Even though it’s been almost 20 years ago, I’ll never forget the time I had to hold my wife tightly as she cried over the death of a young man named Joey.
Nobody knew exactly what was wrong with Joey. He was a good-looking, affable boy with a ready smile and never talked back to anyone. A little skinny. And then there was his mental capability. Maybe he was just born with low intelligence. Maybe his abusive father shook him hard one too many times or slapped him upside the head too much. Joey was only smart enough to think he could beat the system.
Joey’s mother left him and his father when he was a child. No one knew where she was. His father remarried but continued beat Joey. Eventually his father ran off too and left Joey with his stepmother. It was no time at all before the stepmother also gave up on him. When she left with no forwarding address, Joey was a teen-ager with nowhere to live, no one to care about him and no one willing to give him a job.
My wife first met Joey when he entered the adult system after years on juvenile probation, but he was not an adult mentally nor emotionally. His crime was stealing underwear. That was how life worked for Joey: when your underwear got dirty you went to a store and stole some more, when you got hungry you stole food from the supermarket, when you saw something you just wanted …well, you get the idea. He lived out in the woods between Brooksville and Spring Hill in rural Hernando County, Florida. When it was too cold, a sympathetic acquaintance would let him sleep in the house for a night or two, but then it was back to the woods.
As his probation officer, my wife tried to find relatives or someone in a church to take him in. Nobody wanted Joey. She would have long talks with him about making himself more presentable in the job market. Get a hair cut. Take a bath. Try to learn to read and write. There was always day labor, she told him. You just show up early in the morning and go with the first man willing to let you do grunt labor. Sometimes an employer will be impressed with what a person does in one day and give him a regular job. That way, she said to Joey, you could rent a room, buy your own food, and maybe even get some health insurance.
Joey always smiled and nodded but never got a job. Eventually, he stole one too many pair of underwear and was sent to prison. After a year and a half he was paroled and bused back to Brooksville late one night. Prison officials told him to report to the probation office first thing the next morning.
He spent the night in the woods, as usual. In the morning he crossed a busy street on his way to the probation office. A car struck and killed Joey.
I remembered when my wife came home that night after work and cried as she told me about Joey. She wouldn’t have to worry about where he slept at night, where he got his food, whether he got a job and where he stole his underwear. I still feel her body trembling in my arms as she cried over poor little Joey.
Being a probation officer is hard work for someone as sensitive and caring as my wife, but someone as sensitive and caring as my wife is exactly what people like Joey need.
As I look back over the years I have often thought about who was my favorite teacher. Everyone talks about that one teacher who had been his mentor, the person who molded his life.
Sadly I don’t think I ever had a mentor. My Spanish teacher took me aside to say she’d heard my mother had died and gave me cooking tips—put bacon fat in green beans. It made them yummy.
My journalism teacher didn’t believe me when I said I was related to Davy Crockett.
“Oh, are you big and strong like Davy Crockett?” she asked with a wicked smile.
My junior college English teacher told me out of the blue one day, “It’s not that the sight of you hurts the eye, but you’re no Doug McClure.” McClure was a tall blond-haired, blue eyed actor on television during the 1960s, and I think that teacher had the hots for him. I don’t think I even attempted to date after her observation for two years.
Just recently, much to my chagrin, I had to admit to myself that my best teacher—not my favorite and definitely not my mentor—was Martha Liddell who taught French.
I took French my freshman and sophomore years, and after 40-plus years I remember more about French and the complex nature of the subjunctive mood in any language than I remember about most anything else.
You must be wondering why I am so hesitant for giving Martha Liddell credit for teaching me French so well. She was an old pompous blowhard. I think she had been teaching for at least a hundred years and, according to her, she had been sweet inspiration for every student each of those years.
It seemed most of the period was taken up by her recitation of her own virtues. We were told she had enough graduate hours from universities for three PhDs. Why she didn’t actually have three PhDs no one had the nerve to ask her.
I have never seen an eyebrow arch so high, so quickly when a student dared to mispronounce a word or use it in a wrong context. For instance the correct pronunciation of the word status is with a long a as in day and not with a short a as in cat. Not only would she ridicule you in front of your class but also in front of the other classes the rest of the day and in front of her classes for the next couple of years.
Do you understand the subjunctive mood? She’d sing in High C “If I were” and in Low C “but I’m not.” That has come in really handy when I wanted to show off in my writing.
I had to feel a little sorry for her too. One day when we walked into class someone had scrawled on the blackboard, “The Liddell Gang Rides Again!” Dick Liddell was a member of Jesse James’ gang. Rumor had it that Martha was Dick’s baby sister. She was too young to be his sister, but maybe she was his niece, or maybe she was just unfortunate enough to have the same last name as a famous outlaw.
