Saturday, May 30, 2009

...and on this day a star was born

...sometimes people, myself definitely included, become so entirely wrapped up in what they most desire, that we sometimes manage to overlook those blessings we've already been granted.

On this day, nine years ago, my son Lucas was born under the same kind of cloudless, cerulean skyline I'm currently enjoying as I bring these thoughts to life.

Many people boast of "The World being a Better Place with this Person or that Person in it," and while I'm probably most biased in my position, the fact of basking in nine straight years worth of brilliant weather on the 3oth day of May sheds proof to my claim that my son's presence has surely helped to align the planets and boost World Peace from where it was at this time yesterday.

...while my other two children entered this world by way of ear-piercing screams, demanding of immediate attention, followed soon after by limitless rest for the next 18-24 months, Lucas introduced himself to us quietly, tender blue eyes ever searching, accepting his surroundings with a sigh and a toothless grin. And he's never really changed since...

Perhaps it's in the name.

My very own "Cool Hand Luke" manages to bring home straight A report cards, willingly divides his play time between dolls with his sister, and throwing a fade route to his older brother in the back yard, while still remembering to finish his homework and water his Dogwood sappling that he so eagerly planted a few months prior.

He can sink a twenty foot jumper, (led his team in scoring last winter,) snag a line-drive out of mid-air with one hand, (went 4 for 4 with 6 RBI's last week,) and if he so desires, can sit down and read a 200 page novel with the speed and clarity comparable to his 12 year old brother.

...and he makes it look easy, with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders.

While so many of us stuggle daily with whatever goals we're so desperately trying to accomplish during our lifetime, my son Lucas will be one of those lucky one's who always seem to have a little ray of sun shining down on them despite the heaviest of rainfall in the forecast.

Instead of driving relentlessly toward some far reaching dream, he'll be one of those accidental success stories who "stumble across some brilliant idea," fall into a pile of wealth, and yet think nothing of it, while spending his time searching the Florida tides for the best surf.

...that's my son, and today is his day. Happy Birthday Lucas.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

...A word from The King

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"The Fall" (Part 1)

She was falling.

Plummeting gracefully toward the frigid waters of South Carolina’s Cooper River below. Her arms were held out at her sides, palms up. She felt the cool rush of air between her fingers which were spread apart, but not flailing against gravity’s undebatable embrace. She uttered no sound, and her eyes were closed. Her falling body inspired the appearance of a human missile searing through a brisk, early morning breeze, had there been anyone present.

While the girl’s body radiated an odd peacefulness throughout the hundred foot drop, her mind raced along behind her clenched eyelids at a rapid pace. As if watching the important scenes from a classic movie played in fast forward, painful memories of her childhood flooded in from the farthest reaches of her soul.

A sorrowful picture of her mother’s funeral appeared. Plumes of darkened cloud cover across Charleston’s gray horizon gave way to a steady rainfall as the procession began. Like teardrops from Heaven, the rain felt cold against her skin. It brought with it the scent of raw fish, murky but somehow fitting under the somber circumstances.

She stood in front of the casket, looking down at the body of a withered old lady who simply couldn’t have once been her beautiful mother. The frail person lying before her appeared much older than forty-two. What was left of her once vibrant strands of chestnut hair had faded to a pale shade of dun, the ends split and graying at her neckline.

The body was on it’s side. Bony fingers from each hand were clenched into fists and held together at her waist, as if still reeling in pain even after death. Her mouth had opened slightly at some point before the viewing. It formed the same expression used while exhaling her final breath, the one her daughter had witnessed.

She glanced up and suddenly realized that everyone was watching her. Close family and friends. Distant relatives who she hadn’t seen in years. Still others were complete strangers, perhaps longtime acquaintances of her mother’s whom she had never met. She recognized their curious gazes. They were all waiting. Wanting to see the poor twelve year old daughter finally breaking down at her mother’s casket. Why is it that so many people feed off the anguish of others?

Asking aloud for eternal harmony, yet anxiously awaiting the next travesty in order to attend.

The girl displayed resilience though. She refused to shed even the smallest amount of tears in front of any expectant onlookers. No one would get to see her cry. Her mother had asked her to be strong when the cancer was first discovered two years before. She needed her daughter’s strength, her youthful courage as the first debilitating rounds of chemotherapy began. And so she respected her mother’s wishes. Remaining strong throughout the suffering. Refusing to give in even while gazing upon her mother’s body for the last time. She hoped her mom was proud.

The girl’s father did cry on that sad day though. He mourned for hours on end. He took solace in those around him, accepting their hugs, their acts of kindness. And as his wife was being lowered to her place of eternal rest, he looked to the heavens above and silently pleaded for answers. What had she done to deserve this? Why now? Why them?

Receiving only rainfall in return, he lowered his head and noticed his daughter. He saw her stone-faced expression. Her refusal of anyone’s offered support. Her apparent lack of emotion. He knew nothing of the promise she’d made to her mother. He could only see what was standing before him. And it was then when his heart grew cold.

A month passed before her father began hitting her.

