I love Christmas! The decorations set the mood, and I always look for events that feature plenty of Christmas music. One enjoyable thing is going to the malls after I’ve finished my shopping. Watching people provides hours of entertainment, especially when a bit of anxiety rises as they try to find presents for everyone on the lists. Despite the good parts of the holidays, I sympathize with the financial burden that people heap upon themselves during this season. Most of all, I hurt for them as they use credit cards.
The most infuriating commercials on television are those produced by the major credit card companies. Those ads show life going along splendidly. Customers merrily purchase items and pay for them by swiping their credit cards through the machine. Then, without warning, an individual dares to pull out a checkbook or, more offensively, cash to pay for a purchase. Things come to a grinding halt. The joy and smiles of all are replaced with looks of disgust and disapproval. The next person in line uses his credit card, and life returns to all things good.
Personally, those commercials offend me. I especially resent the message that is sent to the public. The idea that cash is evil is absurd. More ridiculous is the assertion that life moves along smoothly and all is well as long as people use credit cards.
What is a truer representation of life might come with the nightly news and reports of foreclosures on thousands of families who bought with credit more than they could repay. This nation is drowning in a sea of debt. At one time, the defining characteristic of the middle class was their ability to delay gratification until a later time, a time when they could pay for purchases. Credit cards have erased that trait and replaced it with a “buy now-pay later” one. We’ve become a society that wants thing now. So, we take those items from the store and borrow money to pay for them. Notice that I didn’t say “buy” because we don’t own those items; the finance institutions do. We probably will call them ours after we’ve made payments for several years.
Folks, credit can become an evil taskmaster in lives. Sure, most of us must purchase homes and vehicles with credit. However, we need to stop our endless buying of items with a plastic card. Waiting until we can pay for a new pair of shoes or a blouse until we have cash won’t kill us. To the contrary, we’ll feel doubly happy if we begin this practice. First, when we purchase something with cash, it immediately becomes ours; we don’t have to pay on it for months or years before we can take sole possession. Second, not being afraid to open a monthly credit card statement that tells us we’re in over our heads makes each day brighter.
These credit cards have taken possession of the modern world. When I was a boy, Mother and Daddy struggled over the decision to get cards from two department stores. They eventually got them, but they used them sparingly. In Daddy’s early years, he’d filed bankruptcy, a fact that ate at him for years. He and Mother didn’t rest until every cent of the original debt was repaid. My parents knew what the consequences of overwhelming debt were. Even though the debts occurred before he and Mother married, they worked as a couple to make things right. The end result was that my parents were frugal with the modest income that they had, and they sure didn’t want to fall victim to the powerful lure of a charge card.
Today, folks whip out credit cards to pay for ridiculous items. I can’t get used to someone handing a cashier a card to pay for a Big Mac, order of fries, and a Coke. College students deposit money in an account and then insert plastic cards into machines to buy cokes and snacks. The younger generation is being trained to use credit instead of cash. They think an endless supply of money is at hand; the shock is devastating when they’ve spent themselves in a deep financial hole.
Christmas this year will be more enjoyable if we all try to make it totally “green.” Without the red of debt, January will mark the bright beginnings of a new year instead of the despair of credit card payments.
Christmas season is fast approaching. Of course, we need to get past Thanksgiving first, but close on the heels of “turkey day” is the biggest holiday for many Americans. I dread this time of year because it requires the uncovering of boxes of decorations for the Christmas tree. Also placed on every nook and cranny are some cute little holiday figurines. As I recall, however, some of my worst times during the season of cheer have come when I decorated the outside of our house.
Adults know that most of our decorating is done for our children. We probably would have a tree and a few ornaments, but nothing like the extravaganza that we lay out for the little ones. When Lacey and Dallas were little, I broke out my skill saw, jigsaw, and drill to make some outdoor decorations. I drew up elaborate plans for the things to be constructed, but when the time came to construct those items, I was in trouble. After spending the better part of two days in intensive labor, the end products turned out to be nothing more than lollipops and candy canes. I nailed stakes to their backs and stuck them in the ground in the front yard. For two years those things were out during the holidays. Then I realized how ridiculous they looked and put them on the burn pile. My children weren’t at all upset that Daddy’s creations disappeared.
Along with those suckers and candy canes, I used to string lights across the front of the house and carport. We first used the small lights, but later graduated to those icicle-looking ones. The last couple of years, I hung lights with huge bulbs colored blue, red, green, and orange because they reminded me of Christmas when I was a kid.
Running strands of lights along the gutters is a job that takes patience, skill, and ingenuity, three things of which I am void. The first couple of hours I always spent untangling all the runs. Yes, I neatly put them away at the end of each year, but some gremlin must have broken into the storage building to tie knots in the lines. The front of the house is seventy-five feet across, and the separated carport is another twenty-five feet, so numerous strings of lights were needed.
The next bit of frustration comes when a set of lights wouldn’t work. Discovering if a fuse had blown or which bulb in the circuit needed to be replaced always ended in the loss of my temper. The words I uttered weren’t at all in keeping with the spirit of the season, and more than once I ran my children and neighbors indoors with my rants. After searching for what seemed and eternity, I deposited the old lights in the trash and drove through horrendous traffic to the local Wal-Mart to purchase new sets. It was better to spend the money on new lights than on an ambulance when I dropped from a stress-induced heart attack.
Actually attaching the strands of lights to the gutters was a dangerous feat. I’d climb the ladder and secure hangers to the aluminum troughs. As I worked my way down the front, the yard sloped severely and became uneven. That not only meant that I had to extend the ladder to reach the gutter perched some twenty feet off the ground but I also had to level the legs of the ladder. At one point, I had two two-by-four blocks and a brick under one leg to keep the thing level. I said my prayers the entire time and offered thanks when the job was done.
The last problem I always had was making the strands look neat when I joined them end-to-end. I’d tape bare sections of wire that had plug parts. When that task was finished, I next had to figure how to connect the lights to extension cords. The yard, driveway, and garage all became hazardous with cords running in every direction.
I haven’t hung lights in several years, but that’s changing. Our new porch makes putting them up much easier, and plenty of outlets reduce the need for so many cords. Besides, Lacey and Nick are expecting, and I need a trial run to see how to get things right before next year when a little one is around for Christmas. Prayers that I can complete the job without injuring or killing myself are much appreciated.
