Monday, September 15, 2014

Man Under the Moon

“Look, Daddy! Moo!,” Link says excitedly pointing at the half-moon directly overhead as we walk into his daycare center. All I can think of is loving him to the moo and back and squashing the inner voice telling me to take him back to the car, speed home and spend the day hugging him and showering him with kisses.

I’ve been chatting him up about the great first day of “school” and how he’s a big boy and gets to go learn just like his older sister since we dropped her off 10 minutes ago and he seems excited. After 5 and a half years as an at-home father it is time for me to start a new chapter.  Last week I had the first job interview and soon I expect to be getting back into my career in investigations.

As I punch in his student number (how can a 2 year old have a number?) on the panel outside, the door clicks and we walk in to the impossibly clean facility. Don’t children attend here? I’m confused. After some small talk and administrative details with the director I walk down the hall toward Link’s classroom. I hear his sneakers pattering along the hardwood floors and see his soles blinking like tiny emergency vehicles (which reminds me of him yelling “Beedo, Beedoo, BEEEDOOOO!” on the way to school when a fire truck passed us). I fear the lack of that pattering when I get home, I smile at the teacher. Does it look sincere? I doubt it.

After she has a little chat with Link about Lightning McQueen on his shirt, to which I know he’ll say, “Ka-Chow!” before he even does, the teacher shows me to Link’s cubby. 

“Well, here are his things. He has a little eczema break out right now, but I forgot his lotion {more guilt, too heavy} so please don’t use anything else unless you have Cetaphil or Aquaphor even though it looks red.” I manage to squeak out before giving him a quick hug and telling him bye. I leave quickly because I know it is best that way and he doesn’t cry, but I put on my sunglasses before I’m out the door.

In the car, I breathe.

At home it is too quiet, so I write.

Tomorrow, he’ll be with me and we’ll pack every minute of fun in our two weekdays per week off school until I get back to work. I’ll cry, we’ll laugh and life marches on under the moon.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


The sun is in my eyes, glaring and sparkling off the pool. A shower of water rains on my face, created by the child drowning swimming in front of me. The tinge of chlorine tightens my squint.

I'm holding out a hand to my daughter who is trying to reach the edge of the pool

before her limited swimming skills fail to bring her mouth above the water for another hurried breath. She expends much needed energy to say, "No! <BREATH> I've got it!" Meanwhile, her feet and hands push and pull desperately against the water.

Almost. There.

I wait closely, tracking her progress. I don't want to offer help too soon (or too late) so I agonize over the slow drip of time between gasps. Goggles provide vision above and below. Underneath the water is cool, her hair dances slowly and rhythmically about her determined face. The sun is dampened and sound takes on new qualities as reality creeps to the edge of recognition. It really is another world under here. I am terrified. Looking for any sign of doubt or fear behind her own goggles and dreaming of the breath and the sweet chaos at the surface.

Is this the way I'll feel when she is learning to drive? The first time her heart is broken? Will I be there with my hand outstretched? Will anyone?

Of course she wants to be independent. She is of us, of me. Is it instinct, this characteristic of avoiding the request for help? Clearly, people everywhere need help of one kind or another yet hesitate to ask for it even when we need it most. I know I do. Did I teach her this? Is it some misguided shame in needing others causes us to act this way? Pride which misguidedly stays our hand from reaching out to others? Is it fear which causes the hesitation? Will the hand be there when I reach for it? Will it pull back too soon, leaving us no better off than when we started?

Children need to learn the value of independence, but in the end my daughter, J Bean, knows I'm there and if/when she reaches out a hand to me I'll pull her up as quickly as I can. Must be a great feeling. One we should all experience. As time passes, I hope to show her the power in the hands of the world. How her mother's and mine are not the only ones ready to lift her. Eventually she'll know ours are not infinite and she'll need that reassurance. I'll need that reassurance.

Her face breaks the surface just as her outstretched hands finally grasp the edge.


Relief floods my mind as oxygen fills her lungs and I pull back my hand. The edge is constant. I am here. Others nearby are ready to help.

I trust in the knowledge another intrinsically human characteristic is the desire to help others. People step up and offer help even when we won't ask for it ourselves. We like to help, we want to, I really believe that we need to. It seems we should be happy in giving and receiving. Help when we can, reach for a hand when we need it and know it will be there, because it will. 

A fellow dad blogger, Oren Miller of A Father and A Blogger, reached out a hand here. He didn't realize he had actually, because all he really did was let his community know his situation and his thoughts on it. Heartbreakingly, that situation is dire. The response to Oren's stage 4 lung cancer, much to his surprise, came in the form of hundreds of outstretched hands. One stood out to me, it was the hand of Brent Almond (Designer Daddy) who created a Give Forward page for Oren so that we might send Oren and his family on a much needed and deserved vacation. Brents' action was important as it flew in the face of the bystander effect. We all wanted to do something for Oren, but we didn't know where to start. That fund surpassed our imaginations and is now, I am proud to say, a true gift to help them through the rough road ahead. I hope you'll check out the Give Forward page and consider extending a hand of your own to help this loving family through the challenge of their life. 

Oren, we are with you. Take a hand.


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

5 Ways Being an At-Home Dad is Supposedly Ruining My Kids

This piece was originally published at and was part 2, and somewhat of a response, to his original piece you might want to read first here. The main thing to understand is that we're all doing it wrong... and that's OK. 
I “retired” from work when my daughter was born over 5 and a half years ago and now have my son (age 2) in the mix as well. Every once in a while I stumble across an article or a conversation where folks are talking about how horrible it is that some kids are stuck home with a father and what damage I must be doing to my children, my family, my marriage and my earning potential. There is a lot of guilt out there to roll around in. If Vv and I really prioritized our kids we should be able to figure something out so she can stay home and I go to work, you know, the way nature intended. It’s really the best gift we could give to our kids and if we love them we should really consider it. They are only going to be kids once, and if we didn't plan on raising our kids the traditional way, why did we have them in the first place?

Seriously, these are things I have heard… or read. The Internet is full of people who think they know things.

The irony in that last sentence aside, here’s the thing: My wife was consulting and traveling 4 days a week while I worked full-time as VP of Operations with an investigative firm before J Bean, my daughter, was born and that didn’t seem like a great way of carrying on with children. In the end, an at-home dad arrangement made the most sense for us so we could all be together the most and still maintain the best income. Despite the obvious fact that non-conforming gender roles could ruin our children, we still selfishly decided to give it a go. Sorry Internet. Sorry kids. I guess we fail.
Here are 5 ways the SAHD (stay-at home dad) arrangement is supposedly ruining our children...

