GREEN RIVER…UM, UM, GOOD…

Good food, good times and good friends you didn’t know you knew.

I sat with my beloved at a raised bar done in corrugated metal and salvaged wood.  We sat on tall, padded, metal bar stools and sipped Narragansett.  It had been a while since we had partaken of the ambrosia of the gods… pulled pork BBQ, slaw and fried okra.  We were sipping beer and watching the big screen as we waited.  Narragansett is a Yankee beer.  Despite its Northern birthplace, I like it as much as the beers from more Southern climes.  I like good beer where ever it is brewed…I know, sometimes I wouldn’t know a good beer if it bit me on the ass, but “Gansett” goes well with the BBQ…and it’s cheap enough to have two…or three.

I’m reminded a bit of Cheers, “where everyone knows your name.”  Well, here at Green River, they may have forgotten our names, but they do recognize us…and it’s been a while.  Melanie and Tammie noticed us immediately and despite being covered up with other diners took time to check in and reconnect.  There was a third little girl whose name I’ve forgotten.  I feel terrible.  That’s Cheers-like, isn’t it?  She checked in too.

In addition to my love affair with great BBQ, I have had a love affair with hole-in-the-wall establishments dating to when I first ventured into a bar named The Cellar in the very late Sixties.  Dim, smoky places…

” Meeting… in smoky places,

Hiding… in shadowy corners,

Dancing… where no one knows our faces,

sharing love stolen in the night,

in smoky places.”

 

Thank you, Corsairs, all though I’m not talking about THAT kind of smoky place.  My first real date with the love of my life was in a dim, bluesy, smoke-filled, hole in the wall and no we weren’t hiding from anyone at The Casablanca.  Just listening to the Blues sung by Ronnie Godfrey, a friend of my love who would eventually sing at our wedding.  Later, at different times, we would celebrate a significant anniversary, a New Year’s celebration and Mardi Gras at the Cypress Cellar, a hole-in-the-wall that became less and less hole-in-the-wall like until it finally changed into a bright Mexican restaurant with a different name.  I do miss the Cajun cuisine…and its “hole-in-the-wallness” although the Mexican restaurant is very good…just too bright to be a hole-in-the-wall.

We first wandered into Green River BBQ thirty years ago.  It was an accident, like a lot of the good discoveries in our lives…one might say discovering each other was an accident that worked out well too.   Late in the day on a cool and foggy, fall evening, it was our first trip to the small town of Saluda in North Carolina.  Deciding we wanted to eat, there were three restaurants to choose from.  We picked the correct one…for us.  We watched a football game on a not so big screen TV and met Melanie, the owner, and her husband.  The husband hasn’t been in the picture for a while and I admit that I really haven’t missed him.  I doubt Melanie has either.  We sat in the small, rustic dining area reading the quaint and rusting metal signs of pigs adorning walls finished from old salvaged boards.  A screened in porch led us to the dining area and the sound of the slamming screen door reminded me a bit of home.

Waiters and waitresses have changed over the years as has Green River.  Melanie has expanded the dining room, now done in corrugated metal along with the unfinished boards.  True big screen TVs are available to watch sporting events if you so desire.  Joining the rusting signs, garden rake heads are attached to the walls and utilized to hold wine glasses.  Yep, a wine list has joined its beer list.  The screened porch is now enclosed to increase year-round seating, but the screen door still has that pleasant bang and a bit of the parking lot has been confiscated for outdoor seating.  Most importantly, while the people and objects have changed, the attitude hasn’t.  It still feels like a welcoming hole-in-the-wall…and a bit like home.

This past Sunday, we met new friends.  Steve from Wilmington, spending a few weeks helping a friend clean up his home’s lot and searching for information on how to get rid of groundhogs without shooting them.  Deshi, from the small town of “Somewhere,” India, teaches at the local community college and is quite the football fan.  We nodded at an old friend, John, the chubby, red-faced, dark headed guy that always comes in alone and sits quietly working the Sunday crossword.  There were other regulars I recognized, they greeted us even if they didn’t know our names.  My kind of place.

