Friday, November 20, 2009

Ghost Story

Ghost Story

I sat across the old oak dining room table from Uncle John, the remains of breakfast the only witness to our uncomfortable silence. It was July 27th, 1981, my father’s birthday. Coincidently, there I was sitting in the farmhouse where he grew up, at the table where he used to eat, on an early morning, with his younger brother, who had never really recovered from the death of his older brother, whom he had so greatly admired. We didn’t talk about dad’s birthday; we didn’t talk about his life. We really didn’t talk at all.

The fact that I was his brother’s son, I know now, as well as having me hanging around the farm for a month, was probably something that made him very uneasy and uncomfortable. If he had to deal with me, that meant he had to deal with his brother’s death, and ultimately that would force him to think about his own mortality. For many years, the bottle was both his friend and his foe. Years after this summer day, he did get the monkey off his back. Sadly, many days of drinking, depression, and self-abuse had worn his body down, and he died about twelve years later. However, that’s another story.

In this story, on this day, Uncle John and I did that dance that we had done since I first started coming to Indiana for the summer ten years before.
I have no doubt that he loved me, and he cared deeply for me, but I also know that the tangible reminder of his departed older brother made him think about things he would rather not dwell on. But, there we were.

At the time, I was sixteen and at the ideal height and weight I wish I could have carried for the rest of my life. In college, and in later, I often rode the poundage pendulum a dozen times or more from 295 to 250 lbs back and forth. But on that particular day I stood a strong 6-3, 230 lbs. I could wrestle a bull and I could run like a gazelle. When I wore football pads and helmet, I was a powerful force, and I could smash-mouth with anyone.

From behind the Indianapolis Times, Uncle John’s voice broke the awkward silence, and we began another dance.

“Well, Robbie, what position are you going to play in football this year?”


I lied. I was really going to be a defensive end, but I thought telling him I was going to be a LB would impress him. He lowered the paper and looked me over.

“Well, the way you’re built, I would think the coach would play you at defensive end.”

“Maybe I’ll get some reps there too, I don’t know just yet…” My voice trailed off. What a dumb ass I was. I wanted Uncle John, the man closest to my father, to be impressed with my athletic prowess. I thought maybe telling him I was a budding linebacker would do the trick. I should have just told the truth.

I excused myself and got up from the table, internally embarrassed, and headed out the door into the bright day. Indiana is a lush, beautiful state, and the sounds, smells, and memories made me feel glad to be alive. It was very different from my home, carved out in the Coal Regions of Pennsylvania. I loved my visits to the farm each summer, and the explorations and adventures during my time there helped forge a large part of the mettle from which I was cast.

I lopped out into the barnyard and began to go through the ritual of my stretching exercises. I was going to try to run a few miles—at least two, and then my plan was to lounge the rest of the day reading, swimming, and just generally being a “Farm Bum” with no real pressing responsibilities at that moment of my life.

However, with the promise of that sort of lazy day before me, I was motivated to get my workout done, thus justifying my slothfulness. I progressed through my stretching, peeled off my shirt, and pounced onto the gravel and tar road. Springing up and down in the shade of the huge elm tree like a boxer, I eyed the road that stretched out across the countryside. With the round bell ringing in my ears, off I started, stepping into the heat and light, and forward into what would prove to be one of the strangest days of my life.

By the time I finished my run, the tar was beginning to bubble and pop when my jogging shoes pounded the road. July in Indiana could be very hot, and today was shaping up to be a scorcher. I couldn’t wait to get into the pool after my run, and that promise of the cool welcoming water surged me up the slight rise in the road that ended at the driveway of the farm house.

Grandma had gone up to Lebanon for a few days to take care of Aunt Maude. Aunt Maud was, according to family legend, quick as a cat and crazy as a loon. She was one of the ancient Pratt’s, a branch of my Grandma’s family who lived long and got loonier the longer they lived.

Aunt Maude was in her nineties at that time, and Grandma and several other relatives took turns caring for her up at the big, old house with the gingerbread trim in Lebanon, Indiana. I remember, back when I was younger, how we would go up to the house to visit. Aunt Jess, Maude’s younger sister, lived with her at the time. We, my cousin, and me, were always warned each time we went to visit, not to ‘disturb’ Aunt Maud. The thing was we never really saw her, so how could we disturb her? Regardless, her creepy legend grew with each summer, and she eventually evolved, in our young, impressionable minds, into a menacing specter—dark and creepy, and quick like lightning, with an appetite for gullible children. Later in life, after I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I thought Aunt Maude and Boo Radley were one in the same. Either way…she freaked us out, and was the source of many ghost stories that we told late at night for years now.

Once, when I was about eleven or twelve, I think I actually caught a glimpse of her. We were up to the house on a visit, and my cousin and I had been playing hard at the park on the corner. I was thirsty, so I walked back to the big house alone, and headed into the kitchen for a glass of milk. As I stuck my head deep in the old fridge inspecting the odd assortment of contents that you only find in the fridges of the elderly, I had a strange sensation that I was being watched. In a scared shitless spasm, I spun around quickly, seeking the source of the eerie feeling. I heard a rustle of cotton and saw what I thought, was a quick wisp of a blue smock-like garment, flashing quicker than the pop of a paparazzi bulb. It all happened so swiftly, I began to question if I had really seen something or not. I raced back to the park where my cousin, Andrea, sat with her legs swinging over the bridge that crossed the creek. She was quick to assure me that I had indeed seen her. The “sighting” provided even more fodder for the folklore of Aunt Maude, and the whole thing gave me the heebie-jeebies. Now, at the age of sixteen, I could decline to visit Aunt Maude with Grandma, and wanted to even more since Grandma planned to spend a few nights there.

Overall, it promised to be a quiet day on the farm. My cousin, Andrea, three months my elder, was at a band camp for the week. My uncle John had disappeared into his shop, and would probably stay there working on his 67 Vette until he left for the second shift at Allison Turbine in Indy. Most nights, after work, he would stop at the Am Vets, just across from the motor speedway, and stay there drinking until wee hours of the morning. Actually, it was unusual to see him in the morning as I had that day.

Aunt Immy and my little cousin Johnny had left first thing that morning for an overnight visit with uncle Zeke, so for that day anyway, I was king of all 70 acres of the Alexander fiefdom. It was good to be king…

I stretched out on my back in the tightly trimmed grass of the barnyard. I was soaked with sweat, but feeling good and very much alive. A few puffy clouds drifted overhead, and I could hear the hum of insects, far away tractors, and a distant dog bark or two. Life was good.

The rest of the day went pretty much as I had planned, I swam in the pool for a while, and then I spent a few hours reading. After a late lunch, I crashed on Uncle John’s couch. A dream I didn’t remember woke me up, and I realized I slept much longer than I planned. It was getting towards evening now. Starving, I grabbed a few pieces of cold fried chicken from the fridge, and began gnawing on a drumstick while I strolled outside.

Fireflies were just warming up their glows across the fields, and it had turned cooler. I decided to walk over to Grandma’s. She had a lot of neat stuff crammed in her trailer, and I went through the open back door and settled into her small, comfortable living room. Looking for something to do, my eyes fell on the reel-to-reel tape deck and ancient stereo that my Dad had bought in Korea around 1962-63. An Army man, my dad had been stationed there after my parents were married.

There were stacks and stacks of boxes of tapes, thin reels of recorded music, mostly classics. I picked out a reel, Beethoven, cued it up, and started the music while I began to sift randomly through all the recorded tapes. There were about two hundred boxes, all meticulously documented by Grandma or Aunt Ann, which included the artist, the title, and year recorded. I’d started going though some of tapes last summer, enough to learn how to use the system, but then I’d gotten lured out by my cousin to chase bugs and butterflies for her 4H project, and never returned to the task before my visit ended.

Now, a year later, somewhere, in the middle of the stack, I found a box labeled with Grandma’s handwriting. It read, “Recording of Jim explaining how to use the stereo system, 1963?” My heart skipped a beat.

