Sunday, May 31, 2015

Oh hi Doc: Wait: you want me to do ... what?

(From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR)

A colonoscopy is what I like  to call the ultimate in spring cleaning.

Hardly anyone likes to talk about it. To this I say, good!

Butt, we should talk about it from time to time because it's of crucial
importance: once we stumble upon age 50, these things are crucial in early
detection of one of nature's cruelest surprises. I stepped to the plate a
couple of years ago and told you so, hopefully rallying other digestive
tracts to the cause.

Now, although it's a private subject "hardly anyone" wants to discuss,
"hardly anyone" means that there are people who don't mind sharing the
experience. They were born with caring colons. God love 'em. Such is one
of the finest reporters and human beings I have ever worked with. Donnie
Golfgame recently experienced this procedure first-hand, for lack of a
better term. Or maybe that is the perfect term. Regardless, he files this
report from the Rookie Colonoscopy League, which he joined on a recent
eventful Monday afternoon.

Editor's Note: I told Donnie he would want to bat leadoff in this game, as
I had been taught when I was a rookie. But he messed around and selected
an afternoon start time. Ummm. If you need to get a colonoscopy -- and if
you are 50 and haven't gotten one, you do -- try to be first in line for
several reasons, any of which you should be able to surmise.

Some of Donnie I will paraphrase, but you will get his drift, which is
that if our colons can do it, yours can too:

"It's simply amazing," Donnie GG said, "that after they ran a tube six
feet into my colon, I felt no after effects. No cramps, no soreness or
swelling. Well, no more than usual, considering where I work and how I'm
taken advantage of all the live-long day. Another story tho...

"It's kind of surreal looking back on it. (There is no other angle, from
what I can tell, to look at this sort of thing.) Again, the anxiety factor
was major heading toward the 6:30 evening-prior prep time. So much so that
I said 'what the heck' and began the process early. You know, a 'hit it
before it hits me' kind of thing. It wasn't good, but not nearly as bad as
I had anticipated, which I think made it tolerable.

"Can't say the thought of Round 2 was that appealing at 7 the next
morning, but again I hit it head-on starting at 6:45 a.m. Then after some
hand-wringing and wondering why I opted for a 3 p.m. appointment, next
thing you know I'm riding in the car with my wife to the clinic. They were
running behind -- no pun intended -- so instead of 3, they didn't get me
into 'the room' until 4 p.m.

"After some chatter, and a realization on my part that there were far more
people in the room than I had expected, the nurse told me I'd feel a warm
sensation and then 'You'll fall asleep and wake up when it's over.' I saw
her plug the syringe into the IV, and I 'relaxed' as much as you can on
your side in a gown on a table with lots of strangers around, especially
when you know exactly what they are about to do to you, and I remember
thinking, 'I don't feel a warm sensation...

"And then I woke up.

"My wife told me I was talking gibberish right before I woke, but she did
hear me say distinctly, 'There's too many people.' I don't have any
recollection of that, but I hope that while I was asleep I didn't ask any
of them to leave, or to get out and leave me and my colon alone, since
that was, after all, the whole point of our being there.

"So from my insides to yours, I can't thank you enough for what your
support has meant to me. Your own personal colon will be glad to know that
all my results were good, for which I am grateful. The doctor said I
should come back in 10 years, which seems like a long time; he told me
that amount of time between procedures was normal, which made me feel
better. I thought it might have been something I'd said..."


Sunday, May 24, 2015

This Memorial Day Weekend, don’t ride with a loose nut

From today's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

In this thing called life you gather a brother or two if you’re lucky. I have a couple that might call me from anywhere in the world and it’s never a surprise.

These are two guys I jumped a train with one night, just to ride a couple hundred yards, and we couldn’t jump off for 22 miles. Nearly froze. One of us got a concussion. It was a bonding experience. It was also the night we decided the hobo or outlaw games were not for us. That was 35 years ago.