1. The house is a wreck.  
Story after story indicates that fathers, even when we stay home, do less than our share of chores. To hear the media tell it, stay home fathers must let kids run around in diapers (the same one all day) or buck naked amidst the pigsty we call home. Oddly, from the inside looking out, I feel that I keep a similar home to most of the at-home mothers I know. Meaning, the house is a complete disaster until 5 minutes before announced visitors arrive and I give a final push before mom gets home when the tyrants allow for it. Both feats are only achieved when I plop the kids in front of the TV with a snack while I wipe and vacuum like the Tasmanian devil on crack. It seems I’m always cleaning up, but the work of doing so with two children is like that of a windshield wiper in a monsoon… as soon as I do it, another mess appears. Clean the kitchen, cook a meal and watch the salad shooters I call offspring spray down the breakfast nook with a fresh layer of oatmeal and strawberries. Fun fact: Oatmeal can easily double as an industrial adhesive.

I do have to admit, my wife would probably keep a cleaner house than I do were she home with the children. However, I have my doubts she would also keep up the lawn, the cat litter, the garbage, the pool and the vehicle. In the end, I like to think that a father’s house may be different, but not necessarily worse than a mother’s. After all, I’m raising children, not trying to make the cover of Southern Living. What I lack in gleaming countertops, I make up for with awesome science projects, home-made dollhouses and hand to hand combat training.
2. They are always sick (perhaps this is a function of #1?)

There is rarely a time that my kids’ noses aren't running, and at least once a year one of them will begin projectile vomiting which isn’t nearly as fun as paintball, but makes just as big of a mess. Having sick kids means that Vv and I are also often sick. I don’t get it. This is supposed to be a special torture relegated to those selfish working-parents like John and Stevie of Ask Your Dad Blog.

On one hand, maybe I should keep the kids and the house tidier; on the other hand, a quick leading-question Google search to affirm that my way of parenting is the best brought back this and this. Basically, my “research” shows that if you keep the house cluttered your kids will be more creative and if you let them play in the mud, they’ll be healthier and better able to fend off the super-human Nazi’s (aka: children of working parents) when they get to actual school.  

3. An at-home dad will foster gender confusion
Despite my best attempts at keeping the house dirty for the aforementioned benefits, I occasionally do laundry, dance with a vacuum or scrub enough dishes to unburythe Playstation. During those rare moments, my children are learning a skewed vision of gender roles, and who knows what type of damage this could be causing! My daughter may decide that she wants to be like her Mom and travel the globe as a successful business person  or perhaps she’ll choose a more domestic role, I just hope she decides based on what is best for herself and/or her family rather than what society deems appropiate. My son may become a nurse, or a politician (please, please don’t let him be a politician), or an at-home dad and that’s OK with me. He might decide that making money isn’t his primary “manly” duty! The point is that at-home dads are confusing the Hell out of matters. There are jobs for women and there are jobs for men, period. A fact I’m reminded of everyday through articles on the interwebs and the awkward facial expressions of some when they learn of my chosen occupation.

Truth is the whole situation of being an SAHD makes me hyper-aware of gender boxing and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve held up the drive-thru under the golden arches as I informed the employee through a scratchy intercom that there is no such thing as a “girl toy” or a “boy toy.” Well, actually I’ve heard “boy toy” used legitimately before, but it’s not something you order off the value menu. This discussion is usually followed by me ordering a pink spider-man toy for my daughter at her request, and something with wheels for my son but that’s not the point! Or maybe it is. In theory, I’m raising androgynous children and in the process I’m ruining their lives.
4. My Our decision will bring financial ruin.
“…dads who left work for even a short period of time to cater to domestic matters earned lower evaluations and more negative performance ratings at work than women who opted out.” (Source: This ridiculous article that came up when I Googled, “What is going to piss me off today?”)

Some might think that making it to executive level in your career, taking several years off to raise your children and turning down job offers year after year is not a terrible predicament to be in professionally and that there are benefits to having a parent at home. Others would point out that is nonsensical crazy talk. I could have stayed in the workforce and challenged Warren Buffett for his spot on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in America. Instead, I’m blowing out flip-flops at the beach with my kids and making cheeseburgers in paradise like Jimmy Buffett. Meanwhile, their educational futures are at stake, not to mention a convertible at age 16! My guilt is mounting… or it would be if our arrangement had not allowed my wife to focus and excel in her own career surpassing with one job what we used to make with two. Note to my children: There still won’t be a convertible.

5. Children of an at-home dad will never make friends.

Kids who stay home with dad won’t know how to talk to, much less play with, other children without asking them creepy things about gender stereotypes or the best order to watch Star Wars. (“Episode one first? I can’t even look at you.”) At-home dads will raise socially awkward children who may very well give up on the whole “school” thing by age 6 and move to deep into the Everglades where they will survive on a diet of crawfish, hand-caught water moccasins, and Beanee Weenees. Those little hermits might go a step further and run around in loin cloths while taking aim at nearby rocket launches with slingshots while cursing the bright orb in the sky. Then again, they might grow up to be some of the most creative and interesting people we could meet. Maybe the truth is that it’s difficult predict the future of a child based on who changes their diapers and repeatedly picks up behind them and whether or not that person has an XY chromosome. With that said, If they do drop off the grid in a fit of anti-social rejection, I hope they get an airboat. I like airboats.  

So yeah, we’re HORRIBLE. I’m a dumb-witted half-man raising children who won’t have any idea how to carry themselves with other children and I spend days languishing in toddler-land when I could be making millions to put them through college. Our house would be better off with a cleaning woman (or man), a lawn service and perhaps an au pair. Luckily, we’re not raising houses so I think we’ll just continue our misguided efforts to raise kids in a way that works for our family even if it ruins them in the process. Don’t all kids deserve our very best swing at having no idea how to make them the best person they can be while not driving us crazy in the process? Perhaps Vv and I aren’t really that different from John and Stevie after all. Keep doing what you’re doing Parenting Partners!  

Note: This was not meant to disparage working parents, at-home moms, grandparents, uncles, shoe salesmen or Jimmy Buffett. I think you are all awesome. I think my wife and I are awesome too. Everyone is awesome! I am going to say awesome again. Awesome. 