One might surmise food is not the primary reason I go to Green River.  That would be untrue.  I opened with good friends, good times and good food.  My only complaint about the food is…I don’t have any complaints about their food.  They have great entrees, some that don’t even involve BBQ, but I do remind you, you probably shouldn’t order fish in a restaurant advertising pulled pork, slow cooked ribs, and barbeque chicken.  When asked to name your side dish, do try the fried okra with a little Ranch dressing on the side.

Yes, good friends, good times and good food.  There are other restaurants in Saluda and they too are good, friendly and have their own “hole-in-the-wall” ambiance…they just don’t serve BBQ.

For more of Don Miller’s “a bubble off plumb” outlook on life please visit his author’s page at http://amazon.com/author/cigarman501

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“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!”

A PLAYER…ALL GROWN UP

For a guy who coached high school baseball for over thirty years, I don’t go to many high school baseball games. Just four this season. I feel a little guilty about not going but have found if I haven’t invested in the kids playing, I’m just as happy to catch a few innings of a collegiate or a pro game on the tube while relaxing on my recliner. Maybe I’m just being lazy.

Today was different. Instead of being lazy, I sat on the first base fence line watching a former player, Tim Perry, coach his high school team in our state high school playoffs. I might have been the only spectator who was more focused on the third base coaching box than the actual field of play.

The site of the game was a field where, in a past lifetime, I had wandered from the dugout to the third base coaching box and back again just like my former player was doing. I felt a certain kinship with him and understood the emotions he was possibly feeling. I watched him cheering, clapping, offering up nuggets of baseball knowledge and teaching the game. Picking his players up after an error or a strike out…no visible berating although I don’t know for sure what went on inside of the dugout…no berating I’m sure.

I was happy to be a spectator. The gut wrenching, acid churning and Tums gobbling days’ of “life or death” competition rest squarely on his much younger, broader shoulders and are, thankfully, in my rear-view mirror. I’d rather just cheer for him.

There is a comradery among coaches, even rival coaches, and these two knew each other well, having competed against each other since their little league playing days. After losing the second game, the district final, I wondered if they were still friends? Knowing Tim’s personality, I would guess yes.

When I first met Tim, he was a freckled faced ninth grader. He had one of those angelic faces that lit up the world when he smiled. Angelic face but full of “snips and snails, and puppy dog tails.” Short and just a few pounds past “stocky,” he resembled a “pleasingly plump” Alfalfa of Our Gang fame or maybe Howdy Doody of Buffalo Bob renown. If you look at him just right today, you can still see it.

Tim was trying out for our junior varsity team and had all the correct mechanics and moves, learned from hours of baseball camps and honed on hundreds of diamonds around the South, if not the nation. He looked good doing whatever he was doing. The problem was he looked good swinging through a lot of pitches, having a ball roll between his legs or having to line him up with a fence post to see if he was actually moving when he ran. I cut him. Doing so might, I say might, have been a mistake.

When a young kid gets cut he has a couple of options. He can allow it to ruin his athletic career, just quit and feel sorry for himself, or he can work harder and try again. I imagine you might guess which Tim did. It didn’t hurt he had a growing spurt over that next year, as in about six inches, a foot? No not that much but he was six foot plus by the time graduated. He turned into a good player, the ace of my pitching staff and good enough to play college ball. Yeah, maybe I made a mistake. I cherish the picture of us made when he signed his letter of intent to play for my old alma mater.

More importantly, and more to the point, he’s turned into a good man with a beautiful family. I watched a three-year-old boy run around and play as the game went on. He is Tim made over, a freckled faced little imp. The little boy’s mother and sister are pretty, brunette images of each other, thank goodness. I’m not sure how much Tim’s wife actually got to watch the game while keeping up with two fireballs. I know I never saw her sit down. Tim’s parents were there too, aging but still pulling for their son, always his biggest cheerleaders…and greatest teachers. How much support does someone deserve…a lot in Tim’s case.

