I was on the high school wrestling team. Before the biggest match of my career, Coach massaged each of my arms by rolling my bicep between his palms, as if it were a stick and he was trying to start a fire.
“Okay, Poothead,” he said. He called everyone Poothead, not just me. I’d weighed in at 126 pounds. Coach was my height, but probably 150 pounds at most, with short-cropped blond hair and a pooched-out bottom lip because of the tobacco. “You just go out there and give it the best you can,” he said. I was pretty sure I detected a tone of acquiescence. “You’ve come a long ways and can be proud.” I looked at Coach, but that was the best he was going to give me. He wasn’t looking at me, but at my opponent across the mat. This was the regional level and the winner would go to the state tournament. No one from our high school had ever gone to the state tournament before. Technically my opponent weighed the same as me: 126 pounds. But he must have had hollow bones or ate helium for breakfast or was made of balsa wood. His biceps were swollen, his chest puffed up. Even his ears had muscles. Even his muscles had muscles. I was no wimp, but I guess from coach’s perspective, I was outgunned here.
Tournament days were usually long days with big breaks between rounds. I had won an earlier match and so Coach took several of us to see a movie. It was a remake of King Kong starring Jessica Lange. King Kong didn’t have perfect takedowns, or reversals, or cross-body rides, or half-nelsons. But he could throw down, and he always wound up on top. It wasn’t always about style either with King Kong. It was about results. And that was inspiring—even if Coach wasn’t at that moment. He released my arm to retrieve a cup that he spit some dark ooze into and told me good luck one more time before sending me off.
I stepped onto the mat, where I met that familiar spongy feel under my feet, and King Kong. I adjusted my head gear, not that I needed to, but just to keep my hands busy before the perfunctory handshake. The referee gave his spiel about rules and safety issues, squared us off and then blasted his whistle. In an instant the Beast flew at me from across the circle. I braced myself.
At the edge of the mat, on either side of Coach and his cup, knelt my teammates—my vociferous teammates. Three of us had made it to the regionals. Six others had come along to cheer us on. Their voices slipped around the foam padding of my headgear. Their collective voices prompted me to layout flat when I saw the blur of muscles move toward my legs—the proper defensive move. And their voices gave me the wherewithal to hook my arms up under each of his armpits and the strength to turn Kong onto his back—all before Coach could work up a good spit.
At the edge of the mat cheered Sylvester Kelley. Sly was no more than five feet tall and weighed 98 pounds—post cheeseburger. He was all muscle and slippery as a trout. At practice he’d actually slip through cradles and leg locks as if he were a thread passing through a needle’s eye. Now he pounded the mat’s edge and yelled my name (Pierce, not Poothead) and when I did something right, like turn over King Kong and score two points, I heard him laugh. I wanted to stop and give him a hug, but I had both arms filled with someone who wanted to crush me, and there were at least three minutes left in the match.
Next to Sly was Bill Ledbetter. He was 119 pounds and came to our school his sophomore year from Colorado, with a reputation and his own mythology. We didn’t know how they wrestled in Colorado or what kind of super strength the mountain air might have given him. Since we were close in weight class, he was always my practice partner. There’s no way to know who was more competitive. When we ran laps, we raced. When Coach tried to break us down with suicides and run-a-rounds, he couldn’t. When we practiced, we tried to hurt each other in “semi-legal” ways, like adding extra pressure with an elbow, or digging into a breastbone with a bony chin, or squeezing a cradle (against that tender neck muscle) harder than necessary. As much as I can remember neither of us complained, and no one whined. More than anything, we each pushed back and squeezed and dug a littler harder. We grew tough together.
Sometimes (many times) we’d find ourselves a pound or two over on the day of a match. I’ve lost five pounds in a day before. So has Bill. Many times we did it together. If we turned on all the shower heads in the locker room to full hot, it’d create a cloud of steam so thick you couldn’t see from one side to the other. And if I wore two sweat pants and three sweat shirts and did jumping jacks for an hour in that steam, I’d sweat off at least three pounds. Sometimes I’d spot Bill through the blistering cloud, but only partially, and he’d looked more like a bird flapping futilely for lift off. If I still needed to lose another pound, I’d get a Coke bottle and a piece of gum. The gum helped me work up a spit. I’d carry the bottle with me everywhere I went until weigh-in, slowly filling it up. More than once Bill and I would cross paths in the hallway, each with his own Coke bottle filled with a bubble gum-pink liquid. I never held Bill’s bottle, but mine was always warm—at least body temperature.