They had talked very little during those awkward weeks following her mother’s passing. She often caught him glaring at her from the corner of her eye while trying to concentrate on homework at the kitchen table. She saw the resentment he no longer bothered to hide. It made her wary of him. She began avoiding him altogether, and hating herself for it. He was her father. They needed each other, now more than ever.

He arrived home late from work on that fateful evening, staggering through the front door, his breath reeking of alcohol. She was watching television in the dark. Upon seeing his condition, she tucked her legs under her, trying to make herself smaller, more hidden within the crevice of the cushion.

Her father slammed the door shut behind him. He dropped his lunch box on the floor where it landed on it’s side, spilling open the contents. Still in his work boots, he approached her in a stumble. He raised his hand above his head. She watched his fingers curl into a fist. Exhaling a sharp breath, she managed to close her eyes.

He uttered one word before swinging his fist upon his cringing daughter. "Why?"

Five years passed. The beatings continued. Not every night, but when he drank. And he’d steadily become an alcoholic. A demon having taken up residence within him. Demanding of liquor in order to quench the pain. And when that wasn’t enough, something more was needed. Something violent.

She became an expert at covering up the bruises. Often awakening to a throbbing pain upon her left temple, or to the burning of blood vessels as they tunneled crimson trails through the white’s of her eyes. An aching muscle in her shoulder. A tightening of breath as she slowly rose from her bed.

She would stand in front of the bathroom mirror, assessing the damage. Concealer for the bruise around her eye. Flesh-colored blush for the fading purple wound upon her cheek. A long sleeved shirt to cover her shoulder. Combing her bangs down over the welt on her forehead. Then off to school. Her secret, her curse hidden under layers of Maybelline and several year’s worth of academic solitude. Her success rate was flawless. After all, hiding the truth was easy when no one cared to look.

A portrait of Johnny flashed through her mind. Her hands started trembling as she fell. Her Johnny.

She caught him watching her from across the room. Study hall. Everyone was leaned forward in their seats, texting messages on their cell phones or finishing up some math homework. She glanced up from the book she was reading. Their eyes met. Her heartbeat quickened it’s pace.
He wore his dark hair long. Strands of it hung down over his left eye. He watched her through his bangs, his gaze intense. She knew who he was. Who didn’t?

Johnny was a receiver on the football team. He drove a motorcycle to school. He’d been associated through one rumor or another with practically every popular girl in the school. And yet here he was, unable to pull his eyes away from her.

She watched as his square jaw curled up into a smile. She glanced away, the warmth of a blush creeping up from the base of her neck. Was this really happening?

He made his way through the sea of swinging arms and legs, of chattering classmates spanning the entire width of the school corridor in between classes in order to approach her.
She felt someone standing behind her as she stood at her locker. She turned. Her breath caught in her throat.

"I’m Johnny," he said, the smile returning. The drawl of his true southern accent nearly caused her to drop the textbook she was holding.

"I know," she stammered. It was all she could think of to say.

"You’re Jessica," he said.

"I know that too."

His pleasant smile opened to a grin, revealing his teeth. Perfectly straight. Frosty-white, even the incisors. Those pointy teeth protruding from each corner of the jaw. Tiny fangs. His resembled sharp daggers, remaining hidden, but peeking below his upper lip every time he smiled. She unconsciously waited for them to suddenly grow several inches as he stood before her. The handsome teenage vampire like in all of those top selling novels.

She watched as his hazel eyes fluttered down to the books she was carrying. "Biology," he mumbled. He lifted his gaze back to her face. "So I was wondering. I need to raise my grade so I can stay eligible for football. And Ms. Miller always lets people go to the library during our study hall whenever they need a little extra help."

"You want me to help you in biology?" she asked.

"Unless you’re not interested," he said. "I can go and..."

"I’ll do it," she cut in.

Again his smile. Not since her mother had anyone looked at her that way. She felt her cheeks growing warm again, but she didn’t care anymore. She couldn’t peel her eyes away from his face. Those masculine lines around his jaw. The allure of his eyes. Sometimes a deep mahogany. An instant later resembling the jaded color of the pine needles on the evergreen standing in the school courtyard.

"Thanks," he said. "I’ll see you tomorrow then?"

"Okay," she breathed.

She felt his hand brush against hers as he attempted to rejoin the flowing mass of students making their way in either direction of the pale-colored hall. His fingers curled around the edge of her trembling hand and gently closed. Just enough for her to notice. Enough for her to never forget.

It was on the third day of their study session in the library when she caught a glance at one of Johnny’s biology papers which had slipped out of his text book as he opened it to the appropriate page. It had already been turned in and graded. At the top of the paper in bold red ink she saw a 97%. A higher grade than what she had received on the same assignment.

She looked up and met his sheepish expression. He slowly refolded the paper and tucked it back into his book. Then without a word, he slowly reached over and closed her book as well.

"I guess you caught me," he whispered under the hushed atmosphere of the library.

"You’re better in biology than I am," she said.

"It got us together though."

Her mouth opened. She was unable to hide the shocked expression upon her face. As she watched, he slowly moved his hand across the table and placed it upon hers. Their fingers slowly interlocked.

