On People Who Change Your Life Without You Ever Realizing It

House in Semmes

When my family moved out to the “suburbs” of Mobile, AL, I spent a lot of time by myself. Most afternoons, as soon as my dad got home, I was expected to work with him in the yard, or help him with some never-ending project on the house, until dinner or dark-thirty, whichever came first.

We bought our five acres, which to this day still sits in the middle of a large wood, from a family member whose first name was simply, “Joe.” By the time I met him, Joe was already an older gentleman, complete with a ruddy complexion and an impressively portly belly. He was also the father of my step-mother’s brother’s wife, making us distantly related by marriage. Joe owned a huge swath of land around our property, which included what I called a lake, but which was really just a large pond. A poorly maintained dirt road connected the end of our county-maintained dirt road at the end of our neighborhood to the lake about 3/10 of a mile back in the woods. From there, the road continued on around Joe’s expansive property. As I got older, that property line became my dirt-bike trail, with the added benefit of providing a fire-break in case something sparked in the middle of a long, hot Alabama summer (it never did).

I really didn’t know Joe all that well, nor he me. My step-mother and I spent a few summer days as guests at his home, by invite of his daughter (my step-mother’s brother’s wife) swimming in his pool. I can only guess that’s how he got to know that I even existed.

One day Joe asked my step-mother if I would be willing to work for him cleaning out the logs and other debris that floated up from the bottom of the lake, which tended to be a lot. When the lake was built, they roughly scooped out the hole, leaving a great many exposed tree roots that rotted away from the bottom of the lake as the years passed. He offered to pay me what I considered an obscene amount of money at the time, $50. All I had to do was pull the logs out of the lake and pile them up in one spot off to the side. Of course, I had to get my father’s permission to do this since my working for Joe meant I wasn’t available to help him. When my father agreed to let me work for Joe, it was an “Aha!” moment for me. For the first time in my life someone was willing to pay me to do something I would probably have been just told to do by my father if Joe had asked.

The days turned into weeks and over time, after school, a few hours here and there on the weekend, I did the work. I must have done a good job because Joe also invited me to come to his house and do other various jobs–scrubbing the accumulated grime from his pool walls and cleaning up his own lake. Again, for an obscene amount of money–$100.

Then, I didn’t see Joe for a while until one day he drove up late in the afternoon. Now, I had been told that Joe was a wealthy man and in retrospect, I believe that was likely true. Also likely true, most of his wealth was tied up in real-estate. Joe lived well, but not THAT well. I met his wife all of twice, and neither time did I get a feeling of warmth from her. What I did get, was a sense based on her appearance, her sparing glance at me, and barely a murmur of pleasantries, that she had expectations for how she lived and presented herself to others, which her husband, Joe, did not share.

Despite his presumed wealth, Joe drove an older model, light green, generic Chevrolet car. Most of the time he had the windows down even in the heat of summer, from which out peeked a couple of fly rods. He dressed like a man who had departed years ago for a laid-back African safari wearing khaki shorts, a light-colored short-sleeved button-up shirt, and work boots, having only lately returned wearing the exact same clothes, only very much the worse for the wear. Oh, and a straw hat. That was Joe.

This particular day I heard Joe pull into our driveway even before I saw his car, the limestone rocks my dad had deposited and I had raked out smooth, making a satisfying crunching sound under his tires. I had evolved a sort of sixth-sense and could detect the sounds and vibrations of vehicles coming down our long driveway well before you could see anything through the trees. It was a talent I put to good use whenever I heard my father’s truck come home of an afternoon. At which point, I’d quickly turn off the TV, throw away the detritus of my abundant snacks and run to the kitchen table pretending like I had been studying.

That day, my father was already home, and having heard/felt the car coming, I’d gone outside to see who it was. As soon as I saw the car, I knew who it was, which only served to pique my curiosity. Joe and my father were never friendly, despite our having purchased our land from him. I heard someone offhandedly comment once that the general feeling was, since we were charitably considered “family”,  we should have gotten a better deal than we did on the land. But, as a kid none of that mattered to me.