Jaybo is a pilot of Big Passenger Planes today. Once he returned my text with this: “It’s the middle of the night here in Hong Kong. I’ll find out in the morning.” He did just that, and texted me back – in the middle of the night here.

He sends me photos from beaches and islands and Iceland and London. I do not like him as much as I used to.

Like Jaybo, our friend Matth (with an “h”) gets around, but he is more of a mainland guy. This does not inhibit his travels as, if you’ve looked at a map, there is plenty of mainland for anyone not on probation to explore. Matth has a grown daughter in New York City, a house in Carolina, a trailer in New Orleans and in California, two trucks, a motorcycle and a free spirit. And a great sense of direction.

He is also my favorite Matth of all time, just ahead of Marshal Dillon of “Gunsmoke” and Matthew/Levi of “The New Testament.” You recall that one day Levi was a despised man collecting taxes when Jesus met him, told him he was coming to supper at his house and that Levi could even bring all his friends, basically riff-raff people like me and Jaybo and Matth with an h. The guy quit his job, fired up the back yard grill, enjoyed the evening, packed his toothbrush and was never the same.

The most recent call from Matth came from New Orleans, where he’d driven from his Carolina base to pick up items he’d left in the South Louisiana trailer where he’d lived while building sets for the upcoming “Terminator” movie and whatever the newest “Fast and Furious” episode is. Matth does things like that. As part of his job with Paramount Pictures years ago, he replaced the windows in Dr. Phil’s office there on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. Somebody had to do it. I recall that as being an interesting phone call he made from his Paramount carpenter golf cart, right after he’d seen Mary Hart.  

But on this call, Matth was talking rather urgently about how he was heading my way in north Louisiana, unrehearsed of course, and could I find anybody who might be willing to work on his 1983 Ford Ranger diesel, stick shift, four-speed. “I’ve lost reverse, and second gear is iffy,” he said, from what sounded like the cockpit of the space shuttle during takeoff. The pedal was on the metal and he was getting all he could out of this faithful 32-year-old automobile. Matth can fix anything, so this was real trouble.

He walked in that night wearing grease and a smile, the ’83 in the drive, panting.

The next day we tried a couple of mechanics who looked at the truck as an archeologist might look at the Holy Grail. They admired it, but dared not touch it. And while an ace transmission man said he could repair the Wabash Cannonball before he could repair an ’83 Ford Ranger diesel --  not a common model these days – he did offer suggestions that Matth took. Matth’s ingenuity and some Band-Aids got him back to Carolina. Of course, Matth could have taken his new truck the 2,000 miles to Louisiana and back, but it gets only 12 miles to the gallon, and where’s the adventure in that? Why not “save money” and take the ’83 that gets 38 miles a gallon? (“But it has to be RUNNING,” I reminded Matth.)

A nice man in a shade-tree fix-it shop near Taylortown, N.C., found the trouble and got her running smooth again. Matth called to tell me the problem had been a loose nut. Sounded right to me: Nut, with an h.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Craig Durrett: A cool refreshing beverage for you and his other thirsty friends

So Craig Durrett, daily protecting the public trust, a man in charge, a journalist who wrote about important things like roads and schools and whether or not a politician might be trying to slide a greedy hand into your pocket, would stop before walking out the door of the oversized closet that housed two or three other ink-stained wretches of The Times editorial department.

"So," he'd say, jingling change en route to the snack room machines downstairs by the dirty presses, "can I offer you a cool refreshing beverage?"

Every time.

Craig, Shreveport's Mr. Editorial Page Editor, there in his Windsor knot, his dress shirt and either pressed Dockers or knit slacks, leaning on the doorjamb, his back to the newsroom, a silly smile and a daily question and what military reporter/buddy John Andrew Prime called "that halo of curly blonde hair."

Stanley Nelson, a recent Pulitzer finalist for his work as editor and writer at The Concordia Sentinel, was one of Craig's roommates at Ruston's Royal Crest Apartments when the two were students of Wiley Hilburn's at Louisiana Tech in the mid-1970s.

