Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Something Blue

"Something olde, something new, something borrowed, something blue."
-- Old English Rhyme

We are the sum of our experiences, and in my case, that sum is approaching yet another number evenly divisible by ten. To be perfectly honest, that's spooking me a little, because I've never thought of myself as my true age. I certainly don't always behave in accordance with the expectations and standards of my years, yet I know that the calendar doesn't lie. For the most part, I'm okay with that.

Lately, one of my favorite weekend activities has been browsing local antiques shops, and a few Saturdays ago, I was contentedly shuffling among the aisles at one of our regular haunts, Queen of Hearts Antiques and Interiors in Alpharetta. I was checking out ancient LP's, creatively styled lamps, Hardy Boys collections, whatever I came across. Eventually, I made my way to the rear of the store, where a new model train room had been set up, and this piqued my interest, because at one point in my life, I had kinda sorta become a train collector.

A small slice of the train collection
My first train was a classic Lionel O gauge set that I got for Christmas in 1959. I would set it up every year on a small circular track under our Christmas tree, but I never got more than seven or eight cars, one of which transported a giraffe whose head would duck when it passed under a bar mounted above the track.

Fast forward to one afternoon in late 1979. I was doing dome Christmas shopping at the State Street Marshall Field's department store in downtown Chicago when I spotted a Marklin Z gauge train setup, and I was enamored of it instantly. Z gauge is the smallest size of model train that is manufactured -- the little people that make up the tiny train towns through which Z's course are so small as to be unrecognizable as human. Nevertheless, I fell for this grand toy, and that Christmas, my wife gave me an N gauge (one size larger) train set. I attempted to set it up in our high rise apartment, but within a couple of months, we had moved to another apartment in the suburbs, and after a brief foray into train layout design, I boxed up the trains and became obsessed with a darkroom hobby. I reconfigured the train board I'd bought into a darkroom (read bathroom) light sealer. But I digress.

That Saturday in Queen of Hearts, as I was poring over the train pieces, something hit me without warning, a steep drop in energy level, mood and general well-being, an afternoon ennui that could only be characterized as an acute case of the blues. I tried to find a place to sit down, but most of the chairs had "No Parking" signs on them, so I slowed my pace and tried to collect myself. And then it dawned on me: I'd never really done anything with those trains. Even though people had given me train cars and accessories for years after I had moved out of that city apartment, I'd never brought anything rail-related to fruition. Perhaps more significantly, I realized that there was a lot of stuff I hadn't done.

When I first started visiting antiques stores and flea markets back in the 1980's, most of the items were remnants of my parents' and grandparents' generations. It was not uncommon to find hardware from the 1920's, vintage Victrolas with accompanying stacks of 78's, or sheet music from the 1940's. But now, I realized that the items in Queen of Hearts were not only souvenirs of my own childhood, but many of them were items I'd actually owned back when "Thirtysomething" and "L.A. Law" were on the air. At that point, no vintage lunchbox, five dollar miniature Richard Petty statue or whimsical chicken sculpture could bring me back. I was over the edge.

I returned home, and in a trance-like state, I attempted to remove some stripped screws from a cabinet, to no avail. Two trips to Home Depot and one to Lowe's provided no workable solution. And to top it off, there was this whole train thing. Why hadn't I done something with it? What was I thinking? Where had the time gone? What about all the other stuff I was supposed to have done? Oy. I muddled through the rest of the weekend, but I never really got my energy back. And then the week started. I began mine in an uncharacteristically foul mood.

But on that Monday afternoon, as I was perusing Facebook, I read a post from my younger daughter about how she had befriended a homeless Vietnam veteran on the street in Chapel Hill and bought him coffee while they discussed life. He told her that she had showed him more kindness than he'd seen in years. Soon afterward, my older daughter reposted the story, saying how proud she was of her younger sister, likening her to a guardian angel. Suddenly, everything was put in perspective. It really didn't matter that the little freight cars were still sitting in boxes, or that the darkroom hobby had faded away, or that some of that "other stuff" hadn't gotten done, because seeing those posts underscored the fact that being a father to these two remarkable young ladies has been my most important activity, and that it is elemental to who I am.