I figured Joe wasn’t there to chat up my father, so I cautiously stayed in the confines of our screened-in porch while Joe extracted himself, oh so slowly, from his car. Part of me was a little fearful I’d done something wrong down at the lake and that Joe was there to revoke my fishing privileges, which at the time consisted of me and a basic rod and reel and whatever earthworms I could dig up. But, as Joe exited his car, he reached into the back through one of the open windows and pulled something out and brought it over to the door where I was standing just inside.

Joe had brought me a fly rod and was inviting me to come fishing with him. I was speechless. This older man I hardly knew was showing me a kindness I’d never really experienced from anyone outside my immediate family and for a moment, I honestly didn’t know what to say. I did know that a fly rod was something sacred to Joe. I had seen him rhythmically casting out on the lake in his little green Jon-boat and I knew that fly fishing was, to him, something of a religion, complete with rules on the kinds of fish you should and shouldn’t take from the lake in order to maintain the delicate eco-balance.

Joe invited me to come learn how to fly fish and after incredulously getting  approval from my dad to “take the day off” we hopped in Joe’s car and headed back to the lake. Between the two of us, we dragged his boat down to the water, launched it and paddled out to the middle of the lake; a safe place where a novice fly-fisherman was unlikely to snag anything he couldn’t easily un-snag. All the while, only exchanging a handful of words. That was also “Joe’s Way.”

That day, Joe taught me how to tie a hook on a line and he taught me the basics of fly-fishing; how to hold the rod, how far back to take my wrist before whipping it forward in that rhythmic hallmark of fly fishermen everywhere. I didn’t catch anything, but that day I discovered my love for fishing. I also learned you don’t talk much when you’re fishing. It’s a very serious endeavor.

Joe and I only fished together a few times, but we did other things together. Joe knew all about maintaining the right balance between the types of fish and other aquatic animals and Joe assured me of two things: 1. If you catch too many bass out of the lake, the brim will overpopulate and then nothing ever reaches a size worth catching, and 2. Turtle are the bane of any lake’s existence.

Joe hated turtles. But since there aren’t many natural predators for turtles in Alabama, Joe made himself into a predator. He would bring his 22-rifle and together we would sit on the far side of the lake, aiming towards the woods and away from anything within miles that might catch a bullet. There, together we would scan the lake, patiently waiting for that tell-tale tiny turtle head to come up out of the water and when it did…POW! We missed more often than not, but we had some help from the resident alligator (which someone shot and killed years later), and together we maintained that critical balance. By the time I left home, there were easily seven-pound bass in the lake.

Once I turned sixteen, I never saw Joe again. Either my schedule or his conflicted, or maybe I just hit an age where he lost interest in trying to be friends. The marriage tie that bound us also deteriorated into a divorce, so perhaps that was the true cause of the dissolution.

Joe has surely passed away by now, and I don’t have any contact with his family, although I could probably find one of his grandsons if I tried hard enough. I wish I could tell Joe how much of an impact his simple kindness had on a lonely kid who felt overworked and under-loved. Thinking back, at the time Joe didn’t have any grandchildren, so maybe I filled that gap in his life, however small and for however brief a time. If so, I’m hopeful he derived some small pleasure from spending time with me.

Joe made an indelible mark on my life, in more ways than one. I think that’s one thing about getting older; you tend you think back and look deeper into the motivations of people, their actions, and the consequences of those actions. Whatever Joe’s were, it meant a lot to me then, and now. Rest in peace Joe. You did well.

The Joys of Butter and Crackers in 1978

I have a very strong “emotional brain”; that memory-jogging sensation you get from smells, which I’ve always thought was odd considering my penchant for sinus infections. I also put on weight like a sumo wrestler on a fast-food diet and so for the past few years, I have practiced–with varying levels of success–not eating lunch. Overall, it works. I’ve managed to lose, and keep off, about 5-7 pounds simply by skipping a meal. And no, it never gets easier.