"I was in his wedding," Stanley said this week. "You should have seen him fix his hair in the morning. It was amazing."

Craig's funeral is this afternoon at 1 at First Presbyterian Church of Shreveport, the town he served so well, personally and professionally, since he and his family set up camp with a purpose here in 1991.

He died this week from complications from the zoster virus. He was only 60. It was ridiculous, really. He'd overcome multiple bouts with cancer years ago. Regardless, shingles came at the end of last year and grew complicated. About 96 people die per year of disseminated zoster virus; estimates are .028 to 0.69 per million population.

You can have more success banging your head against a wall than you can trying to figure out why it was Craig who drew those odds. So there's that.

The cold hard truth is, people die every day.

With age, we get a bit immune to it. Good thing, because about 107 hearts stop beating each minute. We come to accept it as part of the privilege of living.

People die every day.

But when a good man dies, when you worked with him most days for 25 years and saw how the rubber really met the road, when you were close to him, a person with energy and wit and wisdom and a ministry of dishing out the good stuff, when it's a person you've long known you should be more like, well, I don't know … that sits you down for minute.

The paper has given us some space today for Craig, but mostly for you. These words are a collaboration from friends who worked with Craig day after day, grinding it out in a job you could never get ahead in. It was like a family, with laughs and feuds and frustrations and triumphs.
But we know Craig. All of this is so you might know him better.

Craig was your friend. He'd been a couple of other places, including his home state of Arkansas at the Little Rock paper. But once he came "home" to Shreveport, he knew he should stay. He could have run his own newsroom somewhere else, but this is where he felt he should make a difference. Like a minister who decides to shepherd That One Flock come hell or high water, no matter that it might be more lucrative to leave, Craig and Miriam, his high school sweetheart and wife of 38 years, dug in.

It's a blessing and a curse, being a newspaperman as Craig was. You can be a mediocre anything and get by. But if you start caring, about teaching or picking up trash or writing for the paper, it's a bit of a different ballgame. To do it right in news, you just about have to live it. Craig did, but what made him rare was that he still paid close attention to his family, his church and his civic responsibilities.

Craig wrote about senior citizen issues or Meals on Wheels, and then he and Miriam signed up to deliver boxes to the home-bound elderly and, through their church, were regulars on the Meals on Wheels circuit. They did this for years. He talked more with his hands and feet than he did with the keyboard.

Day after day, he was duking it out for you, taking apart the fine details of The Big Picture to see if you were getting the shaft or getting your due. You'd have liked him, I'm fairly certain. He'd have probably liked you, although that's not the point. Like you or not, he knew he had accepted the challenge of making Shreveport-Bossier better, that that was his job, and he was going to work for you and have your back. He made a decision to love everybody, so then he could put the messy business of whether or not he liked you on the back burner.

Craig didn't get angry unless he felt a public official was withholding something from citizens who had a right to know, or unless a colleague dropped the ball out of sheer laziness. He was trustworthy, he respected people, and he didn't pretend to know all the answers – although he knew most of them.

He had a way of speaking to the reporters he managed – phrasing, tone, timing – to make what would have been an insult from someone else encouragement from this gentle man. You knew he was making you better.

His biggest asset to the newspaper and to the community was just in being around, and this is why. When a publisher asked Dan Turner, who ended up being Craig's editorial page assistant, who the editorial page editor should be back when that job opened, Dan said the obvious choice was Craig. But why?

Dan, speaking for us all, told the publisher this: "To lessen the chance that you would make a really bad decision." Craig kept you from hurting yourself. And he knew more going on in our community at any given moment than anyone.

Like me, Dan could be about as crazy as a road lizard. But no question, he and Craig were the smartest guys in the room, a perfectly balanced journalistic dynamic duo. But we all concede that Craig, Mr. Important Newspaper Person, was the funniest, and maybe, because of his smarts and wisdom and neckties and willingness to attack everything with energy and enthusiasm, the silliest. A survival mechanism-type deal.

