Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Around the next bend...

It doesn't seem real.

Six years after the surgery changed my life, I wait for answers. I tell myself that it could always be worse. And I wait.

Life is funny. It chugs along like one of those old wooden roller coasters that have fallen out of favor. You go up, you go down. You can't wait to get off, then you miss the ride once it's gone.

I want my life back. It's difficult to sit idly by while the world passes like sands through the hour glass, to coin a phrase.

Six years.

I don't recognize the country anymore. It's having a nervous breakdown. We've been here before, but this feels different. Way too much anger. Way too much noise. Braggarts and bombast are in fashion. I despise both.

So, I listen to "Gunsmoke," laugh with Jack Benny, fight crime with Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. I get by.

All I know is to keep going forward. I'm not giving up. Never.

Maybe the answer lies around the next bend.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

More on Bill Warren's journey...

Hi, folks.

If you've ducked in here to read "the rest of the story" about Bill Warren (actually some personal notes and other stuff in the reporter's notepad I didn't have room to publish here), welcome!

If you're a regular reader (well, as regular as I've been, i.e. not much since I got sick), and you're from North Knox and certainly from Halls, you'll know some of this stuff.

Either way, pull up a chair. 

Bill (it's still difficult to call him by his first name) has been one of my favorite characters since he and I started trading trivia questions at Halls Middle School almost 30 years ago.

Bits and pieces:

Bill grew up in Bath, N.Y.

He attended, sign of things to come, another H school -- Haverling Central High School. 

Like all good boys, he started out playing baseball. He named his coach, David Jones, as a mentor. Then, too, his high school basketball coach, Ben Ridley.

Bill was a smaller guy. I remember tales about assists. He says high school stories age better with each passing year.

He played hoops as a freshman and sophomore, and was actually cut his junior year.

"But, I worked hard and made it as a senior," he said last Friday during the phone interview.

"In fact, I've used that and I think Ben Ridley used it, as an example of, and I know it's when I first knew about, what it means to be on a team. What happens when you keep working hard.

"I think he took me on as a project. We'd work Sunday nights, two-on-twos, and that's when I developed my love of the game. My senior year. That is invaluable."

After graduating in 1971, Bill attended Corning Junior College, began to think about what he wanted to do. He worked a job to get to the University of Tennessee in the fall of 1974. He graduated in the spring of 1976.

Teaching became part of the tale. 

His final quarter at UT (they hadn't yet converted to semesters), Bill student taught at...wait for it...Brickey School, then a K-8 school (and my elementary school alma mater) for my adopted daddy, John R. McCloud.

At Halls Middle, he taught math (and science for a time). Started working basketball camps with Jim Doane, and the rest is history.

And he knew stuff. Not just about academics and athletics.

But, uh, about, oh, say, old TV shows, music, the Beatles, "Chantilly Lace," "Hill Street Blues," "The White Shadow," "Welcome Back, Kotter," -- and letting a razor-thin nugget of a nerd pretend. Well, no, not pretend.

I was the play-by-play voice for Halls Middle School Demons hoops. (Self-confidence began to build for that little guy.)

My late cousin Josh Ellis was the camera operator. I did my best John Ward play-by-play. "Thank God and Greyhound," they're gone, on the outdated VHS videotape format, or even better, buried in a landfill.

Actually Warren thinks he *might* have some. If he does, I'll turn it into a bad sitcom fodder, which it sounded like then, believe you me.

The only thing I can remember is blanking on Cory Van De Griff's name -- it's not like we had rosters -- so, I said, "And, into the game ... a new face! Well, I'm sure Coach Warren is doing something strategic here. We'll find out who is he for you, folks."

Wanna hear the irony? Bill's been working play-by-play the last few years for Diamond Clear Media. Check here.

(And Cory, in a roundabout sort-of-a-way, is my cousin.)

Daughter Andrea Warren Goins is a pediatrician at Children's Hospital at Erlanger (Chattanooga). She and husband Jesse have two cute children.

Son Nate is back on Rocky Top. He'd gone away to earn a living at various colleges, but had worked for -- wait for it -- John Currie at Kansas State. He was at Louisiana Tech when Currie came calling after being hired as athletic director at UT.

So, Nate came marchin' home again, hurrah, hurrah! He and wife Megan just bought a house a few days ago.

There it is, folks. Bill Warren played a major role in my life, and I didn't even do hoops then, beyond Bird and Magic, reading about John Wooden, and listening to John Ward provide play-by-play for the Volunteers on my old AM radio.

Think of what he's done for his players and for other students.

And he teaches still.

Here's to ya, Bill.

No, no. For old time's sake, I've gotta say it. Thanks, Mister Warren. 

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Big Orange, Elvis, and 'Anything Goes'

Here we go again.

