THE 1,000 WORD ESSAYS

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1,000 Words Explained

10 essays, each exactly 1,000 words in length


“There is but one art, to omit. Oh, if I knew how to omit I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knows how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily newspaper.”

Robert Louis Stevenson


This is a work in progress. Here you will find the essays written to date. Some are fiction; others are tales from the trails of my life. Each is from the heart and written to convey the most story in the fewest words. Please enjoy and let me know if you do...or don't.










“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

Truman Capote

Essay One: The Stopover

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The Stopover

Charley Hogan? He's nobody. Just a drifter. A bum. Nobody.

 
 

The sun rises hard on the Llano Estacado. It does not ease gently into the morning sky, but bursts onto the infinite blue canvas, brutal and brilliant. By mid-morning, the inevitable wind that sweeps the west Texas plains is super-charged with the kind of heat that reminds you of opening a bag of microwaved popcorn. Only it’s not microwaved. It’s macro…wave upon sun-burning, lip-cracking, throat-parching wave.

Even a tree’s shade is no match for the heat-conducting wind. Not that you would find more than a couple trees every hundred miles or so that could honestly wear that title.

“Dadblast this heat. Hell is a bitch named Andrews.”

Charley Hogan squats in the receding shade afforded him by the wall against which his sweat-soaked back is pressed – the wall of Walgreens, where he has just traded all the money he has in the world for a Dr. Pepper and a pack of Kamel Reds. The first cigarette out of the fresh new pack, half-smoked, dangles in the corner of his mouth and bounces as he mutters expletives to himself.

The wizened, leather-skinned old coot is all gristle and bone. His ribs are outlined in the tight-fitting pale blue button-down hand-me-down shirt, of which the sleeves are neatly rolled to the elbows. The jeans appear not to be from the current generation or even the previous. They are worn thin in the butt and crotch and clean through at each knee. The blue in them is mostly white, though in places a dingy brown.

Charley squints into the ill-placed sunlight and bids good morning to the fat lady in shorts and tank top. She gives him a wide berth, which means she is less worried about the shortest distance between her car door and the Walgreen’s front door than she is the distance between herself and the man she assumes is a panhandler.

She does not return the greeting or make eye contact. In no way does she acknowledge his greeting or even his existence.

As the last of her ass disappears through the automatic door, Charley mutters, “You coulda at least stood still a minute and blocked this damned sun.”

She doesn’t hear him and he doesn’t care. He thumps his cigarette, which spins, end over end, like a football kicked through the uprights and then skips, sparks flying, on the concrete a couple of times before rolling to its death in an unclaimed parking spot.

Charley’s knees snap, crackle, and pop as he winces and cusses his way to a standing position. Long, skinny legs carry him to the corner of 4th and Main. It’s just 100 steps for a normal person of standard height and 67 steps for the 6’7 67-year-old man in the sweat-stained Stetson, sweatier-still blue shirt, tattered jeans, and Mule-brown leather boots.

He could not remember how he came to be the 11,042nd soul in Andrews. He remembers the sign that welcomed him to town – was he riding a Greyhound bus? – because it still stands proud at the city’s eastern edge. The whitewashed billboard is about 100’ wide and 10’ tall and is supported by 13 posts.

“ANDREWS LOVES GOD, COUNTRY, AND SUPPORTS FREE ENTERPRISE,” the thing proudly boasts.


Sign outside Andrews, TX

Sign outside Andrews, TX

Charley looks up Main Street and then down it, trying to decide if he meant to cross to the other side or why he had come to the street corner at all. While he waits for the light to change and inspiration for his next move, he thinks about that sign on the city’s edge and wonders if it speaks for all of Andrews’ citizens, including the fat lady in Walgreens.

He had come to Andrews for a job.

No. Wait. He got off the bus in Andrews because his money had run out and he hadn’t the fare to go further. Yeah, that was it.

He rubs his chin and watches the “walk” sign begin to flash, count down from 10, and then get replaced by the hand.

He needs a cigarette.

He came to Andrews…that was the point. No. The point was he left somewhere else. Yeah. Lubbock. He left Lubbock at high noon in the middle of one of those dust storms that turns the sky red, hides the sun completely, and sandblasts the enamel off of every foolish grinner’s teeth.

He left because there was nothing left.

That was 2000 and…no…it was 19…and 90…six? No, seven. 1997.

He was just passing through Andrews. Just long enough to collect bus fare.  Twenty years later, he is watching the light turn green and the hand go up to signal don’t cross the damn road for the fourth time.

He palms a cigarette and shields the lighter’s flame from the wind, which ought to have enough heat in it to light the thing and save him the trouble. Three flicks of flint on steel and the dollar ninety-nine lighter makes good on its given purpose. He takes a deep draw, exhales through his nose like smoke billowing from the tailpipes of a street rod, purses his lips, and remembers her.

Charley was not from west Texas. Heck, he was not from Texas at all. He grew up in the Louisiana bayou. When he graduated high school in 1967, he was offered scholarships from a dozen schools. A tall, thin drink of water with a cannon for an arm, he was maybe three inches too tall for some people’s liking when it comes to the ideal size for a quarterback.

He chose Texas Tech University…or it chose him. Something about the lonesome feel of the wide-open plains whispered peace into the lanky, rawboned footballer’s soul.

Good thing, too, because a knee injury his freshman year ended his football career. He stuck around to collect his business degree and fall in love with a girl named Sonnie Sue Simpson. Sonnie Sue How D’Ya Do, he called her. They married in 1972 and built a life together. A life and a business. And two daughters.

But that was then.

 
 
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Peace! like a river

When I remember the rivers of my youth, I hear Glen Campbell singing,

"...you're movin' on the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
And for hours you're just gentle on my mind."

The Essay

Peace! Like a River...

I grew up on the Brazos river.

