The Base Youth Group

There were only a few things for teenagers to do for recreation at Stewart on a Sunday night. One was going to the Teen Club to dance. There were usually a number of songs to dance to, “Ben”, a creepy song about a rat by a young Michael Jackson, “If” by Bread, and “Color my World”, by Chicago. I think the only “fast song” that got us moving was “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band because I and The Commodores “Brickhouse” which always seemed to be talking about Linda Mabry or least that is what Ronnie said. My Sundays nights were reserved for the base youth group.

Captain Bill Cates ran our youth group. He must have been an extremely patient man. None of the kids who went to youth group ever went to the base Chapel or church as I recall with the exception of the Mackesy girls who were Catholic. The only family that I knew who was remotely Pentecostal charismatic were the Lorigan’s. I remember Becki Lorigan telling me about her experience of speaking in tongues while getting off the bus and Washingtonville high school. I was happy not to be alone in that experience. We were all faithful to be at youth group every Sunday night. It was fun to be there and wasn’t overly religious, There were not a wide variety of churches in the upper Hudson Valley portion of New York. The majority of churches in that area were Catholic and we were not. We did visit an Assemblies of God church in Newburgh because we were brought up Pentecostal, but it just wasn’t like our church in Georgia, Evangel Temple, it felt a little bit hokey, to which my yankee friends probably would’ve gotten a great laugh.

I’m not sure that I thoroughly understood the gospel in those years, but I understood that someone loved me. Captain Cates was Christ to us. We were a ragtag band of ragamuffins. We were loved and we loved back, we just did not understand it. I contacted Captain Cates a number of years ago and thanked him for inspiring me to go into youth ministry all those years later.

The only real remembrance of any of the lessons from youth group from Captain Cates was what he called an Agape feast. We sat around eating grapes and cheese. I remember him causing me to have real feelings for the group and longings toward God. Our group met in the chapel annex, a separate building from the church itself. I worked in that building babysitting for kids during church services, I made a whopping $3.25 an hour which was the federal minimum wage. It was my first job. The church stored the communion wine in the refrigerator in the kitchen. There was always in a 1 gallon bottle Gallo burgundy wine in the fridge. 

My best friend was Ronnie Parkins. He was the cool guy at school and on base. I felt very privileged to be called his friend, me, the super skinny redhead kid. One night Ronnie and I were walking down the icy roads from the Gardens to the teen club. He was carrying his prized stereo system and had slightly too much to drink. The road was icy and he was scared he was going to slip and fall and break his sound system. I kept trying to steady him. We decided to take a break and go into the church annex to get warm and dry. We were hungry so I decided to look into the church refrigerator. There wasn’t much there except a couple of sticks of butter, the obligatory red punch, some leftover cake, a half eaten box of cornflakes that seem wildly out of place, and of course, the gallon bottle of red wine for communion as opposed to the stuffy Protestant cheap grape juice

I snuck the large bottle out the back exit, and Ronnie and I began drinking red wine out of red Solo cups and had a deep conversation that has stuck with me all these years. Ronnie looked at me and told me that I was such a great example for him. Here we were drinking stolen wine in a stairwell in 4 inches of snow!  Him holding me up is an example of morality is pretty hilarious to look back on!

We grew up there. I had one of my first real relationships in that town. I dated Melanie Wimmer, a proper east coast girl who did everything properly. Her father was an anesthesiologist stationed in Korea. Her mom was a socialite and volunteer. As far as I remember, Melanie was a bit spoiled and she loved to have fun. I taught her how to dance and she fell in love with the movies and soundtracks to Grease and Saturday Night Fever. She was a great dancer who I completely dissed at a dance competition. I wrote about that in the earlier blog. 

Our families were tied with the Jerowskskis’ and I had it bad for Michelle. Michelle had it bad for my best friend, Ronnie. My brother had it bad for the twins, and Neal had it bad for them as well. My sister had it bad for John John and as far as I know John John didn’t know that my sister even existed!

Linda was in love with Dominic from the day I met her. She had her wedding planned out from I believe her sophomore year. It reminded me of the song “songs from the Italian restaurant “just like Brenda and Eddie, it didn’t work out. She has been really loving relationship now for many years. God had a way of weaving a beautiful story in all the lives of the Stewart game.