Without thinking, she reached up with her other hand and brushed the bangs out of her face, exposing the deep bruise upon her forehead. Several days old, it had begun shifting in color from an ugly purple, to a fleshy yellow-green.

She watched as his eyes grew wide, before realizing what she’d done. Her fingers tightened their hold on his lanky fingers.

"I the shower," she whispered. Her eyes fell to the walnut tabletop. She was unable to meet his questioning gaze.

"And the one last week?" he asked. He released his hand from hers and raised it toward her ear. Gently guiding his index finger beyond a tuft of auburn hair, he caressed the soft skin directly behind her earlobe. "The one I saw right here?"

His touch was so light she barely felt it. And yet the realization of someone finding out her secret after so many years of hiding the violence brought a wave of gooseflesh up and down her arms.

"I guess I caught you too," he mumbled.

A lone tear escaped from the corner of her eye and made it’s way down her cheek. Johnny reached out and wiped it off. His skin felt rough upon the tender flesh just below her eye, which had recently healed. But as he pulled away she silently yearned for it back. She wanted him to hold her battered face between his hands and whisper into her ear how everything would be okay.

She leaned back in her chair instead. Her back grew rigid as her arms fell to her sides. "I can’t talk about this right now," she said. "But if you can be patient..."

"Okay Jess," he said. "I’ll try. But that’s all I can promise."

And as the murky depths of the Cooper River quickly approached, yet another image flashed through the bursting fireworks of her sub-consciousness. A memory so clear, so fresh in her mind. A final unraveling which began only twelve hours prior.

"Come home with me," he said.

"You know I can’t," she answered. "He’d kill me."

She watched him roll his eyes toward the ceiling. Directly behind them hundreds of students were filing out of the building following the dismissal bell. The constant noise of ten dozen conversations all happening at the exact same moment left the area in a normal state of chaos. Neither of them noticed though.

As if standing together within an impenetrable bubble, they were able to concentrate on each other’s words without interruption. Inches apart, backed against her locker, his face close enough for her to smell the breath mint dissolving on his tongue.

"We can go to my parents, Jess," Johnny pleaded. "We can fix this."

She started to tremble. "I can’t. Somehow I think this is kinda my fault and..."

"Jess stop it," Johnny cut in. He leaned closer, placing a hand upon either side of her face. She loved when he did that. She’d never felt so safe. He exhaled a deep breath. She could practically taste the scent of cinnamon. "Please, let me help."

"I need to talk to him first," she said. "After everything, he’s still my dad. I owe him that much."

"You owe him..."

He stopped and closed his eyes, trying to stay calm. When at last he opened them, she stared into the soft hazel color of his soul and wished for a way to hide there forever.

"Tonight," she promised. "I’ll talk to him."

He leaned in and brushed his lips against hers. He hesitated, their lips touching just enough for her to consider it their first kiss. Then he backed away from her. A worrisome expression lined his face as he turned and made his way toward the exit.

"I’ll talk to him, Johnny," she mumbled to herself.

She normally heard him when he got home from work. The rattle of the loose doorknob. The slamming thud of the door as he staggered inside. It’s sound echoing throughout the house, alerting her. Preparing her.

Softer footfalls leading into the kitchen meant he hadn’t stopped at the bar after work. It meant a quieter evening spent in her room. A night without violence.

The heavy thudding of his boots as he tramped down the narrow hall though, sometimes dragging his back foot, occasionally stumbling in the dark, groping his grimy fingers along the paneled walls for support, meant something else entirely.

On this day, while relaxing under the massaging streams of a hot shower, she neither heard the front door opening, or the stomping of her father’s work boots as they made their way toward the bathroom, the ominous sound growing louder with every step. He had arrived home much earlier than she normally expected him. He’d caught her unprepared.

She turned off the water, unaware that she was no longer alone inside the small confines of the bathroom. She pulled back the shower curtain in order to retrieve her towel when she spotted him. She sucked in a sharp intake of breath, instinctively backing up against the shower wall.
He was leaned back against the counter top, head tilted forward, his drowsy, partially closed eyes focused entirely upon her. His dark hair stuck up in tufts upon his unwashed scalp. His work clothes, worn out blue-jeans and a thinning, white t-shirt, were covered in grease stains from where he worked. He hadn’t shaved in days, his jaw now shadowed in dark bristles. Worst of all, she could smell his breath from the across the room. The familiar stench of whiskey exhaled upon her with each rise and fall of his chest.

"They let me go," he mumbled, his voice sounding hoarse. "Said I had a drinkin problem. Told me I needed help. The bastards."

She watched his eyes moving up and down and realized that she was standing before him naked and dripping wet. His breathing started to quicken. Short huffs. Hot tangy breath. She threw a glance toward her towel, hanging from the hook only several feet away.

"You look just like her," he breathed.

His eyes fluttered shut. She could practically see the gears turning inside the foggy realms of his mind. Trying to focus. Dueling with the inner demon. He tilted his head back, clenched his fists. "Like she’s still here," he said.