And one LAST note: Follow me on Facebook. I am 50% more snarky there, and 35% less funny.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sweet Home Chicago

I’m walking along the sidewalk, hand in hand with two children, as the morning sun filters through the freshly budded trees and a gentle breeze finally welcomes the warm weather to the Windy City.  A recycling truck rumbles in the alley and a cable worker is in his box perched above us all. He notices the toddler looking up at him and waves with a smile. Ahead a woman walks a dog, I don’t know his name or hers for that matter, but we’ve shared words on several occasions and the children eagerly collect kisses from and offer pets to the friendly pup. An elderly woman sells churros and fresh mango on a stick from a vending cart nearby. She doesn’t speak English any better than I speak Spanish. We’ve managed to communicate with hand gestures, the five words we know in each others' native tongue, and genuine smiles over juicy fruit bites for two summers. The constant buzzing of traffic is challenged for its unconcerned audience by the newly returned birds. Above squirrels are busily preparing for the next winter as they conduct a trapeze act above the dumpsters and sprouting perennials. A passing vehicle honks the horn and I see a familiar face behind the wheel as Link proclaims loudly, “dar! dar! boo dar” (car, car, blue car).  I realize on our stroll this place reminds me of Sesame Street. That wonderful place of imagination which might as well have been another planet to my eyes watching from rural south Georgia in my childhood. What a wonderful community we stumbled into a few years ago. Perhaps I’m just waxing nostalgic due to our upcoming move… and perhaps that is inevitable. 

“Who leaves the city in the Spring?” I think to myself, contemplating and maybe even second-guessing our forthcoming departure. Our move day is close. So close, in fact, I probably shouldn’t be writing. There is so much to be done and so little time to do it, but I need the catharsis of this. The goodbye I may not get the chance to say one on one to so many parts and people of this city must be said one way or another. 

As J Bean and Link stoop to examine a cluster of dandelions bordering our park (yes, our park), I recall a conversation with Vv several years ago. The conversation led to the conclusion that, with the life she was carrying inside, some big changes would occur. We decided together I would retire from my career in private investigations and become the full-time at-home dad to our daughter while she pursued her lucrative career. He career involved travel but was still, by far, best suited to support our family as the sole income source. The only other option was for her to stop traveling and take a lower-paying job in Tampa where we would both work full-time after the birth of our daughter. Looking back, it hardly seems like a choice at all. We made this plan with the understanding we would live as nomads for a time. With project-based work we might be here for a few months and there for a few more. Our life would be exciting but challenging as we would potentially live in temporary housing in places around the world for a few years. We soon learned our first stop would be Chicago, and we had no way of knowing at the time it would become our only home for the next 5 years. Other opportunities arose, but the 6 months in London didn’t come to fruition and the Chicago project was extended time and time again. Eventually, Vv was able to latch on to a more stable full-time position with the company she had been consulting for and we knew we’d be in Chicago for a little longer. 

When we began the undefined adventure in a new city, I remember wondering how I would fit in such a place. I’m a country boy at heart, spending most of my years in one part of the southeast or another with a short stint overseas and a brief stay out west. I had lived in what I thought were big cities -- Columbia, Atlanta, Tampa -- but I was amazed at what the Second City had to offer and it’s sheer immensity. I was even more amazed that my provincial ways, non-traditional gender role, and even my southern drawl created no impediment to my acclimation to Chicago. I was welcomed into circles everywhere I cared to explore. Along the way, we made friends ranging from the twenty-somethings in our building working to launch careers as Treehouse (remember me when you’re famous guys!) to the doormen of the downtown building we first moved into, to the part time-SAHD/PH.D. student and the award winning documentary film-maker and mother. From fellow parents to single fun-loving adventurers, we met people of all walks of life. We rode the L, gazed at the bean (Chicago’s CloudGate), gorged ourselves at the Taste of Chicago. I hung out with DJ’s on the southside and learned how to match a beat. I prepared a meal for tenants of a women’s shelter with my aforementioned doctoral friend. I marched the streets in protest of inequality and managed to stay out of jail while occupying some space for a time. I ran the Chiditarod, a story unto itself which I have yet to write. I enjoyed fraternity with other fathers, especially at-home fathers, from all over the city and befriended the founder of the local SAHD group and later the president of the National At-Home Dad Network. I was welcomed by mothers in each of the neighborhoods we lived in and never made to feel out of place by them, in fact, several of them are among my closest Chicago friends. 

I learned the windy city has reason to be "windy," with the history and culture of this place, it’s no wonder we’re boastful (yeah, it has nothing to do with the breeze). Home to two MLB teams, a championship team in every other sport imaginable, parks like I never even dreamed of, and miles of lakefront the city was, and still is, a wonder to me. Then there is the food. Glorious food is a centerpiece of the city with two shoulders and I leave with the two chins to prove it. I sampled a little of everything. Duck fat fries from Hot Doug’s, Chicago style thick pizza with the sauce on top from Pizano’s, and assorted cuts from chop houses around the city. I enjoyed craft breweries and tap rooms, tapas bars, Ipsento coffee, sushi of incredible quality, hot dog stands, corned beef sandwiches from Manny's, huge slices after a Cubs loss, and Kuma's burgers just to name a few. I sampled wares at grills overlooking parks and skating rinkson top of buildingsunder buildingson boats and in the back of parcel trucks.  

I'll never forget my Chicago experiences. I’ve danced with my family to everyone from Ray Lamontagne at Pritzker Pavilion to the Black Keys (heard free of charge from a hill across the street from Lollapallooza) to Bill Opelka the street performer we befriended in the catacombs pedway beneath the Loop. I’ve enjoyed night clubs, fancy restaurants, dive bars, street festivals, bowling, theatre and theaters, Segway tours and bike rides, fantastic live music venues, kite flying near the shore, world class museums, botanical gardens, aquarium and planetarium. We’ve seen the water cannon blow a stream across the Chicago river, pondered the faces towering over us as we splashed in the Crown fountain, and we’ve noted the time on a summer day by the eruption of the Buckingham fountain on more than one occasion. Afternoons on the beach (a learning experience for a rookie father), mornings at the zoo and walks in the tropical oases of the many conservatories available even in the dead of winter.  I watched J Bean learn to walk in the Chicago Cultural Center, perused the Art Institute of Chicago with the tyrants, explored countless city parks accessible by all manner of public transit (a delight to the children) and we've been under the city in the many pedways and above it from the Hancock observatory and our first apartment. J Bean and Link are as familiar with unusual sights like men painted silver mimicking robotic dancing Michael Jackson statuespuppet theater from the mobile stage on a bicycle, or a drum line of young men armed with 5 gallon buckets and sticks as some children might be with the mail carrier. 

We spent our first two years downtown among the skyscrapers where we witnessed St. Patrick’s day parades including the green river, Stanley Cup fanfare, airplanes buzzing the Aon center during the Air and Boat show where we sat among the clouds and where Vv worked during our time in this town. After the hustle and bustle of the Loop, we moved to the neighborhoods and were lucky enough to join the gritty, flavorful character of Logan Square and then the warm, welcoming community of Irving Park. Each locale had its own appeal and I am glad to have spent time in such richly different environments.

