Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Great Tarantula Selloff of 1975!

Tarantulas are a staple of life in most of West Texas.  Big old hairy things, far more scary looking than actually dangerous, you see them crossing the roads at night and occasionally find them under a board or sheet of tin.  I live on the easternmost edge of their range, so they are fairly rare in m neck of the woods - I haven't seen one around here in years.  But it wasn't always that way.
 
When I was a kid, there was an area in north Greenville, across the street from the park, where an old railroad had once run.  The metal tracks had been torn up, but the rail bed was still there, as were the wooden ties.  This rail bed was home to the only colony of tarantulas in our area.  I'd go up there every time I came back to Greenville (we were living in Dallas at the time, where my Dad had taken on a pastorate) and lift up a tie to hunt for them. Usually there were two or three under each railroad tie, living in separate burrows. I'd catch one and leave the rest; taking it back to our house to show off at school or sell to a classmate.

Now, during our time in Dallas, nearly every Sunday after church, we went to eat at Luby's cafeteria in Town East Mall.  Right across from Luby's was a huge pet store called SunRay Pets (sadly gone now).  I'd eat my meal in like, five bites, and then run over to the pet store to hang out and look at all the cool critters while mom and dad finished their meal at a leisurely pace, visiting with the other church members.  The store had boa constrictors, birds, fish (even a couple of piranha that were labeled NOT FOR SALE!).  And they had spiders and scorpions.  One thing that surprised me was how expensive pet tarantulas were!  Plain old brown tarantulas, just like I caught on the old tracks, were going for $15 each (keep in mind, this was 1975 - that was some serious money!).  So I asked Bernie, the store manager, what he paid for them.  He said he bought them for $7.50 each and sold them at 100% markup.  Well, being the young capitalist entrepreneur that I was, I asked him if he would buy them from me for $5 each.  He said "SURE!"

So that Saturday, armed with a king size pickle jar, I went up to those tracks and lifted up every single railroad tie. Hairy spiders scurried hither and thither to escape abduction, but few did. I caught a grand total of 23 tarantulas.  At $5 each, that was A HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN DOLLARS!  That was almost unlimited wealth for a 6th grader in 1975! My eyes were filled with visions of all the things I could buy with this small fortune.  I got home with the jar and dumped them all in a big terrarium in my room, and Dad promised to take me to SunRay pets first thing the next morning so I could sell them.  (Oddly enough, my mother, who was terrified of snakes, was somehow OK with 23 large hairy spiders contained only by a thin wall of glass in her youngest son's bedroom.)

I slept the sleep of the noveau riche, my mind aflutter with visions of spider-fueled wealth, and all the comic books, monster magazines, and scale models I would be able to buy soon.  Sure, I heard some odd sounds coming from the tank on my dresser, but it was full of energetic spiders! No problem, right?
 
Then I  woke up bright and early, and looked into the cage to see . . . dozens of spider legs and ONE very fat tarantula!  They had all eaten each other during the night, and the rustling sounds I had heard were the noises of arachnian mortal combat.  Apparently, there could be only ONE!
 
(Actually, that's technically inaccurate; late that afternoon as I was cleaning spider legs out of the cage I found one very small tarantula that had hidden under a rock to escape the carnage.  I was trying to grab him when the big one spotted him and had him for dessert.)
 
I honestly did  not know they were cannibals!
(To quote WKRP IN CINCINNATI, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!")
I kept that undefeated champion and named him Goliath.  He was my pet for the next two years, then I sold him to my 8th grade English teacher for $20.  He was a big spider, as large as my hand, but i still would rather have had my $115.
 
And I don't think I've seen another tarantula in Greenville since then.  Apparently I wiped out the whole colony!

Friday, June 28, 2019

A Sneak Peek at my new novel: PRESIDENT HAMILTON!

  I admired Alexander Hamilton, the man, long before the musical came out.  He was a brilliant politician and perhaps the most influential cabinet member in the history of our nation. But what would have happened had he NOT perished in that deadly duel with Aaron Burr?  Could he have revitalized the Federalist Party?  Might he have been elected President?  What sort of leader might he have been?  Back in January, I decided to answer these questions in a new novel of alternative history.  I am now fifteen chapters in, and it's coming along quite well!  So tonight, for all my loyal readers, I am offering a sneak preview of Chapter One.  My story begins in a prologue that tells the story of the fateful duel; but with a different outcome.  Now Alex returns to New York, his side throbbing from a deep gash where Burr's pistol ball nearly took his life . . .

  
                              CHAPTER ONE

 

          “A duel?  Alex, how could you!?”

          The smack of Eliza’s hand across his cheek echoed through the house like a thunderclap.  They had been married for nearly twenty-five years, and Hamilton had seen his wife hurt, angry, mournful, happy, and excited, but the emotion that blazed from her eyes was one he had never seen before. It was pure rage; a towering fury that made him shrink back from her, combat veteran though he was.  His cheek reddened from the resounding slap she’d given him, but her words hurt far worse than the blow he had taken.

          “Our son died in one of those stupid, stupid ‘affairs of honor,’ and now you dare to go and engage in one yourself?” she shouted, her normally pale-tinted face flush with anger.  “What would I have done if you had died?  How could you even think about such a thing?  To rob me of my husband, after fate has already stolen our sweet Philip from me? Do you think that I could possibly live without you?”

          She burst into tears, but her gaze remained fixed on him and her anger did not relent.

