Monday, December 31, 2012

A Gentler Place

This was the March 6, 1954 cover of The Saturday Evening Post.  I probably saw it, I was eleven years old, and I didn't miss much.  A picture of a girl in her under-clothes, on the front of a magazine, would have never gotten under my screen.

I don't have a specific recollection of that cover, or ever longing to be a movie star, but I do have a built-in sense of the gentleness that underlies this painting, and that's what I'm thinking about this morning, as I try to capture my thoughts on gentleness with keystrokes, and pixels, terms not heard of in 1954.

Lest you think I'm longing for the good-old-days, I'm not.  The day we have, this moment, this very instant, is more than fine with me.  What I'm talking about is what we've lost since that moment and this moment, and it has nothing to do with that time or this time.  What we've given up in our mad quest for more is gentleness.

We don't have time to be gentle with ourselves, and we certainly don't have time to be gentle with each other.  If we slow down to be gentle, we won't have time to tweet, post on Facebook, get the kids to dance class, work overtime so we can afford dance class, and, "O my gosh," did I take Timmy to Karate or did I leave him at school?"   

The irony of the situation is, we gave up gentleness in our mad rush to capture personal satisfaction, and there can be no personal satisfaction without gentleness, love, compassion, and caring. 

Don't add gentleness to your to-do-list.  It isn't a to-do-list item.  Make gentleness the foundation of your day.  Speak to your neighbor, the woman in the store, the man walking the dog in front of your house, and be prepared to talk when one of them returns your gentle gesture.  

Nothing of any import is going to happen until everything comes from a place of  gentleness.

A final, gentle Norman Rockwell image:

Tomorrow, Number 18 in the Norman Rockwell inspired blog series -

Happy New Year

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Story Teller

Storytelling is the oldest profession in the world.  Storytelling is even older than the profession you probably think of when you hear the phrase, "the oldest profession."

Storytellers are essential to preserve and pass-on our traditions, legends and myths.  Without Storytellers, we'd have no record of our journey along this time continuum we call life.  Without a record, we would not be able to learn from the past.  History does repeat itself, but without Storytellers, the cycle would be much shorter and infinitely more deadly.

That's why the best Storytellers have always been revered and treated with great love and respect.  That's why, "Let me tell you a story," is bound to calm the most agitated psyche, and that's a good place for me to get to the meat of this topic.  Let me tell you a story.  

Once upon a time, I was just a little thing, a bit taller than a milk bottle, something you can no longer find, so you'll just have to imagine how young I was.  Anyway, about that time, I determined that I would be a Storyteller when I grew up.  I shared the news with my mother, who was horrified.  "A storyteller," she gasped.  "How would I explain that to my friends?  What would your grandmother think?"

I was four, or maybe five years old at the time.  I wasn't concerned about what anyone thought.  I just knew that I wanted to be a Storyteller, and I knew I had to find someone to teach me, my mother making it abundantly clear that she would not be the person for the job.

That very afternoon, I asked Daddy King about Storytelling, and where I could go to learn how to do that.  He thought about the question a long time.  That's why I always asked him when there was a something I really wanted to know.  Finally, he looked and me, smiled, and said, "Pistol, that is a good question.  And the best answer I have is this, there is no place to go and learn how to be a Storyteller.  There are places to go to learn how to write a story, and there are please to go to learn how to get on a stage and tell a story, but there is no place to go to learn how to be a Storyteller..."

He paused, and I waited, because I knew there was more coming.  A few minutes later he said, "You see, there are many people who can write a story, we call those people authors, and there are a lot of people who can tell stories, we call them actors, or preachers..."  He paused, smiling at his own joke, which I didn't get, but knew it was in his reference to preachers, because he had a thing about preachers; a thing I noticed that he didn't share with everyone.

"Let's see," he said, as he continued.  "How can I explain the difference between writers, actors, preachers, and Storytellers," he mused.  I waited.  Daddy King was my grandfather.  He knew everything, and he didn't mind sharing his knowledge with me if I didn't mind waiting.  I never did mind.  

He sat in silence for a moment, and then he said, "A writer makes things up and puts them on paper.  A preacher walks around on stage and tells people how to live their lives when everyone knows that he doesn't know how to live his own.  An actor will entertain you by pretending to be a character he read about in some author's story.  But a Storyteller is something different.  A Storyteller is a person who is willing to relive an event to make sure you either don't have to, or if you decide to, you'll did it better than you probably would have done it otherwise."  He stopped talking for a moment and then he looked in my eyes and asked, "Pistol, do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I'm not sure, Daddy King.  Talk about it a some more."

He smiled, and then said, "Okay, I can do that.  The difference between a writer, a preacher, actor, and a Storyteller, is simply this, a Storyteller will always tell you the truth.  It might be exaggerated a bit, or it might lack some of the fine detail, but it will be the truth, and you will know the story is true when you hear it."  

He must have seen a bit of confusion remaining in my eyes, because he added, "Pistol, you think about what I've said, and what I mean will come to you."

Well, I've thought about it, and I've thought about it lot.  I've thought about it for sixty-five years, and I've figured it out.  The difference between a Storyteller and someone who tells a story, is this.  Before a Storyteller tells a story, they live it.  That's what every Storyteller does.  It's in living a story that that a Storyteller learns to tell a story.  There is no other way.  And living isn't taught in schools, or by parents, and certainly not by preachers.  Living is its own teacher.  Now, that brings up another point of prime importance.

