“PLAY BALL, CHUCK!”

Baseball coaches and umpires seem, at best, to have contentious relationships although to “toot” my own horn, I really attempted to cultivate umpires rather than alienate them and most of the time I believe I was successful.  Yes, I’m happy to say Tommy and I buried the hatchet before he died and we didn’t bury it in each other.

Chuck Eaton has passed away.  Another of my adulthood friends has gone to his reward.  Chuck and I began our careers in baseball about the same time, he as an umpire and I as a coach.  I can’t count the number of times he called games involving one of my teams but it would have had to be in the dozens.  I can remember the first one and the last one and over forty years, I’m just not sure who cultivated whom.  My problem with Chuck was he reminded me too much of my dad, somewhat in looks but more in his quiet and respectful demeanor.  I guess maybe he cultivated me.

I remember when I first ran afoul of Chuck.  It was one of my first games as a JV coach at Mauldin, a high school outside of Greenville, South Carolina.  Chuck was behind the plate, a young umpire but not a young man.  At the time, I did not realize he had retired from twenty years of military service.  I believed the opposing catcher had interfered with my batter’s attempt to bunt the ball.  Chuck quietly said, “No coach, the pitch was too high to be bunted anyway.”  Ordinarily, such a comment would not have been a good start to a relationship between a coach and umpire but somehow, we were able to get by it.

I learned of his military service on a cool moist night at Riverside High School.  We were both older and wiser but I’m sure my interaction with him was somewhat subdued because of the fact we were well ahead.  He was behind the plate, and even though it was late in the game, Chuck had still not settled on a consistent strike zone and my fans were unmerciful in their criticism and accused him of changing his strike zone from pitch to pitch.  Walking to the batting circle to make a lineup change, I decided to engage him in friendly banter.

“Chuck, my fans are pretty vocal about your strike zone.  I’d like to apologize for them but to be honest, I agree with them.”

In his quiet voice, he explained, “Coach, I know they think they are getting to me but I flew single engine props for the Forward Air Control during Vietnam.  This is nothing compared to that.”  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Forward Air Control, they flew unarmed, slow moving propeller driven aircraft called “targets”.  One of their functions was to attract ground fire so the fast moving, armed guys could swoop in and get all the glory.

Chuck was that kind of guy, not looking for the glory.  He enjoyed being a part of the game of baseball and the game called life.  During our many phone calls rescheduling games, he never failed to ask about my family and was quick to offer tidbits about his own, including the daughter I taught at Mauldin.  He was, as we all should be, quite proud of his family.  When we met for the last time on a field of play some three years ago, his first question was, “How is the Missus?”

It was always comfortable to know Chuck was somewhere around and I’ll miss him.  As usual, I wish I had kept in close contact.  I do feel comfort in his strong faith and I’m sure that if heaven exists, he’s already trying to organize a game.  I’m sure his strike zone will be a bit more consistent unless he just misses those coaches and fans yelling at him.  “Play Ball, Chuck!”

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LITTLE GIRL LOST

She sat to my right…toward the back of the small room we occupied that first year. Usually I don’t remember with that much clarity but they were different. She was different. We were all beginning a new chapter in our lives, me as their new teacher, her new teacher, and they as new charter school students. Some had come from home schools, others from church schools. A few even came from traditional public schools. They were all special, this first group…she was special. A light shone in her much larger than her size.

She was a small girl, all blond and bubbly…not. Tiny and blond but quiet and slow to smile, something she should have done more often but seemed to guard in my presence. Mostly she blushed in my presence until later, after she got to understand me better. I would catch her smiling, out in our small hallway as we changed classes, talking to her friends. Smiling in the makeshift lunchroom. Her smile was controlled…until it wasn’t and then it enveloped her whole face. I thought she was a happy child.

During class, she was mostly ALL business. Completing her assignments ahead of time and then mentoring her classmates. Speaking with the authority of preparedness when completing the projects from hell we assigned…rising to the occasion…like the island she created for one of those projects. Mostly all business, there were moments when we all laughed, usually at our own ineptness.

She played basketball as a tiny little ball handler, a point guard. She had more desire than she had ability. They all had more desire than ability the first year of basketball…the year we moved from the church to the portables. Still she had the world at her feet…or so I thought.

I lost contact with her after the second year until I saw her not long ago. A hostess at a restaurant, she was still small but all grown up. I tried to catch up but she seemed to want to bolt. She seemed uncomfortable with us…like a worm on hot pavement uncomfortable. I thought she was busy. Now I wonder.