Ronnie drove his big brother, Richard, absolutely crazy. He was the first person I ever saw that put beer in his Cap’n Crunch cereal. He preferred Primo Beer from Hawaii which was where his dad has been transferred from and Ron would eventually move back to and meet the love of his life, Virginia. Ronnie has been able to beat the family curse of divorce. He and Virginia have been married now for 39 years. I am so proud of him.

I have said before and I would love to reiterate. If you look at the path God has been leading you on from day one you can see how every little decision, every little tragedy, victory, everything has led you to this moment in life. God has directed your destiny. He has not caused everything to happen but he is directing everything. He has allowed your choices to go in natural directions and he has been by you the entire time. There is freedom in the world God created for you and it allows your choices to be the thing that in concert with him Will drive you toward him or drive you away. Make the right choice. You will never regret it.

Skipping School to Go Skiing

January 24, 2021

I remember having to call my parents and telling them that not only had I skipped school, but my buddy and I were stranded on the other side of the mountain. A storm was coming in. We were busted. But first, a bit of the backstory.

Being a transplanted southern boy, New York winters were a new experience. I had only really seen snow one time in 1974 when a freak snowstorm hit Columbus, Georgia, and paralyzed the city. Now, in New York, we had tons of snow all winter long. I became proficient in winter sports such as ice-skating, tobogganing, and snow skiing.

My first real lesson on how your body adjusts to below freezing temperatures was in our very first snowstorm. We stayed out playing in the powdery stuff for hours. There was a hill by our house that was perfect for sledding (although one of my brothers did slide directly into a tree, that’s another story.) We constructed forts and then defended them with an arsenal of snowballs.

As it began to get dark, we were called home to tubs of hot water waiting to warm our frigid bodies. We painfully learned that cold skin does not react well with hot water. We all began screaming at the same time as it felt like needles being pushed into the skin. We did not replicate that scenario again.

West Point Military Academy was a short 20-minute drive over the mountain. The campus had its own ski slopes. My friends, Richard and Ronnie Parkins, invited me to go skiing with them. I had never been. After a few falls on the bunny hill, they suggested it was time to go up the top. I was eager and a little scared. The three of us loaded onto the lift, and we began to ascend the mountain. I started thinking, “Maybe this isn’t such a great idea.”

As the chairlift came to the landing, the thought came to me that I had never asked how I was supposed to get off. “Just stand up and let the chair push you forward” was Richard’s advice. What I should have asked was, “Then what?” I stood up and was thrown down face first, which is a bit challenging to do when you’re wearing skis. I had nailed my first fall and then perfected it even more so the five or six times I fell on the way down the slope.

Throughout that winter, we went skiing a lot. I loved it, and was getting pretty good. One day, Ronnie suggested that we skip school and go skiing. I had never skipped school, and it sounded exciting. We packed our backpacks with our school books and our gym bags with our snow wear. Off we went for a great adventure, and it turned out to be that, just not what we had in mind. 

We rented our skis and jumped on the lift. We had many great runs down the mountain. I was getting more confident and rarely fell, but I was not ready to take risks. My buddy, Ronnie, was an athlete, an extreme sports kind of guy. There was nothing he wouldn’t try. So when he saw the chance to learn to jump, he went for it.

I stood off to the side and watched person after person take those jumps. It was exciting, but I was certainly not going to give it a try. Ronnie took a few jumps and landed them. He was pumped and cocky. On the last run of the day, he hit that jump full force and came down hard and tumbled in the snow. There was a loud yell, and people started staring to see what had happened.

Ronnie’s leg was broken. The ambulance came and took us to the Keller hospital. We were both there in the waiting room as the skies darkened. In just a little under an hour, snow was falling hard. Officials closed the mountains when conditions warrant it, and these conditions did. We were stuck, and we were in for it. I had to call my mom and tell her that we had skipped school, gone to West Point to ski, and Ronnie broke his leg. My mom would have to go across the street to tell Mrs. Parkins, who generally was never in a very good mood, and tell her what occurred. Since the mountain roads were closed, they would have to wait until the morning. Once the streets were plowed, both parents braved the mountain roads to rescue us from our predicament. I don’t really remember the punishment, but I’m sure it was severe.

I skipped school plenty of times later but never again had such an adventure. I have still never taken the jump.