Well, not on it, but near enough. (Not near enough to suit me.)

I was somewhere north of my tenth birthday when I met Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I had never experienced the euphoria of being swept away by the great current of a well-spun tale. Black words on white paper never held such adventures, such experiences, such joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

Nor did any ever make a river seem so magical. It would be several years before I would lay eyes on the Mighty Mississippi. Until then, my dreams, daydreams, and planned escapes to Adventureland would center on the slow-moving river just outside the Mineral Wells, Texas city limits.

All of my memories of days and nights spent on the Brazos seem to meld into one.

I remember the rope that dangled high above the water from a large, gnarly branch of an old Oak tree by the river’s bank. Or, at least to a 9-10-11-12-year-old boy, it seemed like it was high above. I remember the thrill of swinging way out over the water and releasing the rope to cannonball into the murky water below.

I remember catching Sun Perch at sun-up by the dozens in a nearby pond to use as bait on the trot line Big Granddad and I would later string across the river. I remember running that trot line in the middle of the night in a small, flat-bottom boat, stealthily paddling in the moonlight, checking each hook, adding more unfortunate Perch to the bare hooks where fishy thieves had stolen our bait. I remember Granddad wrestling greedy catfish from the barbed hooks and tossing them into the boat to flop about until we had time to pay them more attention.

I remember the chilling cry of the bobcat across the river from where we camped. It sounded like a child screaming. I remember Granddad, unbothered by the nightmare-yielding screams, shining his light across the water into the haunted tree. I remember the shiny flash of the cat’s eyes and the sudden disappearance. I remember how the big cat moved so swiftly without a sound that could be heard from where we watched. I remember the crack of Granddad’s .22 rifle and the sound of the bullet splintering a tree branch.

I remember the smell of coffee and fish frying in a skillet on an open fire. I remember the laughter and stories and roasting marshmallows. I remember sleeping on the cold, hard earth in a sleeping bag.

I remember the heavens bedazzled with a billion stars. I remember a shooting star. I remember stories my Uncle Troy and I would tell deep into the night. I don’t remember the stories, only the telling.

I was 15 the first time I laid eyes on the Big River, Mark Twain’s river, The Mighty Mississippi. I don’t remember where Dad was taking us, maybe to the Accelerated Christian Education national convention, where I was to represent Texas in the preaching contest. Or maybe it was somewhere else. Wherever we were headed, we went through Memphis to get there.

Mom was excited about that because she loved Elvis and she would see Graceland for the first (and maybe only) time. Elvis was still alive then. (Some say he still is now. Ha!)

I was excited about a river.

The Mississippi is a mile wide in places. The bridge over it seemed a mile high. I wished Dad could park the Chevy Suburban on that bridge. I wished I could run to the rail and stare down on the glory of the greatest American river. I wished I could watch that barge and the tugboat tugging it in from its ventures on the high seas until it was docked.

This was it! This was the river of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the river of my boyhood fantasies winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting commerce, hosting vacationers, supplying fishermen, supporting childhood dreams.

At this writing, I am past the halfway mark between 50 and 60. I’ve traversed the fruited plains and mountains majesty from sea to shining see and border to border. How many rivers have I crossed? Too many to remember, but never enough. I still find my center. I still feel the power. I still crane my neck and slow my roll whenever I cross a river. No destination is too important, no appointment too urgent to interrupt my starry-eyed dreams or trump the sweet memories of a near-perfect boyhood.

My travels have taken me from one life to another, one profession to another. I was born to preach but screwed that up because I was also born to trouble. You can take the boy out of the preacher, but you cannot excise the preacher from the boy. God knows a few tried their best to rip it out of me. I took the bloody knife of defiance to my own soul, to boot.

Still, I find peace like a river…and hope…

…a river of peace and prosperity... ~Isaiah 66:12 (NLT)[1]

Scripture references the peace, comfort, and assurance drawn from the river in Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength,
            A very present help in trouble.

      Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change
            And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea…

      There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
            The holy dwelling places of the Most High.

      God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved;
            God will help her when morning dawns. (verse 1-5)[2]

 I’ve been on the river at sunset, slept on its banks through the long, dark night, and wakened to its sweet morning song. I’ve felt joy and bitter sorrow. I’ve found peace…like a river.


 [1] New Living Translation, ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation

[2] New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation


essay Three Excerpt

He was in Jackson county when bloodthirsty locals assaulted a Mormon, intent on tarring and feathering the elderly Mormon leader. The young Texan carried an over-developed sense of justice and duel six-shooters. 

Cade & the Kid...

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Cade and the Kid

Two strangers spend an awkward night on a lonesome prairie. What will each learn about the other...and himself?

The Essay

Cade & The Kid

“That’s just the way the sun sets out here, I reckon.”

Sam Cade squinted into the western sky at its brilliant shades of orange, yellow, pink, and red. The sun was sizzling, melting into the jagged peaks of distant mountains.

Sam squatted over a small fire. Out here in the badlands, a big fire might draw the unwanted attention of thieves, malefactors, or Indians. He had built the fire and boiled the beans for himself alone.

That was before the redheaded youngster asked to join him. Couldn’t have been more than 16, traveling the wilds of west Texas by his skinny lonesome. Sam wanted to tell him to get lost, but he figured he already was and the weather-worn, lanky Texan really didn’t favor the notion of riding up on the kid’s carcass in a day or two. He’d feel bad and there was no sense in feeling bad when all you had to do to avoid it was share your fire and beans.

Over a tin plate of piping hot beans and days old cornbread, the kid acknowledged the brilliance of the sunset, which evoked the aforementioned grunted reply from Cade, who wasn’t that all-fired keen on gabbing all night when he had thinking to do.

“Well, it never sets in such a fashion back home,” the kid offered.

“Where’d that be?”

