What Are Friends For?

It’s good to have close friends; friends who you can swap tall tales with, who accept you for who you are, despite my… I mean your, little quirks. But, apparently, everyone has his or her limit.

About 15 years ago I was telling some buddies of mine about the local Indian mounds that as kids, my brother and I used to explore. One in particular was right off of Terry Street near my parent’s home that they had built, just before Interstate 75 slashed through their property. A fill pit for I-75 was dug in the area and I had always thought that the mounds were destroyed in the process. Or were they?

My friends were now anxious to help me solve this “mystery”, so we grabbed our shovels and headed east of town. Immediately, we found a large 5-foot high mound just off the road. It was covered with a thick layer of palmettos and large pine trees and was obviously ancient and man-made. We each picked a spot and in the scorching July sun… we began to dig.

An hour later we were still hacking through palmetto roots when my father pulled up in his truck. He stopped and watched us for a few minutes and then finally said “What are you doin’?” I stopped digging and said, “We found that Indian mound we used to dig around in!” My dad sat in his truck, with the AC running, watching with interest. Thirty minutes later, as we dug deeper, my dad looked at his watch and said, “I’m going to get some soup!”

An hour later I was standing up to my neck in a huge hole, shaking my head. “Something’s wrong.” “You’re right… I’m having heat stroke!” said John, throwing down his shovel. Just then, my soup-loving father drove back up. “How’s it going!” he said looking rather unconcerned. “Not so good,” I said. “We haven’t found anything yet.” “I’ll be damned,” said my dad shutting off his truck. He paused. “You know who built those mounds?” asked my dad. “The Calusas?” said Chuck. “Nope…He did!” My father was grinning and pointing at ME! “WHAT!” I yelled with my hands on my head. “Yep, you were 8 years old when you cleared this property with a bulldozer and that’s YOUR trash pile.” My dad drove off, smiling. Satisfied that he had done a good days work.

After shaking my fist and yelling “farewell” at the back of my dads retreating truck, it became eerily quiet. (Uh-oh! I thought, suddenly remembering that I was outnumbered by possible “ex-friends”) I closed my eyes and turned slowly to face them and then, took a peek. They were both walking towards me like angry zombies, shovels in blistered hands.

As it turns out, they were equally unimpressed with my contribution to ancient history, my dad’s devilish sense of humor, and my apparent inability to remember where I’d left something fairly large. I had some explaining to do, but I’m proud to say that they have since forgiven me… but being good buddies… they have not forgotten.

For Whites Only

“For whites only.” I stood there and looked at the faded, crude, handwritten sign above the algae covered drinking fountain. As I looked around, the fountain didn’t really look out of place in the Fort Myers auto parts store in the 1960’s. Everything there was dirty, old and outdated. But that sign… I didn’t understand it.

As I watched the scenery go by on the long ride home back to Bonita with my father, I had a lot of questions. “What’s the difference what color you are when it comes to drinking out of a fountain? I saw the guys that worked at that place… what’s makes them think they’re so special?” My dad just kept his eyes on the road in front of him. “That’s just the way some people think and I suppose it’s their fountain.” I stuck my hand out the window and felt the warm summer air go by. “Well… it’s not right. I’ll sure never drink out of it!” My dad looked over at me. “Yeah? Well, I guess it just depends on how thirsty you are.”

Although my father was born and raised in the south, I can never remember him saying or doing anything particularly prejudiced. He basically put all people into two categories… people who owed him money (not good) and people who paid him money (good). So, my sister, brother and I grew up relatively free of any parental pressure to be prejudice. I don’t think this was an intentional lesson… it was more of a collateral one.

Decades later, prior to my son Nick getting his first tattoo, he asked me what I thought. I shrugged, “It’s up to you son, but people are going to judge you for what you look like, not for who you really are.” Nicks eyebrow rose, “But that’s not right Dad… that’s prejudice!” I nodded, “Yep… that’s prejudice, but generally, that’s what people do. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just telling you that when people don’t really know you, they instinctively fill in the blanks themselves.” Nick shook his head. “Well, that’s the problem of the people doing the judging, not the guy with the tattoo!” Then my eyebrows rose, “Yeah? Well… I guess that depends on how badly you want a job!”