From close by I could hear Bill’s voice, thin and tinny, cheering me on, but mostly calling out moves and counter-moves. He was always the strategist. With 15 seconds to go, I led by one, but Kong was on the move. He’d nearly slipped away. An escape would tie things up and send this match into overtime. I hung onto his lower leg, squeezed harder than I ever had Ledbetter. Dug my chin into his soft calf. But that was legal.
I heard Ledbetter and Sly exhorting me to hang on. And so did Steve and Wendell, Freddie and Todd, Barry and Butch. “Hang on!” they collectively chanted. Even Coach’s tobacco-muffled “Hang on!” gave me strength to squeeze harder. At the sound of the whistle I went slack. The leg slipped away, but it meant nothing. The match was over. I pictured King Kong toppling from near the top of the Empire State Building.
The referee made the win official by raising my hand. Then my teammates surrounded me and whacked me on the back, slapped me on the rear and patted me on the head and every strike I accepted as a gift. Even Coach’s “Way to go, Poothead!” caused me to throw my arms around his neck. Across the mat I saw my opponent walk off, head down, fumbling with the strap of his headgear. His coach glared at me. I wanted to tell him it wasn’t all me who killed the beast, but Sly, Bill, Steve and Wendell, Freddie and Todd, Barry and Butch.
We did it together.
I was on the high school wrestling team. Before the biggest match of my career, Coach massaged each of my arms by rolling my bicep between his palms, as if it were a stick and he was trying to start a fire.
One day I found myself cheering and jumping from the sidelines of a college football game one moment and then having one of those awkward, clumsy confrontational moments the next, where my rhetoric failed me badly and I could have used a little brawn against the short bearded man with a monopod (a single-legged support used to steady a hand-held camera).
I had a good friend named Luke who worked for the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville and every home game he had a ticket waiting for me—a sideline pass. There’s nothing that compares to walking the sidelines of a major college football game and making eye contact with people who are really supposed to be there. Some, I could tell, would see me and then privately wonder where they had seen me before. Whose son or father was I? Was I someone important? Someone they should be nice to? No one ever realized (as far as I could tell) that I was just the heat and air conditioning guy on campus who went to high school with the assistant equipment manager. Once I even parked underneath the Tennessee Vols stadium in my Chevette—took a spot reserved for one of the Vanderbilt coaches and heard later that he’d been extremely vile about not having a parking space. That was the year Tennessee won the conference and tore down the goal post and I was nearly trampled in the end zone. Fortunately I did a fake step to the right and juked back to the left at the same time the 53 people carrying the goal post veered right, all team-like, and all was okay. Other times I brushed shoulders with Emmet Smith (who was on crutches at the time), Vinny Testeverde, Boomer Esiason and Hershel Walker. And when basketball season came around I got pretty close up to Shaquille O’Neil and Charles “Bread Truck” Barkley. Giants, each and every one.
This particular game Vanderbilt was playing Florida. We (Vandy) hadn’t beaten Florida in like a hundred years. But their star running back, Emmet Smith, was on crutches that day, so, like the mentality of most perennial-losing teams, because the best player from the other side was injured, we felt we had a shot that day. And we did.
On one particular play our running back (not a star, not a draft pick and is probably selling mutual funds today) broke loose and gained at least 30 yards down the sidelines—the one I stood on and paced with the frenzy of a head coach. There were usually quite a few non-players on the sidelines. (If an assistant equipment manager can get four of his buddies on the sidelines, imagine how many others could be there.) So when our running back broke for a big gain the guy in front of the guy in front of me stepped up to watch the play, which meant the guy directly in front of me stepped up, which meant I had to step up even farther to see around him. It was something like a domino effect, only people didn’t fall down. They just took one extra step forward until the last of the “lookers” was about 10 yards onto the field, but far enough away from where the “action” of the play was taking place. After the play we’d always scoot back behind the line to keep everything legal.