I don’t have to wonder what she was thinking in those last seconds this past weekend. I have been there…looking down the barrel of a small twenty-two. A decision between pain and the unknown. I chose my own pain over the pain I might have inflicted on others. She chose the unknown but I don’t begrudge her the pain she is causing. It’s the sickness not the person…there is no answer to the question “Why?”

The sickness is depression and it won out this past weekend. It wins often…too often. Often it wins because many, like me, fear telling anyone, having anyone think we might be crazy. It wins because family and friends don’t seem to understand…even if they do. They don’t understand “Why?” even if they do. It wins out because we are all alone…even when we are not.

I don’t know why depression won this weekend I just know it did…and it will win next weekend and every day in between and beyond…until we can all understand.

Before you make your choice call 1-800-273-8255. National Suicide Hotline

Don Miller writes at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B018IT38GM

MEMORIALS

Memorial: something, especially a structure, established to remind people of a person or event.

I was approached over a year ago about tonight’s memorial and until a week ago I was able to keep all my memories locked safely away in my secret little lock box in a corner of my brain. Until a week ago…and its Michael Douty’s fault. Looking for a hat, the hat we wore in his memory the year after his death fell out of the armoire and into my hands. Upon seeing the number thirteen on the back there was an immediate flood of memories, most of which made me smile.
In my first attempt at writing badly, “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…,” my aim was to write a collection of humorous stories related to my forty years of teaching and coaching. It was Michael Douty’s fault that my purpose changed with the first story I actually sat down and wrote…his story. Michael’s antics were humorous and my intent was to begin the book with his story.

Unfortunately, his death wasn’t very humorous. No matter how I rewrote the story, it always ended badly, as did the endings to stories involving Tim Wilder, Heath Benedict, Tim Bright and Jeff Gully. While writing Michael’s story I found out Tim Bright was battling Stage IV colon cancer and realized my book was not beginning well. I ended up writing about them all, more about their lives than their deaths and the sweet memories they left for me. Later, after I had published the book, I was forced to write another story with a bad ending when Brian Kuykendall left me. All were former players and Brian gets the double whammy of being a former player and the father of a former player.

Jeff and Tim are joining Michael tonight. Plaques are going to be dedicated and theirs will join Douty’s plaque behind the backstop on the field they played on not so many years ago. I believe in ghosts and wonder if their spirits will visit our old field of dreams…I know they still visit me, especially on dark, moonless nights. For the last week, nightly they have also invaded my dreams.

I have an unshakable belief there is something more than death, that life simply just does not end. During a depressing early morning walk I came to a reality of sorts and found a bit of peace and comfort in a strange, cold and unlikely place…science. I came to this truth while standing in front of a cross. There is a scientific law that states “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. Energy can only be changed.” I have taught Conservation of Energy thousands of times, but this cool morning it became more of an anodyne than just a cold scientific law. Call it heaven, Nirvana, a “wheel inside a wheel” or crossing the River Styx, their energy does not die.

I do tend to think of them on dark and clear nights when the stars seem close enough to touch. I described Tim’s light as the “brightest star” in the sky, Jeff as a photon flying in and out of our lives at light speed. Douty? I never described you. You would have to be a comet streaking through the sky, showing his tail in the reflected sunlight. There may be a hidden meaning behind that description and I am sure I just heard you laugh in the gusting wind. Gather them all together

FOR JANE-THE SOUTHERN CROSS

I have found when attending memorials or funerals for old friends or family, the memorial tends to resemble a reunion of sorts. A recent memorial was no different. There were many people attending that I had not seen in decades…and there were many not in attendance who I will never be able to see again, close friends who have left my world. In the book FLOPPY PARTS, I wrote the following story about Jane Cooper. It was the best I could do and I could never do her justice even with my best work.