          “My dear Betsy,” he said, calling her by the pet name she loved. “Please forgive me.  Honor required -”

          “Bugger your honor!!” she shouted, and he flinched.  He had never once, in all their years together, heard her use that phrase. She grabbed the sides of his head and tilted it downward so that their eyes were locked.

          “I am sorry,” he began, but she placed her hand over his lips.

          “I love you beyond all reason,” she said fervently.  “I have borne your children, I have stood by your side even when you betrayed your vows to me.  I have counted myself blessed to be wed to the most brilliant man on earth.  I did not complain when you paid more attention to my sister than you did to me. I have endured, I have forgiven, and I have always been proud to be your wife.  But I want you to swear a vow to me, here and now, Alex, that you will never fight in another duel.  No matter what the provocation, no matter how deep the insult cuts, you will NEVER do this to me again.  Because if you do, I will leave, and I will take our children with me.  It will break my heart, and it will probably kill me – but I will do it.  I cannot bear the thought of losing you. Am I clear?  Will you promise me?”

          “My dear heart, I could never refuse you,” he said.  “This was the end.  Enough is enough, as they say.  I will toss these pistols into the Hudson tomorrow, and never own another set.”

          She stared into his eyes for a long moment, trying to measure his words and the spirit behind them.  Finally, she sighed deeply, and the anger in her eyes began to fade.

“Then we shall speak of this no more,” she said, “but I meant what I said. Do not forget that, my sweet, irreplaceable Hamilton!”

          With that she threw her arms around him, and he winced even as he returned her embrace.

          “Oh, Alex, you are hurt!” she said.

          “Burr’s bullet grazed my ribs,” he said.  “It is but a flesh wound.”

          Doctor Hosack had bound the wound tightly before they left Weehawken, but the blood had soaked through the bandage and stained the clean shirt Alex had donned after the duel.  The gash in his side was not deep, but it was painful.

          “We’ll see about that,” Eliza said.  “Up to the bedroom with you!  Junior, fetch me hot water and some clean washcloths, please!”

          Alex’s second son and namesake was eighteen years old and bore a distinct resemblance to his father, although he was not as much of a prodigy as his father and older brother had been.  He had been listening to his parents’ quarrel from the door to the drawing room; and now he ran to the kitchen to follow his mother’s command.

          Hamilton let himself be led upstairs.  He was still shaken enough by the events of the morning and the unexpected fury his bride had directed at him that he dared not resist.  Eliza set him down on the edge of the bed and used a sharp penknife to cut through the white linen that bound him around the chest, exposing the wound to the noonday light streaming in from the window.

          The bullet wound was a bit worse than he realized at first – an ugly gash about four inches long, still seeping blood around its edges.  The skin had been peeled back by the ball’s passage, and Hamilton realized that he could actually see the white bone of one of his ribs exposed. 

          “I’m sorry,” he managed to say before turning his head and throwing up the glass of brandy he’d accepted to steady his nerves after the duel.  He had seen men killed, and done his share of killing, as a young man during the Revolution, but seeing one’s own bones shining in the light of day was a bit too much for him.  As young Alex cleaned up the mess, Eliza busied herself wiping the wound down with hot water and new linens.  There were tears streaming down her cheeks as she worked.

          “My Hamilton,” she said after a moment, her voice catching.  “A matter of an inch or so and you might have been lost to me forever!  What were you thinking?  Was Mister Burr so vile to you that you were left with no choice?”

          Alex sat up, his head still swimming but the nausea gone for the moment. He leaned forward and kissed his dear bride on her forehead, his own tears falling onto her upturned face and mingling with hers.

          “Oh, Eliza, my honor is dear to me, but not so much as you!” he said.  “I will say this much, and then speak of this matter no more.  Aaron Burr was a great threat to our Republic; he was the American Catiline, and I had to act the part of Cicero without the powers of a consul.  I baited him, and he challenged me.  But, as God is my witness, I let him take the first shot!  I gave him every chance to abandon his challenge, and instead he did his best to kill me.  I was not going to return fire, but when I thought of all that I had nearly lost – I could not help myself.  I took my shot, and I killed a man.  I killed the Vice President of the United States. Now I must ponder what to do next.  Burr is not without friends, you know.  I am afraid this matter is not settled yet.”

          “Do what you must, dear husband,” Eliza said as she wound clean strips of cloth around his midsection.  “But remember my words! No more duels, ever, or you will lose me and the children, whether you survive or not.”

          “Then my dueling pistols will be retired permanently,” he said.  “I have risked all once; I will not do so again.  From now on, words will be my only weapons.”

          Hamilton stood so that his wife could finish applying the bandage, and then reached into his wardrobe for a clean shirt and waistcoat.  He looked down at his trousers and saw that his blood had dripped down onto them, too, so he returned to the wardrobe and retrieved a complete change of clothes and began to get dressed.

          “You need to lie down!” Eliza said.  “You’ve lost a good deal of blood, and that wound will reopen if you strain yourself.”

          “I must speak to someone,” Alex said.  “It is a short walk, and when I am done, I promise to return and spend the remainder of the day resting.”

          “You should let it wait,” she gently scolded him.

          “Eliza – I must do this,” he said firmly.  “My conscience will not let me rest until I do.”

          “Your conscience?” his wife asked.

          Hamilton bowed his head, and then opened his heart to his wife.

