Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fire up the DeLorean

It's Wednesday again, and this week's writers' workshop has me thinking of a simpler time when my biggest problems were multiplication tables. It was the best of times without the worst, and I can't wait to get back. Climb in, sit back and hold on because, in the words of Dr. Emmett Brown, "If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour... you're gonna see some serious --"
Here we are, in about 1990. That's Pap-paw, opening the camper on his brown pickup truck and shoving two of his expertly-rigged fishing poles in until the end of the rods strike the truck bed with a thud. He's packed the long poles this time, so he leaves the camper window ajar while the corks sway in the gentle afternoon breeze. I haven't seen him since he died of pancreatic cancer in August of 1993, but he looks just like I remember, healthy and smiling.
That high-pitched squeal you hear is five-year-old me, relaxing in the front seat, singing along with the Oak Ridge Boys' "Elvira" and waiting anxiously to hit the road. In a minute, Pap-paw will chuckle at my feeble attempt to hit the low, rumbling, "Giddy Up, Oom Poppa Omm Poppa Mow Mow" line at the end of the chorus.
Told you.
He'd be proud to know I can occasionally hit it now.
He'll manage to compose himself before long, and holler a short goodbye to Mam-maw, who's perched on the doorstep waving.
By the time we pull up at the lake Pap-paw and I have listened to the whole Oak Ridge Boys tape, and I've asked him 200 questions like, "How come you ain't got no hair on the top of your head?", "Did you ever spank Mama when she was a kid?" and "Can I have another hard candy?"
Hard candy was the name we gave Werther's Original caramels, and I still say they're in a deadlock with M&Ms for best candy ever.
I'm still pouring a never-ending stream of questions from my sugar-rushed brain while he's unfolding two lawn chairs and setting them under a big oak tree. He pops the top on a Dr. Pepper, then hands me a can.
I pull at the stubborn tab for a while before he chuckles and opens the can on the first try, despite his arthritis.
"Can I have my pole now?" My question echoes over the still water. "I'm gonna catch me a biiiiiggg one."
The more my hands spread out the louder he chuckles, until soon he's laughing.
"Here, Case," is all he can manage after he throws my line in the water.
"I bet I can make them ripples on the water again."
The reel-and-rod shakes in my small hand, causing the cork to bob and drift off to the left, leaving a small wake behind it.
"Hush, son, or you'll scare the fish off. Reel it in, and I'll put you on my best fish-catchin' spot," Pap-paw's voice is barely above a whisper, and he's no doubt regretting his decision to let me hold the Werther's bag. "You're gonna catch that big 'un right here."
He's right, as usual.
Soon after my cork hits the water, it begins to bob and sway again -- and this time I'm not the cause.
"Pap-paw, he's bitin' it!"
My voice cracks with an excitement I can't contain.
"I'm gettin' a bite!"
"Set the --," he stops short when he realizes I probably have no idea what "set the hook" means. "Yank it to China, and reel him in!"
The words have scarcely left his lips when the water parts, and the biggest thing my young eyes have ever seen breaks the surface.
Sheer terror is etched on my face.
In an instant, my reel-and-rod is sailing through the air, I'm running as fast as my light-up LA-Gear sneakers will carry me, and screaming the only words that I could force from my mouth.
"It's an ALLIGATOR!"
Suddenly, Pap-paw is beyond composure.
Slumped against a tree and laughing as louder than a pack of overgrown hyenas, he struggles to steady himself when I finally reached him and hid behind his back.
"Pap-paw, help! An alligator ate my cricket!"
He wipes his eyes just enough to see through his still-falling tears, and notices my pole slipping down the bank toward the water, towed by the weight of what he knows is a bass.
"That... ain't no... alligator, son," he manages the broken phrases through the increasing volume of his laughter. "That's a big ol' bass, and he just stood up on his tail 'cause you hooked him so good."
Once I gather the courage to approach him, and what part of me still believes is a huge boy-eating monster, Pap-paw hands me my pole and the widest grin I have ever seen stretches across his wise, caring face.
"Reel, Casey! Reel him in, son, reel him in," he yells loudly until he's out of breath.
There -- on the bank, in the shade of the oak tree beside a can of Dr. Pepper that spilled during all the action -- I'm reeling faster than anyone has ever reeled, or ever will.
Ten minutes later, I'm tuckered out.
The monster is too, and Pap-paw -- still laughing harder by the minute -- approaches the water, grabs my line and tows the large bass to the bank.
"Lookey there, Casey, that fish is big. We'll have to weigh him."
He makes a quick trip to his tackle box and returns with his fish scale.
"Five pounds, eight ounces," he says after removing the fish from the scale.
"I told you I was gonna catch a BIG one! Can we keep him?"
"Yeah, will keep him, son," Pap-paw's reply can't hide the smile overtaking his face.
