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.
Some people have that one place they call home. They spend their entire lives there. They know everybody and everybody knows them. Part of me has always envied those people. With so much uncertainty in life, they have one less thing to worry about. That must be nice.
Others are like me. Life sent us off to chase dreams in faraway locales. Since leaving Maryland forty years ago, I’ve lived in ten communities. The smallest was Clarksville, Missouri, population 400. The largest was Kansas City. Each had its own uniquenesses and peccadilloes. But for me, each, while wonderful in its own way, fell short of feeling like home.
Except one - Perryville, Missouri.
You might have heard that Perryville was hit by a tornado last night. At least one person lost their life. Homes were blown away, including those of some long-time friends.
But you know something? Perryville will bounce back. I’m as certain of that as I can be of anything, because I know the people of Perryville. They care about each other.
I know that because, in 1982, I moved to Perryville. I knew nobody – zilch. The house I lived in was large, and I didn’t have enough furniture to fill it. I also didn’t have a refrigerator or stove. For the first six weeks, I got by with a Styrofoam cooler and a camp stove that blew the circuits every time I turned it on.
I didn’t have much money, either. I arrived in late-July and discovered it would be September before I received a paycheck. It was going to be a stretch, making it two months on what seemed like pocket change. Then, one morning I found a pot of soup on my front step. Ground beef vegetable. No name or any way to identify who left it. More soup appeared a week later. And the week after that.
Then, I heard about something called the Seminary Picnic. “You ought to go,” people said. Why in the world would I want to go to a seminary picnic? The name conjured up images of nuns eating deviled eggs under a tree. But you know what? I went. Arriving at the picnic grounds, I was greeted by a sign. Beer Garden – Left, Food – Right. Beer at a seminary picnic? A large tent advertised something called kettle-cooked beef. The price was cheap, so I went in. When the ladies in charge discovered I’d never heard of kettle beef, they loaded me down. Several helpings and a large pot to take with me. Despite having almost no money, I found myself gaining weight in Perryville, Missouri.
Dear Secretary DeVos,
Congratulations on your appointment. I guess you’ve heard by now that some people aren’t happy about you being our Secretary of Education. That’s okay. You’re starting at the lowest point, which means there’s no place to go but up.
And I’m here to help! I’ve penned a few helpful suggestions that, if followed, will make you the most popular Secretary of Education ever. Do you mind if I call you Betsy? Secretary DeVos seems so formal. I’ll call you Betsy and you call me Paul.
First and most important, stay in your lane. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but unlike other areas of the Federal government, your department’s authority is limited. Federal money isn’t the biggest portion of funding for most local school districts. Betsy, did you know that while many people think public education is in rough shape, they believe their local schools are pretty good? When asked to raise local taxes to improve schools, most folks vote yes. By and large, we trust our local schools.
Second, don’t roll out a bunch of new regulations that make schools jump through hoops. Do you remember No Child Left Behind, Betsy? It was a hot mess. Educators spent more time crunching numbers than teaching children. We’re still paying the price.
Third, celebrate great teachers. Imagine what will happen if you go on a “great teacher tour!” Drop in unexpectedly and celebrate them like they are Beyoncé or Tom Brady. How about this? Set aside every Monday to jet around the country and find great teachers. And don’t depend on school principals or superintendents to tell you who they are. Ask the kids and parents. They know.
Fourth, don’t assume charter schools or private schools or parochial schools are the end-all best solutions for education. They have their places, but you need to remember that most don’t deal with the cross-section of students our public schools see. Despite all my years in public education, I’m not against school vouchers. But Betsy, you need to make sure that the elite schools your kids attended take the same cross-section of kids as the public schools. You can’t leave behind the kids who don’t fit the mold. Oh, yeah, Betsy, a little secret: most kids don’t fit the mold.
Twenty-nine years ago, a miracle happened.
But first, allow me to back up to the very beginning.
At fourteen months of age, I was diagnosed with Scheie Syndrome. Google it if you must, but I’m warning you - some of the pictures are unsettling. You see, Scheie Syndrome is a less-severe version of something called Hurler’s Disease. Now that one’s real scary – misshapen features, physical and intellectual disabilities, and an average lifespan of ten years.
Scheie Syndrome’s primary symptoms are cloudy corneas and decreasing vision. It’s akin to looking through a very dirty window. Eyeglasses don’t help. That, my parents were told, would be like covering that dirty window with another one. Corneal transplants were in their infancy during the 1960’s, and Dr. Harold Scheie, my ophthalmologist and the person responsible for identifying Scheie Syndrome, warned my parents to avoid transplants at all cost. The new corneas would cloud up, too, he said.
So you live with it. I didn’t know my vision was different from anyone else’s until my first day of school. Our teacher wrote the letters of the alphabet on the blackboard and had us copy them. I couldn’t see the board. That wonderful teacher, Mrs. Hurlock, knew this already. “Move closer so you can see,” I remember her saying. ‘Closer’ was four feet from the board. That became my spot.
I’ll save the details for a future post, but my vision remained steady through my mid-twenties. Having never experienced good vision, I couldn’t fully appreciate what I was missing. I’d always held books two inches from my nose and struggled to recognize friends from further than ten feet. Like many kids, I graduated, went off to college, and got a job. I’d been teaching for five years when I noticed my vision was dimming. Teaching notes had to be larger. Lighting had to be brighter. After avoiding the eye doctor for years, it was time to return.
