Thursday, April 30, 2009

The last day of my favorite month

I don't think I'll ever forget him.

Dr. Robert Drake was my kind of character. I think I told you about him awhile back.

He was an English professor at UT, an old school type of guy, very Southern and very eccentric. He liked me because I loved history and old movies. We got along rather well.

I remember telling him, while he was having us read Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind," about a letter to the editor somebody from California sent to the USA Today taking the newspaper to task for writing about the film when it was re-released in the late 1990s. The writer said some bad things about both the film and the South.

"Who wrote this?" Dr. Drake asked.

"Some gentleman from California."

"That man," he said, looking at me over his spectacles, "is no gentleman."

Dr. Drake told me to never be afraid of somebody calling me a walking anachronism. He was a wonderful man and a great writer. He suffered a stroke near the end of that semester and never recovered. He died in 2001.

I thought about him Easter weekend because of his poignant short story, "By Thy Good Pleasure." In it, his beloved father dies on Good Friday. I couldn't locate a copy of the story that weekend, but I found it this morning at the Powell Branch Library. Something about it kept bouncing around in my brain. Here's what it was:

"Everywhere (after the funeral) the afternoon sun was streaming down into the back yard... . Everything was terribly, overwhelmingly alive. And Daddy was dead. He would never see those peach trees again."

I think that might be what Eliot meant when he wrote that April is the cruelest month. Because everything is so green, so beautiful, so wonderfully alive. Everything that real life usually isn't.

And then he writes something else:

"Daddy was maybe 18th century that way; he wasn't afraid of tears, and I guessed maybe it was because he wasn't afraid of love. Because you had to love in order to cry, and most people now were really afraid of love."

That last sentence is truer than most people can even fathom.

(Dr. Drake's collection of short stories is called "Amazing Grace." If any of you love old-fashioned genteel Southern literature, read some of his stories, if you can find the book. Most are semi-autobiographical tales of growing up in his beloved Ripley, Tenn.)

There is no real point here, no grand comment I want to make. Just a few things I thought about on the last day of my favorite month while driving to work in the dimmed light of an overcast morning.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

The look

A brief snippet of fiction...

Her face betrayed her.

It was but a moment. A flicker. Soap bubbles.

But it was there.

He'd waited a hundred years to see it. Was it a hundred years? Or was it just two? Whatever. He'd longed to see it and here it was.

The cruel irony of it all is that the look came at the moment she was furthest from his grasp, more unattainable than she'd ever been before, the blinking green light to his Jay Gatsby stare.

But it was there.

She's a smooth operator, boy. Never flinches. Never shows her hand.

He'd often wondered what lies behind those eyes. Maybe he'd been close a few times. Maybe not. But she'd kept him from knowing. Maybe on purpose. Maybe not.

But here, now, in a moment that defines a life, her face betrayed her.

And after it was over he walked out into the sweltering heat of a too-early summer and thought about that look for a good long while.

"It's funny," he said to the dark. "I'll never love anybody as much as I love her.

"And, after all these years of trying, she knows it, too."

Right when he can't have her. If she was ever his to have.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mr. Nixon

Believe it or not, he feels like an old friend.

Richard Nixon died 15 years ago today. I was standing in the door frame at pal Dean Harned's childhood home when his parents told us the news. I remember Dean came over to my house and we watched the TV coverage until the wee hours of the morning.

Sounds strange, I guess, for someone born four years after his presidency to feel such an attachment, if that's the right word, to our 37th -- and most enigmatic -- president. Well, let me back up and tell you the story.

A hundred years ago, 8th-grade teacher Dave Lewis showed us a video from the show "Our World" that Linda Ellerbee hosted with a man whose name I can't remember. This particular episode highlighted the early 1970s. Up popped a segment on Watergate introduced by the playing of the "Mission:Impossible" theme.

Something clicked.

I wrote a report on Watergate for Lewis at the end of the year. All this coincided with the 20th anniversary of the infamous June 1972 break-in that would ultimately bring down Nixon's administration. I remember I stayed home to watch the CBS retrospective instead of camping out at a friend's house down the street.

I was a weird kid.

But, this led to my developing a lifelong love of history. Stephen Ambrose's excellent three-volume biography of the man from Yorba Linda was the final determining factor in my decision to major in history at UT. I read it the summer before my freshman year and knew I didn't want to study anything else.

I have read no telling how many Nixon books over the years; I have spent more time with him than several family members. I begged my parents to take me to Nixon's library in his hometown during a vacation swing through California. They did.

Throughout all of this I have never been bored.

Elliot Richardson, the attorney general that Nixon fired, once said that Nixon would be so easy to fix, but that if you took away his flaws, you also take away the very drive that caused him to seek the presidency. That's Shakespeareian in its ironic complexity.

