City Barber Shop

The City Barber Shop had been in business for as long as I could remember. Located by the local Western Auto Store, it was owned and operated by a guy named Roger and it was the place where I remember getting my first hair cut. I must have been around 4 or 5 years old. My dad drove me on a Saturday morning. Roger placed a wooden board on the barber chair so I would sit up high enough. I always asked for a “GI,” which had to be the easiest haircut possible. I doubt that it was my first haircut, it’s just the first memory I have. I’m also pretty sure that my elderly sister used to cut my hair before then.
During one weekend of visiting the Gulf Coast, I got up early and was at his place at 7:30 because I wanted to be first in line. He always provided the best haircut I’ve had from any barber.
Roger’s shop also made it easy to meet people who reconnected me with people and places I’d forgotten as well as sometimes correct faulty memories.
On that morning, I met a guy who’d graduated from Satsuma 12 years before I did. We learned that we had connections; he worked in the HVAC business (I once sort-of worked in this business) and we both went to Satsuma High School. But his last name is what got my attention.
As a 10-year old, I played baseball for the Shelton Beach Pharmacy Wildcats for three years. This was my first time to play organized baseball. Coach Byrd was, well, the coach. I have memories of going over to his house on McKeough Street to try on uniforms, of riding in the back of his green pickup truck to practice, and of his love of coaching.
As I spoke with the guy at the barber shop, I learned that he and Coach Byrd were brothers. Once, he allowed me to pitch during practice – a mistake that a guy named Ernie regretted as I threw a wild pitch right into Ernie’s back. Thankfully, he didn’t charge the mound. I also remember the confidence that I gained by playing for Coach Byrd.
Sadly, his brother told me that Coach Byrd had passed away several years earlier.
When I drove down for my brother’s funeral a few years ago, I saw that Roger’s barbershop was being refurbished. I didn’t think anything of it because it had always needed to have the floor raised because just a little rain caused flooding. But, the shop was not being remodeled for Roger. It was for new tenants. Roger had passed away and South Alabama had lost the best barber it had. Rest in peace Roger.

Matryoshka

Or, if you will, Nesting Dolls. They’re really just decorative dolls.

They’re made of lime wood and crafted in a way to allow one to fit inside the other. I imagine lots of wasted wood on the floor as the excess wood is hollowed out. Here’s a good video on how Russians make them.

They hide inside each other, waiting to be opened and displayed. We keep a large stash of them for gifts for guests.

I listened to a preacher friend reference them one of his sermons recently. He was going along and making some point and forgot the Russian word and just called them nesting dolls. I was a little disappointed.

For the record they’re called, a “Matryoshka.” (Ignore the British pronunciation in the youtube video.)

Frankly, I was confused as to why he couldn’t remember the word, “Matryoshka.”

It’s pronounced just like it’s written.

Right?

(That’s supposed to be funny right there.)

It’s almost as bad as the word, zdravstvujtye (Здра́вствуйте), which is a formal way of saying hello in Russian.

Who doesn’t love a language that’s comfortable with 6 to 10 consonants in a row – with not a vowel in sight?

I married a Russian. At our wedding, we a bunch of matryoshkas on the sign-in table. And apparently, some people don’t like matryoshkas. One girl wasn’t happy with what she thought they represented – children. I don’t know why.

“They represent children. Right!”

Her face turned red. I ignored her, having lots of other things on mind that day.

I certainly couldn’t think as to why that would have been a bad thing.

For the record, I like them.

And for the two little girls who would later join our family, they look nothing like their representative nesting doll.

But they both can pronounce them correctly.

Quitter

The first time that I remember quitting was when I was nine years old. I left little league football, not because I didn’t want to play.  I did.  I had the usual football heroes like Roger Staubach and Archie Manning, which probably only reflects my age and NFL geographical area more than anything else.

The real reason I quit football at the mature age of nine was to punish my dad for being a chronic alcoholic.  Although he would also stop (drinking that is) in a year or so, he was still living life as a sloppy and sometimes angry drunk. For some reason, I didn’t appreciate having an occasionally violent and sloppy drunk for a dad. Knowing just how much he wanted me to play and to be successful, although he didn’t know that I’d never rise above 5 feet 9.5 inches, I decided to punish him and quit.

No chance for a budding career in college or pro if I didn’t play.  So when the coach eventually called to check on me for missing practice, I told him that I quit.

