Garfield, the cartoon cat, once said, “Diet is Die with a T.” I stood in line gazing up at the high carb, high fat fast food breakfast menu, thinking about the numbers on my brand new digital bathroom scale. There was no doubt, coffee had to be it for me. While waiting for my turn, I watched the young woman working behind the counter. As one customer after another placed their orders, her head moved from side to side while her eyes rolled in the opposite direction. I guess the drudgery of working in the fast food service industry was getting on her last nerve because this morning she just wasn’t feeling it. It was obvious she hated her job. I’m no psychologist but I’d bet she was a little disgusted with herself too. By the time it was my turn, I didn’t want to waste her time or make things any worse than it already was, so I was ready. I had my money in hand, and I knew what I wanted. As I stepped up to the counter, I noticed her name tag. Without looking up from the terminal, in the same sing-song voice she used with everyone in front of me, she asked, “Can I take your order?” Looking over the top of the screen, I smiled and greeted her by name. “How are you, Aleah?” As if she had suddenly been awakened from a trance, she looked up. When we made eye contact, instantly her expression changed. Her eyes glistened, she smiled and said, “Uh, I’m fine. How are you?” “Wonderful,” I said. I gave her my order, paid, and thanked her for helping me. As I moved down to pick up my coffee, I continued to listen to her interactions with the customers behind me. She was still smiling, and still positive. It doesn’t always work, but calling a person by name, and validating them personally, can be a powerful thing. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s worth the effort. We all want to be recognized and identified as individuals. By doing things like this, I fulfill a selfish motivation. I must admit I enjoy winning someone over, especially when the one being manipulated is none the wiser. Our encounter made me feel better and I think it did the same for her. A smile and a kind word are two of the most powerful things we possess. Give it a try, you’ll be glad you did.
I visited one of the big box stores yesterday to pick up a prescription refill. You know the one, the big box that started in Arkansas and has blue and yellow in their logo. To accommodate customers in these special times, they’ve implemented a new system. All you do is drive up, park in a numbered space, call them, and they bring your medication out. How cool is that? The big chain drugstores have used drive-up windows for quite a while, but I thought it interesting that America’s largest retailer would do it. That got me thinking. It’s really nothing new. A few forward-thinking entrepreneurs were doing that years ago in my little hometown of Albemarle North Carolina. Back in the sixties, Friday and Saturday nights in Albemarle were less than exciting. Teenagers with nothing to do ended up riding around, listening to BIG WAYS, a Charlotte radio station, or going to the Drive-In. Back then beer was legal for eighteen-year-olds, but Stanly County was dry, so you had to drive to Rowan County to buy it. We referred to those excursions as “Goin’ up the road”. John’s Tavern and First Stop on Hwy. 52 north of town were the closest places you could buy beer. The problem was the thirty-mile round trip through the country was too long a trip. But there was an alternative, you could buy from one of the local bootleggers. Sure you’d pay a premium price, but to most, the convenience and discreetness were worth a little extra. On the edge of town, there was Pop’s, a tiny nondescript, concrete block structure with a single door. Pop’s little building wasn’t much bigger than a storage shed, nestled between the large posts that supported the screen at the local Drive-In theater. It faced a dark side road that circled the back of the theater’s property. A dim light beside the door signaled business hours. If the light was on, they were open, if not, keep driving. It was a one-stop shop, they had beer and liquor. No ID, no problem, one more broken law didn’t matter. Just pull up, give a friendly toot on the horn, and someone would come out and take your order, cash only. In just a matter of seconds, they would return with a brown paper bag, and just like that you were back on the road, stocked, and ready to party. Little did we know then, those independent small businessmen were way ahead of their time.