You see, I really didn’t know my dad, and I didn’t really remember him either. He died in Vietnam in 1970, just after I turned six. Sometime in 1967 would have been the last time I laid eyes on him. That was also the same year my parents divorced after seven years of marriage. From there, he went to Texas as an instructor at Ft. Wolters, remarried, and eventually returned to Vietnam for a second tour.

The only “memory” I had, and to this date I’m not sure if it was a memory or just a dream, was of him, there at the farm in Indiana, standing across the gravel road from me. He seemed tall and broad, and he wore his Army khaki uniform with short sleeves. He was saying my name, and beckoning to me as if to cross the gravel and come to him.

“Wow! I can’t believe this! I said aloud to no one. With slightly trembling fingers, I opened the box to find a folded white piece of paper with Grandma’s handwriting on it, sitting on top of thin reel of IBM magnetic tape. I pulled out the note and read it.

“This tape has a recording of Jim reading instructions on
how to work some of the features of the stereo system.
I think, this was recorded sometime around 63 when he
brought the system back from Korea, where he bought
it while he was stationed there. I remember him telling
me about what a good deal he got on it because the Asians
were making all of the best new electronic equipment. 1971”

I doubt the box was opened at all in the ten years since Grandma had placed that note in it. Cutting off the reel-to-reel deck off, I rewound the tape that was playing, and pulled if off the machine. Gingerly, I began to cue up the thin, fragile tape from the box.

I couldn’t believe that, if this tape even worked, I was actually about to hear my dad’s voice. This was heavy stuff for me. Growing up over the ten years since his death, I went through phases, thinking about him every so often, especially when I was younger. Even now, I had lots of questions, but nobody really wanted to talk about him or answer my inquiries…not my mom, not Grandma or Uncle John, no one. Most of the time, I just buried those thoughts. Still, I wondered what he was like as a person, how he looked in three dimensions when he moved, and what he sounded like, and so on. However, by the time I reached my teens, I didn’t really think too much on him…except when I was in Indiana, on the farm where he grew up, and where I was surrounded by pictures, memories, and folklore about his life. This was so crazy!

I took a deep breath, hoping that what was on the tape really was my dad, and then I turned the knob to “play”…

Some hissing and crackling filled the air, and then the hum of audio, the clearing of a throat, followed by a voice from the past filling the room.

“Now …what you have here… is a high Fi-del-i-TEE stereo syst’m.” The voice had just a touch of that high nasality sound, common to folks from that part of central Indiana. It almost sounded like Uncle John, yet it didn’t, he sounded different. I was mesmerized.

“If you want to increase the power level…for maximum wattage, then…you toggle this switch…the one that says “amp” and the red right light will come. If you want to play records, then toggle the…‘see-lect’ switch to…phone-o-graph, cue up the record, and drop the needle. Remember to power the high Fi-del-i-TEE stereo syst’m down when you are finished en’joyin’ your music.”

The whole recording lasted about thirty seconds from start to finish. Goose bumps raced over my body, and the temperature in the room seemed to drop. I rewound, cranked up the volume, and played it again, and again, and again, and again. I intently listened to every word as if my life depended on it, closing my eyes and trying to imagine him, there in the room with me, speaking the words repeatedly. I hung on each syllable, analyzing each word, time and time again as I replayed the tape, trying to get a feel for the pattern and rhythm of his speech. Eventually, I began to feel numb. It was as though I had been sitting there on the floor for hours, and I came out of my hypnotic trance.

As my head cleared, I tuned in to my surroundings for a moment. It was now dark. I stood up, stretching and walked down the hallway to the front door for some air. Along the way, I paused to look at the pictures of my dad hanging on the wall. One of my favorites was a collage that had an interesting mix. In it, there was a baby picture of him, then him at about five, then ten, then fifteen, and so on. It seemed they were all in about five year increments; the last one was a picture of his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery. I leaned in a little and read the writing on the stone. I suddenly remembered that today, as indicated on the white granite, was July 27, his birthday. Today, had he lived, my Dad would have been 41.

Instead of going out, I continued into the west room of the trailer. There, on the shelves along a whole wall, were boxes and boxes of the family archives. They included pictures, slides, report cards, drawings, notes, letters, and a hundred other mementos that only mothers would save to mark the passing of time for their babies. Filled now with a burning desire to connect with my father, I began to tear into the boxes. I’d seen some of the pictures before, but there was a trove of things I’d never seen, and I fell once again into the world of my father, a strange world that I struggled to understand. On this night, I would find many pieces to a puzzle that I really didn’t understand, and I would also realize there were many, many pieces that were still missing.

Of particular interest to me was a stack of letters, maybe twenty or so, that my father had written to the family between 1958 and 1970. I poured over these as if they were sacred texts. They chronicled his Army career from private to Chief Warrant Officer. They were filled with wit, wonderful language, vivid descriptions, and a respect for life that kept things in perspective. He really was a skilled writer, and I recognized, for the first time in my own life, that maybe some of the things I did well or that came easily for me, like writing, might have come from his contribution to my existence. Included in this stack were two items that really blew me away and framed my thinking for many years to come.

The first was a letter written for him by a Red Cross worker from an Army hospital in Japan. Addressed to his mom, the tone was professional and reassuring. He explained that he couldn’t write himself because he’d lost his arm in an accident, but that he was feeling chipper and well and expected to make a full recovery. He noted that maybe now, he would be able to put Vietnam behind him and live out the rest of his days with his second wife, Dorothy, in Texas.

The other wasn’t a letter per se, but rather a Western Union telegraph from the Army informing my Grandma that her son had died on February 7th, 1970 in Japan from wounds he received in Vietnam on January 23rd, 1970. For the record, I turned six on January 11th of that year. I cried that night; I think, for the first time in my life, with a real understanding of loss. The magnitude of his death really blew me away. How, like a stone tossed into a pond, the ripples rolling out larger and larger, touching more and more people with each outward extension. I cried for myself. Finally, I came back to reality.

I had lost all track of time and place. The tiny alarm clock read almost 3 a.m., and I was exhausted, numb, and drained. A storm had blown in while I was lost in the letters, and I could hear the wind blowing and rain pelting the west side of the trailer like tiny pebbles. I closed my eyes to listen. A dense wave of fatigue swept over me, and I didn’t even feel like moving. I could have fallen asleep where I sat. I kicked off my Chuck Taylors, pulled off my sweaty shirt, cut out the light, and unwound myself on the old Army cot that Grandma kept in that room. My feet extended over the edge, but I didn’t care. I felt cozy. I shut my eyes and opened my ears; the pebbles pounded the wall, almost, but not quite like rain on a tin roof, the winds tousled tree branches, a deep sigh…then…sleep.

It was a voice, I think, that brought me out of deep slumber. I slowly opened my eyes, struggling to make sense of time and space. Did I hear something? A voice? I was aware of the dim light of early dawn softly illumining the room. Then, still heavy with slumber, my eyes began to shut slowly…and then I heard it. Clear as a bell. A voice…

“Rob-eeeee. Hey Robbie!”

My eyes popped open this time. Someone was calling my name. The voice came from outside, and it sort of sounded… like… Uncle John? I was tired and having problems processing. The room felt sort of… heavy, and I swung my feet onto the floor and rubbed my face trying to shake the lead feeling out of my head. I was awake now, and again, I heard the voice.

“Rob-eeeee. Robbie!” This time a bit louder than the last, and I thought for sure it was Uncle John. I eagerly pulled on my shirt, slipped my feet into my Chuck Taylor’s, and rushed out of the room and out the door onto the front porch.

It was just barely dawn, I think. The dew-laden grass was soggy from the night’s rain, and wisps of mist clashed then melted in the chill morning air. I didn’t see anyone, and it was quiet, save the hum of some insects. I looked across the driveway to the farmhouse; Uncle John’s car wasn’t in front of the house or in the garage.

“Robbie, come on boy.” The voice, this time like a command, came from the other side of a short windbreak running along an old section of fence, left over from when the barn lot held cattle back in the days. I stepped off the porch, walked through the mist and around the end of the windbreak. There, across the road, in the exact same photographic image from my old dream, or memory, or whatever it was…stood my father. A chill exploded across my body like a thousand needles…sense was unraveling there, right before my eyes. He spoke.