She stepped forward, reaching for her towel. Her foot slid on the tub floor, making a squeak, alerting his attention. She lunged. His fist lashed out.

She toppled backwards into the tub. Her tail bone landing upon the tub floor with an aching thud. Her head flailing back against the tub wall. The bathroom spinning out of control.
He advanced, reaching for her. His eyes widening, fists opening.

"Daddy no," she pleaded. "I’m not her!"

As she lifted her knees toward her breasts defensively, a shadow from the bathroom door drew her attention away from her father’s hulking form. She watched it’s stealthy approach as her father stepped into the tub. Through his legs, she recognized the black leather jacket rounding the corner as the leering shadow shrunk and became flesh and bone. She saw the dark hair covering the top half of his face as her father placed his fingers around her neck. Those hazel eyes. The square jaw. She screamed.

"Get away from her!" Johnny ordered, stepping into the bathroom. He’d been worried all afternoon. Feared for her safety. Felt like he had to do something. So regardless of her wishes, he came for her.

A hissing sound escaped her father’s lips as he straightened and turned. No one had ever caught him in the act of beating his daughter. For just a moment a look of fear appeared on his face. But it didn’t last.

"Get the hell outta my house!" he demanded.

He stepped out of the bathtub, advancing toward the stranger in the leather jacket. The trespassing punk trying to play hero.

Johnny backed into the hallway, allowing her father to follow. He threw a glance toward the bathroom where she remained in a naked, shivering state of disbelief.

"Jessica run!’ he hollered. "Get out!"

She rose to her feet. Ignoring the towel, she reached for her thin, ivory-colored nightgown folded on the bathroom counter. She threw it over her head as she entered the hall, squeezing behind her father who was following Johnny toward the back of the house. She turned and watched in horror as he suddenly lunged, arms outstretched, hands reaching for her boyfriend.

"Jessica run!" he screamed again.

And she did.

Down the hall toward the front of the house. Through the kitchen as a loud thump echoed toward her from the hallway. Out the front door as the crack of splintered paneling entered her ears. She hesitated, hearing a painful yelp. Figured that it must’ve come from Johnny. Realized that her much larger father would probably kill him in his drunken state. And then she continued.

Along deserted back streets through the south end of Charleston, Jessica never slowed. Running barefoot, her ghostly nightgown flowing along behind her. Past the huddled forms of the homeless who barely noticed her silent advance through the fabled streets. Under the rows of mature palms which lined the streets, their outstretched fronds rustling in the breeze, as if reaching out for her.

It wasn’t until she reached highway 17 when she realized where her legs were taking her. Then it all made perfect sense. Breathing hard as she ran, her lungs gasping, she didn’t stop until she reached the Cooper River Bridge.

Resembling the Golden Gate on the opposite coast, it was the largest cable bridge east of the Mississippi. Still only a few years old, it practically glowed under the overhead lighting constructed along the towering cables, and the moon’s thin, wintery crescent from above.
A concrete sidewalk ran along the side of the bridge in order for tourists and local walkers to absorb the true beauty and power of the Cooper River below. Many divers made their living collecting prehistoric shark teeth on the river floor, which had traveled in from the neighboring Atlantic. It’s eighty foot depths were widely known as being the murkiest flowing waters along the eastern coast.

As a chilling breeze raised gooseflesh along her scantily clothed body, Jessica scaled the mesh wire fencing which separated the sidewalk from the hundred foot drop to the river below. A lone vehicle drove by, it’s horn piercing the silence created by an early dawn. She ignored it.

Hesitating just long enough to allow an oncoming wind to blow it’s tendrils through her hair, and to catch the flaming crest of the rising sun to the east, she released her hold on the wire fencing and began her fall. Her entire night had been spent running through the streets of Charleston.

She was exhausted.

With the chilly air howling in her ears like a coyote’s mournful cry, she thought of Johnny one last time.

He was running.

He carried a bruise over one eye, a slight limp to his gait, but he was very much alive. As he sprinted along the sidewalk of a familiar street, she could hear him calling out her name. The image was so clear, so vivid. And as the impenetrable waters of the river rose before her, a last fleeting thought ran through her mind.

Maybe Johnny had fought off her father’s drunken rage and gotten away. If so, then surely he had taken off through the streets in search of her. Maybe he was looking for her at that very moment. Calling out her name and praying for a response which would never come. Maybe things would’ve turned out for the better after all. Maybe her Johnny was still alive!

Jessica opened her eyes.

No one heard or saw the splash as the frigid waters of the Cooper River opened up and swallowed her body into it’s near bottomless depths below. And as the waves slowed to a rippling current under the massive bridge, a sound could be heard echoing through the historic streets of Charleston. The frantic shouting of someone in urgent need of assistance. Ghost-like howls, repeating a name over and over again through the early morning air, without ever receiving an answer.

"Jessica! Jessica!"

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Balls In!

