Monthly Archives: June 2010

The Texan on the Porch

In seventh grade, in Texas, every kid has to take Texas History…or at least they did when I hit it in 1975. As a Texan I take pride in my state and will confess that I have that Texan bravado that other Americans find quite nauseating at times….well, maybe all the time. It is the one of the few things that I have in common with George W. Bush….we both love Texas and don’t mind talking about it. Texas is different and if you live here or visit, you will understand. Texas is tangible property, but it is a state of mind above all else.

I won’t bore you with actual Texas history here today, this story is about something else, this story is about an old man and a porch. I have a grand porch at my house, it has the original tile floor from 1915. My house is a Fort Worth landmark, I am only the third owner in the last 95 years. It was on that porch the other day that I remembered Mrs. Campbell’s Texas History class at Hurst Junior High. There I was, a middle-aged woman, sitting in a rocking chair, drinking a cup of coffee when a memory came flooding back to me as clear as a bell. A memory about another porch and another time, as seen through the eyes of a thirteen year old.

Mrs. Campbell was in her mid-thirties and always really animated as she paced back and forth in front of the class. I enjoyed her Texas history class because I have always been a history buff and her way of teaching just made me laugh. She was one of those teachers that had the gift. That talent for making kids listen to boring, dry material with a smile on their faces, while at the same time actually learning something.

The first half of the class was a lecture and the second part was always a class assignment questioning or reinforcing what you had just been taught. Being the nerd that I was, I was finished most every day with about 15 minutes to go before the bell sounded. I spent this luxurious 15 minutes of nothingness most days by reading magazines. I would tuck the magazine inside the giant history book and no one was the wiser. The Texas History book was the size of most coffee tables and had a large picture of the Alamo on the front cover.

One day I was reading a story about Freddie Prinze of Chico and the Man getting married when I noticed something out the window. Hurst Jr. High was situated in a middle-class neighborhood in my hometown. It was dominated by small homes built around WWII for the returning fighting men and their soon to be expanding families. It was inside those homes where the baby boomers, like myself, were conceived and raised. They were not fancy, but they were pragmatic in their design and affordable for the returning servicemen, like my father.

My desk was situated right up beside a window and I noticed an elderly man sitting on a porch across the street. He was dressed in khaki pants with suspenders and a white long sleeve shirt with a bow tie. It struck me that he was pretty dressed up to just be rocking on his porch. As I was staring at this old guy, he looked straight at me and waved. Pretty good eyesight for an old guy I thought, and I waved back. I showed him the huge history book to let him know what I was doing….he got up and walked into his house. The old man walked back out with a book in his hand and waived it up above his head so a I could see it. I instantly got what he was doing, he was showing me that we were reading together. Mrs. Campbell looked up from grading papers and we exchanged a smile. She motioned for my attention to go back to the Freddie Prinze article, so I obliged.

The next day I took my seat in class and again finished early. It was about 9:45 in the morning and there was the old guy again walking out his front door with his book in his hand. I waived at him and he back at me….this continued for the next two months. He would sit on his porch and read with me…always a friendly wave hello…and another for goodbye, as the bell sounded and I got up to go to my next class.

Being thirteen, I never really thought about him being lonely…perhaps stopping by after school to introduce myself or chat. Our relationship just consisted of about 30 minutes a day, reading together…with a couple of friendly waves, and that is the way it would remain.

One of the sections in the class was on famous Texas war heroes. Audie Murphy, the Medal of Honor winner and the most decorated soldier in WWII was from Texas. We studied his courageous life and that of other Texans that had valiantly served abroad. Students in the class gave presentations of family members that were Texans and had served in previous wars. Mrs. Campbell was looking for exciting, action filled stories that would help us kids tie local people to the global story that was WWII. Our stories were pretty sedate as it turned out. My father being a mess Sergeant was one of the more captivating stories…so much for local color.