The Dance Contest

The Dance Contest

Our family moved to New Windsor, New York, a small village outside of Newburgh, in the late summer of 1975. The music world was upended in the 70s. Disco was king, and I was a 125 pound, athletically challenged kid who had red hair and a southern accent. Our new home was in military Non-commissioned housing at Stewart, a sub-post of West Point, less than 25 minutes away.

Stewart was a very small community. We had a bowling alley and a movie theater (that only showed new releases for a day or two). The pool was where most of us hung out during the day, and the Teen Club is where Junior high and high school kids spent their weekends.

I remember the Teen Club always had its lights down low and music playing from a single jukebox. Guys and girls made out on the small couches and slow danced to songs such as Time in a Bottle, by Jim Croce, Precious and Few, by one-hit-wonder, Climax. Still, the music that sticks out in my mind of always being played was Color my World by Chicago. I remember having my first real passionate kiss while dancing to that song; I just can’t remember who the girl was.

I learned how to disco dance at the Teen Club. Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and Andy Gibb were always in rotation. My two favorite partners were Michelle Jerowski, who was in junior high at the time, and Melanie Wimmer, my girlfriend.

The local nightclub, New York, New York, capitalized on the disco craze and opened its doors on Saturday mornings for teens to come and dance their hearts out. We became regulars there. They began having regular dance competitions, and I decided I wanted to win.

My mom bought me a T-shirt while I was in my 20s that read, “If I can’t win, I don’t want to play.” Therefore I was never good at team sports. Dancing was my solution. We watched American Bandstand and Solid Gold, and Soul Train. Those shows taught us the moves, and we duplicated them. I worked hard with Melanie so we could win the contest. At the time, Michelle was really the better partner, but I was dating Melanie.

Most of my readers are familiar with the movie, Grease, with John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Remember the scene where Danny ditched Sandie to dance with another girl for the contest? He was a jerk. That movie mimics what happened next.

The day of the contest had arrived. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I ditched my girlfriend for who I thought was the better dancer. Michelle and I won the contest, and I, of course, lost the girl. I was very excited about winning the trophy, but I was devastated when Melanie looked at me and cried. Like I said, I like to win.

I did learn to be more considerate of people from that lesson. I am still friends with many of the people who formed that small community at Stewart. We have all grown up to be polite, responsible members of our communities. I’m glad we are not stuck with our teenage selves, but we have taken the lessons from those years and learned from them. I’m not jive talking.

The Water Fight

January 6, 2020

What began as a small water fight between friends morphed into a 38-year cloak and dagger tradition. It has been played out on several continents by prominent members of the government and no government associations, a United States Congressman, a U.S. ambassador, an Arlington Virginia fire captain, and many other recruits and mercenaries. I am telling the stories from my perspective. Randy is allowed to post his rebuttal publicly. Let me explain how this all began.

After three years of friendship, nightly dinners, and a mutual love for mischief, I asked Judy Asmuth out on a date. Before the advent of the VCR, Disney would re-release its classic movies in theaters from time to time.  Judy had grown up in a religious tradition that eschewed card playing, dancing, and the cinema, among other things. Peter Pan was playing at a theater in Fountain Valley. I managed to work up the nerve to ask her out, and she said yes.

In my mind, it was the perfect opportunity to don my Peter Pan costume, complete with green tights, a hat, and ballet shoes. When I emerged into the dorm lobby. Judy looked at me, shook her head, and said, “absolutely, no way.” I promptly went back up to my room and put on something “preppy,” which was the prevailing style in the 1980s.

Following the movie, we went to Marie Callender’s and had my favorite, strawberry pie,. We then drove down to Newport Bay and had our first kiss. We both knew that night that we would marry each other.

On cloud nine, I returned to my dorm room. When I open the door, there stood my friend  with a large bucket of water. I tried to shut the door, and it slammed back into my noggin, gashing my forehead. The date was forever cemented in mind not only because it was Judy and my first date, but also because it was Randy’s birthday.  The whole situation gave rise to an annual tradition, employing many accomplices and alumni.

January 7, 1984, gave me the perfect opportunity to settle the score. I waited outside Randy’s parent’s home in the bushes. I had a hose ready to go. As he walked up to his door by then, I turned the water full blast in his direction. It is now the beginning of a 38-year-old tradition.

The first few years of these shenanigans were relatively simple. We will go out to celebrate your birthday. A water glass might have been tipped over, or a waiter somehow decided to water plants over my lap. Still, the real cloak and dagger, almost spy-like capers, took over the tradition.