But this was a big break-away run! We were Vanderbilt beating Florida! Emmet Smith was on crutches! We had a chance! So our guy broke loose and he was deep into Florida territory. And we on the sidelines did what we always did: Stepped out and looked around the guy in front of us. If you had to go ten yards out onto the field, then you went. You could scoot back later to keep the refs happy.
So I did. I wasn’t anywhere near ten yards out, maybe only three, cheering, yelping, feeling alive and—and there came a tap, tap, tapping on my lower leg. What was that? The roar of more than 40,000 still hung in the air when I looked back to see a short man with a big camera attached to a monopod. He wore a short scrubby beard and a scowl on his face. He wasn’t looking at me in the eyes, but rather he was focused on my lower legs, at the point where he was rapping me with that monopod of his. He was working it like he would a big stick to keep chickens from crossing over into a patch of grass you were trying to protect from their pecking. Rap. Rap. Rap.
I didn’t move. The rapping didn’t hurt, only irritated me—but that was fastly mutating Hulk-like into something that made me fearful. Rap. Rap. Rap. I was waiting for his eyes to rise up and meet mine. Because with the roar of more than 40,000 still hanging in the air, I would need the benefit of lip reading for him to understand how I felt about his rap-rap-rapping at my lower leg.
Finally, he raised his eyes and rather than shocked or embarrassed, as I believed he should have been, he simply adjusted himself by pulling back the monopod, shrugged his shoulders and then reset the monopod back into the sod so he could settle back behind the lens. Before he disappeared behind the camera, however, he told me, without a shred of politeness (all I needed was a smile or a shrug that I could interpret as “Hey, just trying to do my job, friend), he said, “Step back!” [exclamation mark his]. He might as well have come after me with a pocketknife.
“Hey!” I called right back above the din of more than 40,000, believing he wouldn’t have any trouble reading my lips on that one. He stood rigid, his monopod out of the soil now and hovering just above the grass, making small circles, a coiling, snake-like motion, awaiting to hear what I would say, see what I would do. I pointed at his monopod and exclaimed—feeling angry, violated and empowered all at once—“Don’t hit me with that…” I took in what it was that he had rapped me with. The word I’d first chosen—tripod—no longer applied, but the crowd, the feeling of being violated, the short man with a scowl, the fact that we could possibly beat Florida. I don’t know which it was or what combination, if any, was at play, but I could not find the proper word. And that in itself added to my overall panic. I tried again: “…that…that…” the bearded man hung on patiently, and for the life of me I could not think of what that thing was! The bearded, scowling man canted his head in anticipation. A tripod had three legs. But what was that “thing” when there was only one? I mentally scanned my foreign languages, which consisted mostly of 1 through 10 in Spanish and 1 through 4 in French (I’d lost five through 10 long ago), and hello in French, Spanish, Japanese and Hawaiian. I knew I’d never heard of uno-pod before, nor un-pod. The crowd still roared, the short man still scowled, and the monopod still hovered. We might have even scored a touchdown, I didn’t know. I pointed at the monopod and told the short, scowling man with a beard, “Don’t hit me with that…thing!” Then I turned and stepped out onto the field, ten yards at least, to see if we’d scored. The man with the camera on the monopod backed away.
Soon the referees were herding us all back behind the line. The man with the monopod was close by, but far enough away he couldn’t reach me. His choice, I believed.
Later, Luke asked me what it was that guy had said to me. “Which guy?” I asked.
“The one with the monopod,” he said.
I wanted to hug Luke, but that wouldn’t be appropriate. Unless we beat Florida, of course, then we could hug anyone for however long we wanted. “Just being a jerk,” I said, while silently repeating the word monopod over and over again, in case I would need it later.
“Well, let me know if he bothers you again. I’ll have him thrown out. Just say the word.”
Monopod, monopod, monopod. “Thanks,” I said. “Don’t worry, I will.”
It’s good to be buddies with the assistant equipment manager, one who has a way with words.
I don’t do very well with confrontation. For instance the time a man with a knife came at me in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, and rather than taking a stand or disarming him by means of a kick or punch. I was more focused on my rhetoric—a self-consciousness of vowels and consonants. Lucky for me the knife was a pocketknife and the man coming at me was too drunk to get it open in time—before our driver could stop laughing enough to punch the gas.
