I didn’t want a dog.
Robin wanted a dog. The kids wanted a dog.
“I’ll be the one who winds up walking and feeding it,” I protested.
That was twelve years ago. For the most part, I was right. The kids are on their own now. Robin does baths, but I do most of the walking, feeding, and trips to the groomer.
Next week, I’ll take Chloe for our last walk, and I’m choking up as I write this.
Chloe became ours after another family purchased her from the breeder, then returned her. From the beginning, she was different. Her first week with us, she freed herself from her kennel while we were gone. We came home to find her lounging on the sofa, waiting for company. No accidents, no chewed furniture. When the same thing happened two days later, we got rid of the kennel and left Chloe free to roam the house. She never made us regret that decision.
She loves car and airplane trips, our back yard in Kansas City, and Bradenton’s warm weather and birds. She visits our neighbors, Carol and Joe, and devours their cat food when they’re not looking. She breakdances and rolls over for treats, intuits when we’re going to the vet or groomer, and will do anything for a puppy cone at Culver’s. She’ll come running when we say treat and run away when we say bath. She watches TV and barks at animals on the screen, even the cartoon kind.
When Chloe was still young, she loved for us to drop her off at the end of our dead-end street so she could run home. All we had to say was, “You want to run?” and she’d go nuts. Robin used to have a basket on the front of her bike that Chloe rode in. She was a true queen.
We found out last year that Chloe has Cushing’s Disease. Now she sleeps most of the time, has trouble breathing, and struggles to control her bladder. Her tummy is distended and she can’t get enough water. Occasionally, though, the old Chloe will reappear, like last week when she went to her toy pile, pulled out a favorite, and brought it to me. She’s slipping away from us, though, so this morning the decision was made to… well, you know.
The next eight days will be our Chloe Farewell Tour. We have a quick trip planned to Savannah, Georgia. She’ll go along for one more joyous car ride. Robin has replaced dog food with hamburger. We’ll have puppy cones at Culvers, belly-rubs on the couch, walks as long and far as she wants, and lots of time to say good-bye.
Then we’ll make that last trip to the vet.
I guess I wanted a dog after all, because I’m sure going to miss this one.
The fact that you’re here probably means you’re a reader. After all, why else would you check out an author’s blog?
I’m a reader, too, always have been. Fiction is my favorite, but I also love biographies, sports, and true-crime. Television has never had the same allure of books, though I must say that This Is Us comes darn close. Starting when I discovered the Childhood of Famous American series of biographies in the Hurlock Elementary School library, I’ve been hooked on books. Even during the summer, I would be at the corner every other Tuesday when the bookmobile arrived.
There have been so many books, so many good books, over the years, but when it comes to those that rocked my world, the list is small. I’ve narrowed it to five, but could easily include five more. Or ten. Or fifty. My list includes four works of fiction and a self-help book. Four would be considered contemporary, one is a classic. Four were written by men, one by a woman. They cover topics that greatly interest me, including social justice, small-town life, and leadership. You’ll find bits and pieces of them in what I’m writing today.
So, without further ado, my Top Five. If you're interested in learning more, I've linked the cover photos to each book's Amazon page.
In a few minutes, we’re going out to eat with friends, to a local place that is known for great seafood. We’ll eat a lot, talk a lot, and, hopefully, ignore our cellphones.
But that last one – ignoring our cellphones -- is hard, isn’t it?
When did our phones become so essential? Maybe the better question is, why did they become so essential? It’s easy enough to make fun of that group of kids you see at Taco Bell with their noses glued to their phones, but I have to use every bit of willpower to not be just like them.
I’m at my worst when it’s just Robin and me. Say we’re going someplace. A song comes on the radio, maybe Rupert Holmes’ Escape – The Pina Colada Song. Robin, who is driving, might ask, “Did he ever sing anything else?” Boom! Just like that, I’m surfing the web to find out. Yes, by the way, just so you don’t have to look this up yourself, Rupert Holmes’ other Top 40 hits were Him and Answering Machine.
It never stops. We drive past a house with a For Sale sign out front and I’m looking up the details. We’re not even looking to buy a house. Earlier today, I thought of Gene Rayburn, the host of the 1960’s and ‘70’s TV show, Match Game. Is he still alive? Ten seconds later, I knew that he passed away in 1999 from congestive heart failure. R.I.P. Gene.
My smart phone has made me the world’s most inquisitive person. And also one of the rudest. I’ll try hard not to whip it out during dinner, but if our friends want to know how many calories there are in shrimp tacos or when the next high tide is in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ll have to find out for them. That’s my job.
“No school today.”
People in two of the three parts of the country where I’ve spent my life heard those three words this week.
“Dorchester County, Maryland… no school today.”
“Kansas City, Missouri… no school today.”
And here in Bradenton, Florida… well, it’s seventy and sunny, but I didn’t come here to rub it in.