My twin sons’ disdain for prejudice was first brought to my attention at a third grade parent teacher conference. The teacher was in near hysterics for what seemed like a solid ten minutes explaining how she was having such a hard time getting my sons to pay attention. “I’ll be talking right to them telling them what they have to do and right while I’m talking to them… THEY JUST START DRAWING PICTURES!” Both of her elbows dropped to the table and she cradled her head in her hands. “I mean… do you have this problem with them at home too?” I blinked my eyes a couple of times, shook my head and then said. “Uhhh… I’m sorry. What were you saying?” True story.

Anyway, once she calmed down, she told me that “on the plus side” when it came to who they made friends or socialized with Nick and Neil were oblivious to ethnicity or any of the usual learned social or economic prejudices that can begin manifesting themselves in elementary school. This was good news for two reasons… my kids were obviously socially well adjusted and relatively free of a problem that has plagued the human race for millennia and… I had just been handed an opportunity to get the heck out of that meeting! I slammed my hands on the table, smiled and stood up abruptly. “Well that’s FANTASTIC!” The teacher’s mouth was hanging open as I grabbed her hand and shook it. “Thank you so much for calling me with this great news!” As I turned and headed out of the door I called over my shoulder. “Come on boys… say goodbye to your teacher!”…. “Boys?… Boys?… BOYS!”

A Fish Tale

Yesterday, I was standing in front of the building on Old 41 where I grew up. What used to be our family’s Hardware store on the first floor is now a bakery. The second story, where we lived for many years, is now abandoned. The building has been remodeled several times over the years and doesn’t look much like it did, but somewhere on the face of the building, beneath the layers of paint, is a beautiful 10′ tall painting of a fish jumping from the water.

In 1960, my father had an artist paint what was essentially the “Heddon” fishing lure logo above the bright red “Nelson’s Hardware” sign and for decades the bass, with fishing lure hanging from its wide open mouth, remained there high in the air between mine and my sister’s bedroom window, watching the world slowly go by on the Tamiami Trail. It watched as drunken cowboys threw each other out of the windows of the Dome; As long lines of traffic sat waiting for the matinee at the dog track; As hurricane Donna rolled a house past our front door; As my father fearlessly ran off a drunken man who was threatening his employees with a shotgun.

And between these more interesting times, it patiently observed our normal everyday activities as my sister and brother and I grew up. Every morning before school, we went down stairs into the hardware store to “take the stuff out”… which was what we called pushing, pulling and riding all the lawn mowers, bicycles and anything else with wheels that had been crammed into the store overnight, out the door onto the concrete patio out front. Day after day, year after year, we took them outside and then nine hours later we took them back in through the front door beneath the fish. It watched. It watched as we became teenagers and then adults, as one by one we left home and the safety of its wide-eyed gaze. Then, as if to signal that its work was complete, my father painted over it… and it was gone. I didn’t think much about it at the time. Life was happening… jobs, marriage, and kids. My sister moved to New Jersey, my parents built a new house off of Terry Street and my brother and I built homes of our own, as keeping the ground floor of the old building rented became my Dad’s favorite project. But upstairs, our old home remained vacant.

About eight years ago, I tried to talk my dad into selling the old building so my parents could be secure in retirement. The timing and the prices were right, so at a meeting, after he had informed a group of potential buyers to name an as yet higher number for the fourth time, I took him aside. “What are you doing Dad?” I asked sternly at low breath. My dad smiled a mischievous grin and whispered. “I don’t want to sell it… I just want to see how high they’ll go!” I got flush with anger. I didn’t understand. “Cut them loose Dad… This isn’t right!” And I walked away.

Later that day I was still stewing (it’s a Nelson art form), but I had promised to take him to get his truck, so I drove quietly, him sitting next to me. Finally he broke the silence. “I can’t sell it. It’s my legacy. I want it to live on for my children.” I looked over at him. He was looking out the window… avoiding eye contact. “Dad… WE are your legacy. You created us, watched after us and built us as surely as you built that old building.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Sell it and you and mom spend it having fun. Julie, Tim and I are going to be fine because of what you taught us.” It was a touching moment… But he still didn’t sell it.