I got to where I was looking forward to seeing the old man on the porch everyday. I would wave my book frantically so he could see me and he would wave whatever book he was reading back at me. One day Mrs. Campbell witnessed the exchange and I thought for sure she would put a clamp on it. After class I told her I was sorry, but the old man on the porch was reading with me. To my surprise she said it was a nice thing and told me not to worry about it. She said he probably looked forward to the exchange, that I was his friend.

How powerful is that I thought, you could make a friend by doing something as small as waving a couple of times a day….waving a 5 pound book of all things. The reading partnership continued for another month until one day in January.

Mrs. Campbell had finished her lecture and I was working on a short pop quiz. I looked out the window and noticed the old man’s neighbor at his front door. He was banging on it and I continued to watch as he opened the door and went inside the old man’s house. I finished the 10 questions on the pop quiz as the ambulance arrived and parked in between the school and the old man’s house. All the kids in the class raced to the row of windows and now had their noses pressed against the glass, attracted by the lights and siren.

Mrs. Campbell ordered all the kids back to their seats and patted me on the shoulder as she walked back to her own. I held up the huge history book to shield my face and continued to observe the old man’s porch. As the bell for the next class sounded I watched as the paramedics pushed the gurney down the sidewalk and into the ambulance. The sheet was pulled up over the old man’s body. I lifted my book and waived it, as tears rolled down my cheeks.

I watched the obituaries in the local paper for the next couple of days before I found what I was looking for…I found my reading partner. His name was Harry and he was a combat veteran from WWII. The story said that he had served heroically and had flown on numerous combat missions. My reading partner was a war hero.

My class had been looking for a local hero, our own Audie Murphy…and he had been less than 50 yards away from my window all along. A brave Texan whose world had been the entire Pacific Theater 34 years earlier, had that same world reduced to one small porch and a rocking chair. I can’t say if the old man was lonely, or un-loved…I am not trying to write a maudlin story. I do regret however never walking over after school and saying hello. I missed out on a chance to hear some amazing, first-hand stories and to learn more than I ever could in that 5 pound book. I missed a chance to meet a Texan named Harry.

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Growing Up Juju (part 5 in a series)

Juju was standing in the main hall of Harrison Lane Elementary with 10 boys and girls in front and about the same behind her. At the end of the hall, sat the school nurse, all 300 pounds of her at a card table. Her name was Nurse Jackson and she was stuffed into a white polyester uniform that had fit her nicely five years earlier. She had a clip board and was jotting down the height and weight of each student. It was that day…one of the days Juju dreaded every year….HEALTH DAY.

One of the secretaries from the front office was manning the scale and measuring the heights of all the sixth graders. She stood approximately 3 feet from Nurse Jackson, but nonetheless shouted out the statistics like she was Howard Cosell. Good grief Juju thought, she is fat, not deaf! 87 pounds for Smith, Robert L.!! 90 pounds for Johnson, Allison A!! An eruption of giggles started at the front and rolled down the line…90 pounds!!?? A red-faced Allison turned on her Mary Jane’s and ran back to class, scarred for a lifetime…destined for nights alone watching TV and eating Haagen Dazs out of the carton.

78 pounds for Williams, Carl W!! The line in front of Juju was dwindling, she was thankful the weigh-in was before lunch…she had skipped breakfast in anticipation…surely that would yield a one pound loss. Juju was also secretly wishing the scale in the bathroom at home was broken….it couldn’t be right!! What is going to happen when the secretary yells those three digits?? Juju’s thighs were sweating as Louis, the biggest boy in class approached the scale.
Please, please, please she thought to herself, let his number be higher. 108 pounds for Jacobs, Louis D!! The boy behind Juju tapped her on the back and said, “Wow, Louis is big!!” And I am enormous Juju thought, fighting the urge to hurl in the main hall. She thought back with nostalgia to first grade where puking was her biggest problem. It would be a way to lose a quick pound, right in this line…she could even turn around and puke on the kid behind her! 70 pounds for Sanders, Mary L!! 70 pounds?? Juju weighed 70 pounds in 3rd grade, this wasn’t going to be pretty. Maybe she could take her shoes off, were the other kids doing that??

