An excerpt from WINNING WAS NEVER THE ONLY THING, a book about forty years of teaching and coaching. It maybe purchased using the following link goo.gl/dO1hcX
“You can’t always get what you want
but if you try sometime
well you might find
you get what you need”
“You can’t always get what you want”-The Rolling Stones
As you travel west on Highway 11 between Highway 14 and the Georgia State line, you will certainly understand why this particular highway is called the Cherokee Scenic Highway. Small mountains, water features galore, forested areas, parks and unfortunately, many golf courses cover the landscape around what was once a Cherokee trading path. Traveling is usually slow due to pulp wood trucks, bass boats being towed to and from Lake Keowee, or “Sunday Drivers” sight seeing on a Wednesday. I am fortunate to have lived on Highway 11 for nearly thirty years. Even after all of this time, Linda Gail and I still like to explore around Highway 11, looking for pig trails that might lead us on an adventure. Sometimes you get what you ask for.
Late one Friday, in the spring of 2001, Linda Gail and I were enjoying the evening while driving west in her Mustang toward the setting sun. We had eaten at a local golf course called The Rock and had turned west toward the sun instead of east toward home. I felt this was somewhat symbolic as I had made the decision before the 2001 baseball season to retire from athletics and ride off into the sunset. As soon as the baseball season ended, I began to regret my decision. While Linda Gail and I rode west, top down with the wind in our face, we talked about our careers, shared stories about former players and friends and discussed what I was going to do with those free hours I had not had for twenty-eight years. I did not have a clue but knew I did not like the size of Linda Gail’s honey do list.
I have often joked that if you drive far enough on Highway 11 you will reach the end of the world. If you turn left at the end of the world, you will find yourself in Salem. It is less than one square mile of mostly … nothing. The city of Salem boasts a population of one hundred and thirty five people according to the 2010 Census. The area adjoining it, Tamassee, is an unincorporated area whose name in the Cherokee language means “Place of the Sunlight of God”. It was named for an old Cherokee village destroyed by Andrew Pickens in the late 1700’s. There are a few businesses, churches and homes clustered around Highway 130 and what is called Park Avenue. There is also a fire department to the east and area’s namesake Tamassee-Salem Middle and High School to the west. This is where we found ourselves on that Friday evening with the sun setting behind the hill that the school sat on. The symbolism had not gone un-noticed as I joked, “I know what I can do when I grow up. I’ll come be the athletic director at Tamassee-Salem. They don’t have football or soccer. How hard can it be?” I have since re-thought the silliness of that statement.
As I looked at a South Carolina sports website the next day, I found a classified advertisement for a baseball coach and social studies teacher at, you guessed it, Tamassee-Salem. Once I got over the tingle up and down my spine I began to feel a strong pull toward the setting sun. I am religious but not in a recognized way. Even though I was publically dunked into the Baptist Church where I still attend, I lean more toward the New Testament Evolutionary Church of Christ according to Don. I even throw in a little Buddhism to add seasoning and for heat would like to combine it with some of the pagan activities that I have read about. For some reason Linda Gail won’t let me.
I still could not deny the feeling that I was being called to Tamassee-Salem. Like a moth’s attraction to an open flame or a siren’s call, the tug was unmistakable and strong. I discussed my feelings with Linda Gail but did not come to any clear decision. Linda gave me her normal “Do what you want” advice. The following Monday I continued to battle the feeling that I was being pulled toward Tamassee-Salem and decided that during my planning period I would call and inquire about the position. The telephone call was … well, interesting. Mr. Bill Hines, Tamassee-Salem’s principal, could not figure out why I wanted to come to Tamassee-Salem after my successes at Riverside. After the third time of being asked “But why do you want to come HERE,” I responded, somewhat testily, “I don’t know that I do, that is what I am trying to find out.” In Bill’s defense, he thought that I had committed one of the two cardinal sins of teaching or coaching that will get you fired faster than your won-loss record; diddling where one should not diddle or spending money that was not yours to spend. When I took the job at Tamassee-Salem a lot of my coaching peers actually thought the same thing. They could not understand why I was walking away from a successful program for one that had not even attained mediocrity. I wasn’t sure either but I told Mr. Hines that I was still a teacher in good standing at Riverside and gave him permission to call to confirm it. The next day he called back and invited me to come for an interview.
