Boyhood Memories

“It’s homemade peach ice cream on sunburned lips. That’s what country is.”

Luke Bryan, What Country Is

We get in the old battered blue Ford truck, the one that sits high up off the ground so that Grandpa Dykes can clear the stumps by the pond and vault over the ditches by the plowed peanut fields. He has a nicer truck, the Chevy, cleaner and newer and sleeker and more suited for the one mile ride up the dusty dirt road to church on Sundays. As a little kid, I prefer the Ford. It says field and farm to me in a visceral way that they Chevy just can’t.

We ride, bouncing and jostling and giggling, the short distance up the road, turn right, down the driveway, through the scrubby underbrush and then fifty yards more to the little pond. The cane poles make hollow clunking noises as they bounce against the closed tailgate of the Ford. The big white pickle bucket, now half full of water and minnows, sloshes audibly. Two tackle boxes slide a few feet this way, a few feet back. We get out, gear in hand, and walk the short distance to the little dam, the path on that side of the pond well-worn. Not so the track around the other side, the best place to go for the one monster bass that I just know still circles at depth, avoiding my hook, but also the best place to meet cottonmouths lazing in the sun. We fish and fish for what seems like a summer century but is in reality only a few hours out of my young life. My life that in summer is all sunshine and wiggly worms and slimy catfish and dusty roads. All that it needs to be. Dappled happiness in the shade of those trees that bend toward the water of the pond.

We take our catch-a few pan-sized catfish, a few bright-bellied bream, no bass on this day-and climb back into the truck, smelly and sweaty and grinning and bursting with the heat of a south Georgia summertime. My Grandpa turns the Ford to the right this time, heading towards the airport. Sometimes we see Mr. “Red” Purser roar over us in his crop duster, heading out to apply some winged death to a farmer’s fields to ward off the pests. We turn left on the blacktop, and suddenly the sensations change completely. The old truck picks up speed-ha! if you can call my Grandpa doing forty-nine miles per hour on black top speed!-and the sweet cool wind through our hair and on our sunburned faces is all southern soothing. We ride a couple of miles and slide slowly off the road to the right into the parking lot of a little country store. I know what’s coming. We pile out of the truck and run into the store willy nilly, Grandpa getting out more slowly and trailing behind. He smiles, checks the sky, gets out the bright red Prince Albert can from his front shirt pocket, tamps his pipe, lights it, and eventually follows us into the coolness of the store.

Oh the sugary joy of childhood, the wonder of a candy rack stacked as high as your head, a small brown bag in your hand and the nod from Grandpa that says, “Yes, go ahead and get what you want.” Mary Janes, suckers, real bubble gum with real little comics in the wrappers, sour lemonheads and my favorite-big, bright red fireballs. So hot that they burned your tongue at first, then sweet and good, then bite-sized at the end, when you could crush them with your teeth and start on another. Plunge your hand into the coke box, down into the water that was so cold it would numb your arm up to your elbow if you fished around too long. Pull out the “Pause that Refreshes” in the little bottles that are so hard to find any more, open it on the side of the red ice box, and swig it. I would come out of that store with my little bag of candy feeling as rich as a Rockefeller. Back into the truck for the ride home.

We weren’t through when we got home, oh no. Grandpa would teach us to nail the catfish through the head to the wooden back steps or the side of the house, make the little cuts to get a piece of the skin going, and then grab it with pliers and pull back, harder, harder, until the cat was skinned. The bream were unceremoniously beheaded, gutted, and the bright silvery scales scraped off of them like so many iridescent shingles from a roof. The little buggers would always find their way onto your skin, into your hair and onto your clothes, where they would dry and only come loose later at bath time. Fresh fish from the farm pond were a wonderful dinner, especially when my Grandma cooked them up just right. Clean up, tools away, fishing tackle stowed for the next trip. Sun setting now. A thousand sounds coming from the soybean fields out front and the cows out back and the creek beyond the rise.

Hand churned peach ice cream, Grandma Dykes’s homemade “tea cakes”, fish, watermelon, and swinging on the front porch until dark and beyond, piloting a starship or throttling up a train or galloping with the Pony Express. It was all so innocent. Southern summers. Hot. Full. Rich. The things that a little boy tasted and felt and learned that helped him become a man.

Thank God I’m a country boy.

What memories make you who you are today?