“Revelry Son, let’s get a move on! I don’t have a lot of time to be lollygagging around. Put some pep in your step, boy!” There was a smile on his face, but the tone of his voice, that same voice I’d heard for the first time the day before on fragile tape, held a sense of urgency. I was dizzy and lightheaded. I think I may have honestly been in shock.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I walked across the gravel drive way, reaching out my hand.

“D…” I stammered as our hands met in a manly shake. His hand was cool, but it felt real and tangible.. He smiled.

“Come on boy, I don’t have all day. Let’s get a move on.” He put his arm around my shoulder. I was taller than he was, probably three or more inches, but I also noticed that we shared the same thick torso and broad chest and back. Unlike my long runners’ legs, his were thick and stocky, and his forearms, hands, and fingers were thick and strong. He looked powerful. He led me to the road, and we headed north. My mind was racing, but I didn’t know what to say.

“I am sure you are in shock, and none of this makes sense to you, Robbie. It may be years before any of this makes sense, but you’ll figure it out. You’re a smart boy. I know you think about me, and I know you have a lot of questions, and I know that later on in your life you will get some answers, but not all of them.” He paused and winked. “ How you doing, boy?

“Uhhh, Ok, I guess, Sir.”

He laughed loudly, and the sound filled the air and echoed through the fields. It was a hearty, good laugh, and I couldn’t help but smile. He rustled my hair, and it felt as if I was being mauled gently by a happy bear.

“Don’t call me Sir, son. That’s what I called my daddy. I think these are different circumstances.”

“What should I call you, then?” We stopped for a moment, he dropped his arm off my shoulder, and we stood face to face.

“Call me Dad.”

I smiled. “Ok Dad”. The word hung in the air. It felt strange rolling off my tongue. It wasn’t natural to me as the word was never really a part of my vocabulary. I said it again. “Dad.”

“That’s better, now let’s double time.” He continued down the road, and I fell into step beside him.

“I tried to lead a good life, Robbie, at least as good as I thought it could be. It wasn’t perfect, and I made mistakes. I hurt your mom, and I hurt other people, and I have to deal with the pain that I caused others, but I never meant to do anyone any harm, you know? We all make mistakes. Understand?”

I nodded my head.

“Life doesn’t always work out like you want it to, but you try the best you can to do the right thing. Sometimes, the right thing that you do isn’t the thing that everyone else would do. Some folks call those decisions “selfish”, but sometimes we have to make selfish decisions. You’ll figure that out when you grow up, and remember that sometimes you have to do what’s right for you, no matter what the rest of the world thinks. Are you getting any of this?”

I was, kinda-sorta getting all of this. However, it was tough to digest everything as I was still, I think, honestly in shock on some level. After all, I was having a conversation with my father, and he had been dead for ten years now.

“Yes, Sir. I’m getting it.” He raised his eyebrows and face feigned anger. “I mean, yes, Dad.”

We had walked about a half-mile or so, down to the crossroads. It was a bit lighter now, but the mist and early morning fog still held a blanket over the rising sun. He stopped at the spot where the crossroads met.

“I gotta go, Robbie, and this is as far as you go.” He turned and looked me in the eye. There we stood, face to face, and he reached out and put one hand on my shoulder. “Son, I understand you’ve been playing football? Are you having fun?”

“Yes Sir, I mean Dad…I love it.”

“Well, you keep it up. It is going to take you to places you never thought you go, and it will teach you toughness and discipline. It took the Army to do that for me. Maybe you’ll get off a little easier, and maybe you’ll never have to go to war.” Dropping his hand off my shoulder, he offered it to me, and we shook.

“You take care now, Robbie. You hear me, Son? It was nice to meet you. Make me proud.” He turned and started down the road. There was a slight rise to the North, and then the road dipped off and wound its way down towards Jamestown. The mist and fog seemed heavier now.

“But Dad, wait…” I wanted to say something to him, but I didn’t know what to say. He stopped and winked. Smiling at me one last time, he offered his final words.

“You best get on back to bed now. A big ole boy like you needs his rest.”

He walked away, disappearing over the rise in the road and the mist hanging low off the ground. I stared in disbelief, and turned, looking back up to the road to the farm, and then back to him. He was gone.

I jolted upright from the Army cot. Bright sunshine filtered into the room through the blinds, and I looked at the clock. It was almost 9:30 a.m. My head was foggy, and I felt a little confused. I realized I had had a dream, or was it a nightmare? Either way, it was a trippy experience.

“Wow” I thought to myself, “that was crazy…and…so real!”

I fell back down into the cot with soft thud and closed my eyes, breathing deeply, and started to think about my experience, replaying it in my head. I’d never had a dream that seemed so real, or that I could recall with such vivid detail.

I laid my hand across my chest for a moment, thinking back to last night and trying to remember my last thoughts before sleep. Something didn’t feel right. I’d taken off my shirt, and…I’d taken off my shirt…and I’d taken off my sweaty shirt, and…

At that moment, I realized my arm was resting across my shirt-covered chest. Chills filled my body, and I opened my eyes. Looking down to my feet, I saw that I was wearing my Chuck Taylor’s, laced up, with wet, dewy, morning grass covering the worn black and white high-tops.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And Now, for Something REALLY Different

Welcome to the Big Blog faithful readers. Because one of the reasons I started The Big Blog was to spread my creative wings, I thought I would offer up something different for your consideration with this posting. Below, you will find three poems I recently pulled out of mothballs and tinkered with a bit. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to comment—unless you don’t like them…just teasin’, of course. I had fun stretching my poetic wings for a while; I hope you have fun taking flight with me.

PS: Keep your eyes out for the Halloween Blog, “A Ghost Story”—coming soon to a Big Blog near you.

On Discovering Rocks

The whistle atop the coal breaker
Beckons the shanties to rise.
Slowly at first,
Like a dance rehearsed,
Dirty doors open.
Tired feet and sloped shoulders
Sag down the street
Of the little patch
Called Lost Crick.

Seamus takes his stock while
He waits for mules to
Drag him down to the darkness
For another day in dank depths:
A yellow canary in a cage,
And his lunch pail filled
With feeble fodder
For a hungry soul.

Here, in this hard land,
Shadows rule.
Black is the sky before dawn breaks,
Dark is the shaft that descends.
Black is the coal calling for release,
Dim is the sky when you return
For resurrection at the day's end.

Seamus digs in solitude
Lost in his temporary grave.
Coal crumbles from the vein,
And he fills his cart.
Toiling to meet today's tally,
For the mine boss will accept no less.

At lunch, he lounges
As the canary keeps company
With a chirp,
Strangely out of place
Deep in Mother's womb.
Leaning back,
Seamus lights his pipe
For a quick smoke before
He begins back breaking again.

The match light lumens
Something strange in the vein.
Seamus looks aloft.
The dark and the dram of rum
Must be playing tricks.
But still,
He rises for a closer look at
An anomaly in anthracite.
A smile crosses his coal-caked face,
And he begins to sing back to the canary
As he reaches for his pick.

The young mine boss
Stares strangely at Seamus.
The shift is not over,
Yet this miner has surfaced in sunlight.
Shamus tosses the trimmings of his
Past life--
--Down at the feet of the Boss.
He opens the cage,
Kisses the Canary,
And sets him free,
While the Boss looks on
With furrowed brow.

Seamus looks the young Boss
Square in the eye, and cracks
A wily, coal-caked smile.
Speaking, then,
With the air of a rich man:
“I'm done with you, Lad.”

Fleece and Fatality

The lorry jockey tosses back
The dregs of his last pint.
Upwards, he casts an unsteady glance
At the blurry clock on the wall.
At midnight,
He could see the clock clearly,
When he bellied up to the bar
For just one beer.
--It had been a long week.

