A heavy steel door slammed behind me, causing me to flinch as I stood obediently before a gate, waiting for it to open. I stared through the heavy gauge chain link as a dozen or so men dressed in white occupied themselves with a game of basketball on a concrete slab some fifty yards away. I glanced over my shoulder at a woman behind bulletproof glass and concrete nonchalantly taking a bite of a breakfast burrito before stretching a finger toward a button on a control panel in front of her. The gate made a loud buzz and a uniformed officer standing beside me gave it a push. I stepped through and paused as my eyes surveyed unfamiliar surroundings. Stark metal buildings framed a compound contained within boundaries outlined by more chain link fence reaching ten or twelve feet high. Atop the forboding fence ran a menacing ribbon of razor wire.
The officer beside me grinned, "Welcome to prison."
In all my thirty-seven years on earth, this was the last place I ever thought I'd find myself. As I stood there on that bleak day in March of 1995, had someone told me that I would spend the next twenty-three years behind that fence, I'd have never believed them.
I had worked for a supermarket chain for fifteen years, working my way up to store manager, a lucrative position for a small town boy with a limited college education. The company had given me the daunting challenge of managing a store in the community where it all began. The founder of the organization had opened his first store there and over the decades the company had expanded throughout west Texas. The corporate office had been relocated to a city three hours away long ago, but the widow of the owner had firmly refused to leave the town she had always called home. So, I was under the gun. She shopped there. Her friends shopped there. The women in her Sunday School class shopped there. There was no room for error on my part.
The pay was exceptional but it came with a price. I lived at the store almost day and night, not because I wanted to but that's what it took to cling to that coveted position. My wife and children were strangers. David Letterman was my only friend as I slumped into a recliner in a darkened living room late at night with a supper that had been left in the oven for me. The money and eventually the job itself meant little to me. I had no time to spend the money and the job had become a life I detested. Divorce loomed before me and I realized there was only one way to save it. Even as I began making preparations to try to salvage my personal life, I knew it was already too late.
The store was located in a community whose primary employer was an agency of the State of Texas. As I contemplated my next move, I began to observe the people who worked for the state. Both my mom and dad had retired from state employment. They had a motor home and took several vacations a year. They seemed to want for nothing. Same held true for my neighbor who had his own camping trailer and seemingly plenty of time off to take it to Colorado numerous times a year. Other folks around town who were employed by the state seemed to be doing just fine financially. I pondered the possibility.
It was about this time that the State of Texas found itself in hot water with a federal judge over overcrowding and other violations within its prison system. With Governor Ann Richards at the helm, the state set out to build more prisons...lots of them in what seemed every little podunk town in Texas. During a conversation with a close friend where I divulged my fear that the time had come for me to change careers, he suggested that perhaps I should look into job positions with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. I scoffed at the thought, yet stored it away for future reference.
It was just a few weeks later that my life became completely unraveled. One night I loaded up very few of my personal belongings into my pickup and set out in search of a new life, leaving behind a six-figure income and a wife who had grown accustomed to spending every penny of it. I took a job with the State of Texas, making a third of the salary I had been earning. I was terrified.
I set here tonight reflecting.
With that piddly state job, I was able to by a spot of land with a pecan orchard on it. Throughout the years I sold pecans all over the world. I got into the goat business at the height of the South African Boer goat boom, breeding some of the finest registered Boer goats in Texas. When a three-year drought hit, I set all that aside and picked up a laptop and wrote a book, and another, and a few more. I paid off my house and two vehicles. My daughter's down the road at college and I'm not losing sleep wondering how I'm going to pay for it. And I've retired from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice at the age of sixty. Yes, after twenty-three years I made parole! Looking back...I wouldn't change a thing. I am a blessed man.
Did I like working in a prison? Ah, hell no! But it was an adventure and good or bad, I thrive on adventure. Now that I've retired I might share some prison stories with you. Like that inmate who called himself Punkin. I do believe the best set of boobs I ever saw were on a man. I can't believe I told you that...