UT's football team will trot out the "Smokey Gray" uniforms when they suit up against Florida on Saturday at Shields-Watkins Field. The last year they did this, they lost to Georgia (and Vanderbilt).

(Correction: Macon Vol buddy Dewayne Lawson reminded me that the Vols wore the alternate gray last fall and won. I was unable to watch much of the last two seasons due to illness. Thanks, Dewayne!)

This kind of thing bugs me, but then again, I still wore a tie, or at least a sports coat, when I was a regular in Section NN, south end zone, upper deck. So I'm probably not the best one to ask.

(Even Elvis knew about orange and white while he was here once...)

But, I can face facts. I'm not in the target demographic. Continuing a trend, Tennessee (and a lot of other schools) are directly playing to the iPhone generation. And, to quote Johnny Carson, "a dollar is always a dollar." I guess they think this also helps recruiting.

I know winning football games will. Autumn afternoons at Neyland Stadium do not need PR spin when all is well on Rocky Top.

This has been a strange year. Tennessee is 3-0 and ranked higher than Florida. That should be good news.

But they've looked bad for the most part, especially on offense, in close wins against Appalachian State and Ohio University, and fared a little better in the Barnum and Bailey show at Bristol. But it took awhile.

Ah, but again, this isn't a normal year. Florida's backup quarterback has to start Saturday. Tennessee is also missing players at key positions. Josh Dobbs is running for his life. Nobody can hang onto the ball. But the defense is doing well, all things considered, and the Vols go after the Gators at home. 

So who knows.

I miss a lot of Tennessee traditions. I miss the walking horse. I miss John Ward and Bill Anderson. I miss anyone with institutional knowledge.

(I don't miss "Third Down For What.")

But, in my quieter moments, I know it's all soap bubbles. Gridiron games no longer make nor break my weekends. Going through a chronic illness and living to tell the tale puts things in perspective.

I do think Tennessee should wear orange and white uniforms at home. Maybe they can get away with wearing all orange once every 10 years. I did like that one-shot black and orange jersey on Halloween.

Ah, well. To quote Cole Porter, "But now, God knows, anything goes..."

And let's be honest: If UT ends this 11-season losing streak, few will care, nor remember, what they were wearing when they did it.

(But that still doesn't mean I have to like it.)

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Monday, September 19, 2016

On Spenser and September and going home

Had my first extended post-illness outing Friday night. Fun, fun, fun, down at the old school.

I'll post the link when the column hits the street, but the short version is I made it to Halls High for the official kickoff of the school's centennial. Old friends, teachers, classmates, people I hadn't seen since before I got sick, some for 20 years or more, were there. Heady stuff for a Halls guy.

Sis and I even got photographed together on the football field. How about that! 

I only had about a three-hour tour in me (not bad, considering where I've been), so I left as it began to rain. Robert Rogers and I met for Mexican. He'd just gotten back from England with his wife. They'd hiked along Hadrian's Wall, and I wanted to hear about it. The pictures were something.

He said the country folks were friendly. Isn't that usually the way of it? And he said the food was fabulous, and the portions were plenty.

I told Robert he'd subliminally inspired me to binge watch British detective shows. I've always had a soft spot for BBC and ITV mysteries, especially "Inspector Morse." So I watched five or six of them while they were gone.

"Morse," if you know the show, sent me seeking English poets. Spenser, for starters. I kept trying to recall a couple of lines that seem to fit this September. Finally found them.

My soul's long lacked food, my heaven's bliss.
Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone...

Forget leaves, lines, and rhymes, and sure as heck forget trying to please. The moon's a harsh mistress, and the sky is made of stone. Jimmy Webb taught me that a long time ago. So, I'll just keep on being me. It's the easiest role to play, you see. 

But the nightmare is ending, bliss is in the blessings, and I'm more or less content. My soul no longer wants for much. It got plenty of feeding Friday night and again Saturday at a small gathering. I saw several high school folks and friends there, too.

I had some laughs and enjoyed the chatter and made it about three hours or so there as well. Then I headed home to crash.

Per Robert's suggestion, I watched part of Andrew Marr's "Making of Modern Britain" documentary. It proved to be just the right amount of mental floss to remove the UT/Ohio game from my mind. Then I couldn't sleep, as usual, so I watched another "Morse."

Sunday was stormy, overcast, cool. So I stayed on the couch most of the day. Lo and behold, Dick Powell, a longtime favorite, and "Murder, My Sweet" aired on Turner Classic Movies about 6. I hadn't gotten to watch my favorite channel in more than two years. Monochrome film noir, uncut and commercial free? Magic medicine.

I wonder if students still read poetry? I stumbled across an article that says wonderful words and rhyme are on YouTube, of all places.

Ah, well. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

Yeah, yeah, I know that's Herrick, not Spenser, but I have a migraine headache. And I have a little hope that the language will survive after all.

