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Jive Talker

The earliest memory I have of my Uncle Roger, I must have been around 5 years old. Grandma was babysitting me at her house. (I think Mom was at work.) But Grandma had to go somewhere and she couldn’t take me with her, so she called Uncle Roger to come pick me up. I never really spent much time around Uncle Roger, mainly just at holidays, so I was a little nervous having to go with him all by myself. But he was always kind and had a warm smile and an easy laugh, which reassured me. So when he got there, I made the climb up into his giant brown Chevy pickup. (Uncle Roger was a Chevy man, just like Grandpa.)

I remember I literally had to put my hands on the floorboard, about waist high, and throw a knee up to get in. And that was just the first step; I had to repeat the maneuver to make it up into the seat. I remember sitting there, my feet barely over the edge, on that plasticky tan bench seat, that kind of pre-vinyl, nowhere-near-leather they used to put in trucks to keep them cheap. (An added benefit Grandpa taught me once was that you could literally just rinse out the cab with a hose, so long as you kept it on low and you were careful not to spray any of the electronics or let the foam under the seats get wet.) Not only did I not ride in a car seat—they hadn’t been invented yet—but nobody even wore seatbelts back then. Like Jeff Foxworthy says, “That was in the days when the kids weren’t too good to go through the windshield with the rest of the family.”

Uncle Roger’s truck smelled like work: cigarette smoke, concrete dust, and Hai Karate. I don’t remember what was playing on the radio when we first left Grandma’s, but I vividly remember the Bee Gees’ magnificent “Jive Talkin’” came on, because when it did, Uncle Roger turned it up and sang along—falsetto and all. It was early summer, not too hot yet, a beautiful day to just drive with the windows down and sing along with the radio. I remember thinking he was being unintentionally funny.

Uncle Roger was a tower of a man, well over six feet tall, with big, cool glasses and a full head of hair, thick and bushy, bordering on a white man’s ‘fro. Of course that sounds funny now, but he was very handsome, certainly considered so in that day. I’d place the year at close to 1975, the summer that song would have first been on the radio. I think it was before he and Aunt Chuckie were married, but I honestly don’t remember. Uncle Roger was thick, not fat, but muscly. He had gone to the Navy after high school, and traveling the world had agreed with him, finished the job of making him a man. By all accounts, he was a stand-up guy, a friend to everybody, a gentle soul.

It’s just a snapshot, of course. I don’t remember where we went that day or what we did, just him picking me up and singing in the truck.

After that, I lose him.

Uncle Roger died suddenly when I was twelve. He was 30. Grandma was worried about him because she hadn’t heard from him in a while, so she asked his best friend to go check on him. Turns out he was really sick, essentially trapped in his apartment because he was so weak. When Uncle Roger wouldn’t answer his door, his buddy kicked it in, found him unconscious in his bed, and rushed him to the hospital. He was there for weeks, and he seemed to be getting better…but it just wasn’t meant to be. He never left Intensive Care.

Because I wasn’t old enough to go into ICU, I didn’t even get to see him then. So I’m really thankful that I have that memory of him. Every time I hear Jive Talkin’, it brings my Uncle Roger back to me, and I’m five, and the windows are down, and he’s singing.

What’s your favorite memory of someone you loved but lost? Is it just a snapshot, or are you lucky enough to have a whole album? Please share your picture. I’d love to “see” it.

In Your Dreams

Dreams are a funny thing. In fact, today’s blog post comes to you almost directly from my dreams. (It’s 4:00 AM as I’m writing this. ) Sometime in the night I was dreaming that I should write a post called something like “Live Alive” or “Live This Day” or “Live Today.” It was going to essentially be about making sure you take advantage of today, carpe diem—or perhaps, because dreams are often so jumbled, per diem. Also in this dream, I was watching cartoons on TV in my parents’ old house at 2:00 AM. So there’s that.