The lorry jockey squints
And belches a behemoth burp.
The clock isn't clear any longer
But he thinks it says five a.m.
At five after five,
He rises slowly from his stool
And steadies himself on the bar
For one short moment.
--It will be a long ride home.

The lorry jockey finds fog
Shrouding his truck at dawn.
Upwards, he climbs into the cab
And brings the engine to life.
At eight after five,
He shifts into gear and
Forward he moves.
--It is bad to drive drunk and tired.

The farmer shoos his sheep
Out of their pen just after dawn.
His Border Collie chases
And bids them with barks.
At fifteen after five,
They begin to cross the road
Moving to greener pastures
Forward the sheep move
--The sheering time is nigh.

The lorry driver lunges
Up and down unsteady roads
Of rolling countryside.
At seventeen after five,
Asleep at the wheel,
He rumbles round a turn.
Seeking a final resting place,
His lorry finds the flock.
--Fleece and fatality fill the air.


Denizens of the dark
Dance with solemn decorum,
Into a makeshift meeting hall.
They gather not on a lark
But congregate with purpose of forum
Like lovers at a renaissance ball.

From all four corners they arrive
Sporting the finest nocturnal threads,
And seize seats at the round table.
These select symbolize those still alive
Heads bow for the myriad dead
Silence is shrouded in a coat of sable.

“Hear ye, hear ye” the crier calls
When the moment of silence has passed,
“We must address the task at hand.”
A murmur mumbles in the makeshift hall
In earnest the assembly begins at last,
For this is no lovers’ renaissance ball.

The velvet viscount stands to speak
Rising rigidly on noble toes,
He commands the attendees’ attention.
“Talk is for lovers, for the whiny and weak,
Too long have we loitered in repose!”
Voices affirm and rise in raucous ascension.

The Scarlet Lord leisurely chimes
His way into this curious conversation;
His voice so small, yet appealing.
“Is violence a retort to these crimes?
Are we not a civilized nation?”
His silky syllables seep with strong feelings.

“Lord Scarlet do you tender a solution?”
Queries the sergeant at arms,
“For the daybreak is close at hand.”
“Yes,” says the scarlet, “But not revolution;
“Violence does naught but harm,
And brings bloodshed to our simple land.”

The army ant roars to life
His nature can endure no longer.
This talk of peace makes him ill.
“There is only tranquility through strife;
Though some may call me a war monger,
I would rather kill than be killed!”

The Cockroach, the June bug
And the Mantis pray
For guidance from spirits divine.
A cry goes up from brother Slug
For he never dreamed of the day,
When his brethren’s reason declined.

Near dawn’s first light
The final decision was made
None knew of the ultimate effect.
The army ant let the troops to the fight
When the orange truck parked in the glade,
The battle cry resounded—death to Terminex!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Vampire stories are in these days…
While youth is the time of many joyous and free-roaming adventures, it is also a period marked by great stupidity. Let’s face it, though we still are brainless well into adulthood, most of us stumbled through some of our biggest foul-ups, oh, somewhere between the ages of eight to eighteen, with room for give and take on each side. As kids, we did stupid stuff for a range of reasons and feelings that we may not have completely understood. Often, it was to call attention to ourselves, sometimes to impress others—for me, it was frequently about a girl as I got into my teens. Maybe our stupidity was driven by a subconscious attempt to find ourselves, and define who we were and what we fancied we wanted to be when we “grew up”. Collectively, our stupidity flowed from a combination of all those things and many, many more. Mostly though, we did stupid stuff just because we were stupid kids, and stupid kids do stupid stuff.

Personally, I have a rather long list of stupid things I did growing up. However, my first caper…as remember it…the one that launched me on my path to stupidity stardom, was when I escaped from the baby sitter at the ripe age of four. Thankfully, I was too young to know how stupid my escape really was, but I learned quickly. The sitter called my mom and then the police, who issued an APB. In the end, it would have been much better for the coppers to find me first. When she got her hands on me, my mom, the queen lioness, made the police look like pussycats. She wore my young tail out that day.

Then, there was the time Mike C. and I, while playing with matches, lit a garbage dump on fire in Frackville. We didn’t know much about Smokey the Bear at that time.
Mike and I were both around seven or eight and just learning how much fun it was to play with fire. However, while we quickly became steeped in the art of burning stuff, we really didn’t have much practice with how to extinguish burning stuff. Engrossed in the hypnotic enchantment of neophyte pyromania, we were grossly unaware we had set the dump on fire until I felt some heat at my back and turned around. What I saw started one of those conversations in your life that you never forget, even if you were only seven.
“Jeeze, Mike! That’s a big fire! What should we do? What should we do? Oh man!” I looked frantically at Mike. Without hesitation, he blurted his answer...
“Throw garbage on it! Throw garbage on it! Cover the flames!”
“OK!” It sounded good at the time, so I went with it. What the hell? I was seven.
We franticly tossed and kicked more garbage onto the garbage already on fire. Strangely, the flames and the heat grew. Always the Socratic type, even back then, I asked Mike more questions.
“Mikey, what should we do now? It’s getting bigger! The fire is getting bigger! What should we do?” The heat was more intense now, and the silence filled with pops and crackles of burning trash.
Again, Mike blurted an answer instantly. He was quick like that.
“Run!” he hollered, and he took off.
It sounded good to me at the time, so I lit out after him.

We were at the top of town, and the dump was in the woods behind the little league field at the north end of town, about thirty or forty yards down the hill on the side of Broad Mountain. We scrambled up the bank, a thick plume of black smoke rising behind us. As we dashed across the field, we could see and hear the neighbors on High St., the last street in town, out on their porches, yelling, gesturing; sounds crashed together, and amid the din, I heard the wail of sirens in the distance. I remember thinking, “maybe no one will recognize us” even though we pretty much knew every family in a three-block radius. We reached High Street, cut down the alley, and then split into our back yards, both heading into our respective houses to hide. Just before ducking in the door, I glanced back over my shoulder to see smoke floating hundreds of feet in the sky. Folks for miles around could easily see that a fire was burning on the side of the mountain up in Frackville. After the cops visited the house, no doubt pointed my way by dozens of ticked-off neighbors, my mom and stepdad lit a fire in my tail. I only thought I’d gotten the beating of my life out of the way when I was four. If I remember correctly, Mickey didn’t fare much better with his folks. I was standing on the front porch after my beating, and I could hear him wailing from across the alley while his lickin’ was delivered.

Later, as I moved through adolescent years, my faux pas continued. The short list, let’s see…I ran away from home, got caught egging on Mischief Night, and stole a motorcycle, then a car. I also was caught crawling into a girl’s second story window, hauled home for hitting cars with snowballs, and the occasional fight down in the empty lot. Then there was the time I gave the Stork twenty bucks on a New York City street because he swore he was “positive” he knew where the pea was in the shell game that a dude was running on the corner (he didn’t know). In addition, I teetered at the brink of expulsion twice in high school. Once, because I got my ear pierced at a Saturday night party with the intent to take out the earring the next day; however, since all the girls were diggin’ the look, and I was diggin’ it that they were digging it, I decided to leave it in. However, my fashion sense clashed with the 1981 dress code for Catholic schools. Once word of my “bodily mutilation” reached the ears of the pious administration on Monday morning, I had to stand tall before the man.

Shortly after word got around school (it only took until the end of 1st period), I was called to the office for a sit down with the principal. The whole matter didn’t take very long. I was given two choices, take the earring out and remain at CBHS, or keep it in, get expelled, and go to North Schuylkill H.S, the local public school. I pretended to think about it for a moment, but I knew that among other consequences, my mom would murder me, so I quickly caved and took the earring out. That, plus I knew I needed my classical Catholic education to survive in the heathen world.

In the other instance, a few of us were cutting up badly during the school-wide Christmas celebration Mass. We were wiggly, giggly, giddy, and ready to bust out for the holiday break, which began promptly after the service. However, at the end of the Mass, just before the final blessing, we had a come to Jesus moment. Fr. Ward, one of my least favorite men of the cloth, called us out in front of the student body, faculty and parents present for the Mass. He announced, in a voice hovering at the edge of restraint, name by name, that we remain after the building had been vacated. Afterwards, with the field house empty, the four of us sitting in the front row, he brought down a spewing rant of contempt for our sacrilegious behavior. He was so mad that he was shaking violently and his face had turned blood red. I thought he was going to have a heart attack.