SOUTHERN CROSS

Every time I run I listen to music on my pink IPOD. It helps with the monotony and pain of mile after mile after…. With me for nearly every running or walking missed step for the last several years, it has long outlasted several less colorful IPODS or Shuffles and, due to its longevity, owes me no service. What is disconcerting about my IPOD is it seems to have a mind of its own, or at the very least, is inhabited by a ghost. No matter what playlist I transfer to my IPOD the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Southern Cross” somehow finds its way onto the playlist. I even have a Jimmy Buffett version which doubles the chances of it haunting me. It is not as good as the original, but not bad and when I hear it or the original I am transported back into my memories. It’s not that I don’t like the song, I do. I like it very much because the memories the song evokes make me think of a long-time friend who was, for a short time, the object of my floppy parts and affection. She left this world several years ago, and I find the song makes me a bit sad and introspective. After a while I do begin to smile over our antics from almost four decades ago as we traveled a bumpy path toward “hooking up.” After teaching together for several years, we would both go through trashed marriages, and without consulting each other, decided to make the typical lifestyle changes associated with newly divorced folk. As a male, I felt duty-bound to go out and purchase the requisite sports car I could not afford while Jane would lose forty pounds in weight, which she could afford. Yes, typical, and for a brief period I found Jane riding around in my sports car.

At the time, I did not know Jane well and hate to admit I still really didn’t know her as well as I would have liked. We did not travel in the same circles. As a foreign language teacher she resided on “holy hall” with the “power pod” language arts teachers, while I, being a member of the athletic fraternity–despite teaching science and history, was metaphorically relegated to the dark, lower recesses of the gym, right across from the shelves lined with smelly jocks and athletic socks. On campus friends repeatedly asked how things were in the gym and, much like the saloons of old, respectable lady teachers didn’t venture into our little world. No, Jane never really gave me the idea she took the “party line” of the “enlightened few” who tolerated us as coaches but believed us to be lacking as teachers. She did guard her privacy and only grudgingly gave up the bits and pieces of her previous life. A daughter, a controlling mother, the failed marriage all came somewhat into focus but it took time. A Spanish teacher, because of her dark hair and dark eyes, I assumed her ethnic background to be Latin. Oh well, we all know what assuming gets you. She was Irish on both sides of her family but a member of the group known as “black” Irish, those with non-stereotypical Irish features such as red hair, blue eyes and “fish belly” white skin.

It is inevitable friends would want to turn into Cupid when it comes to two single folks who they are working with. Busy, busy, busy! We got to get them together! For the second time in my life I had made the promise “I’ll never do that again” and had made the conscious decision not to date a coworker, after a particularly painful date with a coworker had turned into the number one cause of divorce – marriage! Our friends were persistent and would not leave us alone! I am sure we ducked dozens of Cupid’s arrows. One friend asked “What might be the harm?” to which I enumerated a myriad of assorted reasons gleaned from first-hand experience – two ex-wives. Another, reminding me of a bulldog with her tenacity, put it this way, “Ever had an itch you needed help to scratch…? There doesn’t have to be a commitment, just two people coming together to see what comes up.” Sure sweet Connie, but with affairs of the heart I believe using the word “just” rarely works out and “what comes up” is the part that worries me. Still we found ourselves purposely seated together at parties or POET’S club meetings. We danced together at a local club and finally decided to give in to everyone else’s urgings to just get them off our backs. It was not that I was doing her a favor; she had been attractive when she was forty pounds heavier and now was a full-fledged “stunner!” A tall, dark brunette with dark and twinkling brown eyes, I could not help but believe I was venturing into an area called “out of my depth.” With all of the physical accoutrements well-placed, she possessed a great personality, a sense of humor with a hearty laugh and a “bit of the blarney” to boot. She also had extra tickets to Clemson football games which sealed the deal. I might have been in over my head but decided I would learn how to swim.

Our first dates did not turn out well and made one wonder what our destiny might be. We had been together at work and socially, all in the non-Biblical sense, but this would be the first, planned, “Why don’t you come over and look at my etchings while I fix dinner?”, kind of date. The morning of the big date I became pressed for time and, in a rush, placed a just-repaired athletic department camcorder on a tripod in my bed room to get it out of my way – not thinking I might actually need the bedroom later. Right! I’m a male and had certain hopes, but those circled the toilet when the camera, pointed directly at the bed, was discovered as we toured my home. No amount of explanation seemed rational enough to alleviate her fears. As I think back, it actually ended better than the second date. This time, at her home, after a wonderful meal and a bottle of wine, she threw it all up and then some…repeatedly and onto my shoes. While I did spend the night, it was strictly in a nursing capacity. She claimed that she was not used to rich food and drink…she was Irish after all. We decided not to take any chances on our third date and attended a Clemson football game. Go Tigers! No one got sick ,no disgusting porno movies were filmed and our Tigers won.