          “I killed a man, Betsy,” he said.  “Not in the heat of battle, or under the moral cloak of a just war for one’s country.  I stared down the barrel of a pistol and pulled the trigger and watched his spirit leave his body.  I need to know . . .”   He hesitated and swallowed hard.  “I need to know if my soul will be damned for all eternity as a murderer,” he finished.

          He retrieved his walking stick from the corner and gingerly made his way downstairs and thence out onto the street.  He could hear the hue and cry of the great city of New York as it sprawled out around him, the fastest-growing city in America, and his adoptive home for thirty years now.  It was a short walk from his house to Trinity Church, and the rectory where Bishop Benjamin Moore lived was right next door.

          The news of the duel had spread rapidly, and a news crier was standing on the corner selling a special edition of The National Gazette, the Republican newspaper once edited by Philip Freneau.

          “Vice President Burr Murdered by the Monarchist Alexander Hamilton!” the crier proclaimed.  “Read all about it!  General Hamilton guns down Burr in cold blood!”

          On the next corner, a rival news crier for Hamilton’s New York Daily Post was touting the alternative version of the story.

          “Aaron Burr nearly kills Secretary Hamilton!  Vice President killed in self-defense after shooting the Federalist leader!” the newsboy screamed out.

          Hamilton took little note of either of them; the fact that Burr had shot first and wounded him rendered Alex legally untouchable.  Duelists were occasionally prosecuted in New York, but when they were, it was invariably the person who shot first and killed his foe that drew the ire of prosecutors.  As for New Jersey, where the fatal encounter had taken place, dueling was also illegal there, but prosecutions were quite rare.  Hamilton was more concerned about the judgment of a much higher authority, and that was what drove him to the rectory despite the aching wound in his side.

          Trinity Church was the tallest structure in New York City, its central spire rising two hundred feet into the air.  There was a large burial ground in the back; Hamilton’s son Philip was interred there.  As Alex surveyed the modest marker that he and Eliza had placed over his son’s grave, he swallowed hard and touched the throbbing bullet gash in his side.  A matter of inches, and his own grave would have been dug there, next to Philip’s.  He imagined how different life in New York – indeed in America – might be if Burr’s bullet had found its mark.  Would anyone remember Alexander Hamilton, if he died now?  Perhaps his tenure as treasury secretary might earn him a footnote in the history books, but Alex had little doubt that had he perished that morning, as Burr intended, his legacy would have been small and soon forgotten. No more, he swore to himself!  America had not heard the last of Alexander Hamilton.  His life’s work was not yet finished.

          Benjamin Moore was a tall, long-nosed Episcopal bishop of the traditional sort; his sermons were longwinded and pedantic, but he had a solid grasp of doctrine and was a sound scholar of the Christian faith.  The Hamiltons rented a pew in Trinity Church and attended services occasionally, even though Alexander was not an Episcopalian.  It was, however, the closest church to their modest Wall Street home.  Beyond that, Alex liked the man, pure and simple, and had ever since the first time he met him.

          “General Hamilton?” Moore said when he came to the door.  “Good afternoon, sir, what may I do for you?”

          “I take it you have not heard the news, then?” Hamilton asked him.

          “I have been in my study, preparing my Sunday sermon,” Moore replied. “I have heard no news of anything today.”

          Hamilton sighed and summoned up his most engaging smile.

          “I need to speak with you at length, sir,” he said.  “May I come in?”

          “Of course, General,” the bishop said.  He was a courtly gentleman, only six years older than Hamilton, but he carried himself with the dignity of a venerable greybeard.  “It was inconsiderate of me to leave you standing on my doorstep.”

          Hamilton entered and sat down on a comfortable, padded chair near the fireplace.  Since it was high summer, there was no fire, but the drawing room was comfortable, well-lit, and inviting.  Bishop Moore called for tea, and the maid brought in a steaming pot and two cups a few moments later.  Hamilton gratefully took a sip and then leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes for a moment.  All the adrenalin that had fueled him since he woke long before dawn was spent, and he felt exhausted.

          “So, what brings such a noteworthy person to my door on this fine Wednesday afternoon?” the bishop finally asked.

          “I killed a man today,” Hamilton said, too weary for pretense.  “I shot Vice President Burr.  He had challenged me to a duel, and I would not retract my assessment of his character, so I met him at Weehawken this morning. I had fully intended to throw away my shot, but when he fired first, his bullet grazed me and but for sheerest chance would have killed me.  At that moment I returned fire and struck him in the heart.  Sir, I am a military man, as you know.  I personally killed men during the Revolution, and I felt that the righteousness of our cause removed the stain of that sin from me.  But this was different.  I looked at Colonel Burr down the barrel of my pistol and pulled the trigger and sent him to his grave.  My conscience is deeply troubled.”

          “It should be,” said Moore.  “Murder is a mortal sin, my friend, and dueling is nothing short of legalized murder.  It is a holdover from an age of barbarism and savagery and has no place in a civilized society.”

          Hamilton nodded sadly.  He knew that Moore had publicly condemned dueling from the pulpit on more than one occasion.

          “I have not always been a good man, Bishop Moore,” he said.  “But I have tried hard, in my latter years, to atone for the sins of my youth and to be a good Christian. I’ve tried to become a better man.  I have raised my children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and read the Bible to them every day.  I pray with them every morning, and I spend my own time in prayer each day.  You are a man of God, sir, deeply read in the Holy Scriptures.  In your learned opinion, have I damned my soul by doing this?”