As I walked away from my interview, none of the allure for Tamassee-Salem had been displaced. I liked everyone that I had met and felt that the administration had gone out of their way to impress me which was quite flattering. (I am not easy but I can be had.) I also knew that athletically it would be a challenge, but I felt that I probably needed a new challenge. As much as I felt that I had “come home,” I was still in a conflicted state. I had many close friends at Riverside and had served in Greenville County for twenty-five years, but my biggest issue was with my wife. Linda Gail and I had spent over fifteen years involved with the Warriors. She was the junior varsity girl’s basketball coach and the varsity girl’s tennis coach at Riverside. Our support of each other athletically was part of our relationship. I was actually present when Coach Golden asked her if she was interested in the coaching position. Louie was trying to hire a body just to field a position and had not realized what he was getting into. This is something he and I share … the not knowing what we were getting into, not the body. Linda Gail and I had been intertwined with athletics and each other our entire dating and married life. I debated with myself the decision to change schools. Our intertwinement included friends, parents, students and former players in addition to each other.
When I returned to Tamassee-Salem for my second interview, it turned out not to be an interview but an offer of employment. I had decided to take Linda Gail with me and while driving around the community, I found her to be somewhat reserved. Anyone who knows my wife would never use that description, but she was on this particular day, which made me very uncomfortable. She realized that our lives were getting ready to change, something that had not dawned on me but quickly would. When I returned to my truck with the news that I had been offered the position she broke into tears which I found were not tears of joy. Linda realized that a large part of our lives together had “been torn asunder” and the man responsible was me. We recovered, as many couples do, when their unions were torn apart by seductive outside forces. Luckily my seductive forces were another school and not … well, take your pick.
My relationship with Linda Gail is and has never been an ordinary relationship even from its inception. Linda Gail and I disagree on when we actually first met but since this is my story I will tell it my way. I first remember seeing my future bride on Halloween of 1984. She had been in an off and on again relationship with my roommate and for some reason we had not met until that night. (She disagrees but I know that had I met her I would have remembered.) When I dragged myself in after practice that evening I saw both of my roomies sitting with sly grins on their faces. As I sat down and asked what was going on, two attractive young ladies slowly stood up from behind the wet bar, one had an inflatable pumpkin on her head, the other with a witch hat on. Linda Gail was the sultry, dark-haired beauty with the pumpkin on her head; Jeanie Reed was the pretty blond witch. They both made a positive impression.
I realize many of you might be thinking that since she was my roommate’s girlfriend that I might have gone behind his back and shot him out of his saddle. No, when he was shot out of his saddle it was a self inflicted wound. Linda Gail and I did not begin dating until after she and Jim had broken up and he had moved to another part of the state. Linda Gail had tried to “fix me up” with all of her friends, even the pretty witch Jeanie, and I think she simply had sympathy on me after she had run out of options. I am not saying that there had not been sparks early in our relationship, I had had plenty. Who would not have sparks for a short, pretty and well put together brunette with big ole … hazel eyes that tend to turn green with anger or mischief and a personality that reminded me of a humming bird on amphetamines? Over the next eight months or so, we became great friends, but that was all. Even after we could have begun dating, she had to make the first overtures and ended up asking me out … twice. Sometimes I am really slow to catch on. Once I caught on ….
The following Halloween found us not quite dating exclusively but close. This particular All Hallows Eve was on a Thursday and Greenville was playing Southside in a JV game at Greenville. I had to be at the game, while Linda Gail and Jeanie were going out to a costume party without me. Those two events should have been exclusive of each other but this particular night they became inclusive. It was raining and I had invited several of the booster club members to join us in the press box to stay dry. Booster club members being entertained in the press box was not an ordinary occurrence and had never happened before until this night. As the game went on, someone knocked on the door. My booster club president opened the door and found two pretty ladies opening their trench coats and exposing their somewhat revealing Halloween costumes. One was a vampire mistress of the night in a short black mini dress with lots of zippers and chains, the other a French maid complete with fishnet stockings, crinolines and a whole lot of cleavage showing … a lot of cleavage showing. I tried not to fall out of the press box window while everyone else was speechless. Utter and complete silence ruled until our booster club president paid them a left handed compliment and confessed that “If I had known it was like this up here I would have come up a lot sooner.”