Although I haven’t had it in a long time, I used to have this recurring nightmare where scary hooded people in brown robes would be trying to talk to me, but I could only hear their voices as gibberish. I could tell that what they were saying was important, but I just couldn’t make it out. First they’d be far away, speaking loudly, just not loudly enough that I could quite hear. Then, all of a sudden, they’d be right up in my face, whispering, barely audible, but I still couldn’t understand what they were saying, like they were speaking in tongues or something. (Usually I would have this nightmare when I was sick and sleeping with a fever.) Even just recalling it now reminds me of that freaky movie Phantasm, which I watched just once with my good friend Heath. The bad guy, the Tall Man, worked in a funeral parlor, making normal people into tiny dwarves, reconstituting them from their own cremated ashes to become slaves who would mine for him in his own dimension. (It was a romantic comedy, obviously.)

Once when I was in graduate school, I mentioned the voices dream to my friend Christine, and she said “Oh, everybody has that!” Then she told me about her worst kind of freaky dream, which she called “bed spins.” What she described wasn’t like the bed bouncing around in The Exorcist, but more like when you come home from a day at an amusement park, sick and disoriented from riding rides. You probably know what I’m talking about: Even though you don’t feel all spinny, when you lie down and try to sleep, the room keeps rotating around you. (She said a night out drinking also does that; although I joke about that sometimes, I’ve never actually done that.)

One recurring theme I actually enjoy in my dreams is when I can fly. There’s always some “trick” to it, though, like I have to keep kicking to stay airborne. The faster I kick, the higher I can go, lifting myself slowly up over fences and onto rooftops. (That’s pretty high for me.) What it feels like is akin to swimming, only in the air. “I’m Superman! I can fly!”

I hear people talk all the time about a recurring dream where they’re naked or in their underwear. Honestly, I’ve never had that dream. If I started having a dream like that this late in life, I’d probably suspect something was going on like that episode of Northern Exposure where everybody’s dreams got switched around and Maurice was all freaked out because his recurring dream had him wearing women’s underwear, and he was afraid whoever ended up with his dreams would tell everybody and embarrass him.

Strangely, my worst nightmare is one where I learn that my high school was auditing its records and discovered that because I went to vo-tech, I didn’t actually have enough classes to graduate, so they rescinded my diploma. As a result, I was no longer qualified to be admitted to college, so then all of my colleges stripped me of all my degrees. I mentioned this dream once to Roger, one of my professors in graduate school, and I asked him if that kind of dream ever goes away. (Roger was an older guy, in his mid-60’s or so.) He laughed and said, “No, it just changes into different variations.” Then he told me about his recurring dream: He’s late getting to his class to teach (as he often was in real life). He walks into the classroom and starts immediately, all flustered, and everybody’s looking at him all strange, and he begins to realize he doesn’t recognize any of these people, and he’s actually walked into the wrong room, teaching the wrong course to the wrong students. But at least he was wearing pants. And he was nobody’s mining slave dwarf.

In your dreams, whose underwear are you wearing? Did you watch too much TV and too many movies when you were a kid? (I suspect I may have.) Do you have any weird or scary recurring dreams? What’s wrong with you, anyway? Weirdo.

Stop Sign Runner

You may not be aware of this, but sometimes people do foolish things when they’re kids. One of my best friends from childhood has a birthday coming up tomorrow, and as I was thinking about him this morning, I couldn’t help replaying in my mind some of the crazier things I let him talk me into over the years.

The area where we grew up in Oklahoma was wide open rural country. There could easily be a quarter mile or more between your house and your closest neighbor. While this made it awkward (and often unpleasant) when you required some neighborly favor such as to borrow a cup of sugar—especially on one of the 348 days of the year in Oklahoma when it’s either windy, freezing, raining, or blazing hot—certainly it also had its advantages. One of the greatest of these was that there was never much traffic around, even on the bigger roads. I can recall hours and hours of time I spent as a boy just riding my bike on major streets, for miles and miles, and very rarely seeing a car.