Living and existing are two very different things.  Everyone who isn't dead is existing.  That is, they are breathing and maintaining the vital signs that are necessary for a human to be declared alive.  Living, on the other hand, requires consciousness, or to put it another way, to live, you must be present in the moment that we call simply, "here and now."

When you live in the here and now, you are qualified to be a Storyteller, if that's a path you choose to travel.  Those who take that way, are able to calm storms and quiet storm-tossed seas, with the magic phrase that has passed from Storyteller to Storyteller, since the beginning of time - 

"Once upon a time..."

Tomorrow's post will be number 17 in the Norman Rockwell inspired blog series.  I call it A Gentler Place and I'll use this Rockwell painting to illustrate it:


Saturday, December 29, 2012

No Pool

I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, at Eastlake Hospital.  At age 7, my family moved to Trussville, Alabama, where we lived for the next four years, and then we moved to Childersburg, Alabama.  Four years later, we moved to Palatka, Florida. 

Underlying the moves was Daddy’s employment history.  After WWII and service in the South Pacific as Chief Sonar Mate on board a number of submarines, he returned to Birmingham where he worked as an electrician in the same steel mill that had claimed his father in an accident.  Then, Daddy, with a partner, opened a business near Trussville.  When the business failed, we moved to Childersburg where Daddy began his career in the paper mill industry, first as an electrician and then as the head of a new department, Maintenance Planning.  An unbelievable job offer making him head of the new Maintenance Planning department at Hudson Pulp and Paper, took us to Palatka, Florida.
By the time I graduated from Palatka Senior High School at age eighteen, I had attended four schools, five churches, and been a member of a Cub Scout Pack and a Boy Scout Troop.  I estimate, I had met more than four thousand people.  Of them, only one was black:  our housekeeper, babysitter, Louise, who loved me with an unconditional love that I returned in kind. 
You might be wondering, what that has got to do with swimming pools, I’ll explain.  While in Childersburg I learned to swim at the municipal pool.  The following year at the same pool, I completed a Red Cross lifesaving course.  After I learned to swim, I was allowed to go to the pool on my own, every summer day.   I spent a lot of time at the Childersburg Alabama Municipal Swimming pool, and I loved every minute, with the exception of the moments during the life saving course when I almost drowned.

That was sixty years ago.  Now I pass through Childersburg on business three or four times a year.  When I drive past the swimming pool, I always get choked up, not because of the memories I have stored away regarding the pool, but because the pool isn’t there anymore.  The city fathers destroyed the pool rather than integrate it.  They filled the gaping hole created by their ignorance, and planted grass to mark the spot.  The men who followed in their footsteps must be cut from the same cloth, because they’ve never seen fit to build a new swimming pool.

Childersburg, Alabama isn’t the only southern city that once had a municipal swimming pool and doesn’t have one today.  I’m not the only old white guy who grew up in the south without ever having the good fortune to know, play with, or go to the swimming pool with black kids.  But, frankly, I don’t care about any of the others, I just want to know who in the hell thought it was a good idea to rate people according to their skin color or gender.  Armed with that knowledge I’d demand an explanation for their stupidity. 

I’m never going to know who thought that, so I’ve formulated a couple of new questions. 
I want to know why I tolerated it, and second, what I could have done to ease the pain and suffering that racism, bigotry and hatred has generated on our planet, besides alienating my family, walking out of the last Baptist Church I was a member of in the middle of a sermon that justified racism, and gotten my butt whipped by three rednecks in a Texas bar when I protested their racist remarks.  Surely there’s more I could have done.  There must be something left for me to do besides crying when I drive by the place where I learned to swim and save lives.  Whatever it is, I’ll do it.

Tomorrow Number 16 in the Norman Rockwell inspired blog series.  I call it The Storyteller and I’ll illustrate it with this Rockwell painting.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Welcome Home

Norman Rockwell's work covered more than fifty years.  The time span included WWII which was the focus of many of his paintings.  

My father served in WWII, along with three of his brothers and his brother-in-law.  Their service wasn't something they talked about with us kids, and I don't have any recollection of any of them talking about it with each other.

When I was older, I asked my father, a number of times, about his part in the war.  He skillfully avoided my questions, and finally I got the message and stopped asking.

Then I went to war, and I found out why they didn't talk about it.  Vietnam became a subject I never discussed, at least not until Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm.  When that happened, I had to talk, but I only wanted to talk to people who understand, people who had been there, and I didn't know a single Vietnam Vet, at least I didn't think I did.  So I did the first thing that came to mind.  I ran an ad in my local newspaper, the Fort Payne (Alabama) Times Journal.  

It was a small ad in the classified section that read, "I served in Vietnam.  If you served in Vietnam and would like to talk about it, let's meet at The Best Western and talk over a cup of coffee..."

A week later, I was at the restaurant a half hour early, with no idea what to expect.  I walked through the door, took a step or two and someone called out, "Hey, are you Carson?

"I am," I replied, searching for the owner of the voice that had called out.

I spotted him, a tall, man with a crooked grin that spread across his face when he said, "Well, Carson, you're late."

I glanced at watch, confirmed that I was a half-hour early, looked up and said, "I'm thirty minutes early."

Without hesitation he said, "That isn't what I mean.  You're twenty years late calling us all together to talk."

I grinned as everyone enjoyed a laugh.  "I guess you're right about that," I said.

At that moment, Donna, the night shift waitress came to me and whispered, "Your friends have scared all my regular customers and they've left, some without eating.  Can I move you and the rest of your group to the meeting room in the back, where the coffee is on me?"

I said, "Sure," looked at the motley collection of men who had answered my ad, and said, "There's free coffee for us in the back room."  