The driver would be my future wife, Chonda. At that time we were 18 years old and good friends and had been on a mission most of the day to buy the perfect pair of dance shoes. She and I and her sister Cheralyn (who was sleeping in the backseat at the time of the knife attack) were in our high school all-school musical Oklahoma! In that play is a dream sequence where the dream versions of the main characters perform a ballet-like dance: that was Cheralyn and me. So we found these dance shoes at the mall in Nashville and then had about a 30-mile drive back to Ashland City. It was late and dark and, like I said, Chonda was driving because it was her car—an old (even then) Rambler. She was not proud of that car, even though the two of us had ridden a Greyhound bus all night a few weeks earlier to Cincinnati to pick it up from her father. On the way back we stopped 17 times to fill it up with water. Once we made it back we were finally able to replace the bad hoses to end the water leak, but that didn’t stop the fact that it was a big, white clunker (back then we just had to deal with our clunkers).
So we were nearly back to Ashland City when a giant truck passed us on the narrow two-lane highway. Whoosh!
“I think that was Kevin!” I said, loud enough to be heard above the roar of the Rambler. Kevin was Chonda’s old boyfriend. I wasn’t her new one yet, but I was on my way.
Maybe because Chonda wanted me to be her new boyfriend was why she did what she did next. “I’ll show him,” she said. And with that she gunned the rattling Rambler and on the first straight stretch overtook the giant pickup and passed him—just like that. Even though I was close to the truck’s driver-side window I could touch it as we zoomed past, I still couldn’t see inside the cab because it was dark and the glass glared. But I was pretty sure it was Kevin, and his truck. Chonda gave a yelp and I eased back into my seat. Just then Cheralyn woke up and raised her head above the backseat. “What’s going on?” she said.
“That’s Kevin behind us,” Chonda said. “He passed us and we just passed him.”
Just then the truck’s headlights switched to bright and flooded our back window. I looked back and could make out Cheralyn’s silhouette, but otherwise was pretty much blinded. Give it a rest, Kevin, I thought. But the giant truck and its high-wattage bulbs veered out and blew past us on the next straight stretch.
“Yeah, that’s Kevin, alright,” Chonda said, like she knew him through and through. Just then, as her positive assertion still hung in the interior of the Rambler, the truck slammed on its brakes and came to a screeching stop angled in the middle of the highway. Chonda slowed and stopped too. A large man, bigger than the Kevin we knew, stepped out of the truck and into the lights of our Rambler. He staggered forward about two steps and then pulled something from his pocket. That definitely wasn’t Kevin. It had been an honest mistake. I rolled down my window and hung out at least to my waist, ready to correct the mistake we’d made.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. (To this day Chonda will tell you that I called him “friend.” I did no such thing. Buddy has those two harsh consonant sounds in the b and d and that short u vowel is somewhat guttural. Buddy is a power word, with the power to affirm or condescend. Friend is too weak: the soft f, the purring r, the impotent short e. I would have never, especially in the life-threatening situation that we had found ourselves in, would I have said friend.) “We thought you were someone else,” I finished.
“You don’t think I’ll cut-chu?” he said, all slurry. He staggered closer, splitting our high beams with his corporeal self. I still hadn’t seen the reflection of our high-beams off the blade yet because he still hadn’t gotten the knife open. “I’ll cut-chu!” He said this many times. Always phonetically consistent.
“Now wait a minute, buddy,” I repeated, making sure to grate the intimidating consonants and gargle the guttural vowel. I turned to Chonda. She was laughing. Cheralyn reminded us from the backseat that this wasn’t Kevin. “Just drive, Chonda.” I said. She pounded the wheel and tried to catch her breath. In the meantime I was exposed waist up to a drunken angry man who sooner-or-later would get that knife open. My only hope was that he’d succeed at the can opener first. “Drive! Now!”
Chonda fiddled with the gear lever. I turned to the zombie-like man who was staggering my way, chanting “I’ll cut-chu!” and moving the pocketknife closer and then farther from his eyes as if he were trying to read small print. What he was doing was searching for the groove on the cutting blade so he could get a thumbnail in it to pull it open—and then cut me. Maybe he would never be able to figure out that pocketknife. He bent over and held the weapon in the light beams of the Rambler. “I’ll cut-chu ,” he repeated. “You don’t think I’ll cut-chu?”