How could I not? What's that old country song say?

"At least I had the weekend..."

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Friday, September 16, 2016

Super Sarah and Marvelous Marvin

The lake house is the kind for which a writer wishes.

You can find it at the end of a lane on a stretch of land in neighboring Union County. The screened-in back deck boasts views of birds and hues of yellow and orange and blue and green. Not to mention a landscape of a quiet cove in Norris Lake. Upstairs is a den designed to give a lifetime's worth of books a permanent place.

But the place isn't the point. The story is inside, where, as a sign reminds you as you enter, a fisherman lives with the biggest catch of his life.

Seventeen autumns or so ago, Marvin West called the Shopper asking the whereabouts of the column on Tennessee athletics that Jimmy Hyams then wrote for the paper. It happened to be one of the rare times I answered the phone. These moments remind you that not much, if anything, happens by chance.

I recited Marvin's lede from the day UT finally beat the Bear Bryant-coached losing streak to Bama. He told me he'd be in touch about a book he'd just written filled with Tennessee tales.

And a two-minute conversation led to a mountain of memories.

Marvin and I have gotten together every Opening Day, or somewhere near that actual beginning of the new year, for at least 16 seasons. We pretend we're there to watch baseball, but we both know better.

He tells me stories about Scripps-Howard, about the glory days of sports writing, about Gen. Neyland, about Mr. West going to Washington, about that World Series earthquake in California when he thought he might collapse along with Candlestick Park.  I learn something new every time.

I lately learned he sang bass in a gospel quartet. I also learned that's how he met wife Sarah, who he's always told me is "the real story" in the West's world.

Among my souvenirs are stories that I, too, can now tell.

One night I gave sudden birth to one of my 18 kidney stones while writhing around on their floor. Marvin got me upright, Sarah followed in the sports car, and Mom met us at Beaver Dam church.

Another night, I slipped off to sleep during the game and ended up leaving a tip of four bits that fell out of my pocket. What a pitiful payback.

Then there was the time I mistook a hummingbird's buzz for a wasp's warning, but we won't get into that.

One night we discovered my stepdad had played on Marvin's famous Little League baseball team that won 80-some games in a row. Walt Disney wasn't dumb. The world, you see, really is small after all. 

Mostly, I listen. And eat.

We watched the final game at old Yankee Stadium together a few years ago. That was an added bonus of Sarah's September -- the annual month-long celebration of her birthday. Thirty days is too few for what she deserves.

I like the tale about the time Sarah darn near brokered peace between North and South Korea. She's that kind of kind soul.

Marvin helped teach me how to write better. He'd call when I'd hit something close to a home run. He'd call when he thought I needed to adjust my swing.

He and Sarah were there when my universe collapsed. They were there when I got better.

I always feel inadequate when I write about them. Somehow I've managed to be blessed on this journey called life with friends that make Fort Knox look like "F Troop." In other words, the riches can't be monetarily counted.  Not a chance. No way.

All I know is I'm sure glad I answered the phone that afternoon. The memories are magic, the stories are super, and the friendship is forever. 

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

A kind of September...

Fifteen years ago, I was getting ready for work. Ten days before, I had finally made it to Manhattan.

My first trip to New York City, on Sept. 1, 2001, was magic. Perfect weather. Perfect day.

Well, almost perfect. The good news is I got to meet my hero Thomas Magnum, aka actor Tom Selleck, who was appearing that season in a revival of Herb Gardner's "A Thousand Clowns." The bad news is I was starstruck and speechless.

Anyway, Drew Weaver, Scott Frith, and I were there that Labor Day weekend. We took a train into Grand Central Station from Connecticut. Everything I'd wanted to do, dreams derived from the pages of The New Yorker, halfway pretending I was going to be a guest on "What's My Line," for that spectacular Saturday, I got to pretend.

Ten days later, everything changed.

Pieces remembered: My late grandfather knocking on the bathroom door to tell me a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers (this was at 8:46 a.m.). Getting downstairs just as the second plane hit. Turning on NPR on the way to work, listening to Bob Edwards try to explain the chaos. Getting a phone call from Doug from the Rotary Club. Watching the news at work on a portable black-and-white television set. Wishing I were with my family.

That night, I thought the thing to do was go watch television coverage with my mother.  Even though I was in my 20s, a college graduate, and gainfully employed, I knew I was no longer El Gallo's tender and callow fellow, to quote the song from "The Fantasticks." 

I eventually learned I knew a family who lost their brother that day. They planted a tree for Tony Karnes at Gibbs High School later that year.

Visiting Ground Zero with Drew the following February was sobering to say the least. We went downtown, and nobody, and I mean nobody, was saying a word.

We looked at the handmade memorials. One quoted Jack Kerouac. Another one needed no poetic prose: "Osama: Kiss my ass."

