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

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.

BLUE HEELERS LIFE HEALERS

I don’t why we subject ourselves to the pain of losing loved ones…furry four-legged loved ones. You know there is going to be a time when they are going to break your heart by dying. Bogart, Bubba, Brody, Jackson, Santana, Little Miss Minny Muffin, Nannie, Sha-na-na, NaeNae, Nugene, Nicholette, Neut, Claude, Claudette and Boomer. Dogs, cats, goats, even a one legged rooster. All found a way to worm their way into our hearts and steal more than just a little piece.

Eleven years ago our most loved Sassy Marie, a part Border Collie part…who knows, deserted us. She had turned up one day out of the clear blue and disappeared twelve or thirteen years later the same way. I have no idea how old she was but Sassy was smart, knew her time was near, and decided to leave us on her own terms. By doing so, Sassy allows us to pretend she is still out there somewhere, alive and well, chasing the rabbits she never chased during the thirteen years she had us.

I told Linda Gail we needed to get over Sassy Marie before we invested our hearts in another pet. Several days later she told me her very good friend Debbie had family with six-week old Blue Heeler puppies. “Linda it is too soon to get another puppy,” said I. “I just want to go look at them. There are fourteen can you believe it?” said Linda. The next day at school I told a friend we were going to look at puppies that afternoon. “You going to get another pet?” asked he. “The question is not if. It’s how many.” Said I. Linda does tell a little different story.

The Blue Heeler is an Australian Cattle Dog, not to be confused with the Australian Shepard which is, despite its name, not Australian. The Australian Cattle Dog, which comes in two forms regardless of being the same breed–the Blue and the Red Heeler. They are the product of breeding a historically long lost “upland” spaniel from England, a Dalmatian and the native Australian wild dog, the Dingo. From this union came a tough, muscular, medium size dog Australian cattlemen used to drive their cattle through the “Outback.” Pretty sure if I had known this we probably would not have owned one, much less two. Sometimes it’s good to go into something uninformed with your eyes shut. This is how Matilda Sue and Madeline Roo came to adopt us.

The owners of Mattie and Tilly raised Blue Heelers to sell but this was no puppy mill. Just one sire named Rebel and two dames named Mia and Gypsy. They were beautiful. Dark “blue merle” undercoat showed through their white topcoat. A bit of “Dingo red” on their forelegs and lower jaw. There was a mask across their eyes called a “Bentley Mark.” Compact muscles rippled under their coat. It was easy to fall in love…easier when we saw fourteen puppies clumped together in their little corral.

One of those puppies crawled out of the tangle of fur, legs and snouts and made her way over to Linda and in “Dog-ese” yapped a greeting which I am sure translated to “Hi, I’m your new puppy and don’t even try to ignore me.” For ten years we haven’t been able to. Another had a crooked tail, which we thought had been broken but was actually a genetic flaw, and a Bentley mark only over one eye. My heart melted. Two was the answer to the question “It’s how many?”

That was almost eleven years ago. They grew into powerful, beautiful companions…and infuriating. Mattie will not be ignored for any reason. Tilly became the ultimate hunter. I am looking at them now as they go through some type of puppy play only they understand, a “mock fight” they have acted out daily. Now they have settled down to sleep…with their ears still at the alert.
They are or were high energy herders and hunters. Even when very young they tried to herd birds, cats, squirrels and lizards. They herded so well I found them missing one evening from their fenced in workshop “puppy house.” I can remember my fear they would be lost forever…or my fear of what Linda was going to do. We found them. Less than three months old they had traversed a small mountain forest and ended up over a half mile away. This is also how they became house dogs.

As hunters, Maddie specializes in snakes and Tilly in possums. With a persimmon tree in our back yard there have been ample opportunities for Tilly and with the tangle of Linda’s “companion gardening” there have been many opportunities for Maddie. I cannot remember how many mornings I have let Maddie and Tilly out, taken my shower, and come back to find a possum “present” laying just inside the door. Luckily possums play possum and I am sure Tilly has brought the same one in dozens of times. Maddie does the same thing but thankfully snakes don’t play dead…although I am sure finding them has scared me out of several lifetimes.