“That’ll teach him,” I thought.

But here’s the problem with quitting.  It becomes easier as time goes on.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes quitting is necessary.

Say you’ve been puffing away at two packs of aromatic cigarettes for years. With the right amount of motivation or nicotine substitute, you might be able to quit and recover some semblance of a normal life. Alcoholics can also quit.

On a completely different topic, once a nurse asked if I smoked as part of her standard screening questions. I said no, but was willing to try. She laughed, and I was glad to provide a little comic relief.

But quitting simply to hurt others is just immature.

Sometimes we quit because we’re scared of something. I have a friend who once brought his fiancée a wax rose (he couldn’t find an open florist – or so he said).  There’s nothing quite like like trying to express commitment in the gift of a fake rose. He eventually got cold feet and canceled their wedding. In other words, he quit.

Unfortunately, I’ve used the quit routine several times through the years with jobs, people, and half-finished blog posts. Sometimes it was the right thing to do.  Many times it was not.

I wish I had not quit playing football when I was nine. I also wish that my dad had never hit the bottle either. And finally, I wish I had not quit 9th-grade algebra back in the 12th grade, but we all have to play with the hand we’ve been dealt.

So, my advice is don’t quit. Well, unless you have to.


Sentimental

My dad pulled into the driveway after a day of working his air-conditioning business.

But he left the engine running so he could listen to a song on the radio.

He hadn’t said a word for the last several minutes. But for the moment, he was listening only to that song.

It was an Elvis song.

I can’t say that he was a particular Elvis fan, but I think he liked him.

As the truck rolled to a full stop, Elvis was not yet finished singing. So, dad put the transmission in “park” and left the engine running. He wanted to hear the last of the song.

And then I noticed something different.

Tears were rolling down his face.

I’d always known that my dad was emotional. He could watch an old war movie and remember something from his past and tears would roll down his face.

He could speak to an AA meeting and recall the details of some terrible event or story in his lifetime and tears would come.

We sat there, engine running, and Elvis singing.

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

And his mama cries
‘Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
It’s another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

And his mama cries …

Dad was an actual red-headed step-child. And they were poor.

I’m not even sure what his dad did for a living. He may have been a farmer. I do know that dad started drinking at around ten years old. He learned the craft from an old guy that lived next door who made moonshine.

Which was probably cool to a 10-year-old.

He managed to continue the art of drinking for the next 30 or so years.

Maybe that’s why the song was so emotional to him. Perhaps he saw himself in that little boy that Elvis sang about.

Just another nameless kid growing up in a place with no chance of breaking out of the cycle of poverty.

Maybe he saw his own mother crying. Severe poverty. No father for her firstborn.

I don’t know.

I just know that the sappy song made him tear up there in our driveway one hot summer afternoon.

And I’m glad.

Dad’s Home!

Have you ever had a decades-old memory just pop into your head out of the blue?

One popped into mine as I was driving west towards home last week.

But the first thing I was thinking about was my very sick mother-in-law in the hospital.

And praying.

And, I don’t know why this other thought jumped in.

Maybe because, like I said, I was headed home.

Just another out-of-town worker going home again.

Like many do. So, no point in complaining about that.

It was a thought I’d had hundreds of times after his funeral.

The thought was that dad’s home.

That my dad was alive and at home.

Crazy!

How many times did I dream that he was actually there?

That there had been a colossal mistake and that he was alive and was there just sitting on the couch in the living room talking to us.

That he was not gone.

Well, you know how dreams are.

Right.

But he was there, I could hear his John Wayne voice

Echo in the hall.

At home.

But then

He wasn’t there at all.

And the dream faded to black.

And I’ve cursed it a thousand times.

Or, I’ve cherished it.

It works both ways sometimes.

Now, there were times that the words, “Dad’s home,” didn’t bring comfort.

So, one time, my mom shows up at school.

Elementary school.

She collects two of my sisters and me. Drives home.

I walk in the front door and see that, hey, my dad’s home.

And not at work.

Drunk as Cooter Brown.

Passed out in the reclining chair.

It would take years until I understood the idea of human emotional shields.

As if elementary age kids could provide such.

But there were other times.

Thankfully.

Other times.

Where he’d be home and I’d slouch in for the weekend from college life.

And I was glad that he was there.

Man, I was glad.