Of course I’m a parent myself now, and there’s no way I’d ever tolerate such nonsense. Whether it’s true that things actually are worse now than they were when I was a kid, or just that because of 24-hour news cycles and the Internet we’re more hyper-aware of kidnappings, assaults, and the occasional pelting of an innocent pedestrian with a watermelon thrown from a car, I have each of my kids outfitted with an elaborate homemade knockoff of Lojack. Furthermore, I’ve equipped each of them with great skills at screaming loudly and ferociously biting, kicking, scratching, pulling hair, gouging eyes, stomping toes, breaking fingers, racking, vomiting, urinating, and setting you on fire. (It’s what Jesus would do.) When I was a kid, I never thought about that stuff.

When a youngster comes of tender driving age, having so little traffic is a terrific perk. Back in the day, if your parents were cool, you had multiple opportunities to practice driving without all the accompanying anxiety that you were going to smash into somebody. Most of the roads had pretty level sides too, with lots of grass in the bar ditches on either side, so even if you had trouble keeping it centered, you weren’t gonna do too much damage.

Random Aside: When I was a little kid, I remember one of my dad’s buddy’s favorite “jokes” was: “You know why they call them ‘bar ditches’? ‘Cause that’s where you jump to when you see a ‘bar’ a-comin’!” “Bar” of course being a clever hillbilly rendition of the word “bear,” and thus the joke. Never mind that if an actual, live bear were to see you jump down into the ditch in front of him, it would in no way dissuade him from proceeding to maul and also subsequently eat you. Bad jokes often yield bad advice. Nevertheless, my dad’s buddy would laugh heartily each of the million and eight times I heard him tell it. But I digress…

Because of these optimal learning conditions, we country kids—most of us, anyway—became exceptional drivers. (An unfortunate side effect was that we also learned to speed at an early age, because everyone did and what did it matter, anyway? You weren’t going to hurt anybody but yourself because nobody else was around.) Another phenomenon resulting from minimal traffic is the magical stop sign “float.” When 99.98% of the time you arrive at an intersection with a 4-way stop and no other cars are present, one tends rather than to stop, more to slow to an appropriate speed and then to press gently on through. And out of this was born my genius friend’s magnificent combination scientific/philosophical discovery…

Johnny (not Johnny Davis, but Johnny Ward) figured out that when you’re driving in the country at night, you can see other people’s headlights coming from a great distance. Therefore, as you approach an intersection—say, two or three hundred feet out—it’s very easy to look both left and right and see if another car is headed your way. And if no one’s coming, you can “safely” gun it and just blast through the intersection, stop sign or no, at top speed. After he did this for a while, it further occurred to him that if a police officer happened to be sitting there in the dark waiting for the odd speeder or stop-sign-runner, he of course didn’t want to get caught. So his brilliant innovation was to turn off his headlights before blasting through. It was a stroke of genius that occurred at a magical time, and papers should have been written about it and presented at international conferences.

When he taught it to me and suggested I try it as well, I asked him what might happen were I to approach the same intersection from a direction perpendicular to the one in which he was traveling, and we both tried to blast through that same space simultaneously with our lights off. He tried to convince me that statistically the odds were in our favor. If you know me, you know my position on math. It’s not that numbers don’t impress me; it’s more so that I fear and loathe them.

Then he suggested that perhaps we work out an agreement where we only use the lights-out trick when we’re traveling on North-South roads, and not East-West. Again, those of you who know me know I can barely tell time on a clock with hands, let alone tell you what direction I’m going. So I practiced what I believe remains the best advice for teenagers to this very day: I abstained. Who (besides Johnny) knows what I was missing?

What were the craziest (like, most dangerous) things you did when you were a kid? Was there anything wild you wanted to try but didn’t and, looking back now, you regret? Why do you think that TV show “Real People” was canceled? It was great. (Plus, I had a super-crush on Sarah Purcell.)