Now, three years after dads passing, I’m standing here trying to help manage some of my dad’s legacy… this old store, and my tendency to become irritated. That’s when I suddenly realized that somewhere unseen, under the paint, the fish was still there watching over me. I sighed, put both hands on top of my head and started to contemplate where to start the repairs… I looked up at the sky and chuckled. For somewhere unseen, under that painted sky, I was sure that my dad was still watching over his legacy as well.

Blessings of a Bad Memory

The beginning of the New Year is usually the time when we reflect upon the events of the previous year, at least the ones we can remember. Although our memory can be persistent, it can also be persistently unpredictable. Sometimes it seems that the harder you try to remember something the further it slips away. And our ability to recall information often seems to have an inverse relation to the importance of having to do so. So we can all remember some pretty useless trivia while watching Jeopardy, but then in front of a large crowd of people the name of someone we have known for 40 years eludes us.

When the name of someone like… Oh, I don’t know…. one of our kids, escapes us, we always have the option of referring to them as son, honey, sweetie or some other handy generic name. Yes, I know it’s rude, but when you’re in a tight spot and no one will throw you a rope you will grab hold of just about anything. This was my Dad’s method of dealing with a forgotten name.

Once at the “Flea Market Wine Tasting” (no… I’m not kidding) my father was approached by a friendly fellow that knew him and struck up a conversation over a plastic cup of his homemade strawberry, apple and bacon/mulberry sort of wine (it was a blend?). Dad had no idea who the fellow was and as they wrapped up their conversation and the last of the wine Dad patted him on the back, turned to go and said, “Well, See you later buddy!” The guy smiled as my father walked away and then turned to me shaking his head. “Your Dad is amazing! I haven’t seen him in years and he still knows my name!” I started to give Buddy the bad news, but it seemed like a good time for me to just nod and take another sip. After all, if both Buddy and my Dad were happy, why ruin it for them.
For some reason complex memories like this one about our family and friends from years past can last a lifetime, brought back to life by a familiar sound or smell. But the everyday things in life like names, dates, or where we parked and why we came to the darned store in the first place can easily avoid us. Unless you’re one of those people that puts a tennis ball on your antenna or that just pays attention. The rest of us end up having to pretend that we are just out for a casual walk in the grocery store parking lot.

And if you can remember the name of kid who sat in front of you in the first grade 50 years ago but you can’t figure out why you are in the front yard with the TV remote in your hand, don’t feel bad…old “what’s his name” next door is probably having the same problem. So to all of you “May auld acquaintance be forgot and …” umm…well anyway, Happy New Year!

The Shovel

My father was a good man… And a hard worker. But as I discovered at a very young age, He was never afraid to get someone else’s hands dirty. I’m not being disrespectful, because he was really proud of it. One of his favorite shirts had written across the front “So much to do… So few people to do it for me!” It’s a funny shirt… Unless you were, like me, one of his “chosen few”.
The youngest of four tough “cracker” brothers, he learned at a very young age that if you were the smallest… Then you better be the smartest.
Life on the family homestead in the woods of S.W. Florida in the 1930’s could be brutal and the brothers all had to earn extra money by working part time for local farmers. So on one particular day, the four brothers and two of their friends took a job “hoeing okra”. As the grizzled old farmer handed out brand new red shovels to all the boys, he told them “I’m going into town, but don’t you worry… I’ll know who did the most work! And I’m gonna give that feller’ an extra dollar!” Now my dad realized that he had no chance of competing in an all day shoveling contest and likely wouldn’t get paid at all, no matter how hard he worked, so when the farmer left, the small boy scratched his chin and thought for a moment before walking over and sitting down under a nearby tree. His brother Charlie, who was already hard at work, looked over at the boy under the tree. As he flipped another shovel full of dirt over he yelled “Look at poor little Benny! He ain’t gonna get paid nothin’!” All the other boys chuckled… But my dad just pulled his hat down over his eyes and relaxed further back into the tree.
Eight long hours later, just before the farmer was due back, my Dad sat up, grabbed a rock that he had carefully selected and casually started scraping the paint off the shovels blade. This struck his brother as particularly bizarre behavior and as he took the rag out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his eyes he yelled “What the heck are doin’? Are you touched in the head?” After a few minutes all the paint was gone off the shovels blade and without saying a word, my dad stood up and started digging furiously. When the other boys saw this, they just stood there with their heads all cocked sideways…until suddenly, the farmer rounded the corner in his model A truck.
He crawled out of the dirty black buggy and then hollered for the youngsters to gather around him. “All right… Let me see the ends of them shovels!”. As he went down the row, he finally came to my dads apparently worn out garden tool. The old farmer slapped his hands together and hooted “Dang boy! You might be the smallest but you shore gave these other boys a lesson!”. He surely had, because the other boys said nothing, when my dad, as he was walking off, turned, tapped the side of his head with his finger and grinned that big grin.
As I think back to my Uncle Charlie telling me this story just a few years ago, with my dad sitting there next to him grinning from ear to ear, I wonder exactly what the real lesson might have been. The farmer, my dad and his brothers all came away telling the same story but they probably had different takes on what they had learned. One thing is pretty clear… you should never judge a book, a shovel or person by their cover.