I would guess it was heaven ordained Tim would become a baseball coach. He was already a coach when he played for me. Tim loved the game too much not to pursue that vocation along with a career in teaching despite a short tenure in the “real world,” the non-teaching world.

I’ve found there are two kinds of men who coach baseball…at least at the high school level. Those who coach the game for the game, and those who coach the kids. Over the years, I’ve found I don’t have much use for the men who coach the game just for the sake of winning championships…and I know, we’re all in it to win or you don’t stay in it very long. Observing Tim, I saw a coach who was coaching baseball but more importantly he was coaching kids and having fun doing it…and they were having fun too.

Tim, I’m glad you were mine for a brief period and happy you have turned into the man you’ve turned into. I hope you know how lucky you are to be that man. Maybe next year Coach…and I’m really sorry I made that mistake.

Don Miller writes “memories.” If you enjoyed this short essay, more may be purchased or downloaded at https://goo.gl/pL9bpP

A POWERFUL HANKERIN’

Just say the word DIET and it triggers a Pavlovian response of Biblical proportions. I don’t really have to be on a diet when the word diet is used to trigger the response… a stupid comment, I’ve been on an eleven-year diet. On April 8, 2006, the day before my birthday, I stepped on my scales and they lied! My mind said, “There was no way I weigh in at two hundred and thirty-two pounds”, and then my mind realized I was leaning forward so I could see the scales. I was leaning forward to see over my belly. On April 9, 2006, I received a birthday present, a heart attack. A heart attack will get your attention.

I had battled my weight most of my life but now I was in a full-fledged war. Six months later I weighed one hundred and sixty-two pounds…and looked like a refugee from a famine. I immediately ate myself up to a healthier looking one hundred seventy-two. That’s the last time I was unconcerned about my weight…until just before Thanksgiving of this year when I decided not to worry about it until the first of the year. I weighed one hundred and eighty-five by January 1st. I had to think of that word again. Slobber, slobber, drool, drool.

The word causes me to feel hungry, 24/7/365. Before a meal, after a meal, in the dark hours of the night. The word “diet” gives me powerful hankerins’ for just about anything. Presently my hankerins’ is seafood. Not a McFish Sandwich kind of seafood, real live coastal seafood. The very thought takes me on a mental trip reminiscent of a storm-tossed sailboat without its rudder. You know you’re going somewhere, it’s going to be a wild ride and the outcome may include crashing against rocks.

Sara J’s seafood platter in Garden City, the Captain’s House oyster and artichoke stew at Myrtle Beach, Calabash shrimp anywhere in Calabash, North Carolina. Crabs at Hudson’s on Hilton Head, a brunch involving oysters and Bloody Marys at Shem Creek, shrimp and grits at the River Room in Georgetown along with anything fried at Aunny’s. I am racked with sorrow as I remember Oliver’s Lodge at Merrill’s Inlet will never serve me again because it’s now a private residence. Would they be upset if I just showed up at their door?

As my mental sailboat eased its meandering path with sleep, I found myself dreaming of an old college friend and a roadtrip to his Charleston home during a long college weekend. Bob Lemaster was better known as Renegade during his college days. He earned his nickname honestly with his dark Native-American appearance. Bob reminded me of the now socially unacceptable cartoon character “Injun Joe” in looks and a renegade in actions. Like most of us he matured, found the woman of his dreams, settling down to a normal life…and dropped Renegade for his given name, Bob. This trip occurred during his Renegade days.

The dream took me on a short drive down a long dirt road somewhere on Folly’s Island. Palmetto and scrub pine trees lining the road flew past the windows of Bob’s car like pickets on a fence. Once we arrived, I wondered about the hurry we had been in. Our destination was an old fishing shack or wreck of a house, take your pick, and for the life of me I can’t remember its name. I remember a small, sagging, wrap-around front porch and white paint so old it had grayed into a patina of sorts. I didn’t look for a health department grade and in the early Seventies it may not have been required…I doubt the fish shack would have been serving food had the health department gotten involved.