I know that I'll eventually get the train out again, and who knows, I may set everything up, complete with waving passengers and little dogs that forage for scraps along the tracks. And eventually, I may remove those stripped screws from the cabinets and find myself in an protracted home renovation mood. Okay, that may be stretching it a bit, but you get the idea. Truly, I feel a lot more confident about these things. After all, "L.A. Law" is now out on DVD. Heck, I might even go back and get that Richard Petty statue.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Night in Bethlehem, Etc.

I told a story to a friend a few days ago that I feel is worth repeating. I don't recall exactly how we got on the topic, but every time I think back on this particular adventure, I realize how bad situations can offer up revelations.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, 1994, our family headed north from Charlotte in our 1990 two-tone Isuzu Trooper to spend the holiday with my wife's family in Boston. This was a drive we had made many times before from Atlanta, and the drive from Charlotte was of course shorter, but it still took almost two days each way. Headed up on that first night, we made it as far as Piscataway, New Jersey.

A few days earlier, knowing we were headed north, my New Yorker friend Scott had suggested a route that took us up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where we could get a great view of Lower Manhattan. Bright and early Sunday morning, we left our hotel in Piscataway, stopping along the way at a Dunkin' Donuts in a rather rough part of Perth Amboy for coffee and donuts to go. Sarah, nine years old and curious about what things looked like at street level in New Jersey, went into the shop with me and was completely taken by the accents of the patrons and the staff. A fellow customer joked with us about how you knew the neighborhood was getting pretty bad, because the change cup next to the register was labeled "Do Not Steal". He looked more than a little dodgy himself.

Emerging unscathed with some new Jersey phrases, we snarfed down a dozen donuts and some highly sugared coffee while driving the BQE and gazing at the city across the East River. I liked how the well-traveled road descended at times below street level into a sort of narrow corridor, only to emerge back into the light and life of Brooklyn. The twists and turns of the road eventually led us to I-95, where we headed north into New England and on to Boston.

The week in Boston was restful and energizing, and on Saturday morning, we pointed the Trooper back home and headed south. I drove from Boston, down through Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, traversing the crowded lanes of the Garden State Parkway, and finally heading west on I-78, eventually stopping at the New Jersey-Pennsylvania state line to switch drivers. The sky was overcast, and as soon as we crossed into Pennsylvania, it began to snow. Visibility was limited, and due to the hilly terrain in the area, the roads were slick. Karen, who grew up and learned to drive in New England, was used to driving in bad weather and consequently kept her speed to about 15-20 miles per hour.

Suddenly, I saw Karen look in the rear view mirror and say something, then I heard a loud crunch on our left rear bumper. We pulled to the right, but the driver who had hit us sped off ahead. It was too snowy to get his license number, but at that point, that was not our primary concern. Sarah was crying, Hannah was speechless, and somehow, Karen maintained her cool. We pulled off the road, put on the flashers, and got out to check the damage. From all indications, the only thing we could see was a bent rear bumper and a kinked tailpipe. We felt lucky, but also totally unable to drive as far as Harrisburg, which was our intended destination. And soon, it was pitch dark. We were unfamiliar with this particular stretch of road, since we generally took another route when traveling through Pennsylvania. A sign up ahead said that it was only a few miles to Bethlehem, so we decided to stop there for the night.

Neither Karen nor I had ever been to Bethlehem, so she drove while I navigated us into town. This was before Garmin, TomTom, and phone map apps, so I followed as best I could on the trusty Rand-McNally Road Atlas. We could see the shadows of the steel mills as we plied our way among unfamiliar streets, and there were no people around anywhere. The scene was nothing short of spooky, but fortunately, within a few minutes, we found our hotel, breathing a sigh of relief as we stepped out of the car and into the hotel lobby.