At last it was Juju’s time up to bat. She looked in the direction of Nurse Jackson…longing for a Kumbaya moment…does she feel my pain, she wondered? The secretary motioned for Juju to step on the scale and she obliged. A hush fell over the line as all remaining members of Mrs. Parish’s sixth grade class, for once in their life, shut their mouths.
Juju looked straight ahead as the weights were pushed to the right, then turned to see the secretary scream the digits. Was it just Juju or did she seem to take glee in shouting out the new high number? It isn’t a contest Juju thought, not one she cared to win!! 117 Billhymer, Juju!!! “Did you say 116?” Nurse Jackson asked. “No, 117!!!” the secretary retorted. The ultimate humiliation was complete and its victim was only 12 years old. Whoops and hollering could be heard echoing down the vast hallway as the lottery winner walked back to the classroom. Juju knew she was the victor, there wasn’t a pudgy or tall kid left in line.

Juju tried to mentally spin positive by thinking that it was just another category where she was number one. Tallest girl? Check. Smartest girl? Check. Fattest kid? Oh hell, Check!! She had heard on TV that Rachel Welch weighed 110 pounds!! Juju was in sixth grade and had her beat too!! Her mother had told her that the women in the family were all “big-boned.” Juju looked at her arms and hands…they didn’t look that big she thought. Was that true? Would she look like a freak if x-rayed?

Mrs. Parish, a woman of about 65 years old and in her last year before retirement, stood at the front of the classroom. Boys and girls today in the cafeteria they are serving…. (she always announced the menu an hour before the lunch bell so we could sit in anticipation of some mystery meat that was fashioned into a shape resembling a pork chop)
They are serving today pizza, green beans, salad, and strawberry Jello. Mrs. Parish was originally from West Germany and when she said the word “pizza” it came out sounding like piss-za. They always served it on Fridays, so Juju and her classmates always looked forward to Mrs. Parish uttering what they believed to be a dirty word. She never understood why she drew a chuckle on Fridays, announcing the main course that looked like a piece of cardboard, with ketchup-like sauce and fake cheese….shaped like a pork chop.

Mrs. Parish was a large woman too, shaped like a pear. You know the type, size 6 on top and 22 down below. She wore June Cleaver like dresses everyday, in muted colors. Mrs. Parish noticed that Juju looked down and called her up to her desk when the lunch bell sounded.
Inquiring what was the problem, Juju admitted the 3 digits yelled in the hallway were making her feel miserable. Mrs. Parish said, “yes, I noticed you didn’t even laugh when I said piss-za.” (she knew!!)

Mrs. Parish told Juju that she was 5’10” tall and that the size of her frame demanded more weight. She continued that she was never ashamed of her size and Juju should walk with her head held high. Mrs. Parish told Juju that she would look ill at her height if she weighed just 70 pounds like little, petite Mary. She is kind of small, Juju agreed. By the time Mrs. Parish had finished with the pep talk, Juju was beginning to feel somewhat better…and by golly, a little hungry!

Juju exited the class and walked down to the cafeteria. She took her place in line and retrieved the 55 cents from her jean pocket to pay for her lunch. She was so famished, having skipped breakfast, that the ketchup pizza actually smelled good.

Juju reached to take the plate from the cafeteria lady and Steven, a boy in her class, yelled out. Don’t give Juju pizza, she is the fattest kid in our class, she weighs 117!! The obese cafeteria lady yelled at Steven to be quiet, responding, “she’s not fat, she is big-boned!!” Juju chomped down on the pizza chop, it really isn’t that half bad, she thought. And Jello, there is always room for Jello! Girl with biggest bones in sixth grade? Check!

Caroline’s Haircut

The Chevy Camaro was flipped over and laying on its roof in the middle of a two lane, farm to market road. Gasoline was seeping out of the cracked gas tank onto the hot black top of the Texas road. I was the first to arrive at the scene, I ran up and crouched down to get an idea of how many occupants there were and what kind of injuries needed attention. The thought of the car exploding was on my mind when I got my first look at Caroline.