In this town we’ve watched the snow fall for days, wondered when the sun would show its face again and shoveled our sidewalk like a good neighbor. Together we built snowmen, temporary monuments to the wonderment of the longest season, and watched them melt with anticipation of a Spring that will come one day. We’ve sledded down snow covered mountainettes at the local park, donned 5 layers of clothing for a 30 second walk to the car a thousand times, made snow shakes and pelted each other with snowballs. All those things were new to us, having spent the better part of the previous decade in Tampa Bay. 

Tampa Bay… a gem atop a glistening waterway. I’ll never forget seeing it for the first time. The place is like a vacation brochure come to life. It’s also a place where I have friends from years and careers gone by along with new friends I didn’t know when I lived there.  Tampa is a warm city where the sun will shine often and where we’ll never grow old and we won’t ever die. Isn’t that what we always think about a new place? I know I do. So why does it feel so bittersweet to be leaving this one? Because this town, this scary and intimidating metropolis, somewhere along the line became home and actually lived up to the feeling we get when we prepare to hang our hats in a new place. The grass is green indeed. Leaving in winter would have been a little easier, but the best things about this city go far beyond the temperature on a given day. It’s the people. 

In 5 short years we’ve met people who have had a great impact on us. People whom I hope modern technology and social gadgetry will help maintain the tenuous bridges of friendship as we journey across the country and back to the land of sunshine. 

I can’t get into a list of names, or I might never stop telling you of the super-moms, the neighborly neighbors, the bartenders with welcoming smiles, the kindly old gardeners, the postal worker who spoke Spanish to my children through the open window on many a summer afternoon, the volunteers at the park -- at least one who doubles as a super-mom and great neighbor, doing what she does for love of community never making a show of her selflessness. I can’t mention her husband, the gentle giant who exudes calm and always has an ear for a child. I can’t make a list of names to include the redheaded Irish woman who drank me under the table at a German pub or her husband quick with a smile and a laugh and handy with a bit of sincere insight on life and the meaning of it. If I listed that name then I might forget to tell you about the mother of two, who wears a smile like a badge and makes a mean horchata. I would be remiss to name them without naming the mom who takes pictures of everything, supports her children and her friends with a smile and a good listening ear. If I mentioned her, I’d have to talk about her husband the teacher and the conversations I’ve enjoyed with him. I can’t tell you about the SAHD turned sous-chef who shares my love of music and my interest in looking at the world a bit sideways. There is no need to name the friend, the one man, who taught me more about feminism than any man really has the right to do, but he’s the same one who became my steadfast buddy and confidant and one whom I shall miss most often I think. If there were time, I might tell you about the Italian father with dimples for the ladies and validation for dad bloggers or the young man who taught me about resilience in the face of adversity after his second stroke. Time being short as it is, I can’t mention the Jewish father who was quick to organize a night out to blow off some steam and quicker still to coordinate meal planning for a friend or family in need. I’ll miss the aroma of Cuban food in my foyer from the upstairs neighbor and the occasional sample plate delivered right to our door (especially after the smell of my burnt pizza filled our building). I’ll miss the Chicago Firefighters from station 106 who responded on more than one occasion to find the emergency limited to my own paranoia or burnt pizza, but who always took the time to talk with J Bean and Link and invite them to head down to the station to feed the coy anytime. The father I met, who was running in place and is now running in places shall remain nameless though I’ll miss our nights away from the children as well as playdates with them. The smiling faces of two “nannies” who just happen to also be great mommies can’t be put to name, but they know who they are. The teacher of my eldest, shall remain unknown here lest I forget another important influence in my children’s lives although she will come to mind every time J Bean requests Aladdin.  I’ll miss those morning chats with her and her teaching partner as the children buzz around anticipating a day full of learning and fun that I’ll hear about until bedtime. Many other mothers and fathers of this city and, in particular, this neighborhood will forever hold a place in my heart along with their children. 

The children. Nameless for now, though most will make a great name for themselves in the future, I suspect. I will miss them and their devilish grins, the pitter patter of their feet, their awkward proclamations, their insistence on another push on the swing from Mr. Eric. Their sheer enthusiasm for every day is fuel enough to power even the Second City and I’m glad I have my own Energizer rabbits to take with me or the loss might be more than I could bear. To me they are special, their potential unlimited and their future bright due to the caring and involved parents behind them. To my daughter, they are the friends that I wrote about above. When her pen meets paper for the first time and her own words find voice, the ink will spill bittersweet tears for these childhood friends and a city she’ll always remember. 

Goodbye, sweet home Chicago. Or better yet… until next time.

Here are a few of my favorite memories of Chicago in pictures. Thanks for reading!

The L. Skyline in the background. 

Sue at the Field Museum. 

View from Vv's office.
Manny's Corned Beef.
Botanical Gardens

The Bean.
Polar Bear at Lincoln Park.
Snowman in Millennium Park.

Green River.

J Bean and Bill Opelka in the Pedway.

Water Cannon at Chicago River

Da Bears

Da Blackhawks.... Stanley Cup Party in the Streets

Da Bulls

Da Cubs
J Bean at the Buckingham Fountain.

City Days

Link and Trains at the Botanical Garden

Spring in the City

Our own Sesame Street.

Blues Brothers and J Bean at Midway

J Bean at a CFD Firehouse

The L

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


As I pull the tape dispenser across another brown moving box, it makes a noise akin to cheap fireworks. The repetitive motion triggers the memory of a discussion with my daughter this morning. I say discussion, but it was more of a lecture regarding the fact my packing tape has a duck on it. She asked why my duck tape was clear. Extremely pedantic, and worst of all boring, from her point of view that I want her to understand “Duck” is a brand of tape. A brand which, in a great stroke of marketing genius, sells tape including but not limited to “duct tape” which this packing tape is not.  The echo of the memory reminds me I haven’t heard much from J Bean in the next room in the last minute or two, a sure sign of mischief. 

Rojo Unicornio - J Bean 2014
Heading toward the kitchen, I edge past stacks of boxes strewn with, what appears to be, tribal warfare or perhaps a scene from Game of Thrones recreated with dolls and the ponies. In the kitchen, my firstborn is crouched on a stool intently gazing at a small piece of paper and her own hands. To me it is a mess on the counter.  I feel irritation heating up in my chest as my mouth prepares to fire a reprimand across the bow. A warning shot, if you will.  It seems our interactions this week have been especially antagonistic, so my first stance is that of a disciplinarian. Just look at this! Crayons are littering the recently cleared surface and the floor around her, markers without caps are splayed across the area, glitter glue accents… well, everything. All of this is peripheral damage from J Bean's most recent abstract art project -- a unicorn with "a lot of red, but not too much red" in crayon, glitter and ink on wide-ruled notepad. She calls it “Rojo Unicornio” and it’s for a friend at school. A friend she’ll miss when we move to Florida. Now I remember her mentioning it when she asked if she could “make some art” at the center island.

