Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mississippi Magic in Cabin 24

(If you've never been to the Neshoba County Fair, well, there's nothing in my experience to compare it to. It's a beautiful thing...No words, not even this beautiful picture from "Southern Living," can quite capture it...)

Last Friday night I slept on what was trying to be a couch in the kitchen/den/storage room/dining room of a cozy wooden cabin on one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the state of Mississippi.

The cabin is 18 feet wide by 30 feet deep and a short two stories high with a balcony, all appropriately weathered, all lovingly updated since World War II. You could build the whole thing right now for only a few thousand. Yet one day a well-to-do doctor, standing right there in the wood shavings off the porch, offered to cut a check for nearly half a million dollars to buy it.

“Not for sale,” the family said. Twice.

This cabin rests on uncommon delta dirt.

Above me, 18 people slept that night. In nine beds. I had the downstairs to myself. Me, two ice boxes, three ice chests, two big containers of chicken spaghetti for the Saturday party, a tiny bathroom that played big, and a window unit that hummed and cooled.

All around me – in more than 900 cabins on these fairgrounds outside Philadelphia, Miss. – this same sort of deep-night country opera was on tap, naps before another day at the annual Neshoba County Fair. It’s more reunion than event, more houseparty than campout, more seasoned veteran than Flavor of the Month. The Neshoba County Fair acts like it’s been there before.

And it has been. For more than a century.

For years I’d told Stan I’d accept the standing invitation to something he’s been attending each late-July red-letter week since he was born, posting up there in Cabin 24 on Founders Square, the cherry location in this hot-fudge-sundae of a fair. The family got this spot when Stan’s dad helped get the fair up and going again in the late-1940s. Founders Square is 80 yards or so per side; 74 pastel-colored cabins outline it. The pavilion is in the middle where bands play and politicians stump and pastors preach.

We sat on the porch until past 3 a.m., two hours after the band had shut down and the casual fairgoers had been herded out and the children in their pj’s had climbed upstairs.

“In the morning, the flea market will be here,” Stan said. And sure enough, at 6 a.m. I walked outside to find the square chalked like a football field. A man selling wooden spoons needed to borrow our rake. It was like watching a circus smoothly set up. By 8, you could buy a T-shirt, jewelry, a porch swing or an oil painting.

From the porch, I could see the Ferris wheel to my right. Behind me in the giant grandstand, triathletes were running where the rodeo had been the night before, where the Mule Pull would start at 2, harness racing Sunday, the beauty pageant Monday. And all over the fairgrounds, people were walking up to another day of…whatever this is.

And at night the lights would come on and the cabins would twinkle and carnies would bark and all of your senses would have to work overtime to capture it, even a little bit.

How do you explain the taste of bubble gum to someone who’s never had it? How do you explain parenthood to someone who’s never held their own flesh and blood? You can explain a water spout; it’s harder to explain the wind.

“Just a day like all the others,” Stan said toward evening. “Paradise in deep disguise.”


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Buried Treasure

As if on cue in the wake of wiffle ball columns, Hartley, one of the residents of our old house and one of the new guardians of TreeCom Park at UnFairGrounds Field, unearthed a wiffle yesterday.


Here Hartley displays the long-lost wiffle and looks toward the horizon, searching for other buried treasure. Or for a nice place to poop.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Magic Word

(ethoughts ... this one ran Tuesday July 26)

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving.” -- Psalm 100:4 (NIV)

A freckle-faced boy I know picked up the phone and called his mom, only 20 feet away in another office.

“Hey mom! Whatcha doin’?” Smiling and sweet. Before she could even answer, he said, “I love you. OK!”

And he hung up. And I’m sure the call didn’t bother his mom, who would in a few minutes haul him and his big sister to Vacation Bible School.

I’ve just met him but I love that kid. He called his mom because it’s fun for him to talk to her. He knows she’ll be patient. And he knows she’ll get him where he needs to go. He seems genuinely overjoyed to be dependent on someone who thinks he hung the moon. His adoration and obedience and genuine joy expresses to his mom his gratitude, even though he might not yet know what gratitude means.

I read something this week in “A Call to Growth” by Billie Hanks Jr.: “God is watching with great interest to see how you will respond to the privilege of life.”

Does my Maker know how grateful I am, how overjoyed I am to be His? AM I grateful and overjoyed? Or does a sense of entitlement drown out what once was humble thanks for everything from my next breath to my salvation…

And this I read, too, from Romans 1: 21 (NIV): “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

My heart gets dark because I forget to say, “Thanks”? I think so. I trade humble gratitude for self-reliance. Gradually, my default attitude is going to be one or the other.

