Cokes and Newspapers

Here is another story I like to tell to make a point.  Guess you would call it an object lesson.  Know its been good for me and I’ve shared it over the years with a number of people who needed to hear it.

Friend of mine who lives west of town, we’ll call him Max, used to have an issue getting his newspaper delivered first thing in the morning.  Took a while but he finally figured out what was happening.  The mailman would stop by, pull his newspaper out of the box, read it during the day, and then put it back at the end of his route when he dropped off Max’s mail.

Over time this routine became a source of irritation for Max.  Then one day there were other sources of irritation and the paper became the flashpoint.  So Max decided he had a bate of it and wanted to do something.

He knew the mail carrier stopped by a country store every day on his route before heading back to the post office.  So, he decided to wait for him at the store and confront him about his paper stealing habit.  Max was primed to give him a piece of his mind, a real “what fer” in Southern parlance.

So here is your visual: old country store, white sided, rusted tin roof, wooden bench out front, Coca Cola sign with the name of  the storekeeper on the side of the building, cold drinks in an old galvanized box, the kind you slid a lid sideways and reached down into, a few dry goods and lots of dust on the shelves, you know the place, hopefully.  Max walks in the store, gets a drink out of the box, Coke in a glass bottle,  and goes out front to wait on the wooden bench.

A few minutes later the storekeeper comes out. Weather talk ensues, then he asks Max what he’s waiting for.  After hearing about it there is a pregnant pause, a moment of reflection, a look away into the fields and pastures surrounding the store.  A few minutes of pondering.

“Max”, he asks, “would you do something for me?”

“Sure”, is the answer, not knowing he is about to be waylaid.

“Why don’t you just let him be the a**hole?”, then he turns and walks back in the store.

Max sat there a few more minutes considering the request, finished the last couple swallows of Coke, put the bottle in the old wooden rack beside the bench, got in his truck, and went back to the house.

On one hand, to me, it is a liberating story.  Fraught with dynamics like transfer of power, release, self-actualization, and other twenty dollar words.

On the other hand, it’s just a cool story…..

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Claud

I am eating with my lunch buddies.  One of them has his 12 year old son, Trep, with him.

“Mr. John, why do you wear your watch backwards like that?”  is Trep’s question.

Where do I start?  Knowing it would take a book to cover the answer to this simple question that has sucked the air out of the room for me.

As Don McLean penned, “I was a lonely teen-aged broncing buck, with a pink carnation and a pickup truck”.   An 18 year old suffering the angst of growing into manhood and all that means.  Checking the rite of passage boxes:  relationships with the fairer sex, battles with my father, working, school, spiritual and financial matters.  Living large and taking charge.  At least we thought so.

Claud was twice my age and saw something in me worth investing his time.  So began a friendship that would alter the course of my life, and make me a better man.  He was second generation Vero Beach, working with his dad and then running the machine shop that bore their name.  Specialized in building pumps to water the orange and grapefruit groves in our area, pumps big enough to suck an alligator through.  Lots of water, welding rods, and hard work.   He wore his watch on the inside of his wrist to keep it from being broke.  A loving wife, two daughters, and a son.  Younger than me.  Our relationship gave him a free pass at learning how to deal with a teenager.  A parental mulligan.  I don’t know that either of us realized that at the time.

A front porch swing was where the majority of that investment was spent.  Lots and lots of hours, late nights, swinging, and learning life lessons.  If Jesus taught with parables, Claud’s method was analogies.  He was better at them than anyone I have ever known.  Lots of laughter too.  Meeting me at my point of need and listening without judgement, then gently prodding me in a better direction.  Sharing his stories with me.  From a perspective a parent could not.  Letting me know he cared.

Sometimes the swing would start squeaking, as porch swings can.  We would both get off and Claud would shake the chains to dislodge some of the axle grease he had dobbed on the eye bolts to lubricate them, a provision indicative of his forethought.  Then we’re back to swinging, quietly.