What the old shack did have was ambience. The wreck sat on a low hill close enough to the ocean for the sound of rollers crashing, the briny smell of the ocean and the touch of salt air, all to reach us and beguile our senses. An almost full moon rising above the horizon only added to the enchantment.

Seating was outside under patched funeral home canopies, on roughhewn picnic tables featuring a large hole in the center. There were no utensils or plates, just newspapers to cover the table and a roll of cheap paper towels. Menu choices were simple. Boiled shrimp, raw or smoked oysters and…well that was it. A short and stocky man with a swarthy complexion brought our choices of food to the table in large aluminum boiler pots and unceremoniously dumped them onto the newspaper covered table. “Bon appe’tit y’all.” Condiments included cocktail and tarter sauces in squirt bottles, a bottle of hot sauce, lemon wedges along with salt and pepper. Beverages choices were sweet tea or PBRs. Shrimp and oyster shells went through the hole in the table and into the trashcan underneath while our conversation drifted quietly with the breeze.

Simple food from the sea…and drinks from grain and hops. Quality seafood smells and taste like the sea and doesn’t have to be battered, seasoned or fried to be great, something the memory of this trip from long ago reminded me of. It also reminded me of a friend from long ago who is no longer with us.

Bob and I, along with several other college friends kept in touch until the early Eighties when a negative change in my marital and job status, along with the depths of clinical depression, made me reassess my life. I made a bad decision to cut people out of my life because they reminded me of the bad times they had no part in. Since Bob’s death I have reconnected with the old crew, Joe, Tim, and before his death, Tom. Bob’s passing persuaded me to reconnect, I’m just sorry I didn’t come to my realization before he died.

Bob, until the day I die, I will remember the no-named shanty, the food we ate and the stories we told. I’m sorry a powerful hankerin’ didn’t occur before you left us.

Just so you know, I weighed one seventy-three this morning and the severe diet is now over although the battle will never end. I think I’m going to get a couple of pounds of shrimp, boil them up in beer and Old Bay before serving them on my picnic table. Probably not going to drink PBRs. The sea and salt air won’t be felt but I can always pretend. Maybe Linda Gail will join me for a dance and I can tell her about one memorable night, an old friend and my powerful hankerin’.

POSTSCRIPT

It turns out my old buddy had us all buffaloed and despite his nickname and appearance, was not of Native American. It’s okay. I am imagining his deep laugh in the rainstorm thundering outside as I write this. Anyway, it’s my story and I’m going to stick to it. Thanks Bob.

Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf #ASMSG #IARTG #IAN

MRS. SARA PAYNE

I spent four years with the “legendary” Mrs. Sara Payne and despite thinking of her often, I never saw her once I left Greenville High School almost thirty years ago. I was so sorry to hear of her passing. In a book, “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…”, I wrote a story about a moment in my life when Mrs. Payne proved to me how uplifting one moment of kindness can be. I doubt she knew and am sorry I never took the opportunity to tell her. Here is an excerpt from that story.

“The one person unintimidated by Sam Wiley was Mrs. Sara Payne. It seemed that Mrs. Sara Payne had been at Greenville High forever plus one day. In 1981 she became the South Carolina State Teacher of the Year which helped to fuel my own intimidation of her. I was not in a small group. Even before she garnered her teacher of the year award it seemed her name was already legendary. To me, she was the most intimidating person at Greenville High, even more so than Sam. Maybe the most intimidating person I had ever met. Anytime her name was mentioned it seemed that hushed, reverent tones were used, and I fully expected to hear Gothic organ music playing in the background. A mentoring teacher once told me that the key to successful classroom discipline was never to smile until after Christmas. Mrs. Sara Payne must have had the same mentor and must have listened better than I did. She had the successful classroom discipline associated with Catholic priests during the Inquisition. Well, there was the Great Mouse Invasion.