By around 4pm, however, my will power has crumbled and though I tell myself I’m only going to the kitchen to refill my water glass, inevitably I end up with a snack. Having three kids, whatever snack I end up with is usually less about cravings and more about efficiency; what can I grab quickly and quietly before anyone else in the house hears me and comes down to the kitchen to stand and stare. Because I don’t eat during the day, having breakfast before the kids are usually up, I cherish the moments when I do eat and the last thing I want is to share–no, belay that, the LAST thing I want is to be judged for grabbing an Oreo by a 13-year-old.

The other day, as I came down for my usual “glass of water” I grabbed the pack of Saltines and went to make an old standby, “Saltines with Peanut Butter and Raisins” when, as I grabbed the jar of peanut butter, I found it nearly empty. Time being of the essence, I didn’t feel like scraping out the nearly empty jar with a silicone spatula, my usual cheap-skate dad-move, and then losing precious seconds getting another jar and having to remove the safety seal. So, instead, I quickly popped off the top of the butter dish and, using a Saltine, sliced off a slab of butter and stuck it in my mouth as I headed for the stairs.

I was immediately taken back to 1978. I was five. My parents had divorced the year earlier and since my dad, who we lived with, didn’t exactly cook, we were having dinner at a local favorite restaurant, LUMS. I knew nothing of LUMS’ history then, established in Florida initially as a hot dog shack specializing in beer-grilled dawgs. All I knew of LUMS was that they had the best hamburgers and fries; the burgers served up on thick buns that had been buttered and left to sizzle until golden brown on the grill.

But even before the hamburger came, there were packs of crackers and little foil-sealed packages of butter in plastic-wicker containers on each table, presumably as snacks while you waited. And I can remember opening those plastic cracker packages, usually with my teeth because I couldn’t quite tear them with my little pudgy fingers, and spreading some of the room-temperature butter (or Marjorine more likely) on the cracker and sticking in my mouth. Oh, the sweetness of those green-labeled Keebler Club  Crackers combined with the saltiness of the butter–heaven!

I processed all of this in a micro-second as I took the first step up the stairs, heading back to my office. But then I stopped, turned back, grabbed a paper towel and a butter knife, and made myself just a few more. Along with my glass of water, of course. It also occurred to me that, by eating nearly a third of a stick of butter, I completely negated my afternoon of fasting, but some things are worth it. Not the butter and crackers I had that day in my own house, but the memory of the butter and crackers I shared as a 5-year-old boy with my brother and my dad.

As I consider it now, it feels like it was probably one of the last, truly good memories we all shared together before the life we knew it changed completely and before “things” began the slow, inexorable slide to complete shit. And I realize that it was one of the few times I can remember living in the moment. Truly enjoying an experience while it was happening without worrying about next week, or tomorrow, or even five minutes from now. That person packed up and left a long time ago, but I liked him a lot.

Summer of 1990. Two Crazy Teens. One Awkward Moment.

Once my brother was gone and we moved out of the city into what could charitably be called the “Suburbs” of Mobile, AL., life changed. Gone was the picket-fence neighborhood with the paved streets and the creek that the kids gathered around in the summer. No longer did other boys happen to idle by every thirty minutes looking for someone else to join up with in a game of ball. Hanging out at a friend’s house for a couple of hours…nonexistent.

Summers were especially lonely for me. We lived at the very end (and then some) of a 1-mile long dirt road neighborhood. There were a great many houses, but given our separation from the rest of the neighborhood, no one ever just “happened by.” Behind our house was about 200 acres of pure woods and even today, little has changed as you can see from the image below that I pulled off Google Maps.

With both mom and dad working, I had a lot of time to myself, which explains my penchant for “me” time as an adult. During the summer I had chores to do during the day if I wasn’t working. Normally, this included some sort of work out in the yard or the garden. But when I wasn’t working, I was either riding my motorcycle or fishing in the pond back in the woods. But mostly I worked.

One unusually hot summer day, I was just down a bit working in a clearing that my dad and I had been slowly expanding. It was down near one edge of the property line, and we had cleared out so much by then that you could see the house from there. My dad didn’t trust me with the chainsaw yet, so most of my work in the “big woods” involved cutting down small trees and scrub-brush with lopping shears, or digging out stumps using a shovel and an axe. I’d like to say that because of all my work, I was a trim 17-year old stud, but I’ve always fought my weight and in my mid-teens I’d had little success so far. But though I was little and slightly chubby, there was muscle there from all the work and maybe it showed.