“Up in Missourah.”

Missouri. Cade knew it well. He had been unwittingly and unwillingly caught in the crossfire between Governor Boggs and Joseph Smith’s Mormons back in 1838. He was on 24 at the time – a young bounty hunter up from Texas in search of criminal John Hicks, wanted for the murder of a Texas Ranger.

He was in Jackson county when bloodthirsty locals assaulted a Mormon, intent on tarring and feathering the elderly Mormon leader. The young Texan carried an over-developed sense of justice and duel six-shooters. He left three dead men in Missouri and escaped back to Texas before anyone could identify him.

“You get lost going to the barber or something?”

“Huh?”

“What’re you doing out here in the high lonesome? Indians’d likely consider that red hair of yours a real prize.”

“I’m headed for El Paso.”

“Why in the name of all that is holy would a Missourah mule of a kid wanna go to that God-forsaken outpost?”

“There’s a senorita down there. I met her in the Thirsty Mule Lounge up in Springfield. I aim to find and marry her.”

The kid lit up like a lightening bug when he mentioned the girl.

Sam was nonplussed.

“A working girl? That ain’t the kind for marrying. Girls met in places like that are for…well, they ain’t for marrying.”

“This one is.”

The kid was obviously firm in his position and, since he was already committed to the journey, there was no sense arguing the point further. Sam moved onto another topic.

“You are not old enough to be frequenting joints like the Thirsty Mule.”

“Reckon I’m older’n I look.”

“How old’d that be?”

“I am not entirely sure. Just older’n I look,” was the answer.

“How can a body not be entirely sure of his own age?”

“Nobody ever told me how old I was, really. I don’t remember back that far myself,” the kid answered a little uncomfortably. “Do you remember your own spawning?”

“Of course I don’t, but there were witnesses that did. Like my sainted mother, for instance. She told me the where and when of it, so I would be able to give an intelligent answer when someone inquired as to my gawl-danged age. I’m a little surprised yours never shared as much with you.”

The kid stood, the plate no longer so hot he couldn’t hold it and no longer full of beans. He sopped up the lingering bean juice with his cornbread, stuffed it in his mouth and considered.

“I expect she woulda, but apparently she didn’t survive the ordeal of birthing me.”

Sam felt bad now. He hated feeling bad, because it often led him to do things he didn’t want to do, like entertain a guest at his fire.

“Your Pa never told ya, neither.”

“’Parently, my Ma was some fashion of whore and none of her clients were inclined to step up and claim me as theirs. I heard there was a ginger-haired farmer that lived somewhere out in the Illinois sticks that hailed all the way from Ireland likely sired me. Anyways, he’s dead, too, I heard. Kicked by a mule he bought whilst in St. Louie, where he was supposed to have mounted my Ma.”

Sam pondered the boy’s story.

“I expect that explains why you got no better sense than to embark on such a journey as this. Who did raise ya anyhow?”

“Me mostly. I lived with a fat bitch name of Mary Mitchum ‘til I was old enough, fast enough, and smart enough to escape. She run a orphanage in Kansas City. She beat me regular and was prone to saying I was the seed of Satan hisself with this mess of red hair. She ‘lowed other things, too. I don’t care to discuss ‘em.”

Sam Cade sighed and poked the fire. He used a little canteen water to clean his plate and the youngster’s. He said nothing for a long while. It wasn’t until he lay under his itchy old wool blanket, head resting on his saddle, staring up at the heavens bedazzled with a million or so stars that he said anything at all.

He was minutes from yielding to sleep when he mused aloud, “I s’pose I’d run away from a fat bitch that wouldn’t do me the simple courtesy of telling me my own age.”

“If she’d been as kind as you, sharing your fire and beans and all, I woulda stayed.”

Sam didn’t hear him. He was snoring softly and running barefoot across some distant field, recently plowed, towards the log house and the woman with the apron and infectious smile.

“Ma,” he mumbled.

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Pride & Prune Juice

I have always been a little too proud. Prune juice can fix that!

The Essay

Pride & Prune Juice

Breaking In

It was 1998. Or was it ’99? I was managing a rent-to-own store, doing my part in that predatory industry – just a friendly, smiling, smooth-talking vampire feeding on the blood, sweat, and tears of the down-and-out, the unlucky, the over-extended, renting overpriced product to under-qualified people.

 I had been to the bottom myself. This gig was part of the climb back to self-respect. Not too long before this I was driving a cab, delivering pizza, and wrestling with God on how everything I had been was over and what now?

You can see how important landing a management job of any kind would have been to a man in my state. I was hired as an assistant store manager and promoted to my own store in what my regional director told me was record time – right at six weeks into the job.

I was conflicted about what I was doing. Before the fall, I had been a minister, helping people better themselves. Consequently, managing a rent-to-own outlet was a rung on the ladder back to respectability I remember with little fondness but plenty of gratitude. I needed an opportunity to once more prove myself a quality – if blemished – leader. I needed a place to bounce back, to show anyone who cared that those blemishes were factual but not fatal flaws.

Breaking Backs

Half of the job of a rent-to-own store is renting product. The other half is collections and repossessing product from those who won’t – or can’t – make their weekly payments.

On a gloomy, overcast, short-staffed day, I decided that as soon as the store hours were done, I would join one of my delivery guys and pick up a side-by-side refrigerator from a customer who was ready to let it go back.

I should have looked more closely at the address. Turns out it was a third-story apartment.

I should have looked at my 140-pound-soaking-wet employee, the dolly we carried on the truck, and the three flights of stairs with tight turns and small landings and figured this already-glum day was not about to improve.

I should have waited until my more masculine delivery guy was back on the job.

I should have…

But I had numbers to crunch, metrics to hit, books to balance. My stress levels were up. This store they awarded me was among the nation’s worst for customers skipping payments and disappearing with product. Our write-offs the first few months I was on the job were frightening. This was not going to be another. I would make certain of it.