There are 38 years of stories that can be told. I called Randy last night, and we reminisced about what we thought was the best.

Here are a few of my favorites:

There was a time that this tradition was straightforward. It made the jump to full-on spy caper mostly out of necessity. In this story, the protagonist was living in Croatia, having been recently married to his wife, Vesna. Before departing for Croatia, my friend placed a Skype phone call to one of Vesna’s relatives. He made a fatal flaw by making that call on my computer. I know I had contact! The only rule we have set into place was that you cannot retaliate against a willing participant. I contacted stable, and he quickly agreed. I never put parameters on the plan, and Steve O came up with a brilliant contrived the best possible scenario. A waiter serving the young, newly married couple took a water picture and poured it on an unsuspecting Randy. The game heading now become international.

Randy was in town to celebrate Christmas and his birthday. On January 3, I drove him to John Wayne Airport and saw him leave to head back to Washington. The crux of this story takes place beginning at 11:50 PM on January 6. There was a ring of the doorbell. When I opened the door, there was a girl in my youth group who had recently had a baby out of wedlock, and she was crying. She told me that her mother kicked her out of the house and didn’t know where to go. I asked where her son was, and she said out into the car in the car. I went to retrieve the boy, and when I did, I was assaulted in a pillowcase one over my head; my first thought was psycho boyfriend is going to kill me. Then I realized I recognized some of the voices. It was kids in my youth group. They proceeded to tie my hands and feet together and put me in the back of my truck. They proceeded to drive to the park, where they tied me a tree and began a countdown. ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, and then, the pillowcase came off, and there he stood the large yellow bucket for water.

One of the advantages of being a youth pastor at the time was that I always have a willing partner to help with this event. I do not believe anyone has refused me. My former student Matt Herrera, grew up in Mission Viejo but moved away to go to college and later became a fireman. He rose in the firefighter ranks to the rank of captain. 

Matt and Randy a had met years earlier in Washington DC. Matt drove the fire truck to his home, knocked on his door, and told him there had been a gas leak. At that point, the water gushed from a fire extinguisher. It was glorious few minutes.

For the 25th anniversary of the water fight. I purchased a flight to Washington DC and did not let anyone know I was coming.  My former student, John Brock, took photos of the “hit” and posted them online. I on the other hand turn off my location services on my phone and madeUpon arrival, I checked into a nice hotel and then took the ice bucket with me to camp out underneath Randy’s stairs. I have not really put much thought into what I was going to do, but I finally decided to knock on the door. A couple of my recruits had already done the deed earlier in the day, and hopefully, this was going to throw the tips off. When the door opened, Randy’s daughter and wife stood there aghast. I could read her lips as she slowly pronounced, “Oh my God!” She then pointed down the hall. I quietly headed toward their bathroom to find Randy hiding in the bathtub. I took the ice bucket and threw it over the top of the shower curtain. There was an audible gasp as I pulled back the curtain to a very shocked friend. I had been successful!

Recently, a willing player somehow managed to get the address incorrectly. The temperature was below zero, and there were at least 2 feet of snow on the ground. He camped out on the side of their house and waited for three hours. The water in his bucket froze solid by the time he realized that he had the wrong address. That is the risk mercenary’s take.

At one point we had to resort to psychological warfare. I intercepted an email to my son from Randy asking for his help. I wrote back as Josh and told him to “use this new address. “My dad checks my email.” I’ve then proceeded to write back and tell him to use this new address and he began to correspond with “Josh” when it was really me. Writing as Josh,  I asked if he would like some extra help. Of course he responded in the affirmative. I’ll let him know that Kelly Reeder, Josh’s third grade teacher, would love to help. He then carried on conversations between Josh and himself and Kelly and himself. I talked about how badly he was going to be “nailed. He did not leave the house for 24 hours. Mission accomplished!

Someone asked me recently how long will this continue? My response, until we die. I have plans to pour a glass of water on my friend while he is in his casket. That’s what friends do.

Australia

During my sophomore year at Southern California College, now Vanguard University, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia on a short-term mission trip. My knowledge of geography was severely limited back then. I did not know that it was summer during our winter here.  I didn’t even know  Sydney had beaches.

The price of the trip was nearly $2500, a price which I alone could not afford. I sent support letters out to friends and family. My home church, Christian Life Church, in Long Beach, California, also announced my opportunity. During a Sunday night church service, I came to accept that I probably wasn’t going to be able to go. I found out the next day that my trip had been paid in full.