Due to the heinous nature of our crime, our punishment was, over our Christmas break, answer spiritual questions like “What is the true nature of Jesus Christ?” and “Why should God not let us burn in hell for disrespecting the Mass.” And so on. Each of the answers would be no less than five hundred hand-written words. There were about eight other questions of similar nature. Failure to complete this task would, as we were sternly warned by one pissed off priest, result in expulsion and excommunication. We talked briefly of mutiny among ourselves, but it was senior year. We figured it would not be the time to buck the system.

I realize that some of these tales paint the picture of a budding thug, but really, it was all innocent fun. No one was ever hurt, and I was never malicious. I will also say, because the guilty love company, I was not alone in most of my transgressions. The common denominators of all my actions was the innate stupidity of youth; that need for attention, approval, and validation from friends and females, or just the iron-willed attempt to assert my independence as I moved through adolescence into young-adulthood.

Along with the high pay and three months off in the summer, one of the things I enjoyed as a classroom teacher was the opportunity to observe the constant stream of stupid stuff that high school students undertook in their own adolescent struggles. I have to admit, it was nice to be on the outside looking in, especially after all my foibles. A while back, during my last year in the classroom, I had an opportunity to witness one of the most imaginative and creative undertakings in an attempt to get attention. This, dear readers, was one for the books. Yet, it was an event that harkened me back to my days of teen stupidity.

Now, if you look up “stupid” in the dictionary, there is probably a picture of a 10th grader next to it saying “see sophomore.” Sophomores are sweet, wonderful, loving, and good-natured students, and I always enjoyed working with them. They are at an interesting age where hormones and pheromones, adolescence, society, culture, meta-cognition, and the distraction of the opposite sex are all spinning at high speed though the adolescent atom-smasher of life. However, God bless’em, they are inherently brainless. They just can’t help it. I spent about eighteen years teaching sophomores, so I knew the beast well.

On the first day of school that year, the usual cast of characters gathered in my room for lunch. It was a central location, and we had a “He–Man, Woman-Haters Club” among the “boys”. Lunch was always a male, invitation only, closed-door event. Lunch was thirty sacred minutes of man time. It was a time for the boys to rant and rave, bitch and moan, laugh and cry, compare notes, and bust each other’s chops. There was chatter in the room as it filled up.
“So, how’s your classes looking?”
“Good, how’s yours?”
“Full. I need more desks. Does anyone have any extra desks? Hey, do you have Jasmine Jones? …
My friend and teaching partner, Jay, entered the “manctuary” and plopped down next to me. We shared a group of about forty students in an interdisciplinary English and History program split into two classes. By lunch, we’d both had a chance to see the entire group.
“So, what do you think?” I asked him, as I bit into my sandwich. He reached into his lunch bag and began to dig in.
“It looks like a good group; we had a nice discussion about current events in both classes. But…” He began chuckling as he poured dressing over his salad.
“Well, did you see the kid with the fangs?”
Hill, sitting in another part of the room, quickly piped in.
“You have a guy with fangs?” About that time, Cally walked in.
“Hey Jay and Bob have a guy with fangs?” Cally raised his eyebrows
“Fangs, what kind of fangs?” I was curious now too.
“Yeah, what kind of fangs, Jay?” He was ready to eat and getting a little irritable.
“What do you mean, ‘What kind of fangs?’ how many freakin’ kind of fangs are there? He’s got fang-fangs…you know, like Dracula fangs.” Laughter filled the room.
Personally, I didn’t see fangs in either class. I don’t know how I could have missed that. I thought I got a good look at everyone, but again, I didn’t do a tooth check. I needed answers.
“Which kid? ”
Jay started in on a hard-boiled egg and answered between bites.
“Bram something…boy… my first period class, your second period class.” I thought for a moment, mentally running through faces I’d just seen for the first time a hour ago. One came to mind.
“Was he the dude with the long hair parted in the middle, dressed all in black?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
Teachers are very much like cops and fire fighters. They’re public servants doing trench work, and it is a tough job. Seriously, in some cases, in the toughest schools, teachers deserve hazardous duty pay; they really do put their lives on the line. The good ones band together, and they are a very tight and private bunch. They watch each other’s backs, but they are also known for high jinks and the ones I worked with were renowned and unmerciful ball-busters. Jay and I would not hear the last of this Fang issue.

Well, the semester kicked into high gear and school time, which has a life of its own, began to monopolize everyone’s time. True to form, it only took about a week for the practical jokes to start. Fang updates had been a topic of our lunch since the revelation on day one, and it was only a matter of time with my crew.

I had Fang second period, and shortly after class began one day, there was a knock on the door. I was at my desk on the other side of the room, and so I asked the girl in the front row by the door to open it for me. In walked a skinny little student, probably a freshman. In his hand, was a large wooden stake, with just a little red paint, similar to blood, at the tip.
“Uhhh, you’re Mr. Alexander, right? Mr. Callahan asked me to deliver this to you.” He held the stake out, and a few kids began snickering.

I was unflappable back in my day, but I just barely kept it together as I quickly walked towards the student. I grabbed the stake, shuffled the lad out of my room, and sent him on his way. Once in the hall, I could hear laughter coming from the principal’s office a few feet from my room. I knew they were in there, watching me on the security camera, laughing their assess off. I gave the finger to the camera, stuffed the steak into an empty locker outside my classroom and walked back in. I could hear them roaring as I slammed the door.

And so it went, at least twice a week for the first few weeks of school. The stake was only the first in a long parade of items delivered to my classroom during second period, Fang’s period. Later came a clove of garlic from Hill, then a crucifix from Wallenstein, then “holy water” from Flinch, then the autographed picture of Grandpa Munster from Kirkland. I have to admit, it was all pretty funny, but more and more students were catching on. Apparently, everyone knew about the fangs, and everyone had seen the fangs…except for me. When I did see them, it was an unforgettable, Scoobie Doo kind of moment.

The class was taking the weekly vocab quiz, and I was monitoring them as they worked on their answers. While the rest of the students frantically scribbled trying to finish the timed quiz, Fang, in black t-shirt, pants, socks and shoes, sat there with an empty paper, arms folded, looking at me. It wasn’t an evil look, but rather a look of bemusement at the mere mortal that stood before him. I’d been trying to avoid looking him in the eyes during these awkward moments, but I couldn’t hold back, and we locked sights. Then, with slow, creepy, phantasmagoric deliberation, he drew his face into a bone-chilling smile, revealing two small, perfect fangs, framed by thin red lips.

I said I was unflappable, but I have a confession…I flapped, I mean I really flapped. At that moment, in my mind, and probably his, he was the dark lord, and I was about to be vampire juicy-juice. Goose bumps exploded up and down every inch of my body; I got the willies, the heebie jeebies, and creeps all at once, and I think I may have swooned for a moment. I was under the spell of the Count. The recounting of the story at lunch that day drew raucous laughter. Wallenstien took a red Sharpie and put two fang marks on my neck. Like I said earlier, these guys were relentless.