Claud crossed the river to the other side about two years ago.  Damn pancreatic cancer.  Went to Florida and spent a weekend with him just prior to his passing.  He was not wearing his watch then, time had ceased to matter.   Told him through tears that he was a hell of a lot better man at 36 than I had been.  Came home emotionally spent, but on cloud nine.  Pretty weird, I know.   Wouldn’t take a million dollars for that weekend.  Wrote a letter to him when I got back to the house.  Told him I hoped he would use some of his time in heaven before I join him to find us a swing so we can catch up.  Also shared the hope they would allow us to tell a few lies without being kicked out.

So, Trep, I wear my watch that way to remind me.  Remind me to be a better man, to listen, to care, to make time, and to try to make a difference.  To bring back late nights, squeaky porch swings, and the transfer of wisdom.

And, most of all, to honor a damn good man.

“Chiefisms”

I have talked about being in the moment. Here is one of those.
My fire chief buddy and I are in LaGrange visiting two friends at a hospital and rehab. Dr. Don, a member of our scout troop for years as Scoutmaster and now as wise old counsel deserves his own story. He is asleep and we visit with his son before going to the rehab facility to see one of my heroes who is transitioning from the hospital to home, again. Walter, or “Chief” as we call him, has had his own story but deserves another one.
It is a fairly quiet, subdued evening at Florence Hand home. There are two other visitors in Chief’s room when we come in. One is Dee, who is one of his caretakers when he gets home. The other is Robert, an older man, who seems reserved and speaks in a quiet voice that is pure Georgia. We visit for a few minutes and then I make a point to ask Robert his name again. He answers and when I catch his ‘back’ name it all falls into place and I realize how lucky I am to be here. I have heard Chief mention Robert many times over the years.
Chief and his first wife Jewell never had any children of their own. But I am willing to bet that Robert, and a line of others behind him, would testify that he looks at the man lying on the bed grinning at us as a father. He starts telling stories about Chief and Jewell loading up 6-7 youth in Chief’s Metropolitan car, “which was about 6 feet long”, every Tuesday night for a trip to the roller skating rink. Years of leading Methodist youth groups, teaching Sunday School. Other trips are talked about, some of which Chief confesses he had forgotten about. “Now Chief,” Robert chides, “I have never known you to forget anything. Maybe you just didn’t remember.” Stories flow about a life well lived.
Dee leaves with a kiss and an “I Love you.” One she means. It’s obvious she cares about this old man.
We start sharing “Chiefisms”. Wisdom gleaned from his 92 plus years he has dispensed to us. “Over yonder is a lot farther than it used to be.” “I am older now than I have ever been.” “They say I am in pretty good shape, for the shape I’m in.”
It’s been a wonderful night and a great visit. I would not take $10,000 for the chance to be here, now.  It has been almost a mystical, enchanted time here in this room.
Chief has started looking beyond us, he is thinking about his next gig, and with his wisdom he expresses it better than we ever could. “You know, I don’t want to leave this earth a second sooner than the good Lord wants. But neither do I want to be here a second longer than he wants either.”
Damn, Chief, you’re killing me…..  ’cause we all love you and care about you.

Cutting Grass…

Remember what I said about there being times when it is best not to say it, even if you think it?  Here’s one example of how I’ve learned that lesson.

My wife Karlia and I bought the house we still call home and moved to our small Georgia town back in 1988.  It was our first house after getting hitched and the one William, our next door neighbor, had grown up in.  He had married Khaki, moved away for a time, and then came back to town.  At that point his mother was still living in the house so he built another one right next door for him and Khaki.  After his mother passed it sat for a while before they put it on the market.  We looked at the house and talked about it during our first meeting with them.  Every subsequent meeting was strictly socializing as they decided if we would be good neighbors.