Things were going well down that first flight of stairs. I was above the refrigerator, where the smart ones who wish not to be crushed stay. The lightweight was below, helping balance the unwieldy beast. First flight. Check. Second flight. Check.

One to go.

Somewhere between the fourth and third steps from the bottom, so close to level ground, one of us lost his grip. I held up the tilting, gravity-driven, awkward, falling, monster while my fearless underling dove for safety.

Somehow, I managed to bounce the unruly rectangle of steel, aluminum, and plastic to an upright landing. Somewhere in those fleeting seconds of fury and flying cusses, I felt a resounding pop in my lower back. I felt an invisible ice driven into my L5 disc.

I screamed. It was not the scream of a prepubescent girl, but worse.  Ever hear a howler monkey scream?

Breaking Bad

Apparently, I was already sporting a herniated disc. That explains a lot. For years, I had wrestled with a back that would wrench up from time to time.

Thanks to The Frigidaire Affair of 1998 (or was it ’99?), said disc was now ruptured, ballooned out, no longer between the vertebrae, but smashed against the sciatic nerve. The pain was near unbearable. If emergency surgery had not been forthcoming, I may have plunged the knife into my own back. It was a mind-numbing, relentless, merciless agony.

Forty-eight hours later, with no time to wait for Workman’s Comp, I happily submitted to the surgeon’s knife.

Some of my most vivid memories I do not remember at all. You know what I mean. Like things that happened in early childhood, which you do not recall, but your mother or father or crazy aunt has retold the story so many times in such vivid detail, their memory has become your own.

For instance, when I was four, five years old, I had two imaginary friends I played with. Their names were Big Ricky and Little Ricky. Mom told me a thousand times how I would insist they have a place at the dinner table. I remember that just the way she told me to.

Same with waking from surgery. I do not remember the first few hours after the sadistic savior/surgeon inserted two tiny Titanium cages where a disc once abode. My wife says I woke up cussing like a drunken sailor and then got wide-eyed and asked, “Are there any preachers in here?”

My hospital stay was prolonged because I could not take a… my bowels wouldn’t wake. After an X-ray showed I was full of… impacted, they gave me a strong laxative –Popeye the Sailor Strong – and made me consume prune juice! That night was the closest I ever came to Hell on a toilet.

I had to get help from nurses to get me to said toilet. I begged them to leave. They refused.

Next morning, I told my wife, “They did their best to kill me last night.”

She laughed and called our best friends, Keith and Debbie Day, so they could laugh, too. I provided material for jokes that went on for days, weeks, months, years. I am running the risk of reviving the joke series with this essay.

I don’t care. I never want to hurt like that again. My dignity can take whatever hits it must, so long as my sciatic stays out of it. Some triumphs are worth the sacrifice.

 Goodbye, pride. Thank you, prune juice.


essay Two Excerpt

This was it! This was the river of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the river of my boyhood fantasies winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting commerce, hosting vacationers, supplying fishermen, fueling childhood dreams.

Peace! Like a River...

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The Masters of Lamaze

We breathed our way through… We were Lamaze masters.

The Essay

The Masters of Lamaze

I was three months shy of my nineteen birthday when I married. My wife was five days younger than me. It seems insane to admit this in the early twenty-first century, when kids are still kids well into their twenties – and a few into their thirties.

We lived differently, my young bride and me. We were not seeking a safe space to hide from ideas contrary to our own. There was no one to coddle us and cradle us in the arms of safety from the meanies in the world. We had no time to shout down dissenting or aberrant voices on a school campus. We had no compulsion to march anywhere or protest anything.

We were in a big hurry to become adults. We wanted the challenge of making it on our own, forging our way in the world, being our own boss. Of course, being the boss meant we assumed the responsibility and risk associated. We lived in an economy-sized, one-bedroom apartment on Randol Mill Road in Arlington, Texas with our sleeves rolled up and our backs to the proverbial wall.

Times were tough. Money was tight. The extra dollar for a night out was rare.

Never mind. We had our own ideas for entertainment. We got lots of practice making babies. That was fun while it lasted, those practice sessions. Only, a couple months into our fledgling marriage and little home we were building on ever-so-shaky financial ground, practice was over. It was game on.

My wife came up pregnant!

We had gone and done it. Playing house was cool and all, but playtime was over. We had to prepare ourselves for a baby.

Hello, Doctor!

This was when Dr. Fernand Lamaze waltzed into our lives.

I mean that figuratively, of course. The crazy old French sawbones never waltzed anywhere topsoil after March 6, 1957. That was his expiration date.

Lamaze did, however, leave behind a method of child birth preparation and pain management. His method – coupled with the notion of “natural childbirth” – was the “in” thing in the 1980s. There was a general backlash among obstetricians against the generation of women who went the epidural and “give me drugs!” route of birthing. Young mothers were encouraged to eschew such aides and birth the way it was meant to be done…in mortal agony. Of course, most of the obstetricians espousing this method were male and none of them had given birth to my knowledge. (Men didn’t start having babies until sometime in the 2010s.)

Our obstetrician, one of the most respected young doctors in Arlington, fell solidly into the Lamaze camp. He was a graduate of the University of Texas – a Longhorn – so I figured his opinion was gold. Besides, how bad could it hurt? Women have been giving birth since Eve and most of that time without being numb from the rib cage down.

Count us in!

Put me in, Coach!

I might have jumped on this prematurely. I did not realize until I had agreed (as if I had a choice) that there were couples classes involved.

Wait! What?

Yeah, so once a week you must go to this class with other pregnant couples for Lamaze training. This isn’t Camp Pendleton. It’s not Marine boot camp. But still…

The way I remember Lamaze is like this: The pregnant wife lies on her back with her knees bent and her hands gently caressing her swollen belly while the husband kneels beside her with the same loving look in his eye as Joseph in any random Nativity scene.