Fang’s actions indicated that a Count was not worthy of sophomoric work, and so he continued to do nothing. I tried to give most stubborn students a few weeks to come around, and maybe start producing and catching up before it was too late. Fang was no exception. I was sure I could jump-start him; I prided myself on motivating students. We talked, or at least I tried to talk to him. It ended being me talking at him, and him having nothing to say to me. I was tempted to bring up the fangs, but I figured he was looking for attention, and I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. Finally, with the halfway point in the quarter drawing near, it was starting to get critical for Fang to kick his academic performance into gear. I moved to the next level and decided I would give Fang’s folks a jingle and see if we couldn’t all work on this problem together.
Kicked back in my office at home that evening, I dialed the “home” phone number on Fang’s info sheet. I had a gut feeling this was going to be an interesting conversation. Fang’s father picked up after three rings.
“Hello, this is Bob Alexander from Rose High. I’m Bram’s English teacher. Is this Mr. Stoker?”
“Uhh, yes it is. His voice dropped a bit. “How can I help you?”
“Well, Mr. Stoker…” I started in on a narrative that I knew by heart.
“…I’m having some trouble with Bram. He doesn’t turn in any homework; he won’t complete any class assignments, and he hasn’t passed a quiz or test since school started.” I usually paused at this spot to allow for an initial reaction. Extreme diplomacy was necessary in conversations like this. You never knew how parents were going to react, and it was important to get a read on them early in the conversation.
There was silence on the other end, and then a long sigh. I was hoping his next words wouldn’t be “We don’t know what to do with him anymore.” That always was a bad sign and usually followed by “what should we do?” Mr. Stoker sighed again and spoke.
“We don’t know what to do with him; what should we do with him?” It was my turn to sigh. “He just won’t do anything, and we’ve tried everything.” He sounded exasperated, and I felt badly for him. I could tell, just by the little that Bram said and did, that he was a very bright kid. Again, I figured the fangs were his way to get attention, and maybe rattle his Dad’s cage. In hindsight, I should have ended the conversation then, but I decided to forge ahead.
“Uhh, Mr. Stoker…there’s one other thing.”
“What’s that?” He sighed again.
“Umm, well, there’s the fangs…” I let the word “fangs” somewhat softly drift out, fading at the end. I felt ridiculous even saying it. Suddenly, the conversation picked up quickly.
“What did you say? What did you say? Did you say fangs?”
“Uhh, yes sir, I said…fangs.” His voice raised an octave.
“He’s wearing the FANGS in CLASS?”
“Yes, he’s….”
“He’s WEARING THE FANGS IN CLASS?” This was bad.
“Yes, Sir, he’s wearing the fangs in …”
“HE’S WEARING THE FANGS IN CLASS?” He was yelling at the top of his lungs now, repeating it over and over. The last exclamation was one of the saddest statements I’ve ever heard from a parent.
“HE IS WEARING THE FANGS IN CLAssssssssssss….” His voice wavered in a painful dirge, with a howl the likes of which I’ve never heard, nor ever wish to hear again. It was bone chilling, and it was sad. It was creepy. I hung the phone up. It was tough hearing a grown man wail.

Sadly, that semester, Fang fought me tooth and nail through each grading period. It was a pattern that would define our relationship for the majority of the semester. He refused to do little, if any work, though it was evident from discussion that he was uber-intelligent. He was very likable, he just didn’t do anything. Maybe he couldn’t do anything with all the sunlight around, I don’t know.

I was determined that I could reach him, save him, and turn him around. Fang was determined that he was going to do nothing, and we couldn’t ever seem to find any common ground. In over twenty years teaching, I’ve only had five students fail my class. Two of them just didn’t show up to take the final exam, so I had no choice. The other two, God bless’em, they were just plain brainless, and there was nothing anyone could do about that. Then there was Fang. He never caused any problems. He was never disrespectful, and every occasionally he would contribute to class, but for some reason, he tried as hard as he could to fail; I mean he really set his mind to it. If I could have just gotten him to do something, maybe I would feel justified in throwing him a few bones, but he just wouldn’t do anything, and in the end he failed the class.

Stones and glass houses, and all of that…as I said earlier, I’ve been guilty of doing plenty of stupid stuff, especially as a teen. So, I really could relate to Fang and his quest at that time in his life. Maybe he was in love? Maybe he really wanted to be a vampire? Maybe he wanted to rattle some cages? I don’t know. However, I also had a job to do at that point in my life. I couldn’t give grades away, and I couldn’t pass him because he really was a sweet kid.

Maybe, though, in the end, I think both of us learned a lesson. For me, it was a reminder that I was once very much a “Fang” in my own way. Whatever our reasons, and what ever the means we chose to express ourselves, we really had lots in common, especially the bond of doing stupid stuff to call attention to ourselves. Ultimately, it takes a little courage to put yourself out there…sometimes way out there. Maybe, sophomores aren’t as brainless as I thought they were. Fang was definitely more relentless than I was when it came to sticking to his guns. During the great earring incident, I gave in to what I wanted and conformed to the norm, for whatever the reasons. Fang didn’t. He was determined to be different, and he was determined to do nothing in class, for whatever the reasons. At that time, I also learned I couldn’t save everyone, especially if they didn’t want to be saved. I know for a fact that my class was the only class he ever failed. Maybe that was a wakeup call. I spoke with Fang the other day about this story; it’s been about four years since our paths crossed. During the course of our conversation, I asked him, “Was the price of the fangs and failing my class worth it?” He answered with an emphatic, “Yes.” All things considered, I think maybe Fang came out ahead. He did prove his point, and he showed just how hip and ahead of his time he really was. After all, vampire stories are in these days.

Note: No vampires were harmed during the writing of this blog.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I can still vividly recall one of the most instrumental moments of motivation in my life. This epiphany occurred in May, 1984, just after the end of spring football practice at East Carolina University, in Greenville, NC, where I was attending school and trying to be a student athlete.

I began practice listed as a 3rd team offensive tackle, both left and right side, on the big depth chart that hung in the locker room. However, as pads began to crack that first week, guys started dropping like flies from various injuries. Suddenly, four practices in to spring ball, I was running first team tackle. I wasn’t ready for that, and I spent the rest of spring practice getting my ass kicked up and down the field. The situation seemed dismal. Shortly after the spring game the semester ended, and we were required to have an “exit” meeting with Coach Emory before we left Greenville for the summer.

I parked my 77 Dodge Aspen, packed to the gills with stuff, in front of the field house. Grades were in, the semester was in the books; I was heading home to Pa. for a week, and then down to Sea Isle City, N.J. to work as a bouncer at the La Costa Lounge. The only thing standing between me and the start of one of the greatest summers of my life was that final meeting with Coach Emory. I walked into his office for my 10:00 a.m. appointment. He sat behind his large desk, beefy paws folded in front of him, and I knew he was waiting to tear into me. I remember like it was yesterday.

“Ahhh, Alexander”, said Coach E., “Son, we brought ya’ down here from Penn-za-vein-ya to play some football, and, ahhh… all you’ve done for three years is play with yourself.”

Conversation with Coach E was always an adventure. He had a deep South Carolina low country drawl, and he also had a speech impediment; you had to listen really hard to make out what you knew were English words. I could see he was just getting warmed up, and the flush of anger rising from his neck to his face and head was turning his tan skin beet red. Veins began to bulge and throb. He continued.

“Three hots and a cot! That’s all you want from East Carolina University, son, three hots and a cot! Ahhh…you know what, son? There’s only one thing worse thana damn Yankee. You know what that is, son?
“No sir,” I squeaked.
Coach popped up from his chair, like one of those fake snakes springing from a can—a quick and deft move for a man of his size and stature, and pounded his fist repeatedly on the desk.
“Ahhh goddamn Yankee! A goddamn Yankee! That’s the only thing worse than a damn Yankee! Son, you’re playin’ football like a goddamn Yankee!”
He sat back down and glared at me for a moment, breathing heavily. Then, slowly and deliberately, still eying me, Coach reached into his right desk drawer, obviously a ritual repeated thousands of times in his life, and without looking, pulled out a yellow legal pad and a red maker, and slammed them both on the desk. Casting a final scowl in my general direction, his eyes turned downward to the blank page.

Coach began writing and speaking at the same time, in his deep South Carolina drawl, as he scribbled words across the page.
“Iaah… will…take Ahh-lex-zan-der’s skaa-laa-ship ahhh-way…” His eyes shot up at me for a split second, beady blue bulges boring burning holes through my skull—letting me know, with no room for doubt, he wasn’t joking around…and then he continued.
“…ahhh, if he doz-ent com-peat! Sigh-nd, ahhh, Ed H. Em-o-ry.”
He finished with a flourish, and threw the pen down on the desk. Then, Coach ripped off the yellow sheet, jagged at the top edge, shoved it across the desk at me, and spoke his final words.
“Ahhh, son, you have a nice summer. See you in August.”