There hanging upside down was the sole occupant of the car. An 18 year old girl with beautiful, long, blonde hair. I mention the hair because it was pinning the girl to the roof as she hung upside down. The sun-roof was open and when the car flipped, her long hair flowed out the opening and was now under the roof of the car, tightly pinning her head. Her seat belt had saved her life, without the belt her head would have gone out the opening.

Hey, what’s your name? My name is Julya. Caroline? Okay Caroline, I know you are just hanging around, but we really need to get you out of this car. Do you have any injuries? Do you feel any pain? Can you feel your arms and legs? I went through the questions that needed to be asked very quickly as I looked her over myself. I was now lying on the inside of the roof with my head right beside Caroline’s. I could hear the paramedics talking to the dispatcher. They had been on another call and were clearing the hospital, their ETA at the accident site was 7-8 minutes.

I began to talk to Caroline as I tried to yank the blonde tresses out from between the roof of the car and the black top of the road underneath. Caroline’s hair was probably down to her waist, but it was pinned at about collar length. She told me she had just graduated high school and had been shopping for dorm room stuff for the fall semester at college. An old man in a truck had pulled out in front of her, she had swerved the Camaro to the gravel shoulder and then over-corrected causing the car to flip and slide about 50 feet down the road on its roof.

I could smell smoke from the engine and the gas was trickling….two men had stopped to help and were yelling at us to get the hell out of the Camaro. I told Caroline that the ambulance was about 7 minutes away, but I really thought we should leave the car in about 1 minute!
I was now really jerking at her hair, pulling out handfuls…I asked if I could use my knife. Caroline, the panic building as the smoke got heavier around us screamed, “do it!!”

I always carried a very sharp knife on my duty belt. I was told by a veteran cop to do so in case I ever had to cut a seat belt and help someone get out of a car, just like the instant I was finding myself. Only the seat belt unbuckled quite easily…I was now using the knife to cut Caroline’s hair. I cut as quickly as I could and we both slithered out the passenger side of the car. We trotted to the shoulder with the men and watched as the smoke got increasingly heavier and blacker.

Another officer arrived on the scene and assisted me in traffic control. I would like to make this story more interesting by saying just as we cleared the car it EXPLODED in a fiery red ball of flames!! But alas, that would not be the truth. The smoke bellowed, but no flames….the fire department arrived with the paramedics at their predicted time. The car was sprayed to prevent an explosion as I began to write the accident report.

Caroline was checked by the paramedics, but refused transport to the hospital. It seems that her only injury was an assault on her sense of style. She thanked me repeatedly for my help, we really did think the car would blow. One of the citizens that had stopped to help told me I was a hero, then started to chuckle and walked off.

The bottom line is, whether we waited for the paramedics or not, the hair was going to have to be cut. Caroline’s head was wedged tight against the sun-roof and there was no other way to free her without risking injury. Caroline was a cute girl and I saw her around town after that fateful day. She made the short cut work for her, with the help of her stylist they went for a Meg Ryan, You’ve Got Mail, kind of look. I told Caroline no referrals please, even if people flip for it.

Growing Up Juju (The Conclusion)

Juju knew there would come a day when she would have to do it. IT was the biggest dread of her life, telling her mother she was, in fact, a queer girl. She looked in the mirror and wondered why she had to do it at all? Do straight girls announce their heterosexuality to everyone? Why do queers have to make a big proclamation…Hey look everybody, hey world! I am a queer….I am making this announcement to open myself up to a big scoop of ridicule, scorn, discrimination, even hate….for the rest of my frigging life. Juju was becoming an adult, and she was coming out.

Juju’s mother said, “you have been spending quite a lot of time with that girl, you just can’t wait to get out of this house to see her!” Juju responded, “she has a name…and yes I like her.” Juju’s mother was seated at her sewing machine, working on some project for the Senior Citizen’s Fair in town.