Fellow teacher Bill Shinn and I were talking in the mailroom recently, and he mentioned that his daughter was pregnant and expecting the baby in June. I told him that Lacey was expecting in May. His daughter Becky and my daughter Lacey were in the same graduating class at Karns, and we both shook our heads at the fact that our daughters were soon to become moms. Next Bill and I shifted our conversation to the “wonders” of grandparenthood. Neither of us quite “get it,” a fact of enormous comfort to me. When he discussion turned toward grandparent names, we both rolled our eyes at the absurdity in coming up with one.
My grandparents were working class folks who had little time for foolishness. I doubt that they much cared if their grandchildren called them anything. They were from a generation that believed that “children should be seen and not heard.” That meant they didn’t much care what names were used for them; they didn’t want to hear little voices yapping all the time.
We called both grandfathers “Papaw” and both grandmothers “Mamaw.” To distinguish which one, we used the last names “Rector” and “Balch.” That was it. Amy is from Cookeville and never heard those to tags for grandparents until she came to East Tennessee. (It’s hard to educate outsiders to the “right” ways things are done, the East Tennessee ways.)
Our kids called my mother Mamaw, but a different one came out for my Amy’s mom. I don’t know what adults were trying to teach Lacey and Dallas, but what came out was “Nini.” That sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it?
That’s my point. Adults have grand plans for teaching little ones names, but those toddlers have ways of screwing everything up. In the end the names that come out are terrible. One woman wanted to be called “GiGi.” It was a name that cracked up some people in the other side of the family because they once owned a dog by that name. A granddad was called “P-P;” I consider that name an excellent choice because it brings up something to which small children and old men think about much of the time.
Amy has already stated that she IS NOT a Mamaw. I’m not privy to the list of names she prefers, I have no doubt that they are elegant ones that fit the elegant woman that my wife is. She needs to be careful, however. Too many times, slick names are mispronounced so that they become ridiculous-sounding words. Some grandparents begin to answer to sounds that more resemble grunts than names. All the while, they are smiling and talking about how wonderful their grandchildren are.
I’ll admit that I have a hard time with any grandfatherly name. I viewed my grandparents as old. They didn’t have much of a sense of humor either. The idea that a new name might be associated with being old and grumpy doesn’t appeal to me in the least. Becoming a grandparent seems to be another one of those steps toward the finality of life, and I just naturally resist that, no matter how futile the struggle might be.
So, in about six months I’ll be a grandparent. It would be all right with me if we taught this coming child to call me “Joe.” I’ve also compiled a list of other names from other languages: Yeh-Yeh (Chinese), Nonno (Italian), Tito (Spanish), Farfar (Swedish), and Daadaa (Urdu/India). Isn’t it amazing how each of these sounds as if the person is a bit off kilter? Come to think of it, all those names sound as if they were first uttered by a child who was just beginning to speak. I’ll let you know what new name is assigned. Send me some suggestions that I can try to teach this new person.
When my daughter was in college, one song summed up her life better than any other. The Dixie Chicks sang “Wide Open Spaces,” and each line echoed the events of our family. I still can’t listen to the lyrics without tearing up, and I appreciate that group for giving the public such a song.
Since that time, I’ve been a fan of the Dixie Chicks, but not everyone has remained that loyal. Natalie Maine spoke out against President Bush and the war in Iraq in 2003. Immediately, she was vilified by those with political axes to grind. Fans unceremoniously dumped the Dixie Chicks. Radio stations refused to play their music, and right wing organizations took the opportunity to aim their sights at the musical group and to publicly excoriate them.
The citizenry was no better. Many protested and made signs with hateful comments. They dumped Dixie Chick cd’s in trash cans or in fires built to “cleanse” communities of so-called “godless, unpatriotic actions.”
The Dixie Chicks suffered mightily for Maine’s comments. The group went from being one of the most popular country music groups to pariahs. Sales of their music plunged. Concert ticket sales slumped, and many who bought tickets attended in order to boo and otherwise harass the singers. Even the residents of their own communities turned their backs on the three.
I have to admit that I was none too pleased with Natalie’s comments. No, I’ve never been a big supporter of the president, but at that time, I wanted my pound of flesh for the wrongs that were done to the innocent victims of September 11th. I hoped that our country would present a united front as our soldiers fought in Iraq. I never bought the connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, but I figured our military surely wouldn’t wage war without adequate intelligence about the former thug-dictator’s complicity in the mess.
I should have known better. George W. wanted to avenge his dad. He meant to end the war that his father began several years ago. His boys, including the vice president and a gaggle of advisors and aides, went along with the plan and passed along incendiary information that raised the ire of our nation. That the information was a conglomeration of half-truths and outright lies was of little consequence. This president and his crew decided somewhere along the line that it knew best what the citizens should be told. It looks as if lies were told to keep the agenda on track.
So, here our country sits in 2007. We’re mired in another war that we can’t win. Moreover, the citizens of the country being defended hate and sometimes attack our soldiers. As of October, 3,838 military personnel have been killed in Iraq. Newscasts tell us that the future costs of the war will exceed $1.4 trillion. Our presence in the region is assured for the next several years.
All the while, the Chicks continue to make music. They’ve written off the country music industry that turned its back on them. Still, their record sales are growing, as is their popularity. They are blazing new trails without compromise. The Dixie Chicks refused to bow down and beg forgiveness for what was said, and they shouldn’t have to. Our leaders claim to be fighting for democracy in Iraq. Isn’t it strange that we fight for freedoms for another country and squawk when someone practices freedom of speech at home?
What stings many who attacked the Dixie Chicks is the fact that they were right. The nation is tired of this conflict, and citizens are ticked off that the president and his administration lied to us. “Weapons of mass destruction” are words that boil the blood of Americans. George Bush’s approval rating is close to flat-lining. Many of the staunchest supporters of the president’s policy in 2003 are now speaking out about its failure.
How wrong was Natalie Maine for speaking out? Maybe she merely said four years early what the majority of Americans are saying now. The Dixie Chicks have withstood verbal assaults about their families, their beliefs, and their rights to live in this country. Shame on us! These women took a stand and refused to shrink from it. They should never have received the meanness that was thrown their way. Today, they don’t thumb their noses at the rest of us or tell us “we told you so.” What they deserve from us now is an apology. It’s long overdue.