This Civil War story doesn’t conclude with a Hollywood actor with a phony southern accent, making a grand exit while uttering a memorable movie line. This one is about a North Carolina man who enlisted in the Confederate Army somewhere around the age of 44. Why would a poor, old farmer with twelve children enlist? Did he own slaves? No. Did he have some patriotic duty to preserve the Confederacy? I doubt it. The old saying applies, “Follow the money.” The drought of 1862 devastated the crops, leaving the farmer and his family starving. One day the old man received an offer he felt he couldn’t refuse. A rich property owner whose son was being conscripted into the Confederate Army paid him to enlist in his son’s stead. Those agreements were legal back then. Transactions like that reinforced the belief that it was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
I think he believed the money would enable his family to survive, and give him a leg up after the war. It was mid-1862, just a little over a year since the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter. Any information people got about the war was, at best, word of mouth. Based on the rosy assessments from the secessionists, I’m sure everyone believed this “little dust-up” would bring the North’s aggression to a halt.
According to Company B, 5th North Carolina Infantry Confederate Army muster rolls, the old man left Stanly County on August 8,1862. Since there was no basic training in those days, I can only assume he immediately joined them. September 17,1862, the 5th NC Infantry Regiment, led by Col. D. K. McRae and Capt. Thomas M. Garrett was part of Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. They met General George McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac along the banks of Antietam Creek outside Sharpsburg Maryland. Early that morning, over 130,000 men from both sides came together. By nightfall, there were almost 23,000 casualties with over 3,600 killed and 17,000 wounded. The North called it the Battle of Antietam, and the South called it the Battle of Sharpsburg. No matter the name, it was the bloodiest single day in American military history.
The old man survived that battle but died of measles in Richmond on October 26, 1862, less than ninety days after leaving his family. Months later his remains were buried in Stanly County, just a stone’s throw from where he grew up. How do I know this? He is my Great, Great Grandfather.
The summer after graduating from high school, I worked in a textile mill that made women’s pantyhose. Back in those days, textiles were king in the South. Summer jobs were plentiful for kids like me. The mill was a large open building with hundreds of high-speed industrial sewing machines all lined up. They weren’t like Mom’s old Singer, these things were fast. Because of the high speeds, they had to be lubricated at least twice a day, first thing in the morning, and also during lunch break. My job was to keep them oiled. There were so many, oiling them was kinda like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, by the time I finished, it was time to start again.
There were three sewing machine mechanics and a mechanic’s supervisor. Their responsibility was to keep these screamers running. All the machine operators were being paid for production, so the machines had to run constantly. These guys moved like a NASCAR pit crew. Speed was number one. When a machine went down the operator and the company both lost money. All the operators were women. Most had been working in the “Mill” for years. They were a friendly bunch until there was a problem. Problems cost money and they were quick to let you know.
If the mechanics were like a NASCAR pit crew, the operators were like the drivers. There were those who were constant winners, those who ran in the middle of the pack, and those who constantly hit the wall. The ones who hit the wall were the operators whose machines were always breaking down. Sometimes parts fail, but as in NASCAR, operator failure is usually the problem.
These mechanics knew the machine’s and the operator’s weaknesses. They could guess with almost certainty who, and when someone was going to hit the “wall”. Friday afternoon always brought a plethora of problems with a couple operators. On Fridays, sometimes getting an early start on the weekend was more important than the day’s production numbers, so, their machines would mysteriously break. Broken needles were a common problem but that was too easy a fix. They had to break a major part that took an hour or so to repair. Long extended repairs allowed them to leave early. Management took a dim view of this, so every effort was made to get the operator back to work to keep production up.
Like the operators, the mechanics were an eclectic bunch. Two were top-notch mechanics with thirty-plus years of experience. One was an apprentice who was learning the business, and the supervisor was an older man with a German accent. He had worked in textiles all his life since migrating from Germany in the late nineteen twenties. He was the “go-to” guy. He handled the major breakdowns and any issues that came up between the operators and management. He also approved the time cards for all employees, so these Friday afternoon “wrecks” were his responsibility.