He Said She Said First

Long before anyone had heard of Michael Scott or Dunder-Mifflin, someone else was already saying “That’s what she said.” I looked long and hard online to see what others claim was the origin of this phrase. What I found were pages that I won’t share because they don’t meet my PG/PG-13 criteria. Many were funny, just really not appropriate. Most importantly, none of the explanations I found were accurate. I know the real story. Because I was there. (I swear this is true. I even have witnesses.)

His name was Johnny Davis, and it was more than twenty years ago. I’m convinced that he was the first, and that it simply took years and years for its brilliance to travel person-to-person through our culture until finally it reached the “right” people to wind up in a television comedy show.

My friend Kurt and I were working summers for some friends from church, installing commercial windows as a way to pay for college. We primarily did new windows for schools and hospitals. It was hard work and exhausting, but it put me in probably the best shape of my life, I got to work outside, and I met the real most interesting man in the world in the summer of 1989: the one and only Johnny Davis.

Johnny was an African-American gentleman who was a “glazer,” a tradesman specializing in working with glass. Although he had shoulder-length Jheri curled hair and a gold tooth displayed prominently on one of his incisors, he fit no other stereotype that I’ve ever heard of. He was absolutely an original. A deceptively wise man, Johnny worked slowly and carefully, favoring never having to re-do any task. He was probably in the 5’10” to 6-foot range, and he always wore a really nice baseball cap. (Most guys working construction did.)

Johnny was the quintessential ladies’ man. Although he was married and a grandfather (I’d have placed him in his late 40’s or very early 50’s), he would occasionally talk vaguely about one “girlfriend” or another. And at least twice that I can remember, a young woman in her mid-20’s came to visit him on the job site. Also I should clarify: It was not the same young woman each time.

Johnny wore very nice silk boxers. I know this because for one particular job, at Deaconess Hospital in Oklahoma City, we all had to wear matching t-shirts with our company logo on them. (Some months earlier, a woman posing as a nurse at the hospital had walked out with a newborn. Although if memory serves, the child was found unharmed and reunited with her parents just a short time later, it was traumatic and scary for the entire city at the time, and it caused Deaconess to lock down the security at their facility.) Anyway, on our first morning there, our boss handed us our t-shirts in the parking lot. Johnny took off the nice buttoned shirt he was already wearing over a white t-shirt, pulled his new company t-shirt on over that…and then proceeded to unfasten his belt, unzip and drop his trousers, right there in the parking lot, so that he could appropriately tuck his shirt in. I averted my eyes, but it was too late. I would never be able to un-see those metallic hunter green silk boxers.

Johnny had a number of unusual phrases that he would spout at random, and one of his favorites was, “Somebody’s gonna shoot ‘em a black man today here in Oklahoma.” His manner of speech had a certain rhythm, an almost musical cadence. His musings often seemed like random unrelated thoughts that he was simply stringing together and then presenting as fact. If you offered him something that he didn’t want, he’d say, “No. I don’ like it. I don’ like what it does to me.”

I honestly never could tell when Johnny was just teasing us and when he truly was being serious. He once tried to convince me that Dr. Pepper’s primary ingredient was prune juice. (Dr. Pepper was my preferred drink at the time.) There was a type of caulking filler that we  used to have to tuck into larger voids around windows before sealing them up, a kind of insulating foam that came on a roll, and he once insisted to me and Kurt that one of its main ingredients was horse urine.

He also used to randomly sing little snippets of songs we had never heard, usually about women, love or partying, or combinations of all three: “Met a woman named Sadie / She was a big, fine lady / And that girl had herself a big fat ba-by / This lady named Sadie.” One of the oddest things Johnny used to say was the name Gladys, usually long and drawn out, with an inexplicable emphasis on the first two syllables, and adding an unnecessary syllable at the end: “GUH-LAD-diss-ah!” We asked him if Gladys was one of his lady-friends, and he’d just laugh knowingly and not answer. When we did some task that went particularly well, he’d gleefully shout, “Au-to-mat-ic!” sometimes even adding an “Automatic today in Oklahoma!”