Chonda found reverse and backed up enough to clear us from the man with the knife and then gunned the Rambler and we rumbled on down the highway, leaving Cutting Man in the dark and, I’m sure, frustrated.
“Friend?” she said. And I understood right then what was happening. Chonda would never fully appreciate what I had just pulled off with only the power of selective consonants in conjunction with that perfect vowel. Rhetoric was lost on her, like water through a leaky Rambler.
I slumped into my seat, wondering how close to death-by-pocketknife I’d actually come. I could not explain to her then my overall strategy, the boundless, endless power rhetoric can have over sharpened steel (providing there had been a steel blade on that pocketknife at all). Weakly, spent of all rhetorical power now, I simply said, “I called him buddy.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.” And I emphasized the finality of the d’s in did as well as that dart-like sound of the short i.
As passing air roared around the Rambler, as Cheralyn reminded us from the backseat that that had not been Kevin and asked what that was he’d been fumbling with and “Was he drunk?” I realized that this “Buddy” versus “Friend” argument could be a rub between Chonda and me for however long we might know each other—even though neither of us brought it up on our wedding day.
Thirty years later I still contend I said buddy. She’ll say friend, using that so soft f, and she’ll even over-do that rounded, smooth, musical r.
My goodness! Can she not see that every time she utters that word she only helps to prove my argument? Why would I ever call a man coming at me with a knife a friend? Give me a hundred knife attackers and I will refer to each and every one of them (drunk or not), and every single time, as buddy.
When I was 12 and lived in the small Tennessee town of Ashland City, Dad and I fished all the time. When we weren’t fishing, we had another hobby that kept us busy and outdoors. We would scour the nearby landfill that was just on the outskirts of town. Before you got to the city limits there was a hill that seemed to go straight up. Officially this road was called River Road, but everyone in town knew it as Dump Hill because at the top of this hill was where all dumped their garbage, even the professional garbage men.
Dad always thought we might find something there to sell, and the only way we would know would be to look. So on Saturdays we’d haul our trash up there like everyone else in town, only we would stay. And on Saturdays a bulldozer was always there pushing the new piles of garbage to the back, over the hill, so that fresh mounds of trash were always tumbling to the bottom of the ravine. Always, all over Dump Hill, little fires nibbled away at the garbage here and there, stinking of burnt rubber and bad food. Sometimes I’d take my BB gun and shoot at the rats. The most the gun ever did was to flip them over and send them scurrying off.
Since Mom was usually working every Saturday, if Dad wanted to go to the dump and scrounge around for “finds,” then he would have to take us kids with him. At first none of liked going there, because of the smell probably. So while Dad kicked around in the new garbage, we’d sit in the truck and listen to the radio, or I’d shoot at rats.
We’d watch Dad walk around with a big stick, one like Moses carried in The Ten Commandments. Then at some time he’d stop and begin to prod in a promising spot, shortening his grip on the stick until, before long, he’d drop the stick and then grab hold of boxes and papers and old clothes with both hands. That’s when John and I would leave Debbie in the truck and go see what Dad had found. Sometimes we’d find the best stuff: big plastic toys that must have cost a lot of money at one time, old pieces of machinery that we could take apart later, sometimes clothes that would fit me better than the clothes we’d paid for. On a good Saturday we’d fill up the back of the truck with these finds. And Saturdays were always the best days for going to Dump Hill and poking around, because that’s when people cleaned out their garages and attics and threw away old fishing poles and bowling balls and stuff we weren’t always sure what it was, but we were sure we could probably sell it—or use it at home.
I kept my eyes open for Avon bottles because Dad said they were valuable and I could sell them and make a lot of money. I used to find them all the time, bottles shaped like cars and birds and flowers. And he was right: I did sell a lot of them, usually for a dollar a piece. I’d set them up in rows, the best ones up front, on the roof of the spring house and sell them to people who saw a deal as they drove by.