Mrs. Sara Payne was terrified of mice. After a mouse was seen in her classroom, she exited, moved her classes to the library and refused to return until the little intruder was caught. Someone decided he had a plan that would, by disrupting class, create less time spent in Mrs. Sara Payne’s Senior English Class. This someone began to release lab mice into Mrs. Sara Payne’s classroom. It worked for a while until one was finally caught. It was white, and then another was caught and it was white with brown spots, and then another, well just say a bunch were caught, none of which were the traditional “mousy” color. Resembling pets more than vermin, public outcry put an end to this rodent holocaust. We never found who “someone” was but thankfully he or she caved to the public sympathy for lab rats.

Mrs. Sara Payne and Sam Wiley took to each other like…well they did not take to each other at all. If Mrs. Payne had used the traditional fine southern feminist curse “Bless Your Heart”, she would have used it a lot and Sam just used …well I don’t know because I tried to stay away from him but I am sure it involved the word ‘bitch.’ His “stirring of the pot” caused the tension and the pressure to increase, not only in my little athletic world but all around the school. I believe we all knew what it felt like to be a green bean in a pressure cooker. The pressure would finally get the best of the normally stoic Mrs. Sara Payne when Sam began to remove the ancient flora from Greenville High School.

In the quadrangle that Greenville Senior High was built around were roses. Many had been placed there in honor of alumni who had passed away. They were the first to go. Sam’s reasoning was that it took too much man power to maintain them. I agree that you could designate one custodian to care for the roses and it would have been a full time job, but could you not allow family members to care for them or at the very least come collect them? Could you not request volunteers to care for them? NO, you just had them pulled up and dumped in the trash. The alumni association along with Mrs. Sara Payne was livid but could do nothing about the roses because it was too late. In the spring of 1986, the American Holly “bushes” became a different story.

What is the difference between a holly bush and an American Holly Tree? I never really knew, but it was a question Sam should have asked before he decided to cut down all of the American Holly trees on the campus of Greenville Senior High. It began his slippery slide into…retirement. Holly bushes can be used as hedges, trimmed, shaped or destroyed. American Holly Trees can grow to be over thirty feet high and attain ages in excess of one hundred years old and cannot be cut down if they are on a historic site. Guess which ones were at Greenville Senior High? Greenville Senior High School was built in the 1930s and is a historic site. This meant these trees were over fifty years old and of as much historical significance as was the school. Sam decided that he would have them cut down to create less work for the custodial staff. Instead he stirred up an angry hornet’s nest, led by Mrs. Sara Payne. Mrs. Sara Payne had had enough and called in the alumni association and every tree hugger in Greenville County. Greenville Senior High School is now over eighty years old. So are the trees. They stayed. Sam did not last through the summer of 1986.

After a particularly grueling “dosey doe” with Sam over a miscue by a wrestling coach and another letter to be put in my folder, I trudged into the library to find my driver’s education students. I found them, along with Mrs. Sara Payne and her class. It must have been during the mouse holocaust. As I went to the second floor of the library, I paused at the top of the stairs reflecting on the invisible weight I had just carried to get up there. I felt a hand touch my elbow and turned to find Mrs. Sara Payne staring into my face with something I had never seen before: a smile. Blessedly before I said something unintelligible she said, “Keep the faith, it will be over soon and I am not talking about you.” All I could do was nod. I did not realize that Mrs. Sara Payne even knew I was alive. I began to think of her as simply Mrs. Payne.
Rest well Mrs. Payne.

CIRCLES

I wonder how many YEARS of my life have actually been spent driving mowers and tractors in circles? In my own yard, on football and baseball fields? Finishing up where I started only to do it over again…and again…. I find that my mind drifts with the repetitive mindlessness of the job…until I run over something I shouldn’t or cut a clump of Linda Gail’s flowers.
This time of year, the hot and humid doldrums of summer, my mind “circles” to twenty-nine seasons as a football coach…despite not having coached football in fifteen years. It’s been that long? With the coach’s clinic this weekend I am reminded that the football season is just around the corner. The smell of my freshly cut grass, along with the heat and humidity, takes me to the fields of my past. Twenty-nine first practices followed by twenty-nine first games. Fields freshly manicured with sharp white lines almost glowing from the reflected light from above.