I’d rather be more like my freckle-face friend, always anxious to pick up the phone, happy and grateful in whose child I am.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

End of the Wiffle Chronicles

(Been gone to ballgames, to the Redneck Riviera (beach), to the Neshoba County Fair. Was gone longer than I figured...Next week, Magic in the Mississippi Delta)

I was not cut out for prison.

The baggy clothes. The cold chow. Molestation. Murder. Shanks to the hamstring.
Life on the inside, I just can’t do.

So around the law, I get the jits. The Prison Jits. The 9-Bar Hilton Muscle Spasms. Around the “po po,” I’m compliant as clay.

So no one was more surprised than I was when a few summers ago, I got into a semi-argument, quiet and logical but an argument nonetheless, with a police officer about how he just might be wrong.

We were in a tense moment of front-yard wiffle ball, me and the Usual Suspects, four boys around age 13. It was late afternoon and Sahara hot when a cruiser stopped in the street, which we called “right-center field.”

In gym shorts, sweaty and barefooted, I brought the officer my driver’s license while the boys rested in shade. He told me it would be safer to play in a park or at a school so no balls would go zipping in front of cars. Though we usually kept a pretty good watch on the street, we had lost ourselves in the intensity of the game and one of our hitters had launched a wiffle on a line drive across the bow of the cruiser as he’d driven by.

I suggested the whole charm of playing was the ground rules: the sweet gum tree, Mr. Larry’s driveway, the cat watching from the monkey grass. We lived next to two officers and a state trooper, played regularly for years, and had never been in trouble with the law.

By now two other cruisers were on the scene, making it by far the most active day, police-wise, of our wiffle experience. A nice sergeant pulled out a Big Book, put it on his hood, and finally the officer who’d stopped first pointed at a page and said, “There!”

I had launched or thrown “a projectile into a thoroughfare.” What the…
Wait! My survival instincts kicked in. I pointed to the porch. The boys. Drinking Gatorade. Sweating. Looking innocent. “One of them did it,” I said. “I don’t even get to bat!”

I argued that the spirit of the law was aimed at something besides a wiffle ball. I think I begged. I think I pleaded. I know I signed the ticket, and wondered what the wiffle rules would be in the prison yard.

I could go on an on, but the bottom line is I had to go to city court, where a perplexed judge told me not to get in trouble for the next month and she’d let me go. It must have been an unusual case and caused some pre-trail murmurings; when he’d checked us in, the bailiff had whispered, “You the wiffle guy?”

I remember the look on the judge’s face as she studied the charge. She asked a couple of people in suits to look over her shoulder. She shook her head. I could barely hear her when she said, “Well, THIS is a new one…”

There would be but timid wiffle the rest of that year. Besides, the boys were older and…well, for all practical purposes, outside of the occasional Home Run Derby, that ended any regular wiffling. But we have the memories, including a shadow box of the black-sheep wiffle, the ticket, and the park’s layout, an encased reminder of, remarkably, the only wiffle ball argument we ever had.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Way We Were, When We Wiffled (Part I)

(This is in today's Times and News-Star. Lord willing, I will be back in a few days...And will post Part II, the Finale, next Sunday...)

The way wiffle as we know it ended was with, appropriately enough, a foul ball.

The official term is “criminal mischief.”

The event of that long-ago summer marks the only time we ever got thrown out of our own game, all called “Out!” at the same time.

As most law-abiding citizens know, wiffle is played with a plastic ball and bat. It’s time-honored, a summer staple. The rules are much the same as baseball, but special ground rules are adopted according to where you play, as in whose yard or “park.” Ours was called TreeCom Park at UnFair Grounds Field. Its ground rules evolved into the following:

Ground rule double if into street/right field, to keep us from running into the street;

Home run if over double-yellow line in street/right field;

Home run to center if past second crack at end of Mr. Larry’s driveway;

Home run if over Mr. Larry’s driveway in left field;

Mr. Sweet Gum Tree limbs and all wires in play.

We threw down bases for first, second and home; third was the tree. They were fine rules and it was a fine park.

Our giant sweet gum, hard by the third base line, played a major role in thwarting smacks by right-handed hitters; once it even swallowed a ball in the summer, as the whale did Jonah, and didn’t spit it out until the cold of winter. While wiffling in fleece hoodies, we saw it again one day, naked and trapped in leafless branches. We knocked it out with a football.