As they stood and began moving toward the meeting room, I realized that Ed Williams, the man who owned the service station where I purchased gas and had my cars serviced was there, along with Jim Bryant, a man I'd met when I spoke in Atlanta a week earlier, Ernest Parker, the manager of the office supply store where I'd done business since moving to the area eight years earlier, along with three guys I knew from my barber shop and one from the auto parts store that I frequented.  

Altogether, twenty-seven of us met and talked that night.  We met again the following Tuesday evening and formed an organization called Vietnam Veterans Southern Command.  At the second meeting we agreed that only Vietnam Veterans, that is, those who actually served in country, could join.  Our objective was to create a space where a Vietnam Vet could talk freely about his or her experiences in Vietnam and at home since returning from 'Nam.  

For the next five years, we met weekly, went to meetings of similar units in the area, and we traveled to The Wall for Veteran's Day Reunions three times.  What we actually did was heal untreated wounds, by talking, by listening, and by just being there for each other. 

At The Wall, the first time, a gimped-up man with haunted eyes, looked at me and said, "Welcome home, Brother."  We grabbed each other and embraced in the shadow of that great slab of black granite which is engraved with the names of over 58,000 men and women who never had the opportunity to "talk about it."

Do you know a vet?  If so, take a moment and tell them, "Welcome home."  There's magic in those two words.

Tomorrow, Number 15 in Norman Rockwell inspired blog series.  It's called No Pool and this is the Rockwell painting I'll use to illustrate it:

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Before I share today's Rockwell inspired blog, I'd like to share a new friend who found the Rockwell series and is enjoying it - her name is Judy Thompson - you can read her comment to the Great Men blog by clicking here - if you like what she said, and I loved it, click here to follow her on Facebook.  Thanks Judy -

Now, a Virgo, logistics thing - When I first decided to write a Norman Rockwell inspired series, I listed eight topics to go with eight of Rockwell's paintings.  This post is number 13 in the series, which means I've added a few since I posted the first one, and, if you're wondering, as of this moment there are 31 folders in my Rockwell file.  That means you're going to see at least seventeen more.

And now - Number 13 - Tattoos

I have nine tattoos.  When I wear a short-sleeved T-shirt, which is most of the time, six of them of visible.  Many times, people have said to me, "I'll bet you got those when you were in the service."  

I'm sometimes tempted to say, "You're right,"  but, I never do.  Depending on the circumstances, and whether or not I think they really want to know, I give them either the short or the long version, or sometimes the in-between version, of the truth about my tattoos.

Here's the in-between version.  I was forty years old.  I'd just ended a seven year marriage, and a  corporate career, and was two days away from setting sail on a sea whose waters I'd never experienced.  Before casting off, I decided to mark the beginning of my journey, and I could think of no better way to do that than with a tattoo.

I didn't know anyone who had a tattoo (this was thirty years ago) so I headed out in search of a tattoo artist without a referral.  I drove past a tattoo parlor on my way to work, so with no reviews to guide me (we didn't have those either) I drove to the only shop I was a aware of, accompanied by my longtime friend, Ethel Sutfin.  

It was Saturday, and all three of the shop's artists were busy.  I signed the book, indicating I'd take the next available tattooist.   Fifteen minutes later, a sailor left, admiring the new tattoo on his forearm as he walked out into the warm spring evening.   Five minutes later, Bear, who looked a lot more like a tattoo artist than the one Norman painted in the illustration, came from the back of the shop, looked at me and asked, "You next?"

"Yep," I said.

Bear looked at Ethel, "You want one too?" he asked.

Ethel said, "Probably, but I won't know for sure, until I see how Bert does."

Bear laughed and said, "You first-timers are funny as hell.  Come on back.  Let's get started."

As soon as I was in his chair, he said, "OK, what do you want?"

"An Eagle," I said, as I handed him the sample book I'd picked up while we were waiting.  I pointed to my choice and added, "That one."

As he opened the rings of the loose leaf binder and withdrew my selection he said, "Where do you want it?"

"On my chest, where no one can see it," I quickly replied.

"Okay," he said, laughing a bit and then he said, "You'll be back in a month getting one people can see."

He was wrong.  It was three months before I made it back.  However, I digress.

For three hours, Bear worked on my eagle.  Though I didn't cry or scream, I thought about it more than once.  Getting a tattoo is a lot like going through a hurricane.  For the first thirty minutes or so, it's different, unique, something to mark in your memory for later consideration.  Then it gets old, and you want the wind to quit howling, but it doesn't stop until it's over.  

However, like experiencing a hurricane first hand, the bad parts are forgotten in time, and you begin to think about the next one.  That's why I have nine of them, and at age seventy, I find myself wondering where to put number ten, and if Bear is still slinging ink.  

Ethel did get her tattoo, but I've never seen it and she has assured me on more than one occasion that I never will.  She also noted there will not be a second one, no matter how many more I get.

Which brings me to the point of my story.  I've never regretted my tattoo decision(s).  Daddy King had a tattoo on his forearm: a heart with the word "Mother" inside its simple outline.  That was all the permission I needed to go down the tattoo road.  Ethel, on the other hand, had never considered a tattoo until the night she sat beside me and watched Bear implant the eagle on my chest.  Later she said to me, "You son of a bitch.  I watched you for three hours and didn't think you were hurting.  If I'd known the truth, I'd have never gotten one."

The moral of the story is, decisions are permanent, all of them.  Don't make one for the wrong reason.