Then the fun begins.

Lamaze is all about breathing.

“Wait! Teacher? Why am I here? For breathing lessons? That it?”

“You are here to help your wife with her breathing.”

“Um, Teacher? I know she is not yet 20 and all, but she is 19 and she has been breathing all by herself this whole time.”

“You are here to be your wife’s coach.”

Ah! Coach. I can do that. I love team sports of all types and I have always fancied myself coaching material. OK. I’m in.

Lamaze breathing is not as easy as it sounds. It has a rhythm to it. A pace. Moreover, you have to make special noises with your mouth. Slow, at first, when the contractions are mild and separated by minutes.

“Heee…hooo…heee…hoo.”

Got it!

Then, when the contractions get harder and closer together, It’s “heehoo…heehooo…”

When the contractions get to the point that your wife is cussing you and cursing the day she met you, it’s “heehooheehooheeheehoohoo.”

It’s harder than it sounds. Lucky for my wife she had a coach, a real baller, been preparing for moments like this his entire life.

I don’t remember whether we got a certificate, but we graduated with flying colors. In Lamaze history , never had a wife been so fortunate to have a coach like me. To this day, I can do the Lamaze chant with the aplomb of a whooping Apache warrior doing a war dance.

Game Time

The other thing about the 1980s: we were in that first generation of Americans where the husband was not only invited to the birthing chamber; he was expected to be there. I think I am supposed to say right here that I was thrilled to be there to witness the miracle of my child’s birth.

There, I said it.

At least I got to focus on the top half of my wife. Bending over her, wiping her brow, watching the veins pop out on her forehead and neck, coaching her.

“Breathe! Heehooheehooheeehooohoo.”

I will not repeat her response.

I will say that my wife is one tough woman. You think Jack Youngblood was a big deal because he played an NFL game on a broken leg? Ha! Let him birth a baby that has a football-sized noggin with no solace but a “coach” in your face shouting, “Breathe!”

We did it! We breathed our way through to a beautiful baby girl. And then two more. We were Lamaze masters.

I didn’t faint once.


essay Two Excerpt

This was it! This was the river of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the river of my boyhood fantasies winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting commerce, hosting vacationers, supplying fishermen, fueling childhood dreams.

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William David Strother, my father, the artist of the deal

William David Strother, my father, the artist of the deal

The Essay

The Artist of the Deal

In 1987, Donald Trump - the man who would, to the surprise of most everyone, the chagrin of about half of America, and the tentative delight of the other half, become president - wrote a bestseller called The Art of the Deal. I never read it cover-to-cover, but after the author ascended to the presidency, I did think it wise to study his philosophy on getting things done and succeeding in life. This book seemed the right place to look.

One quote that stands out to me because it sums up the way most salespoeople (I believe) think:

My leverage came from confirming an impression they were already predisposed to believe.

In other words, lead people to believe what they want to believe and you have yourself a deal.

This is bothersome to me because it discounts integrity and marginalizes honesty in favor of expediency.

I had what most would consider a far less successful influence on my life growing up. I prefer his philosophy on sales to Trump's, though the man influencing me died prematurely at age 51 and didn't leave much more behind than a family who adores him and misses him terribly 27 years later and a son who keeps his memory alive and tries to increase his influence by sharing it in places like this.

My Father, the Dealer

My father was a salesman. He sold everything from new and used cars to insurance policies to Culligan water softener units. On Sundays, as a bi-vocational pastor of one small, country church or another, he sold salvation to thirsty souls. Whether he was selling a car or Christ, his approach was pretty much the same.

I have a vivid memory of the first time I became conscious of my Dad's approach to sales.

The year was 1973 or maybe '74. I was 12 or 13. Dad owned two businesses at one location. The primary business was his automotive repair shop, which still operates in Mineral Wells, Texas to this day. It was called D&F Battery & Electric. The initials in the name stood for David & Freda, my parents' names. (Dad sometimes joked it stood for "David & First National Bank," his way of making light of the narrow margins a small business operates within and how you always seem one step away from receivership.) The other business was D&F Auto Sales - a small used car lot.

One of the hallmarks of my youth was going to work with my Dad. He put me to work in his shop when I was 10 or 11. First, it was sweeping out the stalls and cleaning up tools and tool benches. Then, I learned to work the rebuilt batteries on the big line chargers in the back. By the time I was 15, I could rebuild most alternators and starters and even diagnose all but the most challenging electrical issues in a car.

But I digress.

My Father, The Salesman

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It was late afternoon on a random school day, very near closing time. I was tired, hungry, and ready to go home. Dad was in the midst of a deal. A man I did not recognize was inspecting an old Mercury featured on our car lot. The car was probably about a '69 model, but it still looked good and the engine purred. A car that you would probably want to protect by purchasing outdoor home security cameras to monitor areas around your home.

I reluctantly listened to Dad' sales pitch.

"I will tell you, (let's call him) Jim, this car burns oil and guzzles gas, but it's got plenty of life left in it, the tires are new, and it will get you where you're going for a few years yet."

Jim: "It burns oil?"

Dad: "That's why it is priced like it is. Otherwise, I would ask more."

Jim: "Guzzles gas, though."

Dad: "Yep. Mineral Wells is a small town, Jim. You go other places a lot?"

Jim: "No, David. I stay put,mostly."

Dad shrugs.

"Jim, I don't want you to buy this car if you have doubts."

Jim: "You know me, David. You sold me my last two cars and you know what I need in a car. Do you think this car is right for me?"

Dad: "We would not be standing here if I didn't, Jim."

Jim: "Sold. Draw up the papers. I will be by in the morning to sign them."

They shook hands and the deal was done.

