Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ethyl Or Unleaded, Trick Or Treat?

From today's Times and News-Star

Probably the high-water mark of an otherwise mediocre and unremarkable Halloween costume career was when I dressed up as Richard Petty.

If you don’t know who Richard Petty is, I’m sorry, but I’m never going to let you fine tune my master cylinder. Get away from that hood!

Not the biggest of stock car fans as a youth, truth is I had passed the ghost and pirate days, and in my hometown of Lake View, S.C., hard on the border of Darlington 500 territory and right in the middle of tobacco farms and soybeans, superheroes and fantasy characters weren’t Halloween first-stringers anyway. If you wanted real candy, something besides the piece of cellophane-wrapped peppermint you could get any Sunday of the year from an usher at church, you had to step out and get serious. Be Elvis. Be an NFL quarterback, back when NFL quarterbacks were missing teeth. Be a butcher, a county agent or the guy who owned both the Farmall and Allis-Chalmers dealerships in Lumberton. 

Or be a dust-stained, exhaust-breathing, live-on-the-razor’s edge NASCAR driver. That would get you something besides an apple. We’re talking big-boy candy.

If a kid comes to my door this Halloween dressed as Tony Stewart or Dale Jr., I’ll give him a whole Snickers. Maybe even check the tires on his bicycle.

Back in my Halloween candy-eating days, there was no bigger name in stock car racing than “The King,” Richard Petty. Oh, I could have been Cale Yarborough, from just down the road in Timmonsville. No shame in that. I liked the fact that his name was “Cale” and that he’d once had a tryout with the Washington Redskins. But he was balding young, and I didn’t think I could pull it off.

Junior Johnson intrigued me, but he’d mainly retired from the racing part of the sport back then and was more into management and “ownership,” something I knew little of. Plus he was a better moonshine runner than actual oval racer, the local stock car sports historians told me. So though I loved his name -- the countrified, lyrical, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road “Junior Johnson,” I didn’t really know what he looked like, other than he had a beer gut. Junior Johnson hadn’t been on the cover of Sports Illustrated like Cale had.

But Richard Petty, now there was the deal. When you are about 9, you are very impressed with people who win all the time, smile all toothily, and wear both cowboy hats and sun shades. Petty and the 43 car, that was the ticket. Hot rod. Hot dog!
With a Magic Marker, I drew “43” on a paper plate and taped it to my bike. Put on swim goggles and a football helmet without a facemask. Wrote “STP” in a red oval  about five places on my T-shirt. I wrote on my pants, and what didn’t say “Goodyear” said “Goody’s.” Looking good.

After conspicuously parking the “43 car” for each visit, I approached doors and porches with both confidence and a small tool box. Tapped on the doors with a tire tool. Each resident looked down on the grease-smudged face of a tiny NASCAR driver with no driver’s license.

If you are thinking the night was memorable and I was proud, you would be correct. Came away with a tire gauge, a couple quarts of 30-weight, some red oil rags, one air filter and a key to the men’s room at Gaddy’s ESSO station on Main Street by the First Baptist Church. Life is good when you’re a NASCAR stud.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Each Day Tries To Learn Us Something

From today's Times and News-Star

If the school year was a dog and the first day of school was its head and the last day was its tail, you’d be picking it up right behind its front legs about now. You’ve got a good, safe grip on it, but there’s a lot of dog left hanging down.

October, which rivals May (for different reasons) as the best month of the year, is soured by only two things: one is that winter and cold is coming, and the other is that, for the young student, there’s lots and lots of school year left.

That is not a bad thing once you get older and develop an appreciation for how quickly time passes and how lucky you were to be able to go to school. But who cares for such drivel when you’re a teenager?

Once you get out of school you learn that, secretly, you never really leave. You’re always learning something, whether you want to or not, which would be learning things the hard way. Examples:

“Yes, your honor, I understand!” 

“Oh, so if my card is declined, that means there’s no money in the account?”

“I don’t know, doctor. I guess it was that 12th pork chop. Or the third bowl of Blue Bell.”