William was the town banker and Khaki the quintessential Southern Belle.  She was sharp as a tack and part of a past generation that we are so much poorer for not emulating.  Think Steel Magnolias.  Loved her grandson, the Braves and liked watching NASCAR, which seemed out of character.  He looked the part of his career choice with the fringe of hair around his head and the glasses he would wear on the end of his nose and look at you over.  Embodied the axiom of discretion being the better part of valor, especially  for a small town banker.  Did some travelling sales during his years away and one of our favorite games was to come up with the names of obscure towns to see if the other knew where they were.  My days driving truck came in handy as we plumbed the depths of two lane Georgia;  towns like Chauncey, Dixie, Cotton, Bridgeboro, Ty Ty, and Ailey among others were dredged from the memory banks and located.  For fun we also pulled out Boston, Louisville, Dover, Dublin, and Scotland as towns in our state.   Lots of good times.

We did not have a TV so sometimes at night I would go over to watch with them.  I have a propensity to fall asleep if I sit still for more than about 10 minutes.  The first time I did this on their living room floor they weren’t quite sure what to do.  Awkward.  Then it got to be old hat where he would shake me awake and tell me to go home when they went to bed.

As time went by Karlia and I realized we had won the neighbor lottery.  It was like one of the prizes that pay out every week.  Dinners together, lots of backyard conversations, watching the cycle of life in each other’s world, their first grandchild, us with our firstborn, and then three more.

Our front yard is about an acre.  Poor as we were we mowed it with a push mower for a long time as we discovered it is a lot steeper than it looked from your car.  Occasionally William would take pity on us and mow it with his rider which was wonderful.  At that time my office was in a front room of the house with my desk beside the window.  So I could look out and watch him as he mowed it one afternoon.  This made me think of a joke I could play later as we visited in our mutual back yard.

So, that evening as pleasantries are exchanged I am waiting for my opportunity.  Finally, the conversation lags for a moment and I pounce.

“You know, Karlia, I was sitting at my desk today and heard this noise outside,”  I start the setup,  “Looked out the window and saw this dome going by just below my window, looked like a flying saucer.”  I am demonstrating with hand motions.  Everybody is looking at me with puzzled expressions, wondering if I have snapped and really lost it.  I am standing there grinning like a bird-fed cat.

Then understanding crosses Khaki’s face, “O William,” she laughs as she pokes him in the shoulder, “he’s talking about your head.”

He never mowed my grass again.  Had lots of time to ponder that lesson pushing that mower up and down my yard.

Even if you think it………

“No good deed….”

It’s about time for something a little lighter after reading the last few I have written.  So here you go. The reference to the Extreme Makeover project reminded me of it.  I am leaving out names for reasons that will become obvious.

The project was announced and immediately fully staffed with volunteers.  The recipient, Jeremy, who has ALS, has made quite the impact on our community.  The project consisted of tearing down their present home and building one in its place to accommodate his present and future needs.

A contractor in the area decided to volunteer his time and skill set.  So, he showed up at his appointed time on the schedule and starts working.  Keep in mind that he is quite well-known hereabouts for his building expertise.

His Achilles heel when it comes to construction is the propensity to begin bleeding anytime he is around a utility knife, box cutter, whatever you want to call it, and as luck would have it he is handed one and asked to do work using it.

Knowing this is not going to end well he begins work.  Sure enough, in a few minutes he has cut one of his hands, badly, across the palm and is leaking blood profusely.  He manages to halt the bleeding by applying pressure, goes to the foreman, and asks to be excused so that he can come to our local doctor and get sewn up.

As he walks off the job site back to the parking lot he notices a row of Porta-pottys on the way out.  Now there is a dilemma because he also needs to pee in the worst way.  He figures, “I’ve got this”, manages to get in one with the one good hand, further manages the logistics of accessing what needs to happen to pee one-handed, and is enjoying that sweet relief of release.