My Father, My Teacher

On the ride home, another conversation ensued. This one between my Dad and me.

Me: "Dad, why did you tell that fellow the bad things about the car?"

Dad: "Because he needed to know so he could decide if the car was what he wanted."

OK.

Dad: "Don't you think he would find those things out anyway?"

Me: "I think he would."

Dad: "Better for me to tell him up front than for him to find out later and think I tried to sell him a bill of goods."

I knew what he meant by 'a bill of goods.'

Me: "I just wonder why he bought a car knowing it had problems."

Dad: "He didn't buy a car. He bought D&F Auto Sales."

Me, nervous laugh. "You are kidding."

Dad: "No, son. What I mean is he bought from me because he trusts me. He trusts me because I tell him the truth. He knows I tell him the truth because he has bought from me before. Jim cannot afford a new car that has no problems. He wants to know he is getting the most car he can for his budget. He trusts me to help him do that."

Silence.

Dad: "A good salesman is not selling a product. He is selling himself."

More silence.

Dad: "Son, do you know what 'integrity' means?

Me: "I think so. It's doing what you say you will do...or not pretending to be something when you are really something else. It is the opposite of being a hypocrite."

Dad, smiling: "You have a way with words, son. Use them with integrity."

Me, 45 years later: "I will, Dad. And thank you."

______________________

Dedicated to my father, William David Strother (1940 - 1991), a man of integrity and the artist of the deal


essay Two Excerpt

This was it! This was the river of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the river of my boyhood fantasies winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting commerce, hosting vacationers, supplying fishermen, fueling childhood dreams.

Peace! Like a River...

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Some Through the Fire

The story of a man set on fire for God

The Essay

Some Through The Fire

Please meet Ellery Theodore Hicks, a man on fire.

It’s 1939 in Paris.

Texas, not France.

America is finally snapping back from its dalliance with disaster. The stock market crash of 1929 is a full ten years past. 1939 would be recognized by historians as the final year of The Great Depression. Restlessness is a pungent, elusive aroma hanging over the population like the smell of baking bread. So long in the grip of hardship and hunger, many just taking their first strides into adulthood seek adventure, pleasure, an escape from the painful constrictions of a harsh existence.

The other Paris, wild at heart

On the surface, Paris, Texas, is a sleepy East Texas town of twenty thousand souls. But there is an element – a rowdy minority comprising the seedy, hush-hush underbelly of the little town with the big name. Maybe it is that name, Paris, the birthplace of the Bohemians, the capitol where fashion rules and passion overrules, the city of lights…and sensual delights – maybe it is that name that stirs the imagination of those desperately seeking a thrill…or meaning…or something to believe.

Besides, Paris, established in 1845 as a town in the Republic of Texas, was born to be wild. Situated as the last post on the Central National Road of Texas, which ran from San Antonio northward to the Red River, Paris became a cattle and farming center. The Railroad came to town in 1876 and the town caught fire, literally, in 1877. It burned again in 1916.

Paris nearly burned to the ground in its second major fire, March 21, 1916. The fire spread to more than a mile in width, ravaging the city, reducing 1,439 buildings to smoldering ashes.

A man on fire…

From those ashes rose the resilient city that would produce Ellery Theodore “Ted” Hicks. Born March 18, 1917, almost a year to the day after the devastating fire, Ted was himself destined to be a man on fire.

In 1939, Ted was 22 years old, tall, thin, handsome, and smooth. He was married to his sweetheart, the petite, feisty, attractive Sceleta Brown Hicks. They had a small child. The restlessness of the city and the country in general settled into Ted’s bones like a rheumatic ache. He was itching for adventure and, along with a friend he met at work, drank it up double-fisted. Night after night, he stumbled from tavern to gambling hall to the beds of strange women. In a booklet he would publish years later, regarding those days, he wrote, “I became a habitual drunk…[and] professional gambler, and…thief.”[1]

In his lust for adventure and thirst for the high life, Ted all but abandoned his wife and child.

He wrote, “My wife had to go to picking cotton to make a living for her and my child. I was spending everything I could make…and steal on myself and other women.”[2]

Resisting the pleas of his father and ignoring the plight of his wife and child, Ted plowed ahead into debauchery and reckless abandon until one fateful night when he and his buddy, already sauced and lathered, decided to slip north across the Red River into Oklahoma to scare up more excitement.

Ted’s friend drove a brand new 1939 Chevy. They cut her loose. The speedometer pegged 95 when his inebriated friend lost control. End over end, the car tumbled six times. When it came to rest, it did so on Ted. He was pinned beneath twisted metal, unconscious. Scalding water from a busted radiator hose poured onto his face and body, cooking his flesh.

Ted’s survival was a miracle of what was then modern medicine – and the grace of God. When he woke two days after the wreck, his face was swollen to the width of his shoulders. Flesh was burned completely away on parts of his face, chest, and arms. He suffered terribly in the ensuing months and years.

During recovery, he promised God he would preach if God would spare his life.

God spared him.

Despite God's grace, Ted went back to boozing, gambling, and carousing.

He underwent surgery a year later and repeated his promise only to break it again.

Three times death’s shadow passed over him and each time he promised, “This time I mean it, Lord.”

The fourth time was not a physical crisis, but a spiritual one. He wrote, “One day, I was seated in my office and I thought I was going to die. God didn’t with an audible voice speak to me, but he made me to remember those three times that I had lied to him and I thought definitely that I would die before the day ended.”