A man crosses many finish lines in the course of his lifetime if he's lucky to live long enough. There are literally thousands of finish lines, like when you finally learn to poop in the potty. As insignificant as that sounds, admittedly it is a notable start to many more achievements sure to come later in life. Major life-changing events such as graduating from high school or college, marriage, children, careers...are all finish lines that we cross as we traverse the timeline of life. But what is the BIG finish line?
For the past decade or so I have had my eyes focused on what I considered to be the ultimate finish line. It seemed so far away and at times, non-existent. But time passed slowly...very slowly, and suddenly one day, quite unexpectedly actually, I looked up and saw that finish line looming before me. Wow, I made it!
So, just a few days before Christmas, I gathered up my personal belongings from my workstation, which consisted of an early sixties model Sears radio and a green plastic coffee cup, and made the final fifty yards to that yellow tape. As a heavy steel door slammed behind me, a twenty-three-year career came to a close. I was retired!
One of my biggest fears in recent years was that I'd die working. I talked with a whole lot of folks the past few months who seem just fine with the idea...work till they die. I had a conversation with a man who has worked for the same organization for forty years. He plans to die right there on the job. I chatted with another who is pushing eighty! I said, "Retire!"
He replied angrily, "And what am I going to do, play dominoes?"
I am proud to say that at the age of sixty I laid it down. If I've a mind to, I'll play dominoes. Fact is, I'll do any damn thing I want to while I am young enough to do so. I have worked since I was fifteen years old and the truth is, I spent every one of those days working to get to where I am now. Yes sir, pretty proud to be here... on the other side of that finish line.
I'm not one to give unsolicited advice usually, but being the storyteller that I am, here's one to ponder:
I started working for a supermarket chain while I was still in high school, taking a break for a short stint in college before coming back with the intent of working my way up the ladder. By the age of thirty, I had promoted to the position of Store Manager, making good money. I have the Rolex in my dresser drawer to prove it. It was toward the end of my fifteenth anniversary that I had a conversation with a woman who had worked for the company for forty-five years.
She said, "I have to keep working. If I retire, my pension will only be eight hundred dollars a month..."
She never got to draw that pension. She died working.
That conversation haunted me. I began crunching numbers. Sure, my retirement check would be considerably larger than eight hundred bucks. If I stayed with the company for forty-five years, I'd bring in a whopping seventeen hundred dollars a month. It only made senc\se to commit myself to begin saving for retirement. I was only thirty-five. Surely I could amass a whopping...more crunching...wow, pretty bleak outlook. And so, I changed careers. After fifteen years...sitting at the top of the ladder...I just up and quit.
Ah, but all this talk of working is bringing me down. Allow me to gloat! For the first time in forty-five years, I am getting more than six hours of sleep every night. It was my first goal...to sleep until I can't sleep anymore. I can drink my coffee down at the McDonalds in the morning and stop by the diner in the afternoon for pie and ice cream. I went to the doctor twice this week. Well, I needed to for a long time but I was WORKING! I'll spend some time getting myself into prime shape now that I'm retired. Yes, maybe even a gym membership and some water aerobics down at the city pool this summer.And maybe I'll write. Can't promise that. It sure is hard to sit still when there's so much living to get done.
The Good Lord has blessed me. I intend to spend time passing that forward. There are folks out there that need a leg up, a helping hand, or maybe just a smile and an encouraging word. I've got the time and I reckon I should make it count best I can. Perhaps there is a reason I've found myself where I am...perhaps there is a purpose. I'm excited about that. Always ready for another adventure...and another tale to tell.
I gotta we wrap this up. Tomorrow's Sunday and it's the only day I have to set the alarm because I'm retired, you know. So, I'm off to iron some church clothes. The next time I write, which may or may not be next week since you know...I'm retired...I'll tell you about where I spent the last twenty-three years of my life. I think you will be surprised and this revelation will open up a multitude of new tales I've not been able to share until now. Good gosh, I haven't clipped my fingernails since I retired. So little time, so much to do!