We made the biggest find ever at the end of one long day of digging through box after box of what looked like attic junk—old moth-eaten clothes, old newspapers and magazines, old bottles of medicine, boots and shoes. In the bottom of one of these boxes Dad found a woman’s broach made of pearls that were clasped in golden leaves. He held it up to the sky, for better light, and called me over to take a look. “See how there are no holes in the pearls?” Dad said. Even Debbie had come out of the truck by now and we all crowded in around him there in the middle of the landfill. “They’re held in place only by these gold leaves.” And he traced a grimy finger along the intricate gold work. Then he announced that this was a very valuable broach, and he tucked it away in his shirt pocket with a big grin.
If we hadn’t come today, I thought. If we hadn’t poked around in the trash, if Dad hadn’t dug to the bottom of that box, then that valuable piece would never have been salvaged. That’s what I wanted to say to those who came and tossed their trash and then looked at us funny, just before brushing off their hands and driving away.
My kids took me on a fishing trip this past Father’s Day. There’s a small river that runs through our backyard, so we didn’t have to travel very far. At that time I didn’t have a boat—but that was about to change.
Chera and her husband Craig made me wait in the house while they scurried around, packing a cooler with soft drinks, cookies, Nutty Buddy bars, pudding and peanut butter and crackers—all my favorites. I could see Zach down by the river, but I couldn’t tell what he was doing.
When at last all was ready, they led me to the water with our hands filled with fishing poles and tackle boxes. “Surprise!” Zach stood up straight with a couple of blue oars in his hands. “That’s a lot of pumping,” he said, shaking one arm as if to loosen the cramping of all that pumping. In the grass beside him lay a bright blue and yellow rubber raft. She was a beauty.
At first I thought they were going to get me settled in and push me off. Then Chera revealed that we were all going. “At once?” I asked.
“It’s a four-man raft,” she said. There was an awkward pause. “It says so on the box.”
And there were four of us. Okay. So here we go. The part of the river behind our house is shallow, so we waded in and I hoisted one leg over the edge and stepped into the raft, sitting on the edge with one foot in and one foot out. The front end shot up and Craig caught it on its way up and rode it back into the water. He sat on the front to hold it down while and Chera and Zach came in from each side. Sitting in the bottom wouldn’t work. The raft was more like a waterbed and not a very firm one. When I tried that two things happened: One, my rear end would be a couple of feet below the surface and I could barely see over the pillowy sides. And two, sitting in the bottom of the boat caused everyone else to slide to the middle. So we all sat on the edges with our feet resting in the bottom. We weaved the fishing poles in between the four of us and Zach and Chera took hold of the oars and pushed us off into the river’s deeper waters.
It took a couple of hundred yards before the paddlers got the hang of keeping the raft straight. If Chera took a longer stroke than Zach (or vice versa) the front end would swing wide and we’d change directions, always moving from one side of the river to the other. Once we got going, though, Craig and I decided to fish. My first cast over my children’s heads went high into a tree. I tried to yank it loose but instead pulled us under some low-hanging, snaky-looking limbs. Chera swatted with her oar at anything that moved. Zach poked at things with his, whether it moved or not. Craig told us all he loved us in case he died in the next few minutes. It took a while, but once we were free, we zigzagged on downstream, oars and rods clanking together like battle weapons. We were moving pretty straight until I caught a small bass and the fish spun us in circles.
We made it to a wide rocky area where we beached the raft and fished from the bank and soaked up the sun and ate all our junk food. After a couple of hours we paddled back, zigzagging upstream. We passed a boat occupied by a man and a woman going in the other direction. One sat at each end, in a nice comfortable-looking seat—with cushions and a back rest. They made their casts without any interference. When one of them moved in the least, the other did not bounce or have to steady himself to keep from falling off the edge and into the water. A whisper-quiet motor propelled them in a straight line. We waved to them as our ships passed there on the narrow river. Then I cast my lure into a tree and together, in our four-man raft, we went after it. Swinging, poking, praying and laughing.
The two people in the giant boat motored off, whisper quiet. And though together, at opposite ends of their big boat, they appeared to be rather lonely.