It would take years to mend his wounded relationship with Sceleta. When he first announced his intent to preach, she responded, “I don’t have any confidence in you. If you are going to start preaching, you will have to do it without me.”[3]

the self-published paperback by Dr. Ted Hicks

the self-published paperback by Dr. Ted Hicks

An early-life influencer

I was 15 years old in 1976 when I met Ted Hicks. At first, I could not stop staring at his scars. It was not long, however, until those scars disappeared. His face became to me the most beautiful expression of authentic love and genuine grace I ever saw. The face of Ted Hicks is as close to the face of Jesus Christ as I have seen. There was not a mean, ugly, small-minded, judgmental bone in his body. He was the great encourager, the true believer, the gentleman, the gentle man, fierce only in his convictions and commitment to Christ.

He died October 22, 2007. He was 90 and still faithful to the promise made to God and family. To my great regret, I missed his funeral.

God spared Ted Hicks and thus inspired thousands, including me. He was for me a mentor and a model of grace. Whenever I think of him, which is often, I thank God for putting Ted Hicks, a man on fire, in my way.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

[1] The Man Who Was More Scarred Than I Am, Ted Hicks, author and publisher, date unknown, page six

[2] Sic, page seven

[3] Sic, page 11

essay Two Excerpt

This was it! This was the river of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the river of my boyhood fantasies winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting commerce, hosting vacationers, supplying fishermen, fueling childhood dreams.

Peace! Like a River...

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Some through the flood

A Hurricane Katrina flood victim inspires the insurance adjuster sent to assess her loss (as if he could).

The Essay

Some Through The Flood

There is strength in her beauty.

She is tall – at least five-foot-nine – slender, and elegant. Her hair is silver, not gray. She wears it neck-length with bangs that swoop to the right, hiding a slither of her face and framing the rest as well as any artist might. Her chiseled cheekbones and concave cheeks form swooping, inverted parentheses for her lips, which are shiny with gloss and perfectly apportioned. When she smiles her sea-green irises shine and her pearly-white teeth glisten.

She is not smiling.

She and I are standing in the chaotic rubble of destroyed vintage furnishings, pieces of art, photos of family members, and a million memories.

Breathing is difficult. Mildew’s pungent odor accompanies the great spider webs of mold attached to ceiling and walls and holds captive the oxygen in the house. The spongy wood floors strain beneath my weight and squish beneath my boot with each step.

This is more than a house she has occupied since the 1950s. This is her home. Before Hurricane Katrina, it was a pristine wood-framed house, painted white. An oversized front porch featured a two-person swing, an aromatic array of potted plants and flowers, a small, round iron table with a colorful top made of ceramic pieces broken and assembled in a pattern as random as the trash that used to be the stuff of her life, and two chairs made of the same fabric as the table. A white house it was with pale yellow window frames and trim.

Hers is an unassuming but charming home in the Lakeview District of New Orleans, a coveted middle-class neighborhood, a quiet place that sprinkles new homes among the original structures, like this one. A quiet place. A family place. A place to live…and let live.

When I return to the living room from a brief trek through the wreckage, I find her stooped. She extends a 5x7 framed photo of a much younger woman who looks exactly like her, but with brunette hair and softer lines. She is dressed in a white dress and standing beside a man who looks like an Elvis Presley-James Dean mashup.

“Wow! Amazing. Beautiful couple.”

“Our wedding day.”

She smiles with her lips, but her eyes sit this one out. They moisten and betray sorrow.

“You look happy and in love,” I offer. “I mean in the picture.”

“Yes. I was. For 57 years, I was happy and in love. My James died a month before Katrina hit.”

She sighs.

“He was sick a long time. I don’t know which was more devastating, the sickness or the storm.”

I am here as an Allstate Insurance adjuster, but in a former life, I was a minister. I have been in this position, in this proximity to pain, suffering, and loss more times than I can recall. The right words elude. It is hard to say anything, but impossible to say nothing. Right now, these are the only words I have.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.” In an ironic twist of roles, she comforts me with a nod. “I know you are. Don’t be. I’m glad he died when he did. He had had enough and there was no sense in him seeing…this.”

Her eyes make a final, wistful sweep over the ruins of her life. “I won’t rebuild. I won’t return,” she advises as she stands in the doorway facing the street. I cannot help but wonder whether today’s grisly view of her former life, likely the last time she'll see it, will be enough to erase more than 50 years of life in Lakeview.

There is beauty in her strength.

Standing in the once-manicured front lawn, she looks down the street. More than a month after the storm, residents are just now allowed to return to the neighborhood. Authorities had closed off access and posted barricades and Army reserve troops at every entry point. If you didn’t have official business there, you weren’t getting in.

The street is littered with debris and on either side, those houses where demolition has begun feature great piles of drywall, lumber, paneling, furniture, flooring, and all the things that make a house a home.

Well, not all the things.

She turns back to the once-white, now dingy brownish-gray house. A big red spray-painted X on the front door indicates first responders broke into the home shortly after the storm, searched it, and found no casualties. X means “All clear.” Not every home they searched has one. Seaweed and assorted ocean debris remain plastered to the house and what looks like a thick orangish chalk line on the fascia just below the gutters tells you this house was immersed to more than nine feet.

“This isn’t home anymore,” she sighs. “James is in Heaven. The kids are off living their lives.”

“What will you do?”

She looks at me and I see a radiance in her a thousand Katrinas could never destroy. I see a woman whose beauty was once her strength and whose strength is now her beauty.

“I am not sure.” She pauses while remembering something from last Sunday and a hundred other Sundays. “Do you go to church?”

She doesn’t wait for my answer.

“We sang a hymn Sunday. ‘Some through the water, some through the flood, some through the fire, but all through the blood…God leads His dear children along.’ I don’t know where He’s leading me now, But I believe He will and I will try to follow.”

For the first time (but not the last) as an adjuster, I slip into preacher mode.

“I love that song. Here’s another:

‘All the way my Savior leads me;
  What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
  Who through life has been my Guide?
Heavenly peace, divinest comfort,
  Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whate’er befall me,
  Jesus doeth all things well.’”

“Oh! I love that, too! So encouraging.”