          “You have sinned, there is no doubt, General,” he said.  “You have killed another man in a violent affair that we dubiously call a matter of honor.  I cannot think that God is pleased with what you have done.  But I also believe that even the worst of sinners is not beyond redemption.  While the Holy Writ teaches us that grace is given, not earned by our own works, I do believe that there is something to be said for making restitution for our sins.  God accepts the sacrifices of a broken and contrite heart, General Hamilton.  Is your heart grieved that you have done this?”

          “It is,” Hamilton nodded as he spoke.  “I had no desire to kill Colonel Burr when we rowed out to Weehawken.  But it was obvious that he had every intention of killing me.  If I had thrown away my shot, I am sure he would have demanded another round of fire, and another.  I could see my death in his eyes, and I killed him to save my own life.  I was thinking of my wife and children at that moment, more than anything.  I wanted to live for their sakes, and the only way to do that was for me to pull the trigger.”

          The Bishop sighed, and rose from his seat, staring out the window into the busy New York streets.  He remained silent for a long moment, and then spoke again.

          “I cannot absolve you from this, General Hamilton,” he said.  “But you can atone for what you have done, I think.  You say that the Vice President fired first, and that he intended to kill you.  Were you struck?”

          “Yes,” Hamilton said.  “The bullet grazed my side.  An inch or two more, and it would have gone through my vitals.”

          “Then God spared you for a reason,” Moore said.  “His purpose for your life is not yet accomplished.  Redemption remains possible. I would say to you, though – do not squander the second chance you have been given!  Humble yourself before the Lord and seek His purpose for the life that remains to you.  God does not hide His will from us, Alexander.  If he has some object you are intended to achieve, He will lay it before you.  Be attentive and listen for His voice.  I do not think the gates of heaven are shut before you because of this one act.”

          Hamilton nodded and rose with a groan.  The wound was positively throbbing now, as if someone was jabbing him in the side with a red-hot fireplace poker.

          “Are you well, General?” the Bishop asked.  “Do you need me to call you a carriage?”

          “I will be fine,” Hamilton said.  “The wound is painful, but not serious.  My home is not far distant; I prithee come and visit me soon.  Help me seek the will of Christ for the rest of my life.”

          “I will gladly do that,” said Moore.  “The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost; how can I do any less?   And you, neglect not the Lord’s house on Sundays!”

          “I’ll be here as often as I can,” said Hamilton. “That I promise.”

          With that he rose and made his way to the door, grateful he had brought his walking stick.  The late afternoon skies were bright and clear; the day had gone from pleasantly warm to uncomfortably hot, and Hamilton’s vision was swimming. As he made his way up the street, he saw people pointing and whispering.  The word of Burr’s death had spread like wildfire through the city, thanks to the intense competition between political newspapers.  He was not afraid; he had braved angry mobs all over New York when he battled the powerful Clinton faction during the debate on ratifying the new U.S. Constitution in the summer of 1788.  Besides, Alex knew that Burr was not as popular with New Yorkers as he had been a few years previously – the man’s constantly shifting political allegiances had disillusioned many of his supporters.

          “Hamilton!” a familiar voice called.  It was Pendleton, his second from the morning’s affair.  “Egad, Alex, are you all right?  You look as white as a sheet!”

          “I am well enough, Nathaniel,” he said, “but I am very weary, and this wound is paining me.  Will you walk with me to my door?”

          “Gladly,” his friend said.  “The city is all abuzz regarding this morning’s duel.  Burr’s faction is trying to paint you as a murderer, but most people don’t seem to be buying into that idea.  The fact that he shot first, and struck you, shows that you acted in self-defense.  I think you will have no legal worries.”

          “That is comforting,” Hamilton said.  “I wish my own conscience would let me off as easily.  I tell you, Nathaniel, as dangerous as Burr was, I still would undo this entire confrontation if I could.  The Vice President’s death is on my hands, morally speaking, even if I am not legally culpable.”

          “You said nothing of Burr that was not true,” Pendleton told him.

          “I know,” Hamilton said.  “The man was dangerously ambitious.  But I wish there had been another way to end our dispute. Here, help me up the steps, please.”

          They had arrived at Hamilton’s house as they spoke, but Alex found he simply did not have the energy to mount the few steps up to the front door. Pendleton took him by the arm and let Alex lean on him.  Eliza was already opening the front door by the time they got to the top step.

          “Alex!” she said, and he could tell she had been weeping while he was gone. ‘Heart of mine, are you well?”

          He summoned up the strength to smile, even though the room was spinning all around him.  Her eyes anchored him, and his love for her was like a lifeline in a storm.

          “I am absolutely fine, my love,” he said, and then fell headfirst into the front corridor.  He was saved from smashing his face on the floor only by Eliza catching him and breaking his fall.

          “Mister Pendleton, please fetch us a doctor!” she exclaimed.  “Junior! James! Help me get your father into bed!”

          Hamilton protested feebly as his wife and sons half carried him up the stairs, but he no longer had the strength to stand alone.  Alex Junior held him upright as Eliza stripped off his waistcoat and shirt.  Both were stained with blood, and his bandage was soaked.

          “Whatever it was, it could have waited!” Eliza snapped.  “You have reopened your wound.  Now lay back and be still.  James, get me hot water and more clean kerchiefs.”

          “I will be fine, I am sure,” Hamilton said, and then darkness closed in around him.