I remember moving at this age. Leaving friends, making new ones, saying goodbye to the comfortable and the familiar. Nervousness and excitement of it all working together to create enormous stress on a child. She keeps asking me about “owning” a house, and if we can stay in our next one forever (we can’t). I think she senses moves will become harder to cope with as she moves from preschooler to a young girl. One more move and maybe we’ll have our forever home, something I wasn’t even sure I wanted before parenthood. I feel my nomadic childhood made me who I am today, but I try to remember that I’m not remaking me. It is she who is doing that.

I bite my tongue as she looks up at me, swallowing hard the scolding which was fighting to escape my mouth just a moment ago. Her blue eyes, dark like a sea beneath heavy clouds, peer at me from around her red-rimmed glasses. Each eye in frame like a Monet. Glitter tips her nose and the lenses of her glasses. I stop thinking about the clean-up and the regular chores and the moving that needs to be finished.  With the look she flashes a sparkling smile (literally sparkling) that could melt the sky as she shows me two outstretched gold-glitter covered hands and says proudly, "Look, Daddy, my hands are soooo sparkly and pretty!"


I compliment her work and help her de-sparkle her hands a few minutes later before wiping down the counter and getting her to help me cap the wayward markers and stow them with the crayons in her art bag. It's always a different story when we see it through their eyes. Why is that so hard? 

      At Cap d'Antibes, Mistral Wind - Claude Monet, 1888

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Never Too Big...

J Bean (5) started sobbing to Vv today after basketball class that she didn't want to grow up. She was worried she was going to get too big for me to flip her around and hold her upside down. When they arrived home, Vv told me about it so I went and found J Bean sitting in her dark room pouting cross-legged in the middle of the floor. Grabbed her up, threw her around like a bean bag, held her upside down on the ceiling and asked her what was wrong.

"I don't want to grow up ever, not even a little. You won't be able to pick me up and toss me around anymore." She said with a fat lip.

"I'll always be able to pick you up and throw you around." I promised. "At least for as long as you want me to because I'm super big and super strong."

"No you won't. I will always want to, forever and ever." She whimpered in despair.

"Are you going to be bigger than Mommy anytime soon?" I asked.

"No, I don't think so."

"Well, I can pick Mommy up, she may not want me to, but I can do it. Go ask her."

20 seconds later, I have Vv over my shoulder in a fireman's carry and then into a Mr. T style Airplane spin until Vv's protests put an end to the manuever.

Lifted J Bean again, held her upside down, so she hung in front of me face to face like a little dangling SpiderMan. "Believe me now?" I asked.

She giggled, laughed and asked for more spinning; I obliged.  I guess she won't be growing up today. Not on my watch.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Another Installment of "I Like to Move it"

The one in which we all put down devices, close up those laptops and pump the volume for a dance party with any little ones around. This is one of Link's favorites right now. Every 5 seconds he finds me, points to the stereo and says "Nu Sick Knee Yun Lauer!" rough translation "Music. Neil Young, louder" and when he says "Neil Young" he doesn't mean I can select any jam of my choosing, he means only "Oh Susannah" will do. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Bear and Freddie's Boots

It’s 102 in the shade and there ain’t no shade.

I'm trudging along behind a red International Farmall tractor in the middle of a tobacco field. The tractor grumbles rhythmically. The engine's stutter punctuated by a clanking rain cap over the exhaust as it crawls along the rows.

Plants, tall as a man surround us on all sides. Thick leaves attached to central stalks. Blooms, or “suckers” as we call them, crown a portion of the crop. The air is tainted with half-burned fuel, tobacco tar and cigarette smoke. My nose wrinkles and the noon sun narrows my eyes to slits. I look like the crankiest 12 year old to ever work a field. My face all squished up like I just took a bite from a fresh lemon. My expression, however, does not accurately represent my feelings of excitement. I've never worked on a farm before today. 

I broil slowly. The heat is oppressive, but I want the resulting red neck. 

I need it.

If I am to become bona fide in my old, yet new again, hometown the red neck is a prerequisite. You see, I’m known as a “city boy.” Despite a birthplace only 20 miles away, I’m not of this place. My family left the Flatlands when I was a toddler. My father was in the service during my formative years. Now, after more than a decade away, it is time I become acclimated to the ways of my southern kin. Cropping tobacco seems as fine a place as any to start my training.

My uncle Freddie owns the farm and acts as foreman to the harvesting crew. He isn’t around anymore, but I can’t walk under a pale moon without thinking of him. When I hear the heat song of locusts or catch a whiff of a tobacco pipe, which resembles the aroma of an old curing barn, it takes me right back to a cool southern night and I can hear his heavy boots on the pavement as we walk side by side. We'll get to more on that in due time, but for now you should know Freddie taught me how to work through pain, how much I could accomplish even outside my element, and more than a little about being a man. Face your fears, live up to your responsibilities, laugh when you can, apologize when you are wrong and sometimes when you are right, forgive. I am thankful for the rain and the slick Georgia clay that led to an unexpected adventure over twenty-five years ago. I wish I could tell him just how much one long walk meant to me so long ago. I can't do that, so I'll tell you instead. 

Uncle Freddie is a monumental man.

To my boyish eyes, he looks as if he just stepped out of an old western or perhaps a Marlboro billboard. He is the oldest, and at 6 feet, the tallest by far of five siblings. A tattered trucker hat tops his thick, black hair with silver linings above the ears. Freddie’s eyes smile constantly and his mouth obliges frequently. His hands, large and rough. His handshake, a five pound hammer. Skin beaten by the sun. Well past a farmer's tan, more of a leathery hide.  His uniform, an old worn-thin plaid shirt, sagging blue jeans and boots. A cigarette dangles from his lips, an afterthought. Its ember flipping around precariously as he talks and laughs.

In the field next to the old farmhouse, we’re trundling along one of the longest rows.

It is nearly half a mile through the field from a dirt road on the north to highway 168 bordering on the south. At our current pace, I wonder if I'll make it through the day, or if spontaneous combustion will end my shift early. When we reach the highway, half an hour from now, we'll look longingly at the inviting shade of the dense pines across the roadway. Then the driver will turn around slowly in the fine gray soil and start back toward the dirt road again. Up and down a dozen times and this field won't even be half done. The day will eventually give way to evening and the barn will be full before that happens. At least, I hope so, and George assures me.

I imagine my headstone inscription as I attempt, with little success, to shield my entire body from the sun with my small ball cap as I walk. The epitaph will read, "Here lies Eric. Bear caught on a dog day. Shoulda known better, city slicker."