What we saw caused our hearts to skip a beat. The hotel was fully decked out for Christmas and was hosting a nativity scene decorating contest. All along the entry corridor, a series of creches were displayed. The hotel desk clerk directed us to our room, and we hauled up our suitcases, then returned down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. We all went into chill mode, then decided that the next morning, we would try to find a body shop to assess the damage. It was a good night of sleep.

The next morning, as we packed the car, I noticed that my portable CD player was missing. Not being familiar with the area, and having recently experienced a theft from the Trooper back in Charlotte, I spoke to the hotel clerk about the loss, and he summoned the Bethlehem Police to file a theft report. I wasn't really sure if this was necessary, but within minutes, a sharply dressed young police officer appeared and took down our information. Once that was out of the way, we headed to the nearest body shop. Remember, it was Sunday morning.

We pulled into the parking lot of the body shop, into one of the last available spaces. The owner, a jolly, fortysomething fellow, took a good look at the damage to the Trooper, then disappeared inside and returned with a crowbar. He carefully bent the tailpipe back into shape, and when I asked how much we owed him, he said, "Nothing, sir...I see you guys are from North Carolina. Just have a safe trip home." We thanked him, wended our way back out of Bethlehem, and then continued west on I-78.

The drive was getting better. The kids were so patient as we passed through one town after another on I-78, then on I-81, and by the time we got to northwest Virginia, everyone was hungry, so we pulled into a McDonald's and filled up. As we headed back out to the expressway, I could feel that something wasn't quite right with the Trooper; it was a little hard to get enough acceleration to get back up to speed on the road, but I attributed this to whatever might have happened the night before. At any rate, we would have the Trooper checked out once we returned to Charlotte.

The party wasn't over. As we drove down the road, I tried changing gears (the Trooper had a stick shift) and noticed that the clutch was slipping. Karen remembered that we had been down I-81 the previous summer on a family vacation, and she thought she remembered that we were coming upon a sizable town that we had passed through then. Sure enough, within a few miles, we reached Harrisonburg, Virginia, and as we approached, we spotted an Isuzu dealer off to the left. We pulled the Trooper into a Comfort Inn and planned our next move.

Evening was falling, and once we had parked the Trooper at the hotel, it wouldn't budge. We took our luggage up to the room and called a towing company. A little after dark, the tow truck arrived, and our driver, a pleasant young woman, hooked up the truck and got us the two blocks or so to the dealer. We paid her, thanked her, and headed across the street to a Red Lobster, where the restaurant manager, hearing our plight, offered us free appetizers and wine. We had a relaxing dinner and a restful night, and the next morning, we walked down to the Isuzu dealer.

At the dealership, two members of the service staff took pity on us and put us at the front of the service schedule. We needed a new clutch, and the work would take at least a day to complete, so we rented a car and drove up to the New Market Civil War battlefield, thinking that maybe we could all use a little history lesson to change gears. It was a beautiful day, and for a moment, we forgot all about the Trooper and our delay getting home. That evening, we toured around Harrisonburg, checked out the campus of James Madison University and discovered that we were actually in a fairly large town, and a friendly one at that.

The next day, the Trooper was ready, and after we paid and got our keys, I asked if I could speak to the owner of the dealership; I wanted to thank him for the superior service that we had received. When I walked into his large, paneled office, I introduced myself and told him about the two service advisors who had been so kind to us. I mentioned that I knew the holidays were around the corner, and I hoped that they would be recognized. He told me he'd make sure they got a little something special.

The rest of the trip home to Charlotte was, thankfully, uneventful, and when we got home, people were curious about what had happened and what it felt like to break down "in the middle of nowhere". All I could think was that in actuality, we had rediscovered something special, and that was that there are so many caring people in the world. You sometimes do not expect to find them, and they might not be in places that you'd even consider looking. But they are there, and maybe the adventure that started that night in Bethlehem was one of those things that was just supposed to happen.

By the way, our next SUV had automatic transmission.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


My Uncle Haywood, like many other young men of his day, was called to serve in World War II. He left his home outside Jackson, Tennessee, and ended up serving on a PT boat in the Pacific Theater. He passed away in 2000 after an extended period of stay in a nursing home in Alamo, some 20 miles northwest of Jackson, which is some 80 miles northeast of Memphis. So basically, this is a West Tennessee story.