I want to chuckle as I watch both of them sound asleep on their backs, their favorite form of activity. Everyone said, “They will be hand full if you don’t keep them active, they are too smart for their own good.” “You don’t want two from the same litter.” A few times that might have been true but the best thing we ever did was get two. They play, run, keep each other company and if we can’t seem to find Tilly just tell Maddie, “Go find Sissy” and off she goes.

I know they will leave us sooner than we would want but they have been wonderful companions and worth all of the pain we will feel when they do leave us. There is something about unrequited love and ours has been returned ten thousand times. A little food, a scratch behind the ears, a warm couch to curl up on and a lot of love. Isn’t that all we ever need?

My stories of home in PATHWAYS by Don Miller http://goo.gl/6yB5Ei

A LAST GAME—A TRIBUTE TO A COACH

This past Friday it ended. At least I think it did. My best friend coached the last game of his forty plus year career. That equates to over fifty years involved with the religion known as Southern football. Everyone who knows Mike Hawkins, Hawk as he is known wide and far, would have bet he would continue to coach until he drew his last breath. Then, having been carried off of a football field straight into the mortuary for cremation, would have his ashes scattered to the “football gods” over some yet undetermined football field “heaven.” I thought the same thing until I talked to him during the week prior to his “last game.” Mike has mellowed…A LOT…and seems to be at peace with his decision. Saying such, would I be surprised if he didn’t retire? Not at all.

As I begin this writing, I haven’t contacted him yet. I’m afraid to. I’m sure he has met this Saturday morning with a jumble of feelings although I am also sure he would never admit it. If I were writing a book, Mike’s season and career would not have ended on a late field goal during the upper-state championship. If I were writing the ending the Spartans would have blocked the field goal, returned it for the winning touchdown and gone on to win next week’s state championship game. It just goes to prove something I already knew. God could care less about who wins a football game because a win was sure something I prayed for… along with world peace. I still hope to be one for two.

Mike and I were introduced to each other some forty years ago on an athletic field that has dissolved into the fog of time…along with the introduction itself. We would spend the next dozen or so years looking at each other across athletic fields as we attempted to beat each other’s brains out at various sporting endeavors. During those years we probably broke even but who is counting…and it doesn’t matter anyway. Playing a game against each other doesn’t insure you will get to know someone either and Mike is as open as a giant clam. “Quare” is the Southern term I would have used to describe Mike. In the late Eighties I would find myself interviewing at a local swimming pool for the opportunity to coach football and baseball at Riverside and over the next twelve years would learn “Quare” really didn’t describe him at all. As I attempted to write a book on my teaching and coaching career I admitted to a former player that I was trying to write a story about Mike and was struggling. The player commented, “I don’t know why, you should have enough material to write a book.” The player was correct and the amount of material WAS the problem.

Being a bit odd is just a small part of his personality. Mike, despite his hard, old school exterior, has a heart like a marshmallow. Especially for kids…or animals. If you are in dire need Mike will move heaven and earth to help you. That includes friends or enemies alike. He is going to do what is right…well what he thinks is right. Generous and giving is a much larger portion of his personality than his “quareness.” I will always remember catching him sneaking food to the “stadium cat” and “roping off,” with crime scene tape, a killdeer’s nest so we would not run over it while cutting the field. There was even an impromptu celebration when we saw momma killdeer being followed by three minuscule chicks. After my heart attack in 2006 I had a stint surfed into an artery that saved my life. As I came back to the world of the living in CCU I knew I had not died and gone to heaven because the second face I saw was Mike’s. I knew I wasn’t in hell either because Linda, my wife, was the first face I saw. I just appreciated the fact they were both there.