 

Monday, June 17, 2019

A TRIBUTE TO MY MOM - LAURA JEAN SMITH, 1932-2019


My Mom was a faithful Christian woman.  She loved her God, she loved her husband, she loved her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  She loved her job, she loved her church, she loved her friends, and she kept her promises.  She was a teacher, a high school counselor, a pastor’s wife, a musician, and a loving mother.  She was one of those rare people that left everyone she met better off for knowing her.

          I was the last of four siblings; my brother and sisters have a lot of stories about Mom that I don’t remember because they happened before my time.  But I have so many memories of her that I will always cherish, and those are what I want to share with you all today.

          When I was little, Mom was this sweet, soft-voiced presence with loving arms and very big hair (it was the age of the beehive hairdo, and Mom’s would compete with anyone’s!).  I remember her singing in church, and I remember falling asleep during Dad’s sermons when I was very young with my head in her lap.  I remember going on family vacations with her and Dad and her mother, my grandmother Laurie Gill.  We went to Big Bend where she had to endure skunks getting into our tent; we went to Mesa Verde where Dad hauled me up one of those big wooden ladders to some cliff dwellings, with me holding on for dear life and Mom following behind, promising me that Dad wouldn’t let me drop (for the record, he didn’t).  When I put my knee through an ten gallon aquarium in fifth grade and sliced it open to the bone, it was Mom who came home and found me with my leg wrapped in a bloody towel.  She picked me up and carried me to the car to rush me to the ER!

I remember that Mom ALWAYS made sure I went to church.  Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, unless I was sick, she brought me there, usually sitting right beside her so she could keep me in line.  I remember how unfair I thought it was that WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY came on Sunday nights, right at church time, every single week, and I NEVER got to see it!  One time, “Dr. Doolittle” was going to be the Sunday night movie.  In those pre-VCR, pre-cable days, if a movie came on television, you’d better be there during its runtime or you just missed it!  I begged Mom to stay home, “just this once!”, on Sunday night, so I could actually see the entire movie.

          Mom looked me in the eye and said: “Well, son, if Doctor Doolittle is more important than Jesus. . .”

          Really, Mom?  You just had to go there!

          Because I was so much younger than my other siblings, by the time I got into junior high they had all moved out of the house; my sisters were both married and my brother was off working in the Sinai – which meant I had Mom and Dad all to myself!  That was pretty much fine with me.  I got a lot of things during my teen years that Dwain, Clinta, and Jo rarely got to see.  Fresh fruit around the house, for one thing.  Mom said they didn’t even try to keep apples, oranges, and peaches in the house with four kids at home, because the fruit would disappear as quick as it came in the door.  But with just me there, she and Dad actually got to enjoy a peach (every now and then!).

          Then there were the pets.  Mom was NOT an animal person, and she was deathly afraid of snakes.  How she produced a child like me is still a matter of some debate in our family; I’ve been fascinated by my little legless friends as long as I can remember.  But I was NOT allowed to have a pet snake until I was an adult with a place of my own, no matter how much I begged!  However, as if to compensate for that, I was allowed to have almost any other pet I wanted.  Over the course of my childhood, I had tarantulas, lizards, a baby alligator (well, technically a caiman), a raccoon, and more dogs and cats than I can remember.  Mom endured them all; and then she even got into the spirit of things and brought a dog home when I was in 8th grade.  Dad and I hated that dog; it was the dumbest thing on four legs – and to make matters worse, Mom named it “Genius!”  (That wasn’t what we called him.)  Eventually Dad and I took “Genius” arrowhead hunting and kind of forgot to bring him back; Mom made us go back and get him!

          After I graduated and moved out, Mom and Dad really enjoyed the whole “empty nest” thing, especially after Dad retired from the ministry.  They traveled all over the country; they did bus tours; they bought an RV; Dad fished and hunted, Mom read books and crocheted and they both enjoyed playing dominoes with friends and attending gospel music concerts. 

When they were at home, we had the best family gatherings.  Dad would fry fish and Mom would make dessert and set the table, and we’d eat and play croquet on the lawn and break out Yahtzee or dominoes, you name it.  Mom and Dad’s house was family central!  Dad loved pulling the grandkids around on a little trailer behind his riding mower, while Mom walked behind just in case someone fell overboard. 

When my Dad fell and broke his hip in 2012, he never did get his mobility back and wound up going into a nursing home.  What was supposed to be a short visit for rehab turned into a five-year residence, and Mom came out there to sit with Dad every single day – except for the one day every two weeks, when she went to get her hair done (Mom hated having frizzy hair!).  Even as dementia stole my Dad’s mind a little bit at a time, Mom was there, by his side, day in and day out, right until the very end.  After we buried my Dad, Mom turned to me and said: “I made my vows, and I kept them.”  Few women have honored their vows as completely and unselfishly as she did, and my Dad loved her and cherished her for it until the end of his long life.

But after Dad was gone, Mom was determined not to waste the time she had left.  She told me: “I’ve had to turn down one invitation after another for five years, from here on out, if someone asks me to go somewhere, the answer is yes!”

And go she did!  She went to Rangers games with my brother and his family, she went to visit her great-grandkids, she went out to eat with family and friends, she even came out to hear me announce an Eagles football game, sitting with my wife on our rickety old wooden bleachers.