No. School. Today.
Admit it, if you grew up in an area where it snows, those three words trigger something inside you. The little kid in you surfaces, if only for a moment. It’s there.
When I was a kid, we got news of school closings on WCEM radio from their long-time morning announcer, “Curly in the Early” (the inspiration for the radio station owner in my book, The Resurrection of Hucklebuck Jones). For a while, I thought Curly was the person actually in charge of making the decision, never dreaming that someday I’d be that person.
And what did we do when we found out? Go back to bed? No siree. We would pile on the layers and head outside. Galestown, Maryland’s population was 120, and it seemed half were kids. The best snow days were when Galestown’s millpond froze over enough to skate. When the ice was especially thick, our fathers would build a roaring fire to keep everyone warm while they skated (yes, fire on the ice). There could be dozens of people there on any given night. Kids skated. Parents visited. Dogs sniffed.
Fast-forward to college. It was rare for Western Kentucky University to cancel classes, but when they did, look out. Western’s sports teams are the Hilltoppers, and they’re not called that for nothing. The campus is situated 250 feet above the rest of the city. Have you ever sledded down a 250-foot hill with a couple thousand of your best friends? In the dark? On a lunch tray? I broke a tooth during the winter of 1980 doing just that.
About seven years ago, I stopped going to a regular job. I no longer needed suits, ties, business cards, daily commutes, dress shoes, alarm clocks, or planning calendars.
Of all of those, the one I missed least was the planning calendar.
You know the kind I’m talking about. Those big bulky things like the one in the picture above that help you keep track of where you’re going and what you’re supposed to take, say, and do. My planner was as much a part of my daily routine as my socks, and it was with much pleasure back in 2011 that I went home from my last day of work, put the planner in a box, took the box to the attic, and forgot all about it. Even through part-time gigs with Proctor and Gamble, the Kansas City Royals, a local university, and a weekly newspaper, I never felt the need to dig out that planner. I kept track of where I was supposed to be on my iPhone. Things that had to get done went on a to-do list, also on my phone. Easy-peasy.
Fast forward to now.
Writing has become a full-time job. I didn’t expect that when I started back in 2012. My first book took me four years to write, though I have to admit that my routine was pretty loose. I would write a little, Facebook a little, and eat lunch with my buddies a few times a week. With a schedule like that, is it any wonder Harvest of Thorns took so long to finish? Had I continued that pace and lifestyle for another ten years, I would’ve had five-thousand Facebook friends, weighed five-hundred pounds from all the ribs and burnt ends I was putting away… and written two books.
Something had to change.
A question I get a lot from readers of The Resurrection of Hucklebuck Jones is, where did you come up with the name?
There’s a story behind that.
I grew up in rural Maryland, around people who weren’t above a few tall tales and superstitions. Ours was the birthplace of Harriet Tubman, but Dorchester County also birthed the legend of Big Lizz, the ghost of a former slave who, it is said, can be seen near Greenbrier Swamp carrying her dismembered head as she crosses the road.
So, it was with some skepticism that I pursued the real story of Hucklebuck. I first heard of him when I was a boy. He was said to have lived in a shanty in the woods behind Wheatley’s Church, near my home of Galestown.
But was he real? My only reference point was a day many years ago. My friend Billy and I decided to venture into the woods to see if we could find any truth to the story. Sure enough, we came across the remains of an old wood structure fallen in upon itself. We dug through the site, but found little more than an old phonograph record and some rusty cans. That was the first and last time I was there.
Fast forward forty-five years, to last fall. The protagonist for my book needed a name. Naming characters is harder than you might think. Once I decide upon a name, the character becomes real to me. If I mess it up, I’m stuck with a name I dislike or have to change during the editing process. This happened to Adam Overstreet, one of the main characters in my book, Shunned. He was originally named Kyle until it was pointed out that his name was very similar to another of the lead characters, Miles. Thank goodness for Microsoft Office’s Find and Replace feature.
Anyway, the lead character’s original name was Jocko Jones. I liked the sound of it. One of my oldest and best friends is Dan Jones, and for reasons I cannot remember, I sometimes call him Lucky. Lucky Jones. Jocko Jones sounds like Lucky Jones, so there you go.
Except, it didn’t fit. Jocko Jones sounds like the name of a circus clown, don’t you think? I needed something different. From someplace deep in my memory came Hucklebuck. I used that Find and Replace feature again and Hucklebuck Jones came to life.
“Are you nervous?” my wife Robin asked.
“Should I be?”
She gave me that smile. That all-knowing smile that says, you’re not nervous yet, but you’re going to be.