Right up to the point the door starts opening, ‘cause he couldn’t lock it one-handed.  Now he is desperately trying to stop the door’s outward swing, blood and pee going everywhere.   Doesn’t work out and he is standing there face to face with another young female volunteer who, observing the carnage, begins screaming, thinking she has entered a slasher movie zone.

Attempting to calm her he says the first thing that comes to mind, “It’s not as bad as it looks!”

I think she is still in therapy….

“Some ‘splaining to do”

One of our community’s brushes with fame has been because of a local resident named Jeremy who has ALS.   The Extreme Makeover show did his house, he has written a book, was a coach who inspired his players, sends out verses to people.  Is still touching lives even as the disease ravages his body.  I know him from a distance and even from that distance he has inspired me.  Jeremy is a rising tide in our area.

Glenn was another local man I knew from a distance.  You know the situation.  We had mutual friends and our paths occasionally overlapped.  We could call each other by name easily enough but weren’t fishing together.  His wife Twyla was one of the better teachers at the local elementary school.  Taught a couple of my kids along the way.  Another overlap.

He was a man’s man without having to beat his chest or get swollen up at the gym to pull it off.  Was good with his hands, could build things, did a lot with the local Habitat chapter, thoughtful, made plans and followed through.  Worked smart and hard.  Good family.

So I got a call a while back from one of those mutual friends with Glenn.  Wayne and I have done a lot of projects together and he was getting up a few people to put a deck on the back of Glenn’s house.  The project was because Glenn had also been diagnosed with ALS and was already confined to a wheel chair.  This would make it possible for him to roll out the back door and have coffee or meals outside.

It was a pretty Saturday and one well spent.  Glenn was doing everything he could to help.  He had thought out just how he wanted it built and we plugged into his vision.  He was rolling around, handing out screws, helping to measure, and advising.  I brought my oldest son to help, Twyla had taught him.  All in all a very good day.

About a month later Wayne called me to Glenn’s house again.  Needed witnesses for the power of attorney for health care and the Do Not Recusitate orders.  Glenn had thought this through just like his deck, and the rest of his life.  By now he is in the bed and wearing a breathing mask.  Going downhill fast.  Life is starting to suck, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to him.  Emotionally,  I was also going south.

So after we prayed I couldn’t escape back to my truck and get in the road fast enough ’cause I really did not want to cry in front of them.  But I did, in my truck, all the way home.  Knowing, but not understanding.  Angry, no more like really pissed off.  Talking to God.  Questioning what the hell was happening here.

Went to the visitation.  Took my oldest son with me again, was good for Twyla.  Watching the slide show that are popular now at these venues.  The one image that stopped both me and my son in our tracks was one where Glenn was sitting on the edge of a pool, bathing suit, shirtless.  Great physical shape.   A long ways from where I had last seen him.  Both of us are struggling to talk now without a catch in our voice.

God has been good to me and is the most important factor in my life.  The way it normally works is He kicks me in a direction and I head off that way; fat, dumb, and happy.  I promise you this though, there are a few things that are gonna need “some ‘splaining” when I cross over the river one day.

And this would be one of them….

Trucks and Tapes

I met Dave a few years back by chance.  A friend of mine had given up on his Datsun 240Z becoming a classic and had started road racing it at tracks like Road Atlanta and Savannah and Barber Motorsports.  In doing this he had become friends with a couple brothers running a repair shop outside Opelika AL.  Like way out in the boonies.  Dave was also a friend of the brothers and using their shop to build a custom car.  One of those without door handles, “Shaved” they call it, where hidden latches open the doors, trunk, and hood.  Custom this and custom that.

Dave was a carpenter by trade, actually a framer.  Someone who builds walls, doorways, decks;  anything requiring gross motor skills and a big hammer.  Typically framers cannot do finish work and vice versa.  Which made the work he was doing on the car that much more amazing.