And not drunk.

He always made sure I had some spending money before I left again for Jacksonville.

And I’d hug him and say, “thanks, dad.”

So, this warm random thought appears to me.

Unexpectedly.

While I’m heading west,

somewhere around the rice fields of Earle, Arkansas

And a million migrating ducks.

Heading home.

To a town, my dad likely never visited.

To a house, my dad never saw.

And a family he never hugged.

Nor spent the afternoon at all

talking about Alabama football,

Or why it is his grandkids can speak Russian,

Or about God.

But whose presence.

I still feel.

The Music

At the end of the school year at Robert E. Lee Elementary School, the band teacher at the middle school (Adams L. Middle School) arrived to test us fifth graders to see who had music.

If you had the music, you could be a part of the middle school band the next year.

If you did not, then you took woodworking.

We lined up by the stage. The band director played a few notes on the piano. It was strange to be in the cafeteria when it wasn’t time to eat. Every sound bounced off the floor and empty tables.

Some students hummed on key.

Many were off.

If you hummed on key, the director looked closely at your mouth and teeth.

If you could hum on key and had teeth, you were offered a place.

“Let me see your teeth,” he said.

“You will play the clarinet.”

“Let me see your teeth.”

“You will play the tuba.”

“Let me see your teeth.”

“You will play the flute.”

I stepped towards the piano, anxiously. I wanted to be in the band.

I didn’t yet know that I couldn’t sing.

The director played a few notes.

I hummed.

Or, I tried to hum.

“Stop, stop,” he said.

He stopped playing the piano and a few kids snickered.

He rubbed his head with his hands. Then he tried again in a different key.

Maybe all my 5th-grade voice needed was a different key.

“Well, he said after a few minutes of trying to find the right note for me to emulate.

“Maybe you can play the drums.”

Yes. Maybe.

My face turned red.

I sat down.

I forgot about the band.

But, in the 7th grade, I somehow managed to get into the choir. Mr. Casher must have had pity on me and needed another person regardless of ability.

I don’t remember, so I am guessing that there was no humming test at the piano.

Once, at a concert in the gym, I stood with the real singers. I was dressed in a blue suit. I don’t know why. I sang as loudly as I could.

An angry guy turned around and said, “Who is that back there singling like a horse?”

My face turned red again. I didn’t try to sing anymore that day.

I stopped trying to sing anything for a long time.

But the church I grew up in sang a lot. Actually, most everyone sang, even the ones who sounded like horses.

I was visiting a church in Crossette, Arkansas once and made a tactical mistake. I began to sing a little too loudly. (I thought that’s what we were supposed to do.) The guy standing in front of me turned around with a disgusted face like, “who’s that horse singing back there?” I stopped.

But, a few years later I was driving near Thomasville, Alabama and heard a commercial that changed my outlook on singing.

It began with a church setting and a voice trying to sing. The voice was awful. The announcer said that sometimes our voices may sound strange to people. But God hears our voices, regardless of our ability. And the singing turned into something beautiful. It was the way God was hearing this terrible voice. Suddenly, he was singing on key and it was nice.

The point of the ad was that God hears us sing – regardless of how we sound – and he likes it.

I don’t know how far to push the metaphor because the people around us actually have to listen to us even if we sound terrible.
So I decided a long time ago that I’m really singing to God, regardless of who’s around me.
I just try and keep the volume down low.

10 Days in July

A while back, an old high school friend named Marlon posted a picture on Facebook of a brick with an engraved inscription in a local park. It’s the kind of inscription that memorializes people who’ve died.

The picture was of a brick with my brother’s name, date of death, and place where he died.

It caught me off guard.

It wasn’t his birthday or the date that he had died. Just a random picture with his name:

David Swann.

He was born on July 12 and our dad was born on July 2. Their birth dates are separated by approximately 30 years and 10 days. They also share the same middle name:

Eugene.

Now, no offense to all of you Eugene’s out there, but I’m glad that this middle name tradition stopped by the time I came along.

The fact that they shared a birth month guaranteed that they would see eye to eye on pretty much – Nothing.

Having an alcoholic father did not help with seeing eye to eye on anything. David wanted to join the Army sometime in the Seventies. I was just a toddler at the time and don’t know the exact date of this disagreement.

I also don’t know who convinced him into wanting to join the Army.