Tomorrow, is number fourteen in the Norman Rockwell inspired blog series.  I call it Welcome Home, and I'll illustrate it with a painting that Norman called Homecoming Marine.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Mask

I was five years and excited about my first real Halloween.  The truth is, I'd been excited about it since I'd found the mask at Woolworth's Five and Dime, the day after my birthday, which would have been September 10th.  I spent more than half of my birthday money on the mask, after agreeing to mother's stipulation that I would not wear it, or even take it out of the box until Halloween evening.

I remember the mask today as well as I remembered it Halloween evening, 1947.  It was a pirate mask, made of latex.  It had a hideous scar on the right cheek and a patch over the right eye (though there was a small, secret peep hole in the patch so I could see out).

Though I couldn't take the mask out of the box, I could, with prior permission, retrieve the box from under my grandparents bed, and show it to anyone who wanted to see it.  It still amazes me to think how many people wanted to see it - dozens at least, and I never tired of showing it to them.  By Halloween night, I knew every square centimeter of the mask. 

The big night finally arrived.  We sat down at the table, Mama and Daddy, Mother, and me.  Daddy was somewhere in the south Pacific, but a post card from him that day said he was heading back to the states in two days and should be home before Thanksgiving.  I was way too focused on Halloween and my mask to think much about Daddy, or anything beyond the evening's revelry.

I looked at Daddy King, and he looked at the kitchen window, where he could see the setting sun, "Just a few more minutes, Pistol," he said.  

I breezed through the rest of the food on my plate and looked at him again.

Once again he looked out the window, then said, "It's not quite time, but almost."

Mama King served desert and gave me a fresh glass of milk.  The grown ups drank coffee, and I gobbled my banana pudding, washed it down with the milk, and looked at Daddy King.

He didn't even look toward the window.  He just smiled and said, "It's time."

I jumped out of my chair, said the things I'd been taught to say, "I enjoyed my supper.  May I be excused," and without waiting for an acknowledgement ran for the mask.

It was dark in the bedroom, but I didn't need a light.  In a few seconds, I'd ripped the mask out of the box, put it on, and in the dark, felt my way around my grandparent's bed to my grandmother's dressing table.  I pulled the stool out and carefully put one knee on it, then lifted myself up until I was balanced on both knees looking into the dark mirror.

At that moment, Daddy King turned on the bedroom light, and I saw my reflection in the mirror.  I screamed and fell over backwards onto the bed.  I was taking a deep breath, getting ready to scream again when Daddy King scooped me up.

"Easy, Pistol.  You're OK.  It just your mask.  Remember?"

I raised my hand, touched the latex mask, and giggled.  "I forgot," I said.

Daddy King laughed softly and then said, "It's easy to do, Pistol.  It's easy to do."

That sixty-five year old story from my past is also your story.  In fact, it's everyone's story.  We all wear masks.  Most of us have more than one.  We've been wearing them so long we've forgotten they are masks.  They aren't made of latex but rather of our beliefs, our fears, our hopes, dreams, and expectations.  We made our masks to let people know what they could expect of us, or, to put it another way, we made our mask to be a symbol of who we believe ourselves to be.  Now, we've worn them so long we've forgotten they are there, why they are there, and how to talk them off.  As a matter of fact, most people never take their mask off.  Unlike my Halloween mask, we have to take ours off to see it.

If you manage to see your mask for what it is, don't scream.  Instead remember what Daddy King told me, "You're OK.  It's just a mask."

The Mask was Number 11 in the Norman Rockwell inspired blog series.  I'll post number 12 tomorrow.  I call it Tattoo Artist - here's the illustration:

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Great Men

This isn't a post about global great men.  It is a post about a few of the men who have been instrumental in my life (And, yes, there will be a comparable Great Women post in the Norman Rockwell series).  

My secondary objective is to bring a few of your great men to mind.  If that happens, and you'd like to mention them in a comment to the post, know that I welcome them.

The first men I met were the most influential and I've already mentioned both of them in this series - my Daddy, and my Grandfather.  

Before I share a few of the other men in my life with you, I should note, that some, only appeared in my life for a short period of time, but, no matter, they made their mark on me, and I'm more than pleased to have had those moments with them.

Walter G. Lusby taught World History and American History at Palatka Senior High School, where, in September of 1955, I became a most reluctant student.  The school had 1,200 students.  The town I'd moved from had 500 students from the first through the 12th grade.  The move was a shock that I took years to recover from.  And if you think I'm going to tell you that Mr. Lusby recognized my distress and put his arm around my shoulders and told me it would be okay, you're wrong.  He wasn't that kind of person.  

Mr. Lusby was a teacher who loved to teach - the first man who assumed that role in my life.  He loved history.  He didn't teach it, he told it and with his words, spread it across the landscape for all of us to see, while I hung on every word.  He lived in a boarding house on River Street.  The river was the St. Johns, and it ran in front of the boarding house.  One day Mr. Lusby saw me fishing across the street from his residence.  The next morning, before class, he found me outside the building, for, as usual, I was unwilling to go inside until I absolutely had to.  He told me I was welcome to use his boat any time I wanted to.  

After each of my solo angling excursions, Mr. Lusby was always waiting, and we talked - about everything.  Mr. Lusby was the first man, besides my Daddy and my Grandfather, who listened to me, really listened, and in doing that he shifted me to a higher path - I can't think of another way to say it.