“Look, I think we need to talk,” Juju said to Jewel. Her mother stopped the sewing machine and turned to look at her daughter. Juju saw a sick kind of look on her mother’s face…like she was green with nausea.
It must have been contagious because Juju instantly felt a need to hurl too. Juju layed down across her mother’s bed and Jewel joined her. Juju’s step-father was out for the afternoon, this was really going to happen! Juju’s voice started to tremble as she spoke…she reached over and took Jewel’s hand.

The words were halting and strained, but they spilled out of Juju’s mouth….just get it over she thought! Be done with it….the elephant is in the room….just point to the damn thing already!!! Juju told her mother that she cared for the girl just like she would a boyfriend. Juju told her mother that she was queer. The conversation was an amalgamation of all the stories of Juju’s childhood….it was the reason and answer for everything all at once….no dresses, no dating, no dances, no prom, endless hours at the softball field….it was the answer to the big question Juju’s mother didn’t ask….it was the answer to what was it like Growing Up Juju. It was queer.

Jewel responded to her daughter’s announcement with an opening statement of, “Oh Juju…..why another girl??” “Does it have to be this way?” A last feeble attempt for her daughter’s heterosexuality that Jewel knew did not exist. “It has to be this way,” Juju said.

They layed on the bed for about an hour….it was a conversation of dread that ended with a loving embrace. Juju’s mother said the words that, tragically, lots of queer, young people do not get to hear after coming out. “I am your mother and I will love you no matter what,” Jewel had told her. Jewel had known since Juju was in first grade that there was a chance this day would come….it was natural for her to pray it didn’t….it was wonderful of her to meet it with the grace she did.

It was hard for Juju’s mother and the following weeks were sometimes awkward and tearful on both sides. It never got ugly, but it wasn’t a fairy tale either. Juju knew her mother would have to deal with it in her own time. It was a non-issue with Juju’s step-father, for he had a grown, gay son. That didn’t mean he approved…it was just a non-issue…something to not be talked about.

Juju was going off to college. The distance would allow everyone to take a deep breath. The distance would allow Juju to become her own adult. Juju was thankful for the way things had turned out…pun intended. When you are a queer and not out….it eats away at you and causes too much wasted energy and time. Energy wasted on cover stories and lies….time spent building a house of cards that eventually will fall anyway.

Juju drove north up the highway to her freshman year of college, the metaphor of the long road was not lost on her. The Beatles were cranked up so loud, the Mercury Bobcat was pulsating in its lane. The first hurdle was over in Juju’s mind…she knew that there would be many more to come.
Her college roommate outing her to everyone on campus was in her near future….a bonus issue to everything else that hits a freshman.

Juju could handle it. Her long ago neighbor had sucker punched her in her first attempt to reach out to someone…..the little girls jumping rope in elementary had taunted her as she played kickball with the boys….she had gotten in trouble for using the word queer in fifth grade….9th grade boys had yelled at her and called her Dyke in the halls of her junior high, hitting her in the back of the head if she ever dared to lean down and get a drink from a water fountain….she had been called a boy repeatedly in high school restrooms.

Queer kids are resilient…they can handle it…they are much tougher than the general population thinks they are…putting up with shit on a daily basis does that to you…it toughens one up. Juju thought of all this as she continued her drive north up to Denton, Texas and her university. She wondered about a future where every gay kid came out to their parents and to the world all at the same time. No secrets….no shame, every gay American would rise up. The number would indeed be large….everyone in America would be related to or know a queer ..surely that would make it all better. Paul McCartney was singing on the eight-track…Juju started to sing along.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see, there will be an answer. let it be.