She smiles, hugs me, thanks me, tells me she will pray for me as my job is very difficult, and leaves.

I weep.

essay Two Excerpt

This was it! This was the river of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the river of my boyhood fantasies winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting commerce, hosting vacationers, supplying fishermen, fueling childhood dreams.

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Among my souvenirs

Some treasures are valuable; others are priceless

 

The Cisco Kid

My paternal grandfather was born William Daniel Strother in Texas in 1899. “Dan,” as he was known, was in his twenties in the Roaring Twenties and in his thirties during the Great Depression. He was too young to fight in World War I and a little old for WWII. Despite dodging the world at war by virtue of age, he must have had some stories to tell, having lived through each at a key time in his life.

Unfortunately for me, his oldest grandchild and a boy enamored of “the olden times”, he was not one for reflection. Little Granddad (that was what my siblings and I called him, because he was slight of build and because Mom’s Dad, “Big Granddad,” was a big man) was much more concerned that his 10…11…12 (pick an age) year old grandson learn a trade and appreciate the value of an honest day’s labor than chatting about the past. The past was the past and he would not dwell on it…unless, of course, you talked about Cisco.

Cisco, Texas is a lazy little West Texas town snugged up to Interstate 20, between Fort Worth and Abilene. Cisco’s claim to fame is that it is home to the first-ever Hilton hotel. The legend associated with the Cisco Hilton is as follows. Conrad Hilton was in town with the intention of buying a bank. When he was unable to secure a hotel room in the town, he up and bought the Mobley Hotel. The rest is Hilton history.

I suppose Cisco is an important place to the Hilton family, but it is just as important to the Strother clan. My father, Little Granddad’s only son, was born in a shotgun house on a bit of farmland outside Cisco. For sentimental reasons, the unsentimental Dan Strother longed for Cisco. To hear him talk about it, you would think it was a magical land like Oz and would take an epic journey to reach. Of course, during the time this part of his story took place - from the late 1960s through most of the ‘70s - we lived in Mineral Wells, Texas. Mineral Wells is a whopping 70 miles from Cisco.

To the little old man in the starched white shirt and gray fedora, who walked with a cane and had no car, Cisco might as well have been a million miles away.

Little Granddad always said he would go back to Cisco as soon as he could.

He died in 1986. He was 87 years old that year, sick, tired, lonely, and in a rest home in Rockwall, a burgeoning town just east of Dallas. That was the last place I saw him. I lived in California by then with my wife and two daughters. Our third daughter was still a couple years from her grand entrance into our lives.

That nursing home visit marked the only time I ever knew for sure the gruff old man was happy to see me. He grinned and anyone who knew Dan Strother the Scowl-Faced will tell you that was no small thing. He joked about his circumstance and the lack of chewing tobacco. He beamed when he was introduced to my daughters. In the saddest place I ever saw him, he was the happiest to see me.

Not long after, I received word that he had passed. I boarded a plane from San Francisco and met with my family in Cisco, where we buried him. He was home at last.

King Edward’s Treasure

Little Granddad kept things simple. He liked Folger’s coffee, Red Man chewing tobacco, and King Edward cigars. He drank the Folger’s every morning, chewed the Red Man all day every day, but only smoked the cigars when Mom would buy him a box for Christmas.  He was too frugal to waste money on cheap cigars. Cigars were a luxury. Chewing tobacco was an essential.

He was from the “waste not, want not” generation – heck, he may have been the father of it. He was repurposing before it was a thing. An empty Folger’s coffee can makes a fine spittoon. An empty cigar box serves as a safe deposit box, storing important papers and memorabilia.

After he died, we found his treasure chest. A worn-out King Edward cigar box contained pictures of my Dad and his sister when they were kids; his wallet with a long-expired driver’s license and a few old receipts in it; old check stubs; one half of a two-dollar bill; a cloth tobacco pouch containing assorted old coins; and sundry other yellow-stained and long-ago-faded papers. There was an old pocket watch in it, but the chain was broken.

I asked my Mom what else she remembered being in the box and she answered, “Not much.”

Little Granddad’s earthly belongings fit in that cigar box and an old hard-shell suitcase that he must have had since the ‘50s. The suitcase contained a few white dress shirts (his attire of choice every day of his life) and a pair of slacks. He didn’t leave his family a house or land. There was no money to fight over, no fortune to squander. What he left was coded in our genes, stamped in our memories, and planted in our hearts.

The only two items not in one of those containers were his walking cane and his fedora. Each was as native to his persona as his scowling face. I have no idea where that cane went. I wish I knew. The fedora on the other hand…

“Go To Thunder” Hat

Little Granddad had the gray fedora he wore every day. He was never seen outside the house without it. Ever. I do not know where that hat wound up. I assume it went the way of the world. Maybe it found itself in a Goodwill store somewhere or a dumpster.

He had a Sunday hat, too. It was a black fedora, a bowler with a smaller brim. Little Granddad would have worn that hat on Sundays. Since he seldom went to church, the hat was hardly worn.

Dad gave that hat, still in its box, to me. It is one of my most treasured possessions. I have never worn it in all these years. I don’t think I have even put it on my head. It remains in the top of my closet in its original box.

Granddad called the black Sunday hat his “Go to thunder” hat. As a kid I thought that was a hoot. I asked him why in the world anyone would name a hat such nonsense.

“Because,” he said with a twist of a grin to his scowl, “Any man who can wear a hat like that can tell the whole world to go to Thunder.”

He would have never said, “Go to Hell.” I think; however, they mean the same thing.

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I own a half-dozen fedoras and wear them on occasion to this day. Between the legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry and Little Granddad, I think I grew up with the notion that as soon as I was old enough to pull it off I would wear a fedora myself.

Anyone who doesn’t like it can go to thunder. This is my treasure and it is priceless.

 
 
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