on those nights and listen to the radio station out of Gainesville  and argue about which song was the best.  If the Braves were playing on the west coast, we'd sit and listen to a baseball game 'til the wee hours and it would inspire us to dig out his old baseball gloves when we got up in the morning and play some catch.  Even some mysterious growling and wailing and gnashing of teeth out in those dark nights would be explained away at breakfast the next morning when Uncle Ralph bellowed - "Did y'all hear that damn dog get mixed up with another beaver down the hill?  I'm gonna have to take him to get MORE stitches in his face!"

     I fear we live in a really stuffy world these days.  Every place we go is sealed up tight as a drum lest we get the least bit uncomfortable.  I often find myself in a climate-controlled room still feeling like I need to go outside (even in the heat) just so I can feel air moving around.  I really do miss open windows, especially on summer evenings.  I reckon that's why my bride and I spend so much time on the patio at night, trying to literally and figuratively breathe.  The sounds and smells of summer are now cleansing us of the adult crap endured during the day and giving us something to put our minds on rather than the next day's ration of the same. Just for kicks I Googled "open windows" and the very first and most popular link tells me that "open windows is a desktop environment for Sun Microsystems workstations."   Well dang.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

"Stories was everything and everything was stories..."

    " No More Stories Are Told Today, I'm Sorry They Washed Away // No More Stories, The World Is Grey, I'm Tired, Let's Wash Away."   (the complete title of an album by the Danish band "Mew") 

     God knows I love stories.  I love stories spoken  in song, in film in writing..doesn't matter.  But I worry a lot about whether it's a dearth of creativity or an abundance of laziness and greed that's causing the re-re-re-retelling of a lot of familiar stories.  Sometimes it's easier to put a spin on an old one rather than telling a new one.  Maybe there's more money to be made in putting your touch on a story already told than there is putting originality out there and hoping someone bites.  I make mention of this to the lady of the house whenever we see advertising for a "new" something that's really an "old" something.  I tell her it bothers me.  She says "well then, I guess you just need to get busy telling your stories."
     I grew up with a lot of people that if asked what they do well, none of them would've answered "well, I'm a really good story-teller."  But they were.  Uncle Hank was a prisoner of war and had scores of terrifying, heartbreaking tales to tell.  But the stories he loved telling were of a much, MUCH  less serious nature.  He told us at dinner one night he'd sent away for a license to be a preacher.  Apparently the opportunity to do so was found in the back of a magazine.  He said he was going to call his congregation "The Church of The Militant Saints." (he was an attorney and, to my knowledge, never got this flock of believers off the ground.)  

     Uncle Ralph used to take me to visit an old man named Harry.  Harry lived way off in the woods, couldn't read a word and grew or killed every bite of food that hit his mouth.  And he could keep this child wide-eyed for an entire evening telling me story after story (most of which needed to be taken with a grain of salt, as my uncle would later explain.)  Here I am this many years later still mesmerized by the cow that lost her long tongue when Harry cut it slap off.  Seems the cow had stuck that long tongue through an overgrowth of honeysuckle and it found Harry's posterior standing on the other side.  He said he thought it was a snake and took out his knife and rendered the poor bovine mute.

     Speaking of Uncle Ralph some of the most memorable hours of my childhood were spent in his truck.  He never turned on a radio in his truck. If he was alone he'd light a Winston and roll down his window and see what folks all over Dawson County were growing in their gardens, parking in their yard or building a fence around. If he had someone riding with him he'd tell the rider all about the crazy person in that house, the fish someone caught in that cove over there or the chicken truck that wrecked coming down that hill.  Simple recounting of very simple things came across more like folklore than just talk.  

     And Daddy, well he  rarely talked around the house, but when he did it was about things that fascinated us...things like the Winecoff Hotel fire or Lucky Teter busting up cars at the old Lakewood Speedway.  His first job was at a funeral home and in those days funeral homes picked up bodies from disasters like the Winecoff fire, not a medical examiner or such.  There was usually a humorous slant to his recounting of that cold night in December, 1946. Maybe that's the way he dealt with some of the awful things he saw and heard.  When telling us about Lucky Teter he would always do a perfect imitation of the grandstand announcer at the Lakewood Speedway describing the antics of Lucky (one of the original "hell drivers." read more about him in this blog    )    

     My very first paying job was doing yard work on Saturday mornings at the Methodist church in East Atlanta they had named after Martha Brown.  They now call East Atlanta "East Atlanta Village" and it's a real bohemian kind of place with trendy restaurants and shops and people a lot cooler and younger than myself hang out there.  But for us it was home and a small town in a big town. And Charlie Smith had his finger on its pulse.  When I was cutting that grass or raking those leaves Charlie Smith would always stop by on his morning strolls and chat.  Before he retired Charlie ran a burger joint called "Charlie's Place" on Glenwood Avenue (I THINK it was on Glenwood?)   One of the earliest recollections of my childhood is of those burgers and wondering why anybody was eating burgers from underneath those arches - no matter how many millions they served - when they could get one from Charlie (actually, it was probably "thousands served daily" when I was a child....maybe even "hundreds.")    Anyway,  during those Saturday morning visits Charlie would tell me stories that found a permanent home in my brain.  Pick out an intersection, a house, a business - hell,  a TREE -  there in East Atlanta and he could tell you something fascinating about it.   If it was football season we always talked about who Georgia Tech was playing that day.  On one chilly morning in November, 1978 I remember telling him that I was worried because the morning paper had said that  Eddie Lee Ivery was sick with the flu and Tech was about to play Air Force in the snow in Colorado.  Charlie grinned and said "don't fret.  Sometimes when you're hurtin' or sickly is when you do your best because you're trying harder."   Daddy drove me home after finishing my chores that morning and we listened  along on the radio while Eddie Lee ran for 356 yards on those poor Air Force boys.  Charlie could tell a good story AND handicap a football game.

     There were always stories.  We latched on to them because we didn't have a device in our pocket that connected us to the world and spoon fed us our favorite t.v. shows, or let the world know we're having a totally awesome tuna salad for lunch or show us videos of cats doing funny things.  We actually talked to other human beings and told them about our day, the characters we knew or something strange we'd seen that morning.  Harry Crews - in "Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus" said it better than I can (what a shock....Harry Crews said most things better than I can, that's why he's a legend)  Hang on through the rather macabre banjo picking and listen to everything he has to say.

     God knows we still live in a world full of characters.  And we're definitely living in interesting, scary and exciting times.  So why are we "covering" old songs,  publishing new releases of old novels with different endings and making the same movie over and over and over?? (seriously, there's only so many angles from which we can approach Batman, Superman, Robin Hood and the crew of The Enterprise.) A friend from my high school days (who has done a lot of writing) and I had a similar discussion recently, about the written word in our world.  She told me she's certain there's lots of good writers out there but "they write for the heart and not for the market and sometimes those two are diametrically opposed."  That's too bad.  We're probably missing some classics.