Major Billy Sprague looked through my personnel file as Corporal Fleury signed me in to the 214th Combat Aviation Battalion.  When he finished reading my records, he looked at me and said, "Specialist Carson, you made E5 in record time considering you were in a stateside unit.  I'm short one Platoon Sergeant, and I'd like you to take that position, in addition to running the enlisted personnel records section, which your orders say you are going to do.  In order to make that official, I need to have Fleury cut an order making you an Acting Sergeant, is that okay with you?"  

I was blown away.  Inside of five minutes with the 214th, before I'd even unpacked my gear, I'd been converted from Specialist to NCO and the battalion commander had asked if that was okay with me.  Not only was it okay, it was way beyond anything I could have imagined.   As a platoon sergeant I would be in on the inner workings of the unit, something I craved since becoming a soldier.  And there was another bonus.  I got to watch, first hand, how a man in a rigid organization could maintain his personal integrity.  I could tell dozens of stories about that, but I'll share only the abbreviated version of one, to make my point.  

Sergeant Howard Dirler, a good friend and the NCO in charge of our Pathfinder Platoon, was walking past the orderly room, late one evening, after spending 48 hours with his platoon, securing a landing zone in the boondocks for an upcoming operation.  Staring down, moving slowly, and carrying more gear than one man is normally expected to carry, Howard was barely moving when our new communication officer, a Major who had been in country less than a half day, walked past him.  Howard not only didn't salute, he didn't even see the officer.  The offended Major screamed and the sound registered with Howard, who stopped and slowly turned toward the source of the noise.  The officer launched into what I'm sure would have been a world class chewing out that ended with Howard getting an Article 15.  However, that didn't happen.  

Major Sprague's voice boomed out of the orderly room and I mean boomed.  "Stand the fuck down, Major."  With his words still echoing in the quiet night, Major Sprague slammed out of the orderly room, coming to a stop with his face inches from the Major's.  

Without looking in Howard's direction he said, "Sorry about that, Sergeant.  You're dismissed.  Fleury will help you with your gear and there's a cook standing by in the mess hall ready to cook your supper."  

As Howard moved toward the barracks, with Fleury now carrying the majority of his gear, Major Sprague shifted his attention back to his target.  In a soft voice that lowered the temperature in the area ten degrees, he said, "Major, we don't operate that way here, but that no longer concerns you.  As of this moment, you're not a part of the 214th Combat Aviation Battalion.  In the morning, you are being transferred.  I don't want you or anyone like you in the 214th."
That's why Major Sprague was a legend both in Vietnam and in the hearts of all who served under him.  I suspect it's also the reason he retired fifteen years later as a Lieutenant Colonel instead of a full Colonel or a Brigadier General.

I met James Cooper on a Greyhound bus that was carrying us from Palatka, Florida, to the Armed Forces Induction Center, in Jacksonville, Florida.  After spending the day at the induction center, I spent the night riding another bus, this time an Army bus, heading from Jacksonville, to Fort Benning, Georgia.  The only thing that didn't change between the two bus trips was my seat mate, James Cooper.  I had not known James before that day, even though we were from the same small town.  We were separated by segregation.  James is black and I'm white.  However, nothing separated us from the things that mattered.  We were both kids who had been snatched away from all we knew and ultimately sent half way around the world to defend something that was never threatened.  We went through basic together and in the process became good friends.  

One day, someone called my name as I was crossing a busy street in Saigon.  I stopped, with traffic streaming around me, looked back, and saw Cooper standing on the corner waving.  He was easy to spot in the crowd, thanks to the bandages on both his hands.  The night before, somewhere in the Delta, Viet Cong attacked James and his gun crew.  The man whose job is pulling spent artillery shells from the cannon went down in the first wave.  James, the NCO in charge of the gun crew, jumped forward and took his place.  Telling me the story, he glanced down at the bandages and said, "No time to get the kid's gloves, so I pretty well cooked my hands, but we held on, and I didn't lose another man."

More than thirty years later, with the help of my first wife and some old high school friends, I came into possession of James' phone number.  I carried it for a week before I took a deep breath and called him.  Within minutes we were kids again, friends no longer separated by time and never separated by color.  I told him that the next time Christina and I were in Florida I would look him up.  It was a moment before he answered.  When he did speak he simply said, "If that happens, Carson, don't tell people you knew me from Vietnam.  Everyone here just thinks I was out of town for a long time."

Coop is one of the finest men I've ever known.  If he ever had any dues to pay, they've been paid in full for years, yet he's still carrying a double load of stuff that by rights isn't his to carry.  I close my eyes this Christmas night, almost fifty years after we were in Basic Training together, and I can see him carrying three packs and two M14's as we double time through the rain and mud of south Georgia.  The extra gear belonged to members of our platoon who were too weary to carry it.  With Coop’s help, they had the energy to make it back to the barracks.

I met Paul "Bear" Bryant, Alabama's legendary football coach and had a one-on-one conversation with him that lasted almost a half hour, though he didn't know me and had no reason to give me any time less than two weeks before the start of football season.  Click here to read that story.

My friend, Carl Touchstone was a runner, a marathoner, and an ultra-marathoner, who, over thirty years ago, took the time to introduce me to the joys of running and made sure I stuck with it.  That was no easy task, but Carl didn't understand "difficult" and he took the job on.  Now, I never go for a run without thinking of him.  Though he's been gone a long time, he has never left my heart.  In the interest of brevity, you can read more about Touchstone by clicking here.

To keep this post a reasonable length I’ve intentionally left a number of men out.  However, more than introducing you to a large group of men who had a hand in shaping my life, I’d like for you to think of a man who did the same for you, and mention him in a comment to this post.  Thanks for taking the time to do that.