...sometimes when the harsh reality of a life gone sour grabs you by the balls and refuses to let find it necessary to grab back. And yet sometimes it's for the best to simply counter it with a laugh.
Straight out of the techno-genious/maddening/yet somewhat fearful mind belonging to my brother, this cropped work of art was found in my email the other day...and I haven't stopped laughing since.
Having read my latest story excerpt, which involved a spirited game of DodgeBall between a group of grade school thugs during recess, my brother took it upon himself to personally design this poster in honor of my work.
For anyone curious, the deviant-looking gentleman posing next to me in the shot would be my father. And if that grin leaves you thinking that he may be one of those aging pervert types who would probably get a kick out of flipping up the skirt belonging to a young lady while coursing her way through a crowd of fans at a baseball'd be correct.
All kidding aside, while families sometimes experience sharp curves of humility from one generation to the next, often resulting in feelings left raw, or grudges held far too long, sometimes the antidote needed is nothing more than some goofy ploy...and a healthy dose of laughter.
That's good stuff, Tim. I laughed till I cried. And whether our father ever sees it or not...I'm sure it would generate a giggle or two from him as well.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

...clarifying the memoir rumor response to an email or three I've received, along with the latest and freshest sapling from our family's ever spreading grove from "Rumor-Orchard," I've decided to briefly tell my story as rebuttal.

While nearing the conclusion of my fifth grade year, which would've put me in and around the pubescent age of elevenish/twelvish, my class, along with every other fifth grader in the county, was entered into a creative writing contest in honor of Right to Read Week.

Having already accepted the fact that I was a born and bred book worm, I figured I'd give the project a worthy enough effort and see how the cookie crumbled.

My first ever story was called "Terror Castle." If memory serves, it was based around three young sleuths investigating their neighborhood's haunted house, and included all the action-packed madness that an overly-creative grade-schooler who despised math, but could normally stumble through the other R's unscathed, could dream up.

"Terror Castle" was judged and eventually took the top spot in the county in the grade school level. My award was to meet a real-life children's writer, who would then read my creation and offer his own critique of the work.

Can't remember his name, and unfortunately wouldn't recognize him if I were to run into him on the street. I do remember two important facts from that meeting however.

1.The guy's collection of published work consisted of enough children's books to properly entertain an entire class of grade schoolers comfortably for several months. It was an impressive stack of literary genius.

2.And while I can no longer picture his face, I can still recall his words. He said, "You write better than I did at your age. Keep working, don't give up, and if writing is your passion, you will succeed."

...from that day forward, at least in my mind if not for anyone else of importance, I was a writer.

Fast forward to the mid-ninety's. While taking an online course at The Institute of Children's Literature under published and well-known author Ron Roy, (he's got an excellent website,) I pitched an idea I'd been kicking around in my head to a nationally known publishing house.

The next month resulted in the idea was accepted, I breezed through the Institute with enough moxy that Ron Roy actually gave me his personal telephone number,(something he swears he'd never done before,) in order to call him with any questions as I embarked on the writing of my novel, and I'd just been informed that I was about to be a father.

The last part brought about the temporary stalling of the first two parts...

More than a decade and three kids later, having never fully given up on my dream, while so many others had given up on me, I awoke one morning, frustrated with my job, irritated at my overall lack of accomplishment, realized I'd been put on this planet for a higher cause, glared at my dark computer screen, and at last began the novel I should've finished and had published many years earlier.

That novel, titled "Broken," and spoken through the troubled eyes of a ten year old boy, is at long last complete. At the moment it is currently being edited at Ashland University.

While impatiently awaiting it's return, I've tentatively started "The Fellas," a fast-paced drama involving a tight-knit group of stellar athletes living atop their small version of the world, and what happens when it all comes crashing down around them.

"Broken," which is what I'd call a religious thriller, has been tentatively accepted at both a major Christian publishing house, and at a smaller scale house which has guaranteed to stock the shelves of all the local bookstores and libraries, something I'm most passionate about.

While both stories are based out of Holmes County, and consist of many local landmarks which my family and I are personally familiar with...and while portions of each plot may have been what sparked the ideas and drove me to the keyboard with furious intent, both stories are fiction novels.

I do not write memoirs. Only people who are famous can get away with memoirs and manage to make a nickel or two for their effort. If you're not famous, no one outside of your own Suburbia cares about you and therefore won't read about your family's horrific tragedies...plain as the fizz atop a freshly opened can of Coke.

I've started this blog in hopes of earning any small amount of readers I can generate while my novel hopefully moves toward publication. The excerpts from both stories are to be used as teasers in an attempt to one day generate enough sales to sustain my can dream at least!

And so, take a gander, enjoy, feel free to comment, and please spread the word!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

New excerpt..."Broken"

Richie Frank failed the fourth grade. I had barely set foot through the school’s front entrance on my first day back from summer vacation when I heard the news. Still reeling from a tumultuous month of August due to my parents’s constant bickering, just seeing my friend Brad standing next to me felt strange, much less hearing the outlandish news he was babbling on about.

I hadn’t seen or spoken to my best friend since a sunny day in early June, well before my parents began fighting, when his mother dropped him off at our home to spend the afternoon playing catch in my back yard. The moment he saw me walk into school, he raced up to me wearing a grin comparable to The Joker’s frozen smirk while preparing for battle with Bat Man.