Don't you just love those late spring showers? The rumble of thunder in the distance, lightning bolts streaking through the sky, and the smell of rain are some of my favorite springtime moments. As I made my way through town yesterday, catching both traffic lights green, I peered a hopeful eye toward the sky as the promise of a shower dribbled sporadic sprinkles onto my windshield. By the time I had made it past the city limit sign, the sprinkles had transformed themselves into a deluge of huge raindrops. Turning onto the dirt road toward my modest little farmhouse, I dodged puddles, taking the high middle of the road in an effort to avoid creating ruts.
I stepped into the house just seconds before the torrential downpour unleashed its fury, kicking off my boots by the back door. I shook the water off my hat and placed it on its rightful hook by the door. It was at that exact moment a brilliant flash and the angry roar of a thunder clap caught me off guard, my heart skipping a beat or two. My ears focused in on...complete silence. No electricity!
Stepping into the living room, I smiled at my daughter sitting on the couch, staring at a black TV screen.
"I was binging on 'The 100.' The new season came on Netflix yesterday and I made it to the season finale...and now THIS!"
She picked up her phone and began texting. Seconds later she headed for the door.
"Where are you going?"
"To find electricity."
And she stepped out into the storm, leaving me to deal with a darkened, silent house all alone.
Sure that the power would return in a few moments, I sunk into my usual easy chair, smartphone in hand.
I mindlessly scrolled through Facebook, then Twitter. I googled the number to the electric company just in case the electricity didn't come back on momentarily, jotting the number down on last Sunday's church bulletin. Bored with all that, I meandered into my bedroom and changed into some dry clothes. The dog danced at my feet and we both headed through the house toward the kitchen door, me stumbling over the canine a time or two in the darkened hallway.
I shooed the Boston Terrier out into the pouring rain, muttering, "You'll be sorry!"
Watching sheets of rain roll off the patio awning as the dog hesitantly squatted in a puddle, I shook my head, "I'll have to mow again!"
Letting the dog back in, a distasteful smell of 'wet dog' following along with her, I stood in the middle of the living room and raised my iPhone...a whole ten minutes had passed since the electricity had gone out. I sighed. I couldn't cook. I shouldn't even open the fridge. What if the power didn't come back on for hours? A surge of panic flowed through my body. How much charge did my phone have left? What if my e-cig peace pipe went dead? I couldn't watch TV or play on the computer! The silence in the house was deafening. Oh wait, that was the noise of the rain smashing against the window and the crack of another lightning bolt landing nearby.
I fervently dialed the number to the electric company. The line was busy! Why would the line be busy right now? I needed to call them about the power! I waited another thirty seconds...still busy! Geez! How would they ever know I have no electricity if I can't get through to them? I tried to calm my panicked mind. Perhaps someone else was telling them about the power outage. Or was it just me without power? I stared toward my neighbors' homes through the deluge. I shrugged my shoulders. My nearest neighbor was ten acres away, after all. I dialed the electric company again...still busy. Tossing the phone onto the couch, I raised my hands in despair.
Well, of course, the electricity came back on...two hours later. I had some touch-and-go moments during that time. I had time to reflect...time to think. It was a bit scary, me trapped with nothing but my own thoughts to entertain myself. But I came away from this tragedy with some realizations and some thoughts to ponder.
The Good Lord allowed mankind to live without the luxury of electricity for thousands of years. When the sun went down, our ancestors sat in the dark... or fired up a torch. For the vast majority of civilization as we know it, man has had nothing to entertain himself with except his own thoughts. There were no smartphones, no TV's, no internet. For thousands of years, the human race survived without the convenience of electricity and here I sat for two hours practically going out of my mind.
The luxuries and conveniences of today have weakened mankind. We have spoiled ourselves. I, an off-the-grid survivalist sort of guy, struggled with the concept of living without what we all truly believe to be a basic necessity for survival...electricity. I have told myself in the past that if by some natural disaster or even a nuclear attack the world fell into darkness, I would be one of the few that could pull myself through should the lights go out for days, weeks, or months. Perhaps I've been keeping myself in the dark about living in a darkened world. Two hours in the dark was enough for me! Note to self: Need batteries for flashlight.