So what made me think about this good teacher/bad teacher stuff?
It’s the current debate about the quality of education. If it took me 40-plus years to decide Martha Liddell was a good teacher, how can we expect to figure out if current teachers are competent on a year-to-year basis?
I don’t think we are capable of knowing what we know or don’t know while we’re still in school. It takes years to realize what really sunk in.
And by that time all the Martha Liddells are gone, and it’s too late to say thank you or get lost.
I have a problem. For as long as I can remember, every month or so, for an hour, I spit up grayish pink wet matter. As a child I thought slivers of my tongue were coming loose; however, my tongue never got any smaller so I really didn’t know what it was. I just spit them out. My mother told me spitting was a disgusting habit and I should stop it. I couldn’t swallow them because if they were part of my tongue I thought it would be cannibalism to eat my own flesh. Or else they would just form a humongous bowel movement which would hurt like hell and probably clog up the sewer system which would make my father angry.
All went fairly well in my prepubescent years because I was able to spit the slivers out in bushes or other inconspicuous places. If a teacher caught me spitting at school, well, I was a little boy and spitting too much was just something little boys do.
The spit hit the fan, so to speak, in middle school when I started spitting in the middle of English class. Besides the girls groaning that it was gross, the teachers and principal were certain I could very well control this habit and was in fact doing it for attention. My mother took me to the doctor who, after some extensive and expensive tests, concluded my body was sloughing off an outer layer of all my internal organs which had to be expelled through the mouth about once a month. They were grayish pink because at the time they came out of my mouth and for the next few hours they were technically living tissue. He told my mother I could possibly live forever because my organs were regenerating themselves at an accelerated rate but my outside would grow old and wrinkly anyway so it didn’t make much difference.
I spent the rest of my school years carrying plastic bags into which to spit slivers of my organs. When the bag was full I would discretely toss it. This arrangement kept my odd physical affliction a secret until I fell in love and married a lovely girl with good manners learned from years of attending Baptist churches. When I told her about my problem I could tell she understood it intellectually but was having a hell of time with it emotionally and spiritually.
Eventually she would have hysterical fits every month because my baggy of formless, grayish, pinkish matter made her think she had had an abortion, or that she had had a baby and I was trying to kill it. The situation grew intolerable so we decided to divorce. The only problem was she wanted custody of my monthly emissions because she thought they were her children.
A group of fundamentalists picketed outside the courthouse during the divorce proceedings and a legislator introduced a law nicknamed “Jerry’s Kids” to keep my grayish-pink matter from being thrown out. Every commentator on Fox News called me a murderer. The crisis came to a point in the courtroom when the judge turned to my wife and said, “I think you’re nuts.” He appointed a psychiatrist who confirmed his suspicion. The judge granted the divorce and said anyway I wanted to dispose of my spit up every month was my own business. Unfortunately, the judge has received several death threats, and Bill O’Reilly called him Hitler.
Since then I regularly have to endure groups of men with “What Would Jesus Do” tattooed on their large arms who tackle me and force feed me Jello Pudding Cups because they don’t want my “kids” to starve. Ironically, I have had to be rushed to the hospital emergency room a few times because I was choking to death on the pudding cups.
I finally decided how to resolve my dilemma. A local clinic researching causes of cancer contacted me and said they thought my slivers were probably just as good as brain cells for research. At first this caused another round of public outcry for “Jerry’s Kids” from Fox News. Bill O’Reilly said I was a bastard for attempting to make millions off the tragic fate of my doomed living tissue. I signed a contract with the clinic that I would never receive any payment for my spit-up contribution. It worked. I take my monthly bag of grayish pink living tissue to the clinic and hope the doctors can find a cure for cancer. Bill O’Reilly has forgotten about “Jerry’s Kids” and has gone on to rant about someone else.
As a footnote, I would like to add that a multi-national holding company bought out the clinic and is now making billions of dollars a year by auctioning off my “kids.”
Excuse me. I have to go spit now.
After a long day of camping I lay in my tent alone looking through the flap at the navy blue sky filtered through patterns of oak branches. The family had walked down to the campground store to buy candy for the kids.
Whiffing, I knew the next campsite over was roasting hot dogs. On the other side someone else was grilling hamburgers and across the way the aroma of toasted marshmallows floated my way. We had been lazy and stopped at a restaurant for dinner after a long day of hiking a mountain to see a waterfall.