Just like clockwork, one Friday afternoon a machine broke down. The operator was a mid-thirties woman who spoke often of her weekend partying. When Gene, one of the mechanics, went over to check her machine, it was obvious this was going to take more than an hour or so to repair. She had torn it up pretty good. Gene called the supervisor over to take a look. When he got there, the operator said she was going to leave if they couldn’t get the machine running. After all, without a machine, she couldn’t make money. That’s when the supervisor threw her a curve. Anticipating her next breakdown, he had brought in a couple machines from another plant that were not being used. Instead of allowing her to game the system, he took her over to the replacement machine and told the apprentice and me to move all her work. To say she was mad is an understatement, She began swearing at anyone and everyone around, especially the supervisor. He stood there and listened to her insults but gave no ground. Politely he told her, “There is a machine, go to work.” Then it got personal. She stared at him and said, “Why the hell don’t you go back to where you came from?” This was the ultimate insult for an immigrant, and she knew it. His expression never changed. I’m sure he had heard it many times in the past. He looked at her and calmly explained that he had passed a test to become an American citizen and that he wasn’t going anywhere and neither was she. Turning to walk away, he said, “Now get to work.” I learned a lot that afternoon. I saw someone rise above a personal attack most of us never experienced, and do it with grace and dignity. I was so proud. Why was I proud? That German immigrant was my father.
It was always sitting there in an out-of-the-way corner of the kitchen counter, patiently waiting to be discovered. The old Zenith was made sometime in the forties. It was a beautifully styled art deco AM/Short wave table radio with an off-white bakelite case and a gold-toned dial. There were 3 black knobs, an on/off volume control, a tone control, and a tuning knob that was all located under the dial. Above the dial were several pushbuttons, one for AM, one for Short Wave, and a couple more that could be preset to favorite stations. Until the summer of 1960, I never gave it a second look.
Every summer since the first grade I had taken swimming and diving lessons at Albemarle’s City-owned pool at Rock Creek Park. Rock Creek was built in the thirties by the Civilian Conservation Corps. In the park, there are several ball fields, tennis courts, walking trails, picnic tables, and a large swimming pool. Unlike most pools built these days, that pool was built on top of the ground. High walls surround the wide pool deck. Liberal amounts of blue slate quarried at nearby Morrow Mountain were used to cap the walls and construct the wide steps leading to the bath house which is divided into two sections split by a counter down the middle. Behind the counter, there were racks of numbered baskets. When you went in and paid, you were given a numbered basket with a corresponding numbered pin that resembled an old-fashioned diaper pin. The boys went to the left and the girls went to the right. Once inside the dressing room, you changed clothes and placed them into your basket, and pinned the numbered pin to your suit. As you walked back by the counter on the way to the pool deck, you gave the basket to the attendant. It was then put on the numbered rack. When you were ready to leave, you just turned in your numbered pin and they would get you the corresponding basket with your clothes.
The pool’s depth varied from 3 feet on one end to 10 feet on the other. 2 blue and white diving boards with stainless steel ladders hovered over the deepest end. Its wide pool deck was the summer place to be for teenagers. Beach towels of all colors concealed the deck like a patchwork quilt on an old bed. The low slate-topped walls seemed to shout the names and initials scrawled there. A tall lifeguard chair stands like a sentinel on the side near the deepest end. Aloft is the ever-present, tanned guard sporting a pair of RayBan Aviators and twirling a whistle chain around his index finger. High school boys and girls handled the lifeguard duties, taught swimming lessons, and ran the bathhouse, and the concession stand. To us kids, their swagger and self-confidence elevated them to rock star status. If they called you by name the other kids noticed.
My Mother and Aunt took turns taking my cousin and me to the pool every other day or so. They would sit in the covered bleacher area for a couple hours while we took lessons and swam. This summer vacation was going to be different. I was turning ten. Mom had agreed I was old enough to be dropped off at the pool and stay there unsupervised until she came to pick me up late in the afternoon. She knew all the lifeguards and they knew me. It was a different time then. Today a parent would be drawn and quartered for even considering such a thing.
Of all the great memories of that summer at Rock Creek Park, there was one thing that continues to influence my life to this day. It was the music. The jukebox was attached to large horn speakers mounted on tall poles at both ends of the pool. Songs by The Platters, The Coasters, Maurice Williams, Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler, and many more never stopped. I couldn’t get enough of it. When I wasn’t there I was singing these hits to myself.