We left Los Angeles International on December 26, 1980. Somewhere along the way, our plane crossed the international dateline. It was an unusual experience, losing a day, but we arrived in Sydney and were greeted by our hosts.

It was a bit surreal to see window decor picturing Santa in the snow in the middle of the summer. The weather was perfect, and the beaches sublime. I was assigned to do youth ministry on Manly Beach. What I was not expecting were topless beaches. There is nothing quite as shocking as turning around in line while at a snack shop in seeing an elderly woman in a bikini bottom, no top, and silicon-based sunblock applied to very delicate areas! I still shutter with thinking about it forty years later. I have told a story about I studied for a sermon and was interrupted by a beautiful topless blonde asking me for directions; one day, I may work up the nerve to share that story.

Many of the guys stayed at the home of two elders in the small church we were working. It’s a misnomer to call them “Elders” since these men were in their early 20s. They were both postal workers and had received quite a bit of gifts from people on their routes. It was a bit shocking to this 19-year-old when I open the fridge to see a ton of alcohol. At the time, alcohol was taboo in Evangelical circles. I remember shaking my head and saying I can’t believe they are so liberal! Sometime in the next day or so, I was reading campus life magazine, a magazine targeted at evangelical youth. One of the guys asked to read it, and I handed it over to him. He also made a gasp, and I ask, “what’s the matter?” He was appalled that a Christian magazine had ads for women’s make up. They were OK with alcohol, but women’s cosmetics was out of the question.

I was asked to preach a sermon in a town about an hour away from Sydney. I took the train and brought my very first CS Lewis book, The Great Divorce. It was the first book besides Jonathan Livingston Seagull that I read in one sitting. It is still among my CS Lewis favorites today. 

When I arrived at the church, someone asked my age, and I said, “19.” Their response was “fair dinkum,” a term Aussies used in place of “really?” After asking for the definition and how the word should be used appropriately, one of our hosts gave me two words that I should use in my sermon that were exclusively used by people in Australia. I remembered the perplexed look of my audience when I used these words. Unknowingly on my part, these new friends made up those two words as a joke. I’ve since replayed that joke on others!

One of my team members, Toria Cole, was a girl I had known on campus reasonably well. She had, at the time, an annoying habit of touching me when she talked. I began to think she had ulterior motives. When we were walking down the street one day, she looked at me and said, “I am sorry I have been so touchy on this trip.” My reply was something like, “thank you, Toria; it bothers me when you touch me like that.” She looked downcast and said, “I meant my feelings.”

On the last day of our month in Australia, our host took us to the diving cliffs. We were up about 50 feet and looking out over the beautiful Pacific when we received instructions on how best to enter the water. Toria decided she wanted to be first and prove that she can do anything the guys could do. We reminded her that she needed to go in very straight, and she nodded in agreement.

As she leaped off that point, she held her nose and lifted her legs. It sounded as if someone had hit concrete when she entered the water. She came up and was obviously in distress. Everyone top just looked at each other in a confused manner. No one was jumping to her aid, so I let my Boy Scout life-saving training go and play. I drove down and swim out to her. At the time, she was heavier than my 120-pound frame. I struggled to get her to the shore but found out the only way was to go through an underwater cave and then of this year face of that cliff. I honestly don’t remember how I did it. Toria would spend the next few weeks in the hospital while we departed to go home.

I learned a crucial lesson on the flight home. My team members were embracing our hosts and crying. They do not want to say goodbye to their new found friends. All I could think of was going home. I had not let my heart become entangled in relationships hindered brlong distance. I was proud of the fact that our departure did not hurt me. On the 18-hour flight home, I was struck with the fact that I had lost out on meaningful friendships. To this day, I still make it a point never to sacrifice relationships to avoid pain.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in the school cafeteria when Toria bounding in. She threw her arms wide open and proclaimed me loudly, “my hero!” She then planted a kiss on my lips in front of all my friends. I was beet red at all the attention.

These days, I am proud of that rescue. Every once in a while, I will get a “my hero” from Toria over Facebook. I am no longer embarrassed but remember that time fondly.

The Motorcycle

In 1975, as a parting gift from the Chattahoochee River towns of Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama, was a new Kawasaki motorcycle. Our family was moving away from our generational hometown, Columbus.