"That's the biggest fish I ever seen, Pap-paw. What are you laughin' at?"
"I'm just waitin' to get home so I can tell your Mam-maw and your Mama and Daddy you caught a big ol' alligator fish," he erupts in a fit of laughter then, and doesn't stop until we pull in the driveway.
When I climb out of the truck, I'm the happiest boy alive.
I've been on a fishing trip with Pap-paw, caught the biggest alligator fish I'd ever seen and eaten the whole bag of hard candy on the way home.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Mile in My Shoes

A few days ago, while suffering from a serious case of writer's block, I came across a writing prompt that asked for my idea of what life would be like if I were a handicapped person. I couldn't help but chuckle as I wondered what other people's responses would be if they were to walk a mile in my shoes.
I was so eager to begin my life's journey that I jumped the gun and arrived on November 22, 1985, almost three months before my due date. I was born with cerebral palsy (go ahead, click the link. I had to.), which is a disease that affects my ability to walk properly. I weighed in at a whopping three pounds, six ounces, and lost down to just above two before I finally rebounded and left the hospital in March 1986.
Don't worry, I rebounded so well that I am presently on Weight Watchers, attempting to shed some excess poundage.
The doctors told my Mama and Daddy I'd probably never walk or talk, but fortunately they don't always have the last word. It took a while but I caught on to the talking thing, and, depending on who you talk to, I've rarely shut up since. The C.P. doesn't affect my speech, so apart from a good dose of Southern drawl, I'm pretty easy to understand.
Walking was, and sometimes still is, a different story.
When I was little, Mama -- who is now an author -- refused to accept the prospect of my immobility.
She contacted a physical therapist, and in no time I was doing exercises to keep my spastic muscles loose. When I was five, I went to Scottish Rite hospital in Atlanta, Ga. to have a surgery with a name so long I can hardly pronounce it, much less spell it. It was a success, and steps began to come easier for me.
I got around pretty well before long, so I figured I didn't need any more therapy.
Mama knew better, and she refused to listen to what I thought was a well-rounded line of reasoning.
Despite my constant objections, she continued to pull and stretch my stubborn legs. I hated therapy, but Mama knew I needed it. I was too young to understand at the time, but I know now Mama is one of the biggest reasons I'm able to walk, and I'll always be grateful to her for that. She taught me a valuable lesson that I'll carry with me and use when I start my own family. If your kids don't like something you know is best for them, go ahead and do it. They may hate you now, but they'll thank you later.
My Daddy taught me a lot, too. It was under his guidance I learned I could be anything I wanted as long as I put my mind to it, and that setbacks may slow you down, but they don't have to stop you. My family is a close one, and we often gather at my grandparents' house to eat or swim. On one such occasion, somebody got the bright idea to bring some four-wheelers to ride. I couldn't pass up the opportunity, so, with video cameras rolling, I sat atop the ATV and prepared to ride. My family didn't know if I'd be able to control the vehicle, and worried I might have an accident. Someone finally said something to that effect, and my Daddy simply replied, "He can ride that thing as good as anybody out here." I don't think he thought much else about it, but I'll never forget those words.
One of the hardest things I had too learn growing up was the fact there are, and will always be, things I'll never be able to do.
I love sports, and one of the biggest hardships I had to endure was not being able to participate in them. When you grow up in a small, Southern town, sports is a big part of your life. Every year, especially in the Spring and Fall, the topic of conversations on my elementary school's playground was which baseball or football team you were on at the local rec. center. I'd come home and ask my parents why I couldn't play, and they'd lovingly tell me sports wasn't the best thing for me. I grew to see the reasoning behind that explanation, and I still see it every time a batter has to duck out of the way of a fastball. I knew the reason I couldn't play sports, but the desire never left me, especially when I got in junior high and high school, and my friends joined the football team.
They say football is a way of life in the South, and that's absolutely true. I looked forward to Friday nights, and I was always a little envious when my friends took the field. My Daddy was a heck of an athlete in high school, and his teammates and former coaches still tell me stories of his crushing blocks and blazing fastball. He says they exaggerate, but looking at him I'd be willing to bet their stories are probably closer to the truth than his modesty will let him admit. There were Friday nights during my high school years I'd have given my pinkie fingers to put on that blue jersey, strap on a blue helmet with Daddy's number 38 on the side, run through a banner and knock the stuffing out of opposing linebackers on my way to the end zone.
This was impossible, and I knew it. I also knew I wasn't going to let something I couldn't do stop me from doing something I loved, so I majored in Sports Journalism when I got to college.
I never have been comfortable with labels. Growing up, I hated the words "handicapped,""disabled" and "physically challenged." Those words spawned the notion that I was different than everyone else. I know this is true in a sense, but I hated being categorized that way. Cerebral palsy will always be a part of me, but it will never define me. It makes up only a part of who I am.