I thought everything would change. I thought the partisanship that had marred much of the 1990s and the 2000 presidential election was gone. The civilized parts of the world were united.

Well, you know how that turned out.

I have to tell myself that goodness can arise from the aftermath of atrocities, but post-9/11, it was difficult to see how.

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said it as well as anyone on a PBS documentary a few years after the attacks. 

 "9/11, how can you possibly use it for a good purpose? Look, what this reminds you of is the importance of your own life, and making the most of it, because you can lose it in a flash. And if that's all you learned from 9/11, if that's all you remembered, that, my god, that you could extinguish life so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and it could happen to me, and therefore I should think harder about the way I spend my life instead of wasting it...

"Now, it's not going to teach you what to do with your life, but it will teach you to do with your life, and to do it more and quicker and better."

Fifteen years, after all, went slip sliding away, and much of the nation, indeed much of the world, is starving for stability, and sanity, for people doing more, quicker and better.

Never forget the first responders. Never forget the fallen. Never forget the day. Never forget Cuomo's words.

Never forget.

But try too, if you can, to remember El Gallo's kind of September, when no one wept except the willow.

Otherwise, these bastards have won.

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Thursday, September 08, 2016

My 'Star Trek'

I don't recall my first voyage with the crew of the Enterprise. But, I can tell you it makes me think of my grandfather.

My best guess is I first saw "Star Trek," Gene Roddenberry's "Wagon Train" to the stars as it was once called, on the old WKCH-43 when it was an independent station. This was back in the days, for any kiddos out there, when we only got four channels -- five on a clear day.

But I vividly remember my grandfather bringing home a rented copy of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" when my uncle Jeff bought his first VCR. Mom told me later that "Star Trek" was one of two TV series that Papaw wouldn't let anyone interrupt. (The other was "Gunsmoke.")

As I got older, I began to watch the original series in syndication, captivated by the adventure, intrigued by space (a passion that endures), and drawn to the one thing that to me makes "Star Trek" stand out from its other incarnations and competitors -- the palpable chemistry between Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Theirs felt like a real friendship. They felt -- and feel -- like real people.

My best buddy Matthew Shelton introduced me to "Star Trek: The Next Generation" when we were of middle school age. And we saw every film from "Star Trek V" forward in the theater together. (I'm not getting into J.J. Abrams tonight.)

I liked "TNG," especially the character Data, but eventually stopped watching the series. My grandfather and I watched the premiere of "Deep Space Nine," and liked it well enough, but neither of us stuck with it. (I'm trying, however slowly, to remedy that via Netflix.) "Voyager" did nothing for me (well, other than Jeri Ryan), and I tried my best to like "Enterprise" -- 'cause of its premise and 'cause I liked Scott Bakula in "Quantum Leap" -- but I couldn't get into it, either.

No, there was something special about that original series. I'm not going to get into the "which show is better" debate. That's subjective. But this is my trek, after all.

Going back more than a quarter century ago, I bought a few episodes on VHS, devoured several of the Pocket Books novels, even bought an Enterprise technical manual.

When I got old enough to "get" it, I finally discovered that I was captivated not only by the characters, but by Roddenberry's vision of the future -- a hopeful one, an exciting one.

I took a long break from the franchise for whatever reason until Shelton started buying the movies on DVD. We laughed our way through "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (I still can't believe Robert Wise directed that train wreck), and seemed to enjoy the even-numbered films best. A local station began airing remastered episodes in 2008 or so, and I started watching it again. A few years later, I bought the Blu-ray set that contains your choice of watching the original episode as it aired or enhanced with technology not available in the mid-1960s. It's pretty cool. I also bought the animated series. It's OK.

Shelton and I even went on a whirlwind weekend trip to New York and back to see "Shatner's World" in 2012. I marveled that a man his age could stand up there and tell tales, and do it well, alone, for an hour and a half.

Today is the 50th anniversary of "Star Trek." In a little while, I'll watch  "The Man Trap" just as it aired on Thursday, Sept. 8, 1966, on NBC. If I can't fall asleep, I might watch another episode.

My friend Bill Householder is the biggest Trekkie I know. (He shared his thoughts today, too.) He and I are going to be blogging about the series in the coming weeks, discussing our favorite episodes, maybe even doing a "live chat" conversation, I don't know.

What I do know is that "Star Trek" endures. Its ethos, quite relevant in the mid-20th century, are still relevant today. Among many, many other things, its vision of cooperation, of human beings finally putting aside their differences to explore the universe is as fantastic a future as we can hope to create.

It seems bleak now, what with everyone divided over everything, NASA a shell of its former self, and few dreamers daring to dream.

But dream they will, and dream Gene Roddenberry did, and we're better off for it, entertained, enlightened, uplifted. Fifty years later, "Star Trek" and its legions of fans continue to boldly go...

Well, you know where...

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