Thursday, November 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Christmas Tree Lane could still earn its name

(This article originally published Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2000, in The News Herald's "Bay Book"  column.)

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Christmas Tree Lane, a meandering paved trail on the western reaches of Panama City Beach (Laguna Beach), is lined by everything but what you might expect, given the name.

More oleanders and palms grow here than spruce and cedar, more scrub oaks than even scraggly Charlie Brown-style pine saplings.

There's no snow to frolic in, either — an early morning frost is the most one might hope for. Ground cover consists of sand, red clay, weeds and one yard given over to white marble rock and gravel.

You'll find no igloos or enchanted elf castles on Christmas Tree Lane. Instead, lines of mobile homes give way to abandoned houses, old tourist properties for sale or rent, and empty lots.

But sprinkled among these are pockets of brightness, houses where people have planted roots (and grass). One such place is a modest home that, despite being situated about halfway along the lane, is labeled "The Rhodes End" by a sign at its entrance.

In the front yard stands a brightly-painted 3-foot-tall wooden Santa Claus and a similar snowman that may or may not represent good ol' Frosty.

Homeowner Richard Rhodes, 65, has lived on the lane since 1987, and he said the Christmas spirit has always moved him to decorate.

"I came here from Colorado," he said. "I bought a little hotdog stand on the beach, and I've been working on the beach ever since."

When Rhodes first moved onto the lane, none of his neighbors did any holiday decorating.

"I've always done that all my life," he said. "My wife died four years ago and my son died two years ago on Christmas Eve, so last year was the only year I didn't do any decorating."

He's gotten back into the spirit this year — a toy train runs around the Christmas tree inside the home, much to the delight of his two grandchildren — and he has plans for an even bigger display for Christmas 2001.

"I want to plant a Christmas tree in the front yard in January so I'll have one to decorate next year," he said.

And finally, Christmas Tree Lane could live up to its name.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Childhood dreams sometimes come true — a generation later

(This is my “Undercurrents” column for The News Herald this week.)

The Offer
PANAMA CITY BEACH — If you claim you never stood in front of a mirror and played air guitar or lip-synced into a hairbrush, pen or other object, then I’m going to (generously) suggest that you might be fibbing.

If you grew up in rock ’n’ roll age, that kind of activity is a given.

Me, I’ve wanted to be a rock star since before David Cassidy had a TV series. That’s a long, long time. However, I also have the good sense to keep away from karaoke machines, because no matter how long a time has passed, my singing skills have not improved.

So it comes as something of a sense of pride to say my son is a rock star. At least, that’s what I tell him, and anyone else who will listen. He’s the vocalist and co-writer of songs for “The Offer,” a band that released its second CD (this time a 5-song EP titled “Adrift”) just last weekend.

The other band members are Mike Jordan (guitar), Mikhail Cintgran (bass/vocals), Tristan Reynolds (guitar), and Chase Hopkins (drums). The band has experienced a couple of lineup changes over the past few years, but has maintained its music and style (which they tell me is rock/post hardcore), as even a casual listen shows.

Listening to the new EP, particularly a song that references Doctor Who and “writing in her journal of impossible things,” my brain took an unexpected leap: I wondered how or if my life choices had reflected my father’s childhood dreams.

It’s a reasonable question, and one I think fathers and sons (and mothers and daughters) have mulled since time began. I’m sure it’s a question that occurs regularly to people in middle age, able to look at the generations before and after them simultaneously.

Dad didn’t want me to be a writer. He wanted me to be an electrician or a chemist, get a job in manufacturing, make a living wage. When I was bringing home Ray Bradbury novels from the middle school library, he was supplying me with Radio Shack electrical kits and chemistry sets from Kmart and giving me reading assignments in science texts.

(I remember debates with my son over his choice of study in high school and college — Theatre — and whether he could make a living wage with that kind of degree.* Sometimes, “living” is less about the wage and more about the life; that’s a lesson with which I’m still coming to grips.)

And yet, much later on, after I had established what became my career and started writing novels and short stories on the side, Dad started writing a regular history column for his local paper, The Tri-City Ledger in Flomaton, Ala., and wrote or co-wrote books on local history. He liked to joke that he was going to be me when he grew up.

I can say with certainty that I am not going to be a rockstar when I grow up. Still, I wondered if Dad had ever fantasized about being a writer in his youth — typed an air typewriter in front of the mirror, or lip-synced an interview into a tape recorder.

Probably not, now that I put it that way.



* And let’s not forget how upset my daughter became after a career counselor at her school noted her high scores in aptitude tests and suggested she might pursue a career in journalism. I think she still cries when she thinks about that.

Friday, November 06, 2015

The view from the back seat

(This is my Undercurrents column for The News Herald this week.)

PANAMA CITY BEACH — It has been a week of highs and lows, as life tends to be — and pretty clearly illustrated, at least in part, by the perspectives attained according to where I sat in a moving vehicle.

Buckle up.