Maybe it was a skilled recruiter or a friend (I have a suspicion) or maybe Walter Cronkite on the nightly news. I mean, who rationally wants to join the Army in the waning years of the Vietnam War?

Well, maybe you if you’re trying to escape a dysfunctional family. I don’t know. But I do know that dad said “no.” David must have been no more than 17 years old because if he had been 18, he would’ve simply joined the Army.

It also tells me that it was just a momentary desire because when he did turn 18, he didn’t join.

Maybe he wanted to be like dad. After all Dad was a World War II and Korean War veteran. He’d been a paratrooper, among other things.

Maybe David was feeling patriotic or needed a job or just felt the pressure from somewhere to join.

I don’t know.

I wish that he had joined. I also wish dad had been around when I enlisted in the Air Force two years after he died.

But, you can’t always get what you want.

Thanks, Marlon.

Tunnel Vision

Mobile, Alabama:  I saw no signs warning me not to drive into the George C. Wallace Tunnel (eastbound) with an empty gas tank.

In my mom’s Ford Focus.

The signs were not necessary because the State of Alabama assumed that I would have the aptitude to ensure that the vehicle I was driving contained an adequate level of fuel to negotiate the short distance through the Tunnel to the east side of the picturesque Mobile River.

The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) did not care about my fuel needs.

The last thing ALDOT wanted was to have some knucklehead punk teenager run out of gas right in the middle of the Tunnel and stop eastbound traffic.

That would be a mess!

So, let’s not talk about that.

Let’s talk about this guy:

Earlier this year, in my (sort of) hometown of Mobile Alabama, a truck driver decided to pull off a magic trick and squeeze his oversized trailer into the Bankhead Tunnel, which was clearly marked to prohibit such nonsense.

The clearance is 12 feet.

If any part of your vehicle is higher than 12 feet, stop. Find another way because it won’t work.

I once read about a guy who drove really fast over a bridge in a car filled with his friends. As they approached the bridge, there was a pressing question of whether the bridge was wide enough to handle the car. He said that if he drove really fast, the car would magically shrink as they approached the bridge (and necessarily the speed of light) and therefore make it through.

Maybe that’s what the truck driver was thinking.

I don’t know why he selected this Tunnel. There are several ways to reach the eastern banks of the Mobile River: A large bridge, two tunnels, and in an out-of-the-way path, a ferry.  The only vehicles allowed in the tunnel that he chose are passenger cars and pickup trucks.

Because it was built in the 1940s, well before large unrestrained 18 wheelers roamed the highways, it is a very narrow tunnel.

If you are driving a large truck or anything with hazardous materials, you are supposed to use the nearby Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge.

I’m just glad he was hauling hay and not chickens, used cooking oil, or nuclear waste.

Back to the Ford Focus.

Well, it died – of course!

Right there in the right-hand eastbound lane. Within three seconds, astute ALDOT workers monitoring the tunnel flipped switches, which illuminated very pleasant colored large signs with a big red X on them.

The whole tunnel turned red.

Because of the pleasant Xs.

The red glow did not give me comfort.

Additionally, the astute observers of the closed-circuit cameras quickly dispatched a wrecker to push my mother’s car out of the GCW Tunnel and out of the way of clearly more important eastbound travelers, who felt it necessary to communicate the importance of their journey as they hastily drove around me waving politely.

Not.

They were probably from Mississippi.

I was probably 19 and lacked a fully developed brain at the time. Actually, I have concluded that few men really should be allowed to roam alone before the age of 30.

I’m also guessing that the trailer truck driver was probably under 30 or was trying to conceal his load of hay from the authorities as he attempted to make his way to Baldwin County where hay is obviously in short supply.

So, remember folks, before you leave on that trip, remember to fill up.

And please, read the signs.

 

What’s in your water?

Camp Shelby, MS: There was a time not too long ago that I never imagined that I would pay hard American currency for bottled water. I mean, the stuff that comes out of the faucet is just fine.

And we have the purest water in the world.

No, I don’t care what some high-pitch millennial water purifier salesman says. In general, we have the cleanest water in the world.

I heard Dr. Dean Edell say it on the radio, so it must be true.

I don’t have any hesitation about drinking Coca-Cola.

Back to water though.

When I lived in a certain European country, I was advised to boil water before I drank it. And, my bride and daughter were told not to drink the tap water in two separate central American countries, respectively.