Summers in LA (lower Alabama) then were vividly hot. Not like here in Atlanta where, as the heat rises, visibility declines. Alabama then had great, clean air and the summer humidity did little to cloud the day. You could always tell when it was going to be a hot one because the cicadas would start their “bzzzz bzzzzzzzzz” early in the day–a sound that, even now, makes me want to shut myself in the house and crank down the A/C.

I’d been working down in the woods for about an hour this particular day. My shirt off, sweat rolling off me in waves as I repeatedly thud-thudded my axe into the roots of a particularly annoying taproot from a large pine tree we’d taken down. Cutting out roots is possibly the most mind-numbing, yet physically taxing thing I’ve ever done. The trick is to get into a rhythm with your movements and your breathing until everything blurs together and you don’t notice that your heart is pounding and your breath is coming in hard gasps. For you runners, it’s a lot like that middle mile between the time when you’ve warmed up and the time where you are so far beyond tired that you hardly notice the aches and pains.

I heard the sound of a car approaching the house and knowing it too soon for either of my parents to be home, curiously peered towards the driveway and immediately recognized the car of my best friend’s girl.

Yeah.

They had been dating a month or so and my take on her was that, while undoubtedly attractive (buxom blonde comes to mind), she was trouble. The kind of trouble your lecherous uncle warns you about just as his own “trouble” walks off to get him another beer. Between you and me, I’d always thought she was out of my friend’s league, but I applauded his abilities nonetheless. Did I mention that she was a year or two our senior?

Now I may have been young, but I wasn’t stupid. When I saw her get out of her car alone, in a tight-fitting mid-length skirt, certain…um…possibilities began circulating in my head. “Why is she here?” “Where is Wade (my best friend)?” “Does he know she’s here?” “This is very unusual. Maybe she’s here to see me.”

And most importantly, “What do I do?”

And while it wasn’t my first prom, I was still nervous around girls, especially older girls…and especially when I’m standing around mostly devoid of any clothing except my shorts, socks and work boots.

Standing up straight, I perched my axe over one shoulder and watched her look around until she saw me and then I stayed where I was and let her come back to me in the woods. My mind was still warring with my body and standing still seemed like the simplest thing to do until I could properly read the situation.

She reached me and we exchanged pleasantries and finally she admitted that she was there to talk about Wade. Apparently, she was having second thoughts about their relationship and wanted to talk with me about it to see what I thought.

Again, I wasn’t dumb and to be perfectly frank, I still wasn’t sure whether loyalty or lust was going to win the day so I played along. We went in the house and talked for a bit, with her making it obvious what she was there for. But as some point during the conversation, my loyalty to my best friend won out and I made it perfectly clear to her that “it” wasn’t going to happen. She pushed until I almost forcefully had to ask her to leave. I had gotten mixed up with girl-trouble once before a couple of years earlier and I wasn’t eager to do it again, especially when it involved my best friend.

I won’t say that I haven’t looked back on that day many, many times and questioned my decision, especially in light of what happened afterwards. I joined the military a few months later and shipped out. My friend Wade was still seeing this girl when I left, but at some point while I was gone their relationship went south. In what I can only guess was her attempt at hurting him, she told him what had happened between us, except in HER version, “it” did happen. I found this out when I came home on leave that first year and despite trying to convince my best friend for an hour that nothing happened, he chose to believe her and ended our friendship. I can’t say that I blame him really. It wouldn’t have been the first time I had been involved with a girl who was involved with someone else, so I LOOKED guilty.

This has haunted me for years and it still does to this day. He was my best friend. He helped me through some extremely tough times growing up and it hurts me that he still believes I violated our friendship over a girl. I haven’t talked to him since that last conversation and I don’t know if I ever will. He’s not tech-savvy, so he’s not online, and I rarely ever have a reason to go back home since all of my family has since moved away.

But Wade, if ever you find this, know that it’s the God’s own truth. Nothing happened, and I’m sorry it did.