I got the call one September morning that Uncle Haywood had died and that the funeral would be held in Jackson on the following Saturday. The week was a busy one for me, so I elected to fly from Atlanta to Memphis, where I would rent a car to drive up to Jackson for the weekend. That part of the plan was executed without incident, and early Friday afternoon, I pulled up to George A. Smith & Sons Funeral Home, on Highway 45 south of Jackson.

I entered the building and was directed to a conference room, where my mother Peggy and her sister, my Aunt Ida, a steel magnolia of the highest order, were seated at the table. My mom gave me a hug, and Aunt Ida, who was engaged in a lively phone conversation, blew me a kiss and continued her side of what was obviously a rather spirited debate.

"Now, I'm telling you, he does NOT know what he is talking about....yes, I KNOW he's been out there and he THINKS he knows where everything is, but I want someone to make sure...yeah, I think that will be fine. OK, thank you, and we'll see you tomorrow."

Aunt Ida, who owned a busy beauty parlor in Trenton, Tennessee, hung up the phone, turned to me with a broad smile, and said, "Hey, sweetie! Why has it been so long since you've been up to see me?" At a loss for words, I apologized to her and said I'd try to do better in the future. She nodded, as she always did, asked me how Karen and the girls were doing, then turned back to my mom.

"Peggy, I'm tellin' you, that derned old J.E. has got this all messed up. They say he's looked at the plot, but I'm not sure." I asked what all this was about, and what I got out of it was that said J.E., who managed the plots at the cemetery, had directed the funeral home about where Uncle Haywood was to be buried, but apparently, Aunt Ida was not all that happy with what she perceived as his uncertainty regarding my uncle's final resting place.

After a few minutes of animated conversation about J.E., we returned to my uncle's house in the town of Bemis, close by, and went through some of his possessions. There were odds and ends for the most part, except for a stack of old candid black and white war photos in a dark red box. In one of these, a group of sailors was pictured aboard a PT boat, and there in the middle of the group was none other than John F. Kennedy! I showed this picture to my aunt, and she said that she indeed remembered Haywood talking about having served on another boat which often accompanied Kennedy's boat on maneuvers, and that Kennedy was remembered as a fair, fun-loving officer. We brought back the pictures and a few other memoirs to Ida's home, then had dinner and turned in for the night.

Saturday morning dawned bright, sunny, and wickedly hot. We headed back to the Smith Funeral Home for the service, and it was indeed a wonderful tribute to Uncle Haywood. As so often happens with funerals, I had the chance to visit with many friends and relatives whom I had not seen for years. Once the service was concluded, we made the short drive to Lester's Chapel cemetery for the graveside service. Again, a lovely message was delivered.

I suppose it was sometime near the end of the service when I looked around and realized that, at least according to what I'd seen on the plot map, Uncle Haywood was about to be buried in the wrong row of the cemetery. In fact, he was about to be buried next to his second wife, and not in the family row to which he had been assigned. I waited for the service to finish, then turned to my mother and said, "I know this may not be the best time to say this, but I believe Uncle Haywood is being buried in the wrong place."

My mom looked around at the other markers, and then a look of total incredulity passed over her face. "Laaaaawws, Richard, you are right. He is NOT in the right spot. We're gonna have to tell Ida Mae."

Instantly recalling Ida's animated conversation from the day before, I replied, "Well, I'm not gonna be the one to tell her."

We waited for a few of the friends and family to disperse, and then my mom and I walked over to Ida together to deliver the news.

"Ida Mae, Richard just noticed, and I agree...they're burying Haywood in the wrong place."

Ida looked around, mirroring the earlier reaction of my mother, and said, "Laws, Peggy, you are right. That derned old J.E. If he'd a' kept his mouth shut, we wouldn't be in this mess!"