The water at those places is toxic to the human body and small dogs.

This is one reason why I am happy for efforts like God’s Promise in Haiti where clean water is being provided. Please go there right now and give to this awesome cause.

Everyone needs clean water. And we all expect to get clean water, especially if you are a soldier and approach a water buffalo that has the word “potable” clearly stamped on the side. (See photo above)

If you didn’t know, a water buffalo is a tank of water that gives soldiers and Boy Scouts access to clean water out of the middle of nowhere. But someone has to clean it out occasionally and refill it and transport it back to the middle of nowhere.

So, once upon a time captain and his soldiers were out in the middle of Camp Shelby. They’d been walking in the south Mississippi woods for hours and had understandably depleted their own supply of water.

Hot, muggy, tired – you get the picture.

And like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, they spot a water buffalo in the distance.

No, it’s not sand that they see but a blanket of Southern pine trees. Like the proverbial oasis in the desert, the water buffalo beckons the soldiers to quench their thirst.

Or like a Greek Siren or something like that.

So, the thirsty soldiers approach the docile water buffalo and are happy to find it full of water.

The rush is on to fill empty canteens and camelbacks.

They drink without hesitation because it clearly says that’s it’s drinkable water.

Life is good. The soldiers are hydrated again.

But, the Army Captain is wise and possibly a little slow.

After a minute or so of the excitement of water, he notices that the lid to the water buffalo is not securely shut.

Cue the scary music.

Ruminate on that fact for a minute okay.

The captain climbs on top of the water buffalo, opens the lid, and immediately starts yelling to his soldiers to stop drinking the water.

“Pour the water out,” he shouts.

He shouts again to pour the water out. The Soldiers comply with his instructions.

On cue, he reaches down and pulls out a raccoon.

Only this one is room temperature.

Water temperature actually.

Let’s summarize: A thirsty raccoon has found the lid to a water buffalo open. Like all raccoons, he assumed that the water was meant for him. Unfortunately for him, having no opposable thumbs or ladder to climb out was detrimental to his escape.

Unable to secure his removal, he drowned.

In the potable water.

Sadly.

So, if you’re ever in the middle of nowhere and come across a water buffalo, check and make sure the lid is closed and has been closed since someone cleaned and refilled said Buffalo before you partake of the water.

Nobody needs raccoon flavored water.

That is all.

Foreign wars, Black Sheep Squadron, and Midnight chicken

Saraland Alabama: 10:30 PM, give or take 30 minutes. I’ve gotten off work at Hart’s fried chicken and am back at my parents’ house where I live.

I’m 17 years old.

Before I leave work, whichever manager is working sells me the remaining chicken from the warmer. The price is anywhere from $0.10-$0.50 a piece. Like I said, it depends on the mood of the person working whether I get a great deal or just an OK deal.

This was my first job. Well, besides digging that 200-yard long waterline for one of my dad’s friends in Citronelle.

Every day after school.

For two weeks.

And getting less than minimum wage.

If you count that. But I’m not bitter. Just a word of caution teenagers: get it in writing before you start digging.

Anyway, when I pull into the crumbling cement driveway and see my dad’s work truck, I know he’s home. I open the front door and he’s lying on the couch, half asleep. But he wakes up at the smell of chicken. Who wouldn’t be happy?

Who wouldn’t be happy?

In my opinion, the chicken is best after being in the warmer for a few hours but probably less marketable.

Which is good for us.

I reek of the smell of a fried chicken joint and plop down on the chair in the living room and offer my dad some chicken.

His back is pretty much shot at this point and he sleeps on the couch a lot to help with the pain.

I also think the chicken helps a little. Chicken helps everything.

We start in on a bucket of chicken around 11 PM. The TV is on and dad is reliving his war years with each enemy shot down on the small screen. I’m not sure if he ever saw combat because he enlisted after the official close of World War II, but I like the stories.

He did make it in time for Korea however, but I still don’t know if he ever saw any combat there. I wish I had simply asked him when I had the chance.

All I have are a few copies of dad’s Army records and a few pictures.

Oh, and an awesome memory I wouldn’t trade for all the chicken in the world of watching reruns of Black Sheep Squadron with my dad as he expounds on the brashness of Pappy Boyington and the war in the Pacific and Corsairs fighters and man was that a great airplane.

Chicken is sounding really good for tonight.