Since it's my first day on the job, Freddie can’t trust me to do anything important. I walk behind the crew picking up dropped tobacco or pulling any missed ripe leaves I might spot along the way. I'm not even wearing shoes. I can't recall why that is, but in retrospect it seems ill-advised. 

Taking a turn on the tractor is out of the question since I didn’t grow up driving one. Behind the wheel, I might run over some of the crop or wind up "bear caught,” endangering the whole crew. It will be a few more days before I start real work and learn more about the bear. Freddie and others warn me. Bullshit to scare the new guy, I figure.

I am wrong.

For those, like me, who don't know: "bear caught" is the close relative of heat stroke. When the sun's rays beat down with constant force I can only describe in terms of pressure and the only shade is cast by circling buzzards, you just might find yourself drowning on dry land with the world spinning out of control beneath your bare feet.

(Where the Hell are my shoes?!)

If you notice a shortness of breath and a feeling of overwhelming dread while cropping it is time to get off your feet as the next step is usually passing out, vomiting or both. AKA: Bear Caught.

Behind the caravan is the safest place to walk for a greenhorn. If I faint, at least I will not be run over back here. Atop the tractor, Bobby is in the captain’s seat. 
He’s a grumpy, red-faced, round man in his sixties who is often late and occasionally falls asleep at the wheel. He's been known to miss the turn at the end of a row from time to time and can’t be relied on to react quickly to foolish city boys who might fall down where they shouldn’t oughta have no business doing so.

Progress is slow.

The tractor is pulling a stick harvester and the trailer brings up the rear of this 3-car rolling assembly line. Sticks of tobacco will be piled neatly on the trailer as they are completed and the “stackers” will leap from trailer to harvester and back again fetching completed racks as we move across a dry sea of green and yellow. The body of the harvester has two stations in the center and two more hanging off each side; suspended like gull wings by a metal sliding arm which creates a veritable finger guillotine between the sleds and the main body of the contraption. 

This dangerous meeting of metal on metal enables the sleds to be folded in for travel or adjusted for different size rows. I don't put my hands up there because I've been warned and it’s always covered with grease to facilitate the scissor action. Another relative once showed me the scars where he lost four fingers and had them sewn back on after resting his hand casually on such a bar at the wrong moment some 25 years previous. Amazingly, his digits still function, but his piano playing days came to an end that summer. 

Each of the four stations have a low, forward-facing seat where a “cropper” can encircle the bottom ring of leaves from a stalk with two hands, gather them in a bunch and hand them up to the rear-facing stringer who is perched on a chair above and in front of the cropper. The stringer wraps each handful with twine, attaching them to a stick which hangs overhead. The end result is a stick just over 4 feet long with large tobacco leaves hanging from its length, save 6 to 8 inches on either end enabling the sticks to rest atop rafters in the curing barn. 

Later the sticks of tobacco will be manually hoisted by my older, and braver, cousins into the dizzying heights of an ancient tobacco barn so rickety looking I don't really want to stand in it, much less climb to the top with a 30 pound stick of fresh tobacco. During the hanging process, my Uncle Freddie barks orders and jokingly chastises anyone who hesitates by asking if they “need to go change their dress.” He also makes us smile with his infectious laugh as he regales the crew with stories and one-liners. Despite his jovial nature in the shady barn, I take notice of some well-hidden concern shadowing his face. Limber boys, fearless as any trapeze performer, jump from rafter to rafter and seem to swing effortlessly from one to another overhead while hoisting sticks into the furthest reaches of the towering structure. The downturned corners of my uncle’s mouth and the darting way his eyes glance at the “hangers,” most of whom are his nephews, betray the fact he has probably witnessed someone fall from the upper rafters somewhere along the line. 

He’s probably seen a lot of things, I imagine.

“Hold up! Gotta change a spool!” someone yells at the driver.  After another series of curses and calls to stop, the request finally makes it past the engine noise and the 6 pack of Busch the driver has quietly downed in an attempt to beat the heat and boredom of his job. 

The hard sun remains my main concern.

As the caravan comes to a halt, croppers and stringers catch their breath and take long pulls on their sweaty water bottles. Many of them douse themselves with cool water, the sensation followed by involuntary gasps and then exhalations of relief. I find myself envious of my cousin George with his spot under the shady tarp and a rusty iron seat. He’s already a seasoned cropper. 

“If George can do it, so can I… right?” I think to myself.

It is only my ignorance of the job which leads to the thought. A few weeks from now I'll remember my leisurely strolls behind the harvest train fondly and wonder why in heck anyone would want to be a cropper. 

George is my senior by less than a year, but has lived here his whole life. He’s just as much a part of this county as the old barn on the edge of the field. A tight crew cut, a quick laugh, square glasses and an aura of experience are his stand out features at this age. He’s been working on the farm for years already and seems to have been vaccinated against the bear during his tenure. He has a gun. His own gun! We go fishing together when we have the opportunity. We roam the considerable wilderness around his home or play Duck Hunt for hours on his Nintendo before a sleepover.

In spite my city ways, George and I are like peas and carrots except when we are more like oil and vinegar. We can usually resolve disagreements with a scuffle and a hug. Fisticuffs be damned. Blood is the tie that binds and we never hold a grudge that lasts half as long as one of our black eyes. 

As I look on, George is in the low seat of a center station on the harvester. In front of him, a gorgeous teenage girl with curly brunette hair, an easy smile, a maroon top and tight blue jeans that might have been purchased from his Daddy's corner shop in town a few years back though they probably didn’t fit like this back then.  His vantage point seems better than the rear of the trailer and uninterrupted horizon dominating my scenery as the forgotten caboose. I look away quickly, hoping neither the girl nor her brother notice the slack-jawed admirer.

George plucks and passes clusters of leaves so hard and fast throughout the day his fingers hurt and tar presses into every nook and cranny. Sweat drips from the rim of his glasses to his turquoise t-shirt. George is wearing knee-length shorts, we call them jams, and high-top sneakers. This will be his style of work clothes for the season unless those pesky hairs on his legs start to thicken before harvest is over. They will become bristly magnets for the sticky tobacco tar as George’s voice begins to crack. The trained eye can tell by the way he looks at the stringer this change will come sooner rather than later. Judging by my jealousy, I’m not far behind.

“Owww! What the Hell?!” I shout, enjoying the newfound freedom of cursing in the field. I dance around barefoot in the silty soil after stepping on a discarded butt from the harvest train’s conductor. The crew laughs at me and Freddie glances back quickly, sees that I’ve suffered no major injury, and shouts an unconcerned "All clear! Go ahead!" in the direction of the driver. 