I don't know if I speak for everyone with C.P. or not, but one of the things I hate most about it is when people feel sorry for me.
This may sound strange, but I see cerebral palsy as a blessing.
It helps me rely on God, and forces me to realize every day that I wouldn't even be alive if it wasn't for Him. I think cerebral palsy helps me to see the blessings in life most of us, including me, take for granted more often than not. My ability to walk, communicate and function comes from Him. My family and friends are a blessing from His hand.
I survived those touch-and-go months because of Him, and I firmly believe I am on this earth because He wants to use me, cerebral palsy and all.
C.P. is a part of me, but I hope it's not the only part people see when they come in contact with me.
I hope they see Jesus.
People tell me all the time I am an inspiration to them, and it always makes me uncomfortable because it's not me I want them to be inspired by.
It's the One who made me.
It's the One who turns my disability into ability, and my tests into my testimony.
I chose a long time ago to let Him turn what most people see as a trial into His triumph.
The worse thing you can do is feel sorry me because of the way God chose to use me.
The best thing you can do is let Him use you as well, flaws and all.
Then, you won't have to wonder what it's like to walk a mile in my shoes.
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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The camping trip from Well, you know...

Per the weekly writing assignment from Mama Kat, I have decided to address the issue of camping, for no other reason than I've done my share of it. Oh, and something crazy always seems to happen when I go. I've selected one of my most memorable excursions to share with you, so read on if you dare.
I grew up in a little town, you know, the kind where your neighbor across the street still dries the clothes on a line so you can watch them flap in the breeze while you sit in the front porch rocking chair enjoying an RC Cola and a moon pie. We don't have the luxuries most towns do when it comes to entertainment, unless we drive the 10 miles to town, so we became expert self-entertainers. My friends and I would drop everything and decide to shoot cans in the yard, take a fishing trip or anything else we could do to pass the time.
Sometimes, we decided to go camping. This was, after all, the idea that suited us best, because we had the perfect camp spot -- as long as it wasn't hunting season. The campsite, as it came to be known, was in a secret location on a plot of land called "The Flats." It had everything. You couldn't get to it without going into a heavily-wooded area, and you were bound to get lost if you didn't know the right trail to take. Only a select few are privy to its exact location and, to this day, when we take people there we make them close their eyes, lest they reveal our hiding place to the world.
The first ill-fated trip came about as a result of sheer, unadulterated boredom.
Two of my friends and I planned the trip in about 10 minutes, sped to Wal-Mart to buy the essential items such as hot dogs and lighter fluid, grabbed three tents and headed for the campsite.
Dusk was already fast approaching when we arrived, so we had to hurry to set up camp before the last remaining daylight flickered away. It took my friends all of 10 minutes to set up their single-person tents, but I had neglected to mention one minor detail. My tent boasted three rooms, and it was all mine. It took a while to set it up, but, when it finally stood on its own, it was nothing short of spectacular. We're talking the Taj Mahal of tents. My friends were insanely jealous of my palace abode, and I relished in it. We lit our campfire, ate our hot dogs and enjoyed the night air until we began to get sleepy. We coated out tents in waterproof spray, then used the rest of it to make the fire blow up. When it came time to turn in for the night, I ducked in my palace tent, unzipped the walls between the rooms, zipped up the door and relaxed in the huge amount of space I had. Halfway through the night I began to feel thankful for the large dose of spray I had applied earlier, because a gentle rain trickled down on the tent and its soothing melody soon lulled me to sleep.
When I awakened a short time later, I sensed something wasn't right. My suspicions were confirmed when I opened my mouth to breathe and nearly drowned. Apparently, I had either (A) missed some spots in my application of the waterproof spray, or(B) I received a faulty product(I tend to stress option B when I tell this story in person). Either way, when I rolled over and tried to rid myself of the waterfall that found its way into my mouth, I noticed the roof was sagging so that it nearly touched my nose, and, as if that weren't bad enough, torrents of rain flooded in through the faltering side walls.
When daylight finally arrived, I quickly swam crawled to the entrance and tried to escape what had now become more of an aquarium than a tent. I soon found my escape attempt impossible, however, because of a stubborn door-zipper that wouldn't budge, no matter how many times I cussed at it.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, one of my buddies heard my commotion and came to the rescue. Ordinarily, I would have laughed my head off at him because, upon hearing the racket coming from the Taj Mahal, he uprooted his tent and waddled over like a turtle coming out of its shell.
I was in no mood for laughter, but this was not the case with him.
He unzipped the door, and, upon finding me wading to meet him, erupted in a fit of laughter loud enough to be heard three counties over. His laughter eventually awakened my other friend, who promptly joined in the chorus after witnessing me come up for air on the way out of the tent.