My legs still ached, and I thought I was getting a blister on my big toe. I didn’t want to complain because my wife had twisted her ankle last night after she tripped on the way back to the tent from the campground toilet. She made the trip up and down the mountain limping so I couldn’t say much about a little blister.
Cricket song was deafening among the trills of the birds. Most of the campers around us were keeping their voices down, which was a good sign for later. A couple of nights ago, one guy drank a few too many beers and sang out loudly, “I’m going white-water rafting tomorrow and the damn Little Pigeon River!” My wife sent me to the office the next office to complain but the manager said he had refunded their money and told them to leave. I was glad I didn’t have to listen to them anymore but I resented the jerk got a free campsite for a night. Maybe on our last night I could scream obscenities and get a refund too. I dismissed the thought. It wasn’t worth losing the sleep.
I stared at the leaves against the sky. If I could draw, it would make a great abstract painting of shades of blues. Then the stars started twinkling adding to the composition. Wouldn’t that make a nice painting for your bedroom wall? You could just stare at it until you drifted off to sleep. But with my luck it would look like a mess and I’d stay awake wondering why I thought I could paint in the first place.
Rolling over on the air mattress I searched for the bag of candy from out visit to Aunt Mahalia’s Kitchen. I hoped there would be some fudge or chocolate covered cherries left. No fudge but plenty of cherries. Life is good. I bit into the chocolate mound and slurped up the cream, saving the actual cherry for last. The soothing, mellow milk chocolate made me forget about the blister, and the tart sweet cherry made me forget the chocolate, if that were possible.
I heard familiar laughter come up the path. The family was back. I hoped they bought more fudge. My son was whistling the music to Star Wars. Anytime he was happy he whistled the entire score of the movie. My daughter giggled and talked at the same time. I never knew how she could do that. My wife said, “Let’s hurry up and get back. My foot is killing me.”
I paused to take in everything and store it for future reference. This was one of the good times.
I once knew a pot-head hippie who lived in a tent on two acres of pine forest just outside of Austin, Texas. He had a pile of wood on the property which he claimed he was going to use to build a music studio, but I think he was more interested in cultivating his garden of marijuana plants instead. He had a nasty scar between the eyes which I tried not to stare at or ask any questions about.
He was the musical director of a play I was in, and after rehearsal one night he asked me for a ride home because his car was in the garage for repairs. When we arrived he invited me to walk through his woods to the tent for a glass of rotgut whiskey on the rocks. As he was pouring the cheap liquor he said he always gave something to anyone who did him a favor so they couldn’t accuse him of being ungrateful later. We discussed the possibility of writing an opera based on a play of mine which ended with my father snoring. He swore a snore was in the key of G flat. I swore I would never let myself get so bored that I would have this type of discussion with a pot-head hippie again.
“I guess you wonder where I got this scar,” he finally said.
Admitting my curiosity, I expected a story of a fight with a bunch of bikers. He wasn’t a biker himself. He was kind of puny but had a real sarcastic mouth on him. Most people smart enough to belong to Mensa usually do, which can provoke bikers to want to beat them up. But no, he responded, it happened right there on his happy two acres of wilderness.
“If you notice,” he said, pointing with his full glass of whiskey, “I have my phone attached to that tree over there. It didn’t used to be so close. Originally I had it on a tree by the road. I thought the longer it took for me to answer the phone the more likely unwanted callers would just hang up.”
I nodded. I had learned not to argue with a man who had an outdoor john, showered with a garden hose and bought a bag of ice every night to keep his bacon and eggs fresh. It was easier that way.
“Anyway, one night I heard the phone ring and I jumped out of bed and ran to answer it. I sleep naked so there I was at one with nature, the moon shining, the crickets chirping and me just as God made me. I felt at one with nature, running just like a wild animal through the trees. The only thing was, I forgot there was a low hanging limb between the phone and me. I hadn’t cut it because I figured anyone who really wanted to see me should have to go to the trouble of lifting the branch as he came down the path. It caught me right between the eyes. I couldn’t afford stitches so I just let it heal on its own.”
I guess he also forgot he was a whole lot taller than the average wild animal running through the woods at midnight. Actually, the average wild animal would have had enough sense to let the phone ring.
My introduction to John Steinbeck came in 1961 when I was 13 and my brother was doing a one-act play based on part of Of Mice and Men at the local community college. We sat on the bed reading roles. He was George. I was Lenny. Ours was a strict Southern Baptist home, and such words were never to be spoken in front of Mom, but Mom wasn’t there.
It was the thrill of my life to say those dirty words, one right after another, sentence after sentence of words that Mom would have whacked my bottom for saying. Before long we both were giggling and rolling over speaking words of literature from a Nobel laureate in literature. This was classy stuff. This was dirty, and we loved it.