His hair hadn’t changed, still two shades darker than my sandy brown. Still two inches shorter than I was, and at least ten pounds lighter, Brad and I had been the best of buddies since learning to tie our shoes and cut a straight line with scissors in kindergarten. And while his appearance hadn’t changed much in two months, something still felt different.

I was keeping a secret, one that Brad didn’t know about. The secret of my parents fighting nearly everyday over something Mom had found in Dad’s truck. A secret I didn’t want Brad, or anyone else in my school to know about.

However, as I stood there looking into the eyes of my friend of five years, the knowledge of my dismal summer faded ever so slightly. At long last I started to feel like a regular nine year old kid, starting the fourth grade, and seeing my friends again after a long summer break. I even attempted a smile, my first one in weeks.

While my life at home had taken a very hard turn for the worse, the rest of the world had continued to roll on unscathed and unaware of my family’s disarray. I needed that very much. A steady prescription of normalcy.

Berlin Elementary School was not unlike any other grade school built throughout the many rural communities dotting the map here and there across our country’s mid-west.

Standing only two stories high and constructed of traditional red brick, the building boasted of gray tiled floors throughout, and walls of cinder block, painted over in a dozen coats of child-calming yellow as most schools were doing back then. And while it was always known for it’s tidy appearance and well maintained facilities, a simple glance into the building’s gymnasium whispered the secret of it’s true age.

While remaining lacquered to a glistening hue, the ball court was very small, with only enough room for two basketball goals, one protruding from each block wall on either side of the court.
A thirty foot long stage ran along the edge of the court where many school plays had been held years earlier, and probably for years to come. Rows of wooden bleachers, roughly ten sections high, faced the gym floor and stage where many families had crammed together over the years to watch whatever events their young ones were participating in at the time.

Regardless of it’s tidy stature though, the building was adequate for a town of only several thousand residents, many of whom were Amish and did not attend our public school system anyway.

Living only five minutes away from the elementary and it’s park, I was able to walk to school everyday. And while on most occasions this was an advantage to the madness and confusion of bussing, depending upon the weather, was at times a frustrating trek to climb each morning, and back down each afternoon.

"Richie Frank flunked?" I asked, suddenly realizing the magnitude of what Brad was telling me.

"He sure did!" Brad said, still smiling.

"But that means he’s in our class now," I said.

"Yep," Brad said, "He’s one of us. Know what that means?"

"Yeah," I mumbled, as we made our way up the stairs to our new home room. "Now we have to deal with him pushing us around every day."

"He can’t push all of us!" Brad said. "We’ll gang up on him if we have to!"

Together we entered Mrs. Swartzentruber’s 4th grade class room as the eight o’clock bell sounded.

And there he was. Sitting at his desk with his head down, shoulders slumped forward as if grimacing from a stinging bellyache, Richie Frank, our version of the class bully, silently awaited the beginning of a second year in the fourth grade. I learned later that it wasn’t so much his school work that was the cause of his being held back, but rather a very poor attendance from missing nearly three month’s worth of classes due to illness. All I cared about at that moment however, was that his desk was located directly behind mine.

"Don’t be scared!" Brad said with a laugh as he dashed to his assigned seat at the other end of the room.

Keeping my eyes focused on the suddenly dismal gray floor, I walked quietly to my seat and slid behind the desk without so much as glancing up in his general direction.

There I sat, listening to Mrs. Swartzentruber’s first day introductions while awaiting the inevitable. Minutes passed, and still nothing. Not a snap from his finger upon the back of my neck. Not a pencil smacking me on top of my head. Not even a spit ball glancing off the end of my earlobe. Nothing.

Maybe he didn’t notice that it was me who slid into a desk well within his grasp. Perhaps he didn’t recognize me. Better yet, maybe he’d forgotten about the year prior. Did he not remember tripping me in the cafeteria and causing me to drop my lunch tray, thus spilling my pizza and green beans all over myself in front of the entire third through sixth grades? Or how about committing each recess of the entire school year to making sure I was the first player knocked out of each and every dodge ball game played whenever the third and fourth graders squared off against each other?

Up until last year I had never met Richie Frank. Had no idea who he was. But for some reason he picked me out of a crowd of roughly sixty third graders, and decided to make my life miserable for the entire year.

Since he stood a solid three inches taller than me, wore his hair long and stringy, down over his ears and into a constant struggle with his eyelashes, and showed up each day with the likes of The Incredible Hulk, or the Superman emblem smeared across the front of his faded t-shirts, I was left virtually powerless to whatever form of torture he favored on any given day. The only days I ever caught a break, were the ones he missed.

When asked why it was always me who fell victim to his sinister pranks, Mom guessed that it was because I was one of the taller kids in my class. He wanted to show everyone how tough he really was by picking on one of the bigger third graders, but I didn’t buy it. I figured for whatever reason, Richie Frank just didn’t like me. Because of that fact, I didn’t like him either, and swore that one day I would find the will-power to get him back. As of the first day of fourth grade however, I wasn’t prepared for revenge.