At about that time, a lanky gravedigger with very few teeth, resting beside one of the tent poles, overheard what we were saying and exclaimed, "Y'all, I'm gonna tell ya...if he ain't in the right place and I need to dig another hole, I need to know right NOW, 'cause it's gonna get dark."

We called over the funeral director, a pleasant young man, who apologized profusely for the error. He told us that after the crowd dispersed, his crew would cover the freshly excavated site and dig a new one in the correct row, after which time the casket would be lowered into its proper resting place. We all agreed that this was a fair settlement, and as the last of the friends left, my Aunt Ida, my mother, my cousin Marion and I stood there, turning the whole incident over in our minds. And at that moment, my dear Aunt Ida came up with the perfect West Tennessee response to a situation of this magnitude:

"Well, y'all...I guess that'll work. There's really nothin' else we can do. Let's go get barbecue."

And so, Uncle Haywood came to a peaceful rest, right where he was supposed to be.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ten Things I Don't Know How to Do

I recently read a post from my friend Tim on his blog The Middle Seat, and I just had to steal the idea, although Tim admitted that he got it from another source, a writing workshop called "Ten Things I Don't Know How to Do".  Here's my list:
  1. Fold fitted sheets properly.
    Truth be told, I'm very conscientious and methodical about doing laundry, but this one thing I have never figured out.  I'm great with flat sheets and pillowcases, but give me a fitted sheet, and I'm reduced to a babbling Brooks.
  2. Say the words "sugar cookie" together.
    I know that these are two distinct words, but for some reason, when I try to pronounce them together, the result runs together and sounds mushy.  It's embarrassing.  And I love sugar coo...oh, you know.
  3. Grow bonsai trees.
    I've been a fan of bonsai trees ever since I was introduced to them in my teens.  However, every single time I've tried to grow them, they've turned into ornamental sticks.
  4. Eat right-handed.
    I eat European, or continental, style.  I'm right-handed about most everything else (except for tennis, when I will sometimes switch hands), but I eat left-handed.  This confuses people when we are sitting in a booth at a restaurant, and they are sitting to my left.  A friend of mine whom I've known (and often lunched with) for the last eighteen years only realized this a few months ago and was astounded.
  5. Blow bubbles with bubble gum.
    This was on Tim's list, too.  I never figured out how to do this, although as I recall, I spent several years trying.  Oh, well.
  6. Swim.
    This is a big one.  I took swimming lessons when I was six, but I had a severe reaction to the chlorine in the instructor's pool at her house, so it was years before I tried again.  I took lessons when I was 35, but I don't feel comfortable going more than a few feet.
  7. Paddle a canoe or kayak.
    Given #6, this is probably understandable.
  8. Play a reed instrument.
    I played piano, guitar, and several brass instruments, but I've never played anything with a reed.  Huh.
  9. Play cards.
    Card games are not really my thing.  I will occasionally play a game, if someone first tells me (or reminds me) what to do, but I never seem to remember how to play a specific card game, even after being told repeatedly.  The only exceptions to this are Uno and Rook, so I think it's something about face cards that spooks me.
  10. Sleep well on the first night away from home.
    For some reason, I never sleep well the first night when traveling.  After that, it's not an issue, but that first night is always the worst.  Not sure why, but I've talked to other people who have the same problem.
Fun stuff.  :)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Life on the Porch

"I keep my Christmas lights out on my front porch all year long,
And I know all the words to every Charlie Daniels song."
-- Gretchen Wilson

Panera can be a great place to write, to stop between bites of your cinnamon crunch bagel and put down a few thoughts, and this morning is no different.  As I look out from my window seat at the rain coming down on this chilly post-holiday January morning, the second day of this new year, I'm reminded that in better weather, the patio out there is full of people catching up on life.  Patios, decks, and porches are like that -- not only do they provide real-life, tangible chat forums, but they draw you out and make you stop for a while to contemplate the true meaning of the universe; sometimes, they just help you figure out some specific thing that's rattling around in your head, and in so doing, they enrich life just a bit...well, maybe more than just a bit.