We sluggishly make the rounds and inch our way toward a distant mirage. I’m beginning to believe the oasis is not an illusion and my hope for an end to the workday is gaining definition along with the buildings around the big house which are coming into focus through the undulating heat waves.

Weeks pass. At this point I’m a respectable cropper and have only been “bear caught” a few times. I spend most weekdays in the field and nights between with my uncle at his mother-in-law’s home. Ms. Olive is a kind woman with the same lovely eyes as her daughter, my aunt, whom Freddie is married to. Uncle Freddie doesn’t have children and his wife is at their own home in town as she has a job at a local dealership. Ms. Olive is elderly and busy with meals and other household chores, so in the evenings I find myself with much more freedom than I'm used to.

After work and before supper, I roam the farm like a lost boy.

I discover plows and trucks as old as the creek bed, other farm implements of unknown origin and purpose, and hand tools wielded by farmers long dead. I find abandoned barns with corrugated rusty-steel roofs and walls more air than lumber after the slow wrecking ball of time has done its thankless job. The barns rest unnoticed among the pines only a stone's throw from the northern tip of the longest row in the main field. There is a flat-pond behind the house, basically a low-lying area that holds water in the rainy season. It is dry this summer but surrounded with clear boundaries of briars laden with blackberries.

There are the two weary and beaten grain silos dominating the eastern border of the property, the sad fraternal twins cast long shadows in the evening. One cylinder is faded gray with sections outlined in oxidation red while the other appears to be its negative exposure. Both are capped with rusty tin roofs. When I open a door to the red silo I catch the musky odor of old soybeans and possum leavings. Dust sifts down from above, highlighting the bolts of sunlight piercing the rusty pock holes here and there.

In the woods, behind the main barn, there are squirrels and rabbits to track and a drainage pond which stretches to the highway. Along the edge of the pond I battle hordes of mosquitos; my only allies, an army of dragonflies who feast on the plentiful parasites. Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of a skink whose colors and reptilian head combine to give them an uncanny resemblance to a water moccasin, at least to the inexperienced eye of a city boy. The pond is a sea of minnows, frogs, lily pads and cattails. I drop a line in that big puddle a few times throughout the summer, but never catch anything more than a small box turtle. 

I find wild muscadine grapes dotting the wooded area of the property. They are the size of a small marble and dull black when ripe. Their flavor pales in comparison to the scuppernongs I enjoy from another tended vine in the yard. The scuppernongs are three times the size of a wild muscadine and grow in sweet bronze clusters. The trick is finding them before the birds and the neighbors. I squeeze a thick-skinned grape between my thumb and forefinger and spit the seeds onto the ground before swallowing the slimy, yet satisfying, glob that remains. Afterwards, I put the grape skins on the tips of my fingers and imagine I'm a green frog leaping from tree to tree.

There is an upturned oak with dirt-bombs clinging to the horizontal disc of its roots which provide ample ammunition for waging war on an imaginary enemy or the wayward squirrel tracking my progress. Despite its resting place parallel to the ground, the huge tree holds onto life not unlike its roots used to grip the earth. I wonder what to call a “live oak” after it dies.

I don't know where I find the energy for these explorations, but it is a daily ritual and I don't return to the big house until the dinner bell rings. Ms. Olive lays out spreads worthy of a king but meant for a growing farmhand and his giant uncle. I’m thinner despite consuming copious amounts of sweet tea, peach cobbler, biscuits, fried okra, stewed tomatoes, ford hooks, and fried chicken of the like that has probably passed from this world forever.

While I am scrubbing the day’s tar from my hands with pumice-laced GOJO in preparation for supper, I look up into the mirror matching gazes with an unfamiliar dark face smeared with dirt and with eyes I like to believe are starting to sparkle with some of that backwoods experience I've been so desperately pursuing. I inquire aloud if GOJO is flammable. No one answers. It sure smells like it and my eyes water from the acrid fumes.

I wonder to myself if I’ll ever be as tough as my uncle, but I already know the answer.

This evening, Uncle Freddie asks me to tag along as he checks on the barns scattered about our corner of the smallest county in southern Georgia. We load up in his 4x4 two-tone Ford pickup and hit the road. A strong breeze swirls within the cab as we careen down the highway. We’re probably within the speed limit, but after a day in the field it feels like we’re riding a cruise missile. 

On the radio, Hank Williams is chasing rabbits, pulling out his hair and howling at the moon. 
Freddie’s Boston Terrier, “B.A.,” as in Baracus (or was it Bad Ass?), smiles an impossible grin with his head hanging out the window, his tongue flapping wildly in the wind and a jaw seemingly unhinged like a rattler’s as he gulps in the last drops of the day.

We stop and check on several barns; Uncle Freddie confirming propane levels, inspecting the burners and examining some hanging leaves by rubbing them between his calloused fingers. The barns are made of logs and mortar predating my grandparents and they all smell of propane, musty wood and sweet tobacco. I love that smell.

As we exit the last barn, the curtain of night has fallen completely and the moon is on the rise. The twilight is long gone and it’s nearly bedtime with another day of harvesting ahead. The constant buzz of cicadas is now eclipsed by the chirping of crickets and a cacophony of frogs in the roadside ditches. The small frogs croak with a near machine-like consistency, but every 15 to 20 seconds the unmistakable bellow of a bullfrog rises above the noise as he asserts his dominance over the night and all who hear him.

“Load up, kid. It’s time to go,” my mother’s big brother says, in his deep barreled voice.

He lets fly a sharp whistle in B.A.’s direction. The small dog is investigating a nearby thicket, but is still the first one in the cab. He seems somewhat reluctant to allow me into his usual spot as co-chief. As Freddie turns the ignition, Johnny Cash is crooning about "The Wide Open Road." My uncle throws the column shifter into low gear and hits the gas. 

The engine revs and we go nowhere. 

He tries reverse, we hear the wheels spin and we can feel the truck sink just a bit. He glances over, tells me to stay put while he hops out to engage the four wheel drive hubs on the old pickup truck. Back in the cab, he tries again; and again our only movement is downward. Now he’s out and his hat is in his hand while he scratches his head aggravatedly, surveys the area and mumbles under his breath.

I hop out of the cab with B.A. close behind to assess the situation. After I've exhausted all manner of pointless questions and offered nothing in the way of solutions, Freddie tells me to gather some sticks. We work together to put some debris under the tires in the hopes of creating some traction. This goes on for a spell and we make no progress. I take a turn at the wheel while Freddie pushes and I press the gas too hard spraying him with mud and causing him to trip and fall. My throttle enthusiasm also clears the items we had managed to jam under the wheels.