Shreveport, Louisana has never been on my bucket list of 'must-visit-before-I-die' places, but it should have been. It was a spontaneous whim that brought me to this culturally overloaded historic city last week where I found myself smack-dab in the midst of something called the 'Mud-Bug Madness Festival.' Apparently folks around those parts refer to crawfish as mudbugs, and obviously, those same folks believe mudbugs are meant to be eaten...with an ample dose of, what else, Louisana Hot Sauce.
I have dined on crawfish, or mudbugs, or what we called crawdads when we were kids. As long as you remove that little poop-vein, crawfish are fine eating. With crawfish in every imaginable form and fashion available at the Mud-Bug Madness Festival, I had every intention of devouring a few of the little critters, but my first stop was at a concession stand hawking alligator sausage gyros. Admit it...you'd have to try alligator sausage, too, right?
While those crawfish enchiladas at the next booth looked amazingly delicious, there is just something manly about scarfing down alligator sausage. Throughout the night I sampled foods I couldn't even pronounce, all-the-while fully intending to round it all off with crawfish. And believe it or not, I just never got around to it. I was having too much fun!
Music and festivals go hand in hand and two stages offered an awesome sampling of local musicians dishing out music as hot as that Louisana Hot Sauce. My group of revelers finally settled at a table, listening to some pretty little lady wearing a peach colored dress, accessorized tastefully with a fiddle resting on her shoulder. As I sipped on that one beer I had allowed myself to indulge in and grazed on something I couldn't even pronounce, she sawed that fiddle into a foot-stomping rendition of 'The Devil Went Down To Georgia.' And that's when it hit me...
I was having fun! I had inadvertently let my hair down, what hair I have left. It was something I'd not allowed myself to do for some time. The last time I had this feeling sweep through me was on some beach on Padre Island, and that was some years ago. Yeah, I dunno...I'm just twisted a bit differently than most.
I am a driven, goal-oriented, focused person. Throughout my life, my primary goals have been survival...not to starve and to keep my nose to the grindstone so I can pay the bills. I have been cursed with an old-fashioned work ethic. Cursed with a mindset that 'fun' is simply not in the budget. Nickles and dimes still mean a lot to me, and you can't even fathom how much twenty dollars is to an old goat like me. Sweat beads on my forehead and my heart pounds inside my chest whenever I lay a five dollar tip on the table of some diner. It's from years of scraping to get by. It is perhaps my biggest curse.
I've not missed a meal since those 'young and dumb' days back when I first set out on my own. There were times back then when I flicked the piss-ants off a stale saltine cracker and diligently scraped the last spoonful of peanut butter from the bottom of a jar. I learned the hard way that hunger is real. I learned to survive. I learned that a dollar is a whole lot when you don't have one.
So, fun has always been on a back burner for me. Fun costs money and I might need that money someday for a box of saltines and a jar of peanut butter. I can't shake the curse. I am not financially successful by many peoples' standards, but I do better than some. The house is bought and paid for, as is the old pickup. I have very few bills compared to most of you. I have free health insurance for the rest of my life and someday when I wise up and retire from a job I've clung to for over twenty years, I'll have a respectable retirement check. But still, I scrape for every nickel and dime I can.
But, as the old country song says, you'll never read on a tombstone, 'I wish I'd spent more time at work.' I am at a threshold in my life. I yearn for the enjoyment that life has to offer. I'll need counseling to achieve it. Lucky for me, my daughter wants to major in phycology in college. Did you know colleges don't take nickles and dimes...or twenties, for that matter? That is my final financial hurdle.
Shreveport, you found a place in my heart. I will come back. I have to...I never got to sample your crawfish cuisine. But there is more I wish to do. I want to catch enormous sun perch in an Alabama lake. I intend to experience mardi gras in New Orleans. I just have to walk on the beach in Myrtle Beach. I yearn to see the lights of Vegas. I dream of sitting on the porch of some cabin in Colorado and watching the sunrise.