One night, after a day at the pool, I decided I had to have more, I went into the kitchen and picked up that old Zenith, and took it to my room. As the tubes warmed up and that old radio came to life, I hoped I could hear just one or two of those songs. Slowly turning the tuning knob, starting at the low end of the AM range and gradually moving up the dial. I found stations like WABC 770 in New York City, WLS 890 in Chicago, WCFL 1000 from Detroit, and WBT 1110 in Charlotte. There were plenty of popular songs by white artists but none of them played the kind of music I wanted to hear. The songs by the black artists that were on the jukebox were few and far between on the radio. I was almost at the upper end of the dial when I heard what I thought was a black man’s voice. That booming baritone voice belonged to John R. I had found what I was looking for! WLAC 1510 Nashville TN was a clear channel station that’s nighttime signal could be heard over half the country. All the music I loved and so much more were there. John R, Gene Nobles, Herman Grizzard, and Hoss Allen were men I never met but they, and the music they played, changed my life. Not only did I hear mainstream R&B music, but I heard James Brown, Hank Ballard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. Artists like Otis Redding seemed to touch my soul. Randy’s Record Rack and Ernie’s Record Mart, two of WLAC’s advertisers, seemed like exotic, distant, taboo destinations to a 10-year-old growing up in the South. From that night on, the glow from the old Zenith’s dial and the mellow sounds from its speaker filled my bedroom.
In the years that followed, trends in music changed. The British invasion began and the seeds of metal and rock were planted. As I listened, this new music seemed all too familiar. It was obvious from interviews with these British artists there was a common thread that ran through their music. They too had been influenced by the artists I loved so much. Their music idols were the same as mine. During the next few years, R&B/Soul music gained mainstream popularity. Little did I know there were kids like me all over the country, especially in the Southeast, who were listening and enjoying it. The local radio stations were playing more and more of that great music. Beach Music shows were popping up on stations like WADE in Wadesboro. In the music world, times were changing. In the South in the sixties you could love “their” music but you better not love “them”. The civil rights movement was in its infancy, creating a social conundrum that exists today.
For several years college and high school students from all over NC, SC, and GA had turned Ocean Drive Beach into ground zero for what is now called Beach Music. Artists like Willie Tee, Jerry Butler, and Otis Redding along with groups like The Tams, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and The Temptations seemed to carve out an R&B niche that was unique to this SC getaway.
In the summer of 1965, I was determined to make my pilgrimage to this “Mecca of Beach Music” Ocean Drive Beach. My parents and I took a vacation trip to Myrtle Beach every summer but that seemed like a million miles away from OD. That summer had to be different. As luck would have it, a neighborhood friend told me his mother had been offered the use of a beach house in Crescent Beach for a long weekend. She accepted and decided to take a couple of his friends. This was it! This was my chance. I could walk from Crescent Beach to OD if I had to. On a sunny Thursday morning, we left. After we arrived and settled in, we went to the amusement park across the street. On Friday night my friend’s mother dropped us off in OD. We walked around awhile and finally sat down on the low wall in front of the Pavilion across from “The Pad”. While watching the partiers come and go and listening to the music that I loved so much, I knew I would never go to Myrtle Beach again.
Ike Turner was a wife beater, drug addict, and an all-around turd, but he was one of the most influential rock and roll performers of all time. There’s a little-known song by Ike that says, “I can do bad all by myself.” Those words ring so true with me. For the most part, I get up every morning with the same beliefs, and opinions I went to bed with. If I want to find like-minded points of view, I know just where to go. Echo chambers run by some of the most convincing, self-serving, self-appointed “patriots” are a dime a dozen. These talking heads can be seen on radio and TV, and the wannabes, well, they’re all over my computer screen, all ready to tell me what I should think. Friends, there are no AH-HA MOMENTS. There are no moments of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension to be found on FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, or anywhere else. AH-HA Moments are much harder to find. They’re found at the end of a walk on a sunny day, a birth announcement, an obituary, or maybe just in a quiet moment. AH-HA moments are personal. They come when you get that feeling in your gut when you are finally able to admit to yourself you’ve been wrong or misguided about someone or some issue. Beliefs and opinions need to remain just that, and not be allowed to become dogma. I think we all have to take a hard look at them, no matter the subject. There comes a time when we have to ask ourselves, Is this the hill I choose to die on? No one knows better than me how powerful the ego is. The ego keeps us from publicly admitting mistakes. Falling on the sword with a public admission is a tough pill to swallow, and is a bridge too far for most. Having said that, the important thing is how we move forward. Just remember, changing your mind, and making a quiet correction can be as personal as you want it to be. The important thing is making that correction. It really makes you feel free and truly independent.