“Dammit, Eric! Shit fire!!” Freddie shouts at me as he takes to his feet throwing his hat down and kicking in the general direction of B.A., who had taken the spill as an opportunity to lick some mud off his master's face. The little black and white dog retreats quickly, though he was in no real danger. I have a strong urge to follow him into the brush lest I catch a boot to my own rear end, but I held my footing, sheepishly looking down and kicking at some loose gravel with my hands stuck deep into my pockets.

Freddie is not usually an angry man, but I’m apprehensive as he is the first adult to curse at me. I’ve heard the words, but they have never been meant for me. I stutter and stammer attempting an apology. I’m fighting back the urge to cry. Before I lose that battle, he calls me closer. He reminds me, and possibly himself, that he chose the parking spot and spun the wheels to begin with. It’s not my fault and he’s sorry for cursing and yelling.

I can breathe again. 

All is well with the world again, other than the fact we are stranded in the middle of nowhere. This barn is at least 10 miles from home and nearly half that to the nearest neighbor. A neighbor who happens to be a hand in our crew, but who also happens to own the world’s largest bull mastiff. This hulking beast seems a closer relative to a great grizzly than the toy-sized bulldog we have as a walking companion. Every time we pick up the boy for work, the mastiff peers intimidatingly at the pickup from the porch. The workers in the bed of the truck sit quietly and nervous. Each silently hoping they are not the slowest runner in the crowd as they keep at least one eye on the behemoth until we’re back on the blacktop.

Dreading the walk, we spend some time in the cab and I listen intently as Freddie tries to hail someone on his CB radio. He speaks an unfamiliar language which captivates me and reminds me of Smoky and The Bandit. After 10 minutes with no answer it becomes apparent we are going to have to hoof it. We gather a few things, roll up the windows and begin the journey.

We’re walking down the centerline of a lonely Georgia highway. Light from the near full moon makes vision the least of our worries on the open road. I munch on a Snickers bar salvaged from the truck and we share a half bottle of Mountain Dew during the stroll.

I stay close to the big man, like a shadow.

I notice B.A. doesn’t wander too far either. His pattering feet are quick as he keeps pace with us, sniffing the asphalt and occasionally exploring the shoulder as we walk. A few cars speed by here and there, but it was past midnight when we gave up calling for help and struck out on foot so it comes as no surprise to either of us when none stop to offer a ride.

The days are still warm, but this evening is unseasonably cool. Between the southern humidity and our light clothing, we are chilled beyond comfort. After an hour or so, we come to another of the barns so we step inside to allow the propane heaters a chance to thaw our bones. Warm blooded again, we fill our soda bottle with water and strike out once more.

Sometime after 2am we approach the home of the stacker with the gigantic bear-dog. A quick discussion results in a unanimous decision. We do not want to knock on the door and we need to make it past the house without awakening the huge canine if we are to arrive home with no extra holes in us. Uncle Freddie carries B.A. and we walk quick and silent until we are clear of the monster’s territory.

Even well beyond the dog's hearing I am terrified, like only a city boy could be, by the imaginary dangers I perceive to be lurking just beyond the shadows. Trees line the sides of the road providing cover for all manner of unspeakable evils. 

Freddie is the rock on which I anchor myself. He seems indestructible and shows no sign of concern as we continue our march. 

We walk. We rest. We stop in another barn to warm up and we walk some more. I tell Freddie of the latest video games, a cute girl at school, a truck I hope to buy in a few years and how I’m not sure I fit in around these parts. I listen as he reminisces on growing up with my mother, her sister and his two younger brothers. It turns out, as big brothers, we have a few things in common and 35 years doesn’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of things. He tries to convince me I don’t need to prove myself and that the most interesting people don’t fit in anywhere really. He tells me that I’m alright, for a city boy, and that he’s glad to have me on the crew.

I swell with pride. Or perhaps, it's the unseen monsters in the shadows who shrink. 

As we near our destination, my legs are tired, my mouth is dry. I’m blissfully unaware of how time will steal, so completely, many memories from this summer and this night in particular or why I should hold onto them so dearly. I wish I could go back and tell myself to write down some of those stories instead of passing out on the bed when we arrive home. I’m thankful that I’m able to remember what I do, but there was so much more. I had no idea his time was short.

We veer off the highway and take the last mile on a dirt road. As we approach the big house, the pregnant horizon is ready to give birth to the morning sun. 

The sky has been brightening steadily for the last hour. I am exhausted and even B.A. isn’t smiling any longer as we reach the front door. From within, I can already smell coffee, bacon grease and fresh biscuits. Ms. Olive greets us with a smile and hugs inquiring about where we have been and what we have been up to. Uncle Freddie gives me a cold glass of orange juice, a bacon sandwich then sends me to bed.

Later I realize he went to the field to get the crew moving without laying his head on a pillow. 

I don’t wake up until just before lunch and, of course, Ms. Olive worries over me. She feeds me more than a dozen boys would need in one sitting. After lunch I return to the field with the rest of the crew.  Freddie pays me the twenty dollars I would normally receive for a full day’s work and after supper we enjoy a good laugh as we begin threading hyperbole into our fish tale.

If he were here today I suppose his version would vary quite a bit from the one I have told. What I wouldn’t give to hear it. Tonight though, we agree that damn dog out on Highway 168 is as big as any black bear in Georgia. We also agree this evening we’ll stay in, sip some sweet tea and watch Wheel of Fortune. 

That winter, a few weeks before Christmas, Freddie’s boots took their last steps.

A sudden and unexpected malady took him from us on a cold Tuesday. The news punched me in the gut and the world spun beneath my feet. A feeling not unlike being caught by the bear.

Today, I remain certain I'll never be as tough as Uncle Freddie, but I learned to walk the walk and talk the talk. He seemed to think that was half the battle. He taught me to laugh at the world, enjoy at least some part of every day, and that listening is almost always better than talking. I learned to be consistent in my dealings with others and to present myself as a superhero to children who needn’t worry about things beyond their control. 

Youngins believe in the magic our mentors weave far into adulthood. Faith in their power remains even after an invincible man inevitably proves that this, his greatest illusion, was nothing more.

I've never forgotten to watch for the bear in the many forms he takes, but I will not let fear of him paralyze me.

In the end, some footprints leave no mark in the sand, but I can still hear the clicking of those boots echoing across the southern Georgia night and no one who knew Freddie can deny the impressions he left in their own life.

**Special thanks to my cousin, George, for helping me dredge up some of these memories and some of the important details from a summer of croppin' and the man we both loved.

 Also thanks to my dear friend, Brian Sorrell of who helped me find the voice to tell this story that I was, until now, unable to put to paper in a way that matched its significance in my life.

Another thank you, to Bill Peebles of
I Hope I Win A Toaster for offering feedback and support on this story and many others

All of you have heavy boots and leave echoes you may not even be aware of.