Saturday, my wife and I drove to Tallahassee to be with our daughter for her birthday, then traveled with her and her boyfriend to Thomasville, Ga., for a daytrip. The old downtown has been revitalized with boutiques, restaurants, a theater, a bookstore, a record shop — even a cupcakery and a fudge shop. We strolled the brick and concrete walks, sampled the local flavors, admired the old architecture. We laughed a lot.

I rode in the front passenger’s seat with my teeth clenched as my daughter’s boyfriend drove like he was auditioning for “Fast & Furious 8.” At one point, a piece of brown cardboard blown into the highway from the right caused him to swerve — I had seen it coming, but he thought it was an animal.

Sunday, we attended the wedding of my son’s best friend in Jacksonville; it took place at a waterside venue, by an old Florida woodframe house under oak trees strung with white lights. Bride and groom were funny and beautiful, and the event felt like a family reunion — everyone was genuinely happy to see everyone else. Afterward came dining, dancing (yes, even me), speeches, and tears of joy all around. My son caught the garter.

I drove most of the way there, but was relegated to the back seat for the trip home, sleeping the sleep of the just, the exhausted, the old. I’m not built for snoozing in a Corolla, but I managed. Pulling back into Tallahassee near midnight was like rolling into a dream — the streets were vaguely familiar, just turned the wrong ways and strangely lit, and even my daughter had trouble recognizing them.

“I’ve never come into town from this direction at night,” she explained.

We next jaunted to Pensacola, where I visited my father in the hospital and then traveled with him to Atmore, Ala., where he was moving for physical therapy. On that trip, I took the back seat again as my wife drove and Dad perched in the front passenger seat. I joked about being the backseat driver, then tried to give my wife directions. Dad chuckled and looked out the window.

That’s when it finally struck me and the mental airbags deployed.

I thought of my own children, of their years in the back seat, looking forward and reading my temper or humor by the bulge of a grinning cheek, set of a clenched jaw, or crinkle of the skin at the corner of my eye. Watching my hairline recede from the center outward.

I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of roadtrips I’ve taken with my father over the decades, covering hundreds of thousands of miles. Short hops to the grocery store, to church, to school, to Grandma’s  house and a million other places. Longer slogs to Orlando, or Cleveland, or Stone Mountain or wherever.

And I couldn’t begin to guess how often I saw him from a similar angle as I was growing up — sitting in the back seat and watching him scan the road as he drove or rode shotgun with someone else. Yet, I had never seen him from quite this perspective ever before. Exhausted, weak, at the mercy of a body and brain suffering from brutal and random tribulation.

Memories and that moment in time collided, the weight of those intervening decades like a yoke on my back, and I wondered what it must be like for him, relegated for a time to being a backseat passenger in his own life.

My advice is to take the wheel while you can, but from time to time, be willing to occupy a back seat and view the world from that perspective. Remind yourself how it feels to follow, to have to trust another’s ability to navigate the miles of rough road ahead.

And don’t forget to buckle up.


Thursday, November 05, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Not Fade Away

(This column originally published in The News Herald on Sunday, November 14, 2010)

Not fade away: Connecting across time and space

Surrounded and bolstered by kindred spirits on Thursday night, Wewahitchka-based author Michael Lister talked about the sacred calling of the storyteller. He used the word “shaman” to convey the mystical connection between the teller and the listener.

Like an alchemical equation seeking balance, the work birthed in the act of creating art can’t reach maturity until the work is interpreted. Otherwise creation is the silence in the forest when a tree falls and no one is there to hear it.

It’s the sound of one hand clapping.

Michael’s words, as usual, started me thinking. In particular, I recalled a few events of the past week where the things people said (or wrote) and the things I heard (or read) connected with memory to
create new meaning. You never know what people will say, or how the things they say will stick with you and bubble to the surface of your thoughts.

A couple of examples:
I visited the set of “A Doll’s House” on the Amelia Center Theater stage at Gulf Coast Community College this week. Decorated for Christmas, the lights and baubles stood in stark contrast to the dull walls and furnishings in shades of brown. It looked like a scene out of “A Christmas Story.”

The play is set in 1950s Chicago, and the short sequence I viewed made me think about those folks on our Squall Line who want their country back — one of whom even went so far this week to type on his or her computer that “The 1950s was a better time.”

On stage, the husband teased his wife with $10 bills that she greedily snatched from him, one by one, and promised to spend wisely. He called her pet names and spoke in soothing tones, making sure she understood her place and function in his world.

I was reminded of an early Saturday morning recently, when an older man joked about spending his entire “allowance” on yard sales. He circled among some tables stacked with colorful trinkets and clothing, asking silly questions and flirting with the ladies at the sale. Suddenly, he grew quiet.

“I was married three times,” this total stranger said to me, his breath misting in the morning cold. “I left the first one, the second one left me, and the third died. She was the only one who ever said she loved me. She was the only one I ever loved.”

He cleared a lump in his throat and pointed at a coffee maker designed for one person.

“Is that real or a toy?” he said, and I told him I believed that it was real.

He bought it and drove away alone.