I once told my daughter, long before she was old enough to understand, that she would have many acquaintances in life, and a few true friends. December 14, 2019, is the twentieth anniversary of the death of an unforgettable character I have the honor of calling friend. Donnie was one of those people you knew or knew of if you were an old car enthusiast in the Concord NC area. He was a fixture at a local vintage car dealer. When they needed a car delivered, Donnie was the man. Whether it was Carlisle PA or around the corner, he handled it. We both had a love for 1960 Chevrolets, so it was inevitable our paths would cross. We became fast friends. He was always ready for a road trip, or scavenger hunt. Anytime I got a lead on a project car, he was ready to go, always a willing coconspirator.
His quiet, unassuming, outward demeanor camouflaged an unstable personal life. He truly lived in the moment. When his check came on the first, he was the life of the party, by the 25th, not so much. Several times near the end of the month, Donnie would either ask for me a loan or offer something for sale. I always tried to have his back, and he always repaid the debt. Was I an enabler? Hell yes, but he wasn’t a kid, and I wasn’t going to change him.
Donnie bought a nice 1968 Chevrolet Impala, an original, that just needed new paint and interior. It wasn’t a secret that I really liked that car. One day, after helping him prep it for paint, we were driving home. I told him that car was a keeper, not one to flip. My words were, “This one needs to stay in the family.” He paused, looked over at me, and said, “Do you want it?” I heard that line before and knew what it meant. If I wanted it, he’d give me the first shot, if not, it was gone to the first person with the cash. The end of the month, coupled with his short attention span, brewed the perfect storm. I said, “How much?” He told me. We drove by my house and I paid him, right then, right there. Every time this happened, I gave him an out, by telling him, “If you change your mind, let me know, no hard feelings, it can be a loan. I know you’re good for it.” He never had second thoughts, and never looked back.
He and his wife had divorced around the time we became friends. His children and grandchildren were always number one, but he was quite the lady’s man. Truth be told, Donnie couldn’t tolerate being alone. His life was about the present, not yesterday, or tomorrow, it was about now. His relationships with ladies were the same way. Every one of them was the “One”. There were weekends when Donnie would start Friday evening with one lady, and finish up Sunday night with another. His most notable relationship failure was with a woman from a neighboring city. It was a whirlwind courtship, full speed ahead. Within weeks, Donnie announced their engagement. A couple weeks later, he called and said they were getting married that weekend, and honeymooning in Florida. Donnie’s actions were true to form. He sold his pristine 1959 Buick to bankroll the trip. They married, drove a rental Lincoln Town Car to Florida, spent the week, and came back. The marriage was annulled after 3 weeks. As close as I can tell, that abbreviated relationship cost him around seven thousand bucks.
It didn’t take him long to find the next “Ms. Right”. Before the motor cooled off in that rental Lincoln, Donnie was in another serious relationship. This time it was a lady from South Carolina. I don’t know all the details but, right off the bat, they were inseparable. It was March, time for our pilgrimage to the “Run To The Sun” car cruise-in at Myrtle Beach. Cruise-ins are informal affairs, that are nothing more than 3 or 4-day social events showcasing like-minded old car enthusiasts’ latest projects. Generally, they’re family events that involve shopping, sightseeing, and dining out. Donnie, his new significant other, along with our regular group drove down. After checking in, we all parked together and got out the folding chairs. The weather at the beach in March can be iffy, but the car gods were on our side and granted us an unusually warm weekend. We sat around together for a couple hours catching up when Donnie and his special lady said they were going shopping. Several hours later they returned. She was smiling from ear to ear holding her left hand out. Donnie had “bought” her a very nice engagement ring. Later that afternoon she commented that she had put it on her credit card. She said, “After all, it was their money now.” Donnie stood behind her, smiling.