Our older brother stood in the doorway, his arms crossed, and puffing on a cigarette with fire and brimstone in his eyes. We didn’t care. I was helping my other brother with his homework. What could be wrong with that? And, besides, it was so funny.
At least the words were funny. After we were finished and the play was done and my brother had taken his bows, the story stuck with me. It wasn’t so funny anymore. Our folks, of course, lived through the Great Depression but never talked about it much.
“How can you lose everything if you didn’t have anything to begin with?” Mom said, and that was that.
Of Mice and Men was not only my introduction to dirty words but also my introduction into that dirty, miserable and unfair world of the 1930s. There were the men who owned the farms and there were the men who worked the farms and therein lay a huge gap. No matter what Lenny and George’s dreams were, not matter how much they wanted them to come true, they never would.
All Lenny ever wanted was something soft to pet and take care of. But as Robert Burns said, such are the schemes of mice and men.
As I got older I wanted to read more of John Steinbeck. The local librarian asked my age and said I’d have to wait a while to read East of Eden. It was worth the wait. Then came Grapes of Wrath and all the others, except Travels With Charlie. I don’t know. His road trip with his dog didn’t interest me.
What started with adolescent humor built into a life-time of reading about what the world is really like and what we can do to change it. I know literature did this for more than me, not only novels and plays, but now movies and television programs that dare me to think. Luckily I married a woman who loved to read too. That way we can learn twice as much. She tells me about her books, and I tell her about mind.
I am 65 years old and, yes, when I go to see an R-rated movie, I still giggle at the dirty words. And they still make me think.
After all these years I think I finally decoded one of the many mysticisms of femininity. If I’m wrong please don’t tell me. I’m so satisfied with myself for understanding something new about women I don’t want it spoiled.
Going back to when I was a young man in the 1960s I was a bit confused about why some women wanted to hyphenate their names after getting married. One person explained that it was about a woman keeping her own name. But, as I thought but dared not say aloud, it wasn’t her name anyway. It was her father’s name and his father’s name before that. I didn’t actually say it because I didn’t want to come across as being a male chauvinist pig.
I even knew a woman once who had a hyphenated name whose husband hyphenated his name with hers. The trouble was that she eventually divorced him. His being so understanding got on her nerves, I think. Anyway, after the divorce he kept his hyphenated name.
Don’t get me wrong. I was all for anyone calling themselves anything they wanted. If they hyphenated every name from the last ten generations it was fine with me. I was especially all for women making equal pay for equal work. When you’re a stay-at-home dad with no other income, you become real women’s libber.
My daughter, being raised by a stay-at-home dad while mom was a probation officer, grew up to be very opinionated and independent. She didn’t even take her first husband’s name when they married. He actually volunteered to take her last name. It’s just as well that he didn’t because she divorced him anyway. He didn’t do his share of the cooking and cleaning. What’s the use of having a man around if he doesn’t do housekeeping? She got a new husband now. He cleaned house, and she took his name.
Anyway, in the last year or two I noticed more women used their maiden names as a middle name, not hyphenated. My wife told me women had to do that for legal documents, like deeds and stuff. That was true, but I saw it places where it was not a legal document.
This was where my epiphany came in. The feminine mysticism became clear. I was wrong. Nothing mystical about that. But I was wrong thinking the insertion of the maiden name had to do with identity issues. That was not it. It was a love issue.
Women who identified themselves with their maiden names in the middle were giving credit to their mothers and fathers. They wanted the world to know who was responsible for who they were. It was the woman and the man of a certain name who raised her with self-esteem, values, common sense and education. I wanted to think these women were honoring their parents.
You see, men didn’t have to think about things like that because our parents got credit, or blame as the case may be, automatically because of the way society was. Leave it to women, through their mysticism, to go the extra mile to give credit where it is due.
Please don’t tell me I’m wrong.
Originally published in the Hernando section of the Tampa Bay Times.
When the children were young, I was the type of parent who would make copious notes when we went on vacation. We knew exactly where we would stay each night, eat each meal and engage in which exciting adventure every morning, afternoon and evening, and we had to stay on schedule because we did not want to miss one second of fun. No one was allowed to sprain an ankle, suffer sunburn or see anything down the road that might look more interesting than what I had planned. On our last family vacation before our son went to college and our daughter developed other summer activities that didn’t include us, our son drove our daughter and her friend out of the campground to buy Subway sandwiches for dinner. My wife and I stayed behind at the tent to nap. The next thing we knew a police car showed up and took us to the scene of the car accident. The car was totaled, our children were safe but the friend had a bruised collarbone. All the plans went out the window along with any fun that had been scheduled for the next day. We rented a car and limped home.