Glancing at the clock hanging above the room’s chalk board, I suddenly realized that class had been in session for almost two hours. Introductions had already been made. Classmates had been given a chance to discuss their various summer adventures, to which I quietly declined.
Mrs. Swartzentruber, our cheery, middle-aged, fourth grade teacher, described in detail a trip she had taken with her husband to Spain over the summer while passing out an assortment of Polaroids showing the many sights she’d encountered.

Spinning about from row to row and passing out her many pictures, she was vibrant in an airy, light blue sun dress, which fluttered about like an umbrella when spun between one’s fingers. With her crisp auburn hair pulled into a tight bun atop her head, and armed with an open smile revealing teeth almost too white to be real, it was easy to see how much she truly loved her job.
We had already received several of our workbooks, and yet still not a peep from Richie as the morning passed by quickly. Stealing an errant glance over my shoulder while feigning a stretch, I noticed that he had barely moved from his somber, defeated position he’d held when I originally entered the classroom several hours earlier.

"Look at him over there," Brad said between mouthfuls of corn at our lunch table an hour later. He pointed his fork over to where Richie was sitting.

Richie Frank was slouched over his tray of food all by himself at a table closest to the wall and farthest from anyone else in the cafeteria. A year ago he would’ve been surrounded by his gang of mangy-haired buddies, talking as loud as possible and tossing tater tots at the younger kids, including of course, Brad and myself. With the day now half over, I had yet to spot him making eye contact with anyone in the school. His beady black eyes, small and featureless like a ferret’s, hadn’t left either a desk top or the laces of his sneakers the entire day.

I turned from where Richie sat, to the group of boys he normally hung around with. They were sitting across the cafeteria from him, as if unaware of Richie’s presence at all.

"He looks pretty bummed out," I said.

"Serves him right," Brad answered. "After everything he did to us last year, serves him right."

I turned my attention from Richie’s mournful appearance to just over his shoulder where, through one of the half dozen windows running along the east side of the cafeteria, I noticed how the overcast and humid morning had finally given in and allowed for a steady, late-summer downpour. I grinned at the site.

Rain during our lunch period meant one thing, indoor recess. And spending recess inside our tiny gymnasium meant dodge ball.

While most school districts have presently outlawed the game due to the potential of injury, back in the early ‘80's, dodge ball was by far the sport of choice throughout grade schools across the country.

The guidelines were simple. The gymnasium’s half court line separated two teams, which always ended up being one grade versus another. Two basketball sized, air-filled, rubber balls, and depending on the number of players, sometimes three or four, and a referee, which in our case, was a daily rotation between the third and fourth grade teachers.

The object of the game was to throw a ball as hard as possible at the opposing team in hopes of pelting someone, thus knocking them out of the competition. However, if your opponent caught the ball sent their way, the player who threw it was out of the game. The team who could manage to eliminate all of their opponents, won the match. The only rule, head shots were not permitted, resulting in the player who threw the ball, being pulled from all games for that day.
What was even more exciting than seeing the rain outside, was realizing that, unlike last year when my class was pummeled daily by the fourth graders, they had moved on and were now spending their recess time with the sixth grade. Now my classmates were the older veterans, faced with the thrilling task of challenging the younger third grade and making up for all of last year’s heartbreaking defeats.

In Berlin Elementary, this game, and how well each player performed, measured one’s level of masculinity. Even years later, while in highschool, if someone’s name was mentioned in conversation, he was often remembered by some phenomenal act he was able to achieve in grade school while in battle on the dodge ball court. The game put young men in their place along the ever important food chain of popularity amongst their classmates. It was that big.

Anticipation reigned heavy as everyone piled onto the small court. Aside from a few of the more athletic and daring females, most girls headed straight for the bleachers, opting to spend their recess watching the raucous, rather than becoming the victim of someone’s fastball.

Precious time wasn’t wasted on choosing sides. The third grade boys already knew of the school’s unspoken tradition, and thus, the fate of their demise. But as I eagerly watched them line up across the gym from my classmates, I couldn’t help but notice how relaxed they all appeared, almost confident in their preparation. I soon learned why.

While none of us knew it yet at the time, the class below ours consisted of a tightly knit group of stellar athletes the likes of which had never been seen in our community before. As they grew older, their Little League teams would three-peat as district champs. Excelling in soccer, they would capture the Pee-Wee league title, the first ever in that sport for our school. Years later, as highschool athletes, their prowess would continue, wrapping up State Titles in not only baseball and several individual track and field competitions, but in tennis singles and doubles finals as well. And in their senior year, above all odds, they would win our first ever Division IV State Basketball Championship over the biggest schools Cleveland and Columbus had to offer.

Five minutes into our first ever dodge ball match versus the third grade, my classmates and I soon realized what we were up against. I watched in horror as one by one, each of my fellow fourth graders found themselves disqualified due to either being unable to hang on to a ball fired in their direction, or by having their own serve snagged out of mid-air by an underclassman, as if it were nothing more than a balloon floating silently before them.