In some ways my twenty-nine seasons were a study in frustration. Eight seasons finishing above .500 and a small, very small, handful of break-even seasons. We have at least three coaches in South Carolina with eight or more state championships during their career. It gets much worse, five of those winning eight seasons occurred during my first nine seasons. Three winning seasons over the last twenty. My own tenure as a head football coach boasts one winning season, six wins out a total of thirteen over four seasons. What made me think I was head coaching material?

I spent this past Friday morning with best friend, former boss and Linda Gail’s former high school classmate, Mike “Hawk” Hawkins. I was lending “moron” support as we attempted to erect a backyard swing from scratch. The “blind leading the blind” didn’t quite describe it. More like the “blind leading the stupid.” Somehow with a bit of “cussin’” on my part and a lot praying on his, we got the job done. Maybe it won’t collapse in on itself. More importantly, being around “Hawk” reminded me of why I coached football for twenty-nine years despite the frustration. It was the people and the personalities surrounding high school athletics.

My last game coaching football was Mike’s last game as head coach at Riverside. No man could have put more into a program than he did but it wasn’t in the cards. My first five years as his assistant netted two winning seasons and a couple break evens but then the wheels fell off the jalopy. To quote Linda Gail and thousands of others, “You can’t make silk purses out of sow’s ears.” We had great kids who tried and worked hard but were “athletically challenged” proving that you could do most everything right and still not be successful. Weekly we found our X’s to be much smaller and slower than our opponent’s O’s. Tasting just a bit of success is what made my last game much sweeter.

I don’t know how many games we won my last year…it wasn’t many. It doesn’t matter because we won the last one. A playoff bound Mann team came to the River and our kids rose up and smacked them in the nose. Hawk devised what I have always called a “bastard” defense, throwing caution to the wind and our kids executed it. As the seconds ticked down a senior defensive end who, in a normal defense, would not have been dropping into pass coverage, did. Geoff Rigsby intercepted the confused Mann quarterback to ice the victory…my last victory. I didn’t know it was my last game at the time. I was living vicariously through “Hawk” who was being carried from the field on the shoulders of his players while what few fans were in attendance were bring down the goal posts…well bending the goal posts.

A friend who used to coach with Hawk and I, Rick Scott, once said, “Winning is better than sex.” I bit, “How is that?” “Sex only last a few minutes. A win lasts all week long.” Well! I would guess he is correct. I’ve enjoyed my last win for fifteen years.

For more humor by Don Miller click on the following link: http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

GAME, SET, MATCH!

I don’t much like birthdays. I more or less celebrate mine as another year avoiding the alternative. “One more trip around the Sun!” It seems to be too hard to get people together to celebrate and then there is the memory of a heart attack on the birthday I survived in 2006. This is the first birthday after my “complete” retirement. Age does not look good on me! Even when you look up historical events occurring on April 9, you find out it is pretty dismal. Lee surrenders to Grant, the Battle of This, the Battle of That, Babe Ruth is rushed to the hospital…I wonder if it was too many hot dogs or too much beer?

This birthday was a little different. I got a letter on April 6th three days before my birthday. It was addressed to both Linda Gail and myself with a note on the back instructing us not to open it until April 8th. Really? That is almost like waving a red flag in front of a bull. I consider Linda Gail to be the stalwart person in our relationship when it comes to following instructions like “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL….” But out of her beautiful mouth came the question, “Are we really going to wait until April the eighth?” We did with much difficulty. I knew it wasn’t birthday wishes to me or someone was confused about my exact birthdate. It turned out to be just that…birthday wishes…just not mine. It was still one of the nicest birthday presents I could get.

The return address included only a last name, Bryson, from Charleston. Who do we know from Charleston named Bryson? Mandi Copeland now named Bryson! Mandi was turning forty on April 8th and had taken the time to write and thank everyone who had had a positive effect or influence on her life. Despite my disbelief of a forty-year-old Mandi, I was honored to have been included and her recognition of my contribution made both my day and the next, the tenth anniversary of my heart attack and sixty-sixth anniversary of my birth. It was a beautiful tribute, not only to us but also to her.