In January Mom’s doctor asked her to go to the ER because her blood counts were low.  After a week of testing, we got a diagnosis no one ever wants to hear -terminal cancer.  At Mom’s age, there wasn’t a lot that they could do.  She moved in with my brother and went on hospice care.  But even during the last months of her life, she remained cheerful and upbeat.  She crocheted blankets for her fellow cancer patients, she watched the Rangers in every game they played right up to the day before she died.  We had a wonderful family gathering for her 87th birthday just one month ago; we all went out to eat Mexican food together and had a birthday cake and took a couple hundred pictures of Mom with all our wonderful extended family.  Mom told me she never really had any pain from the cancer, even as it reached its final stages.

She told me right after she got her diagnosis: “If this is my road to heaven, I’m taking it.  And you, son, are NOT allowed to question God!”

When Mom used that tone of voice, there was only one correct response: “Yes, maam!”?

Two weeks ago, Mom’s condition began to decline drastically.  We all came and spent as much time with her as we could over the last week or so, knowing her journey was nearing its end.  That last morning, Mom held out her arms and said out loud: “I see you!  I see you!” 

Denise asked if she was seeing Dad, and Mom told her “Yes!”

Then she said: “Are you ready to go with him?”

Mom said “Oh, yes!”

And then she did. 

My Mom was a faithful Christian woman to the very end.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

HAIL AND FAREWELL, MY CAPTAIN!

   Nearly ten years ago, it was announced at a spring faculty meeting that our headmaster, Julie Robinson, would be stepping down from her position at Greenville Christian School, and that the search for a new headmaster would take place over the summer.  The first decade of the new century had been a tough one for our school.  We'd gone through four headmasters, shrinking enrollment, a tough economy, and some personal conflict between the school board, families, and teachers. We lost two faculty members, one student, and one recent graduate to tragic deaths. All of us faculty members were a bit nervous, wondering what lay ahead for us and for our school.  Then in July we got word that a new headmaster had been hired from out of state - one Steve Bowers, from Peoria, Illinois.

    I had no idea who this guy was or what kind of boss he was going to be, so after he sent out a "get-acquainted" email to our faculty, I wrote him back and introduced myself.  I invited him out to lunch with me and my wife, so we could get to know him.  And then I posed one question, just to kind of get a feel for what sort of fellow this new Yankee headmaster might be.  It wasn't a deep, theological question, and it had nothing to do with secondary education, classroom management, or personnel policies.  It cut to the heart of the critical issue of personality - would this man be someone I could get along with or not? 

   What was the question, you ask?  Simple: "How many lines from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL can you quote from memory?"

   He came back with six, off the top of his head: "It's only a flesh wound!"  "He's just a harmless little bunny!"  "Your father was a hedgehog and your mother smelled of elderberries!"  "Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!"  "I fart in your general direction!" "You silly English kunigguts!"  (He also said he could send a few more if I wanted them.)

    I knew we were off to a good start.

    Over the next nine years, I came to know and treasure Steve and his wife Stacie.  They were the best thing that ever happened to GCS during my twenty-three year tenure.  Steve was funny and personable, but also professional.  He had a great relationship with the kids, his teachers, the board, and our parents.  It took a few years for the changes he made to take hold, and some of those changes were initially were painful.  I didn't envy him some of the decisions he had to make.  But they were good changes overall; the decline in enrollment slowly ceased and new growth began.  We raised $100,000 and built a brand-new science lab, then added something our school had long needed, a multipurpose activity center that became a lunchroom, reception hall, auditorium and stage.  We added a beautiful new brick sign out front that exponentially increased our curb appeal.  We went through our ACSI re-accreditation and received the highest marks in the history of our school.  Our graduating classes set new records year after year for scholarship offers; culminating with this year's senior class - 17 students who received over $2.4 million in combined scholarship offers!

    But the changes weren't just in terms of brick and mortar construction.  GCS became a happy place, where teachers enjoyed their jobs and kids enjoyed learning.  Certainly we were not without drama - no place that has teenagers will ever reach that state! - but things got better in so many ways. The traditional April Fool's prank that had been limited to my room grew to a phenomenon that encompasses the entire secondary building and leaves staff and students laughing and shaking their heads every year.  We instituted international mission trips to the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, and domestic ones to a mission in New Orleans.  We launched a secondary retreat to begin each school year with fun, games, and a time for bonding.  Our in-service days came to include fun team building things like going to escape rooms and doing scavenger hunts.

   Steve always treated his staff members like professionals.  If there was a problem in the classroom that merited intervention, he would step in and try to set things straight, but other than that he respected our expertise and let us do our jobs in our own way - and the school was a better place for it.  No one flinched when Steve Bowers walked into their classroom - you knew he was always there to support and help you, not to "gig" you for something.  If we merited correction, it was done in private, with a spirit of grace and brotherhood.  He prayed for our kids, worried over them, and loved them, and nearly all of them came to love him back.

   Steve's family had some wonderful moments with us, and some very tough ones.  All three of his boys, Rue, Brady, and Ike, graduated GCS.  They were great kids that I loved teaching, and have each become remarkable young men!  But then in December of 2015 Stacie noticed a painful lump in the roof of her mouth.  It was cancer, a rare, malignant, and rapid spreading cancer centered only two inches from her brain.  As all of us prayed and worried, she underwent radical surgery and chemotherapy and months of painful rehab.  Through it all, Steve continued to come to work, even as his haggard expression and red eyes gave mute testimony to the pain he was enduring. Our faculty, school families, and student body united to cook meals, chip in money for bills, and to pray without ceasing for this family we had come to appreciate so much. Stacie beat that horrible disease; she not only recovered but came back on staff the last two years, first as a long-term substitute, then as a faculty liaison.  Her grace and infectious smile were a daily picture of God's incredible love and healing power, a life lesson that she and Steve taught to all of us, students and faculty alike.