After Craig edited a series by Don Walker, another Tech graduate and The Times' best meat-and-potatoes reporter for more than two decades, the two tried to think of a writing-oriented tombstone for Don, who Craig was sure would be remembered for his writing. A tombstone headline, so to speak. Craig finally hit it. "Sucked Less Than Others."

"Coming from Craig," Don said, "that was probably the nicest compliment I've ever gotten from an editor."

His emails were little off-the-cuff comedy riffs. When he first took the job of assistant news director at KTBS-TV three years ago, he wrote me to say he was still trying to figure out what a "voice over" was and did I know where he could buy a cheap compact mirror. He'd make intentionally odd-ball statements, was never mean spirited, and usually what was most funny was in the way he said it. I'd give money from my wallet to have sat on one of the nearly two-dozen political panels he worked with former local TV reporter Rich Masters, just to hear their comments about some of our political princes, brutal honesty softened by comedy.

You had to be on your toes because Craig's sense of humor was one that didn't wait around on you to catch up. Being funny and smart and hard-working, in there every day taking fly ball after fly ball before the game, that example of his allowed him as a city editor to successfully manage a cast of egos and underpaid wild personalities. He got the best out of what was basically a circus cast armed with ink pens and a will to "get out there and newspaper."

Laura-Ashley Overdyke had the pleasure of working with him on this final run, in television. It took her about 20 minutes to figure out "his ability to see B.S. from truth, his exceptional talent as a writer, and his goodness as a person."

Amen, sister. In this business, that's the holy trinity.

What about all those people he had to "boss" around? Day after day, news would happen and he'd have to foul up your day with this story or that when you were already working on this or the other. But the people he "bossed around" loved him.

Curtis manned the night desk, a prime location for emotional flash fires. Curtis saw Craig handle joy and accolades with humility, and strife with resolve and dignity.

"Because Craig did, I can too," Curtis said. "Or I at least must try. I owe him that."

When Curtis's father-in-law died, Craig was at his door with a tray of food. When Curtis's mother died, Craig was at her funeral.

Mary Sharon often heard Craig talking on a newsroom phone to "Little Chris," the adolescent boy he mentored, asking him about his grades, his goals, the next time they could get together. When Mary Sharon had to go to the emergency room after a freak accident, Craig was there. One Christmas she gave him a CD compilation of The Chi-Lites, just because it was hard not to notice when he'd start crooning the '70's ballad "Oh, Girl" from time to time, right there in the middle of crafting a sentence about millage rates.

On and on it goes. His newsroom friends talked and talked about newsroom things and then, as Kym or Louise and Scooter did, you're just left to shake our head and say, "He was just a lovely man."

Preach it.

Kathie and Judy showed up at The Times about the same time as Craig, all of them trying together to find the paper clips and the bathrooms. And both said that while his unique sense of humor and his intelligence and news sense and dedication to getting the story right were all reasons to respect him, the fact that he was a truly good man was their reason to love him.

"Good people: there aren't many," Dan said. "It hurts me to think I've outlived one. For as well as I knew him and for as long as I knew him, now all I can think of is how much better I wish I knew him and how much longer I wish I could know him."

Craig wasn't perfect. Dan says he was "beautifully imperfect." I like that. "Magnificently flawed," is what I say. Maybe he was late with homework in the ninth grade. Maybe he could get upset with some things better left alone, but his calling was so acute that he just couldn't bear for something with his fingerprints on it not to be as good as it could be.

Ultimately, he was a devout Christian who didn't pound his chest about his faith but instead lived it in quiet and loving ways every day. You could count on him, sure as you could count on seeing him and Miriam on Friday nights at Tacomania, their standing date.

And so, a man of civility and grace was a brother to us because we worked with him. But he was a friend to anybody who read the paper or watched the news or lived in town, because he really did care. It wore him out. But it's the only way he could operate. Our man could never just mail it in. He had too much pride in the gifts he'd been given, too much heart to let people and his town down. He was a beautiful man, and God, wickedly funny.