Juju drove on and thought that her wish would come true…but it might take some time…maybe even until 1995. She would have to be patient. Everyone would live out and proud…gay kids would not suffer in their childhoods…they wouldn’t have to make proclamations to their parents and others. Gay people wouldn’t be assaulted or killed for coming out in the wrong environment. Gays would have equal rights across the board and could even be legally married. Being queer would be like being blue-eyed or bow-legged….just another trait born unto you. No stigma or differences would be noted in Juju’s future, everyone would just……let it be.

Today is Your Glory Day

We have all run into an old high school friend on the street or perhaps on Facebook and chatted them up. It is good fun to talk about the glory days of our youth, to reminisce about shared experiences. But have you also continued to talk to them to the point where you realize they are every bit a stranger to you as the man who handed your latte to you that morning?

I recently had that experience. I wanted to take the person by the shoulders and ask them where my old buddy went? I wanted to beg her to reach back and grab that person that she was…or become the person that she dreamed of becoming long ago in the days of her glory….in the days of our glory.

If you are in your 40s or older and you are reading this….look into the mirror today and see how close you have become to what you dreamed about at 18. Does your reality match the dreams of your youth? It is not too late…the train is leaving the station…pick up your speed…begin to trot…reach out your left hand and grab hold!

I saw a story once about Kyle Maynard, a young man that was born without arms and legs….I have never forgotten it. He had just won a tournament in wrestling and a reporter was interviewing him for a local TV channel. The reporter stumbled over his words for a few seconds…then spoke to Kyle saying…I am sorry, what do I call you? Handicapped? Physically Challenged? What do you prefer? Kyle looked into the TV camera and said, “after today, you can call me State Champion.”

That young man was in his glory and I have to believe that he continues to set goals for himself daily…and meets them. A person like Kyle is never stagnant, never un-challenged and always rises to meet them. If you think you don’t have any challenges in front of you…I am arguing here that you are not looking too closely at yourself in the mirror. If you have reached all your goals in life…make new ones today!

If I ask you about an accomplishment or goal achieved and you start talking about something that happened to you 5 years ago or more…time to start re-evaluating. I am hoping I don’t come across as preaching today….this blog is really a letter to my 18 year old self. If you read it and somehow benefit from it…if it lights a fire underneath your butt to go out and set a new goal today, then fantastic!

I am not talking about dropping that 20 pounds that has become a pretty good muffin top over the waist of your jeans. I am talking about the stuff that dreams are made of….the promises we made to ourselves in the beginning of our adult selves. You say, hey wait a minute, I cannot back-pack across Europe at this point. I have a family, I have bills to pay…I have responsibilities. Okay…be realistic….but set the goal and see Europe anyway…fit it to the person you are today…but don’t forget the fire in your gut that was there at 18. Don’t forget your true self.

I have been studying for the California Bar Exam recently…and plan on taking it in February of 2011. They only give the test two times a year…I won’t be ready for the July setting, so that is as soon as I can feasibly do it. I swore to myself when I took the Texas Bar years ago that I would never take a bar exam again…it is a true beast of an exam…3 days long. But here I am ….doing it again…a scenario has presented itself to me that it is logical for me to do it. Whatever happens from this point, I have set a goal to take the damn test! True enough, I could rest on my laurels and stay in Fort Worth….but we are attempting to re-locate to San Diego. I am not one to be stagnant either…the test gives me an opportunity to rise up and meet a challenge. A chance to re-invent myself….to see new landscape. My 18 year old self always wanted to live near a California beach….my 48 year old self is setting a goal to achieve that dream.

So there are my thoughts for today. Do me a favor…don’t look in the mirror and hate yourself or beat yourself up for not meeting your youthful expectations. Don’t think about the bald spot…or the extra weight…that is not what this is about. This is about recapturing spirit…dig deep.

Have a conversation today with your youthful self…..and listen, truly listen. Nothing is impossible…if a young man without arms or legs can become a state wrestling champion..nothing is out of your reach. No excuses!! Take the first step today and if you feel like it…let me or someone else know about it. When you put it out there…it becomes real. I am going to be 49 and watching the sunset on the San Diego bay….and I will have a California bar card in my billfold. What are you going to do??