I wish to bury that serious side of me so deep that it'll never rise to the surface again. I want to laugh until my belly hurts. I have a burning passion for experiencing all that life has been saving for me all these years. I crave the notion of irrepressible impulsiveness and the adventure of unpredictability. I desire to break the curse of frugalness, with an unbridled freedom to toss nickels and dimes into any fountain I happen upon with nary a fleeting thought. Seriously...I just want to have fun!
Graduation 2017...we made it! My daughter and I both crossed the finish line last Friday night. I do not mean to take any of the glory away from her for the truth is she did it all on her own and in a very grand way. But when she walked across that stage to receive her diploma, I was right there with her. Yes, tears and all.
There were some tense, behind-the-scenes moments leading up to the event. I'm just a dad and had not the slightest clue what to do, or when to do it...or how to, as a matter of fact. I had never ironed a graduation gown before and literally lost sleep the night before wondering how hot to set the iron. What if the garment burst into flames right there on the ironing board? I had a shirt do that to me once. I'm sure the entire fiasco would have made a pretty funny video. But you burn a shirt, you go down to the Walmart and buy another one. You burn up a graduation gown? I've never seen those at Walmart.
There were numerous banquets in the weeks leading up to graduation. In a small community such as ours, events such as that draw large groups of people together. You get to see folks you weren't sure were still alive. You get to sit next to people you don't like. You stand in long lines at the buffet table and when you finally reach out for that last slice of cheesecake, some six-year-old snatches it just nano-seconds before you claim ownership.
Graduation banquets are a time to share your feelings. For one particular affair, I had to write a letter to my daughter that would be read before a large crowd. Nobody told me about the two hundred word limit and I am an author. I'll be publishing that letter in book form shortly...at two hundred pages, it should be a pretty good read. At the next banquet, my daughter wrote me a letter. I had to stand before the crowd as she read it. Thankfully I wore a long sleeve shirt that night to wipe my blurry eyes with. That was even more emotional than letting the cheesecake get away.
Finally, the big night arrived and myself and an army of family members headed off toward the football stadium. Well, yeah! Where else would a small west Texas town hold a graduation ceremony? We arrived fairly early and the stands were already packed. Everyone around here is related to some student who is graduating. Every year the entire town shows up. Our entourage was forced to find seating the uppermost bleachers and we all scrunched together, fumbling with cameras and smartphones, trying to zoom in on the empty chairs lined up on the field. ln the stands, folks were testing out their air horns. Helium balloons bobbled above the crowd and as the moment arrived cheers rose throughout the stadium. This was the biggest event of the year, after all, and we had all came out to support those kids who had endured and conquered a grueling twelve years to get to this point in their lives.
As the ceremony concluded, the speaker announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the class of 2017, I declare you graduates of...."
Well, you would have thought we'd won the Super Bowl. Before he could finish his speech, the entire crowd rushed the field. Air horns sounded throughout the crowd and confetti flew everywhere. I was really expecting fireworks to start shooting off on the fifty-yard line. I don't know how the rest of y'all do graduation, but around here we do it in a big way. After some serious searching, I finally located my own graduate and the family gathered around for pictures. As my eyes surveyed the mass of people on the field, I had a genuine feeling of euphoria. I found myself pondering the question 'Is this what Heaven might feel like?' For there was nothing but pure joy, love, and happiness radiating throughout the crowd.
And what better way to top off a graduation than to throw a traditional Texas-style cookout afterward. Family and friends gathered to continue the celebration, feasting on a brisket cooked to perfection. As the last of the crowd drove away well after midnight, I patted myself on the back. I may have faltered here and there leading up to this night, but by gosh, I had managed to pull off the perfect cookout. Exhausted, I slumped into my easy chair and cherished tonight, filing it into the 'Favorite Moments Of All Time' folder in my mind.