I am old enough to remember the South in the days before every house and commercial structure had central air conditioning, days when we relied on window fans, handheld paper fans, and the coming of twilight to cool us down.  Many houses in those days were built with wraparound porches or at the very least, front porches which extended the width of the house.  They were often painted with a shiny gray enamel which resisted anything spilled on them.  Many featured a swing or two, and in some cases, the area underneath the porch provided a refuge for various pets, those intentionally acquired or otherwise made part of the family through a process of acclimation.

My childhood is full of front porch memories. One of my favorites, and funniest, involves an evening spent on my paternal grandmother and grandfather's front porch at their house just outside Memphis.  My grandfather ran a small country grocery store, and being a rather shrewd merchandiser, he often came up with novel ways to turn a buck.  One night, he brought home several cases of oatmeal and told us that we had a project.  He proceeded to pull out one of the boxes to show us that it contained a free green drinking glass.  Our "project" (and we were drafted for this, by the way) was to open each individual box, remove the glass, then tape the box back up, with masking tape nonetheless.  The plan was then to sell the boxes of oatmeal and the glasses separately, thereby generating additional revenue for the store.  I looked at this whole venture with a raised eyebrow, but being the kid, I had no choice but to participate.  Thank goodness I had clean hands.

In my elementary school years, Grandma and Grandpa Brooks lived in a cozy white frame house on Biltmore in north Memphis, and although I don't ever remember the house being particularly uncomfortable temperature-wise, we would often sit out on the porch well into the evening.  Grandma's next door neighbors had a daughter who was a few years older than I was, and she once gave me a stack of Beatles LP's for nothing.  Even though I was only eleven years old, with necessarily limited funds, she wouldn't let me pay her, so that was one of the best deals I ever made.  I still have all those LP's in my collection.  And as I recall, that deal was struck on the front porch.

Music often figured into the porch experience.  My friend Bobby lived with his mother in a pretty little house on Pope Street.  Bobby and I became good friends in our last few years of high school, and after we headed off to our respective colleges, we still kept in touch.  I remember many summer afternoons sitting on his front porch, playing Neil Young and B. W. Stevenson songs on my old Yamaha acoustic guitar.  Bobby was just learning to play, so I taught him a few riffs and chords while we chilled.  I remember thinking then that this music on the porch thing could go on forever and I wouldn't mind.

Porch sitting wasn't always confined to a wooden Southern structure.  I recall an evening with Grandma Brooks at my uncle's outdoor fire pit at his house in California, playing her favorite tunes for her: "The Battle of New Orleans" and "Act Naturally" were two of her favorites.  We sat and talked for hours, Grandma in her orange muumuu relating one family story after another -- she was a consummate Southern storyteller.  Grandma passed away about a year or so later, but she left behind those stories, an irreplaceable inheritance.

Some of the porch locations were spectacular.  In the late 80's and early 90's, we would visit our friend Herbert Evans in the mountains of western North Carolina.  Herbert's house sat at the summit of Big Ridge Road and looked out over the Blue Ridge Mountains -- it was indescribably beautiful.  Every evening at precisely six o'clock, Uncle Herbert would call for the start of happy hour.  He knew I liked scotch or bourbon, so he was always at the ready to offer a beverage and a little bowl of munchies, which were always mixed in precise proportions.  Herbert and I would sit on his front porch and talk about everything under the sun until it would start to set over the mountains.

These days, we spend a lot of spring, summer and fall evenings on the deck at Brooksville, listening to music and sipping cool libations.  One of my favorite things in the world is to sit out there with friends, talking about topics that span the horizon.  Often, we'll have neighbors or work friends over to visit well into the evening.  I turn the music down when it gets late.  Porch/deck/patio sitting is, thankfully, part of my life, and I always look forward to spending time out on the deck with those who live close by or come to visit.  Spring will be here soon, and we'll all be getting together again, I'm sure.

And on that note, I wish you all a very happy new year, a year in which I hope you can make many irreplaceable memories of your own.  Maybe I'll see you on the deck.