Now our son and daughter are adults with jobs and plan their own vacations without us. Before our 42nd wedding anniversary, we read an article on The Adventure of Creativity by Roger Bertschausen, senior minister of the Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Appleton, Wisconsin. That inspired us to make no plans other than hotel reservations for our week-long anniversary celebration in San Augustine.
We had a vague idea of leaving sometime in the afternoon for the three-hour drive. All we knew for sure was that there was no hurry because we couldn’t check in until after three p.m. anyway. My wife Janet did print out a route because you can’t get there from here on just one road. Our stomachs told us to stop for lunch somewhere half way and we pulled into the parking lot of the next fast food place that caught our fancy.
When we finally did arrive at our hotel on the outskirts of San Augustine the first thing on our agenda was to take a nap. Afterwards we drove downtown, parked in the municipal parking garage and wandered around until we decided we had walked far enough and there it was, a place to eat. After some aimless strolling we returned to our room and didn’t wake up until noon.
I don’t want to shock anyone but Janet and I became inspired that day to have a margarita for lunch in a tree house bar and grill. It’s called Mill Top because a wheel turns among the tree limbs. Donny Brazile, who teaches music at Flagler College, played his guitar and sang all the songs we liked when we got married 42 years ago. Turns out he’s a really nice guy, and now we’re Facebook friends.
Then we bought a three-day pass on the trolley, rode around town, and decided to take in the Fountain of Youth. You actually get little cups of spring water. The only way I felt younger was to tug on Janet’s arm and whine, “I wanna go.” Not exactly the kind of young I wanted to feel. Then we went to the Fountain of Youth Planetarium to see what the skies looked like when Ponce De Leon landed. I was sure I could see Uranus and Casio pee Ah! The effects of drinking that youth water lingered.
We took another nap and when the sun went down we returned to the Mill Top for more margaritas and nachos before hunting for ghosts around town. You have to be half lit to see ghosts in the dark. Our haunted tour guide was a delightful young lady named Marcia who is a student at Flagler. Like me, she is a full-fledged storyteller so there wasn’t a single boring moment all that night. We looked for ghosts at the lighthouse and the old city jail.
To be honest I don’t remember what we did the next couple of days. We slept late, ate some good food and wandered around the narrow back streets of San Augustine, which can be an adventure in itself. I think we went through a lot of old houses, which we like to do. On the next to the last night we went back to the Mill Top and told Donny it was our 42nd wedding anniversary and could he please sing, “Never Ending Love for You.” He felt really bad because he had heard of it. Leave it to us to pick an obscure tune to be “Our Song.” He offered to sing anything else from that time. I said we liked the Beatles. He came up with “Let It Be.” I said, “Perfect, because to stay married 42 years that’s has to be your attitude, let it be.”
He introduced us to the patrons and in the middle of the song I was inspired to start dancing with Janet, which meant we stood, put our arms around each other and leaned on one foot and then the other and turned slightly every few seconds.
What I didn’t notice was that at the other end of the bar a drunk fell off his stool and started a fight with the guy who offered to help him up. All I saw was the waitress running past us with a bill in hand. Evidently she wanted to get her money before they kicked him out. As I said I didn’t see a thing but Janet, being a retired probation officer, observed the entire incident and was ready to write a full report in triplicate. And there I thought she was getting excited about my dancing.
We didn’t even decide what to do on our last day, the actual wedding anniversary date, until the sun came up and we thought a short cruise around the bay might be fun. It was. Cool salt spray. Lot of pretty boats and houses to look at. Just sitting there. That night we found a restaurant right on the beach with fresh seafood. The other couples sitting there didn’t look like they were having much fun. They must have been on a schedule. For a split second I wished our children could have been there to share it, but dismissed the idea because it would have involved planning. Nothing’s more relaxing that creative vacationing.
And for a parting shot, we walked the dark back streets of San Augustine taking photos, hoping to catch a glimmer of a ghost. We’re old so we used one of those disposable cameras you have to take in for one-hour developing. When we got the pictures back we found something interesting. Janet was leaning against the old wall of the Huguenot Cemetery and right next to her were four very bright streaks. At first I thought she was standing too close to some palm fronds, but she didn’t remember standing next to palm fronds. We looked up the cemetery on Google Earth and zoomed in to the section of the wall where Janet stood. Sure enough, no fronds. We’re not saying they are ghosts. But we don’t know what they are.
This was a great vacation. I’m so glad I gave up planning how to have fun.
Same wall during day
Janet at cemetery wall