They attacked in hives, waiting until they possessed all four balls, then converging on one lone victim at once, pummeling him with an onslaught of air-filled, circular spheres, thrown at a velocity never before witnessed at this level. Moments after beginning the game, my teammates had dwindled from twenty-two players to four.

As one of the last remaining, I cheered on Brad as he gained a running start and rifled one of his patented serves directly at Bruce Yoder, who appeared to be their best player. With the ease and grace of a professional outfielder in the Major Leagues, Bruce reached out and leisurely cradled the ball as if it had been lazily tossed in his general direction during a harmless game of catch.

"This sucks!" Brad hollered, stomping over to the bleachers while shaking his head in disbelief. And as I surveyed my team’s futile situation, that’s when I realized that I was now one of only two remaining fourth graders left standing. Adding to my dismay, my only remaining teammate was Richie Frank.

Being two years older than his opponents, Richie had pretty much been the only thorn in the sides of the third graders, having been able to fend off every attack sent his way. However, as he released one of his throws, sending it spiraling off the knee of one of the dominating underclassmen, Richie stumbled while backing away from the center line, crumbling to the floor.

Like craving vultures circling their prey, three of the third graders lined up together and in unison, launched an aerial attack at my fallen teammate who could only duck his head in defense.

I reacted before even realizing what I was doing.

Dashing in front of Richie, I caught the first ball in my chest with a thud that sent me staggering backwards and losing my own footing.

Falling to my knees and seeing two more balls flying directly for my face, I quickly used the ball I had just caught as a shield, bouncing first one, the other from harm’s way, thus saving both Richie and I from elimination.

A roar of enthusiastic applause erupted from our sideline where my disqualified teammates whooped their approval. Even Mrs. Swartzentruber, while still telling stories of her summer trip to a group of girls gathered around her in the bleachers, rose to her feet and joined in with a chorus of hand clapping.

From behind I felt myself being lifted off the gym floor. It was Richie, now on his feet and helping me to mine. In his haste he had already retrieved one of the balls which had ricocheted off of mine seconds earlier. On his face he wore the first smile I had seen out of him all day. With sweat droplets on his forehead, but a twinkle in his eye, he leaned in toward me.

"That was awesome," he said.

Looking up at him, it was then when I realized that his eyes really weren’t beady little orbs belonging to some feral beast like I’d first envisioned. They were brown, and not in the least bit scary at all.

"Thanks," I answered between deep breaths, unable to believe what I had just done.

"Okay, this is how we’ll do it," he said, eyeing down the eight remaining players across the floor from us. "We go after the same guy each time, just like they’ve been doing to us. You throw low, I’ll throw high. One at a time, down they go. You ready?"


"Let’s nail that kid in the red-striped shirt. Go!"

Side by side we threw our balls in his direction, one flying up, one flying low, the high toss glancing off the boys shoulder and soaring onto the stage, knocking him out of the game.

"Green Geranimals shirt," Richie mumbled to me moments later.



Again we attacked, his throw high, mine low. This time it was my ball that bounced off our opponent’s shin, sending him stumbling to the gymnasium floor and out of the competition.

"How about that kid in those ugly plaid pants."



Onward we continued our comeback, not only knocking out yet another player, but sealing our fantastic finish moments later with a one-two punch thrown at Bruce Yoder, who caught my ball, but failed to dodge Richie’s, sealing the win.

It was an amazing comeback, but more importantly, an impressive duo had been formed. In front of the entire third and fourth grade student body, and somewhere amid the many shoulder slaps and high fives following our victory, Richie Frank and I had become friends. When only hours earlier I sat in front of him and feared for my young life, I now found myself atop the world, king of the dodge ball court, and an unlikely pal with one of the school’s roughest contingent who walked it’s halls.

Gone were the horrible memories from last year. On that day a bond had been formed. From that moment, be it at recess, during class, and while at lunch, Richie, Brad and myself were together all the time. It was exactly what I needed in order to get away from the growing tension at home.

I had become aware of the two lives I was living.

The one at school where I suddenly found myself thrust into a leadership role of my class due to one memorable game of dodge ball. And my life at home, listening to my parents from behind my closed bedroom door as the arguing continued and steadily worsened.

This was how things were throughout the majority of my fourth grade year. Until that fateful day when my two lives collided...

Friday, May 1, 2009

"Piss Test!"

I received this text the other day from a co-worker...thought I'd share.

"Like a lot of folks in this state, I have a job. I work, they pay me. I pay taxes and the government distributes my taxes as they see fit.

"In order to get that paycheck, I am required to pass a random urine test with to I have no problem.

"That which I do have a problem, is the distribution of my taxes to people who don't have to pass a urine test. Shouldn't one have to pass a urine test to get a welfare check because I have to pass one to earn it for them?

"Please understand, I have no problem with helping people get back on their feet. I do, on the other hand, have a problem with helping someone sitting on their ass, doing drugs while I work...

"Can you imagine how much money the state would save if people had to pass a urine test to get a public assistance check?

"Pass this along if you agree..."

...Loved the idea, but with times as they are, and with the majority of people's wallets being fairly thin and having no problem sliding into one's back pocket, my only concern would be...just imagine all that piss!