We arrived in New Windsor, New York, about the same time that Jimmy Carter, a nationally unknown Georgia governor, announced he was running for president. Our new address would be 272 “Y” Street.

I started my freshman year at Washingtonville High School. Washingtonville was a small, mostly Italian town that is only known for its winery. Brotherhood Winery was one of the few that remained open during prohibition. That distinction makes it the oldest, continually operating winery in the United States. The clever Friars sold “communion wine” to the masses. Never before had that many people converted to Catholicism.

My accent was quite a novelty, and people tried to mimic it every day. I immediately became the center of attention, and of course, I liked that. The fact that I had a motorcycle at 14 years old drew some attention as well.

My best friend, Ronnie Parkins, lived across the street. He had an older brother, Richard, who drove the coolest car a teenager could operate, a Volkswagen Thing.

Ronnie and I were the same age, and he had a deep affinity for beer. That love got him in trouble more than one time in our high school years.

My parents converted our basement to my bedroom. I thought it was incredibly cool. I had wood-paneled walls. There was a steel beam down the center of the room. I lined it with 7-Up cans with all 50 states on them, a blue crushed velvet bedspread against my fire engine red headboard, and gallon wine bottles with candles around the room’s base. I thought I was the epitome of coolness.

Because it was a basement room, the windows were toward the ceiling. On the night I am describing, it was probably a foot of snow outside my window. Ronnie snuck over, dug my window out, and knocked. “Hey! Let’s go out and ride your motorcycle!” I really thought this was not a very good idea but went anyway. We pushed the motorcycle quietly across the street and into the schoolyard Little Britain Elementary. We took turns riding the bike around the parking lot.

Ronnie was in no condition to be riding my motorcycle. As he rounded a quarter, the bike went down. He was fine, but my bike had a large dent in the gas tank. I knew that my parents would find out. I put it back in the garage and hope no one would notice. Footprints in the snow in the snow were a dead giveaway. I was busted. That was the first time I was restricted from riding my motorcycle, but not the last.

The Jerowski’s were a family that lived down the street. Our parents became fast friends. They had five children, and there were five children in our family. Their oldest, Michelle, was a great friend and a frequent dance partner (there’s an entirely different story that I will tell one day.) Patti, Michelle’s mom, absolutely made it clear to both me and my mom, that I was never to take Michelle on a ride. I thought “they will never find out.”

Big mistake.

By this time, Ronnie had a motorcycle as well. We met at the aqueduct, a tall raised area with the motorcycle path on it. Ronnie had Bonnie as a partner, and I had Michelle. We spent a couple of hours riding up and down that path. I believe it was Michelle who spilled the beans.

I was busted.

I was too old to spank, and traditional groundings were so frequent that I had learned to make light of them. My mom decided to get creative and make me read Pat Boone’s Twixt 12 and 20, Pat Boone Talks to Teenagers, and make me do a book report on it. I wish I still had that book. It was selling on Amazon for $728.

To say that I hated it would not be an overstatement.

A former student of mine has the Boone’s as neighbors. I’ve often thought I should tell him that story.

Santa and the Secret Place

December 20, 2020

As a kid, we looked forward to going to downtown Columbus, Georgia, at Christmas time to see the beautiful window displays, but more importantly, to see Santa Claus. According to my parents, the only real Santa was in Kirven’s Department Store. The other Santas around town, including the one at the new Kirven’s in Columbus Square, were “Santas helpers.”

To see Santa, you walked up white stone stairs to a balcony that overlooked the store. I distinctly remember the smell of hair dye from the adjacent beauty parlor in that area. The majority of the balcony was set aside for Santa Claus. I can remember sitting in Santa’s lap and looking down at the shoppers on the main floor.

“What do you want from Santa this Christmas? Have you been a good boy? Ho ho ho!” I’m sure I answered in the affirmative whether it was true or not. I don’t remember what I asked for that particular year, but my idyllic Christmas with Santa, reindeer, and the North Pole and all that comes with it was soon shattered. Let me explain.

Our house on 33rd Place in Phenix City, Alabama (a short jaunt over the Chattahoochee and you were in downtown Columbus) was built with a split-level design that overlooked the river’s muddy water. There was a small utility room underneath the stairs that was a great hiding place for games of hide and seek. I don’t recall why I opened the door to the room that day. I just remember the elation I felt at the scene that was laid out before me.