This was number 10 in my Norman Rockwell inspired blog posts.  Tomorrow I’ll publish number 11.  I call it masks and I’ll use one of these two paintings to illustrate it (or maybe both).

Monday, December 24, 2012

Daddy King

Number 8 in the Norman Rockwell inspired blog series

His name was Basil Carlton King.  He was born in Tupelo, Mississippi.  With his wife, the former Bernie Gentry, he moved to Birmingham, Alabama.

At some point, early in their marriage, Bernie and Basil determined they needed a fresh start.  That included new names and from that point, to the end of their lives their names for each other were George and Ann.  

A lot of people called them by their new names.  Others stayed with their old names.  For me, they were simply Mama and Daddy King.  There were four grandchildren in the family.  Of the four, I was the oldest, and I was the one closest to Daddy King.  

As I look back on that time, from seventy years down the road, I realize that neither my mother or my uncle held their father in very high regard.  I suspect it was because of his tendency to drink to excess in his younger years, but I don't know for a fact that was the reason, and frankly I don't care.  I held him in the highest regard, and and I always will.  As far as I'm concerned, he walked on water.

When I was born, my daddy was on board a submarine in the South Pacific.  Mother and I lived with Mama and Daddy King.  That might explain our attraction to each other, but I think it was more than that.  Daddy King was a gentle soul, who cared about everyone.  Mama King used to laugh at him when he choked up watching a melodrama on TV.  That didn't bother me.  I was choked up too.

He served in World War One, driving an ambulance in France.  Can you imagine the things he saw and lived through?  He never talked about that experience though, and after serving in Vietnam, I have complete empathy with his decision to remain silent about that experience.

When I was in the first grade, Daddy King gave me a rod and reel for Christmas, and then he taught me how to use it.  For almost twenty years, we fished together at every opportunity.  There is a key word in that sentence and it isn't "fished."  It's "together," coupled with "at every opportunity."  We spent thousands of hours together, fishing.  Not talking or philosophizing, we fished, and we were together.  I've only spent more meaningful time with one other person, my wife, Christina.

Every adult in my life felt they had a duty to teach me, preach to me, advise me, admonish me, and on occasion praise me.  Not Daddy King.  His job was to be with me, and he was: totally and completely with me.  Spending time with him began way before he gave me the fishing tackle.  Near the top of my list of early memories was sitting on the front porch with him on summer evenings.  Just the two of us, and the massive old radio with the green lighted dial, spewing forth radio dramas and Birmingham Baron Baseball games.  

Many nights Mother and Daddy, my Uncle and Aunt, and Mama King went to shows leaving me with Daddy King.  Those nights were wonderful.  We didn't do anything special.  He certainly felt no need to entertain me, and I didn't want him to; we were happy to be together.

As I look back on all the time we spent together, I have to report there wasn't a moment, not a single moment, when I was ready for that time to end.   That is so special, I don't have anything else to compare it to - being with Daddy King was perfect time.  I can't imagine my life without the time I spent with Daddy King.  I know how very special every moment was, and I'm thankful to have had the time with him.

Tomorrow, Christmas Eve, Number 9 in the Norman Rockwell inspired blog series.  I call it simply, Christmas.  I'll illustrate it with this well known Norman Rockwell painting:

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Age of Romance

Number 7 in the Norman Rockwell inspired Blog Series

This is the seventh consecutive day that I've posted a blog - that's a first for me, and whatever number of consecutive days of blogging is in second place, isn't even close.

Nothing has changed in me - it's the Norman Rockwell paintings that have kept me blogging every day.  They bring back so many memories that finding something to write about isn't an issue.  If there is an issue using Rockwell's work to illustrate a blog, it's keeping the post to a reasonable length.

For example, when I look at this painting, immediately I think of my first dog, Peck, lying beside me, patiently waiting for me to emerge from a book that had lured me away from the world of friends, and games, and parks, and rolling in green grass.  What a dog.  I could tell you a lot of stories about Peck.

But before I can focus on a single Peck story, I glance at the painting again and immediately I think of Miss Rey, my elementary school librarian, and the most beautiful women I'd met in my first ten years.  She taught me the Dewey Decimal system, and let me work in the library after school, and on more occasions than she would have ever imagined, caused me to run into walls.  That finally became so painful, I determined not to think of her while I was walking or running.  I could tell you a lot of stories about the time I spent working in Miss Rey's library.

But before I could focus on a single Miss Rey story, the book the boy is reading catches my eye, and immediately I think of the summer morning I was was riding to the public library, a place where I spent almost as much time as I spent fishing in the Cahaba River, a shallow, swift-running stream, that passed along the eastern edge of my home town.  The basket mounted on the handlebars of my bike was filled with books, which was always the case.  For some reason which was lost forever in the subsequent crash, I decided it would be a good time to practice riding with no hands while resting both feet on the handlebars.  The next thing I remembered was crawling around the street, picking up the books that had scattered in the one-boy bicycle disaster.

Tonight, sixty plus years later, I finger the scar, hidden by my right eyebrow, and experience a flashback to that day - to my childhood - to Peck - to Miss Rey, and finally to books.  Books, not tablets, or iPads, Kindles, or Nooks, iPod's  or the host of electronic games that are moving out of Target, WalMart, BestBuy, and Amazon Distribution Centers in records numbers this Christmas season.  

I grew up in the day of books and nothing else.  That means I'm old.  It means that when I speak to young clerks, hired for the Christmas rush, they speak LOUDLY, and slowly, and patronizingly, for as long as they can keep their attention focused on me - which, more often than not, isn't long enough for me to complain about their volume, or rate of speech.  Fortunately, growing up in the age of books, means more than being old.  It means I learned to finish the story.