From the mid-’90s until the Summer of 2002 – hard to believe it’s been nine years – we played just about every day in the summers, twice or so a week in the winters. We played in Sudan heat, in the crisp air of autumn, and in driving rains when we had to outrace water-kidnapped wiffles heading toward storm drains. We played in nothing but shorts, in sweats, in jackets. Once we pushed back snow with gloved hands to outline the base paths.

Usually I was full-time pitcher with defensive responsibilities, and four little boys alternated teams. Water breaks. Hose down. Finish the tournament. Switch teams. Play again.

No one paid us any mind.

That all changed on June 24, 2002. It was Death Valley hot, just like we liked it. The game had miraculously been tied with a tater past the crack in Ockley Drive on the other side of Mr. Larry’s driveway. Clear homer. We were in the late innings.

The situation was tense.

A “pea,” as we call it in wiffle circles, was hit into the No Man’s Land of Ockley. Line drive homer. Bottom of the next inning. Man on first. Imaginary guy on second. Guy at bat. Me on the mound, 10 or so wiffles at my feet. (To speed play, we let homers and fouls alone until I ran out of balls to throw, then quickly gathered the wayward wiffles.)

It was during this high-drama moment that the batter, his T-shirt stuck to his chest with sweat, calmly nodded to right field with his bat on his shoulder and said, “Dad, I think that man wants you.”
A police cruiser was stopped in right center, or, as you call it, “Ockley Drive.” An officer was stepping out. It was 4. It was hot. And it was over.

I’ll finish next week; it will end with me and a ticket in city court.

In extra innings.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Different Kinds of Southern Living

(This ran in The Times and The News-Star Sunday, July 3.)

Stopped by our old house in Shreveport this week, the one my son grew up in, the one we lived in until he went to college and I sold it 32 months ago.

I had left with the new owner a sentimental shadowbox and she’d put it on the porch for me to finally pick up. I’d thought the box would help her get used to the house. In the shadowbox is a wiffle ball and a ticket, the kind made out by a policeman and involving that particular wiffle, or, in this case, the “projectile.” Maybe I should tell you that story soon, how we got a ticket for playing wiffle, but for now, just know that the wiffle remains in its glass jail. You’re safe.

What I wanted to ask you today was whether you have ever moved and then gone by your old place. Strange.

I knew it was going to be different, but it was a different kind of different than I’d expected. The new owner had warned me about this. The new owner is very nice. I like her a lot. I would tell you her name but that would be indiscreet. (Heather. Her name is Heather.)

To me, she’d said, not six months after she’d moved in, “There aren’t any hats hanging on the walls now, and I don’t think we have any shirts in here with numbers on them.”

This I verified last week as I picked up the shadowbox. And snooped around.

I knew before I got out of the car that things had changed, and by changed I mean like the eastern sky changes as the sun rises. Drastically.

It’s like a Southern Living home. Really nice and cozy looking. Clean and charming. A lot of depth outside at the whicker position.

Most impressive is the front door, which is all glass except for a eight-inch dark wood border. Why didn’t I think of this? I’d just always left our all-wood door open. Once we had it closed and a four-year-old from down the street said on a walk with his mom, “Look momma, Mr. Teddy and Casey bought a door.”

They’ve redone the wood floors, put a dining table in the dining room (?!), and have furniture that doesn’t appear to have cat scratch marks on it. (That was Jingle Bell’s calling.) No run in the back, where Elfie and Spot had enjoyed much dog tomfoolery. It looks a lot deeper now, at least it does through the cracks in the fence. More whicker. Pool furniture. Seating areas. A BIG grill/bonfire thing. No trash trees. Flowers, extra landscaping, hanging baskets, and a small vegetable garden.

Even statues. Statues!

Hmmmmm…It’s evolved more, as it did even when I was there, when the swing set and fort had to go.

Even the grass I loved mowing is thicker and richer. I’d always kept it too tight because I’d loved mowing it, too much. And little feet that grew helped keep it beaten down.

I walked to the middle of the yard and knew it would be level. It was. The indention from where I’d pitched all those wiffles is now even ground. Home plate is no longer dirt. Sigh…

It’s not a big house, but it’s a good house. It holds a lot. And in my sentimental opinion, it’s still a pretty house, just like it used to be.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

White-hatted Skipper of the Home Team

(This is in The Times and The News-Star today.)

No way it’s been 22 years.

My grandmother had a stroke back then, a few days before July 10, her birthday. She lived three weeks after and then died at 84, surrounded by family. I drove to Carolina three times that summer in a open-air Jeep. Helped carry her casket, with my cousins: Kevin, Steve, Randy and Sandy, me and Blake. She loved her grandsons more than her granddaughters, and it was not for anything that we had done. That’s just how she was, and I’m just saying.