Mandi Copeland was one of my wife’s tennis players and a student trainer who graduated from Riverside in the mid-nineties. Mandi was MORE than just a player and a trainer. She had all of the outward signs of a happy-go-lucky extrovert, which she was, but her huge smile covered a competitive streak “river deep and mountain high.” She was a bull “in a china shop” in the way she approached tennis, playing in a manner more in tune with one of my defensive linemen than the “Quiet Please” tennis crowd. With her powerful serve and overhand it was “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK” and if that didn’t work she would revert to “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK” AGAIN!

As a student and player, Mandi’s career at RHS was very successful. The tennis team went to the high school version of the “Final Four” all four of her years and played for a State Championship. They should have played for another one but sometimes the “little gods” controlling sporting events throw monkey wrenches into the gears and the team was upset by a Clinton team they had defeated handily just weeks before. The weather “gods” had also gotten involved and the semis had to be postponed requiring both teams to be prepared to travel to Columbia as soon as the match was completed in order to play the finals the next day.

What do you do with a packed van filled with weepy young tennis players? What else, you bring them to “Casa de Miller” for a weekend of “wound licking” courtesy of Coach Porter-Miller and her loyal “Indian companion” Tonto, I mean Coach Miller. I knew something was up just by the way Coach Porter-Miller approached me. How could I say no? No one could ask for a better coach’s wife and I was bound and determined to be a good coach’s husband.

An evening filled with games, gossip and pizza followed by sleeping pallets on the floor, if we slept at all. The next morning a true country breakfast that might have included Hardee’s biscuits was served before a morning spent hiking up and sliding down the “gently rolling” ninety acres of land around our house. I don’t know who had more fun but I am sure the wounds had been healed by the time they all departed. I also don’t know who the brains of the team were but I know Mandi was the heart and the foundation. By Linda’s own description she was the “rock upon which the team was built.” When Mandi graduated and went off to Florida State it was almost like losing a family member. You may be gone but you certainly are not forgotten.

Mandi would become the first person I NEVER wanted in my dugout…a female. I had withstood request to bring on “batgirls.” Once I had even taken “applications” for batgirls but at the last moment chickened out. Girls in the dugout equal major distractions for teen aged boys. I know I used to be one. With the changing landscape of athletics, I did not have a choice when it came to trainers. Trainers and student trainers WOULD have access to your teams regardless of their gender. It turned out that it was a good thing, something I got used to quite quickly and later wondered what the big deal was about. Mandi made it possible because of her maturity and her professional attitude. It did take some getting used to…for the head coach not the team. I also had to mind my tongue, something I needed to do but only had moderate success in doing. A nickel for every time I turned my head, whispered an “expletive deleted” and followed it with a “Sorry about that Mandi.” Usually she would say, “It’s okay Coach, I’ve heard it before.” Yep, probably about a minute ago.

Mandi was one of the special ones, one of many special ones who would define what Linda and I did for most of our thirty-year marriage. For me it would take retirement to realize that I had coached kids and not just a sport. Linda Gail realized it much sooner. Not having kids around due to our retirement has been challenging…until you get a letter from “a Mandi.” Mandi who has followed us into athletics herself, not that Linda Gail and I take credit for it. We are just happy we didn’t screw up and kill her desire.

The Mandis of our life made teaching and coaching worth the long hours for not enough pay. It is usually many years before a former teacher or coach finds out what effect we had on someone’s life and in some cases it is too late when we find it out. Thanks for letting us know before it was too late. I would say it arrived at exactly the right time.
We both love you.
Coach Miller and Coach Porter-M.