Driven by a Memory

“BORN IN THE USA!!!!!” (What?? Why is Bruce Springsteen screaming at me?) Waking up from a deep sleep, I roll over and switch the obnoxious clock radio off and check the time… 6:20 in the morning again. Time to go to work, again. Sitting up in bed I rub my eyes and think about how many times I’ve done this… same time, every workday, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. I stretch and get up, tripping over the dog and stubbing my toe on the dresser, cursing as I hop with one foot in my jeans on the way to the bathroom… again.

Staring at my morning face in the mirror (ugh) I think about how lucky I am to be able to work and to have work to do. But, I know that I am compelled to do so, not entirely by survival, money or gain… but by an incident that is carved deep into my mind and heart.

I think that, although it has remained hidden from their memory, many people have been crafted by an incident in their distant past. But I have never forgotten the moment when the force that would drive me through life was put into place. For me, it is a force of nature, like gravity, pulling me out of bed, to work, to yet another project, towards ever more responsibility. Causing me to place more weight on my shoulders, compelling me to stay perpetually busy and at work in order to feel complete and content.

I was three years old when I took a small piece of wire and stuck it into an electrical socket. (No! That’s not what’s wrong with me!) Instead of electrocuting me the wire immediately melted, burning my small hand. I don’t have any memory of this incident, (probably the electrocution part) but my mother says that I kept my bandaged hand clenched tightly shut for weeks, so much so that she was afraid that it would never heal.

Soon after, my father was going to take me to work with him for the first time. I know that it’s pretty rare to remember something from when you were three, but it is a vivid memory that never fades, a movie that is always ready to rewind and play. I remember… my dad standing by his truck. I’m running towards him across the lawn as fast as I can. I feel the excitement, the joy and then… I trip and fall face first, catching myself on my burned hand. I sit up on the grass, clench my burned hand and cry. Then… as I watch, my angry, disappointed father gets into his truck and drives away to work without me. The mold was set at that moment. I would not get left behind again and I would spend the rest of my life, shrugging off injury, personal trauma and fatigue in order to get to work… I have always known why.

I have never held it against my father. He was a good man and driven by powerful forces of his own. And although I have talked about that day with my mother, I never discussed it with him. Strangely enough, my resulting manic work ethic has mostly served me pretty well over time, because thankfully I have learned (with the help of my wonderful wife, children and friends) to temper and control my compulsion, so that now I can actually relax on vacation, even periodically enjoying doing nothing, without the nagging guilt of not being at work.

Like many men, it is my father that, even though he has passed away, still remains the psychological fuel that drives me forward. But it is my mother, the person that worried over and healed the three-year-old boy with the burned hand and the broken heart, that has helped me to understand my father and who I am as a result.

So as I got to work this morning at 6:45 and begin figuring out how to do all that I have planned for the day, I know that it was my dad who gave me the power and fuel to drive myself as fast and as hard as I can go, but as I delete one task to allow time to have lunch with Lori and then schedule myself for a trip next month to the Keys with my wife and our friends, I know that it’s my Mom, who ever so subtly gave me the encouragement and ability to steer myself onto my own path to happiness.