During the fall of our dalliance, Jane bought the album “Daylight Again,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash and one evening was insistent I listen to a particular cut. It was the song “Southern Cross.” I fell in love with it immediately as she knew I would. It is about a man who sails the world after a failed love affair, something I am too familiar with – the failure not the sailing of the world. I love to sail but have not ventured out to see the Southern Cross – a constellation visible only in the Tropics or Southern Hemisphere. The music and words are haunting, at least to me and now to my IPOD.

When I hear the lyrics I think of Jane, a victim of breast cancer. “Think about how many times I have fallen. Spirits are using me larger voices callin’. What heaven brought you and me cannot be forgotten.” I haven’t forgotten. Before her death, she had remarried and gotten to see her daughter grow up, marry and give her a grandchild. I tried several times to make contact with her just to let her know I was thinking about her but was somewhat saddened that she did not respond to my communiques. Our parting had not been bitter; much as we drifted into our relationship, we simply slipped apart as we moved on to different places, jobs and other people. Do you think the ghost in my IPOD is just trying to tell me it’s okay? I hope so…I believe so. The lyrics say, “When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand now why you came this way.” Even though I have never seen the Southern Cross, I understand – she was what I needed for a brief period of time and I truly “understand why (We) came this way.” If not a cure she was an anodyne, all calming and soothing. I hope that I was the same for her. Jane was the “Somebody fine (who came) along, (made) me forget about loving you…at the Southern Cross.”

POSTSCRIPT

My Pink IPOD has given up the ghost. Not Jane’s ghost though. I will make sure that my new one has the “Southern Cross” on every playlist.

This story is contained within the book FLOPPY PARTS. You may download or purchase a copy at the following link: http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

DEATH WHISPERS SOFTLY IN THE NIGHT

DEATH WHISPERS SOFTLY IN THE NIGHT

Sybil Babb has joined the many stars I think about when I look into the clear night sky. Stars I have named after friends, family members and former players, all who have passed from my physical world to join their energies with the cosmos.

Ironically, yesterday I spoke with a much younger friend who felt the need to tell me of her fear of death. Death is not something people normally talk about unless they are troubled so I listened intently. I was surprised that this particular friend feared anything. I was wrong and felt honored she had dropped her “tough as nails façade” and took me into her confidence. I could do nothing to alleviate her fear other than listen. I did tell her I did not fear death…just dying hard. I hope to pass on in my sleep but have been disappointed before and worry I may be disappointed again. I should have also told her of my fear of living so long that I outlive my friends and die alone whether it is peacefully or not. I hope Sybil’s passing was peaceful while surrounded by people who love her. I also wish I had picked up the phone to call her the many times I thought of her. A lesson learned too late.

When I arrived at Mauldin High School in the fall of 1974, I was an immature and green twenty-four-year-old CHILD. I immediately adopted Sybil along with Marilyn Koon Hendrix and Bobbi Frasier Burns as surrogate mothers despite the fact they were closer to my age than they were to my mother’s age. All three made it easy to adopt and would also become my mentors and quickly my friends. Whatever I became as an adult they share not only in my successes but in the good found in me. We were a very young staff and I am sure Sybil served the same role to Koon and Bobbi and dozens of other young teachers…along with the thousands of students who passed through the halls of Mauldin. Someone remarked that Sybil WAS Mauldin High School and I would agree. I see Sybil sitting behind her desk and can’t think of a time she was not smiling or a time she wasn’t supporting. Mauldin would not be Mauldin without her there and I have only returned once or twice since she retired.

We WERE a young staff in the Seventies who worked hard and partied even harder. Sybil was a fixture at those post-game parties or poet’s club meetings…always providing clear council through the vapors of alcohol. I see Sybil sprinting from a former…wife-to-be’s apartment because a drunken neighbor decided to show her his pet snake. He did not know how deathly afraid she was of snakes. Sybil was so terrified she hyperventilated…once she quit running. Sitting on the bow of Koon’s sailboat, drink in hand mocking a figurehead, Sybil must have been able to ward off the evil “spirits.” No ill winds filled our sails. Not so funny were the days when she would quietly appear like a “spirit” at my door to say, “Ms. Koon needs you in her office.” This usually meant some poor fool had run afoul of the rules and I was going to have to administer corporal punishment.

Mauldin High School of the Seventies and early Eighties was the most special of places for this still immature old has-been. Sybil helped to make it one and helped me to grow up there. I choose to see that she has joined my old friend and coaching mentor Jay Lunceford as they enjoy a good laugh at our expense. Most of all I hope she will forgive me for not staying in touch as well as I should have. Sybil you surely deserve your star in the heavens.