She had a girl and four boys. They next-to-youngest is my father. She raised them mostly on her own, nursing at the little hospital in Mullins and nursing at home. She was a true ’round-the-clock nurse.

We still have pictures of her everywhere. My favorite is of her in her nurse’s uniform, when she was young but not so young that she was inexperienced. This is a picture of her in her nursing prime, full of confidence and energy. This is back when nurses wore little white creased caps and dresses, white hose and white shoes that look like baby shoes. I would think that today’s nurse is grateful for scrubs.

Regardless, the nurses of grandmama’s era and the Nike-wearing nurses of today are the same on the inside. Theirs are the hands that help the world get well.

Inez Skipper Allen. You don’t run into many Inez’s anymore. I miss the one I knew.

My grandmother was 4 feet, 10 inches. That’s stretching it. She was no threat to join the starting lineup of the Los Angeles Lakers, but I can testify that she “played big,” a power forward disguised in a white dress and a creased cap. If you messed with Inez, you would want to make sure your loins were girded, so to speak. Bad hombre. Long memory. Your best bet to stay on her good side was to be one of her grandsons.

What a break!

There are different kinds of grandmas, everything from sergeants to sweethearts. My Inez was a mix as most are, but she leaned a bit to the military side. You had to be tough at 4-feet-10, raising four boys with only one girl to have your back.

My dad and my uncles cried when I saw them at the hospital after her stroke and they cried when they buried her. She was once the best friend they had, and no one knew them better than my grandmama.

It’s funny what you remember. Her fried chicken. Homemade shortcake. A pound cake I never liked, waffles I always did. Her Bible on the TV set, its channels switched between “Guiding Light” and Jim Bakker, at that time the anti-guiding light. But again, once she bought in, either to a show or a personality or a grandson, you were riding the world’s rails on greased grooves.

It would be corny to say she’s tending to aches and pains in heaven. But, just for argument’s sake, maybe she gets to put a compress on somebody’s bruise now and then, Band-Aid a scratch. She did a lot of that down here, for me and some guys in my family. She wanted us to be better, even if it hurt at first.

So I remember her as a grandson should, as someone who made it better. I remember her as a safe place to be.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Travel Squad

Part of the 9-10 grade boys Sunday School class and some of the other usual suspects went to The Ballpark in Arlington Tuesday. Left on the church bus at 12:25 and got back at 3 a.m.

Rangers 4, Orioles 2. It was a beautiful trip and added to the beautiful experiences in and around this ballpark.

The travel squad is pictured above.

Highlight: You can barely see his head, in the middle, in the back. Sunshades. That head belongs to Garrett Patterson, who'll be in the 11th grade at Ruston High this fall. When O's first sacker Derek Lee homered, Garrett, with his cell phone in his right hand, reached over his body and, on reflex about 20 rows up in the lower left field seats, caught the homer barehanded with this "glove" (left) hand.

I was impressed. As were those around Garrett. They gave him a hand then requested, since the tater was hit by Baltimore, that he throw it back. He did, immediately. Chunked a one-hopper to Rangers left fielder and AL MVP Josh Hamilton.

It was "a moment." A proud one. And we haven't even worked on fly-ball catching in Sunday School.



Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Shelf: Vengeance by George Jonas

I'm about 25 years behind here, BUT ...

Little sis gave me this book and I read it last weekend. Spielbert's "Munich" is based on this. You can read a lot about the controversial book -- some people believe it's "made up." I liked it a lot. 7 on a 1-10 scale. It's "The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team," assembled to avenge the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics..."the first Mossad agent to come out of 'deep cover' and tell the story of a heroic endeavor that was shrouded in silence and speculation for year."

Golda Meir is my kind of gal. Once the die was cast and she got jiggy with it, business heated up and murderers started waking up dead.

This book is an account of what might be the best of two evils. Once counter-terrorism begins, then you have to suppose there is counter-counter-terrorism, and on like that. It's a fallen world for sure. And there's an immorality in not resisting terror. And so ... bombs and bullets. "The tragic fact," Jonas writes, "is that the maps of the world are drawn in blood."

There are acts of war, and there are war crimes, and there's a difference.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

New Human

This is Audree Rae-Ann Johnson. I have not verified a spelling but have verified that she is a girl, the daughter of my nephew Gregg and his wife Stephanie. My big sister, the mother of six, now has 1,472 grandchildren, give or take.

Audree was born last night in Shreveport-Bossier and will be spoiled by Monday. Good for her!