Toys everywhere!. New toys! They were already assembled, and as far as I was concerned, they were all mine. Besides the Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots, one I distinctly remember seeing had a blue track that a space-like vehicle hung onto as it flipped upside down. Now my seven-year-old self did not put Christmas and these toys in the same category. I believed someone had put them in there, and it was a secret from the entire family. I didn’t tell a soul, not even my siblings. I did not like to share. I spent hours in that room under the stairs playing with toys that no one else knew about.

 Christmas Eve was always spent with my maternal grandparents. After I stood at the head of the table and read the Christmas story from Luke chapter two, we would enjoy dinner together and then, of course, the real reason we were there, presents! These gifts were from Granny and Paw Paw, not Santa. On the way home, we would stop by Golden Donuts and buy fresh, hot, wonderfully smelling donuts for Christmas morning, and a snack for Santa. The real Saint Nick ate Golden donuts, not cookies. Those must’ve been for Santas helpers!

On Christmas morning, I remember coming up the stairs and being blinded by the Super Eight camera, and it’s corresponding light bar. I would have green spots where the four bulbs were in my eyes for the next 10 minutes. Opening presents in our household was way different than opening presents with my wife’s family. We all grabbed a box and opened them at the same time. It was loud and chaotic. Imagine my dismay when one of those presents that had been designated to my brother, Ande, had the very same toy that I had been playing with in the room under the stairs. I remember thinking, “Wait a minute! These are the same toys I’ve been playing with for the last week. Does that mean Santa is not real?” I was disillusioned.

My parents came up with a creative explanation that Santa had to drop those toys off earlier in the week and place them in that room under the stairs. He has lots of little boys and girls he has to deliver to, so he delivered to our house first. It seemed a plausible explanation, and for the next year or so or a regained my trust in Santa.  

By the time I was 10, I was reasonably sure that Santa did not exist, but of course, I still hedged my bets and asked him for a minibike. I really wanted one of those motorized beauties to ride around our acre property anytime I wanted. I was convinced that Santa was going to provide such a vehicle. If he didn’t, then I’d be sure he was not real!

Christmas morning came, and we once again,” faced the bright lights” and headed upstairs. I remember doing a quick survey of the room, and to my dismay, there was no minibike. Opening my other presents did not feel magical. I was disappointed. I know my parents could read my face. That minibike was all that I had talked about for weeks. When the presents were unwrapped, my mom asked me to go into the kitchen and get a pair of scissors. Imagine my excitement when I walked into the kitchen, and there IT was! A beautiful blue mini bike and it was all mine! Despite my doubts, Santa came through for me, after all.

That was the last year I bought the myth that was Santa Claus. It didn’t matter. At that time, Santa was real and brought me exactly what I wanted.

If Santa asks this year, I have been a good boy in 2020.

An 11-Year-Old Attempts to Impress Girls

December 9, 2020

When I was 11 years old, my parents got a new ironing board. I painted a Frankenstein monster on said ironing board box. I proceeded to cut out eyes and slid the box all the way down to my ankles. I had a phenomenal plan! I would walk down to Tracie Vasquez’s home, knock on the door, and scare her. It was foolproof! I’m sure as I walked down the street the neighbors were saying to themselves, what is that Hamilton boy up to now? He’s a bit strange. As I carefully waddled toward her front door, I was gearing myself up for the big moment. When I went to ring the doorbell I realized that I could not use my arms or hands. I did what every other young American boy would do in a similar situation, just like any father would say, “use your head!” I used my headI knocked once “I’m so excited!” I knocked again’ “She is going to love me!” As I raised my clenched fist to make that third knock, something unexpected happened, she opened the door. With no way to stop my fall (my arms were plastered at my side), I went headfirst into the tile. There was no movement after I hit the ground. They pulled the box off my body and there I was a bleeding, slobbery mess.I regained consciousness and for some reason did not go home. I remember playing in her front yard and then I did something that I know just won her heart, I began vomiting, what my South Coast Christian Assembly kids in Southern California, called the “psychedelic yawn.” Mrs. Vazquez sensed something was awfully wrong.

My mom took me to the hospital. As I was laying in a hospital bed, the doctor walked into the room and asked me “How did this happen, son?” I remember thinking, that “This is not my dad.” I would like to note that I said this a good eight years before the Empire Strikes Back. We were still in the Lost in Space era at this point. I was diagnosed with a concussion. I would like to say I got my concussion on accident unlike those silly football players who do it on purpose (just kidding.) The moral of the story is very simple, do not put a box on your head and try to scare a girl because you like her.