A Time to Live and a Time to Die

Okay, so I was watching the National Geographic documentary Miracle Landing on the Hudson last night. I had just signed up for Disney+, there it was, and you know, I watched it. Probably not the best thing to do as my wife had just taken off, working a shift from Atlanta bound for London, but hey.

You know the story. US Airways Flight 1549 takes off from New York bound for Charlotte, massive bird strike at the 1.5 minute mark demolishes both engines and turns the plane into a glider. There is no hope that the plane will make it to safe harbor of any sort, and all 155 souls on board are coming to grips with a universal truth, one that gets horrifically magnified in a situation such as that.

We are all going to die.

Or, as one of the participants in that aviation miracle put it, “No one gets out of this life alive”.

I had already seen the wonderful, to my mind, movie adaptation of this story starring Tom Hanks as Captain Sully, so I knew what was coming. This was different. The real folks, the real survivors, were interviewed, backed up by actors recreating the horrors of that descent and water landing on the Hudson River. All came to the realization that the plane was really going down, that they were likely going to die this way, and that life was over.

You also know the very happy ending to this story. Everyone on board survived. Every. Single. Person.

I am at the start of what turned out to be my father’s last year of life on earth. He turned sixty two years old on July 30, 1994. I turned sixty two years old on October 24th this year. I cannot help but wonder, what did he think and feel that last ten months that he lived? Did he have any inkling, any tiny inkling at all that his life would be over soon, that he had limited time to live, love, give, experience, serve? Did he barrel ahead, thinking (as I do, or at least my wife does about me), that he would live to be eighty, ninety, ninety-six? (I am not sure why my wife got so fixated on that particular number, but there you have it) Was he feeling ill, having some vague twinges or airplane-crash-like clues that the hemorrhage that would flood his cranium with blood and set his death date at June 7, 1995 was coming?

I will never know. I don’t know that I really want to know. I am curious yet, but only for selfish reasons, obviously, and the knowledge would not bring him back, so there. Put that away.

I do not expect to die in a plane crash. I do not expect to fall off a high peak while rock climbing with my bare hands with no safety gear. I do not expect to die from cancer. I do not expect to be brutally murdered.

I would hope to die a very old man, my wife holding my hand and kissing me softly to ease my fears and whatever pain I might have (Yes, my love, you WILL outlive me, and there is to be no more argument between us about that) I would hope to be aware of my children and many of my grandchildren in the room, saying their last goodbyes to Papa. I would hope to drift off slowly, to “walk silently and peacefully over a cliff” as the wife of my mental health center mentor described his beautiful, peaceful passing at home. I would hope to have the most wondrous of deaths after the most lucky and blessed of lives, to learn of things only imagined and finally, to see Him face to face.

In the meantime, my friends, there is also the other half of that title up there. This is my time to LIVE. I had my eyes examined today. I will have a colonoscopy next week (Yes, I am so excited about that that I could just spit). I am working very hard every week. My wife and I plan to go to Arizona to hike in January. We also plan to journey to Rome and Florence, Italy in April, my first time back in Italy in fifty years. I am looking forward to my five and ten year plans at my job. Retirement is not in my vocabulary yet, if it ever truly will be.

We all MUST die, eventually, that much is clear.

We can all choose to LIVE now, and for as long as God gives us the will and ability and reason to draw breath.

This will be a very strange year for me, as I ponder and wonder and think about what my father felt and did and said and accomplished over the last ten months of his life. It will also be a gift, a wonderful gift, knowing that if this were to be my last year on earth, it would be one of the absolute best I have ever lived.

Grief

I had a brief, quiet, intense conversation with a friend today. She had just lost another friend, a close one, to a sudden and tragic accident.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Okay,” she replied, as she turned to go up the hallway. In a second, I knew better. “No, not okay.”

Her usually bright smile was strained, her voice soft, her features drawn.

That brief exchange, the sharing of feelings about trauma to mind, body, and soul, did what those exchanges almost always do to many of us. It triggered, instantly, my feelings and memories of the death of my father twenty four years ago.

As I have written elsewhere recently, I can’t help but wonder how dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of people are dealing with these kinds of reactions and feelings as we have been assaulted on every level by hate, destruction, and death. This on top of expected deaths from old age, deaths from illnesses that are not expected but are accepted, and accidents that leave us jarred, numb and questioning everything we’ve always held dear.

“Your father has collapsed.”