One reason why I like Nixon is because he is so obviously ordinary. He could reach such beautiful mountaintops only to sink into dark and disturbing valleys, often at virtually the same time. Whereas Kennedy seemed flawless (and, yes, that was a myth), Nixon seemed like one of us.

If you didn't see it in the theater, rent Ron Howard's excellent film "Frost/Nixon." A scene at the end, in which Nixon and Frost talk about cocktail parties, reveals the essence of the man, a truth that writers and Nixon observers have sought and failed to adequately verbalize for years.

"You know those parties of yours, the ones I read about in the newspapers. Do you actually enjoy those?" Nixon asks Frost.

"Of course," is the reply.

"You have no idea how fortunate that makes you, liking people. Being liked. Having that facility. That lightness, that charm. I don't have it. I never did."

All this from a man who in 1972 won what was then the biggest electoral landslide in presidential history.

Yes, Mr. Nixon is an enigma. And, for better or worse, he feels like an old friend.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The gusts of the afternoon

The sound of laughter came wafting into my living room as the sun descended into its slumber.

I awoke with a start, knocking the book I am reading and my eyeglasses off my lap and into the floor. I squinted in order for my two bad eyes to see the clock on my cell phone. Six forty-seven p.m. Time for dinner.

The headache, this awful migraine, has finally begun to ease. Worst one I've ever had. Now, I just feel sore, as if I'm recovering from a bad blow to the head. Which I am, if you think about it.

Here, let me share with you a descriptive passage from this book I'm reading, "The Millionaires" by Inman Majors. Lean back and listen to this:

"The cicadas scattered, electric, competing music then distracted or resting or satisfied and quiet for a time. Wind chimes whistling and changing in the air and the women making jokes about havoc wreaked on hair. The smell of chlorine, faint and clean, honeysuckle on the breeze, the hint, just the faintest trace, of musky mold in the table umbrella above."

Is that good or what?

I think so-called Southern writers have a more tangible sense of place, a keener appreciation of land and home, than do other American writers. Maybe that's true. Maybe it's also a bunch of BS. Typical Southern arrogance. I don't know.

Reading this book has given me an idea for a novel. I will share it with you later. Had I nothing but time, I could probably have it banged out in a few months. As it is, we'll see.

A baseball game is playing softly on television, providing peaceful background white noise, as I continue to ease my nuclear-bombed head and figure out these 23 flavors that make up a Dr. Pepper.

The night is quiet, comfortable, rendered still after the gusts of the afternoon.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

4 a.m.

Curious are the thoughts one has at 4 a.m.

I am tempted to do the stream of consciousness thing again. Just to give you an example. But, nah. Faulkner was the master; I am nowhere near that ballpark. I'm too sleepy to do it anyway.

You ever get so tired you aren't tired? That's me tonight.

Had a big day, though. My nephew (well, he isn't really my nephew, but he calls me Uncle Jake and I reciprocate) celebrated his fourth birthday. Who knew, but it seems Transformers are the rage again. Something old, something new.

Watching him tear open his presents, slinging the paper to this side and that, made me smile. Ah, the innocent enthusiasm of the young. Sad, isn't it, that we later outgrow it.

I developed one of my trademark headaches. Thank God this one was sinus rather than migraine. So, I sneaked downstairs at Shelton's to the cool basement, sat down in the recliner, and napped while the Cubs beat the Cards.

Later I kept a friend company while she shopped. Funny the things you overhear at the Halls Walmart at 11 on a Saturday night. Unfortunately for me and my headache, that was the squall of a brat.

But, I enjoyed the companionship and the laughter over a country version of "Gin and Juice." Even bought a six-pack of IBC root beer. Made me forget all about the headache.

Now I'm trying to wind down, but am kept up by a new novel written by one Inman Majors, nephew to Tennessee football's first son, Johnny Majors. Its title is "The Millionaires." It is a not so thinly disguised fictionalization of the Butcher banking scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I am too tired to go into that tale for those unfamiliar with it, so I will save it for a future blog, when I review the book in question. I knew about Inman from a Metro Pulse story written a few years back. But I had no idea about this novel, which was apparently released in January. For whatever reason, local media has been silent about it.

Well, the clock reads 4:30 and I guess I'd better turn in. I will drop by again soon. Hope you're enjoying a good night's sleep.

I wish I was.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Knox GOP's historical blunder

It would be hilarious if it weren't such a disgrace.

Tonight, the Knox County Republican Party will hold its annual Lincoln Day Dinner fundraiser. If you become curious why a Lincoln Day Dinner would be held in April, you'd be right. Common sense should tell you that the dinner would be held in February, either the Saturday before or after Mr. Lincoln's birthday. But, that isn't even the worst part.