The Worst Christmas Ever!

As a kid, growing up in Columbus, Georgia. I remember buying a Christmas Tree each year and decorating it together. We have continued that tradition in our own family. It brings back warm memories. I even flashback to visiting a friend’s house. They had this silver monstrosity that was lit up by a color wheel. I’m sure it would be a collector’s item today.

We have decorated our Christmas Tree together since we got married in 1984. We pick up each ornament and say where it was we had bought it or who gave it to us. There was baby’s first Christmas, the first Christmas together, a set of beautiful alabaster angels, and the 12 days of Christmas. It usually amounts to an hour’s long process but one we really enjoy doing together. On a side-note, this will be the first year we have not decorated the tree together as a family due to COVID-19.

One particular year, we had a bear of a time wrestling the tree into the stand. We discovered that the problem was in the trunk, it was crooked. Now, there are a million messages I can carve out from that story. If your base is uneven, you will not be able to stand. We proved it that night!

Once the tree was fully decorated with our unique ornaments including one I received as a kindergartener. It was a manger scene, and none of the cast was there. They had broken off after many, many years. The kids looked up as we turned on the lights and stood adoringly. Both simultaneously said, this is the best Christmas tree ever! We went to bed satisfied that night. Every year we still look for the biggest tree in the lot. It is a tradition!

We like to sleep in on Saturday mornings. We heard the kids as they were admiring our work of art with, when suddenly, there was a loud crash. Our beautiful 11-foot tree fell to the ground. Many of our unique ornaments were destroyed. The kids then proclaimed, “This is the worst Christmas ever!” Out of that experience, we created a special ornament. A clear plastic sphere that we placed all of the broken pieces into. Now, every year we say, “this was the year the Christmas tree fell.”

We bought an industrial type of stand that we could have the tree on it and it would not fall no matter how hard it was shaken. And every year we look very carefully at the base of our tree to make sure we don’t repeat the same problem. This year the tree we chose seems to be crooked. We looked at the base, and all seemed well. When we got home and began to put the lights on, we realized the tree was crooked. We pushed and pulled to no avail. Right now, our tree looks a bit like the leaning Tower of Pisa.

We all have broken pieces of our lives. I am going to sound like a preacher for a moment. What if we collectively put them together in one special decoration that reminds us that we have been healed? That would be a great start to 2021. Merry Christmas from the Hamilton household.

Visit my other blog and pass it around to anyone you know has suffered a stroke, at http://www.faithanddoubt.life

You Can Go Home Again

“You can’t go home again.” Is a phrase that I have heard countless times. There is some reality to that statement, but also there is some truth.

I grew up in Columbus, Georgia. The houses that we lived in had rooms that were unfurnished. My recollection of shuffling my socked feet in our sunken living room and then touching the metal railing in order to see a static electricity spark is forever etched in my mind. I can picture my younger brothers and me trying to shock one another while listening to the latest Partridge Family album. They were certainly good times.

The furniture in the house was generally ubiquitous. There was nothing special about our furnishing, and so far as I know, only a bookcase survives from my growing up years.

We moved to California in October 1978. I moved away from home in the fall of 1979. I came home for a week or two but never again lived in my parents’ house.

There had always been a series of arts and crafts that my mom experimented with. There were the macramé plant holders that hung from the ceiling, and the unfortunate use of decoupage to preserve the family memories on a round coffee table that turned a putrid shade of green that ruined all those photographs.

But somewhere along the way, the decoupage, Macramé, and other arts and crafts gave way to my mom’s paintings. At first, she painted lighthouses that we had visited in Montauk, New York. Still lifes became portraits of children drawing gardens of chalk. She later had a painting that would earn her the Mayor’s Awards in San Diego. Commissioned art soon followed. It wasn’t long that her house became a unique gallery.

The house, located near Millington, Tennessee, is a showcase. I can spend hours documenting the different pieces located throughout her home. My dad’s pipes are still precisely where he laid them. The christening gown that my siblings and I wore when we were dedicated, a family Bible that is barely holding together, along with many other treasures.

The scent of pipe tobacco and tea rose perfume still lingers in my memory. I did not grow up in this house, but it is home. You can most certainly go there.