The call came at the worst time possible. We were moving into a new house, we needed to pack, and someone needed to watch the kids.

“I don’t know. Your mother is with him. They’re taking him to the hospital now. I don’t know.”

I am in the car in what feels like minutes. I don’t think I even take a toothbrush, although I really don’t remember.

“Call and let me know as soon as you find out something. We’ll be fine heel. Go.”

“Take all the time you need. We’ll cover things here. Don’t worry. You need to be with your mother. Go.”

Racing down the interstate in slow motion. Time flying by as it stands stock still. Tears and prayers and more prayers and more tears and time flying by with the miles.

“Don’t you die on me. Don’t you die before I get there. Hang on until I get there.”

There are still so many things unsaid. The scenery blurs, clears, blurs, clears, blurs, clears. My eyelids are the windshield wipers for my soul. Is it raining outside? No, it is raining inside. Come in out of the rain. I can’t. I’m getting soaked.

“Don’t you dare die on me.”

The time in the hospital is a blur. The waiting room. The ICU. The doctor. The staff with their kind eyes and kinder manner. My mother is broken, silent in the corner. I have the knowledge but not the will. There are decisions to make.

“We can make him better. We can rebuild him.” A part of my brain laughs hysterically at the thought of the old television reference, so stark against the sunshiny darkness of his bed. Beep, beep, beep. We can never rebuild him. I have seen the scans. They show me because I am a doctor. I see the vast whiteness in his brain. Clean, pure, permanent. I know what this means. I do not want to be a doctor. Oh, God, not now.

I try to support my mother as we walk up the aisle in the church. I see little. I remember little. His mother, my grandmother.

“Oh, parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Oh, ohhhhhh.”

We travel. We talk and eat and visit with folks who have known me since birth.

“Oh, how your children have grown and I remember when your Daddy…”

They put him in the ground. It is hot. Why do people die in the summer, that hysterical part of my brain laughs, way off in the distance. It laughs and laughs so that it will not cry. They put him in the ground. My little sister is there, off to his side. Others are already there waiting for him. Waiting for all of us, I think. It is so hot and the hole in my chest is so huge that I cannot get enough air. I am drowning in the middle Georgia sunshine.

Six days later I am working in an air conditioned emotional bubble. I do what I know how to do the best I know how to do it.

Six months later, I open my closet door and see the stack of papers there on the floor beside the filing cabinet. Odd, I think. That’s not like me. I sit down and go through them, filing and getting things back in order. I feel like I have just awakened from a half year’s dream. No. A nightmare.

Twenty four years later, I think about him every day. Every. Single. Day. It is not unpleasant. It is not painful. The scar over the huge chest wound is thin and tenuous, but it holds.

When change jingles in my pocket, or when someone mispronounces a word the way he did, I smile. When I hold my grandchildren in my arms, the way he held his the day he died, I feel proud. He is here with me. He will always be with me.

As my mother once described it, I am not happy with what happened, but I am content.

This is grief.

This is life.

Blues-Swayed Shoes

My father had that nineteen-sixties-middle-manager-in-a-textile-mill sense of style that was an affront to his teenaged son at the time. His thinning hair, which he so desperately tried to save by throwing money at shyster companies shipping box after box of plastic-bottled, follicle-saving goo, was unconvincingly coiffed in a rooster style combover that was hilarious and tragic at the same time. His half-sleeved Dacron polyester shirts, always white, always sported a pocket protector, or if not that, at least a naked pen or three. The pants were nondescript, belted. Ah, but it was the shoes, the shoes that stick in my mind.

Wing tips.

Those are the shoes I remember my father wearing. Brogues, as they used to be called in Europe, were initially shoes designed to be worn outside, for hunting and other over the ground pursuits. The pointed toe cap was extended back along the shoe in a shape that roughly resembled a wing, thus, wing tips. No matter the color pattern, the materials, as long as the toe cap was configured thusly, the shoe was a wing tip.

My father’s wing tips were the heavy, plodding kind that lasted forever, never seemed to wear out and oozed a work vibe, at least in my teenaged mind. I could not fathom a time in my life that I could ever possibly wear such a shoe, except perhaps when one foot was literally in the grave. They felt heavy in the hand, sturdy but in a rough, uncomfortable way, with severe waxy laces that also screamed responsible adult in a way that I could not bear at the time. They were the kind of shoes that went with the rest of the sixties wardrobe and denoted adulthood and a place to be at eight AM each morning.