That was two weeks ago, while driving to my 40th high school class reunion. Now, before going any further, let me share a little background. My classmates and I graduated in 1977. Two months later, I left Maryland for college in Kentucky. Visits home were limited to Christmas breaks and a couple months each summer when I worked on our family farm. Later, when family and job obligations became part of life, the visits were even fewer. Other than attending our 15th class reunion, I haven’t seen more than a couple of my classmates since we marched out of commencement.
Back to Robin’s question. Nervous? Not at all… until we were walking up the steps of the American Legion Hall. That’s when the anxiety started raining down like bricks. I tried to play it off, but Robin sees and knows everything. For the first time in forty years, I was “that kid” again. Doubts I hadn’t felt since high school gnawed at me. Where would we sit? Who would sit with us? Would I fit in?
It was the first day of school all over again.
Perhaps your high school experience was like mine. I never quite fit in, especially the first couple years. I envied those kids who moved through the hallways without a care in the world - the kids with good hair and clear complexions. I was scrawny, my front teeth were busted, and my wavy hair poofed out in every direction except where I wanted it to go. Not exactly a recipe for high school success and popularity.
And I haven’t even gotten to my eyes yet.
My eyes didn’t see like everyone else’s. In those days, I was legally blind. I couldn’t read the assignments on the blackboard. I had to hold textbooks two inches from my face to read the print. I could barely make out faces from more than a few feet. When my classmates were in Drivers’ Education, I was in the library. That’s hard when you’re fifteen.
There were kids who said some pretty cruel things; a couple teachers, too. I did my best to avoid their attention. If a teacher didn’t assign me a seat in the front of the classroom, I sat quietly in the back, doing my best to figure out what all the stuff was on the board. I got D’s in some classes because of it, but that was preferable to asking for help.
But there were also the angels – the kids and teachers who went out of their way to help me fit in, like the popular athlete who chose me for his teams in P.E., saving me the embarrassment of being picked last, and the teacher who slipped me the lecture notes I couldn’t see on the board. I remember you!
Then, in eleventh grade, something clicked. A teacher praised my writing. Another encouraged me to get involved with a school club. I even won a couple awards. These small victories swept in like rain on a dry field. The changes must’ve been evident because the kidding stopped. Classmates I used to avoid became friends. By senior year, I was earning straight-A’s and was in the school play. A pretty and popular classmate went to prom with me. She even drove!
Then we graduated and went our separate ways. I returned for our fifteenth reunion, but it was just so-so. We were still striving back then, trying to be more, climbing our ladders of success. I didn’t go back to another reunion until this year.
And those nerves I felt as we arrived were gone as quickly as they came. We had fun, caught up with one another, and danced a lot. And at the end of the evening, a classmate – a person who I thought had it totally together in high school – mentioned how unhappy senior year was for them. I have a feeling that classmate wasn’t alone.
So, to the North Dorchester High School Class of 1977, it was great to see you! I want to thank you for helping me become the person I am today. I appreciate your kindnesses and apologize for the times you were hurting and I didn’t know it, or knew it and did nothing to help. Back then, I allowed my vision to hold me back. Perhaps you were held back by your skin color or clothing or something even worse that you were dealing with. I want you to know that, in the years since we last met, I’ve tried reaching out to others who were hurting like you reached out to me. I’ve tried to encourage others like you encouraged me. And I’ve laughed some and danced some and tried not let things that don’t matter get in the way of making new friends.
That’s real. And I owe so much of it to you. Blessings to you, North Dorchester Class of ’77. See you in a few years!
It’s my birthday! It started like no birthday should, with a trip to the dentist. No cavities, but my gums are receding. Apparently, that old long-in-the-tooth idiom is real. After a visit from my grandson, Fletcher (I think his mom was here, too), I got to pick lunch. Kentucky Fried Chicken! Did you know that they have a four-piece wing dinner that costs the same as a three-piece meal, but isn’t on the menu? They’ve always had it. It’s one of those little secrets, along with the eleven herbs and spices. And another thing about KFC: does anyone else get creeped out by that guy who plays Colonel Sanders on TV? Colonel Sanders was a real person, for crying out loud. Would Walmart allow a cartoonish reincarnation of Sam Walton? Will a fake Steve Jobs be pushing iPhones in a few years? Stop it already, KFC.
I also sold my car today. She wasn’t much to look at, a 2008 PT Cruiser, but over the years you get sentimental. My kids called it the PT Loser, but in the eight years I owned her, they went through two or three cars each. So, kids, who’s the real loser? The PT was my Royals car. About the only time she left the garage was to go to Kauffman Stadium for my job as a Royals’ usher. She was part of two World Series between 2012 and 16, which is more than any of my kids’ cars got to be part of, especially those of my daughter, Alison, who is a Cardinals’ fan.
Speaking of the Royals, this Friday, Robin and I will be going to our first game together in seven years. A real date at the ballpark, thanks to my friends Bob and Linda Bohr. As I mentioned in a blog post last fall that you can read here, the best thing about being a Royals’ usher was the people. A big chunk of my Facebook friends’ list is ballpark people: guests, fellow ushers, and vendors. I miss them and am excited to get back to the K. Also, it’s buck night… and there are fireworks.