Not being a mechanic or having that background Dave was not encumbered by the realities the rest of us face when building a project car.  He did not know that the drive line out of a Honda couldn’t be shoehorned into a 1948 Plymouth.  Or the air conditioner from a Toyota mini van couldn’t be made to fit either, and not knowing these things, he made them work.  We all just shook our heads in amazement.

So when I met him Dave was about seven steps into a twelve step program.  He knew Bill W well.  In that program people in Dave’s position are encouraged not to take on long term projects.  Short-term goals and victories are the recommended course.  Another reason the car didn’t fit in.  He was staying with an elderly woman who took in boarders.  Strong Christian woman.  She was mentoring Dave along his new path in life.  She carried him to Bible studies, suppers, Saturdays distributing Bibles.  Talking to him, meeting him where he was at.

“Dave”, she once told him, “you know how it is when you walk up to build a wall.  Without looking or thinking you reach down and thumb your tape measure out of your tool belt.  It’s a natural move for you.  One day, your relationship with Jesus will be that natural.”

“Dave”, she told him another time riding down the road.  “I want you to build us a hot rod truck, not one of these new ones with no frame, but an older one, big motor, fast.  Something we can drive and have fun in.”

That lady did not have much in common with Dave except the most important thing.  She wanted him to be and do better.  So she carried the most important thing she had to him.  Did not wait on him to show up on Sunday, but made church where he was at, by being there, talking his language, and being Jesus to him.  The same Jesus  whose ministry was outside the church as well, who hung out with sinners most of all, drunks, prostitutes, the despised.

See, she did not talk to him about transubstantiation or sanctification, but about tapes, tool belts, and motors.

And as Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference”.

You go girl…..

A Foot Race

Back when I was a young’un and my maternal grandmother was still living in Wisconsin my mother would load my brother and I up in a car and drive up from Florida each summer for a couple weeks.  She started making this pilgrimage shortly after we were  born and continued for more than a decade.  He was two years my junior and we were pretty active.  Nowadays we would probably be diagnosed with an alphabet soup of labels.  Back then we were just considered “all boy”.

Now I am standing on the front steps of a Methodist church in Waukau Wisconsin.  It is probably more than ten miles to the closest red light from this country version of Mayberry.  If you looked up “Wide spot in the road”  the picture might include this white church.  My parents were married inside the doors behind me where pork chop dinners and homemade maple syrup are big deals now.

I have just been part of a quartet with my father and two other men, another father and his son-in-law.  Our families have been friends for four generations.  Relationships like that don’t just fall out of trees.  It is very, very cool and a blessing to all.  The other father was my dad’s best man, his sister, one of my mother’s best friends starting in a one room school house and through college.  A very rare gift, this friendship that resembles family.  When we come up now they allow us to stay at their lake cabin.  These visits have become an important part of our family and especially my childrens’ lives.   As I said, a blessing.

An older man stops beside me on the steps.  One of those men you can just look at and know he has worked hard.  He is from a neighboring farm family that also grew up in the one room school house.  Lots of kids.  Deep roots as well.  Parents weren’t much on Sunday services.  My mother’s older sister used to load the children up and bring them to church.  Talk about planting seeds.  Last Sunday three generations of that family starting with those kids filled the choir loft and sang the special.

“You know, we used to look forward to you and your brother coming up in the summer”, he allows, “it was always something around you two”.  We are looking out on the quiet, peaceful, maple lined street in front of the church,  cars parallel parked.  June in Wisconsin,  life is pretty and green and cooler than Georgia.

I thank him for the thought but he has more to share.  It is a Midwestern gift, this ability to recall events from over four decades ago like they happened last week.

“I remember one time walking out of this door after church, just like this”,  he says, smiling at the thought to come.  “You and your brother had walked down the street and were having a foot race back.  There was one of those Volkswagen beetles parked right there,” he points to the spot.  “You came up to it, ran right up the back of it, over the top, and down the hood.  You two were something.”  He is chuckling now.

Moments like these don’t fall out of trees either.