Thanks Mom… Happy Mothers Day

Where every parent has gone before

My 34-year-old son Nick called me yesterday from his home in Orlando. “Hey buddy… what’s up!” I said juggling my phone between the side of my face and my shoulder while looking through paper work. He mumbled a half-hearted greeting back that let me know something was very wrong. I took the phone in my hand. “What’s the matter son?” His son Gavin had broken his arm while playing and as a result Nick’s parental confidence had eroded. “Dad, I just keep thinking about all the things you went through with Neil and me when we were kids. You were always calm and in control like “Captain Kirk.” I leaned back in my chair and enjoyed being “Captain Kirk” for about two seconds, but then I proceeded to tell him what it was really like for me as a young parent and how I had experienced the same feelings he was feeling. I had for many years raised my sons on my own… and there were many times when I did not feel or act like the model parent, much less a Starship Captain.

One such time was when I took my ten-year-old twin boys on a two-week trip out west to Yosemite and Yellowstone by myself. Despite the fact that all of us acted ten years old as we stood too close to 4,000 foot cliffs, scrambled on gigantic rocks, slid down waterfalls, posed next to irritated buffalos, ignored roped off areas and warning signs about bears or the “Danger of Death” due to (whatever) and drove down countless narrow winding roads, while video taping… we all survived. Not a scratch. And then, when we finally arrived home from the airport, late at night and exhausted, I put my sleepy sons safely in their bunk beds, tucked them in, turned to leave the bedroom, and “CRASH!” The bunk bed collapsed. As I sorted through the twisted rubble we were all laughing hysterically until I discovered that my son Neil’s leg had been split wide open by the bed frame. It was a hideous wound. I immediately grabbed the 8” gash and held it together and poor Neil immediately freaked out. On the way to the hospital, Neil continued to inisist that he was on deaths door while his brother Nick kept poking his head over the seat, excited about the opportunity to see inside his brother’s leg. “Neil. Neil. NEIL! Let me see it!!” As I drove way too fast, all the way to the Downtown Naples hospital, I swung my arm around blindly behind me in an attempt to keep Nick in the back seat, alternating between telling Nick to “SHUT UP!” and Neil to “Stop looking at it! Just hold the two sides together… you’ll be fine. And stop saying that… you’re not going to die!” “Nick… SIT DOWN!” Five hours and twenty-eight stitches later, we were “safely” back home again, together on the floor in sleeping bags. Although I didn’t panic during the ordeal, for years afterward I was haunted by guilt because all I could remember feeling was irritation and exhaustion.

But every parent/child incident offers new opportunities to experience the full range of human emotions. When my son Nick was five-years-old, he was sitting on my bed when suddenly; he leaned back and fell off. I was about 10 feet away at the time when he luckily landed on his shoulders and neck and then somersaulted back upright. I kneeled down next to him and he looked at me with a wide eyes. “Whoa!” I said to him chuckling. “That was quite the trick… Are you OK?” Then… he collapsed. As I scooped him up, his body was as limp as a rag doll. My parent’s brain immediately translated this into… HE’S DEAD!! So, instinct took over and I began to revive him with “Captain Kirk CPR” which apparently involves shaking your child violently and screaming his name in terror like a little girl. “NICKY!!!!!” Despite the whiplash and a thorough brain sloshing, he instantly woke up. Luckily, a friend of mine was there to drive us to the hospital; me clutching my now confused son tightly in my arms the entire way, babbling “It’s OK, It’s OK…!” At the hospital that night, our family doctor looked at my son very briefly and then turned his attention to the person who really needed acute medical care… me. Not my finest hour… or was it?

For my son, I summed it up like this… “I know that you feel that you’re going “Where no man has gone before,” but you’re going “Where every parent has gone before.” Everyone feels doubt and fear. But Captain Kirk never gives up. He just loves his crew and does the best that he can… so will you.”

Philosophy of the Closed Mouth

There is no more valuable or more humbling art, than the art of knowing when to say nothing.  Unfortunately this is not a skill that seems to be embraced by our society.  I understand that we all have the right to express ourselves but I think most everyone would agree, that there is just too much talking going on in the world right now and not a whole lot being said.  News commentators, analysts, political pundits, weathermen and yes… politicians, seem to go on and on, like we’re being paid by the word and not for the content. Continue reading