Later that year, they got married. She was a nice person, and they seemed happy. They lived in a house he had shared with his mother. His mother’s declining health required special attention, so she moved into a senior facility. Donnie’s health had always been an issue too. He had battled a chronic intestinal disease for years. Around October 1999 after an exam at the VA hospital, his doctor thought he needed a pacemaker, but said it was no hurry after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays would be fine. On the night of December 14, 1999, he sat down to watch TV and never got up.
Donnie’s death didn’t bring peace. Even though the Ringmaster was dead, the three-ring circus continued on. Donnie left his wife broke, but his daughters and sisters fought her tooth and nail for what little was left. There were finger-pointing and cruel accusations made. They intimated she was a gold digger, going after his money. To all that really knew Donnie, that brought a light-hearted chuckle to an otherwise sad time. An auction was held to liquidate the personal property. It was a sunny Saturday morning and all were present. Everything was boxed in lots, marked, and auctioned. Many really personal items that most families would keep were not set aside but included. As the auction progressed, one of his sisters had second thoughts about some items in one of the box lots. As the successful bidder loaded it into his truck, she asked him if she could have a few things she felt she had a sentimental attachment for. He told her, in no uncertain terms, she had every opportunity to bid too. She stormed off in a huff.
After a few weeks things settled down. Donnie’s widow moved back to South Carolina and remarried several years later. His daughters and sisters refused to acknowledge what they always knew, To put it kindly, Donnie was a less-than-perfect husband and lousy money manager. We all have our faults, Donnie certainly had his, but as a father and a friend, he was the best.
I miss you, Mr. B.
This is our first time sitting out a storm at the beach. I worked hard to prepare for the worst-case scenario. In the last few months our little Cairn Terrier, Penny has become super sensitive to storms. For those of you not familiar with Cairns, they are Toto dogs. Toto in the Wizard of Oz was a Cairn. This morning, when the tornado alarms were going off, I expected her to freak out. I could just imagine her channeling the original Toto and reliving that ride in Almira Gulch’s bicycle basket, and then going off to see the Wizard. But, she surprised me, not a peep, no whining, no pacing, she just laid there all morning long. Around 10 AM she went to the door. Luckily it was during a very calm time. I took her out, she was able to focus, and we came back in without getting wet. Everything was fine until around 5 PM, her supper time. As usual, she stood by her bowl waiting for the evening scoop of food. I wish I could adopt Penny’s eating habits. She only eats when she’s hungry. Sometimes a meal may sit in her bowl for several hours until she decides to eat. This afternoon wasn’t one of those times. She quickly ate and then headed straight for the door. It didn’t matter that it was raining sideways and the wind was gusting at around 190 MPH, she was ready to go out. In retrospect, I’m sure that’s when she channeled Toto. You know genetics is a powerful thing. Pointers point, hounds smell, Saint Bernards drink, and Cairns love high winds. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, we had to go out right then. So, I put on a raincoat, hooked up her retractable leash, and we headed out the door. It was raining so hard that the drops stung my face, but did that bother my little dog, hell no, she loved it. She marched out the door, down the steps, across the street, and stood in the middle of the neighbor’s yard, her favorite spot. There she stood savoring the moment. The wind had to be gusting at over 250 MPH but Penny never flinched. She just stood there, mesmerized, reliving her ancestor’s ride in that bicycle basket. After a few minutes, she seemed to come to her senses. She marched back across the street and up the steps. I guess she heard Dorothy calling. After we got back in the house, she shook a few times, rubbed her face off on the rug, and got her favorite toy out of the box. I guess I have to play fetch now. Life is good at the beach, storms and all. Life is to be enjoyed. Pets are special, they’re here for a reason. Friends, just remember, even the bad is good.