Once Linda Gail and I decided to jump the broom I felt that I needed to cloister her away in order to keep her subtle way of expressing herself from getting me into trouble. She knows how to turn a word but sometimes lets emotion rule the day, which sometimes makes me rue the day. I did not want to turn her loose on some of my unsuspecting critics and decided to put her on the press box with my video guy. Ever the critic, even then she found a way to get her points across to me. Normally we graded our own video on Sundays before watching our opponent’s film and putting together a game plan. We rarely watched video with the audio on but for some reason this particular morning we did. I really was not paying attention to what was being said until Ray Riley, one of my assistants, asked if I had heard what had just been said on the audio. We reran the video and I heard the shrill and acidic voice of my beloved screeching like one of Macbeth’s witches: “Come on coach, why don’t you try running your other play.” Linda Gail was my greatest advocate but was also my greatest critic. For the past thirty years Linda has critiqued my every athletic decision which is the only type of decision she has ever let me make.
While she still coaches me, Linda Gail no longer coaches on her own court. I truly miss watching her coach basketball. I have never been a big fan of basketball because I was never very good at it and never coached it. Well there was that junior varsity girl’s team but that was Linda teaching me the day before I taught them. I once had a friend and fellow coach that described girl’s basketball in this manner: “There are three activities that should take place in private: “Prayer, couples involved in amorous activities and girl’s basketball.” While at one time I probably agreed with him, I had to take Linda Gail’s teams off of the list. Not because her teams were good, and they were always better than they should have been, but rather because of the way that she coached. Perpetually in motion, she coached everyone on her team for the entire game from start to finish, along with anyone else who could be reached by her voice; in other words, everyone in the gym. She also really looked good doing it. When Linda dressed for a game she wanted everyone to know that girl’s basketball coaches and players could be feminine. She was quite successful imparting this information. The worst rule ever enacted was restricting a coach to a coaching box. Why? It stopped me from getting to watch my wife, “dressed to the nines,” run up and down the out of bounds line yelling at someone other than me. The new rule also got her a technical foul or two because she just doesn’t like to be told what she can or cannot do.
My all time favorite memory of her and her teams involved one of her tennis teams. They were playing Clinton for the right to go to Columbia and face Myrtle Beach for the state championship. Because of previous weather conditions, the match had been postponed and both teams had to be packed and ready to go to Columbia immediately after the match. Riverside was supposed to win but sometimes tennis gods, like baseball gods, enjoy upsetting the ball cart. We lost. What do you do with a van full of girls, loaded with bags for a road trip? You invite them for a sleep over at your home. That is just what Linda Gail did. One guy in a farm house with seven teen age girls and a teen age girl want to be. Oh joy! It was a blast. We dined on pizza that evening, my breakfast that next morning and hiked all over the property that morning and afternoon. They even named our one legged and one eyed rooster, Boomer. It was a great way to get over a season ending loss.
Linda Gail and I have now been involved for nearly thirty years and I can still pick out her voice anywhere on an athletic field. The parents that help me at Northwest are in awe. “She coaches our kids, their kids, their coach and us,” one of my assistants exclaimed with a smile on his face. I find it comforting that she is still around to criticize my every decision as it relates to baseball. She even lets me make a few important non-baseball related decisions like, say, should I take out the garbage or should I walk down to get the mail. You know the really important stuff. The simple stuff, she takes care of, and that is just the way I like it.
And what about my second love? If I had a choice and could go back to any point in my career I would choose to go back to Tamassee-Salem. I felt at home and appreciated, maybe even loved there. The area hasn’t really changed and is still surrounded by great expanses of mostly nothing. Rumors are that she will close as a high school just as soon as new Walhalla High School is completed. My logical self probably agrees that it should. Greater choices of courses and services can be offered to the students now served by Tamassee-Salem. My illogical and emotional self disagrees with my logical self. Athletically most of the kids that play for Tamassee-Salem could not play anywhere else and the students would not get the one-on-one assistance available to them now. I guess that is no reason to keep a school open, but I did say it was my illogical self thinking. Unlike Odysseus, I am just glad I did not resist either of these siren calls.