I am proud beyond words of my favorite daughter. Yes, I have only one but she is my favorite. Three years ago she came from a big city school to our little podunk high school, not only adapting...but soaring like an eagle. Her accomplishments these past three years are overwhelming and she shined like a diamond. I'm thankful the Good Lord afforded her the opportunity to experience life in a small town. And I am grateful to our community, school teachers, and so many more who not only acknowledged her potential but encouraged and cheered her on every step of the way.
I sat down with a cup of coffee Sunday morning and flipped through our local Sunday paper, which was three times thicker than its usual four pages, and beamed with pride. My daughter, my pride and joy, and my biggest blessing had landed herself on every page of that special graduation edition. After reading the paper, I carefully folded it and tucked it away in that special place I keep my treasures.
And so, a chapter ends. Next chapter...college! I'm accepting donations!
I’m a storyteller. Before I started telling stories on the internet, I told them to just about anybody who’d listen. In fact, I’ve been telling stories long before there ever was an internet. I know some of you younger folks weren’t aware that at one point there was no such thing as the internet…I’ll give you a second to grasp that thought. Okay, moving on. The Good Lord has blessed me throughout my life, not with fame or fortune, and my love life has been somewhat sketchy, but I’ve been richly blessed with plenty of adventures throughout my life. Most of them make a good story to tell…so I usually tell them.
Both of my grandfathers were witty and humorous men. My Grandpa on my mother’s side was a master story teller and I can remember all of us grandkids sitting around him as he puffed on his pipe, awaiting a story. He’d puff for a few minutes, ignoring us, until a twinkle would come into his eyes, then he’d lean forward and begin spinning a tale. We’d all sit, mesmerized, listening and absorbing every word, laughing till our tummies hurt. It’s what folks did back in the day before there was television. Well, of course, there was television when I was a kid. My grandparents didn’t have one. There was no need for one. We had Grandpa.
I believe storytelling is a dying art. Don’t believe me? How many really good movies have you seen this year? Right! There weren’t any! There apparently aren’t any more good stories to tell. Hollywood keeps going back and telling the same stories over and over. I watched some old Spiderman movie last week on Amazon Prime. Other than “Bad Grandpa,” it’s the only movie I came close to turning off fifteen minutes into the flick. Movies, television shows, and even the songs we hear today are more often than not empty, void of substance and leaving the majority of us less than entertained.
In random conversations I tend to get myself into with those who seem fascinated by my stories, I’ve often made this statement: Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has a book that needs to be written. If more people just like you would tell their stories, the world would be a much more interesting place.
We leave everything to the professionals anymore. We have professional authors, professional songwriters, professional movie producers and they all stay so busy in their profession there is no time left to explore their creativity. It’s become just a job for them. I can’t imagine being a professional writer, depending on my productivity to pay my bills. There are some days I am very unproductive. Days go by with nary a single creative thought passing through my head. If my survival depended upon my ability to write eight hours a day, five days a week…I’d starve. Come to think of it, I’m pretty hungry right now.
I find it stressful to come up with a topic for this weekly blog. I call it a blog because it’s what those who do this call it. I think they’re just stories and I don’t know who coined the term. Personally, I think there surely was a better word that could have been instilled. Blog sounds like something you do in the bathroom, don’t you think? My weekly struggles are not due to lack of ideas or topics. I have plenty of those. It’s more due to a limited ability to toss out something that might possibly affect someone in my close network of friends and family. For this reason, most of the people in my close social circle have no clue I write. I think most of the folks who know me have serious doubts that I can write my own name. I like it that way. But as time passes, more and more of the people who know me best discover the truth. They usually don’t divulge their discovery to me, but I see them whispering to others, “Stay far, far away from that man! He’ll tell stories about you!”
One of my most favorite stories is that of a young man stepping across the threshold of adolescence into adulthood. Some might say it’s a true story. I say true or not, it’s a pretty good story. Beginning this week, my book “Nineteen Seventy Something” will be made available in paperback. I think you will find it entertaining, much more than anything Hollywood has made lately. I just ask one favor…keep it a secret! There may be a girl or two who might think I wrote about them! I promise you, it’s the one story your grandpa never told you! See more about “Nineteen Seventy Something” here!