They still haven't stopped laughing about that day, and, needless to say, the Taj Mahal hasn't made another trip.

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Two Years Later

Two years ago today, I was on the way to a routine doctor's appointment. What met me when I arrived changed me, and my community, forever.
About ten in the morning on Thursday, March 1, 2007, I left my trailer in Troy and began the 45-minute drive to my doctor's appointment in my hometown of Enterprise. I was cruising along, singing to the radio at a much louder volume than a person with my musical ability should be allowed to sing. Suddenly, the wind picked up. I thought nothing of it until about two minutes later when the annoying weather alert beep interrupted my award-winning performance.
The semi-robotic voice on the other side of the radio calmly let me know a tornado was headed my way, and assured me he would keep me updated on the situation. Immediately after the last syllable of the the mono-toned words had been uttered, the sky darkened. The wind began to howl, my tuck swayed violently, and it was all I could do to keep it on the road. Then the rains came. The sky let lose with a torrential downpour so steady that at times I could barely see the end of my headlight beams. The warning voice filled the cab of my truck once more, this time urging me to take cover in the nearest ditch. I was seriously considering complying with the advice when I looked to my right and saw a monstrous ebony cloud moving directly parallel to the road I occupied.
I did the only two things I knew to do in that situation.
I drove hard, and I prayed harder.
When, by the grace of God, I arrived in Enterprise, I made a beeline for my grandmother's house. I stayed there until the weather cleared, which coincidentally happened just in time for me to keep my appointment. I got up to leave and was headed out the door when Mammaw told me she wanted drop me off at the door so I wouldn't get wet. There was no changing her mind, so off we went. We arrived at the doctor's office in downtown Enterprise just as another wave of rain began to fall. Mammaw dropped me off under the shelter, and I told her to park and sit in the waiting room in case the weather turned sour again, or the appointment took longer than I anticipated. She responded by telling me she'd have to stay in the car because her shoes were dirty, and insisted I go in without her.
I did.
I finished my appointment and was preparing to go when someone let out a scream and rushed in to the room, demanding the doctor and I take cover in the X-ray room down the hall. I ran down toward the room and looked to my right just as one of the exit doors imploded. Glass rained down on the floor. I looked out what was left of the shattered door and saw the biggest tornado I had ever seen.
I rushed into the X-ray room and ducked under the table, where several others huddled together, crying and praying.
Suddenly, the pressure dropped. The moment the huge funnel cloud came directly over us, I realized Mammaw was still outside in the car. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, but mere seconds later the twister had passed, leaving shattered windows, lights and door frames in its wake.
A few minutes later, Mammaw, followed by the nurse who retrieved her from the car, walked through the remnants of a door with a terrifying account of roofs ripped from buildings and thrown yards into the air. We walked out of the office and witnessed the fury of the gigantic, EF-5 tornado for the first time. Mammaw's car remained in its parking spot, but was now surrounded by two fallen trees that landed inches away from it while she was still inside. Miraculously, not one piece of glass was broken.
When we were finally able to start home, I was able to see exactly how widespread the damage was. I had never seen anything like it. A massive tree blocked our path, and forced us to take a detour by the high school. There are no words to describe how I felt when I laid eyes on what was undoubtedly the cornerstone of our community.
Enterprise High School, which stood as a symbol of hometown pride at 500 East Watts Street for half a century, was laid waste in a pile of rubble.
I frantically dialed my cell phone to see if anyone had found my sister, who was in the science wing of the building when the storm hit.
Communication was impossible.
Two hours later, we arrived at Mammaw's house, usually a five-minute drive from the doctor's office. My Daddy arrived soon after, having retrieved my sister from the demolished school.
That day was the longest of my life.
Hours after the storm passed, we learned that eight of my sister's schoolmates-- two of which I had known for most of their lives -- died in the storm along with Mrs. Edna Strickland.
In the days after the storm, the outpouring of generosity that was bestowed on the City of Progress was immeasurable. Strangers came from all over the country to offer a help in any way they could, and I am forever grateful to each and every one of them for the part they played in helping Enterprise back to its feet.
Today, two years later, Enterprise continues to rebuild. Two new schools are being constructed to replace the ones lost in the storm, and provide the courageous students of Hillcrest Elementary and Enterprise High Schools a suitable place to continue their educations.
Through the tragedy that struck our little town two years ago, the community came together with a resolve that has not faded, despite the passing of time. We have resolved to remember the nine friends and family members we lost that day, and cherish the memories we have with them for the rest of our lives.
We have resolved to comfort the families and friends of those nine and lift them up in prayer, and we have resolved to thank God for every moment He gives and every breath we take, for it is He who brought us where we are, and it is He who will continue to guide us as we look back in remembrance and forward in hopeful expectation.
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