In the 1960’s we kids had been back in school about a month. Our lives had shifted gears from playing outside all day, staying up late, and sleeping in. Now, mothers called us in the morning, and we stumbled to the breakfast table to eat something as unappealing as oatmeal or as lumpy as cream of wheat. Then we put on our school clothes which were still stiff with newness. That stiffness made jeans especially uncomfortable.
When we arrived home at the end of the day, our first order of business was to change into our old clothes and to hang up our school apparel. Some kids had to finish homework before they could do anything else. Others might watch cartoon such as “Popeye,” “Yogi Bear,” or they might tune in the “Early Show” hosted by Rex Rainey. We boys always headed for some kind of sports competition and played whatever was in season. By October, most of the baseballs, gloves, and bats had been stowed away and the football was brought out. Our games were rough ones. No one wore a set of pads or a mouth piece, but we played tackle football anyway. Lips and noses quite often dripped with blood, and most every game ended with a fight between two boys. The time to quit playing came when the sun set, the ground became damp, and the temperatures dramatically cooled. Lots of time the call of “Supper” from our mothers served as the final whistle to the game.
October brings with it the scents of a new season. The perfumes from flowers are replaced with the pungent aroma of dying leaves. Pine needles and sap leave their signatures in the wind as well. Our gang spent time playing in the woods. Lean-to’s made from the limbs of pine trees were erected to serve as the centerpiece of our play area, and from that spot many ventures began as wars between cowboys and Indians or G.I.’s and Germans broke out. Crawling along the ground brought the smells of the vegetation to our cold, runny noses. Times were so good then.
Halloween was a much bigger celebration than it is today. Of course, then folks didn’t worry about whether their children would be poisoned by the treats they were given. Neither was the traffic so heavy that just walking down the street was a danger. Halloween meant bags filled with things that we didn’t have stockpiled at the house. Occasionally, someone would dump apples in our bags, but we said “thank you” and chucked them in an open field as we continued our journey. The best treats were homemade popcorn balls and those pieces of peanut butter candy enveloped in black and orange wrappers. We walked three of four miles to claim a modest amount of candy on Halloween. Subdivisions where parents dumped van-loads of kids until treat bags split open from the treats were anywhere to be found.
The cooler evening meant fogged up car windows for teens during the weekend. Yep, couples that parked and sparked steamed up every piece of glass in the vehicle. Roads where new housing developments were being constructed were crowded with parked cars as teens spent just a few minutes “talking things over.”
During my senior year in college October became an especially memorable time. My wife Amy and I had known each other for a year before we ever dated. By the time October arrived, we’d been out a couple of times. The temperatures that year were cool in Cookeville. I can’t give the exact date, but sometime in that month, Amy and I walk along the intramural fields and ROTC marching fields. It was during that walk that I knew for sure that this was the woman I’d waited for. Only after dating about a month, we both realized that our lives were meant to be spent together.
October holidays include Columbus Day, which offers a day off to only a few, and Halloween. The rest of the month is left for us to make what we will of it. I have over the span of my life. October has become a favorite of mine because it has given me so many positive memories. This year is brought news of the coming in May of our first grandchild. I look forward to what else the month’s thirty-one days offer.
I walked out to get the paper half asleep the other morning, plopped down in the chair to eat a bowl of oatmeal, and scanned the news. An obituary notice knocked me from a half comatose state and shook my world. It also started my thinking about doing things.
I met Jim Pinkston during the spring of 2007. He and his wife Kathy raised mules, and I was fortunate enough to write a story on two of them named Pat and Pearl. All tolled, I probably spent no more than an hour and a half with the couple, but it only took that short time for me to like the man as well as anyone I’d ever met. Jim had a dry, quick wit. Although we’d never met, he began to tease me and give me plenty of grief from the outset. Then, Jim would grin from through that cowboy mustache to let me know that he was having a wonderful time at my expense.
At the beginning of summer Jim and Kathy nursed twin mules that had been born prematurely. In fact, they turned the farmhouse into a pre-natal ICU for the newborns. I’d gone to visit one Saturday with my wife, mother-in-law, and aunt in tow, but we missed the Pinkston’s. For the last couple of weeks, I’d planned to stop by to write up a story on the twins and the makeshift hospital facilities.
What shook me so violently that morning was Jim Pinkston’s picture in the paper. It was followed by his obituary. From what I could gather, Jim had suffered a heart attack and died suddenly. I sat stunned as I read in disbelief. Then I felt like the biggest jerk that had ever drawn breath.
I had allowed the opportunity to write another story about a unique character and good man slip by. What bothered me most is that my procrastination had deprived me of ever having time with a person whom I truly enjoyed. Sure, I had been busy with the start of the school year and other things that required my attention. Still, I could have scheduled the visit. In fact, the Saturday before Jim died I had told my wife I was going to call and take her with me to visit. I SHOULD HAVE done that. Instead, I put things off for another day. Plenty of other days would be available to go by the Pinkston farm and spend time. Now, I’m sitting here in a state of shock over the man’s passing. At the same time I am beating myself up for not having taken the time to do the things I SHOULD HAVE done.
This is another lesson for me along the trail. Each of us takes life for granted. We assume that there’s always plenty of time to do things with and for those about whom we truly care. Life sometimes gets in the way of what is really important. We think that visit to a parent or that call to a friend can wait. However, when unexpected things happen, we catch ourselves midst the grieving saying things that begin with “I SHOULD HAVE.”
I have few regrets for the time I’ve spent with family members who have passed. I made my peace with them long before they left. When my parents and brother died, I knew that I had been there throughout their illnesses; I hadn’t neglected to see them. Jim Pinkston isn’t family member, but he was someone I assumed I would have plenty of time to get to know and befriend. His sudden death leaves me filled with regret and guilt. Most of all, Jim’s passing once again opens my eyes to the things that are truly important in this world.
I plan to spend more time with family and friends. I want to make myself available to those folks who are so important in my life. Maybe that means making more trips to Nashville and Chattanooga to see the kids. It includes driving a hundred miles to Cookeville to see my 85 year-old mothers-in-law. That even means driving just a couple miles to see my brother and his family.
I can’t use the excuse that life’s too busy or that there will be plenty of time later to do those things. I don’t want to again say, “I SHOULD HAVE.” From now on, I need to say “I’VE DONE.”
The duty isn’t hard. It entails having boys sign a log before they enter the restroom. Since this procedure began, smoking in the bathroom has almost stopped during lunch periods. That means that other students can go in without choking to death or without smelling like a dirty ashtray when they exit. I volunteered for the duty, mostly because I don’t have to do bus duty in the morning or tardy duty during my planning period. The job is easy, and I get to talk to kids whom I otherwise would never meet.
On this first day one student decided to play “twenty questions.” He wanted to know why students had to sign in to use the restroom. I assumed he was new to the school and told him that doing so had lessened the number of smokers. He sneered and asked if I thought that kids would stop just because they signed a piece of paper. I assured him that it had worked so far, and he asked another question which I answered. Then he made the statement that caused my blood pressure to rise: “This is stupid!” At that I told him to just sign the sheet if he planned to use the restroom. He left in a huff; I was aggravated at having to verbally joust with a kid no more than fifteen.
Toward the end of the period, things heated up again. One student strolled passed me, and I called him back to sign the log. While he did, I noticed hanging from a belt loop a large key ring. On it were several items, all of them considered violations of the dress code. Chains and spikes that are popular with some of the students can be turned into weapons, and the key ring items fell under that category.
I instructed the boy to take the items off and put them into his pocket. He immediately became hostile and wanted to know why. I told him about the dress code and told him to take them off, but he said “No.” I told him to follow me to the principal at the other end of the cafeteria, and he began to curse me. I put my hand on his backpack to direct him in the right direction. The boy bowed up, cursed me and then came out with, “I know you want to hit me, and if you do, I’ll sue you, you @$(#&$*(#!”
Now I was miffed. Other staff members who saw the incident later stated that they were sure the boy was about to hit me. I told the kid that if he hit me that I would own him, a retort that I admit wasn’t especially appropriate for a teacher. However, sometimes a person can only take so much. By then, we’d arrived at the principal’s table.
I explained the situation, and the principal instructed the student to give her the key ring. He blurted out “Why,” to which the principal said “because I asked you to!” Then this student cursed at the principal, and at that moment, only one word was crossed my mind: GONE!
For the previous two or three weeks, I’ve struggled with this being my last year. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I’ve planned on retiring this year. Heck, I will only be 56 when I retire and must find a new job to make a living for the next six years, at least until social security kicks in. Teaching school is a noble profession; everyone tells me that while government officials still refuse to pay us in the classroom a wage commiserate with our education and with the importance our jobs. Just the same, I like to interact with kids and to watch them mature and learn.
Then I think of incidents like the ones that occurred today. I vividly recall the disdain that the boy felt for me, and I could see how much he wanted to knock me senseless. No, I wasn’t scared, nor have I ever been afraid when I’ve encountered a student who wanted to fight. In fact, I appreciate this angry boy and his acts. I had wondered why I was retiring before I met him, but now I remember!!
The other night I watched on the Discovery Channel a program about one particular gang that is spreading like a virus across this country and even to other countries. On the news I’ve seen too many reports on how teenagers are out of control. Heck, I viewed about ten minutes of “The Nanny” last night, just enough time to watch an eight year old and a ten year old defy their mother and treated her like “garbage.” All I know is, my mother wouldn’t have approved.
Throughout my childhood the groundwork was laid for what was acceptable and unacceptable behavior. I learned most of those lessons quickly; a whack on the backside usually made a big impression. Other lessons required review. I spent plenty of days during my high school years at home under the penalty of grounding for things like poor grades or curfew violations. Some might say they’d sneak out after mother went to bed. First, my mother slept fitfully. She might be up two or three times a night, and I’d surely come home during one of her “awake” times. Second, I wouldn’t do that because Mother wouldn’t approve. That reason is what has kept me from doing plenty of things during my early years.
I was fortunate to date some girls in high school. In the old days, part of the date was parking along some abandoned road or newly developed subdivision street. “Necking” was an accepted practice, and sometimes, teens got a bit carried away. In the heat of passion, teens don’t think clearly, nor do they much want to. On occasion I found myself in that kind of situation. It would have been so easy to have carried the passions of young love further, but I was lucky to have a guardian angel—of sorts. For some reason, I always gained enough lucidity to think of what might happen as the result of a heated session with a gorgeous young girl. Then, I would realize that “Mother wouldn’t approve.” That meant that she would be disappointed that I had made such a stupid mistake. No evangelist could have ever turned me from the slippery slopes of possible parenthood so quickly.
I am a chilled of the 60’s and 70’s and often relate events to my English students as a means of comparing their lives to mine and to a piece of literature that we might be studying. Today’s teens know the stories of my generation, especially the sordid ones. They asked what it was like to be around so many people who dropped acid and smoked dope. I tell them that nothing is much more repulsive than a person who is in an altered state. Then they asked me about my exploits. When I tell them that I have never smoked marijuana, they sneer in disbelief. It’s true, however. Sure, I sat around with friends in high school and college as they passed a joint, but I never touched the stuff. The reason was I always thought of how disappointed Mother would be if I were to have been caught and arrested for using the stuff. Even when she was a hundred miles from my college home, she had a grip on my conscience and controlled my actions.
During my adult years, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do things that would advance my cause while I did in another person. I couldn’t do it because Mother had drilled into my head what was and wasn’t the right thing to do. So, I have lived a rather law abiding life and haven’t overstepped the line of what is doing to others as I would have them do to me.I don’t want to give the impression that I am a saint. I’ve done plenty of things of which I’m not proud. However, things could have been much worse. Daddy died when I was thirteen, and I could have pulled the line that too many kids use today—“I didn’t have a parental figure to help me.” It would just be a lie. Mother struggled to teach three teenaged boys what the right things were. Evidently, she succeeded to a large degree. The three of us grew into manhood gauging what we should do by determining whether or not Mother would or wouldn’t approve.
Until we left home for college, my twin brother and I shared a bedroom. As little guys, we play hard, fought constantly, and laughed often. Most of the giggles came at the wrong time. On one occasion, we came to the supper table to full of energy. Our family began our meals with a blessing that we boys recited. Jim and I began, but only a line or so into the prayer, we were overcome with the giggles, and snickers came before we burst into guffaws. Our laughter was ended in tears are we received a well-deserved spanking.
On some nights, bed time brought out fits of laughing. Our parents would hear us and call from the kitchen or the den with demands that we get quiet. The next warning came from the doorway as one adult stood there with the warning, “Don’t make me come back in here!” Asking little boys to hold back their floods of laughter is the same as demanding they stop the waters from a burst dam. Oh, we tried to hide the noise. I’d stuff my pillow in my mouth and Jim would chew on his blanket until we both feared that we’d smother ourselves. On some occasions, the urge momentarily subsided, but then the laughter would spill from our mouths and fill the room. Even as one of the enforcers stomped through the house to our room, we laughed. Another spanking was administered, and even with sore bottoms, we were grateful for the fun.
We boys dreaded attending church. In those days, no children’s church was offered, and we were stuck in the sanctuary for the hour-long service. Jim and I sat together at the beginning, but in no time one of us had been roughly seized and plunked on the other side of our parents. Still, we could see each other, and it was as if twins possessed a telepathic gift. We could imagine what the other was thinking, and that led to an almost smile, a grin, a snicker, and then an all-out laugh. We swallowed them, but not before Daddy had promised us some attention when we arrived home. Too many Sunday afternoons began with punishment for inappropriate behaviors by Jim and me.
Some teens apparently have death wishes. They manage in some way to violate a parental rule. Of course, it’s no big deal to the teen; to the parent, it’s a different story. At times like these, lectures are standard fare. The adult starts on a tirade, and the longer it goes on, the more ridiculous it becomes. Out of the blue, a mom or dad says something absolutely ridiculous, and the comment becomes a heat-seeking missile that is targeted for the teen’s laughter zone. It finds the target, and as it explodes, a roar of laughter gushes from the teen. What might have been a relatively minor offense has now escalated into a serious adolescent felony. The parent is incensed and being throwing excessively harsh punishments at his child. Life as the teen has known it won’t exist any time soon.
Even adults laugh at inappropriate times. At funerals I’ve thought of things the deceased has said and must hold in the laughs. Mistakes by young performers at band and choral concerts can start a flood of giggles as well. Just recently I attend a graduation ceremony. One of the speakers put on a show. Cracked jokes weren’t funny, overly expressive voice was annoying, and “pie-in-the-sky” comments about what lay ahead were absurd. Taken together, this speech was a failure, but the speaker was sure it was an award-winning presentation. The looks on those around me said it all, and I worked hard to stifle the laughs that tried to escape.
Laughing eases stress. It relaxes otherwise tense situations. However, when it occurs at the wrong time, it can lead to punishment, hurt feeling, and occasionally, physical pain. Still, we can’t do too much to avoid those times when our tickle boxes are turned over. A force outside ourselves is in control at during those moments. We can only attempt to hold it back.
I’ll begin by saying that my mother was the enforcer for most of the punishment meted out to my two brothers and me. She was a short woman at 5’2”, but she could wield a paddle, belt, or switch as well as any giant of a man. She was a teacher, so many other children experienced her prowess with the “board of education.” We boys dreaded hearing her footsteps hit heavy on the wood floor of our home because we knew that she “had had enough!”
Still, it was Dal Rector who truly struck fear in the hearts of his three sons. Daddy was a no nonsense type of person. He worked hard at Southern Extract, a paper mill located in Lonsdale. Split shifts cut into his sleeping, and poor pay and constant worry added to his bad mood. My twin brother is much like Daddy, and his friends, children, and extended family refer to him as a sometimes hateful old bear. That tag fit our dad as well.
No, Daddy didn’t administer too many spankings. Only a couple remain in my memory. One was the result of misbehaving at the supper table. On that summer evening, the family had sat down for the meal. We always began with “God is great, God is good, and we thank Him for our food.” On this night Jim and I made it only that far when we burst out in laughter, the result of having the giggles and bringing them to the supper table. Our irreverence infuriated Daddy. He scooted his chair from the table, walked to the hallway, retrieved a razor strap that hung from one of the coat racks, and returned to the kitchen. He then tanned both our hides. Weeping and gnashing of teeth ensued, and Daddy realized that his anger had gotten the best of him. He’d used a strap that he considered was much too large for punishment. His actions tormented him, and he left the house, got in the car, and sped away. Jim and I stood in the driveway and cried over the spanking and whether or not our dad would ever come home again.
The next incident came when Daddy caught us smoking. Jim and I were probably in third grade, and our older brother Dal was in the seventh. Daddy was addicted to cigarettes but wasn’t about to have his sons pick up the habit. He asked us about missing cigarettes from his pack, and when we lied, he began the spanking. Our bottoms were sore, but our consciences hurt more because we’d lied to him.
That was the thing about Daddy. He rarely spanked us. Yet, he could easily have us crying with “the look.” His expressive green eyes seemed to look into our very souls, and they showed the hurt and disappointment that we had caused. That was especially true when it came to education. Daddy had made it only through the sixth grade. Then he dropped out to help at home. For the rest of his life, he felt inferior to others, even though he had wisdom far beyond what most educated people had.
If we boys did poorly in school, he sat us down at the kitchen table and asked what the problem was. He listened and then told us that we better not bring in a bad grade again. Daddy never raised his voice, but we shook with fear that we would disappoint him. If a misconduct note came home or if we received anything less than perfect comments on behavior, the man was livid. He told us that we might not always be able to make perfect grades, but we knew how to behave and we had better do so.
My dad died in 1965. Forty-two years later, I remember the times that he disciplined us. As Dan Fogelberg sings in the “Leader of the Band,” Daddy disciplined with a “thundering velvet hand.” I wish he’d been around longer so that I could have learned more about that kind of discipline for my own kids.
My mother wore a little rouge, she powdered her nose, and she used lipstick on her lips. Her routine was a simple one, so when I began to date in high school, waiting on a girl to finish getting ready made no sense to me. Yes, they had more hair than I did, but drying the stuff didn’t take two hours. I remember when Amy and I began to date. She had long hair that was impossibly thick. She’d have her hair wrapped around giant rollers that gave her appearance another world look. Mother rolled her hair when we were young. She used “spoolies” and bobby pins to make tight little curls. Occasionally, she would have a permanent done by a friend or family member. The stench from those ingredients cleared the house for several hours, and the resulting hair-do was one that resembled Little Orphan Annie. I remember how women during my early years kept their hair pinned up all Saturday so that it would be just right for church.
Later, Mother visited a salon weekly to have a professional fix her hair. Her coiffure was the result of excessive hair teasing held into place with a half can of lacquer (hair spray). Some women still make that trip each week. My mother-in-law is one. Before bed each night she slips a head cover on that keeps her hair from mussing. All that is required the following day is a bit of straightening with a pick. What bothered me most was the fact that women who had their hair fixed each week couldn’t wash the stuff for an entire week. Is a perfect “do” worth all the trouble?
My mother had beautiful hair. It was white. As a teen she contract typhoid fever, and her hair fell out. She swore that it grew back more white than brown. On one occasion she decided that a change was needed. Maybe she wanted a more youthful appearance. Daddy had died when Jim and I were thirteen, and perhaps Mother was trying to be attractive to other men. At any rate, she came home from the beauty salon one afternoon with her hair a light reddish-brown color. Jim and I hooted as she walked through the door. Yes, it was insensitive, but all we’d ever known was our mother’s white hair. Mother was mad at first, but then she was hurt, a fact I wish I could change. She allowed the color to grow out and never attempted another change.
Eventually, Mother grew content with her hair, almost. She kept the natural color, or lack of color. She sometimes visited the salon, but by then, her preference was to have a permanent or a pageboy haircut. Her only other grooming technique was to use a special rinse. Like so many other women, she didn’t want her white hair to have yellow streaks caused either by the sun or her body’s chemical make-up. To combat this yellowing she applied a blue rinse when she shampooed. Mother became one of “the little ol’ lady troops” with the application of this product. Her hair had the same color quality as a white shirt exposed to a black light.
In her last years, mother opted for minimal care of her hair. She kept it cut short and curled in defense against hot summers at Dollywood, where she worked for several years as Miss Carrie. It was still thick, but during the last days of her life, Mother cared nothing about how perfectly fixed her hair was.
My hair is racing to turn gray or turn loose. Sadly, turning loose is winning. These days, my only attention to hair consists of cleaning it from the shower drain. What I have is gray, but I won’t ever have need of the blue rinse to keep it looking nice. Using the product would permanently turn my scalp blue.
As a kid, I NEVER fell asleep in classes. I was afraid of teachers. In the old days, a teacher wouldn’t hesitate to take a sleeping pupil to the hall, and with a swift, powerful, stinging swat bring him to full consciousness. The burning from the backside always kept eyes opened, even if they were flooded with tears. By the way, no child ever suffered a loss of self-esteem when he was paddled. He did, however, stay awake and learn.
As a teenager, the last thing I ever would do was fall asleep in a class. The teacher might embarrass a slumbering child. More often, so-called friends would do terrible things to the comatose adolescent. Shoe laces were tied together so that sleepy heads would trip when they left at the end of the period. Sometimes dozens of foreign objects were thrown into the hair of that sleeping person. Some guys had a more sadistic turn. They’d wait for the person in front of them to fall asleep. Then they would take out their Zippo lighter, strike them, and place the flame close to the person’s backside. Eventually, the heat would grow so intense that the sleeper would awaken and jump from his seat as if he were on fire. Then the sleeping kid was in trouble for disturbing class.
In the earlier years of my teaching career, I used to wake up students who were in my class. When I saw one, I would take my paddle and quietly walk behind his desk. The ensuing “smack” of a paddle hitting the top of the next desk proved to be an effective alarm clock. The system took away the paddle, so I had to rely on different things to wake students. Classrooms usually have floors with concrete slabs covered by tile. When I encountered a sleeping teen, I retrieved the metal trash can, walked to the side of the student’s desk, and dropped it. The bang was enough to give everyone a headache. Sometimes a frightened teen jumped when the can crashed, and he nearly killed himself as he tried to escape his desk. I suppose I should have regretted my actions, but I didn’t.
Kids these days aren’t bashful about laying their heads upon the desks and sleeping throughout class. Heck, a one and a half hour class period is just the right length for a nice nap. They aren’t too concerned about the things they do during a visit to dreamland. Some students drool in their sleep. When they do awaken, a pool of saliva covers the desktop. I ask them to mop up before they leave. Another student might have breathing problems, maybe a sinus infection or deviated septum. This physical ailment becomes apparent as soon as he drops into deep sleep because it is at this time that he begins to snore. Yes, he saws logs in front of God, classmates, and the teacher!
These sleeping children usually have an excuse for their tiredness. Some complain that they worked the late shift at one of our fine fast-food establishments. I ask them if they plan to make a career of asking people, “Do you want fries with that?” They sneer and let me know they have no intention of doing that for a living, at which point I suggest that they might well do so if they continue to sleep in class and fail English. Others say they sleep in class because they are sick. I ask them if they have come to school so that they can infect every other student and teacher. They answer “no,” and I tell them to stay home until they are healed.
Folks might want to know why I don’t wake them up. Have you ever heard of the saying, “Let sleeping dogs lie?” I’m not about to rouse someone who doesn’t want to be here in the first place. He needs rest for attending summer school and making up the credit they’ve slept away.
Each day I spend the first lunch period from 11:30-12:00 at the door of the boys’ restroom. My job is to make sure all males sign in before going into the facility. That sounds absurd to most people; however, the fact is that smoking has been stopped during these lunch periods proves the importance of such sentry duty.
On the day after I was accosted by female students during the faculty-student basketball game, I was sitting at my post. My mood was sour, and I wanted as little to do with students as possible. Usually, I work the crossword puzzle and word jumble in the daily paper. The noise level often reaches one equivalent to a rock concert. Part of the reason is that too many students are crammed into the small space. The other reason is that too many students lack enough self-control to keep from screaming at friends who are across the room.
My attention was drawn to a table filled with girls. They were unusually loud, and one side seemed to be in heated conversation with the other. At the table behind them, a boy yelled toward in an effort to stir things up. I looked at him and gave him the “cold teacher stare.” He calmed down for the moment, but in only a short period, he was encouraging the girls to fight, and he yelled loudly enough to be heard throughout the cafeteria. I stood and walked toward him to instruct him to be quiet.
At the same moment that I reached this boy’s seat, two of the girls stood at their seats across from each other. Great! These girls were squaring off for combat, and I was the only staff member close. I walked to the girl on my side of the table and told her to stop. She however, was leaning across the table as if she were lunging for her opponent. I grabbed this girl around the waist to restrain her, but by then she was in full attack mode.
The next couple of minutes turned into a tug of war with this teen. She wouldn’t settle down, and her squirming caused my arms to move from her waist all the way up to her head. By the time other staff members arrived, my arms were around this child’s neck, but I wasn’t about to let go. If she were freed, the fight would be on.
Another teacher detained this girl and I let go. She then spun around and began cursing me and telling me, “You have no right to touch me. You can’t hold me around the neck like that!” At the moment my adrenaline was pumping, and I was perturbed, to say the least. I let her know that I had the right to do what was necessary to break up a fight, and that her attempts to escape me were the cause for my arms to be around her head. She continued the tirade as I walked away. Of course, four hundred students were watching by now, and catcalls rained down as I walked through the commons area.
I was thoroughly disgusted. This was the second consecutive day that I had been in altercations with female students. On both occasions, I’d tried to enforce rules of the school, but they meant nothing to these disruptive children. They wanted what they wanted and cared nothing for what was appropriate. In the office I wrote my report, and then I spoke to the assistant principal. I let him know that I had grown too old to break up fights, and I just didn’t much care for having my name, lineage, and species type call into question. On days such as these, retirement seems to be a paradise. I am certain that at home my dog Snoop won’t defy me to the point that he curses me or actually attacks. If he did so, I’d punt him across the house. Retirement, like that popular bubble bath of a few years ago, will “take me away.” At least I won’t have referee a main event in the ring.
The first episode occurred during an assembly. One of the school organizations arranged a faculty-student basketball game. For a couple of bucks students could watch a game and escape class. Most every student attended the event, and the stands were packed with our overflowing enrollment of 2000 kids.
I later regretted my decision of supervising the commons area instead of going into the gym and being a spectator. For some reason, maybe the result of being “old school” in my way of thinking, I believed that I could help the administration by standing guard and deflecting students as they attempted to sneak out of the gym.
At first, things ran smoothly, and I walked across the commons area and chatted with the cafeteria workers as they ate. Before long, however, a dribble of girls came through the doors and turned toward the restroom. The dribble soon became a flood as groups exited the gym. I stood up and used my “teacher voice” (that’s the one that sounds like the most hateful ogre on the planet) and instructed the females to return to the gym.
I need to explain something about teens and the restroom. Not that many young people have to use the facility ten minutes after a class or function begins. Our experiences as teachers have been that these adolescents want to enter the bathroom to do two things: smoke or use cell phones. The school policy also states that students should stay in class and only for emergencies be allowed to go to the bathroom. I guarantee all that probably 98% of these girls had no emergency. They simply wanted to leave a supervised area and to loiter in an unsupervised one.
One group of girls became quite hostile. They bowed their necks and tried to defy me, but even though I am old, I’m still pretty tough in some situations. One girl tried on three occasions to leave. During one attempt, I had to block her at the restroom entrance. The last time she came at me, she held out a cell phone and said, “My mom wants to talk to you!” I told her that 1) cell phones aren’t to be used at school, 2) I had nothing to say to her mother, and 3) she was to go back into the gym. I can’t repeat the names she called me or the profanities she spat at me during the heated conflict.
Another female came out and was as ill-tempered as the other girl. She informed that she wasn’t going to “piss her pants.” However, I told her to find a principal to escort her, and she disappeared back into the gym. Another girl indicated that she had a true emergency, and I asked her to get a principal to okay her visit. Apparently, the girl’s emergency wasn’t nearly as serious as she let on. In fact, her desperate situation was probably fictitious.
I walked to the boy’s restroom to stop the few males that were in need of a smoke break, and while I was there, the most insistent girl exited again, and when a female staff member told her to return to the gym, the child pushed the woman and went into the restroom.
By the time the basketball game ended, I was exhausted. I wasn’t in the mood to return to class. My blood pressure was high enough that I expected to suffer from a stroke at any moment. What made things worse was the fact that I had a half hour of bathroom duty to complete. I’d been cursed, abused, and chided by teenage girls who wanted their ways over what the school policy was. I wondered if the mouths from which they spewed such venomous things were the same ones with which they kissed their mothers. I sat there and stewed as one horrific day came to an end.
I’ve taught at Karns High School for more than twenty years. The school is two miles from my house; that’s one reason I’ve stayed so long. I tend to find a place a roost: that’s the second reason. For most of my tenure at Karns, my home was Room 110. I moved in for the first time on November 5, 1985. Over the years, I taught thousands of kids. I remember many of them, and a few I’ve tried to forget. I’m equally sure that several of them have tried to put any memories of me out of their minds as well.
At any rate, Room 110 became my home for a long time. A student named Aaron cut into a wooden plague “Mr. Rector’s Neighborhood” during that first year. I hung it over the threshold of the door and also draped a pair of toddler tennis shoes and a toddler blue cardigan sweater that belonged to daughter Lacey across the edges of that plague. Occasionally, I would play the theme song from “Mr. Rogers” when new classes entered the room for the first day. Some thought it was humorous, but more thought the whole thing was wierd.
I performed many roles in Room 110. Sometimes, I would act the fool. That meant I dressed in strange garb during the week of homecoming. I’ve worn hillbilly clothing, hippie clothing, backward clothing, all in the name of school spirit. At times classes, usually senior ones, made me furious with their stunts or lack of effort. In those early years, I did things for effect, things that would wake up students and have them worry whether or not I was mentally unstable. I threw a piece of chalk against the back wall. Another time, I tipped over the metal podium so that it crashed to the floor and scared everyone. My greatest performance came when I rose from a coffin placed in front of the darkened room. I held a set of Macbeth test papers on which the class had performed miserably. The message was clear: get busy or the possibilities of your graduating are all but dead. The stunt proved effective. In fact, I met a woman in a store not long ago who recalled the stunt; her daughter was in that class.
Room 110 has been a place of comfort over the years. It was a familiar place to which I returned after neck and back surgery. It was a room where students could go when the life of one of their friends had been snuffed out from a tragic accident. That room is where Lacey and Dallas came at the end of each day when they were in elementary school. Room 110 welcomed me back after my mother and my older brother Dal died. Its familiarity helped me through those painful days.
In 2003 this room became my writing sanctuary. Before and after school, I spent plenty of time cranking out the first of hundreds of columns, stories, poems, etc. I sat down and wrote my first piece there; it was a column for the church newsletter about a retreat the congregation had taken to Crossville. Room 110 gave me my start in the writing business.
Things have changed in the building. The new rooms extended the hallway where my old classroom was located. The administration re-numbered them, and now Room 110 is Room 129. The custodian and I managed to save my name plate and the number plate from that room. I have them both at home. The room is now inhabited by another who is making his own history. I doubt that he’ll stay for twenty years. Regardless of the number on the door, to me that place will always be Room 110. They’ve erased the number, but no one can erase the memories that I made there.
I feel sorry for our kids in the area because they rarely experience snow. I figure that’s because we’ve managed to poison the planet enough to warm our temperatures and to end those days of blankets of white. Knoxville is more like Huntsville, Alabama, or Chattanooga now in the way that we receive so little snow. We who are older remember when at least one good snowfall each winter was a sure thing.
In the early 60’s, Knoxville experienced a six-inch snow in April. It was a beautiful site that lasted only a little while. We kids got outside as soon as possible to play in the snow before the sun and seasonal temperatures melted it.
I remember plenty of snows during my high school years. Several times, we were dismissed from school early, and we left in cars, on buses, or on foot. Parents weren’t lined up in front of the school to pick up children; we made our ways home by traditional methods. Teens were sure to go home, lest a swift tanning of the behind occur if they worried parents with their absences. In those times, snows seemed to hang around longer. A teenager can only take so much sledding, snowball fighting, and snowman building before he’s bored out of his mind. When cabin fever set in, we put on our shoes and struck out for a friend’s house, or if we were lucky, our path led to girlfriends’ front doors. No, their parents didn’t necessarily want boys hanging around their houses, but we did keep their daughters from driving them crazy with complaints.
I remember the first years of my teaching career. In the early 70’s I taught at Doyle High School. Knoxville was belted with several heavy snows during those years. In fact, we missed so many days that school days were lengthened, and we even put in some Saturdays to make up the time.
I was a young, flexible man then. Our house was a mile or so from the high school then, and several of my students lived in the same subdivision. They came calling one night, and we rode inner tubes down a steep and winding hill. On one occasion I made the ride. Unable to negotiate a maneuver, I wound up with half my body under a car parked next to the curb about two-thirds of the way down the course. Luckily, I didn’t kill myself or break any bones.
When my children were small, we got some good snows. I spent hours tugging on a handle as Lacey and Dallas sat in the metal scoop of an old coal shovel. I can still hear their giggles as I whipped them around the driveway and street. Sometimes the family hopped in the Pathfinder, and I locked the hubs into 4-wheel drive. The tire treads crunched the snow as we made our way to the grocery store for nothing in particular. We used the trip as an excuse to get away from the house for a bit.
Some snows weren’t so pleasant. One storm was accompanied with artic-like temperatures. Knoxville recorded minus 24 one day, and my car sat with the tires frozen to the driveway. I remember another snow the first year I taught at Karns High School. It caught everyone off guard, and I was stuck with a school filled with students until about 10:00 p.m. Still, another snowstorm turned into an ice storm and trapped me on UT’s campus until 3:00 p.m. the following day. The last “good” snow Knoxville in came with the blizzard in the early 1990’s. Things came to a standstill for several days.
These days, about all we get are snow flurries. The school years have some days built in for inclement weather, but in recent years, we’ve used more of them for rain than for snow. Who can blame the kids for their excitement when they see those white flakes being whipped around by gusts of winter wind?
Sitting in my office to write today, I suffer from another sinus infection that began during my trip to Cookeville over the weekend to spend New Year’s. I am just short of miserable, but my health is of little importance when it’s compared to the things that happened at the beginning of that holiday time.
Amy and I planned to leave Knoxville on Friday after she arrived home from work. We packed the car with our belongings and dog Snoop. I loaded my laptop into the car so that I could complete some writing, as well as some lesson plans and syllabi for the new semester’s classes. I also took a couple of books to read in case nothing entertaining was on television. Amy had purchased a gas grill to take to her mother’s new house. It didn’t have a gas tank, but I knew we could always get one later. I securely strapped the thing in with a set of bungee cords. Clothes, groceries, and other necessities loaded into a huge plastic container in the bed of the truck, we were ready for the one hundred mile journey.
Interstate 40 was busy, as we expected, but the traffic wasn’t heavy enough to cause me to maneuver constantly between lanes. Amy and I enjoyed the ride and conversation, and before I realized, we were nearly to Crab Orchard, one of the marking points I’ve used since my college days at Tennessee Tech in the 70’s. On a stretch of road between the Westel Road and Crab Orchard exit, I heard a commotion in the bed of the truck. I peered into to rearview mirror in time to witness the unmanned launching of our new grillear. It rattled for a couple of seconds, and then the bungee cords must have loosened. The grill scooted a short distance and then flew from the truck bed. A car behind us successfully swerved to miss this black missile.
As soon as I could, I pulled to the inside grass of the median. At the same time a semi-truck pulled to a stop on the outer shoulder of the road. I walked in the darkness along the inside lane of the interstate to see if I could remove what was left of the grill from the highway. Another truck sped down the road with sparks shooting from under its trailer; this driver evidently found another large piece of our newer cooker. I arrived at the launch site, but all I could see by the lights of streaking car lights were small strips of plastic and metal along the lanes. With a steady stream of vehicles passing, I realized that cleaning up the mess was impossible and turned to make my way back to the truck. Once safely in the cab, Amy and I said a prayer of thanks that the rocket shot from our vehicle injured that no one.
Shaken but undeterred, we continued on our trip. Upon arriving at the house, we noticed that two short, sharp beeps shot through the house approximately every ninety seconds. The new carbon monoxide alarm was at it again. I unloaded the car, and then dragged a stool to the unit. I saw a button that had two words: test and hush. I pushed this button, and as you might have guessed, I set off the alarm. It nearly deafened me, and poor Snoop took off running in search of a place to escape the painful noise. We finally stopped the alarm, but not quickly enough. The security company called, and although Amy assured them all was well, they were unable to prevent the fire department from coming. I was embarrassed for having caused the situation, so I hopped in the car and drove to a fast food restaurant to pick up our supper. However, the firemen were still at the house when I returned.
By the time they left, I was a nervous wreck. We ate our food, turned on the television for background noise as we read our books, and retired rather early that Friday evening. I awoke with my nasal passages and throat sore and my head congested. Over the next couple of days my ears stopped up as well. How could I complain? This temporary illness fit well with the rest of the events of a hellish weekend.
I am glad to be safe at home in my office. I don’t plan to travel to Cookeville for a while, at least not until I’m well. Most important, I won’t haul any more grills.