But of course what would become Johnny’s most famous phrase was, “That’s what she said,” used in exactly the same way Michael says it on The Office. If you’ve never heard any of Johnny Davis’s other sayings, well, I expect it’s just a matter of time. And when you do, now you’ll know the truth about where they came from.

Did you ever hear “That’s what she said” earlier than twenty years ago? Liar. No, seriously, if you did, tell us about it. Lord knows I strive for historical accuracy at this site, so we NEED to know the truth. What are other catch phrases that The Office and other programs have stolen from your past?

Hunting Dumb

I know just enough about guns to be dangerous, perhaps even lethal, provided you’re a small, defenseless animal. But the hunter’s mystique has always escaped me. Remember in Red Dawn when C. Thomas Howell killed his first deer, and Patrick Swayze had him drink the blood? “Once you drink that, you’ll never be the same.” (Turns out Swayze was right. C. Thomas Howell’s character ended badly.)

When I was about 11, I killed a toad, more or less with my so-called BB gun. My BB “gun” wasn’t even a Daisy. It was an off-brand from Sears, something like Daizee.

“Sears makes Craftsman. They know what they’re doing,” my dad insisted.

Evidently, skills with tool manufacturing don’t carry over to firearms. It was such a weak little thing, I could actually see the BB as it left the barrel, my naked eye tracking its pathetic downward arc. I could have done more damage shovel-throwing a handful of BBs like an orangutan. (As a father of two boys now myself, certainly I can see the wisdom in providing these wild, smelly heathens with a neutered “weapon alternative.”)

Anyway, after emptying my entire firearm into this toad’s back (to pretty much zero effect), I ended up mercy-killing him with a hoe and burying him in the backyard, sobbing the entire time. I could have written an opera about the experience. (I may yet.)

Another time, when I was a teenager, my dad sent me out to kill a skunk just behind our backyard. We had this mulberry tree in our yard whose branches hung over the chain link fence, and this skunk was just hanging out under it outside the fence, eating berries all afternoon, aloofly ignoring our dog—who was inside the fence losing his mind.

I had to wrestle the dog, dragging him into the garage to lock him up. (Not that that was hard. He was a 16-lb poodle.) Then I sneaked stealthily along the outside of the fence, a sniper on a special ops mission. I raised our 12-gauge, channeled my inner seasoned marksman, and BLAM! The skunk found itself startled, standing suddenly before God’s Throne of Judgment.

(Random aside: Don’t you just HATE that gauge is spelled like that? Every time I read it, I can’t help pronouncing it “gouge.” I  have to write it out to remember how to spell it. I always type it as guage first, then fix it when that doesn’t look right.)

Meanwhile, back here on earth, I went for a shovel to carry off the carcass for proper burial. When I flipped the skunk’s body over, I couldn’t find any blood—not a single drop. Turns out I had hit it with precisely one piece of shot, directly in the temple. (Evidently wasting the other 13,999 pieces of shot.)

Unfortunately, I was also unnerved to discover that she was (or rather, had been) a mama skunk. Covered with swollen nipples, she clearly had babies somewhere who had tasted the last of her milk. No doubt she was so ravenously hungry she’d risk a crazed dog because she had little mouths to feed back at the hole. So not only had I committed skunk matricide, but I had also unwittingly offed an entire litter of helpless infant skunks. Behold the mighty hunter!

I pictured her patiently taking a seat in one of the lovely mahogany chairs in the waiting area outside God’s courtroom, insisting she be allowed to wait for me to show up before she would tell her side. (Just one more thing I’m gonna have to answer for.)

What about you? Do you LOVE killing things? Tasting their blood? Dancing around the empty shell that once housed a living soul? What’s your great hunting (or vermin) story?

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