Today is the day Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

I do not know whether this happened on purpose or by happenstance. Either way, it is gross negligence on somebody's part.

But, in a way, it is apropos for the current incarnation of the party of Lincoln.

The modern day version of the Republican Party in no way resembles the GOP of Lincoln's day. The party was founded in 1856 by an interesting melting pot of varying political interests -- former Whigs, abolitionists, those opposed to the Democrats and Stephen A. Douglas's support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Believe it or not, at one time the Republican Party was progressive -- culminating with Teddy Roosevelt's bully pulpit presidency at the turn of the last century. (As late as 1960, blacks were still voting Republican because of the party's support of civil rights.) The GOP (and the Progressive movement) also strongly supported women's suffrage in the late 1910s.

Even the Republican Party of recent history (beginning with Barry Goldwater and culminating with Ronald Reagan) barely resembles the morally bankrupt Republican Party of the moment. I am no fan of the Democrats, but the GOP has been hijacked by neo-conservatives who are directly responsible for the philosophy that led to America's first preemptive war in 2003. The party's obsession with so-called wedge issues all but ensure that it will be on the losing end of national elections as American culture continues to shift.

Not that you care, but I have become a libertarian in my old age. Leave me alone and I'll leave you alone. Don't you dare let the federal government tell me what to do. The two reasons I don't associate with the official Libertarian Party are that I actually appreciate the Food and Drug Administration and realize that the party has no chance of winning an election.

But, back to Lincoln. What burns me about this Knox County debacle is the lack of historical awareness. At least I hope that is the case. If this was done on purpose, it pops open an entirely different can of worms.

I am sickened also by neo-Confederates that accuse Lincoln of everything from speculating land to being the Devil incarnate. Anyone with a brain knows that Lincoln's death was the worst thing that could happen to the former Confederacy. In his absence, Radical Republicans initiated a revenge-minded version of Reconstruction that did not mesh with Lincoln's vision. Peaceful reconciliation died with him on that blood-stained pillow in the house adjacent to Ford's Theater.

For the record, I don't have one bit of a problem with an appreciation of true Southern heritage and study of the former Confederacy. Everybody knows that Robert E. Lee was a master strategist for much of the war and that, in general (pardon the pun), the South had more colorful commanders. I myself have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I have many friends who are members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

But I do have a major problem with revisionists who distort the historical record in order to perpetuate an agenda. Lincoln was a human being with the usual faults. He was a calculating politician. He took extra-legal steps to preserve the Union.

But look, folks. This was civil war. I pray we never have such a situation again.

And, honestly, I love the example of William G. "Parson" Brownlow, who defiantly hoisted the American flag up the pole at his Knoxville Whig newspaper office [the paper that became the Knoxville Journal] after Knoxville was captured by Confederates and Tennessee seceded from the Union. Don't forget, by the way, that Knoxville and all of East Tennessee were staunchly pro-Union. Most of them didn't like the rich plantation-owning assholes in Middle and West Tennessee telling them what to do. We've always been independent cusses. The 2nd Congressional District hasn't sent a Democrat to Washington since 1856.

I sadly allowed myself to be lowered into a discussion by some morons on Facebook who called Lincoln a despot, a dictator, and a few other names that aren't worth mentioning. Idiots like that aren't worth it. It is a passion with me, though. I almost got into a fistfight with one of these neo-Confederates at a Civil War Roundtable discussion who compared Lincoln to Hitler. We can disagree about history -- that's what makes it fun -- but all I ask is that we stick to the record and not look at it through the lens of our modern era. It isn't fair.

I won't go on and on about Lincoln. I did so on his 200th birthday in February.

But for the life of me I'll never understand why the Knox County Lincoln Day Dinner is being held on the day he was assassinated. Part of me thinks that not recognizing the significance of April 14 is worse than doing it on purpose.

That, you see, says something about historical ignorance.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

A dead ringer

Golly, what a voice.

My pal and longtime Elvis tribute guitarist (and Halls guy) Ross Southerland dropped by the other night. We got caught up on life and he needed to pick up some stuff I had borrowed to write an article. He also needed to borrow some Elvis CDs to learn some music for an upcoming show.

Conversation led to a friend who had sang at Memories Theatre with him awhile in Pigeon Forge. Her name is Emily Portman and she sings Loretta Lynn as well as, well, Loretta Lynn.

I'm not talking "sounds pretty close." I'm not talking, "Yeah, kinda reminds me of her." I'm talking spittin' image, a dead ringer.

She does some solo tunes as well as sings with a Conway Twitty impersonator.

"Love is where you find it, when you find no love at home; and there's nothing COLLLD as ashes, after the fire is gone..."

Incredible. Strong, pure voice. Phenomenal talent.