That was vintage Coach E. He was unpretentious, honest, and passionate about football, life, and “his boys”. You could always count on Coach to let you know exactly where he stood, and…. where you stood as well. He was a player’s coach.
In my work, both at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), and as a member of the Paideia National Faculty, I find myself spending large chunks of time thinking about, writing about, identifying, and discussing the nature and concept of “Coaching” in the classroom. This includes coaching not only in English Language Arts classrooms, but also in all curricular areas, K-12.

Honestly, the concept of “coaching” students rather than simply talking at them, or to them, did not click with me until the second year of my classroom-teaching career. Early in the second semester, spring 1989, I began learning more about the Paideia style of teaching and learning. In this model of instruction, coaching students accounts for 60-70% of what happens in the classroom. While there is room for lecture and didactic instruction, it cannot dominate because it deprives of the opportunity to build relationships with students. Therefore, with that pedagogical revelation, I have since tried to transfer and apply what I have learned on the athletic fields as a filter to shape my work as a teacher, learner, and consultant. After all, coaching is what got me here.

Obviously, the word “coach” conjures up different images and ideas for each individual, but I would guess that largely, the first thing folks envision or imagine would be the archetypal athletic coach. Perhaps the picture is of one who coached them long ago, maybe the P.E. teacher, whistle round the neck, clipboard in hand, the list goes on, but you get the point. Somewhere, along the line, coaches, both good and bad, have influenced us while we hustle our way through life. The good ones become icons for us, and sometimes, we just prefer to forget the bad coaches.
So, what makes a good coach? We all have our own ideas based on our life experiences, but we can probably agree that good coaches do not do just one thing well. Rather, they perform multiple operations simultaneously and successfully. Think about this short list: Coaches motivate, demonstrate, critique, cajole, implore, rouse, and they communicate frequently and consistently with feedback for improvement. The really good coaches know exactly when to pat you on the back, and they seem to know exactly when you need a high-quality, swift kick in the ass. A truly great coach inherently knows how and when to balance tough love, all the time maintaining benevolent drill sergeant status, part-psychological mastermind, and for me, an inspiring and motivating father figure.

My Dad died in 1970 from wounds he received in Vietnam. I was only six; my parents had been divorced for three years, but I knew I had a dad, though I couldn’t tell you what that meant, nor can I ever really remember physically being in his presence. Later, when I was seven, my mom remarried. From that point on, I could tell you what a stepfather was, yet I inherently knew it wasn’t the same as a dad, and truth be told, my stepdad was not very comfortable with me, nor did he like the idea of being called “Dad.” We even tried it once for a day when I was around eight years old, and I vividly remember him pronouncing, by about two or three in the afternoon of day one, that “This Dad stuff is for the birds.” So much for that…

Now, as I look back at those days in life, it is easy to see that the relationships I pursued and forged with many of my athletic coaches from the age of eight or so on, really were quests to connect in some way, form, or fashion with men and father figures, and ultimately, my own father. My coaches were really the first teachers instructing me in “manly arts”, things of importance to a little kid without a father, and thus, that makes them really, my first teachers. However, I had to deal with my mother first. She was the real hurdle to me playing sports, and we had legendary arguments over the topic.

I was born to hit people on the gridiron, not baseballs on the diamond, but my over protective mom would never let me play football in my younger days. It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity. Football, in the Coal Regions of Pa., is still king. Even in a small town like Frackville, you could start playing full contact football around the 3rd grade in the Pee Wee League. We would argue about this topic incessantly. Her reasons, to me, were meaningless.
“Robert, you’ll break your braces…”
“But Ma, they have special mouth pieces for braces! Bill D has braces and he plays!”
“Robert, you’ll break your glasses…”
“But Ma, they have special glasses, plus there’s a facemask on the helmets! They’re not leather like they were in your day.”
“Robert, you’ll break your leg…”
“But Ma, …”

However, and God only knows why, she did let me play baseball, but I was awful at that sport. And so it would go, year after year, from 3rd through 8th grade…me a big, gangly, poindexter-looking geek, with Buddy Holly specs and braces, sitting on my green Schwinn Stingray, watching all my pals practicing and playing football half a block from my house.

Finally, as my mom realized that she couldn’t hold me back any longer, I cut the cord, and began to play football in eighth grade. That was the key to letting me discover what I could do with myself, and I was lucky enough to have a successful athletic career that extended beyond high school and into college. Most importantly, during those days of my life, I was lucky enough to be mentored by some monumental men who taught me about toughness, not just physical toughness, but mental toughness and the value of discipline. The best of them were master motivators; something that I believe is a key ingredient in coaching, both on the fields and in the classrooms. Of these masters, there was one man who ranks at the top of my hierarchy, Ed H. Emory, my head coach at East Carolina University, from 1982-1984.

To make a long story short, I returned to East Carolina for the 1984 season, and I did compete. In fact, I made the traveling team and played in all eleven games that fall. Sadly, because Coach E. had a habit of doing things “my way or Trailways” style at ECU, it cost him his job at the end of that season. However, I will never forget his motivation, drive, and determination, and most importantly, the way he coached me. I still have that jagged edged leaf of yellow legal paper with scrawled red writing.

The reach, influence, and lessons of a good coach can survive far beyond the time you put in on the practice and playing fields; it has the potential to last a lifetime. We all have a coach inside us, and we should always be willing to take the time to help people practice for success, no matter what our profession or office in life. These relationships are not always rainbows and butterflies; sometime coaching means being honest and tough. However, when it comes to the classroom, great things can happen when a teacher coaches rather than just “delivers” a lesson.

Unbelievably, one other thing I learned from Coach Emory was how to let myself be loved. . I have to admit, I loved this man. He would often say, “Ahhh, if I can’t put my hands on ya, I can’t coach ya. I’m jus’ showing ya I love ya.” Knowing that he was showing me “love” helped ease the pain I experienced each time he jerked my by the face mask when I missed a block in practice. It felt good to be loved. Tough-loved.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Full Circle

Not too very long ago, I found myself at home, that is, the place where I grew up, north of the Broad Mountain in Schuylkill Co., Pa. I left after work on a Wednesday afternoon and drove the 450 miles from Raleigh, NC to my mom’s house in Cresswell Gardens, down in the valley, on the road between Frackville and Ashland.

Family was the motivation for my visit. My mom was having cataract surgery that Friday, and my stepfather had a cardiac arrest scheduled for the following Sunday morning, though we didn’t know it at the time, but that’s another story.

On Friday, after the cataract surgery, but before the cardiac arrest on Sunday, I was browsing the local paper, The Republican-Herald. Buried in the first section, I noticed an article highlighting an art exhibit that evening from 6:00 - 9:00 at “Uptown Ashland” featuring several local artists. Two things about this piece of news drew my attention. One, I got a chuckle at the image and idea of “Uptown Ashland”— 95% of the town is built on a hill. I guess the “uptown” idea gave some weight and class to both Ashland and group sponsoring the exhibit. Either way, it was funny to me.

The other striking thing in the article was the name of one of the local featured artists, Robert McCormick. Yes, ole Mr. Bob McCormick, my 11th grade English teacher; this is the cat that, whether either of us realized it at the time or not—let alone admitted it, had a huge impact on the direction my life would take over the next 25 years.

Bob was an interesting character, and in many ways very much an anomaly in our small Catholic high school. He was a male, and he wasn’t a priest. That, in and of itself was unusual. Next, he was an English teacher. We didn’t know men, let alone ones who weren’t priests, could be English teachers at Catholic schools. Finally, he was cool. He was groovy; he was hip and he was bohemian. Bob was tuned-in and rumored to have turned-on and dropped out during his younger days. Yes, he definitely had a hint of hippy about him dwelling just beneath the surface of his thin frame. Yet another rumor hinted that he’d been at Woodstock—the real one, and there was another story circulating that he’d been held captive across three western states by fleeing bank robbers. Apparently, while in the midst of hitch hiking across America, a thing a hippie was reputedly disposed to in the days of peace and love, these bandits picked up Bob and a companion. I know there were a few other rumors floating around back then; they elude me now, but the bottom line was this: Bob had myth. He had an established Odyssey, and that mythology made him legit in my book.