For the better part of an hour, a staff ophthalmologist at St. Louis University Hospital examined me with scopes and bright lights. After one last check, he jotted a few notes, and turned to me.
“You need a cornea transplant.”
Remembering what my parents were told a quarter-century earlier, my response was quick:
“I want to see your boss.”
I learned two things that day. First, some doctors don’t appreciate being second-guessed. Second, medical technology had come a long way. The head of the SLU Department of Ophthalmology was a kind man named Dr. David Schanzlin. He ooohed and ahhhed when I told him of my childhood visits with Dr. Scheie. “A pioneer,” he said. “His work shaped our field… but times have changed.”
Then, he threw out the line that clinched it.
“You’re going blind.”
With little to lose, I had my name added to the list for a donor cornea. In 1987, the wait could be anywhere from one to six months. Then, the second week of January, I received word that I was nearing the top of the list. “Stay near the phone and be ready to leave for the hospital,” they told me.
The date was January 25, a Monday. I was in class when the office said I had a phone call.
“Mr. Wootten, we have your cornea.”
That was twenty-nine years ago this week. The transplant was so successful that the twelve-month waiting period between transplants was waived. In June, I received my second transplant. Two months later, I was fitted with contact lenses. A month after that, at age twenty-nine, I got my driver’s license. Forty days after that, my first speeding ticket.
That transplant gave out three years ago, one year past the twenty-five year life expectancy of a cornea. I received a new one. It’s doing well. My left cornea will be twenty-nine this summer. It’s also doing fine, and says hello.
I divide my life into two parts. There were the twenty-nine years before my first transplant, and this month marks twenty-nine years since. Both parts are chockful of blessings and challenges. I screwed up plenty of things before and after, and made a few good decisions, too.
I sure do like seeing.
How about you? Are you an organ and tissue donor? I’ve heard the reasons not to sign up: “I want my organs with me when I’m buried,” or “it creeps me out.”
More to the point, I’ve experienced the good that comes from organ and tissue donation.
If you’ve registered as a tissue donor, please let me know, either by email, on my Facebook page, or in the comments section below. If you want to sign up, go here or click on the picture of the eye, sign up, and let me know about it. I’ll pick one donor at random to receive a complimentary signed copy of my upcoming book, Shunned.
And as always, thanks for reading.
The statement above came from an adult, writing about the teacher who reached out to her as a thirteen-year-old during a most difficult time of her life.
Wow! I asked about your Miss Bertie and you let me know. You responded in the comments section of this blog, by email, by Facebook Messenger, and by text. The Miss Bertie in your lives taught elementary and high school. Your Miss Bertie was an English teacher and a Wrestling Coach. She taught Home Economics, Math, Art, and Music. He impacted you in public and private schools. It turns out, Miss Bertie is everywhere. Here are a few excerpts:
“I wanted to be just like him.”
“She was creative and innovative.”
“He taught Math in a way that was less about Math and more
about who I was going to become as an adult.”
“He brought out the good in me.”
“She was instrumental in developing my ability to do
presentations and speak in public.”
“He loved his subject and cared about each and every student.”
“He taught me it was okay to express an opinion that wasn’t
necessarily the opinion of others.”
“She made Chemistry and Science fun...
without me really knowing how.”
“There was no other teacher who made me believe
I could go to college or become a teacher.”
“He knew I needed encouraging, and he gave it.”
“I became a stronger person with his direction.”
“He made me want to be a teacher.”
“Her influence on my life was profound.”
“I miss her dearly.”
If you haven’t shared about the teacher who was your Miss Bertie, please do. I’ll be picking one at random to receive a complimentary copy of Harvest of Thorns. You can respond in the comments section below, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook. I’ll be sharing more stories in a couple weeks. In the meantime, if you haven’t met Miss Bertie, you can find her here.
Miss Bertie was his seventh-grade English teacher. Tough old nag,
from what he’d heard. He knew from three weeks in class that she was demanding…
she seemed bigger than everybody at school – Harvest of Thorns.
"Happy Birthday Miss Jones," by Norman Rockwell
No character has generated more feedback than Miss Bertie - Chan’s teacher, mentor, and friend. When Miss Bertie saw how hard life was for Chan, she started looking out for him. We’ll never know everything she did for him, but we have a pretty good idea.
How do we know? Because many of us had a Miss Bertie in our life.
I’ve been asked if Miss Bertie was based on someone from my past. Was she one of my elementary or high school teachers? A colleague? Was Miss Bertie even a Miss? Could she have been a Mister? I’m not saying. Everyone has their own Miss Bertie, and I don’t want mine to be any more important than yours. A reader sent along an email about his Miss Bertie:
Paul, my Miss Bertie was a lady named Mary Schean. 9th grade English.
We had Ivanhoe and diction drill. I still remember a bunch of her words.
Others describe their Miss Bertie as music teachers, coaches, and club sponsors. Regardless of what they teach, the Miss Berties of the world take time to really know their students. In most every case, it isn’t so much what they teach as how they teach it. Somehow, in the process of teaching, they also change lives.
So, here’s the big question – Who was your Miss Bertie? Respond in the comments section below, on my Facebook page, or send me an email at email@example.com. You don’t have to use your Miss Bertie’s real name if you prefer not to; just a few sentences about how they made a difference. I’ll pick one submission to receive a free copy of Harvest of Thorns.