Wingtips went along with the daily evening newspaper, the six o’clock news, used cars and retread tires, going to church on Sunday, eating fried chicken and taking a nap in stocking feet on the couch before church in the evening. My sixteen year old self, so confident and busy with my high school pursuits, thought my father stodgy, rigid, conformist and unimaginative. He provided for us, yes, certainly, but did he enjoy his life in those stiff leather shoes with the lines of perforations and chunky heels and hard soles? Was he trapped in those paid-for used cars and white shirts and trying to stop the passage of time by working those combovers down to the last few strands of hair that would reach the other side of his balding pate?

I don’t know. How I wish I could ask him.

Dad, we went to church this morning.

I drove my paid-for car, which I love and will keep until it no longer runs.

I wore my favorite white Oxford shirt and a pair of gray all season wool pants. Very practical and a staple of my adult wardrobe.

My shoes?

Shiny black, size eleven Cole Haan wingtips, one of the most comfortable pairs of dress shoes I own.

Work It

Some thoughts after reading an article this past month about working until we reach an older age.

As we work through our forties, fifties, and into our sixties, there are some definite advantages that continuing to work affords us.

One, we have established seniority. We have spent decades in the field of our choice, building up cred, establishing relationships, building bridges and alliances with others, and learning how to be successful. Seniority and the goodwill that it brings take time to establish, and should not be given up lightly. Once relinquished, they may not be so easily regained.

Experience is gold. Learning how to do something, the mechanics and the algorithmic nature of the procedure, is important. Even more important is learning the nuances, the finesse moves that separate a technician from an artist or craftsman.

Responsibility is another time honored trait that defines the older, more experience worker. When young, we tend to try to figure out how to save ourselves steps, time and work. When older, we recognize the importance of a job well done, no matter how long it takes or how difficult it is. We stick to it until it is done.

We develop varying degrees of indispensability as we age on the job. We become the go to person, the one who knows, the one that cannot be done without. We have the institutional memories, the comparisons to days gone by and the ability to use the past to fashion a stronger future.

We learn how to multitask and delegate as we age into a job. Instead of trying to do everything ourselves, we learn that enlisting the help of others and breaking a task into multiple pieces often helps things go more smoothy.

As we age and continue to work, we may keep the idea in our head that we want to be “in the room where it happens” for as long as possible. We are involved in the big decisions, the generation of important ideas, and we know that we help to run the shop and the show. It is difficult to decide when it is time to give that up.

If we transition to part time or less, what happens?

We may indeed feel less stress. We have more time. We can do more of what we want to do. Our job satisfaction may actually go up when we have less on our plates. We have the ability to try new things, to explore, to experiment.

But…

Management may look on this new found freedom as decreased commitment to the organization or the job. Availability may be compromised, motivation may be called into question and we may find ourselves cut out of the herd when the big decisions are made.

We may struggle to maintain our relevency.

Things to ponder as I turn sixty two.

Goin’ Postal

There is a postal outlet store and mailing facility close to my office that I often use to send packages via UPS or FedEx. It is operated by an older gentleman who is cut from very precise patriotic cloth. He is fit, well groomed, and always wears his work clothing just so. He drives a large American made sedan that often sports two proudly fluttering American flags on either side of the roof pillars.

One of his store rules is that anyone using his services to send UPS packages is subject to a one dollar fee in the week that they use the service. He collects this fee at the time the first UPS drop off is made for that week.

I took a return to him last week, setting the prelabeled box on the counter and chatting with him as he scanned the label and processed things in his computer.

“Okay now, this is UPS, of course. He’s already picked up today, so it’ll be tomorrow before it goes out.”

“No problem,” I said. “It’s a return, so no hurry.”

“Have you paid your dollar for this week, for UPS, you know?”

“No, sir, but you can scan my debit card for that if that’s okay.”

“No, no, there’s no reason to run your card for just a dollar. Just remember to bring it to me the next time you’re in,” he said, amiably.

“Oh, okay, thank you very much. I appreciate that,” I said, pocketing my wallet. “Just hold me to it.”

He looked me straight in the eye and said very matter of factly, ” Just make sure you hold yourself to it.”

Men of his generation, who carry themselves that way, dress neatly, drive American made sedans with flags on them and run their own businesses expect no less.

We should expect no less of ourselves as we move through life, but to hold ourselves accountable for the things that really matter.