For nearly thirty years Mike and I have coached and taught together, laughed together, cried together, watched each other’s children grow up and had grand-daughters within months of each other. Mike gave me the opportunity to get over a bad time in my life and I would not trade it for gold. I have tried to help him through his own bumpy roads and pray I have helped with his healing…it’s what friends do I guess. We both lost coaching jobs we believed we would never get over and ended up winning state championships with other programs, something that never would have happened had we remained where we had been. Sometimes lemons do make lemonade and I am just as proud for him as I am for me. Mike has been a winner in every definition of the word at every place he has ever been, on or off of the field. A winner with kids, his peers and his friends. I can give him no higher tribute than to call him Coach Hawkins, my friend.

I don’t know what chapters are left in our “book,” I just hope we write some of them together and that they are as memorable as his career. Enjoy a well-deserved rest Mike. It will take a while but you will get used to it. Love you Man!

THE ANGRY YOUNG MAN

The following is an excerpt from “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” and one of the reasons that teachers live to teach. Should you wish to purchase a copy it can be purchased in book form or downloaded at the following link: goo.gl/dO1hcX
THE ANGRY YOUNG MAN
As a student, Leroy was no great shakes unless you compared him to a 1.0 earthquake. It would become apparent as time went on that he was a lot brighter than he was letting on but it would take several years for his intelligence to truly manifest itself. After telling him to complete an assignment and get back on task, he tore off a piece of tape, put it on the palm of his hand and said, “put this agin’ your ear and see if you can hear this tape telling you Hell No!” For creativity I would have to give it a ten. For stupid things to say to your teacher and coach, also I give it a ten. As a hush fell over the class, a flush of heat rushed from my feet to my ears. I calmly turned to the door and asked him to step outside with me. I was hoping that by taking time to walk out I would calm down. It didn’t work. When we got to the hallway, I turned and grabbed him by the throat while pushing him against a locker. In my mind I can clearly hear the hollow metal thud that the locker made, and the rattle of disturbed locks. I do not know what I said, which is not a good thing. From past history I would reason that I probably used the F word a lot and probably used it in ways it was never intended to be used. Luckily I came to my senses, realizing that not only had I picked him up off of the floor but that I was choking him. As I gazed upon his reddening face and into his saucer like eyes I decided that I probably should let him down and did. I was not proud of myself and for the next week cringed every time my classroom door opened. I fully expected the men in blue to show up to arrest me or Mr. Rhodes, my principal, to fire me. It did not happen and interestingly, Leroy’s brightness began to show a flicker of dim light. Please, I would like to make an observation to all budding young teachers; this is not a good motivational tool.

Leroy was also a baseball player of sorts. Two for four at the plate is great but as a career not so much. In the four years that I had him as a player he was able to complete just two of those seasons, his freshman year and his senior year. In between there was an issue with eligibility his junior year but before that, there was an issue with me and his anger his sophomore year. Small, quick and wiry, Leroy possessed a howitzer for an arm although, at times, it was somewhat inaccurate. As a freshman I used him as a pitcher, short stop and outfielder and he distinguished himself enough to make the varsity team his sophomore year. Unfortunately, Leroy had a huge hole in his swing. Anything that curved or bent avoided his bat as if it had some sort of perilous disease. My tiring of repeatedly saying, “Out in front and over the top” caused me to bench him in favor of another player. People on the bench have at the very least, two issues; one, they don’t like being there and want to play more. I understand this and really do not want a player that doesn’t want to play. Two, they do not like to chase foul balls. To a player chasing foul balls is demeaning. I agree with them that it is demeaning but I don’t care, it has to be done. Being Leroy, the anger kept building until finally he could not take it anymore. When I told him to “hop on” a foul ball he did not move even though I knew he had heard me. “Leroy, the ball will not grow legs and come back on its own.” His comeback was, “It’ll have to before I go pick it up!” My calmness surprised me. “Leroy, either get the ball or go get out of your uniform and don’t come back.” Unable to get past his anger you can guess which option he chose. I found his uniform hanging on the door knob of the athletic office. The ball did not return itself either.