I live in Tennessee but I’ve been working in Kentucky this semester. So every day I cross the state line and read about the bluegrass of Kentucky and how it’s a great place to live. (On the way back I read about how wonderful it is to be a Volunteer and live in Tennessee.) Also at the state line the people of Kentucky have installed one of those giant over-the-road marquees that remind all drivers to buckle up because X number of people have been killed on Kentucky highways this year. Just when I’m digging the bluegrass, I’m reminded to do all I can to keep the car out of the bluegrass. When I started the semester teaching at Western Kentucky University in September, almost 350 people had lost their lives on the Kentucky highways. A very sobering number. Even more sobering when every day I watch that number change—always going up of course. Up five more today. Seven. Only three, that’s not so bad, I think. But each increment represents one whole life. Why can’t they announce how many acres of bluegrass have been sown instead? Toward the end of November the number was up to almost 700.
At mile seventeen there is an identical marquee. One day between mile one and 17 the number rose by two. “Stop it!” I yelled at the marquee, but intended it for all who were driving on the Kentucky highways that day.
The other morning I stopped at the rest stop, like I usually do because interstate rest stops are always so big and clean and friendly—and well lit. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with one fellow at the urinal. Then again with the same fellow at the sinks. Once again at the automatic hand dryers. On the way out, and to the car, I found myself in lockstep with him. It was awkward and someone had to say something. He chose to: “Finally a hand dryer that works,” he said.
I agreed. (They have excellent hand dryers at the Kentucky state line rest stop. FYI). “It’s like they put a jet engine in those things,” I told him.
He nodded as we walked. “Yeah, really blow you away.”
I nodded as we walked.
“Of course,” he added, “Good old paper towels are just fine also.”
I barked a nostalgic laugh and said, “Can’t beat a good paper towel.” Where was that car of mine and why was it taking so long? “You have a good day,” I told him as I peeled off and climbed into my car. As I exited the rest stop I pulled beneath that monstrous marquee that told me three more people had lost their lives since this time the day before. I double-checked my seat belt and prayed a silent prayer that my “rest stop friend” had indeed completely dried his hands—via jet engine, paper towel or the backs of his pant legs—so that he could better grip the wheel and stay out of the bluegrass.
Here’s something that is certain: If you own a cell phone…one day you will drop it in into the lake.
Most likely it will bounce off the dock—two, maybe three times, all in super-slow motion—before plopping into the still, deep waters.
Then you will stare at that spot, where the water ripples, thinking: “Maybe it floats.” But it won’t float, so you will do the best you can with the tools you have: you’ll ask your husband to go after it. “Come on,” you’ll tell him. “Think of it as a search and rescue mission.”
When my wife asked me to go after her phone (hot pink, so we should be able to spot it) she was quick to remind me that I’m a scuba diver, so this should be easy. With my ego stroked, I jumped in and then quickly popped right back up. “Forgot I didn’t have an air tank,” I told her, while spitting water.
I took a couple of deep breaths and dove to the bottom and started poking around, about 8 feet down. The next time I came up, Chonda was on my phone, making a call. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Calling my phone,” she said. “Maybe it’ll ring and you kind find it. Like those dolphins do with those floating mines.”
I tried twice more and another time above the surface I heard Chonda on the phone, changing her voicemail: “I can’t talk to you right now because I’m at the bottom of the lake!”
While the mud settled, I went after my diver’s mask. It was pretty clear down there, just blurry. With the mask I could see everything—rock, stick, mud, more rocks, more sticks. I needed more air so I was about to turn up when I noticed a flash of pink. I turned and kicked hard, imagining that this is what a bass must do when it’s floating there, watching the mud and sticks when all of a sudden the flash of a RattleTrap slices through the water. He can’t help but attack. I pounced on the pink, my lungs aching for air. I turned up and pushed off the muddy bottom, breaking the surface first with the phone. I wanted Chonda to be cheering by the time my head broke through the water.
When you get your phone back from the bottom of the lake, first you will shake it like a salt shaker. Water will glug out. Then you will blow into all the cracks and seams and around the numbers. Water will spray you in the face. Then you’re going to push the “on” button and put it to your ear to see if you can hear anything. Then your husband, when he’s finished spitting and gasping for air, will say something like, “I’m going to get you one of those trucker chains for Christmas so you can hook it to that phone and not let this happen again.”
If you’re lucky you will just drop yours in the toilet. Messy, but easy to find.
Now I will go Christmas shopping for a trucker’s chain.