   One personal story, just to show what kind of man Steve Bowers is: In the spring of 2016 I was given a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Israel as part of an archeological field school.  It was an expensive trip, and I was incredibly blessed when so many of my former students, faculty colleagues, GC parents, and church members contributed to my expenses.  Steve and Stacie were hip-deep in their cancer fight and the enormous medical bills were piling up left and right.  But a few days before I left, he took me aside and handed me an envelope with a hundred dollar bill in it.  I protested that I couldn't accept money from them in their hour of need, and he said: "So many people have stepped up and blessed us while we have been hurting; Stacie and I talked about it and we want to share some of that blessing with you.  Spend it on the trip, or to take your wife out to dinner before you leave if you like - but this is our blessing to you."

   Steve is going on from GCS now, feeling his work here is complete.  None of us wanted to see him leave, but we know that his new school - a Christian school in a small Kansas community - is going to be richly blessed by his leadership, and by the wonderful, nurturing atmosphere that he and Stacie create wherever they go. He leaves with the love and best wishes of all of us who work for him and with him for the kingdom of Christ, and in educating these wonderful young people who come through our doors.  God be with you, Steve and Stacie - you WILL be missed!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Senior Trip, Day 6: All Good Things. . .

   Once more we were up and down in the lobby at 6:45 AM to embark on our last day in the nation's capitol, and the last day of our Senior trip.  We went to the same little sports grill we'd visited the day before for another hearty and delicious breakfast, and then we returned to the hotel to check out, gather our luggage and store it till time to leave for the airport. After that we embarked on the Metro for our first stop of the day: Arlington National Cemetery.  We arrived just in time to witness the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, followed by the changing of the guard moments later.  There are few sights in America more solemn and moving than this unceasing vigil over the graves of those who sacrificed all for their country.  After the ceremony was over, we made our way to the grave of Greenville's most famous son: Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of the Second World War.  Born less than ten miles outside of town, he worked in Greenville and enlisted in the Army in Greenville before embarking on his remarkable combat career, which saw him receive 28 separate decorations for valor.   After paying our respects to his memory, our group split up and we walked all over the cemetery, viewing many famous graves and monuments, before meeting up to head to the Metro.

    Our next stop was the White House, where we struggled to get a good picture in the midst of the throngs of people, tourists, visiting police and protestors.  It was not a long stop, then we were turned loose and told to find lunch on our own and meet at the Smithsonian Castle at 4:30.  Several of us went shopping for souvenirs, and then stopped and ate lunch.  Jerry and I found a sidewalk table at a popular restaurant that served excellent cheeseburgers, and then we headed back to the Natural History Museum to check out a couple of wings I had not visited yesterday.  Jerry was still feeling pretty tired, so after that he decided to sit down on the Mall and take a break.  I strolled down to the Washington monument and back, just soaking up the ambience of this remarkable city.  Then we went into the Smithsonian Castle (that's the original red brick structure that once housed the Institute's entire collection) and looked around a bit.  After that we simply set and watched the people come and go, and before you know it the group was gathering.  We took a few last pictures - folks were getting tired and grumpy by this point! - and then caught the Metro back to our hotel.  We gathered our bags and were shuttled to the airport (half our group experienced a brief delay when the hotel shuttle scraped another car on the way out of the parking lot!).  Baggage check, security, grabbing a last minute snack, and then we just sat and waited for the plane.  Before you know it, we were descending the boarding ramp and finding our seats.  One last glimpse of the gleaming Capitol dome, and then we were above the clouds and heading back to Texas!

    I'll spare you the story of the return voyage - I mean, airplanes are boring, right?  And late night bus rides are worse.  We got home at 11 PM, and after a round of hugs and goodbyes, we headed our separate directions.  Today it was back to work for me, reviewing kids for their exams and trying to grade the massive stack of papers that lay before me.  Tonight I sat down and carefully sealed 17 envelopes with 17 small gifts and 17 personal letters, one to each graduating senior.  I'll be presenting them tomorrow.

   Tomorrow is senior chapel, and Friday night is graduation.  Another set of "my kids" will be launched into the adult world, and once more I will sit and sniffle a bit as I watch them receive their diplomas.  I've taught many remarkable classes in my twenty three years at GCS, but this one took me on a journey I will never forget.

   I remember the old song that used to play at the end of every episode of the Carol Burnett Show when I was a kid: "I'm so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song; seems we just get started and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long."

That time is here. Safe journeys, Class of 2019.

I love you guys.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Senior trip, Day Five - A Capital Experience!!

  6:45 is a beastly early hour when you've been hiking through urban jungles for four straight days.  But that was when we assembled in the lobby of our hotel this morning, and then headed to a nearby restaurant for breakfast.  The food was good - fresh fruit, French toast, bacon, and real eggs (not the powdered ones our hotel in New York served!).  After that we came back to the hotel to pack out, and then headed to our first stop of the day: the newly opened Museum of the Bible.  This was a wonderful stop;  there were floors dedicated to the impact of the Bible, the history of the Bible, and the  stories of the Bible, as well as a special temporary exhibit of artifacts from Jerusalem and Rome, the world of the New Testament.  While some artifacts were facsimles, most of the ones in that last exhibit were authentic, and included one remarkable find directly linked to the New Testament: an ossuary that once contained the bones of Alexander, son of Simon of Cyrene - the man who carried Jesus' cross!  I purchased a book on Biblical archeology there, and also told the bookstore manager he needed to stock my novels!