I just heard a comment on the radio about an HBO series set in the seventies. They mentioned that, in this series, everyone smoked. That got this former smoker thinking. What drew me to smoking, to begin with? My parents didn’t smoke, but almost everyone else did. In the fifties and sixties, cigarettes were portrayed as a symbol of success, independence, and charisma. Seeing stars like James Dean light up seemed so much more than just smoking. It was an expressive gesture, signaling every human emotion. When actors lit up, the cigarette became an integral part of the scene, signaling the sensitiveness of the moment. In the movie Casablanca, cigarettes were front and center. From Bogart’s drunken scene with Sam at the piano to the movie’s finale with Lisa on the airstrip, cigarettes were used to masterfully telegraph all his feelings.
As a thirteen or fourteen-year-old, I didn’t feel like Bogart, but older teens, images of stars and musicians I loved, had an effect on me. If I just smoked, maybe I could tap into that perceived lifestyle. Sports wasn’t my strong suit, so I looked elsewhere for recognition. I wanted to stand out, to be recognized, to be validated, so I turned to smoking. I knew it would draw attention, good or bad, but I didn’t care. When a peer responded positively, it fed the fire, negative responses did the same. It was the attention, that was all that mattered. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to blame my parents or my family for not recognizing, nurturing, or caring about my adolescent feelings, it’s just what I did. It was a decision I made to stand out in the crowd. Ever since I can remember I’ve always enjoyed the attention. Clowning around, and harmless practical jokes were always, and still are on my radar screen. Thankfully I’ve always been risk-averse enough to have the good sense to stop before I hit the “Watch This” or “Hold My Beer” moment.
Why did I quit? After about fifteen years, I guess I finally began to grow up. For me, smoking went from being this vehicle of self-expression and independence to a smelly, disgusting inconvenient habit. My waking moments were choreographed by cigarettes. I was either smoking or looking for an opportunity to smoke. Attitudes about smoking were rapidly changing, and businesses were declaring themselves smoke-free. The package of coolness and success the cigarette industry used began to slowly unravel exposing the sinister dark side. The Surgeon General’s pleas were finally being heard. It wasn’t about personal pleasure, it was about profit. Profit is built on the backs of unsuspecting smokers. Heck, even the actor who portrayed the Marlboro Man came down with lung cancer. What a wake-up call for smokers that was. Unless you’re a former smoker, you have no idea of the extent of this addiction. After thirty-five-plus years, as much as I detest even the whiff of cigarette smoke, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that once in a while the cravings still come. I told Vickie, if I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and given only a short time to live, after leaving the doctor’s office, I’d stop and buy a pack.
When we built our new house, of course, there were new mirrors. I didn’t think much about it until I began to spend extended periods looking into one of them. Now before you jump to the conclusion I’m some kind of vain old fool having another mid-life crisis, that is not the case. About 4 months ago I got contact lenses. For those of you with them, you understand. There is a steep learning curve. Some days they pop right in, some days they don’t.
While spending all that time looking in this mirror, I began seeing things I had never seen before. I don’t mean superficial things, I mean something within. I began seeing someone becoming someone he didn’t want to be. I started seeing someone who was retreating into his own opinions while closing his mind and hardening to opposing views. I saw someone beginning to think people with different ideas or opinions on issues were either ill-informed, stupid, or brainwashed. I think many factors have contributed to this. Social Media, 24-hour news cycles, and talk radio probably have had more of an influence on me than I would like to admit. For me, this type of thinking is unacceptable. It’s not me and won’t be me anymore. I refuse to fall in line behind anyone, especially some condescending talking head that has found their way into my life via the magic of electronics. Now don’t get me wrong, I have my own ideas and opinions, but they’re mine and mine alone. They don’t elevate me to some “Moral High Ground,” and neither does anyone else’s. I will, as painful as it sometimes pull the scab back. I’ll look and try to understand why someone’s opinion differs from mine. I will be flexible. I will change my mind if something changes it. Friends, some old, outdated opinion that I’ve fostered for years without reviewing, just isn’t the hill I choose to die on. A very wise man once said, “It doesn’t matter how flat and thin a pancake is, it still has two sides”. From now on, I’m gonna flip that pancake every time.