Because I primarily taught freshmen, I saw very little of Leroy his junior year. Some would say this was a blessing and at the time I would have agreed. Due to his grade problems I did not have to deal with him during baseball season and did not expect him to come out his senior year. As usual I was incorrect. Like a bad penny, he kept turning up. What did I have to do to get rid of this kid? When I saw him sitting at a desk in the first organizational meeting of the year, my first thought was “You’re cut.” As the meeting came to a close, I noticed Leroy hanging back. As soon as everyone had exited, Leroy was at my elbow. “CaCaCaCoach Miller,” he stammered while looking at his shoes, “You don’t owe me anything but can I come out for baseball?” I was somewhat taken aback that he had even asked. “Why should I let you come out Leroy? We have not exactly Gee-Hawed.” Again looking at his feet Leroy finally looked up and said, “I’m not the same person. Can you give me a chance to prove it?” With “No way!” on the tip of my tongue I instead said sure. I am such an old softy. I did not totally lose my mind, I gave him quite a few parameters to adhere to and he did; to a Tee!

Leroy’s season was a good one for him on the worst team that I had at Riverside. He still had the hole in his swing but so did everyone else. In between innings I found him sitting next to me talking about the game that was in progress or cutting up with his best friend, David Brissey. He seemed to be less angry and much happier. At practice he was usually the first one out to the field and since he lived near my route home I began to taxi him home. In other words, I was seeing way too much of him. Seeing and participating in the turn around in Leroy’s personality helped make the season more successful than it really was. He was still an angry young man and at times gave in to the anger. Mostly he used his anger as a tool for success and for some reason Leroy had decided that I was responsible for that success.

As Leroy’s senior year drew to a close I found myself being invited to many different family functions, including graduation celebrations, graduation itself and an impromptu evening fishing expedition over spring break. As we sat in his grandpa’s old and beat up Jon boat Leroy told me that the best thing that ever happened to him was being jacked up against a locker and being kicked off of the baseball team. He had done some type of self-analysis his junior year and realized that he was headed down a long, bumpy and unhappy road if he did not change his ways. Not bad for a seventeen year old. It was as if he had become self-aware; then he dropped a bomb shell. He was going to go to college. I did not want to throw ice water on his dream but to myself I contemplated the likelihood of his success with the grades that I knew he had. They would not reflect the type of student usually pursued by institutes of higher learning. I am glad I didn’t and was once again was proven incorrect. Leroy took remedial and transfer courses. On a recommendation from me, he began his career at North Greenville University and if memory serves, somehow ended up at Furman University. If Furman were up north it would have been a member of the Ivy League and mentioned with Yale and Princeton. He not only ended up there, he graduated. Leroy traveled a little farther down his road and picked up a Masters Degree and even ended up teaching at the collegiate level for a while. I try not to wish bad things on good people but I fervently hope that he had a student that was just as big a hemorrhoid as he was. I also sincerely hope that if Leroy had such a student that the student turned out just as successful as Leroy did. Leroy, even though I’m not sure why, I consider you to be my biggest success story. Hope you are well!

MICKEY MOUSE WAS A JEW?

MICKEY MOUSE WAS A JEW?

I don’t know why the above statement, not the question, interested me then, in the glow of a flashlight, or now, in the fog of forty-eight years of brain cell death due to certain excesses involving distilled or brewed spirits. At the age of seventeen, with most of my brain cells still intact, seeing it scrawled on the wall in red paint along with a crude swastika gave me pause to think…for a moment, at least. So many questions. I knew about Hitler’s Final Solution and the death camps but what was a Jew and why would Mickey Mouse be one? After forty-eight years I still have no answers to those questions but do understand their relationship to the swastika.

I also don’t have any real answers as to why we were at Historic Brattonsville, outside of Rock Hill, late on a moonlit night. It was not “a dark and stormy” night, in fact, there was a “werewolf” full moon and no moors nearby. One might assume that it had something to do with girls and alcohol. Your assumption would only be partially correct because there was no alcohol. We didn’t need alcohol to be stupid because girls were usually all it took to cause a stupid reaction in teenage boys. I don’t know what excuse the girls had. In reality, in the spring of 1968, there was little that was historic about the dump that was Brattonsville. Brattonsville was a former plantation that came into existence in the 1760’s and grew to include some thirty buildings including a store and a three-story brick and wood manor house owned by the doctor who gave the ‘ville its name. A Revolutionary War battle fought nearby was a prequel to Kings Mountain and Camden. The buildings and store had fallen into disrepair and would not undergo renovations until the early Seventies. Since this was the late Sixties, we found ourselves in a rundown place on a “dark and scary” night.