    From there we caught a train to the nation's capitol - or at least, to the foot of Capitol Hill.  It was a long walk to the top, but once there we got some great pictures.  I also took advantage of the opportunity to announce my candidacy for President in the year 2020 (more on that here later!).  Then we descended to the Capitol Visitor Center and had lunch (I got brisket; not the best I've ever had but not bad, either!).  After we ate we lined up for our tour of the Capitol building, which was very nice.  We didn't get to go into the galleries and watch the House in action, but we did get to stand under the magnificent rotunda (so tall the Statue of Liberty could stand up inside it!) and see several famous artworks from American history - plus LOTS of statues!  Once our tour was done, we hit up the gift shop (it was 48 degrees in Washington this morning and rainy, so I purchased a U.S. Capitol sweatshirt - only  to have the weather warm up and hiking keep me in such a lather that I didn't wear it all day!  Oh well, "winter is coming," as Tony Stark used to say!).  I told the kids I'd all invite them back there for my inauguration on January 20, 2021.


    It was at this point that a great rift opened in our group.  Doc Bleier (the other male sponsor and I) wanted to go see the Smithsonian during our four hours of free time, but most of the kids wanted to go back to the hotel and get some rest because they were tired (a couple of them were sick, but most were just tired!).  We dubbed this group "the slackers", and after bidding them farewell, Doc and the four brave students who stayed walked with me down the Mall (and down and down and down) till we got to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  The kids were anxious to see the horribly cringey statue of George Washington as Zeus which I remembered from my last visit here in 1976.  Sure enough, there he was right inside the door, in all his magnificently ripped, bare-chested glory!


   But there was lots of other great stuff on display there, from Abraham Lincoln's hat (the one he wore to Ford's Theater on that fateful night!) to Dorothy's ruby slippers from THE WIZARD OF OZ, to a Revolutionary War gunboat built by Benedict Arnold and rescued from the floor of Lake Champlain in the 1950's, and a pistol carried by George Washington in the French and Indian War.  We toured this museum for almost two hours and still didn't see all there was to see.  Afterwards we crossed over to the Museum of Natural History, which had a great display called Sea Monsters Unearthed, featuring several marine reptiles from Northwest Africa - including several species of mosasaurs that are also found in Northeast Texas.  I quickly established what every good paleontologist needs to be sure of - that my dinosaur was bigger than theirs!  Actually, the GCS mosasaur that I dug in 1997 was larger than the biggest one on display there, and I have another one that I helped dig that is now in SMU's Paleo lab which is twice as large as the GCS specimen!  (Yes, I'm proud of my giant sea lizards!)


   My group and I had explored the museums separately for the most part, but we regathered at the end of the day and met the "slacker's crew" coming back from the hotel in front of the original Smithsonian building, known locally as 'the castle."  From there we walked about five miles (that's what it felt like, anyway!) to the docks, where we boarded the "Spirit of Washington" ship for a dinner cruise on the Potomac.  The food was quite excellent, and after we ate I went topside and witnessed a beautiful sunset over the nation's capitol.  As the light faded we went below deck where the music had started.


    I cannot dance well.  I have never let this stop me from trying - but my wife usually DOES stop me from trying!  Well, she wasn't there tonight, and once they started playing "Footloose" I was irresistibly pulled onto the floor by the power of 80's rock.  Seriously, the last time I danced this much Ronald Reagan was still President!  I was pretty much alone on the floor at first (except for GCS' own dance machine, RYAN BLAZIER!!!), but one by one the kids came out, even Jerry who felt terrible and had been a horrible curmudgeon all day long.  We boogied and grooved for a solid hour.  I'd take a break, say I was done, get a sip of tea, and then another 80's tune would start up and there I'd go.  All in all, it was an amazing evening with this precious crew of soon-to-be graduates that I (and hopefully they) will never forget!


    But all good things come to an end, and this was no exception.  Eventually we arrived back at the dock, got off the boat, and walked another fifteen miles to the train station (that's what it felt like after the adrenaline of the dance floor wore off!), and boarded the DC Metro back to our hotel.  I decided to sit down and blog it all before I forgot half of what happened, and now here I am, my entire body aching, my feet on fire, and a huge grin on my face!


   Today's funny stuff: Mrs. Hyatt finally counting to 21 on the FIRST try! (that's the number in our party, and whenever she does a headcount we're always one or two short!)  Jerry's quote of the day: "I hate walking.  I hated walking in New York, I hate walking in DC, and I hate walking in Texas!!"  Hannah Evans: "Is this the Rio Grande?" while looking at the Potomac.  (She said she was quoting Mikayla, of course.)  Mikayla also said: "My nose is running faster than I am!"  Sam Pitts saying: "OH!  So that's what P.S. stands for!"  And Nick Bahm returning to the house where his parents lived when he was born "like Thor returning to Asgard!"


All in all, a wonderful, exhausting, educational, and entertaining day.
29,162 steps.


I think I will go to my room and die now.