There’s a trick in just learning how to learn. My dad says that on the first day of school, they taught him that two plus two three equals four, and then on the next day they told him that one plus three equals four, and he decided right then that if they didn’t even know what equals four, how was HE supposed to ever know?

But once teachers coach you up, show you there’s more than one way to skin a cat, you realize the world is your classroom. Some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet got that way without having many documents to frame and hang on the wall.

Often a friend named Gene writes me, which I’m thankful for because he is old school, born in an oilfield company house near a wide spot in the highway in Depression era- Garfield County, Oklahoma.

When he was in elementary school, his family rented the first floor of a house owned by a gentleman named Whitey Liddard. He lived upstairs and owned a nearby café where Gene’s father worked as a short-order cook. Whitey had barely a third-grade education, but he was a Rhodes Scholar when it came to running an oilfield-town café.

One day a young customer came in to celebrate his high school education, the first diploma earned by a member of his family.

“He proudly displayed the new diploma for Whitey’s inspection,” Gene said. “Whitey looked it over, front and back, then handed it back to the graduate.

“Now that’s a fine thing to have,” Whitey said. “Just don’t let it keep you from learning something.”

Hearing that from a wise man like Whitey Liddard kept Gene modest as he went through both high school and college, even on to some graduate work. “I still try to ‘learn something’ every day,” he said.

True, some things will remain forever a mystery. Why, for instance, is the word panties plural and the word bra singular? Think about it. Or not. 

Why do we eat nuts out of socks in front of a dead tree in our dens in December? Why is “contraction” such a long word?

The older I get, the more I understand that “I don’t know” when I really don’t know is a handy answer.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

At Times, A Touch Is All It Takes

From today's Times and News-Star

Much as I love hot weather and summertime, the first feel of autumn is always a tender and welcomed touch, the breath of God reminding you that he hasn’t forgotten you, that the air outside won’t always be water-logged, that a high blue sky and a refreshing breeze and colors of rust and red and gold are promised to all who will hang in there.

Sometimes, you need a little touch, a special pat that serves to energize and to encourage. I am grateful for autumn’s hands.

Not all touches are so longed for. When I was little and we were on vacation, traveling from Carolina to my grandparents’ home in Louisiana, my dad’s hand would appear in mid-air and out of nowhere, hovering over me in the backseat of the Impala, even though my dad was driving. That hand could find me anywhere, and it would grab me like a mechanical claw and set me up and shake its finger. I swear it spoke: “Leave your sisters alone!”

There was the touch of the principal’s paddle, the touch of the bully, the touch of the limb that knocked you off your bike. Tough touches.

And then there was the comfort of things you touched, the feel of welcomed familiarity. The inside of a baseball glove around your palm and fingers. Your collie’s fur. The handles of your bike.

But best of all, the touches you longed for. You mom’s hand in your hair while she sang hymns, or your dad’s hand on your shoulder while you picked your way toward the fishing hole.  

I didn’t really expect the lesson I got in the redemptive power of touch when I went to a play this week, but it was spotlighted on center stage. I saw “CATS” at Strauss Theatre Center in Monroe, and what a deal THAT was. “Odd Couple” or “No Time for Sergeants,” it ain’t. I am still reviewing the game films and trying to decipher exactly what happened.

But this is for certain. The glamour cat, who’d traded in tomorrow for today and was now old and no longer spry and beautiful, was healed by the touch of the other cats. And the young cats learned something of happiness by helping and old cat, no longer in a position to be of much help to herself.

“Touch me
It's so easy to leave me
All alone with the memory
Of my days in the sun
If you touch me
You'll understand what happiness is
A new day has begun.”

I never thought I would cry when a cat sang. I am more of a dog person. But when the young cats, their hearts thawed by this old cat’s request to once again be counted and to matter, responded to her with affection, I gave it up. I haven’t cried at a production since I watched “My Dog Skip” with my Little League team 10 years ago. It happens.

The show sold out its entire run, which I’m told is a first, and added a show for today at 2. Nice touch.

And it proves to me again that we can positively touch people we don’t know and make a difference for them with our actions, our posture and approachability. We don’t even have to use words. Cats and dogs do it all the time.