You see, no matter how technically advanced the diversion is, it is limited by the parameters installed by the programmers who built it.  Not so with books.  When I read (or write) a book, the only limits I have are the limits of my own imagination, and my imagination, like your imagination, has no limits. It has no binary constraints.  It doesn't need to be within range of a hotspot to operate, nor does it require a password, or a monthly maintenance fee.  My imagination has no limitation on the amount of data it can upload or down load, and it doesn't require automatic updates or reboots.  

I look at this illustration, which Norman Rockwell called The Age of Romance, and realize how lucky I am to have been raised in the age of books.  I'm not sure I could have survived in another age, and I'm glad I didn't have to try.

Tomorrow number eight in the Norman Rockwell series of blogs.  It is called Daddy King and I'll illustrate it with this Rockwell painting:


Friday, December 21, 2012

Choosing Up

I grew up during the time of seasons.  I suspect that children today don't have a clue about the major and minor seasons that were an integral part of my childhood. 

The major seasons were football and baseball - we didn't consider basketball a major season, though we did spend some time every week playing Horse, unless we were caught up in a minor season.

The minor seasons were marbles, yo yo's, rubber guns, and soap box cars.  For clarification purposes, you need to know that a rubber gun was a homemade weapon that fired rubber strips cut from an automobile inner tube, and our version of soap box racing had little resemblance to today's soap box racers that compete at Akron, Ohio.  All we needed to build a soap box racer was three pieces of wood and four wheels and axles, and a rope for steering.

When Little League Baseball came to my home town, we were excited for a couple of reasons.  The first reason was new baseballs.  Most of us had never seen one, much less played with them.  The second, and almost as exciting as new baseballs, was uniforms.  The logistics of bringing Little League Baseball to our town weren't an issue for us until the day teams were chosen.  

We had exactly enough players for the objective twelve teams.  And wonder of wonders, we had twelve sponsors and twelve big boxes of uniforms.  Then we came up a bit short.  We had only eleven coaches and eleven assistant coaches.  The leaders of the organization walked around the pitchers mound and spoke in low voices for a while.  Finally a spokesperson approached us and said, "We have a small problem, but we aren't going to let that stop us.  We going to go ahead and choose teams.  Hit the field boys."

The choosing up process lasted about an hour.  Eleven coaches and their assistants took turns picking players.  When it was done each of the eleven coaches had twelve players and there were twelve of us left on the field, the ones who weren't chosen in the first twelve rounds.  I looked at my fellow team mates and realized that we were far from the best, with the exception of Mike Braswell, who was one of the best pitchers in town, but who was saddled with a father who could rival any of today's Little League manic parents, which explained his presence with the unchosen.

Before we left the field that first day, we were issued uniforms by the old man who was heading up the organization of the town's first Little League Baseball season.  He told us when to be back for our first practice, then he added, "Now don't worry about a thing.  You'll have a coach when you come to back to your first practice."

A few of us met Sunday afternoon and talked about our team prospects and speculated on who our coach and assistant coach would be.  We didn't have a clue, but we were sure that it wasn't a good sign.  Monday, after school, I walked to the designated practice field.  The man who had assured us we would have a coach was the only adult present.  He called us all to the center of the field.  When he had our attention he smiled and said, "Your coach is on the way and," he paused, looked at his watch, raised his head, smiled again, and continued, "and there he is."

My friend, Georgie Gilbert turned around and then exclaimed, "It's your Daddy!"

I pivoted toward the parking lot just in time to see Daddy jump out of our car, yanking his tie off as he slammed the door.  He waved and jogged toward us, pulling on his old baseball cap as he came.  I saw his old Carl Furillo glove under his right arm and I knew everything was going to be Okay.  And it was.

Now, I don't mean to imply that we won a lot of games.  As a matter of fact, we only won one regular season game, and that was by forfeit, when the other team showed up without enough players.  As a group, we weren't great, but the reason was lost games was Daddy's decision to let everyone play in every game.  

That didn't make Daddy popular with all the parents, especially Mike Braswell's father.  In fact, Mr. Braswell became so vocal on one occasion when Daddy replaced his son with another player, that the umpire called timeout while Daddy left the bench, went into the stands, and talked to Mr. Braswell, who turned a number of shocking shades of red and then took Mike and left the field.  

Regardless, we all loved to play in each game and nothing changed that practice until the regular season ended and the playoffs began.

At a coaches' meeting it was decided that every team would play in the playoffs, regardless of their record.  Before our first playoff game' Daddy gathered us all together in right field, near the fence where he wouldn't be overheard by the other parents or coaches.  He said, "Boys, we've had a lot of fun this season, haven't we?"

We shouted yes, and he smiled and then continued.  "You all know that we are a better team than our record indicates.  I figured it was more important for everyone to play than to win every game."

Someone shouted, "So we didn't win any games."

Daddy laughed and then said, "That's right, we didn't.  But that can change right now, if you want to win.  If you decide that you do, not all of you will play every game.  So, you decide what you want to do..."

Without meaning to, I shouted, "Win."  Immediately all my teammates joined in the chant, "Win, win, win!"
I was a pitcher and back-up center fielder.  I didn't play in the first game of the playoffs.  Mike pitched every inning, and we won 9 to 2.  We were all elated, and Daddy took us to the Dairy Queen for celebration ice cream.