She's from up in Kentucky somewhere (Loretta's home state). Talks like her, has the mannerisms down pat -- just awesome. If she can act, she could easily play Loretta in an update of "Coal Miner's Daughter," one of my favorite movies.

Anyway, I just had to share this. If you love country music -- the real stuff, not the junk they sing today -- check out Emily Portman. ( or on YouTube at

Golly, what a voice.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Never be the same

Talk about special.

Got home a little while ago. Closing the books on a tough week.

All I wanted to do was turn the phone off awhile, turn on the Braves game, cook some wings and drink a beer. So I did.

Home opener tonight in the ATL. The Nats are in town.

During the top half of the third guess who showed up in the booth? Pete Van Wieren, Skip's longtime partner, somebody who will forever feel like an old friend.

Pete retired last year. And, as you probably know, Skip died. I had been listening to them since 1985. I've spent more time with them than with members of my own family. I can promise you I would have never loved baseball -- or the Braves -- near as much without them.

The Professor was honored tonight before the game. Threw out the first pitch. The Braves gave him a golden microphone and named the radio booth after him.

So, he visited the Peachtree TV booth tonight to chat with Chip Caray and Joe Simpson. I almost teared up hearing that voice again.

Pete says he likes retirement. He doesn't miss the rain delays, or the west coast trips, or the visits to Shea Stadium. He likes being able to go to his grandchildren's activities. He and his wife want to travel.

But, you can tell he misses baseball.

He started talking about Derek Lowe as if he were still working the Braves beat. That man has forgotten more than most of us will ever know about the game.

As I listened to his voice, and thought about the memories, I mused that things won't ever be the same. I mentioned this to you when I wrote the blog on vacation at Bridget and Dewayne's after Christmas.

I miss the old TBS. I miss "Andy Griffith" and "Perry Mason" and "Sanford and Son" reruns. I miss the classic voice of the announcer that would promote the rural/Southern/action movies the station used to show. Heck, I miss the movies. I miss everything airing at either :05 or :35 after the hour.

And I miss the Braves. I miss all 162 games airing on Ted Turner's Superstation. I miss the low-key graphics, the bad instrumental music at commercial breaks, the times when things seemed simple.

Everything is so commercialized now, so homogenized. Somewhere along the way being regional became a bad word. I am proud to be a Southerner. I hope you're proud of your home region.

Oh, and how will I miss Skip and Pete. And Ernie Johnson. And Don Sutton and Joe Simpson, although they're still around.

It isn't the same. Never will be.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Judith Allison

My sister died 31 years ago today.

I think maybe that is why this week is both a sweet and bittersweet time of the year. T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month. I know what he means.

My sister and I were twins, premature, born 2 and 1/2 months early. I had few health problems. She was a different story.

Judith Allison was a tiny little girl with red hair. I guess she got that from my Grandfather Mabe.

She lived but a month. A leaky heart and an inability to get her breath those last few days proved to be too much for her tiny body to take.

I have often wondered how different life would have been had she lived. Somebody told me recently that having a twin die in infancy told them a lot about me and how I view the world. I didn't exactly know what she meant, but I have a suspicion.

Maybe I have tried to take up her life, too, tried to run a little faster, study a little harder, sing a little louder, love a little harder. I don't know. Perhaps I become disillusioned when I realize I haven't lived up to that standard.

Whatever the case, I drove to work on this heartbreakingly beautiful April morning, lost myself in the blue of the sky and the gold of the sun, and thought awhile about the sister I never knew.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

It's enough

Hello, it's me.

Sorry I haven't written in awhile. Things have been a little nuts.

And that's the way it seems right now. Out of sync. Nothing makes sense. Needing time that doesn't exist.

What's funny about it is this is my favorite time of year. Springtime. Baseball. That weird, heartbreaking yet beautiful few days that is Good Friday to Easter.

And yet. And yet.

Monday afternoon I took off to watch our game. Mike and J.M. came over. We cooked burgers. The Tigers lost. But, as always, it was rejuvenating. My dear, old friend is back for another six months.

For a few precious hours I remembered what is good and decent and poetic about this journey we call life. Or, at least, it's an illusion of such and I let it fool me.

I feel like I am so close sometimes. That everything I've witnessed and the scar tissue and the feeling that nothing ever seems to fit will soon be over. That my life, stuck in neutral, is about to click into fifth gear.

And then the page turns and I'm stuck in a bog, trapped in the undertow, trying to climb to the surface.

I am thinking this afternoon of a short story I read once written by a late, great former professor, Dr. Robert Drake. It is set, of course, in his beloved Ripley, out in West Tennessee, years ago. It's Good Friday. His father dies. The poignancy of it all is beautiful in its heartache.

I don't know why I'm thinking about it. But I am.

Oh, well. Let's forget all that.

I'm going to go home in a little while, fix dinner, and watch my game.

It's enough.