I reiterate that there is no reason for teenagers to be stupid, we just were, and the group that I ran with was typical. For no other reason than being stupid, we somehow came to the conclusion that looking for ghosts in old abandoned structures would be an interesting thing to do. It began after a play practice but, for the life of me, I have no idea who suggested it or why. I do remember that we started a search for “alien lights” which turned out to be the distant Charlotte airport searchlight bouncing off thick, low-hanging clouds. Once we had scientifically proven there was no “intelligent life out there”, we decided to prove there was no “intelligent life” in our teenage world either. We were Successful!

One of the girls in our little group had mentioned Brattonsville which would explain how John and I, along with the two young ladies, had ended up there. My date knew a lot about the history of the area, including a story about a suspected Revolutionary War spy who had been hung from the pulley suspended outside of Doctor Bratton’s third story clinic in the manor house called “Fair Forest.” According to “her story” the spirit of the spy continued to haunt the place waiting for his soul to “cross-over” to the other side. Despite our fears, we took the late night tour of the original pre-Revolutionary War home place before finding our way into “Fair Forest” and seeing the scrawled message on the dining room wall.

Because I had the flashlight, I got to see the scrawling first, along with other graffiti, and because of that same flashlight became the de facto leader of the group. My date kept a running commentary going about the house and certain legends as we wandered through the building. A kitchen was connected to the main house by a covered causeway. It was not hard to visualize kitchen slaves, dressed in Aunt Jemima garb, the original not the modern, socially acceptable one, carrying platters of food from the huge fireplace to the dining room and served by old, dark men in black waistcoats. We visited all of the rooms, floor by floor, making note of the fireplaces and centuries-old mantels. On the second floor we found another narrow staircase and, leaving no stone unturned or in this case no ghost unfound, we made our way up to what I was told was “Doctor Bratton’s laboratory.” I had seen too many “monster movies.” On a dark night, in an old abandoned mansion, how could you not have thoughts about Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory with Boris Karloff waiting to get re-animated? You couldn’t.

As I entered the “laboratory,” actually just a large room that seemed to be part of an attic, I made room for everyone else and panned the room with the flashlight. Silhouetted against the opened floor-length double doors that led to the pulley was a body hung by the neck and swinging from the rafters. I was petrified! The hackles of my neck stood up and muscles tensed all the way down to my heels. I now understood the saying “scared stiff.” My brain said run but my body would not oblige. There was nothing wrong with my hearing and from the sounds of retreating feet in rapid motion, I knew that I was now all alone. Just enough breeze blew to cause the body to spin. As it slowly turned, I found myself staring into the blank face of a…hung…dead…department store mannequin. “Boy neat trick. A real knee slapper. Ha, you got me.” Suddenly I had the urge to pee…Glad that was frozen up, too or I might have been embarrassed. Let’s make sure that you understand that I was not being brave standing my ground. I might as well have been nailed to the spot. The only thing that smacked of being brave was that there was no puddle around my feet.
Since I had the keys to the car and it was locked, I decided to do a little more exploring before leaving and informing the rest of my little group about how badly we had gotten used. I found the “dummy” to have been dressed in blue jeans, a tattered plaid shirt and a Mickey Mouse Club hat with ears. Pinned to its chest was a sheet of paper that informed me that this was “Mickey Mouse.” When I got back to the car I did get one “Thank God.” For my return or for getting the car door open? Once inside, the next question was “What are we going to do?” I assured everyone that it was okay, “It’s just a Jewish guy named Mickey.” After a pause and some nervous laughter, I came clean and, of course, they wanted to go back and see for themselves.