Hey! It’s baseball season.
Here in Florida we’re bidding your teams farewell as they head home where they belong. The same is happening in Arizona. The games that don’t count are over. Minor-leaguers whose names you’ve never heard are on their way back to bush-league ballparks and bus rides. The veteran pitcher who hoped to catch on for one more year is headed home. He says he’s happy for more time with his family but down deep he’ll miss the game.
Spring training is over. It’s time to start keeping score.
But that’s only one small part of the Great American Pastime.
For five years, I worked as an usher for the Kansas City Royals, an adventure you can read about here. I learned that we baseball fans have more invested in our game than fans of other sports. Sure, football fans get hyped up every Sunday, but baseball… it’s different. One-hundred-and-sixty-two games. Day after day after day. Six months. The NBA season lasts as long, but has only half the games. Baseball fans grind out their season alongside their favorite players. Our highs aren’t as high, nor are our lows as low, but we’re fine with that.
Because we have the memories.
C’mon, admit it. You have them. It doesn’t matter what team you root for; whether they’re perennially good or usually terrible. You have memories. If we were sitting on my patio and I asked you to describe your favorite baseball memory, you’d likely have trouble coming up with just one. I posed this question dozens of times to Royals fans at the ballpark between 2011 and 2016. Some answered immediately. Others needed an inning to think about it. Most shared more than one memory - the first World Series in 1980, the World Champions of 1985, Freddie Patek roaming the middle of the diamond, George Brett’s batting crowns, Bo Jackson climbing the wall, the return to glory in 2014, the second championship in 2015. They also recalled the time they met a favorite player. Maybe it was beside the dugout before a game. More likely it was in the produce aisle at HyVee.
My favorite baseball memories are many and spread over forty-five years. They were born in 1972, the year I fell in love with the game, and continue unabated today. They are big and small and important and unimportant. And, in one long paragraph, here are just a few.
Learning to figure a batting average, my first major league game (Orioles vs. Tigers, 1972), my first favorite player (Johnny Oates), writing letters to players asking for their autographs and getting signed postcards in return, Strat-O-Matic baseball, my dad cutting his leg while trying to catch a foul ball in Philly, watching Carlton Fisk’s 1975 World Series homerun from the hospital, Eddie Murray’s rookie season, trying not to cry while watching the Orioles and Yankees play the night after Thurman Munson died in a plane crash, watching the 1977 World Series with my new college friends in Kentucky, spilling a plate of nachos trying to get out of the way of a Jack Clark homerun in Busch Stadium, Harry Carey yelling, ‘Cubs Win!’ My daughter, Alison finding a foul ball under her seat in the upper reaches of the ballpark where balls were never hit, Opening Day with my brother in 1999 (Kansas sang the National Anthem), any game I went to with my kids, having my son Cody call Robin from Kaufmann Stadium and somehow convincing her she was talking to George Brett when it was really me (she screamed), our family of six in the all-you-can-eat seats.
And of course, the memories from five years of great fans and co-workers at Kauffman Stadium could fill a book. Maybe another time.
So, as we race toward the 2017 baseball season, I’ll ask you… what are your favorite baseball memories? I hope you’ll share them below or on my Facebook page.
Take me out to the ballgame…
Take me out with the crowd…
Anyone who chooses to write for a living, even an unknown like me, gets asked at one time or another where book ideas come from. I can’t answer for anyone else, but for me they pop up and grab me when I least expect them. Something triggers a thought; the thought gets turned over and over in my mind, and at some point, I realize there’s a story.
On my desktop right now are five story ideas in various stages of development. One is almost half-finished and will be in your hands this summer, I hope. It’s about a one-armed man in a dead-end life who decides to run away from home and become somebody else. His name is Pete, and lately he and I are spending a lot of time together.
Then there’s Dusty, a one-hit disco wonder from the 1970’s who won’t accept the fact that he’s been old news for thirty-five years. You’ll meet Dusty in 2018. Another project is about Mitzi. She and her husband own the Imperial Diner and are huge baseball fans. Their life-long love for each other and baseball will be the object of Mitzi, The Imperial, and the Boys in Blue, also due out in 2018. Also in the works is a Harvest of Thorns sequel many of you have asked about, and a book about a vigilante preacher that is pretty dark.
Then there’s Shunned, which debuted today. Have you gotten Shunned yet? Pastor Miles Traynor, Shunned’s antagonist, came to me after reading about the fall of a megachurch pastor out west several years ago. I won’t use his name or the name of his church, but you can find them online easily enough. The preacher’s downfall came when he started believing more in himself than he did in God. One thing led to another, and the church he started asked him to leave.