Since Mike pitched the entire game, the rules said he couldn't start the next game.  I started that game and kept us in it for two innings.  Mike started the third inning and went all the way from there.  We won that one by seven runs.

With Mike pitching, we won the third game, and I realized that our fan base had grown by about two hundred percent.  Since that time, I've noticed that phenomena applies to most things in life.   

We won the fourth game, but it was closer than any of the first three.  With only two undefeated teams left in the playoffs, we found ourselves on the threshold of playing for the first ever league championship.

Before the championship game, Daddy gathered us in right field again.  "Boys," he said, "The last four games have been fun but not as much fun as all the games we played before the playoffs started."  He paused, looked at each of us, and then continued.  "Two of you haven't played a single inning, and two more of you have only played two innings each."  He paused a final time, letting his words sink in, then said, "We can win today and we'll be champions.  Or we can all play and have some fun.  I'd like for everyone to play.  What would you like?"

Georgie, who hadn't played a single inning, stood silently staring at the ground.  In fact, it was a long time before anyone said a word.  Finally Mike Braswell said, "Coach, let us all play."

Daddy smiled at him as he said, "Good idea, Mike.  Let's do that."

We all played, and we were beaten by three runs, on the score board, but we won in our hearts where it matters.  

Daddy was promoted a couple of months later and his new job took all of his extra time, so we had a new coach, and even an assistant coach, the following year.  None of that mattered to us.  We'd had our championship season.

Choosing Up was Number six in my Norman Rockwell blog series.  Tomorrow's blog is called Age of Romance.  Here's the Rockwell painting I'll use to illustrate the post.



Thursday, December 20, 2012

Miss Tillman

I began my formal education at the age of five.  If I’d been a week older I wouldn't have started for another year.  As it turned out, all of my classmates were six years old and bigger, and faster, and in most things, smarter than me.  

Today, a year is nothing to me.  I wouldn't notice if tomorrow I was 69 or 71, because today, one year of my life only amounts to 1.5% of my total years.  However, at age five, 1 year of my life amounted to 20% of my total years.  There is a major difference between being six years old as opposed to being five.  Ask any five or six year old in case you've forgotten.

The difference in age between me and all of my classmates was only one of three major obstacles I faced.  The second obstacle was, I had always been at home – no day care or kindergarten for me.  The third obstacle was, I already knew how to read, and as far as I was concerned, learning to read was the only justification for going to school. 

I tried to reason with those who held power over my life but reasoning never worked with them, so, on the first day of school, 1947, accompanied by my mother, I walked to Barrett Elementary School, six blocks from my house.  In the classroom, which was filled with kids who were 20% older and 20% taller than me, my mother introduced me to Miss Tillman, my teacher.  Then Miss Tillman took me to my desk in the back of the room and got me settled in.  Five minutes later, mother left.  Seconds after she departed, so did I. 

With my lunch box in one hand and my sweater in the other, I ran down the alleys as fast as I could.  I was sitting on the front porch when mother arrived.  I won’t go into detail about the conversation that followed.  I’ll just say the next morning was a repeat of the first day until it was time for me to be seated.  Mother escorted me to my desk, not Miss Tillman.  When she left, it was with the admonition that I better not be on the front porch when she got home.

I got the message, and I wasn't on the front porch when she got home.  However, a minute after she left the school, so did I.  This time I didn't go home.  I went across the street and about fifty feet down the alley.  There I found a shady spot, spread my sweater like a picnic blanket and opened my lunch box.  In minutes, I was eating and reading the books I’d tucked in with the sandwiches just before leaving the house. 

When the last bell rang, and kids came streaming out of the school, I joined them.  I did that for two days, not knowing for years afterward that Miss Tillman had called my mother moments after I disappeared and told her that she could see me from her classroom and she would keep an eye on me and work things out.  Then she asked mother not to say anything to me.  A lot has changed in our school systems since then.

About mid-morning of the third day, just as I finished my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it began to rain.  Seconds after the first drops fell, Miss Tillman, holding a huge black umbrella appeared, knelt beside me, and said, “Bert, I know you don’t like school.  I’m going to tell you a secret if you promise not to tell anyone.  OK?”

I nodded, and she continued, “When I was your age, I didn't like school either.  I already knew how to read, and everyone in my class was older than me.  To be honest, I hated it.  Do you know what I mean?”

She paused, looked at me, and waited.  I was about to cry so I didn't try to talk.  I just nodded my head again.  She smiled and continued, “I thought you would.”

We stayed like that for a while.  The only sound was the rain beating on her umbrella.  Finally, she held out her hand and I took it.  She smiled again and said, “I’m going to tell you another secret.  Is that alright?”

I nodded and she said, “If you’ll go back into class with me and just stay there until the day is over, I’ll let you play with my dogs after school.”

I couldn't believe it.  Miss Tillman had two Scotties – one solid white and the other solid black.  There was no way to get near them because they stayed behind a fence that enclosed her back yard.  I’d wanted to pet those dogs since the first day I saw them.  I managed to say, “Yes Ma’am.” Then we stood and walked into the classroom.   That afternoon I played with Miss Tillman’s Scotties just as I did every afternoon until summer, and we moved away from Birmingham.

I didn't see Miss Tillman again, in fact, I never saw Barrett Elementary School again.  However, I think about Miss Tillman often and every time I do, I marvel at my good fortune in drawing her as my first teacher.

Miss Tillman was number five in my series of blogs inspired by the work of Norman Rockwell.  Tomorrow I’ll tell you the story I call Choosing Up.  I’ll use Norman Rockwell’s picture of the same name to illustrate the story.  Here it is: