"Well, I'll Be John Brown"

Real stories about folks who have blessed my life with the joy and fulfillment of laughter. Long may they live.

Location: Atlanta, Georgia, United States

A Southern Boy - Born In Alabama, Reared In Georgia, and Matriculated, Married & Initiated Into Manhood In Tennessee.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

“Miss Mattie & Her Cats”

The bumper sticker reads, “The Only Good Cat Is a Dead Cat!” Another favorite of non-cat-lovers is, “Cat’s Flattened While You Wait!”

The Good Lord created all things. Genesis settles that issue. Since “all things” includes plant, animal and human life, then The Lord rightfully gets the credit for cats. One of the questions this writer wishes to ask God when and if he gets to heaven one day is, “why cats, Lord?” Their fur causes itching and sneezing, their claws are razor sharp, and their sickening “meow” sound is anything but friendly and comforting.

And, cats are hard headed, stubborn, and independent. The late Johnny Carson once said that he would not allow a cat to be brought into his house, nor would he allow his family to own one. His reasoning was that if he was going to spend money to buy something, house it, feed it, make sure it had the proper shots, and give it other forms of attention and affection, when he called “it”, he wanted “it” to, “come there.” Carson observed: “No cat in the world is going to come when you call it.”

For some reason, cats are associated with women. If two women get into a tussle it is called a, “cat fight.” If a woman is hard to get along with she is labeled as, “catty.” It seems that feline and female have much common ground between them. And, this commonality seems to begin early in life. The image of, “a boy and his cat,” somehow just doesn’t ring true. In fact, if there ever truly was such a thing as mortal enemies in this world, crossing human and animal lines, it is a boy and a cat.

Boys typically find great joy and fulfillment in tormenting cats. They tie pieces of paper on cat’s paws to make it difficult for them to walk. They tie cans onto cat’s tails just to see them run away in fear of the noise. Boys hold cats upside down so they can purposely drop them in order to test the theory that cats always land on their feet. And, more than one boy has tried unsuccessfully to bathe, baptize, or else drown a cat in a large container of body of water.

Sometimes, boys never grow out of the passion of their youth for giving cats a devil of a hard time.

This writer’s father worked for the Southern Railroad for over eleven years. For many years Inman Railroad Yard was the central staging ground for all freight train activity in and out of Atlanta. Inman was a huge facility covering many acres, and stretching to more than two miles in diameter in some places.

The main “call office” at Inman Yards was situated in the middle of that giant rail facility. It was connected with the different staging areas located throughout the yards by a network of vacuum tubes, similar to those used by banks in their drive-through windows. Orders and manifests would be placed in large cylindrical canisters and sent out through the vacuum tube to the engineering crews that were set to man a departing train, and vice versa. These canisters would travel at speeds in excess of thirty miles per hour, and sometimes traverse almost a mile’s worth of tube in order to reach crews working at the very edge of the rail yard.

On one occasion a stray cat had been milling around the yards prowling and panhandling for food, affection, or whatever else it could find. The cat evidently became a nuisance to someone. The anonymous rail worker grabbed the cat, stuffed it into the vacuum tube (without bothering to see if it would fit in the canister), and closed the door. One can only imagine the harrowing ride that poor animal endured on its way to the call office.

The clerical people (mostly females) working in the call office said they could hear something screaming its lungs out long before the cat came flying out of the vacuum tube. When it finally did, witnesses claimed it did not have a hair left on it’s shaking body, and was so frightened that it tore up stacks of files, office furnishings, and anything else in its path.

One of the ladies finally opened the entrance door to the call office, and that poor hairless cat flew out the door leaving a trail of destruction and bodily discharges behind. Legend has it that Southern Railroad management conducted extensive investigations in search of the cat culprit. No one, however, was ever willing to point the finger of blame at any specific person.

The perpetrator was mostly likely an overgrown boy in a man’s body. If those ladies in that call office could have ever gotten their hands on him, HE likely would have gone for a vacuum tube ride himself.

The cat was never seen nor heard from again at Inman Yards.

“Miss Mattie” Lennox was a dear sister in the Lord. She was in her eighties when this writer met, and immediately fell in love with, her. Miss Mattie had been a widow for several years. She lived in the mother-in-law suite of her son, Bob, and daughter-in-law, Sylvia’s, spacious home.

Her eyes were bad, and her body was slightly bent. Other than this, Miss Mattie was a “pistol” in every respect. She liked to talk. She liked to have company. And, she L-O-V-E-D her babies. She also loved her grown sons. But, they were not her “babies.” That role was reserved for her cats. Miss Mattie owned three great big Persian cats, with enough hair on their bodies to stuff the coffers of the, “Hair Club for Men,” for a hundred years.

When you went to see Miss Mattie, it was assumed that you were either going to have to sit next to on the couch, or step around and over, or else hold in your lap one of these overgrown fur balls. They would sit in the living room windows like sentries scouting the front walkway for visitors, as well as an occasional bird or squirrel.

Miss Mattie spoiled those ridiculous cats until they were rotten to the core. She fed them better food than she ate herself. They had their own beds to sleep in at night. And, Miss Mattie would even let them watch their favorite TV shows. That’s correct – these pathetic cats had “favorite” television shows they watched every day and night. This writer never figured out how Miss Mattie determined what shows her cats were so crazy about. She swore that the shows her cats preferred were not just shows that she liked, but were the real choices of her cats. Chalk this knowledge of Miss Mattie’s up to the aforementioned telepathy between female and feline. It was best that no one from the male species even attempt to make sense of this.

Miss Mattie's three cats were named: Penelope, Flower, and Bob. Like children, each of these animals was highly individualistic. Each cat being so unique from the other made it easier to hate all three - but for vastly different reasons.

Penelope was a deep, golden colored Persian cat, with light gold yellow streaks running through the hair on her “chin.” She was fatter than an expectant cow, and lazier than a redneck wino on welfare. This sorry cat would not even walk to her bowl to eat the gourmet food Miss Mattie put there for her. Penelope’s food had to be brought to the basket where she lay, especially if her favorite show, “As the World Turns,” was on. And too, her food was not to be served cold - right out of the can. No sirreee. It had to be heated for fifteen seconds in the microwave, and on a special setting, before this high and mighty bag of cat bones would even consider eating it.

Flower was the tramp of the household. She had been sexually active since her kitten days with every stray tom cat in the neighborhood. She was constantly scratching at the front storm door wanting out. Miss Mattie often said that Flower was her little, “whore.” She would let Flower out first thing in the morning, and sometimes would not see her again until almost 10:00 o’clock at night. “Walking the streets again, huh Flower?”, Miss Mattie would say as she let this promiscuous, gray Persian cat back in the door after a day of roaming and mating.

Flower brought more “children” into this world than Marcus Welby, M.D. Miss Mattie was constantly requesting announcements to be made at church that she had a litter of free, give-away cats at home. She would sometimes even give them for Christmas presents to little children at her church. The parents of these lucky children were always “thrilled” with her gesture.

Miss Mattie’s third “baby” was Bob (named in honor of her oldest son).

The best that anyone could figure, Bob the cat was actually, deep down inside, Bob the dog. In other words, Bob was a transvestite. “She” dressed like a cat, and in actuality had been a cat from birth, but had more of the mannerisms of a “Black Lab” or Dalmatian.

Bob also had a short tail (hence another reason for the name given “her,” “him,” or “it”). Bob did not have the catty-type “meeeeeeoooowww” of her species. When she made noise it was more of a deep, glottal, “mow” (pronounced – “how, now or brown cow”) sound. Miss Mattie always said that Bob “barked” at people. This was, evidently, “normal” behavior for a transvestite cat.

Bob also ran around playfully and animatedly when Miss Mattie would let her (him, it) go outdoors. He (she, it) would dig countless holes in the ground like a Lab. Bob’s thick, black coat of hair and pointed ears made him (her, it) look remarkably like a miniature Batman. Bob was an aggressive transvestite, sometimes chasing cars and picking fights with neighborhood dogs – again, like a Lab. And, to top it off, Bob didn’t like cat food. She (he, it) preferred table scraps and, no kidding, Purina dog chow. If Reality Shows had been the ticket in Miss Mattie’s (and Bob’s) day, Bob would have undoubtedly been featured on one of those “Animal Planet” strange but true telecasts.

Every time visitors came, Bob was always first at the front door to greet them with his memorable, “mow,” sound. He then would aggravate them until they played ball, chase, or some other annoying transvestite cat game with him. To say that Bob was worrisome would be like saying that Hillary Clinton’s voice is only slightly grating to the average male’s nervous system.

In addition to her cats, Miss Mattie loved church. She loved singing, swapping gossip with the other widows, playing with the toddlers and holding the newborns, and eating at the fellowship “covered dish” dinners. Miss Mattie was one of the most beloved matrons of her congregation, and was greatly honored by them when she left this life.

One of her most favorite things about church were the preachers. Miss Mattie was often heard to say, “I like women, and I adore cats and little children, but I L-O-V-E good looking men.” To the reader, please remember that when Miss Mattie made this revelation, she was already well into her eighties.

Her congregation had one young preacher that Miss Mattie really took a shine to. She was forever inviting him over to visit in her home. And, this young preacher really enjoyed being in Miss Mattie’s company. She was conversant, intellectually sharp, and very interesting to talk to. She had lived through two World Wars, the Great Depression, and, as she often said, had even survived Bill Clinton serving as president for eight years.

Miss Mattie was a “hoot!”

There was one problem with her young preacher’s visits. He was deathly allergic to, and thus had an intense dislike of, cats. This was especially so with thick-haired Persian cats. Their fur made his eyes water, and caused him to sneeze like a madman. With every visit to Miss Mattie’s, he would have to go straight to the nearby drug store for some Extra Super Strength Claritin D.

Even with his sudden onset of violent sneezing and watery eyes, Miss Mattie never put two and two together. She frequently wondered why her preacher waited until he got sick with sinus trouble before coming to see her.

The young preacher was always super careful not to let on to Miss Mattie, nor to say in any public way how much he hated cats. The last thing he wanted to do was offend this precious old sister that he loved so much. Letting the cat out of the bag (pun intended) regarding his sneeze-laden hatred and loathing of cats would have hurt Miss Mattie deeply, and harmed their relationship for years to come.

One Sunday, this young preacher stood up for the morning sermon. He had been told by Miss Mattie’s son, Bob, that their family (including Miss Mattie) would not be at services that day. Their family often went to Tennessee for family reunions. Bob called the church office the week before to let everyone know why they would be absent.

Thinking that Miss Mattie would not be in the crowd that day, her young preacher began his sermon by telling a cat-hater joke. His effort was well-received. The congregation laughed heartily. Building on this, the young preacher went on to mention the two bumper stickers referenced at the beginning of this story. Again the congregation responded with chuckles abounding. Rounding out his cat humor trilogy, the preacher quoted an old one liner and applied it to himself. “I actually like cats,” he said, “they taste just like chicken.” For a final time the audience gave him a “10” by laughing in appropriate measure.

After the service concluded, the preacher took his customary spot in the vestibule (lobby) for the shaking of hands and kissing of babies. Some preachers call this obligatory, church door meet and greet their weekly, “fleecing of the flock.” If your preacher seems to contract colds and other seasonal illnesses on a far too regular basis, remember that he has “the brethren” all over his hands each Sunday as he sits down to lunch.

Miss Mattie’s preacher never saw her coming that Sunday morning. Her family had changed the Tennessee family reunion plans at the last minute. Miss Mattie and her family stayed home and were at services after all. They came in late that morning, and thus were not sitting in their usual place – which was the far right side of the auditorium - fifth pew from the front.

Miss Mattie had heard every word of the cat trilogy, but not a word of the rest of that morning’s sermon. Now, she had some words of her own to say.

As she walked up to her young preacher, his heart sank. For once, he was at a total loss for words. Instead of her routine bear-hug, Miss Mattie crooked her gloved, right index finger repeatedly – gesturing for the preacher to come near and bend over so she could speak in close proximity to his face. He did so, but with a great deal of fear and trembling.

Miss Mattie was not a whisperer. Her hearing had begun to wane in her eighties. But, even before that, she was almost always one to, “mumble out loud.” Miss Mattie would have made an excellent auctioneer or hog-caller. She claimed that she got her resonant voice from years of calling her husband and sons in from plowing the fields to eat the noon meal.

Once, when her congregation was having a week-long revival, Miss Mattie’s talent for muttering at high decibels came to the surface in a big way. The preaching that week had NOT exactly been a riveting display of homiletical oratory. The guest preacher was long-winded, rather stuck on himself, bent on sharing “his experiences” rather than preaching the Word, and exceedingly boring. One old brother even remarked to the guest speaker’s face, “You did a pretty good job tonight, sonny – I just didn’t think you was ever gonna’ quit!”

It was Thursday night of the week-long revival. Miss Mattie and her family had attended every service. The congregation had patiently suffered through lesson after lesson of this exasperatingly dull and disappointing week. During the middle of the Thursday night sermon, the sound of someone snoring commenced. It rang through the pews softly at first, but grew more intense (and more obvious) with each inhale and exhale. Folks started laughing under their breath and looking around the auditorium to see where the mounting rumble of zzzzzzzzzzzzz’s was coming from.

Sure enough, it was Miss Mattie.

The more she snored, the more each snore sounded like the noises made by demon possessed folks in the Scriptures. With each of these apneatic utterances, the guest preacher was showing signs of increasing frustration and distraction.

Something had to be done.

Miss Mattie’s son, Bob, had already nudged her several times, but to no avail. Finally, Bob reached over and spatted Miss Mattie sharply on the back of her hand. She abruptly awoke and loudly scolded her son, “Why did you hit me?” He quietly whispered that he was just trying to stop her from snoring during the sermon. Miss Mattie replied in a “whisper” that could have been heard across the entire auditorium, “Well, I am SO tired of hearing this wearisome preacher…Whose idea was it to bring him here, anyway?...I bet his wife is sound asleep too!”

No one ever had to guess what Miss Mattie was thinking.

Miss Mattie’s “voice” as she spoke to her preacher on the Sunday morning of the cat jokes was anything but quiet, friendly and sister-like.

“Let me tell you something, young man,” she forcefully said, grabbing her young preacher’s tie and pulling him close. “I L-O-V-E my cats…As a matter of fact I love ALL cats…And what’s more…I would rather have my cats with me in my house than SOME preachers I know!”

Before the young preacher could interrupt and apologize, Miss Mattie pulled him even closer and continued her tirade.

“Cats are God’s creatures too…They’re quiet, they don’t cause a ruckus like a bunch of idiot dogs would, and one day they’ll be in heaven just like me and you!” “Well,” she paused for a moment, “just like me!...Afteer today I don’t know so much about you!”

With that, Miss Mattie released her death grip on the preacher’s tie, turned on her heel and marched out the front door of the church building in a huff. Bob tried to comfort the preacher by saying, “Mom’s not really mad at you…You see, her cats have been a lot of company to her since Daddy passed on…She’ll get over this by the time she gets home…You come on by to see her this week, and I bet she’ll hug your neck and welcome you like she always has.”

The young preacher felt better after Bob’s reassuring words. He DID want to go over to see Miss Mattie and try to make amends. But, he was afraid if he called first, she wouldn’t let him come. So, on Monday morning this self-avowed cat-hater swallowed hard, went by the florist for some forgive-me flowers, stopped at PetSmart and bought some cat toys and a bag of Purina Dog Chow for Bob (the cat, not the son), and went straight to Miss Mattie’s front door.

When he rang the doorbell, Miss Mattie appeared – holding Penelope, and with Flower switching in and around her legs like a boa constrictor. Bob the transvestite was nowhere to be found.

Miss Mattie stared at the preacher for a long time through her storm door before unlocking and opening it. “Come in,” she said, “what in the world is all that stuff you’ve got?” The preacher began to explain how deeply sorry he was for his insensitive remarks on Sunday. He handed her the vase of flowers, and held up the bag of goodies from PetSmart. “I brought some things for your babies,” he timidly said. Miss Mattie looked suspiciously at him, then at the flowers, then at the PetSmart bag, and then back at him. The patented Miss Mattie smile he had hoped to see was, however, still absent from her face.

“Well,” she said, “I guess maybe you have learned your lesson…You can sit down a while if you want to…That is, if you can tolerate my cats…Or, if THEY can tolerate YOU!” The young preacher laughed nervously at Miss Mattie’s biting words. She didn’t.

They sat down and exchanged small talk for a minute or two. Suddenly, as sure as the sun rises in the east, the flood gates opened. The young preacher’s eyes began to water, his nose began to run, and he began to sneeze violently. Penelope, Flower, and even Bob, who had sneakily come into the room, scampered away and hid under the dining room table and hutch. For several minutes the preacher wiped his eyes, held his finger under his nose to try and stem the flood of sneezes, and bravely tried to continue his apologies to Miss Mattie.

When he could take it no longer, the preacher said he had to leave but offered to have a short prayer with Miss Mattie first. He explained that he needed to go to the drug store for some allergy medicine. Miss Mattie agreed to the prayer, but insisted that she be allowed to say something before it commenced. Covering his nose with his handkerchief, the young, suffering preacher urged her to say on.

“Son,” she said, “I hope your spouse never dies and leaves you all alone in this old world…It’s a terrible thing to outlive the one who has been joined as one flesh with you over the course of a lifetime…I hope that never happens to you…But, if it does…THE best thing that COULD happen to you would be to find a good cat to keep you company…As a matter of fact, I have been looking for a good home for Bob…Three cats are just too much for a person to say grace over at my age…Every time you come over here, he seems to want to follow you everywhere you go in my house…So….If you really want to do something for me…You can take Bob with you and give him a good home…How about that?”

For a split second, this young preacher gained at least a partial appreciation for the, “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” commonly associated in the Bible with hell. And, for a second time in as many days, he was speechless. He didn’t want to offend Miss Mattie again, but he certainly didn’t want to have to cart this allergy-causing, transvestite, fur ball home with him.

Summoning every ounce of diplomacy in his young heart, the preacher declined Miss Mattie’s “gracious” offer. He told her (between sneezes), “Bob would not like it at my house…There is no one there like you to keep him company…He would get so homesick…I just couldn’t bear to know that Bob was sad and missing you, Miss Mattie…Do you understand?”

Miss Mattie Lennox looked down at Bob, stroked the top of his jet black head, and solemnly replied, “That’s ok…Bob said he didn’t like you all that much anyway…”

Bob the transvestite cat looked at the preacher as if he (Bob) had perfectly understood every word Miss Mattie said. Before the preacher could reply, that mangy, feline flea-trap affirmed Miss Mattie’s sentiments with a deep, dog-like, “mow.”

“Praise the Lord and pass the Claritin D!,” the young preacher thought to himself. He finished the prayer, kissed Miss Mattie on the cheek, told her he loved her and left - sneezing profusely with each step he took back to his car.

Never again did he tell a cat joke in the pulpit.

Miss Mattie went on to “Glory” at almost ninety years of age. She left her beloved cats behind. One day, if they have Claritin D in heaven, perhaps she will see both her young preacher and Penelope, Flower, and Bob once again.

Bob, of course, will have to repent of his transvestite ways for this to become a reality.


-David Decker

Monday, September 15, 2008

“Darrell The Phone Man”

Prior to Al Gore’s inventing the internet, and even before the advent of cellular devices, there was another timeless entity that brought great blessing to American culture – the land-line telephone. Alexander Graham Bell could not have foreseen what his crude “wireless telegraph” would one day become.

In its early days, the common home telephone apparatus was a large box mounted on the kitchen wall. It was always located in the kitchen because of the perpetual presence of (stay-at-home) wives and mothers. These dear ladies spent the majority of their time in the kitchen preparing meals for their hard-working agrarian families. When the telephone rang, there would almost always be one of these great women at home and in the kitchen to answer it.

If she or someone in her family wanted to make a call, the receiver was lifted from its fork-shaped rest on the side of the box, a crank was turned several times to gain the attention of the central switchboard operator, and the caller would speak into the round speaker or transmitter. Early movies and television shows such as Lassie and the Andy Griffith Show featured this variety of telephone.

Later, during this writer’s childhood, the old Western Electric rotary telephones were widely used. These large, black monstrosities were heavy as lead, and would have made excellent boat anchors. They were connected to the wall by an extremely short and brittle telephone cord, and always sat on an end table or in the corner of the living room.

The bell on these now antique phones was loud enough to wake the dead. The receiver was powerful enough to allow anyone in the house to hear what the party on the other end was saying. The only “call waiting” there was occurred when three or four widow women were hotly engaged in a Sunday afternoon party-line conversation.

Not only was technology different in those days, telephone company personnel were as well.

In Andy Griffith’s timeless community of Mayberry, there was “Sarah” the telephone operator. Though not an actual person, Sarah was much more than a name and a segment of one-way dialogue in a script. Sarah was a busybody, a natural healing remedy consultant, a confidant, and a friend. Operators in Sarah’s day helped baby-sit kids, listened as lonely senior citizens shared their hearts, passed along grocery list items for husbands to pick up on their way home, gave romantic and marital advice to the lovelorn, and were generally good neighbors and friends to every voice they “met.” All while speaking American English without a trace or hint of a foreign accent. Oh, for those days to be back once again!

One other priceless commodity in the Bell Systems of old was the “phone man.” Dressed in work clothes and wearing a tool belt that would make any blue collar worker envious, the phone man did it all. He climbed poles with funny looking braces on his boots, strung wire from one high point to another, installed jacks and other cool, wire-driven accessories in homes and offices, and carried a big yellow handset that allowed him to hang on a telephone pole and talk to operators and all sorts of other technical phone company folks all over the place.

Little boys of this writer’s day often grew up dreaming of being phone men.

Darrell Copeland was a phone man’s phone man. He never thought of being anything else. Right out of high school Darrell hired on at, “Ma Bell,” and never looked back. Through his years as a phone man Darrell worked in residential service, drove a bucket truck doing “long lines” installation and repair, did a few years as a commercial “Communications Consultant,” and finally retired as a supervisor working out of a regional service center in metro Atlanta. Someone once asked Darrell that if reincarnation were really true what he would like to come back as. His answer – “Either a pimp or a phone man, there ain’t much difference between the two.”

Through his years of climbing poles and pulling cable, Darrell the phone man had many interesting phone man experiences.

Like the time he went to do an “install” at an upscale Atlanta apartment complex. Darrell had to show I.D. at the security gate and wait for the guard to phone the apartment resident for confirmation. When finally given the ok, Darrell pulled through the gate and parked his phone van crossways near the building he had been told to work on. Before beginning the wiring and connecting that would have to be done on the outside box, Darrell decided to go meet the customer. He would need to see the inside of the apartment and find the proper phone jack, if there was one, before starting his outside prep work for the install.

When Darrell rang the bell and knocked on the apartment door, he followed his Bell System training to the letter by loudly announcing, “phone man – here to hook up your phone.” Phone installers were taught this tactic to help prevent their being mistaken as a prowler. At least one phone man who had previously failed to properly announce his presence and intent had received a pattern of buckshot in his behind as he walked away from the front door of a house filled with drunken car thieves. Darrell often said that both his wife and his girlfriend were much too partial to his behind for anything like this to happen to it.

Several minutes passed before anyone finally answered the door. Not being an especially patient person, the longer he stood there the more agitated he became. Darrell was about to walk away when he heard the locks turning inside the front door of that apartment. What he saw when the door finally did open made him most glad that he decided to wait.

“Hi, come on in,” the sleepy female voice said as the door cracked open. Darrell stepped inside and was treated to one of the greatest surprises of his phone man life. Standing in front of him was a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, well-proportioned, and completely stark naked, female flight attendant. “I’ve been flying all night, and was so sound asleep I almost didn’t hear the door,” she said, yawning and stretching her beautiful “arms” out wide. “Make yourself at home, I’m just gonna’ go jump in the shower,” she continued – as Darrell struggled to catch his breath and reply, “no problemo, ma'am.”

He sat down on the edge of the living room couch and offered a brief, silent prayer of thanks for being allowed to work in such a great job. “She’s GOT to have a boyfriend,” he thought, as he looked around for a phone jack. “And, I bet he’s hiding around the corner in the bedroom with a loaded shotgun,” he whispered. After all, someone HAD spoken to the security guard earlier and granted Darrell entrance to the complex. “If she was asleep, then who did the guard talk to?”, he wondered.

No matter, Darrell the phone man (not Darrell the pimp) had a job to do. Find the jack, connect the wires, write up the work order, and get out of there before, like his fellow phone man, his butt became the target of an angry roommate’s shotgun.

As he looked around the apartment for a phone jack, Darrell heard the shower being turned off. Before he could raise his voice to ask this beauty where she wanted the phone installed, she appeared again - fresh out of the shower, dripping wet, drying her hair, and still totally unclothed from her eyelids to her toenails. She was smiling like a Cheshire cat, and talking as matter-of-factly to Darrell as if he was her husband.

“What’s YOUR name?...How long have YOU been a phone man?...Where do YOU live?...What color phone am I going to get?...What kind of service are YOU going to give me?” She was throwing questions at Darrell like darts at a dartboard. As he tried to calmly answer each one, his unbelieving eyes couldn’t help but follow that lone bath towel as it crossed every inch of her tanned, perfectly sculptured body. She made absolutely no effort whatsoever to cover any part of herself. And, Darrell made absolutely no pretense whatsoever of even trying to look away. “Come in here,” she said – beckoning Darrell toward the bedroom, “I’ll show you where I want MY phone.”

When he reached the bedroom door, this bold and beautiful flight attendant had perched herself on the corner of her water bed. Crossing each leg alternately, she was drying her feet, and in between each of her lovely toes with the towel. At that moment Darrell remembered the co-worker's question about reincarnation, and decided that he really would like to come back as that towel.

She motioned toward her bedside table and said that she would like Darrell to put her new phone there. “No problemo,” he assured her.

“While you are getting that done, I am going to get dressed and run down to Dunkin' Donuts for some breakfast,” she said, “do you want me to bring you back something?” Darrell’s mind, heart, and lower extremities were still racing, beating, and well, enjoying themselves immensely. He replied, “Nothing for me, thanks.” What he meant to say was, “Why don’t you stay here on the bed, just like you are,…I will run out and get the coffee and doughnuts…Then I will come back, crumble them all over your beautiful body, and then eat breakfast, lunch, and supper all in one meal…I can always come back tomorrow and hook up your stupid phone.”

The flight attendant got dressed. The faded cut-offs and t-shirt she chose to wear showed off her gorgeous body almost as much as the towel had. She left within a few minutes. “By the way,” she said, winking at Darrell as she left, “my name is Chantal, and I just L-O-V-E men who work with their hands.” Again, Darrell said a prayer of thanks for his wisdom in choosing this incredible profession.

Darrell eventually completed his work in and around the apartment and, in accordance with proper phone company procedure, sat in his truck to finish the paperwork. He waited much longer than normal for Chantal to return from breakfast. Sadly, she never did.

The dispatcher rang Darrell up as he sat in his phone truck. Dispatch needed him to work a “trouble” at an address several miles away from the apartments. Dang it!!!! He left a copy of the work order on the bed where Chantal had “posed” for him with the towel in her hand. He also left his business card with a personal note on the back saying: “Let me know if you need anything.”

What he really meant was, “I can be back here in a matter of minutes if you need help drying off after your next shower.” It has now been well over twenty years since that unforgettable day, and Chantal the naked flight attendant has never called. Dang it!!!!

Phone men don’t always get to “service” beautiful women. Sometimes they get caught with their pants down in other, less desirable, ways.

During part of Darrell’s tenure as a phone man he was transferred to a “long lines” sector of the Atlanta telephone market. The service center for this job was located about 50 miles due east of Atlanta, out in the middle of the boonies. Darrell was assigned to a bucket truck group which specialized in installing and maintaining long distance lines. Theirs was a remotely rural area consisting of nothing but horse farms, wooded hunting land, and an occasional mobile home or two. Darrell, however, couldn’t help but wonder if there were any flight attendants living in the area.

It was summertime and hot as blue blazes in rural northeast Georgia. Darrell and his group were working lots of overtime. The Bell System was upgrading its long lines cable to accommodate fiber-optic services planned for the future. Six, twelve hour work days each week were providing some rather handsome time-and-a-half take-home pay for Darrell and Mrs. Darrell.

This crew of phone men was working so far out in the country, brown-bagging lunch every day was the only way they could have anything substantial to eat. One day, however, the lead tech on the crew, a Georgia Tech graduate named Dewey Oglesby, said he was tired of eating cold sandwiches for lunch every day. The rest of his men agreed wholeheartedly. They took up a collection and sent the grunt of the crew to the closest nearby town to for any sort of hot fast food he could find.

Rutledge, Georgia, was over ten miles away and didn’t have a lot of fast-food options available. Still, the grunt was told not to bring back anything unless it was hot. No sub sandwiches or cold convenience store fried chicken would do. It absolutely, positively had to be H-O-T.

One must understand the discriminating palate of the garden variety phone man. He won’t eat just anything. But, he will eat at Waffle House. In fact, every phone man alive hires in with the understanding that for him to advance in his career as a phone man, he MUST eat at Waffle House – at least five times per week.

One of the reasons phone men favor Waffle House are the waitresses. Waffle House waitresses aren’t Miss America candidates. This is not to suggest that all Waffle House waitresses are unattractive. Some are downright ugly. But, some are quiet, petite women who need the tips they make in order to support their single family homes. And, some are divorcees who work at Waffle House just so they can pour cold coffee and serve greasy food to men who remind them of their ex-husbands. The following joke has long circulated regarding these hard-working women: What has six breasts and three teeth? Answer: Third shift at Waffle House.

Phone men are attracted to Waffle House waitresses because they are “real.” They don’t smile at you while taking your order and then curse you to the cooks and restaurant management once they are back in the kitchen. The kitchen is the dining room at Waffle House.

Waffle House waitresses don’t try to dazzle their clientele with how well they’ve memorized the menu, the soup of the day, or the orders they take. They carry their order pads in their aprons, their pencils behind their ears, and they shout orders to the cook at the top of their lungs as soon as they’re taken. It is the cook’s responsibility to remember the order.

Phone men are also drawn to Waffle House waitresses because they don’t try to sell you dessert after you have had a plate full of, “Scattered and Smothered.” They know full well that if a customer had wanted dessert, they would have said so when the order was taken. Waffle House waitresses don’t dish out crap to their patrons, nor do they take any crap from anybody. If you order it, you are gonna’ get it. If you don’t want it or like it, they will rake it in the trash can, wash the plate, and go on to the customer sitting in the next booth. Phone men understand this work ethic completely, and appreciate it wholeheartedly.

The other reason phone men flock to Waffle House is the food. Barney Fife once observed regarding the food at the Mayberry Diner, “they ‘gar-an-tee’ their food to STAY hot, hours after you’ve eaten it.” The food at Waffle House is the same way. It has kept many a cardiologist in practice, and a whole legion of phone men fed to the gills for many years. Their menu is simple - “Scattered, Smothered and Covered.” Their coffee is strong, hot, and served 24/7. And their waffles are thick, heavy, super sweet, and loaded with MSG and cholesterol.

Phone men know when they come to Waffle House, if they leave hungry or thirsty, it is their own fault.

Alas, there was no Waffle House out in the country where Darrell and his fellow phone men were working. There was only a long, winding, two-lane country road to a town that was ten miles away. Where was that boy with the food, anyway?

It was over an hour when the phone company grunt finally returned with lunch. He was grinning from ear to ear. “Well, boss,” he said, “I found something hot!” This young food ferret opened the five plastic restaurant bags he held, each filled to the brim with assorted entrees from, you guessed it, TACO BELL!

Inside those five bags were assorted burritos, enchiladas, tacos, chalupas, chimichangas, refried beans, guacamole, and salsa. In other words, if it was Mexican, and it was hot, it was in one of those Taco Bell bags.

“Good boy!,” chimed a couple of the crew members. Those five sweaty, dirty, deeply tanned phone men sat down in the shade of a thicket of pin oak trees, bowed heir heads and gave thanks, and proceeded to devour their hot, greasy feast from south of the border.

The food disappeared quickly. Before going back to their trucks and the hot, afternoon Georgia sun, some of the phone men crawled off in the shade to take a short siesta. “Better watch out for snakes,” Dewey warned. Their group had already killed a handful of copperheads and chicken snakes during that summer in the sticks. Snakes hunt shade in the hot summer sun just like humans do. Dewey Oglesby didn’t want to have to try and find a hospital for a snake bit phone company lineman this far out in the country.

The crew eventually went back to work – dragging along like all blue collar crews do after a big lunch.

About two hours after lunch the infamous affliction known as, “Taco Bell Revenge,” began to take its toll. One by one the phone crew scrambled for any private, secluded spot they could find to purge their digestive tracts of the Taco Bell residue churning inside. Most carried a spare roll of toilet paper in their trucks. There was no time to look for proper facilities and amenities in the country – these phone men faced much the same predicament as does a pregnant woman whose water has broken. When it is time to “go”, phone men go – regardless of their surroundings.

When Darrell’s “time” finally came, he was parked next to a telephone pole, in the middle of an open pasture, strapped securely in his phone truck bucket, suspended at least thirty feet in the air, with his hands full of heavy telephone cable. Still, he knew, it WAS time! Darrell scrambled down out of the bucket and began to frantically search his truck for his personal roll of White Cloud. No luck! He looked under the seat, in the glove box, in the tool box, and even in his lunch box. No White Cloud! His nearest co-worker was about five hundred yards away, perched high his in his own bucket, with his own hands full of heavy telephone cable. It was clear – Darrell was on his own. And, with a hot, spicy Hispanic-influenced intestinal storm raging inside, he knew he had to act quickly.

Reaching under the passenger seat of his phone truck, Darrell found some old soiled paper towels. “They’re gonna’ get ruined anyway,” he reasoned. Time was running out – these greasy, oily paper towels would have to do!

Darrell began to look around for a “place.” He was, again, in the middle of wide open pasture land. There were no trees, no brush cover, and no mounds or hills to hide behind. And, while there wasn’t a human in sight, Darrell reasoned, “As sure as I do it here, a funeral or brass band parade will appear out of nowhere.”

Suddenly, Darrell saw the answer to his dilemma. An old tractor was sitting in the adjacent pasture, looking as if it had not been cranked, let alone used, in a long, long time. If he could just get to that tractor, he could then squat between its back wheels and take care of business.

Darrell took off running.

The closer he got to the tractor the more it became apparent to him that the barbed wire fence separating him from his haven of blessed relief was almost impenetrable. The barbed wire was strung tightly close together, with the bottom and top strands closely resembling the dangerously sharp-edged razor wire seen around jails and prisons. It was obvious that the landowner was trying to keep deer from crawling over the top and smaller varmints from crawling under the bottom.

This razor-wire booby trap did not dissuade Darrell, however. He kept in his tool belt a pair of fence cutters for just such emergencies. And, if what was about to happen to him was not an emergency, there had never been one.

Darrell yanked out the fence cutters, nipped the top two strands of wire, climbed hurriedly over the remaining fence, flung off his tool belt, dropped his pants, crammed his paper towels underneath the tractor seat, knelt between the two tractor tires, and let nature have its way. “Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh,” he sighed, “made it just in time.”

When he felt as if he had accomplished his mission, Darrell reached for his wad of paper towels. For hygienic reasons Darrell dared not turn around nor move excessively. He was attempting to “feel” his way along the hydraulic lines and hitching mechanism of the tractor. As his hand was nearing the place under the tractor seat where he was sure he had secured the paper towels, Darrell Copeland heard a sound he swore later that he would never, ever forget.

“Rack-Rack,” echoed the unmistakable sound of a pump shotgun being cocked and readied for firing. “You looking for these?”, a gruff old voice asked. Darrell, trembling in fear, turned to see the shiny barrel of a Remington twelve gauge shotgun being pointed at his head. On the other end of that shotgun was an old farmer (who looked to be in his late 60’s), dressed in overhauls and a long sleeved shirt, with a three day growth of white stubble on his face, a floppy hat on his head, and Darrell’s wad of paper towels in his left hand. “Yes sir,” Darrell said sheepishly, “and I sure would appreciate it if you would let me have them.”

Here Darrell Copeland was, standing in the middle of an open pasture, his pants down around his ankles, in broad-open daylight, with a dirty behind, and a shotgun barrel stuck in his face. At that moment, his entire phone man career flashed before his eyes. How he wished he could be back once again in that apartment bedroom with Chantal.

“All right,” said the old farmer – after holding Darrell frozen in that position for several minutes, “you can have the towels back, but you are NOT leaving that pile in MY pasture…Smells like somebody’s been eatin’ Mexican.” Darrell complimented the farmer on his discerning nasal ability, while hurriedly cleaning himself with the paper towels.

That old farmer kept his shotgun trained on Darrell until he could pull his pants back up, put his tool belt back on, climb back over the fence, stuff the paper towels into the “phone man garbage bag” that he kept on the back of his bucket truck, and climb back across the fence with a small spade shovel to retrieve from the pasture the remnants of his Taco Bell lunch.

With poop in hand Darrell was crossing back over the fence a final time when he heard the farmer say, “wait just a minute, son – who’s gonna’ fix my fence?” Phone men carried lots of extra emergency-type things on their phone trucks, but barbed wire was not one of them. “How should I know,” Darrell sarcastically said, “surely you don’t expect me to do it.”

The old farmer indignantly hopped over the gap in his fence, and stuck the shotgun nearly inside one of Darrell’s nostrils. “Boy, you got a smart mouth for somebody in your situation…You’re either gonna’ fix my fence, pay for my fence to BE fixed, or else git a backside full of buckshot,” the angry old farmer shouted. "Your choice!"

At that point, the image of the aforementioned phone man who was shot in the derriere by the drunken car thieves flashed through Darrell’s mind. He certainly didn’t want to go down in Bell System history as the only phone man ever shot over taking a bathroom break.

Darrell grudgingly paid the old man for his fence, secured the garbage bag full of feces, got in his bucket truck, and drove over to join his co-workers. He explained what had just happened to him, and asked for the rest of the afternoon off. Without question he got it.

On the way back to the service center to park his bucket truck for the night, Darrell vowed that if he ever got the chance to go to work doing something other than being a phone man, he would jump at the opportunity. After all, he reasoned, Chantal’s airline could always use another pilot or baggage handler, and Waffle House always seemed to be looking for hard-working cooks and waitresses. Either way, Darrell Copeland decided that day that if he was ever again stuck out in the middle of a wide open pasture, he would sooner go hungry than touch one solitary bite of a greasy Taco Bell chimichanga.


- David Decker

Saturday, September 13, 2008

“Drum & Drummer”

Musicians are a curious lot. They practice with great passion, play their hearts out hoping that someone will listen and approve, and do it all at great personal expense to themselves. They spend money they don’t have on instruments they don’t need so they can make syncopated, melodic noise they can’t sell to an audience that won’t listen. Like their audience, musicians will ruin their own hearing from listening habitually to music that is way too loud, long before they discover that there is also great beauty and pleasure in the world of pianissimo.

Why does a musician do these things? The answer is very simple.

Music is their drug, their “fix,” and often (in the case of male musicians) their “woman.” It is in their blood, and their DNA. To a musician, their craft is perhaps the one defining force in their lives. It is far more than something they do, it is something they ARE.

Another oddity regarding musicians has to do with their choice of instrument(s). Musicians wind up playing the instruments that seem to match their individual psychological make-up. Piano players are almost always more effeminate, guitar players more egotistical, bass players more introverted, and drummers – well, drummers are just plain nuts. Seriously. When a person derives pleasure from beating the living daylights out of an expensive collection of wooden canisters, with pieces of leather and/or plastic draped across them, what you actually have is a significant psychological disorder manifesting itself in 4/4 time.

This writer has played music professionally for roughly forty years. Though his dominant instrument of passion and proficiency is not the drums, yours truly did spend five years of his young life playing drums in high school band. Switching from trumpet to drums after elementary school just made sense. After all, beating the snot out of an instrument with two sticks allowed the lips to be reserved exclusively for romantic endeavors. Becoming a drummer seemed a much wiser musicial path to follow than intentionally and religiously placing one’s mouth on an icy piece of steel, especially during the bitter cold of late season football games and parades. Too, playing cadences was extremely cool, and the chicks always seemed to dig the guys in the drum line.

In the various bands that have come and gone in this writer’s musical life, it is the drummers that bring back the most graphic and comical memories - and, none more so than one, Gary “Bird” Millwood.

Gary was from Lebanon, Tennessee. We both attended the same small college in west Tennessee, and were introduced by a mutual musical friend. Gary was a superb drummer and a fine singer, but also a perplexing combination of personality contrasts. He could be, at times, exceptionally quiet and reserved – someone you would never know was in the room. But then, almost instantaneously, he could morph into being “crazy loud” and outrageously funny. Gary was forever coming up with slapstick routines and side-splitting one-liners, much in the same mold as Robins Williams, Jim Carey, and/or early Steve Martin.

On one occasion, our six piece band was practicing at a little cabin owned by our rhythm guitarist’s mom and dad. This small log home was a half mile back off a farm road, in the middle of the woods, and about seven miles from the nearest town. It was the perfect place for amplifiers to be cranked to their absolute max, and for a fanatical drummer to be free to pummel his nine piece drum kit into a deafening submission. What an absolutely ideal setting for the development of permanent hearing loss.

It was getting late on a Saturday afternoon and everyone was hungry. Too, our ears need a break. Our bass player, "Kandy," one of THE greatest female singers this writer has ever known, went into the kitchen to whip up some hamburgers and fries for the band. It was the middle of fall in West Tennessee, and a nip was in the air. Gary had worn a “wind suit” to practice. The layered synthetic material in the wind suit kept his drumming muscles warm during breaks. The burgers and fries really hit the spot, giving each of us a second wind. Someone suggested that we run over a number or two one final time before calling it a day.

The band was tuning up one last time when Gary announced that he had to use the bathroom. Whenever Gary Millwood made a public announcement of something that was about to happen, even if it was only a trip to the tiolet, a great hush would come over the room. It was certain that something bizarre or hilarious was about to take place.

Gary stayed a long time in the bathroom. Though the rest of the band was tuning and warming up, noises could still be heard coming from inside that tiny bathroom. “I wonder what he’s doing in there,” our keyboard player said. “I am sure I don’t want to know,” someone else replied. About that time, the bathroom door opened and we heard Gary’s voice. “Man, those burgers and fries really filled me up!,” he exclaimed loudly. Stepping out of the bathroom, he moved quickly and deftly into full view of the rest of the band.

Gary had zipped all the zippers in his wind suit (i.e., jacket front, ankles, and wrists) as tightly as they could possibly be closed. He had then taken a hair dryer he found in the bathroom, turned it on the highest setting, and inserted it in every possible elastic opening of that wind suit. When he finally stepped out of that bathroom, Gary had inflated that entire wind suit full of air, enlarging it to three times its normal size. He looked like a grossly bloated version of the Pillsbury Dough Boy.

As he stepped down the hall toward us, he again repeated the line, “Boy, those burgers and fries really filled me up!” It must have taken a full fifteen minutes for the rest of group to stop laughing, crying, and rolling on the floor. We never did fully regain our composure that night. Every five years or so, when our group has a reunion, this story always tops the list of our most cherished recollections of Gary.

Drummers not only pull things on others. Sometimes their sins find them out and they become the victim of someone else’s prank or vengeance. And, as in Gary Millwood’s case, sometimes even Mother Nature can get in on the fun.

Vann Gardens was a magnificent old antebellum mansion in a city about fifteen miles due north of our college campus. The house itself was something to behold. The architecture and décor were right out of the pages of, “Gone with the Wind.” In addition, as the name indicates, there was an extensive network of floral gardens just to the rear of the house. This beautiful series of gardens covered several acres, and was dissected by a decorative stone path that wound its way through every section. The path was dimly lit at night by miniature liquid propane lanterns, which bathed the entire area in a soft, golden hue. This romantic setting was perfect for a leisurely stroll under the stars with one’s sweetie.

The good folks at Vann Gardens had heard of our band. They signed us without an audition to play for a formal, junior-senior, collegiate banquet/dance on a Saturday night in late April of 1982. We were quite the popular musical act in that region of Tennessee, staying booked almost every weekend. We played gigs for an array of different occasions and in many types of venues – the most bizarre being a blisteringly hot, middle of July, “Hog Festival.”

Our musical preference and forte was rock and roll, but our versatility as a group allowed us to do a variety of genres of music. Vann Gardens had requested that we begin the evening with soft ballads and other slower paced styles that couples could dance to, and then later switch to the louder, heavier stuff. As long as they paid us when we were through, it didn’t matter if we had to play four hours of bubblegum tunes by Donnie Osmond (gag).

We arrived at Vann Gardens around noon to set up our equipment. The curator showed us to their back patio. The brick and stone work on the Vann Gardens mansion was impeccable and striking. This patio was a mixture of stone and brick, was approximately twenty feet across by eleven feet deep, and was elevated a good twelve feet above the gardens. There were two brick and stone staircases leading away from it and out into the gardens, each at forty-five degree angles to the patio. The whole area was encased by a stone knee wall, which was perfect for positioning our P.A. The main dining room of the home opened onto the patio through two impressive sets of double French doors.

The patio area was just barely large enough to accommodate a six piece band and its equipment. No problemo. We had played in much smaller surroundings - flat-bed trailers being the worst.

The “old standard” stage set-up for rock bands has almost always centered around the drummer. The drum kit, with all of its pieces and parts, is the first item that is set up - usually in the middle of the stage. The rest of the band is then arranged symmetrically on either side. One look at the size of the Vann Gardens patio made it clear that the normal stage configuration would not work. Therefore, Gary had to set up his drums at one end of the patio, with the keyboard player stationed at the other. The rest of us jammed our amplifiers in between.

The only other rock band member with as much equipment as the typical drummer is the keyboard player. Allowing for multiple keyboards, foot pedals, keyboard amp, and Leslie unit,
keys require a substantial chunk of the stage. One of the pieces in a professional keyboardist's "rig" is a Leslie. A Leslie is a large, wooden, rotary speaker cabinet resembling in size and appearance an old console style television set. It alone takes up about as much room onstage as a moderately sized refrigerator. However, given the vintage rock organ sound that can only be gotten from a Leslie speaker cabinet, no band in its right mind would ever complain about its bulky size.

As Gary began setting up his drums, several band members noticed two large, circular, decorative iron bird cages. These cages were mounted on the outside rear wall of the mansion approximately ten feet above the patio floor. They were positioned symmetrically at each end of the patio, and were large enough (at least six feet tall and three feet in diameter) to hold a small-to-moderate sized person inside their bars. One of our female singers remarked, “I wonder what they keep in those things?” “I don’t know,” Gary replied, “if we’re lucky, maybe some female strippers.” Little did Gary know that one of those two cages was going to play a significant role in his performance later that evening.

Once everything was set up we ran through a few numbers, tuned up a final time, made sure our equipment was secure, and left Vann Gardens at approximately 4:00 PM. We had three short hours to shower, change clothes, and get some dinner. The music was scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM sharp.

Doug, our keyboard player, lived in an apartment complex not far from Vann Gardens. It was decided that everyone would meet at Doug’s to get ready. For some bizarre reason, Gary misunderstood and thought that the two girl singers in our band would not be coming to Doug’s. Gary asked Doug for his spare key, and said he had an urgent reason to go on ahead of the rest of us. Something about, “dropping off the kids at the pool.” We should have known better.

When the rest of the band arrived at Doug’s apartment, with girls in tow, Gary was waiting for us. When we opened the door Gary was sitting behind Doug’s upright piano with an unlit stogie in his mouth. When he got up from behind the piano to greet us, it was immediately apparent that Gary was as utterly naked as the day he came into the world. He was obviously unaware that the girls were part of the entourage. He stood and walked toward the door exclaiming loudly, “Man, I thought ya’ll would never get here!” No sooner had he uttered these words that both girls appeared in the door of that apartment. Suddenly, and totally without warning, here were two unsuspecting young ladies, mouths gaping open in sheer disbelief, staring wild-eyed at this crazy, idiot drummer - in all his full-frontal male glory. Earlier in this account, this writer warned that drummers are nuts. This short peek into, “Gary’s World,” should be sufficient proof of this fact.

Gary fell backward as he tripped over the arm of the couch, groping and reaching for pictures, plant leaves, anything he could lay his hands on to try and cover his lower extremities. The girls ran aghast in the direction of one of the back bedrooms, screaming, laughing, and swearing that they had never in all their lives seen such a display of brainlessness. The bolder one of the two took a verbal shot at Gary before slamming the bedroom door, “Kinda’ reminded me of the little coffee stirrer I used this morning at Kermit's (an early proto-type of Starbucks)." Gary was at a total loss for words. He was knowingly deserving of whatever he got in return for his brazen "exhibition."

Gary was still as quiet as a church mouse at dinner. Some of the guys made subtle wise cracks about what had happened back at Doug’s, while the girls just stared at their food and whispered to each other. This writer wondered if our band was going to be able to forget what had taken place. We needed composure and focus in order to do a good job at the gig. “Maybe nothing else will happen with Gary tonight,” this writer remembers thinking and praying within himself - knowing all the while that there wasn't a snowball's chance of such a prayer being answered in the affirmative.

We got back to Vann Gardens about 6:30 PM. The sun was almost down, the moon was bright, and the night air was refreshingly cool. We checked our instruments for tuning, the P.A. system for microphone levels, and huddled for our customary group prayer at 6:56 PM. Just before bowing our heads, Gary asked if he could say something. Cringing in fear at the thought of what he might come up with now only minutes before we were supposed to perform, the rest of the band nervously nodded in agreement.

“Did ya’ll see those birds?”, Gary asked. Taken aback at the left-field nature of Gary’s question, we began looking in the direction of the aforementioned cages.

Prior to our leaving for dinner at 4:00 PM, the cages were empty. During our almost three hour absence, someone from the Vann Gardens staff had placed two large, rather unusual looking, birds in those massive, barred cages. Each of the birds stood in excess of three feet tall, and had large plumes of violet and dark blue feathers jutting from both the head and tail. They looked like something out of Stephen Spielberg's, "Jurassic Park."

The noise they constantly made back and forth to each another was a high-pitched screeching sound, similar to a frightened hawk or falcon. When the P.A. was turned on, their already loud "voices," now amplified over our powerful sound system, could be heard several blocks away. These birds were meant to add to the evening’s ambiance. That is exactly what they wound up doing, but in a much different way than the originally intended one.

As we looked intently and curiously at these birds, it occurred to this writer that perhaps these overgrown cat toys were not yet acquainted with the rocking sounds of Bob Seger, James Taylor, Aerosmith and AC/DC. By night’s end, it was certain they would be.

There was a look of fear and worry in Gary Millwood’s eyes as we bowed our heads to pray. One of those cages was located directly overhead of his brand new set of Pearl drums. The silly looking, miniature peacock in that cage would be "dancing" during every song right over Gary’s drum throne. There was no room to move, and no place to hide. Who says guitar players have all the fun?

When we turned our amplifiers on and began tuning the guitars, the birds did not like it one little bit. They thrashed around those cages like frightened animals do when a storm is coming. Gary looked worried. He had reason to be. He was going to have to drum for almost four hours with his head in a direct line of fire of one of these enormous, high-strung, creatures.

The first set of music began as planned at 7:00 PM. Slow and soft would be the pace for the first two hours of the show. The first tune we played was a then current chart topper by the Eagles, “I Can’t Tell You Why.” Gary’s bird flitted around uneasily in its cage during the first few bars of this song, but settled down for its remainder. The next few songs were equally as benign for the bird, but still unnerving for Gary. Every time he would have to crash a cymbal to accent a song’s crescendo, Gary would cover his head with his arm, lean to the side, and look up fearfully toward the giant bird.

Still, all went well for the first set.

After a five minute break, the second set began. The first song out of the chute was Linda Ronstadt’s, “You’re No Good!” This great song meanders along for the first two thirds of its duration at both a moderate pace and volume. However, it certainly doesn’t finish that way.

With every note we played the band got tighter, the crowd got looser, and Gary grew more forgetful of the danger that brewed over his head. During the dueling guitar solos of, “You’re No Good,” the dam finally burst. As the twin solos crescendoed and meshed together with loud, heavily accented high notes, the song exploded like a cruise missile hitting its target. Gary reared back on his drum throne, did a double cymbal crash, accented it with a mighty kick on the bass drum, followed it with a multiple flam and rolls on the snare and side tom-toms, and concluded with a crushing blow to the largest Paiste cymbal in his kit.

The bird had a coronary.

Well, not exactly a coronary. It was more like a ruptured aneurysm of the colon and digestive tract. Exotic bird fecal matter rained on Gary and his drums like a storm surge from hurricane Katrina. Two of his cymbals, his prized snare drum, and most of his left leg were bathed in exotic bird doo doo. The aftermath of every meal this neurotic bird had consumed that day, and maybe even the day before, came showering down on our zany drummer. As loud and hard as we had pushed that great old Ronstadt song, it was still neither loud nor hard enough to drown out the “plop, plop” splattering sound of the endless stream of exotic bird crap that was drenching Gary and his equipment.

This writer doesn’t remember which band member was first to turn and discover the messy, repulsive predicament our drummer was in. Regardless, to his credit Gary kept right on playing. We finished the song, and were finally able to regain control of ourselves and the crowd - but not until after several minutes of riotous laughter had subsided. Someone notified one of the coordinators inside the Vann Gardens mansion as to what had taken place on the patio. They, in turn, called maintenance. The maintenance guys, after they too had finished laughing, were very helpful.

Gary’s drums were soon as clean and shiny as new. One of our stellar roadies went to a nearby J.C. Penny's and bought Gary some fresh clothes. And, the birds were taken away for the rest of the evening. Gary suggested that they be shot and barbecued on the Vann Gardens grill. He even offered to help do the honors.

The main event coordinator for Vann Gardens was extremely apologetic and compassionate. She fed us, made sure we had non-stop liquid refreshment for the rest of the night, and even brought out some aromatic candles and potpourri to help with the “foul” (pun intended) stench that lingered for the remainder of the gig.

Thankfully, our band did not develop an embarrassing reputation because of this fiasco. Nor did we become known as, “Gary & The Crapping Birds.” We were blessed in that we never, ever encountered such a thing again in any paying gig we ever did. And, to boot, after that night, everyone in the band got a great kick out of the times when the audience would shout out a request for the classic rock anthem, "Free Bird." Everybody but Gary, that is.

The story of Gary Millwood and his encounter with the mortified, diarrhea-plagued bird still circulates from time to time through the hills and valleys of west Tennessee. Each time it does, just like the night it happened, thunderous laughter can be heard.

Thank you, Gary “Bird” Millwood, for making music, and life itself, so much fun to play, to remember, and to write about.

Rock on, brother!

- David Decker

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"Bud and Neeter"

Bud and Anita Gravely (pronounced with a short “a” - “Grav-Lee”) were the odd couple to end all odd couples. They were not odd from the standpoint of being different from one another. To the contrary, Bud and Anita (we always called her by the true southern pronunciation of her proper name - “Neeter”) fit together like hog jowls and turnip greens. They were simply different from anybody and everybody else this writer has ever known. This is their story (at least part of it) – and may the Lord be merciful to their departed souls.

Bud was a giant of a man. He stood over six feet tall, and tipped the scales at 275 if he weighed an ounce. His massive hands resembled slabs of thick, country ham. They would easily wrap around the average man’s hand almost double whenever Bud stuck one of them out for a hearty, masculine handshake.

By the time our family lived next door to him in northwest Atlanta he was in his forties and bald. Few were the times anyone saw him without an olive green cap on his head, and his “uniform” of work clothes on. And, few also were the times when Bud gave evidence of having recently bathed, showered, or otherwise groomed himself. Bud grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in the north Georgia mountains. There was little or no evidence of training on personal hygiene in his past.

Country folks of Bud’s era did not have inside plumbing. Therefore, any gesture toward cleanliness came either in the form of Saturday night baths in the river, or “spit baths” taken while standing beside an open fire and a scalding kettle of water. These spit baths were also known, particularly in the military, by the term, “P.T.A.” baths (i.e., peter, tits and armpits). Bud was not a card-carrying member of the P.T.A.

During his adult years someone in Bud’s family tried to get him to fly across country to see extended family in Texas. When he refused to even get aboard an aircraft his relative remarked, “Why, Bud, you can get killed quicker in a bathtub than a jet plane.” Bud’s answer: “I ain’t a-getting’ in one of them neither.”

Too, there were evidently no dentists in the hills of north Georgia during Bud’s formative years. “Toothbrushes,” when they were used in the country, were nothing more than a twig cut from a certain variety of tree. The end of the twig was frayed and fanned out in a circular “brush” design. With no toothpaste available, this twig was rubbed vigorously and dryly over each tooth. It is doubtful that Bud Gravely ever used one of these natural devices. He had only one tooth in his head. When he smiled or laughed, that lone, deeply yellowed, front tooth shined like a hood ornament on a new Rolls Royce.

Bud spent his young life plowing fields, felling giant hardwoods and splitting them with an old double bladed axe that belonged to his daddy, and/or working from sun-up to sundown in a north Georgia saw mill. He never once walked on a golf course, or played a round of tennis down at the country club. Bud’s recreation was work. It was all he had ever known. In the old Daniel Boone television series that was so popular when this writer was a boy, the show’s title song included a verse that said, “Daniel Boone was a man – a BIG man!” The same could have been sung about Bud Gravely. He was a throwback to a time when a man looked, behaved and smelled like a man. There was no such thing as G.Q., political correctness, or even cologne in Bud’s world. On his tombstone, just below his name, the inscription read, “Here Lies A Good Hard Working Man - Amen."

In the 1950’s, Bud moved to Atlanta from the mountains in search of a job. Farming and saw-milling didn’t pay much back in the hills. Bud had heard that Atlanta was growing, and there were lots of construction jobs open that paid good wages. While he did not particularly relish the thought of living in the city, if there was money to be had in Atlanta for a hard day’s work, Bud was determined to find it.

Bud knocked around at different things for a few months, but was not really satisfied with any of the jobs he hired into. Most of the “positions” he found at first were factory jobs, requiring him to pull long hours working in dark, dirty, dismal conditions. Since Bud had always worked outdoors back in the hills, these foundry-like surroundings were like a prison to him. He hated every minute of it.

One night he went into a little tavern just off Northside Drive near downtown to have a beer and rest his tired body. The name of the place was the, “Ease On Inn.” The music in that little beer joint was loud, and the clientele even louder. The bartender and one of the bar’s patrons soon struck up a conversation with him. Little did Bud realize that this conversation, as well as certain things associated with it, would soon change his life forever.

When a country boy comes to the city, the first thing that gives his heritage and pedigree away is his thick, rural accent. Bud was a mountain man, and a country boy through and through. When he spoke in his hillbilly drawl it resembled a conglomeration of Gomer Pyle, Briscoe Darling, and Ernest T. Bass all rolled into one. Too, Bud’s deep, barrel-chested voice was as big as he was. Even with the tavern jukebox going at full volume, practically everybody in that little place could hear him when he talked or laughed. He soon became the evening’s entertainment for the crowd of fish-eyed, half-drunk city folks that frequented the Ease On Inn.

The patron that took a liking to Bud and his humorous, country-boy ways happened to be the chief dispatcher for the old McDougal-Warren Concrete Company in Atlanta. McDougal-Warren had a large fleet of concrete trucks, and was a major player in the construction-related trades in Atlanta during the burgeoning growth of the 1960’s and beyond. As a result, their company was always on the lookout for good drivers. The dispatcher sensed that Bud was just the kind of hard-working, honest fellow that his company could use. “Come on down to the plant on Monday morning,” the dispatcher said, “I can put you right to work.” The pay was good, the work was outside, and Bud had plenty of experience driving big trucks during his saw mill days. He walked out of the bar that night thanking the Good Lord for answering his vocational prayers.

Bud loved two things in life – country music and beer. He could never get enough of Ernest Tubb, George Jones, or Hank Williams. Whenever their records played on the radio, Bud sang along with every word. “Does them concrete buggies I’m gonna’ be a-driving have a ‘radidio’ (mountain vernacular for ‘radio’) in ‘em?”, he asked the dispatcher on Monday morning. “Some do, some don’t,” said the dispatcher. “I’ll try to find you one that does.” Bud’s reaction to the dispatcher became his staple reply whenever something pleased him, “Boy-Howdy!”

Bud’s second love bore his name - Bud-weiser. He was perhaps the real-life, southern counterpart of the beloved TV character from Cheers, Norm Peterson. If beer was being served, Bud Gravely was there. There was more Bud in Bud’s refrigerator than food. His idea of a big Saturday night was to sit at the kitchen table by the radio listening to the Grand Ole Opry, while polishing off a six-pack of the “king of beers.” He often said that if they didn’t serve beer in heaven, he would have to think seriously about whether or not he wanted to go.

These two great loves in Bud’s life kept him going back to the Ease On Inn. He soon became a beloved regular in that little juke joint – again, much like Norm Peterson was at Cheers.

There was also another reason Bud kept going back. Her name was Neeter.

Anita (we never knew her maiden name) was not a beauty. Bless her heart (and her other vital organs). She was a little bitty skinny woman that stood just shy of five feet tall. Her complexion was rough as a catcher’s mitt from years of inhaling cartons of Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes. Her teeth were, well, not hers. And, they were also not their original color. Smoking ruins the enamel on the teeth (even false ones) just as it does the pores of the skin. Like Bud, Neeter had also never been acquainted with oral hygiene. When she smiled, it was a darkish brown and yellow train wreck. Bless her heart.

Too, Neeter was not one to bathe or wash her straight, jet black hair. It always seemed to hang just short of her shoulders in a matted, semi-tangled coiffe. Resembling the strings from an old mop that had been used to swab a cabin floor full of coal dust, Neeter’s hair needed serious help. This writer’s sister offered on many occasions to wash it and style it for her. Neeter’s reply was verbatim Larry-The-Cable-Guy material (and about thirty years ahead of its time): “We’ll git-‘er-done one day.” That day never came.

Neeter’s clothes were rarely clean, and reeked of the stench from cigarette smoke. This writer recalls only a handful of mix and match outfits in her entire wardrobe. Guesstimating Neeter’s sizes, my mother would occasionally sew or buy her a new outfit and give it to her for an early birthday or Christmas present. Neeter was always appreciative of Mama’s acts of kindness toward her in this way. She would tear up, hug my mother’s neck, and proceed to wear the outfit until it also reeked of cigarettes and alcohol.

Neeter was not a beer drinker like Bud. She said the very smell of it made her sick (go figure). Her potions of choice were either Ripple or MD 20-20 (i.e., cheap wine), with an occasional shot of Heaven Hill eighty proof whiskey as a chaser. Alcohol and nicotine is a powerful tandem. Neeter was held hostage by both of these demonic forces for as long as this writer knew her.

Neeter was also from the country, but not from north Georgia. Her lineage was in Carroll County, near the Alabama line. Neeter never talked about her childhood nor her family. As far as anyone knew, Bud was all the “family” she ever had.

The pronounced lisp that Neeter spoke with was almost a hair-lip type impediment. Sometimes she was difficult to understand, and often had to repeat sentences, especially for strangers. This writer and his sister grew to be able to understand almost everything Neeter said, and thus "translated" for her when others misunderstood. Despite the challenges she faced, Neeter was most always a happy person who laughed a lot and enjoyed it when company came to her house.

No one ever knew if Bud and Neeter were officially husband and wife. When this writer’s family moved next door to them in the early 1960’s they were already a couple. They, of course, had met at the Ease On Inn. Neeter was employed there serving beer and working the cash register. When Bud first started going there, it was love at first sight between them. Every night, Bud could be found down at the end of the bar with beer in hand. Neeter would park herself in front of him, leaning over the bar, smiling, smoking her Pall Mall or Lucky Strike, and refilling Bud’s Bud every few minutes. Theirs was truly a “marriage” made in Milwaukee.

Whenever they finally became a co-habiting couple, Neeter quit the beer joint. Bud evidently made enough at McDougal-Warren to support both their habits. She never worked outside the home after that, and rarely left it at all, during the years we were their neighbors.

Bud and Neeter’s house was a small, two bedroom, one bath, shotgun frame on about an acre of ground. Bud grew tomatoes and a few other vegetables in a garden each year on the back of their property. He always shared the excess from this garden with our family.

Neeter was not a Good Housekeeping kind of girl. Their house smelled of beer, wine, liquor, and cigarettes. It was always dimly lit on the inside, with the same bluish, black-light haze found in clubs, bars, and beer joints. Daddy observed once that when Bud and Neeter quit the Ease On Inn, it looked as if they brought its décor home with them. Visiting their house was the closest thing to going into a beer joint that this writer knew as a lad. No matter – Bud and Neeter’s place was always filled with a warm welcome for any visitor and was a haven for true southern hospitality, regardless of how it may have looked or smelled. This writer and his sister loved going over to Bud and Neeter’s, especially if it meant being able to escape their chores for a few hours. They always kept ice cold Cokes and snacks on hand just for us.

As seemingly unhealthy and unkempt as their surroundings and personal habits were, Bud and Neeter rarely got sick. Evidently, if enough alcohol is maintained in one’s bloodstream on a regular basis, germs, bacteria, and other infectious maladies have no place to take hold and blossom. When those occasions did come for one of them to be sick, the employment of mountain, home remedies, plus a little nip from the jug, was thought to be sufficient “doctoring.”

Bud did not trust easily. Mountain people are that way. Once they get to know you, there is no more loyal friend to be found than a true mountaineer. Country folks tend to look after their own, and do so remarkably well. However, until they decide to accept you, country folks (and particularly mountain folks) can be more than a little stand-offish.

Politicians, doctors, and TV preachers – these were the top three categories of folks that Bud Gravely had absolutely no use for. His stated belief was that all three of these were nothing more than liars, thieves, and untrustworthy scalawags. As a result, he refused to vote, allow anyone to examine him when he was sick, or even go to church on Sunday.

Bud was well into his fifties when his chest and stomach began hurting. He labored with the pain, putting off going to the doctor for as long as absolutely possible. “They’ll just poke me, stick me, cut me, and then charge me an arm and a leg for it,” he reasoned. Still, the pain worsened. Bud tried multiple home and mountain remedies with no relief. Stubbornly, he maintained that his plight would pass in time, and that he couldn’t afford to be off from work to go see a doctor. Still, the pain worsened. In desperation, Bud finally asked one of the other neighbors on our street who DID support one of those TV healing preachers to call in and ask for Bud to be healed. Still, the pain intensified.

Finally, Bud agreed to see a doctor – as long as my father or mother went along. The appointment was made, and on a Thursday afternoon, the Deckers and the Gravelys loaded up in Bud and Neeter's old station wagon and took off for Dr. John Manget’s office in downtown Atlanta.

Dr. John Manget (pronounced, “Mar-Jay”), was a G.P. with a medical practice located in a beautiful old, renovated civil war home near Ralph McGill Boulevard. Though this writer’s father was also averse to doctors, Dr, Manget had been able to help both him and my mother with various illnesses throughout their marriage. Daddy told Bud, “this doctor can probably help you – give him a chance.”

Bud and Neeter both seemed very nervous as our car full of folks piled into Dr. Manget’s waiting room. Neither Bud nor Neeter could read and write, so Mama and Daddy helped them fill out the medical forms and get everything in order before the nurse came for Bud. When she did, he asked Daddy to go back to the examining room with him. After much pleading, this writer got to go along too. Witnessing an examination in a doctor's office on someone other than yourself, especially without the fear of getting a shot, was a really cool thing for a young boy.

Before Dr. Manget came into the examining room, the nurse came in and asked Bud a long list of questions regarding his condition. She took his blood pressure, temperature, pulse, weighed him, and then told him to take off his clothes. Bud turned white as a sheet. His eyes bulged to the size of silver dollars. “I ain’t about to strip for nobody, especially no man!”, Bud proudly and defiantly declared. The nurse was calm but firm. “Mr. Gravely, you MUST take your clothes off, and put on this gown on for us to be able to examine you, is that clear?”, she said, in her own authoritative tone.

“G-O-W-N!!??", Bud sarcastically bellowed. "Ma’am, if yuns thanks for one sekkunt that I am gonna’ wear that there G-O-W-N, yuns is as crazy as ye look!”, Bud warned, crossing his arms and lowering even further the register of his already deep baritone voice.

The nurse shot back, “Mr. Gravely, we DON'T play games in this office, and we DON’T take orders from patients…If you want US to help you, you WILL take off your clothes and you WILL put on this gown, and you WILL do so immediately!!!” With that, the nurse turned and gruffly left the examination room, slamming the door behind her with enough force to rattle the various clear glass cotton ball and tongue depressor canisters on the shelves.

Bud looked at Daddy, then at me. He truly was at a loss for knowing what to do next. Mountain men did NOT take orders from women, and they certainly did not take off their clothes in front of other men. Daddy assured Bud that this was standard procedure, and that we would step out of the room long enough for him to change into the gown. As we left the room and stood in the hall, we could hear Bud talking to himself. “Weren't none of my idea to come up here in the first place…Stupid doctor can’t help me none no way…Good thang Daddy ain’t here to see this…How in the world do they 'spect me to git into this here ‘funny boy’ gown anyhow?”

When Bud finally opened the door for us to come back in, it was hard not to laugh. Here was this giant, Hercules of a man in that scant, thin hospital gown. It was certainly a sight to behold. “Ernest, can you help me snap this thing?”, Bud asked my father. In remembering what Bud’s backside looked like as Daddy helped him fasten the snaps on the back of that gown, this writer can’t help but laugh, and think of the old one-liner, “Now I know what they mean by I-C-U.” The experience of seeing a man like Bud Gravely in a gown like that was undoubtedly one of the reasons this writer chose music and the arts over medicine as a career.

Once the gown was in place and Bud’s adrenaline was settling down, the doctor came in. Dr. John Manget could have easily been a black-headed Dr. Kildare. He was, as the phrase goes, tall, dark, and handsome. Standing eye to eye with Bud, he introduced himself and sat down on his rolling stool to begin the session. After asking the same questions as the nurse, listening to Bud’s heart, and mashing on several places on and around Bud’s stomach, Dr. Manget said, “Mr. Gravely, I think your problem is with your gall bladder…We should do a couple of tests.” Bud, never having been to a doctor in his life, didn’t exactly connect with the kind of tests Dr. Manget was referring to. He thought that these tests were going to be similar to something taken in school, and Bud hadn’t seen the inside of a classroom since the 4th grade.

Dr. Manget explained, “No, Mr. Gravely, these tests aren’t something you have to study for and write a bunch of answers to…These tests are medical procedures we perform on you using tubes.” Again, Bud’s face turned ghostly white. “What kinda’ tubes, and ezzatly (mountain pronunciation of “exactly”) how will you use ‘em on me?”, Bud asked, in a visibly and audibly shaken tone. “Well,” explained Dr. Manget, “the two tests I think we should do are called a Colonoscopy and an Endoscopy.” Bud stopped him in mid-sentence, “Say what?”

Dr. Manget repeated the names of the two tests, and gently continued his explanation of what would take place. He explained to Bud how that both tests would be done back to back, and that he wouldn’t have to go to the hospital twice. Dr. Manget, as diplomatically as possible – and yet as accurately as possible, described how a tube would be placed in Bud’s rear end for one test and then in his mouth for the other.

This writer thought for a moment that Bud Gravely, this mammoth hunk of a man’s man, was going to cry. Here he was, sitting in a strange doctor’s examination room, with three other males present, clothed in nothing but a grossly undersized and paper-thin hospital gown, being told that tubes were going to be inserted in two of THE most important openings in his body, and that nothing could be done to ease his pain and suffering without these humiliating procedures being performed on him. Any man would have been at a loss for what to say in response.

After thinking about Dr. Manget’s explanation for a long minute or two, Bud slowly raised his head. “All right, doc,” he said, with a deep sense of resignation in his voice, “if that’s the way its gotta’ be…I jest got one favor to ask of yuns.” In a respectful and sympathetic tone, Dr. Manget asked him what the favor might be. Bud looked Dr. Manget square in the eye and earnestly pleaded, “All I ask, doc, is that yuns put that tube down my mouth before yuns put it up my a**!”

Both Dr. Manget and my father labored to choke back their strong, mutual desire to laugh out loud. “Mr. Gravely,” assured Dr. Manget, “you can count on it!” With that, Dr. Manget left the room. Daddy and I went back to the waiting room so Bud could get dressed. Bud took some extra time before coming back to the waiting room - likely to contemplate in private what was about to happen to him. When he finally did come out, none ansked him any questions. It was apparent that enough had been said for this day. On the way home, the only thing that was said came when Bud leaned over to my father and softly asked: "Ernest, does it hurt when they stick that there thang up in thar?" Daddy assured Bud that they would give him something to relax him, and that it would be so painless that Bud might even drift off into a nap while they were doing it. Bud trusted Daddy. His words of reassurance seemed to satisfy Bud and put him at ease. Though this writer wanted desperately to tell the women what Bud had looked like in that hospital gown, he did not dare open his mouth about. No need to further embarrass our good friend from the hills. Not another word was said the rest of the way home about what had transpired in Dr. Manget's office that day.

Bud came through the tests with flying colors. His pain was diagnosed as coming from both a stomach ulcer and a diseased gall bladder. He later had successful surgery to remove the infected gall bladder, and stayed faithfully on Dr. Manget’s prescribed medication until the ulcer completely healed. After Bud fully recovered, he was somewhat of a changed man where doctors were concerned. He passed Dr. Manget’s name and business card along to many of his friends. “He’s the best dang butt doctor in the country,” Bud would say, “but his hands are cold as a dead man’s.” This was , likely, as much of an endorsement as he would ever give the medical world.

Bud eventually retired from McDougal-Warren. He and Neeter moved away from Atlanta when the population crush of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s came. This writer regretfully heard in later years that Bud died in a nursing home, and Neeter also, while in hospice from complications associated with cirrhosis of the liver.

The memory of these two unique neighbors will never fade from this writer's mind. They bonded with our family, and in some ways became our family (and we theirs). Their home was never a castle, but it was a place where friends and neighbors were always welcome. Their “marriage” may not have been the subject of any movie or documentary, but their devotion to one another was genuine and lasting. Above it all, they were hard-working country people who found one another in the shadow of a city that was anything but country.

Bud and Neeter, thank you for giving a young neighborhood boy and his sister the multiple memories of your house, your yard, your life, and your humor-filled caricatures. This writer enjoyed growing up next door to you, and is grateful for such a joyous recollection of his days spent observing your life together.

May God be merciful to you both on His great Day of Judgment.

- David Decker

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"She Spoke To Me!"

Popularity at all costs is a lethal plague among high schoolers. The damnable practice of stepping on others as one climbs to the top in any pursuit is learned long before the corporate ladder is accessible. A high school education often includes an unspoken course on the “how to’s” of becoming a, “Mr. or Miss Whatever,” among one’s peers. The snotty, elitist attitudes sometimes exhibited by adults hungry for popularity and power are, in many cases, first learned during grades eight through twelve.

However, not everyone who reaches “popular” status in high school becomes an arrogant, unadulterated putz. Sometimes, one of the “good guys” wins it all, and, despite the temptation to become otherwise, stays the “good guy” through it all, and beyond. The following is a tale about one such, “good guy.” And, a bodaciously fine-looking one too, I might add.

This writer was a mere face in the crowd in high school. Until he reached the eleventh or twelfth grade, no one knew that there was actually someone living on the inside of his pudgy body. The only honors this southern boy knew until the age of seventeen included being a place kicker on the varsity football team, a bass drummer in marching band, and occasionally playing the rather embarrassing role of being a teacher’s pet in the classroom.

(Someone has said that it doesn’t matter WHEN a person blooms, just so long as they do. This writer blossomed in his later teens and through his mid-twenties. His “coming out” during those great days brought much joy, and a true sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. This is especially so now that mid-life has come, and the exciting era of growing Elvis-style sideburns and thick, black, chin stubble is but a sweet memory.)

While this writer labored through much of his early high school career as a relative nobody, just the opposite was true with “her.” Risa Clay was “Miss Everything” in our high school - majorette, homecoming queen, co-president of the student body, queen of the Red Rose Ball, etc., etc. The very sound of her name brings back vivid images of the days when she reigned over our downtown Atlanta campus. Everybody knew her, and everybody loved her. When Risa walked down the hall, a herd of budding young studs would trail after her like lawyers following an ambulance. If anyone ever had justification for contracting a sickening case of, “the big head,” it was Risa Clay.

However, none of what she accomplished ever went to her head. Risa was as “normal” and “real” a person then as she is today. She would speak to and befriend practically anyone and everyone. While other popular girls walked down the hall as if the archangel Gabriel himself had deposited them on our school’s doorstep, Risa never bought into her own “press.” Our school didn’t elect homely, booger-eating hags as queen of both the homecoming football game and our one big, gala, social event of a dance each year. Therefore, when it is said that Risa Clay was beautiful, popular, and well-loved, you can bet your 401k she was.

School age crushes are silly and laughable. Also known as, “puppy love”, so-called for its resemblance to the adoring, worshipful affection exhibited by a puppy, a crush is really nothing more than immature, shallow emotion gone to seed. Crushes know no respect of persons - male and female alike have known the pain and misery of this cruel phenomenon. From observation, it seems that most females suffer silently when the crush-carrying “love bug” has bitten them. Young males, however, are a far different story. Already prone toward acts of bravado by reason of their DNA, smitten adolescent boys frequently resort to open, comical demonstrations of strength, masculinity, and/or other efforts at exhibiting their virility - each designed to impress the object of their crush.

Too, when a young, high school age lad is struggling not only with a hopeless crush, but also with things such as a chunky waistline, chronic acne, and the inherent clumsiness and awkwardness of puberty (not to mention an ongoing war with his parents over their insistence that he maintain a United States Marine Corps-like, white-sidewall, haircut), unless he chooses to do something outlandish, it is highly unlikely that a true beauty queen would ever notice him. Picture an overweight Napoleon Dynamite without the frizzy hair and glasses, but a full, greasy head shorter. Further, imagine this person trying hopelessly to make a favorable visual impression on, let’s say, a young Elizabeth Taylor or perhaps a modern day Jennifer Garner. Hell would surely freeze over first.

The only other alternative to his doing something really obvious and really stupid to get her to notice him would be to arrange a timely phone call placed by a friend to the object of his crush (like this isn’t stupid and obvious enough). The gist of this call would go something like this: “I know somebody who likes you…He wanted me to call and ask if you like him back!”

Given such a profound level of utter idiocy, it is a pure wonder that males and females ever finally do get together for the replenishing of the earth. The Good Lord surely has to be in control of the process for it to ever succeed. Most of the time, these inane phone calls backfire. More times than not it is the caller that ends up getting the girl.

Risa walked by this writer’s locker almost every day. Check that – Risa “strutted” by this writer’s locker almost every day. Even when a female is as genuine and “real” as Risa was, they still know that boys are visually active long before they are sexually active. They learn this early in life.

If fortunate enough to have brothers, a girl first learns of the male’s visual obsession while helping her mother clean house on Saturday morning. Many a sister has belly-ached loud and long about having to pick up piles of comic books left scattered over the house by their brothers.

Later, puberty brings further affirmation of a young male’s obsession with ogling the female body. Copies of Playboy magazine are likely to be found tucked under beds, hidden in dresser drawers, or even taped behind the mirror on a young man’s bedroom wall. Did I mention that sometimes teenage boys do incredibly stupid things – like leaving copies of Playboy in the various nooks or crannies of their rooms – with the absolute certainty that no one will ever find them? Boys eventually learn that both mothers and sisters come equipped from the womb with highly sensitive, close-tracking, cranial, synapse driven, radar that enables them to effortlessly locate such paraphernalia - regardless of how well it is thought to be hidden.

Risa dressed in the popular styles of the day, but certainly never in clothing that implied a slutty, “come-and-get-me,” agenda. She was always well groomed, and impeccably carried herself with dignity and grace. Without being overly graphic, Risa’s body was wonderful. All the right places were just the right size. And, her face was, well, gorgeous. Risa could have easily been a model or an actress. She was the essence of femininity, true beauty, and a statement of how God meant a woman to look and present herself to others.

Risa Clay and this writer grew up in adjoining neighborhoods in northwest Atlanta. Their respective elementary schools played one another in the old, YMCA sponsored, “Gray – Y” football league. Their two families shopped at the same Big Star and Food Giant grocery stores, ate at the same Dairy Queen and Davis Brothers Cafeteria, bought plants and other yard-related items at the same Greene Brothers Nursery, and enjoyed movies at the same Marietta Boulevard drive-in theater. However, for some beyond-this-world reason, their paths never crossed. Until, that is, those glorious, unforgettable days of high school.

It was a Tuesday in the early fall. School hadn’t been in session but a few weeks. He was a lowly freshman (ninth grader) and she was an up and coming junior. This was before the days of “middle school” or “junior high” (at least in the Atlanta public school system). Elementary school was grades K-7, and high school was 8th-12th. While a ninth-grader was not as lowly as the dreaded “sub-freshman” (eighth grader), his was still an unenviable position - especially for making any sort of meaningful headway with a female upper-classman. This was particularly so when the girl was as popular, as beautiful, and as untouchable as Risa Clay.

This writer’s locker was on the second floor of their four story school building, not far from the end of the hall. The hundreds of old, sea-foam green lockers at our high school were full head-to-toe length, and just wide enough for a page from a magazine (if the sides were trimmed just right) to be taped inside the door. Our school had been built in 1922. Many of its original features from that era, including those old green lockers, were still in place well into the late 60’s and early ‘70’s. These lockers were not only places to store coats, lunches, books, and magazines you didn’t want your mother and sister to find, they were also “hang-outs.” They provided great places to meet girls, discuss the, “fight of the day,” or arrange other after-school plans such as going to the Varsity for a chili-steak, rings, and an “F.O.” (Frosted Orange).

Our high school’s daily schedule began at 8:15 AM with homeroom, and concluded at 3:00 PM after six, fifty-five minute “periods” of class, and a half-hour lunch in between. Separating each period, the crushing mob of 1,500 or so students was given five ridiculously short minutes to make it from one classroom to the next. To the uninformed reader five minutes might sound like plenty of time to make this journey. However, our school was, again, four stories tall. If you were on the basement floor during first period and had to make it to a second period science class on the third floor, there had better be some serious “giddy-up” in your step. No time for loitering around a locker – no matter how pretty she was.

The perfect time of day for these lockers to become gathering places was before homeroom. Buses full of students began arriving at our school as early as 7:20 AM. If you were lucky enough to be on one of these buses, their early arrival provided almost a whole hour to either finish a homework assignment, study for a test, or stand by an open locker hoping and praying for something earth shaking to happen. On one particular Tuesday, about fifteen minutes before the ringing of the homeroom bell, something did!

That morning, this writer was sporting some brand new “school clothes.” The outfit for that day was anchored with a $10.00 pair of extremely stylish, navy blue, gabardine, “baggie” pants. These pants had wide legs, were worn low on the hips, and came accented with a cuff at the bottom of the leg deep enough to hide a small bag of M&M’s in.
The pants were held in place by a wide, white leather belt.

Next was a rose colored (my sister and my rivals at school argued that it was actually more of a “hot pink” color) button down dress shirt, with the all-important IZOD alligator on the left chest pocket. The shirt could have been “puke green” or “baby doo-doo yellow” and it wouldn’t have mattered - just as long as that IZOD alligator symbol was present. The presence of that silly alligator garnered a ridiculously inflated price for a shirt that would today be sold at Wal-Mart for $7.99 or less.

Finally, the outfit for that unforgettable day was accented with a pair of shoes that, now almost forty years later, defy human description. Picture Bozo the Clown and his “brogan” clown shoes – these were far worse. Like his contemporaries, and much to his parents’ chagrin and protest, this writer bought a pair of shoes that Bozo wouldn’t have worn on camera, let alone off. They, too, were white, with red suede covering the area where the shoe laces were holed, as well as the toe and heel. Down each side of the shoe were two dark blue suede stripes with a multiple “star” cutout design. These shoes were visible from great distances without the aid of binoculars. They were infinitely more in vogue than anything offered at the time by either Florsheim or Tom McAnn.

This young, “decked-out,” girl watcher had taken his post about 7:35 AM that morning. For the next twenty-five minutes, he was treated to a voyeur’s parade of sweet, young things slowly passing his locker on their way to homeroom. Some of them spoke, some didn’t. No matter; being coy and snotty to members of the opposite sex was, and is still today, a “normal” head game played by the genders at this stage in life. The more aloof and detached one pretends to be – the better. It was almost expected. This was especially true if either of the people involved was one of the popular crowd.

This writer looked down at his watch. It was 8:00 AM sharp. Thinking that perhaps he should go in homeroom and study for a Geometry test coming up in third period, he was about to turn and close his locker when, all at once, the heavens opened. He was not ready for the mind-numbing experience that was about to happen. To this day, though, he remembers every heartbeat, every tingle up the spine, and every “frame” of the visualization – as though a classic, high definition movie was being filmed in glorious Technicolor right before his very eyes.

The door to the stairwell at the end of the hall swung open, and through it walked THE most gorgeous creature he had ever seen. Her dark brown hair and porcelain-skinned complexion made her appear almost angelic. Her smile was as bright as the morning sun, and her body was, well, a perfect “10.” Eat your heart out, Bo Derek.

He had seen her from a distance on many occasions. They were in marching band together, and shared at least one other class period in adjoining rooms. Her picture was plastered all over the school halls whenever there was an election, not to mention on seemingly every other page of his sub-freshman yearbook. In school assemblies he had noticed her sitting on stage. And, they even passed one another at a distance on rare occasions on their way to lunch in the school cafeteria. But, not until this moment had he seen Risa Clay up close and personal.

As Risa walked down the hall toward him, this writer froze. “What should I do?” he whispered to himself. “Should I look away, pretend I don’t see her, or turn around like I’m looking for something in my locker?... Or, should I just drop my head and look down at the floor?...If she looks at me what should I do?...Should I say something to her?...Maybe a subtle ‘hey there’ would be good…Should I compliment her?...’You’re looking mighty fine this morning, Risa.’…No way you twit, she doesn’t even know you!!!!!!”

Before this poor, freshman sap could decide what to do, Risa took the bull by the horns. She stopped, walked over to him – smiling really big, and said, “Hey there, handsome, you’re looking SHARP today!” She winked, smiled again even bigger than the first time, slung her pretty head of brown hair around, and continued down the hall toward her homeroom. “See ya’ later,” she said as she hurried on her way - the smell of her glorious perfume hanging in the air.

In less than twelve seconds it was all over! The most popular, most elegantly beautiful, most feminine, graceful woman that ever walked the halls of our high school had spoken to…ME! Not only had she spoken to me, she had also complimented my appearance! Not only had she complimented my appearance, she called me, “handsome!” WOW!!! FAR OUT!!! DADDY RABBIT!!!!

“Take me now, Lord,” this writer remembers thinking, “I will N-E-V-E-R know a sweeter moment than this - no matter how long you let me live on this earth.”

Yours truly slowly turned toward his locker, his heart beating so strongly in his chest that the little IZOD alligator on his shirt felt like it was dancing a jig. The sound of him trying catch his breath echoed off the thin metal walls of the inside of that old locker. He began to futilely search the locker for an extra pair of underwear – certain that he had just “ruined” the ones he was wearing. Suddenly, studying for that third period Geometry test held no urgency whatsoever. The grueling two-hour football practice scheduled for after school that day was no longer dreaded. And, the upcoming eight hour shift behind the white-hot grill at McDonald’s the following Saturday seemed an eternity away.

The world could have come to an end on that Tuesday morning and it honestly would not have mattered. Never mind that she didn’t know his name. Never mind that she did basically the same thing to at least three other guys standing in the hall before she reached her own locker. And, never mind that this was one of the only times she would ever stop and speak to him during their high school years. All that mattered was that she did it THIS TIME.

“She spoke to me…She spoke to me…She spoke to ME!” This thought raced crazily through his head throughout home room. When his homeroom teacher, Mrs. Martha Cornell, called his name during the taking of roll he heard not one decibel of her voice. It was not until her third attempt at, “MR. D-E-C-K-E-R!!!!!”, that this writer was able to respond affirmatively. Even then, he was really NOT “present.”

He saw Risa again that morning - in band during first period – but this time from marathon distance. Varsity band always practiced on the field at first period during football season. For some reason the drum line was never allowed within arm’s length of the majorettes. So, his reliving of “THE” moment from earlier in the hall had to be done from no less than sixty yards away.

Too, he was still so awed by what had happened that during marching practice he missed several beat patterns in cadences, and messed up at crucial points of pivot and turn in marching formations. In one instance, when the rest of the drum line made a right-face turn to march toward the home sidelines, he turned the wrong way and marched boldly toward – you guessed it – the majorettes, who were gathered on the other side of the field. They still talk about that move at band reunions to this day.

For the rest of that day and for the thirty-nine years that have now come and gone since that day, this writer has walked in the clouds every time the name, “Risa Clay,” is remembered. Every time the pages of the high school yearbooks that contain her picture are opened, that remarkable morning comes racing back. There were, likely, other days when she passed him in the hall and said hello, but none like “THAT” day.

As mentioned earlier, during her final two years at our high school, Risa was, among many other things, homecoming queen, co-president of the student body, and queen of the Red Rose Ball. She would never admit to it, nor allow anyone to say it in her presence, but in our school she truly was, “Miss Everything.” As beautiful as Risa was on the outside, it was her inner beauty that made everybody love her. Everybody including a tubby, greasy-headed, bass drummer who occasionally marched in the wrong direction, wore ridiculous looking shoes, and worked at McDonald’s on Saturdays.

Risa, wherever you are, thank you for being “you.” Thank you for being the precious object of a silly, school-boy crush that started on the second floor of that old high school. And, thank you for giving one old boy from Riverside a memory that grows sweeter with every year’s passing.

You were a “honey” way back in 1970. In this writer’s eyes, you still are!

- David Decker