This would be my last attempt at ghost hunting but not for the reason you might think. As we came back down the narrow stairs and into the main hallway I suddenly smelled cigarette smoke. Remember my hackles? They went up again because no one in our group had been smoking. As I hustled us out, I glanced over my shoulder and saw the glow of a cigarette in the crack made by a slightly opened door. No more ghost hunting for me!

I find myself intrigued that a badly written bit of graffiti and a hanging mannequin has been more thought-provoking than the possibility of having escaped death from a machete-wielding psycho or by secondhand cigarette smoke, at the very least. I still don’t know what it means to be Jewish. To my knowledge, I have met only three Jews in my entire life. All three were survivors of the Holocaust and had stories that they did not want to tell but told anyway. I thank them for sharing. All three are now gone, I hope, to join the families who they lost to the ovens. I am unsure about Jewish heaven and hell, although I guess, some had already experienced hell on earth. I wonder about that swastika and the mannequin… but for the life of me, “Why was Mickey Mouse a Jew?”

SMALL TOWN FUNERALS

SMALL TOWN FUNERALS
I grew up in a small community, not even a town, went to a small town college and have taught at a couple of small town schools, one being Landrum. Like the home of my birth Landrum has grown some in the last twenty years but it still has small town looks, small town feel and most importantly small town ideals. This past Friday I sat inside of the First Baptist Church and contemplated what all of that meant. I was attending Brian Kuykendall’s “going home” memorial. Part revival, part musical, it was all love and a wonderful tribute to Brian, his family and his legacy.

While not a huge church, it is the biggest one on Main Street even if it is the only one on Main Street, an oddity in area that sports more churches than “you can shake a stick at.” It was bursting at the seams when I got there and was filled to standing room only by the time the service began. With the fire department in attendance I don’t think there were any worries about the fire marshal closing it down. For a moment I contemplated how a burglar might find this to be a beneficial day to be working with the number of townspeople and policemen attending. Fire trucks were parked outside while the Landrum firemen dressed in uniform served as pall bearers and the rain that fell only added to the sense of gloom. Even inside, what little talk could be heard seemed to be muted. All of that changed once the memorial began.

As one of the ministers talked about Brian’s competitiveness I succumbed to a bad habit, daydreaming. While I should have been concentrating on the minister it was too easy to drift back twenty years. On the football field in my mind I found myself standing on an opponent’s field wondering if it was a requirement for small town football for one of the goal posts to be crooked. When I mentioned this to head coach Jimmy Cox, he cracked, “The way we are scoring on offense it probably won’t be a problem.” Only Eighteen to twenty football players had welcome me to my first meeting with the team and I could not help but wonder about our size, numbers not weight and height. One of those players was Brian.

Brian was competitive, a good thing because he wasn’t the biggest kid in the world…or the most athletically gifted. I think that Brian tasted victory six times in the two years that I was there. For Brian it wasn’t about winning, although it hurt him to lose. Brian was truly all about being the best that he could be and I am not being trite or mocking when I say that. As the memorial continued it was apparent that he had passed philosophy on to his sons and many of the kids that he coached. It was a tenet that was repeated several times during the service Brian proves that being on a poor football team does not define you in life. Brian’s life would have been portrayed as an undefeated season as could many of the lives of kids who played the game. Brian truly had become the best he could be.

It was a ceremony dedicated to love. Not the love for him, which was ample, but the love that was apparent for his wife, his family and his community. Love begets love and it was clear that even for a small town, there were buckets of love and his memorial was a fitting tribute. Brian left behind a lasting legacy that will continue to live through his family, Tammy, Kaleb, Dalton and CJ. It is also a legacy that will continue through his church, the community and the youth athletic association.

As the funeral procession slowly moved toward Brian’s final resting place I was again struck by small town ideals. A police car lead the procession followed by fire trucks. Another police officer held and directed traffic at the main traffic light. You just don’t see that anymore anywhere other than small towns. “Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?” I think Brian answered that question. I know Landrum is happy Brian stayed in his home town even if his stay was much too short.