For more FEEL GOOD non-fiction by Don Miller go to http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

THE BURDEN OF FRIENDSHIP-GENTLE RANT ALERT

The most infamous tow truck owner in the South…maybe nationwide…well on Facebook at least, is a friend of mine. Is…not was…! He is a friend of mine despite my social liberalism and his Trump leanings. Just so we understand his leanings, were he the Tower of Pizza, he would have fallen over into Trump’s lap by now. No I’m not going to divulge his name but I will call him Sampson. My “conservative, Trump supporting, gun toting, Christian values spouting and I refuse to tow Bernie supporters” friend started a wee bit of a furor when “God told him” to leave a handicapped woman on the side of the road because of her “Bernie” bumper sticker. Sampson says he did not know she was handicapped, despite her handicapped sticker, and I believe him. I am sure he didn’t see it because the Sampson I know would not have ignored a handicapped sticker. I am sure he was simply blinded by the light given off from the “Feel the Bern” sticker. Look guys, sometimes I can’t see an elephant sleeping under my nose or the food I dropped on the floor so I am not going to throw stones.

I am very disappointed in Sampson but I’m not going to abandon him. Abandonment is not what friends do even when they disagree with each other or one is disappointed in the other. Sampson has never been anything but kind, straight forward and above board with me and my wife Linda Gail. I’ve bought several cars from him, dined with him, shot the bull with him and borrowed equipment and tools from him. I admit Sampson is a “wheeler dealer” and probably should have named his company “Anything For a Buck!” but wheeling and dealing is not illegal…maybe. Besides, he has not tried to steal my bass boat or woo my wife so I am not going to throw him under his tow truck. Did I write that in the correct order?

I won’t desert him but I won’t defend him either. While I defend his right to leave anyone on the side of the road he chooses, I won’t defend his actual action or his decision. Sampson was out and out wrong. Good Samaritans don’t leave people stranded and the God I worship would not tell me to “leave the lady socialist on the road,” handicapped or not. The situation could have been handled differently and Sampson should make his lack of trust in “communist left wing hippy freaks” known and mention his adversion upfront.

Lack of trust may not be the whole issue but rather out and out hatred. Not necessarily hatred on Sampson’s part but rather the social and cultural atmosphere we find ourselves inhaling. My brother tells me all of the time, “It’s not Trump. People just want change. People are fed up.” I agree with him about being fed up but I fear Sampson’s presidential choice, Mr. Trump, is using our hatred and bigotry, along with the desire for change, to power his campaign. People are no longer nice to each other, especially with the anonymity of social media. Any idiot with a computer can say whatever he wants to without the fear of getting kicked in the crotch. Worse are the creative non-idiots with an agenda to push who play to the folks who think everything on the internet is true. Trump did not create this scenario and may not be a bigoted racist himself but I believe he is using bigotry and racism to his advantage.

Hitler used mass media to create a “Let’s Make Germany Great Again” campaign along with non-Aryans as scapegoats to give “good Germans” someone to hate and a focus for their energies. Mr. Trump has just taken the next natural step, utilizing social media to create a “Let’s Make America Great Again” campaign and has used most every American fear, except our fear of clowns, as a reason to create scapegoats for us to focus our hate and energies. Clowns may yet be utilized as soon as Mrs. Clinton secures her party’s nomination. Before someone points out Godwin’s Law, yes I did compare Trump to Hitler but only his methods and he has had much help from the trolls that lurk near “the bridge” known as social media.(1) Despite Hitler’s track record, I believe Trump to be infinitely more dangerous. After all, if he wins the election he will have his finger on the nuclear trigger surrounded by a group of minions yelling, “Push it! Push it! Push it! We dare you!”

Differences in political opinions can make friendships challenging and interesting but should not end friendships. When I finally talk to Sampson I will tell him that I am disappointed and why. He will listen intently and then defend himself. There may even be a little yelling involved but at the end of the day, I won’t leave until I am sure we are still friends or when the ambulance leaves to take me away. I am guessing I should leave my car with the COEXIST sticker at home. I shouldn’t be taking chances at my age.

(1)Reference is from the Norwegian fairytale “THREE BILLIE GOATS GRUFF.”

More nonfiction by Don Miller is available at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/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