Me, I was a large, sixteen-year old, hormone driven, Warrior Poet—though I really didn’t understand that last part at the time. I was in medias res with an internal struggle that would define a large portion of my life…trying to find my place, trying to figure out who I was, and trying to make sense of it all. In between that and drinking beer, I wanted to play football and basketball, I wanted to kiss girls, I wanted to write poetry and play the guitar, I wanted to act and dance and sing, and I wanted to learn to play the sax. I was able to do some of those, but others I left behind. Oh well. Back then, north of Broad Mountain, you made your choices early and rolled with them. Things were black and white, but mostly black, and there was no room for blurrin’ lines.

Until my junior year in high school, English class was a rather insignificant event in my academic life. That’s really a shame because I loved to read and write, and along with running and hitting, these were things I could do easily. Here’s a snapshot: Our freshman English “B” class was reading—aloud and in sequence, person by person, row by row, word by word, To Kill A Mockingbird, starting from page one. The good thing was that I felt myself getting hooked two pages in, the bad was that after the painful readings of the first few students in the first row, I couldn’t be held back. I looked across the room and did my calculations; there were three rows and 14 students ahead of me. I vividly remember thinking “I’ll just read the first chapter,” and off I went. The ugly would follow shortly.

Well thanks a bunch Harper Lee for writing a classic. I don’t remember how far I had melted into the text, but once my over-active imagination kicked into overdrive, I lost all sense of time and space. I wasn’t reading the book; I was the book.

Nothing kills a good book-buzz quicker than the sting of Sister Earnest Borgnine's ( or whichever nun she was) ruler smashing into my hands and knocking the book out of my hands. Apparently, much to the amusement of the students, I had not responded to several prompts by Sister EB to read. Much in the furtive fashion of ladies and gents of the cloth, she had hushed the class and moved in on me, just like a cat stalking a mouse. She delivered the deathblow with surgeon-like precision, the shiny metal edge implanted in the heavy old wooden ruler ripped into the flesh of my fingers, and the book leaped out of my hands like a fly fleeing the swatter.

She barked. “Pay attention! What’s wrong with you? You’re always day dreaming Robert! Get with the class, it is your turn to read.” I could swear she was cursing me under her breath as she returned to her perch at the front of the class. “Now read! We are on page 5, paragraph two…”

I don’t even remember anything about my sophomore English teacher, the curriculum, or anything earth-shattering that plugged me into learning. Nothing. No books, no short stories. Nada, nill, zip, zilch... zero.

Academic life for me changed on the first day of my junior year, first period. There he was, Mr. McCormik, Bob Mac, standing at the door of room 103, intoxicated waves of dark hair spinning about his head, a slightly mad and wild look in his eyes, wearing the dark blue v-neck regulation school sweater, with a silhouetting blue shirt and dark blue tie.

The bell rang to start class, and he began, in a soft voice, his introduction. “Hello, I’m Mr. Bob McCormick, and…”

15 minutes in, and I was addicted. I don’t think I’d ever had a teacher that was talking to me, rather than at me. It was weird. I mean, it was really weird. It was mesmerizing. I had a “mind-buzz” and it felt good and different. .

I wish I could say that I remember specific things that Bob Mac did in class to pull me in; I must confess, it has been a long time. However, I do remember some of the literature and authors I encountered: The Red Badge of Courage, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost, and Earnest Hemmingway. It was all good. I decided I was going to see Bob Mac and his artwork. It had been at least 25 years.

At 8:30 that Friday evening, I crept up the stairs of the “Uptown Ashland” building. Typical of a coal region home, there was a steep and narrow staircase rising above me, and I could hear voices and see light as I climbed higher. Finally, out of breath and at the top, I tried to slip into the room unnoticed…not an easy feat for a man of my girth. The room was brightly lit; paintings filled the walls, and about twenty people were milling about, drinking wine and coffee, and talking about art. It was somewhat surreal.

I put my back to the crowd and began to study the artwork, slowly working my way around the room until I saw Mr. Mac. He looked …well, he looked exactly like a cat of his stature should look. Still cool and hip. He wore a red and white Hawaiian shirt, loose khakis, and sandals. His hair was a little long and a little gray, as was the beard and moustache he was sporting. However, he seemed cool and casual, sipping wine and chatting with guests.

I pulled out one of my business cards and moved in on him quickly. Handing him the card with one hand, and shaking his hand with the other, I presented myself professionally. “Sir, I represent a very wealthy individual client. He is interested in purchasing all of the Robert McCormick work that is on sale here this evening.” He furrowed his brow, and glanced down at the card for a fraction of a second, then up at me. “Bobby Alexander! Bobby Alexander! I thought that was you!” His arms flailing about, he hugged me. “It is so good to see you! How are you? You look fabulous!”

I didn’t want to monopolize his time, so I excused myself and went over to look at his prints while he continued to work the crowd. His artwork was striking, colorful, and filled with representations I recognized. The main muse was the hard surroundings of Ashland, and Schuylkill Co. However, he seemed to have found a knack for bringing out, even in this drab and dreary little corner of the world, some brightness and beauty. I was really blown away by the images.

Eventually, he worked his way back over to me, and we chatted about life and what we were up to, about his work, and we shared a few chuckles over some high school moments when we both took ourselves way too seriously.

“I tell my students all the time about how I assaulted you during Pippin, do you remember that?” An appreciation of drama was also one of the gifts Bob imparted to me. He directed plays during my junior and seniors years, and when I was a senior, we staged a production of Pippin.

In Pippin, I played the role of Charlemagne, King of the Holy Roman Empire. Very early in the third act, I am slain by my son, Pippin. I die, and my corpse remained on stage for the rest of the scene. On, I think, the third night of the play, as I lay there dead on stage, I found myself completely and totally relaxed, almost asleep. I was so relaxed that I didn’t even notice the mighty fart I emitted in my corpse like state until it was too late. I am sure that the force fluttered my cape up in the air. It was loud. This, in turn, caused many of the other actors on stage to break character, and I can remember seeing shoulders shaking and the muffled laughter as the players tried hard to keep it together. When the scene ended, Bob was waiting for me, worked up to a froth with fury.

“You’ve ruined the show! You’ve ruined the show! You’ve ruined the show!” He kept repeating it, flailing his arms wildly in the air, the whole time following me back stage, down the stairs, into the locker room. “You’ve ruined the show! You’ve ruined the show…”

We both laughed out loud. It really was an unforgettable moment. “I’m sorry Robert, I thought it was Broadway back then. Did you ever forgive me?” I smiled. “The question is Bob, did you ever forgive me?” We laughed again.

As I thumbed through the stack of his prints, he asked which one I liked the most. I pulled out two, both Ashland landscapes. He said, in a low whisper, “Here Robert, take them. I’ve got enough money anyway.” And he smiled. “So, why did you come here tonight?”

In my twenty-year teaching career as a high school English teacher, I have been lucky enough to cross paths with many former students out and about in the world. Each time, almost with out fail, they tell me how much my class and my teaching meant to them. It really didn’t matter to me if they felt that way because of the content or because I was likable, and therefore, their favorite teacher, or just that they were sorry for acting up a million years ago. The thing is I did something to make teaching and learning memorable for them. Validation, even if it is delayed, is important to our human existence. It was time to bring it full circle.

“Thank you, Mr. McCormick. I just wanted to say thank you for doing what you did. I don’t know what it was, and it really doesn’t matter now, but the point is, you did it. You helped create a memorable experience, and you had an impact on my life. I never have forgotten you, and I will never forget you. Your influence and encouragement helped light a spark in me, and I’m still fueling the fire today.”

Bob Mac smiled, gave me a hug, and whispered, “Thank you, Robert. Thank you.”