Just an old fashioned Elvis Song

My dad and I pulled into our driveway. We were in his pickup truck and had just returned from working on somebody’s air-conditioner or refrigerator, or walk-in cooler. It had to have been something to do with the refrigeration cycle as that was his business.

There was a song on the radio that my dad was listening to.

Intensively.

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

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. So, dad put the truck 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)

Well, the world turns
And a hungry little boy with a runny nose
Plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

And his hunger burns
So he starts to roam the streets at night
And he learns how to steal, and he learns how to fight
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

Then one night in desperation
The young man breaks away
He buys a gun, he steals a car
He tries to run, but he don’t get far
And his mama cries

As a crowd gathers ’round an angry young man
Face down on the street with a gun in his hand
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

And as her young man dies (in the ghetto)
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
Another little baby child is born
In the ghetto (in the ghetto)

And his mama cries …

Dad didn’t grow up in a ghetto.

But he did grow up financially destitute.

And poor even.

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 10 years old. He learned the craft from an old guy that lived next door who made his own 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. Maybe he saw himself in that little boy that Elvis sang to us about.

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

My dad was the quintessential red-headed-step-child.

With few opportunities for success in Choctaw County, Alabama.

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.

Singing

At the end of my fifth-grade year at Robert E. Lee Elementary School, the band teacher at Adams Middle School arrived to test us 5th graders to see who had music.

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

We all 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.

Students hummed on key – but mostly off.

If you hummed on key, the director looked 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.”

“You will play the tuba.”

“You will play the flute.”

I stepped towards the piano, anxious. I wanted to be in the band. At this point in my life, I didn’t know yet 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.

 

Putt Putt Golf, a rainy night, and my first deer

After an exhaustive night at Putt Putt Golf in Mobile, I headed north for home. I took the Celeste Road exit off Interstate 65 in my mother’s blue 1977 Pontiac station wagon (every teenagers’ dream car). The floodlights from the new 7-11, about a half-mile away, were working well. I stopped and made the left-hand turn west towards our house.

I didn’t mind the lights. It had taken years for this new little store to get here, so a little bright light wasn’t a big deal. With the store, I felt that we were at least getting close to the 20th century. There was a full-service grocery store probably a mile down the road towards town. But it didn’t have the stuff that mattered to 17-year-olds like me, gas and pinball machines.

With my attention drawn to the floodlights from the 7-11, I didn’t see the large creature sitting in the middle of the road.

Few things in life get your attention like something unexpected in the road on a dark and rainy night.

In the nanoseconds that followed, I realized what it was – lying there in the road.

A deer.

Of course, her eyes froze on cue as the headlights from the car lit up her face.

Instinctively, she bolted. Well, I say “instinctively” but I don’t know why her instincts didn’t keep her out of the road in the first place. It was probably a warm place to sit.

So, with a 50/50 chance of avoiding disaster, I swerved to my left where, not coincidentally, the Pontiac and the deer met each other.

I almost drove off the embankment but instead came to rest on the aforementioned Bambi.

Fortunately, for the Pontiac, the damage was minimal. Things were the opposite for Bambi.

But for two resourceful pinball guys hanging out at the 7-11, this would be their lucky day.

When Bambi and the Pontiac met, an unpleasant thud carried through the summer air 300 yards to the 7-11.

I was scared and shaking from the trauma, but better off than the Bambi. I panicked and sped home – all of two blocks away.

The ever resourceful pinball dudes watched my Pontiac disappear and looked back up the street at the scene of the accident.

Maybe they thought I had hit someone. I don’t know.

The Pontiac had some damage to the front end, which displeased my dad.

I drove back to the 7-11 a few minutes later, looked up toward the overpass, and spotted the pinball wizards lifting and loading Bambi into the back of their pick up truck.

I had never killed a deer before and haven’t since then. But I was glad to be able to assist a couple of South Alabama pinball dudes in bagging a deer without the need of trampling into the woods.

Why bother when a deer had been prepared for you right up the road?

Bon appetit, dudes.

Camp Kilmer, New Jersey- Welcome Home

Sometimes the few moments spent just before leaving a group, company, or any organization can be the best time spent there.

The anticipation of getting away from these crazy people is off the charts. 

You’ve done your time and you’re ready to leave. 

Like Now!

At the time, I believed that the weeks that I had spent in basic training in lovely Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio were the worse. But the next day after graduation (and after having been awarded honor graduate for my “skills” as guidon during honor flight competition) as I started to step onto a chartered Greyhound bus headed north for Wichita Falls, TX (which wasn’t but two continents away) I contemplated the past six weeks.

They weren’t that bad, I thought.

I got into shape, learned to actually listen to people, and got some new clothes.

And a bonus haircut. 

With that in mind, here’s a photo of a group of Soldiers about to separate from the Army at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey in 1948. To be fair, I don’t think that they had such a flippant attitude of their own days in the Army as I did my Air Force BMT days. After all, these guys were almost all veterans of WWII. That is, it is likely that many saw action in any number of battles.

I don’t have a lot of photos from my dad’s time in the Army, so I try to mine each of them for as much information as I can. He is standing in the back row on the far left. He’s not demonstrating the best military bearing either; hands on hips, scowl on face, and large ears protruding from his garrison cap. Heck, he may have had a few drinks by then, who knows.

He’s the only one in the photo standing this way. Well, except for the guy in front of him leaning on two of his friends’ shoulders.

My dad enlisted in the Regular Army in 1945, months after the war was declared over. I am not positive what he did in those three years, but I have documents stating that he was a drill instructor, a mechanic, and a driver.

There are a few stories that go with each occupation that I hope to get to on this blog. But, here in this photo, he certainly looks like he’s ready to get out of the Army and go home to Choctaw County Alabama. 

Sometimes I can relate.

Camp Kilmer 1948
Separation Center – August 9, 1948 Camp Kilmer, NJ