Sleeping Ducks

“Where are all the ducks?” Sam asked in his sleepy four-year-old voice.

Normally a large group of ducks congregated in the narrow path to our home, making driving tough if we were in a hurry to get home.

“Well, Sam, they’re sleeping,” I assured him.
“No way silly,” Sam protested.
“Ducks don’t sleep.”
Remember he’s four.
Sam’s only experience with ducks was that they were always active, always on the move, and usually in our way.
“No, son,” I said quietly,” they’re sleeping. Just like we sleep, they also need their rest.” 
He paused and considered the point I’d made and slowly acquiesced to the radical concept of ducks sleeping.
“Ducks sleep? Ducks sleep.
“Where do they sleep?”
“Well, Sam, they usually snuggle together near the water.”
“Aren’t they scared to be out there in the dark?”
“Nah,” I assured, “God watches over them just…
He paused and accepted for the moment that ducks sleep and aren’t necessarily afraid to sleep out in the open near the water absent a bed, conditioned air, and a roof.
That night Sam woke several times complaining of a sore throat.
By 9:00 am we were in the hospital preparing for an emergency tonsillectomy. 
Life is always lived in the fast lane with a four-year-old.
But then his kidneys refused to “wake up” after surgery.
I don’t know why.
The problem is, neither does anyone else around here.
Oh, the doctor says that they’ll probably wake up in a few days and not to worry.
I find it hard not to worry as I watch an ugly dialysis machine wheeled into his room every day. 
“Please God let his kidneys wake before morning,” I pray.
And I pray.
And I watch the sun – a fiery ember through the hospital window.
It sets, slowly.
Not far away, in the pond, in the children’s park, a duck family quietly gets ready for bed.
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The Price of Russian Gasoline

Russia – 1992. My translator’s mother, who had a broken leg at the time, hops into the small Russian made Lada (see this picture and think of a ripoff of a 1970s Corolla). She makes her way into the passenger’s seat. Her daughters also squeeze into the tiny car. Four people with thick cold-weather gear pressed and sautéed into a tin can.


We pull out of the parking lot after church on a Sunday morning and head for lunch. Fifty feet down the snow-packed road, the engine stops. I have a terrible feeling because I know the exact reason why it’s not running. 

At that point, the oldest daughter informs me, in her direct Russian way, to make the car “go.”

Make it go American!”

I don’t bother offering an opposing view.

She even motions with her arm to make the thing go because one, we’re all hungry and two, her mom has limited walking ability. She can’t understand just why I let the car engine die in the first place.

And all I can think of is that it’s my stupid fault that this poor lady is going to have to disembark this tin can, shuffle across the very slippery snow and ice (with crutches in sub-zero weather), and make it safely back to some semblance of shelter before we can get an alternate ride.

Or eat lunch. Which is important.

It all started with an assumption a day earlier.

For the record, the car was parked in the garage (pictured above) for the winter, which lasts about 98 months out of the year in northern Russia.  Below the garage is a small, dug-out, dirt basement. I am guessing it’s where Russians hide on occasion.

Or listen to Radio Free America.

My translator and I were on a mission to retrieve the car but found that it was out of gas. In the garage, stairs led to the small basement. In the dark basement, a few containers stood defiant of the arctic weather. They were also full. I asked the translator what exactly was in the containers. She had no helpful information. 

The man, her dad, who had filled the containers and left them there was at that time in Africa and therefore, unavailable for comment.

I opened the top and smelled the contents of the containers. My nose assured me that it was gasoline. A logical line of reasoning.

I thought, “great. Gasoline. Let’s fill up the car and get going.”

I emptied said liquid into the faux Toyota and we were off – for about 50 yards. After the engine died, we pushed it back to the garage and determined that the liquid was not, in fact, gasoline, but water.


To this day, I do not know why a grown man would store water in gasoline cans – instead of, say, GASOLINE. But I digress.

I tried siphoning out the excess water, but much remained in the tank. Too much. So, because I am really smart, I later added lots of gas to dilute the water.

Yes. Really.

To my surprise, the little car would actually start and stay running, as long as I left the ignition on.  Which is what I had done the Sunday morning in question.

Because water doesn’t really mix well with gasoline (who knew?), the water eventually drowned out the internal combustion process (again) and left us all stranded there 50 yards from we had met for worship.

The subzero temperature didn’t make for a pleasant walk the two miles back to their home either.

Eventually, some nice Russian mechanics removed the gas tank and poured out the water that I had installed while floundering around in that dark garage hideout-basement a few days earlier. Those few days were not pleasant. But they were certainly a few days of misery that I could have avoided by simply paying more attention and assuming less. Maybe I could have lit a match and checked for combustion.

Or maybe not…

What I do remember was that the price of that “gasoline” was pretty high.


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Taylorsville, Mississippi:  It’s a tiny place. A guy in a blue Chevrolet pick-up truck drives past me, extends one hand, and waves as if he knows me.

I don’t know him, but I wave back.

I’m pretty sure that if I tried that in New York City I’d be assaulted and or arrested.

This little hand-waving thing reminds me of my dad and riding in his truck.

My dad had a habit of always waving at approaching vehicles – one hand on the wheel, another hand holding a Pall Mall cigarette (ashes on the seat and floorboard).  If a hand was empty, it’d be holding a cup of sugar and milk – with a touch of coffee.

My dad grew up in a little town in southwest Alabama. I’m guessing they wave a lot there.

I grew up with the smell of these aromatic cigarettes and, although I don’t mind the smell of some pipe tobacco and most cigars, cigarettes just kill me.

My dad was a real life red-headed step-child. At the age of 17, he lied to join the Army. He made it just in time for the end of World War II. This gave him a chance to see some more of the world than Choctaw County.

Once he told me, during commercial breaks of Black Sheep Squadron, that he’d been, in no particular order, a driver for an Army general, a mechanic, and a drill instructor. At Camp Campbell, the Army even taught him to jump out of perfectly good airplanes.

He didn’t stay in the Army long.

And in the big picture, he didn’t stay here for a long time either.

He left us when he was 55.

That was a lifetime ago.

I can’t imagine how he’d react to knowing that I married a Russian, or that smartphones exist, or even what Bluetooth is.

I wish he knew.

Sometimes I can still imagine him driving that blue and white 1974 Chevrolet Pick-up truck with white tool boxes on each side. He’s holding a cigarette and a large cup of coffee is precariously situated in front of him – sloshing occasionally all over the dashboard.

He takes a puff and stretches back against the seat.

And waves at an upcoming driver.

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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.
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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.


(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.
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10 Days in July

A friend posted a picture of a memorial brick on Facebook.

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:


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.

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