Thanks for sharing the memory.

A Wink and a Gun

At the post office.  Talking with a friend  when Vance walks in to collect his mail.  Have not seen him in a while, he walks over to visit and catch up.  As I drive away it reminds me of a story.

Vance Sr. served in WWII running big earthmoving equipment.  After the war he came home and put that experience to work by starting a company.  Clearing land, building lakes, and golf courses.  His son came up in the business and continued to operate it.  Got involved in politics, typical path, local and then state representative.  I have been at meetings where Vance was the guest speaker, would park the dump truck he was driving that day outside on the street, come in, deliver his speech, and get back in the truck when lunch was over.  Honest, hard-working.

Vance moves on to a state appointed office.  Making our town proud.  Then he comes up against the truth that really good people rarely, no, almost never, make good politicians.

But that’s not what my story is about.  It’s about what may be a dying art here in the rural South.  One that harkens back to another time.

It’s about how we wave at each other.

You know, when we are driving around.  Or walking.  People we don’t know, friends we do.  Sometimes it is a raised index finger or maybe a full hand wave off the wheel.  Windows down it might be the hand resting on the outside mirror or hanging down and lifted in the motorcycle type greeting.  A smile and a gun for friends.

I remember traveling a two lane North Carolina backroad years ago as a freshly minted driver and my father as a passenger.  After passing a truck we met he commented, “That man spoke to you”.    I was confused.  Hadn’t heard anything.  So he explained.

Bob and Nancy lived here for a while before moving on a few years ago.  They had been visitors for years before making this their permanent home.  During their season here they plugged in to various organizations and store fronts and despite their Atlanta roots they understood small town rhythm and flow.

So I remember a conversation with Bob where he shared with me the moment he felt he had arrived in Pine Mountain.  “Vance waved at me”, followed by the epiphany, “then I realized he waved at everyone.”

‘Cause that’s what we do in small Southern towns.

“Howdy neighbor!”

Lubbock Texas

So here’s a small town story.  Cool in a Mayberry kind of way.

Cook and Sons is an auto shop in our Georgia town.  Been in business 70 plus years.  Like most of the old businesses in town, it closed on Wednesday afternoons.  Glover Cook was the father.   It is now the son and grandson running it. So three generations.  Used to have gas pumps, full service.  Worked well for the widows in town.  Allowed you to charge, kept paper tickets on a wood file  board,  old school.  One day I am pumping my own gas because Steve, the son, is tied up.  An older woman drives up, rolls her window down and requests a fill up.  I oblige her, check her oil, and get the windshield.  She pays and I take the check in to Steve, it’s that kind of place.

Took the gas pumps out a few years ago.  The widows panicked.  Now it’s mainly minor repairs, parts sales, and small engine work.  Steve still golfs every Wednesday afternoon while the grandson does stay open now.  Still half days on Saturdays.  That kind of place.

John is a friend of mine, probably in his early 70’s.  Grew up here.  When he was a boy, so this is a while back, the family planned a trip to Lubbock Texas.  Everyone in town knew they were going.  Trip like that, big deal in a small town.

To get ready for the trip John’s daddy took the family car up to Cook’s to have it checked over.  “Going to Lubbock Glover, don’t want to have any car problems, look over my tires and anything else you can think of.”

“Yes sir, we’ll take care of it.  Long ways to Lubbock.”  Glover allows. He already knows about the trip.

The car is picked up the next day.

“Looked everything over, should be good,”  Glover reports.

“How ‘bout my tires?”

“Well, there were two I wasn’t sure about.  Probably be okay.  But just in case, I put two new ones in the trunk, that way you’ll have them if you do have a problem”.

John told me they toted those tires with them all the way to Lubbock and back.  Packing their luggage around them.  Took them back to Glover when they got home.  No charge.

That’s why they have been in business  over 70 years and why John still trades with them.

It’s that kind of place.