That's why we wanted to share with you today. We're not the poets we need to be when it comes to Craig. But we had to try, because your friend died. And we're as sorry as we can be. We grieve a good man gone. That's the way things are.

But it's just as true that Craig never left a man down on the field. Couldn't do it. He was there for you; we know this. We honor and love him for it.

So today, maybe buy a brother a cool refreshing beverage and crack a joke to somebody who needs it, which is anyone you'll see. Encourage. Make somebody's load lighter. Dish out the good stuff. That's what your friend would do.

Friday, May 15, 2015

She had the keys to her boys – just not to her pickup

On Mom's Day, 2015

Their daddy died a good while ago, so for years, the three grown boys had only their mom as a living parent. 

One had a weekly date with her for lunch. Almost always from Griff’s Hamburgers. Griff’s was just right down the road, old Highway 80. She’d rather have a Griff’s hamburger than a $75 steak meal. That’s what one of the boys said. He meant it too.

Of course the years went by and her grandkids grew and got older and she grew too, but only older. That’s how it happens.

Couldn’t drive the pickup anymore. But every time one of the boys came by, the truck seemed to be in a little different spot under the carport than it had been before. One day a little paint was scraped off, there by the porch, almost like a truck had barely swiped it, moving really slow, like maybe pulling back in after backing down the driveway.

“Momma,” one of the boys said. 

“Well,” she said, “I won’t do it again.”

A few days later her oldest son put her in his truck and drove to their property out of town and handed her the keys and he got in the passenger side. Over the pasture and through some ruts and around in circles and fast or slow, she drove. Smiled, and drove.

I’d eaten with two of the three brothers the week she died, back in January. They didn’t mention their mom being sick because they didn’t think she was. The doctors had her in the hospital for a couple of days but things had cleared up and it looked like she’d go back to her familiar house, with the pickup and what she called her other “assets.” 

But then things changed really quickly and she found it hard to breathe and one of the boys called to tell me her condition. And four hours later he called to say his mom and the mother of his two brothers, peacefully with them by her bedside, had stopped her labored breathing and quietly passed away.
Their resourceful mom would have been proud of how the boys, sport-coat-or-dress-shirt-only churchgoers, handled getting appropriately outfitted for the funeral. Suits that hadn’t been worn in years were too small. So were belts. Did somebody have a tie bought in the past 20 years or so?

They started handing down and passing around and mixing and matching. In a flurry of rural emergency haberdashery, three brothers, a random son-in-law and a nephew or two were all decked out at a total cost of one new suit and a belt. At the service, they looked mighty fine. Mrs. Yvonne had to be smiling.

She had told her trio of sons exactly how the funeral service would be, when the time came. “And take care of my assets,” she reminded them. I wasn’t there when she said it, but I imagine it was the same voice and tone she used when she’d said, “Wash your hands before you come to this table,” or “Quit fighting and get in there and get to sleep.” They closed on the house this week and settled the estate, a small one maybe, but one big enough to raise three boys who knew how to take care of business, mind their own, and spread the good stuff for years among a family of blood and friends who stood together and sang the classics that morning on the third day after her passing.

“Victory in Jesus.” “Because He Lives.” “I Stand Amazed in the Presence.” Which, if you believe what God says, Mrs. Yvonne was surely doing that afternoon, for the first time in a long time away from the gravitational pull of pickups and pastures and Griff’s Hamburgers.

Today, another first. For the first time in 60-plus years, these three brothers will wake up on a Mother’s Day with no one to wish a “happy Mother’s Day” to. If it is like that for you, as it is for them, I am sorry. I really am. If it’s the first or 30th Mom’s Day without your mother, it must be the same feeling. 

My friends will take care of themselves, and their families, because their mom told them to. To all moms, both alive and gone on, I guess we sons and daughters are part of your assets, though each of us has been a liability at times. But as you’d want us to, because of your adult lifetime investment in us, we will try to take care of ourselves. And of the others you’ve loved. No way can we do as good a job of it as you did.