One evening a week or so ago, Shonnie, Gracelyn and I watched “Dead Poets Society” together. At the film’s conclusion, I began to ponder the course of my formal education—from the first grade through college. My initial foray in the public ...
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School Daze: My Rambling Route Through Our Public Education System

One evening a week or so ago, Shonnie, Gracelyn and I watched “Dead Poets Society” together. At the film’s conclusion, I began to ponder the course of my formal education—from the first grade through college.

Sixth grade classmates and me (4th from left) in 1955

My initial foray in the public school system began at East Ward Elementary in Mount Pleasant, Texas, in 1949, and my first-grade experience was not a promising start. My aged teacher not only demanded that we color within the lines, she also dictated the colors we had to use. That attitude, along with the exceptionally boring books we were required to read (“See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!”), had me longing for recess and the playground, my only respite from the tedium and tyranny of the classroom. I did learn to read on my own, however, so I could enjoy my favorite comic books—Superman, Roy Rogers, and Donald Duck, among others.

Though there were a few teachers along the way with whom I resonated (most notably Ms. Mitchell, my sixth-grade teacher, who was a recent college graduate), for the most part from first grade through high school, it was the stultifying memorize and regurgitate routine. However, during my senior year, my Tullahoma (TN) High English teacher provided an opportunity for creative writing when she required us to write our autobiography, a project I thoroughly enjoyed, and which provided my first inkling that I had a way with words. Below is the first paragraph and another excerpt from my 1200-word effort for which I received an A-:

Many people write their autobiographies when they are fifty or sixty. I’m going to write mine right now while I’m seventeen so it won’t be so long. . . .

During March we moved to Pomona, California. Ah, sunny California! When we arrived it was raining and the temperature was about sixty degrees. The teacher thought I talked funny because I said “ah” instead of I, so they sent me to a speech teacher. They couldn’t convert my Texas drawl though. The only good thing about California was the nine or ten television channels. We moved back to Texas six months after arrival.

Otherwise, I encountered listlessness and monotony, punctuated by sports, practical jokes, and girls (in that order). However, one high school history project also stands out. My classmate Norris and I reenacted the sinking of the Maine, setting up a large tub of water outside the classroom window, floating a plastic model of a battleship in the tub, inserting a cherry bomb into the battleship, and blowing it to smithereens. Yeah, I guess this activity actually falls into the practical joke category. 😊

High school pals out on the town in 1961

At the University of Tennessee my classes were more challenging, and things shifted for the better. Chemistry just seemed to click for me. We were doing challenging experiments in the chemistry lab, the outcomes of which relied on the intention and expertise with which we undertook them to obtain the desired results. And my freshman English teacher gushed over some of the personal essays I wrote in her class, offering the second intimation of my future path.

Perhaps I experienced my greatest collegiate awareness in my music appreciation class. Reputed to be an easy A, I signed up with no great expectations. But, exposed to classical music for the first time, I was entranced as I listened to it and even purchased a record of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 5 featuring Van Cliburn at the piano. I continue to listen to classical music on our local NPR station to this day. Then there was the 0.0 grade point average the spring quarter of my sophomore year, but I’ll leave that tale for another time.

I managed to graduate from Sewanee—The University of the South in 1966 with a degree in psychology and minor in English, thanks to the generosity of my third-year French teacher who gifted me with a D. Then there were my brief forays into post-graduate education—law school and English grad school, neither of which held my interest for very long.

Somewhere along the way I realized classes and schooling were not my primary method of learning, that I learn to do things best by actually doing them. I think I probably could have dropped out of school in the fourth or fifth grade and still have pursued my professional undertakings, including teaching, construction, energy conservation, public relations, marketing, strategic planning, freelance writer, and political organizing. In fact, my inherent skill set—planning, problem solving, and organizing–provides the attributes that I continue to draw on in my writing, as I plan what I want to say, determine how best to say it, and organize the words and sentences so that they accurately reflect my thoughts and flow in a manner that might resonate with readers.

Now to stop procrastinating and complete get back to work on that long-delayed memoir before time runs out!

My Meandering Path Toward Authenticity

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
~Brené Brown

I awoke early on Christmas Day 1947 brimming with anticipation. Searching frantically under the Christmas tree, I found Santa’s gifts of cowboy gear—hat, vest, chaps, boots, and two toy six-guns. But, to my utter dismay, there was no sign of the Shetland pony I was sure Santa was going to bring me.

Janie, my great aunt, and Mae, my great grandmother, pressed me to try on the cowboy outfit. “Santa won’t believe you’ve been a good little boy if you don’t appreciate his nice gifts,” Janie said. Disappointed and disheartened, at first I sullenly rebuffed their entreaties. But then I looked at my mom, Sue, who smiled encouragingly, and finally, I succumbed.

While my dad Mack was finishing college on the G.I. Bill, we lived with Janie and Mae at their home in Irving, Texas. I was happy kid, loving, and easily moved to tears, nonetheless both of my older relatives made it clear that, if I wanted their love and acceptance, I must conform to their vision of a “good little boy”—obedient (“Speak when spoken to at dinner and always clean your plate.”), cheerful (“There’s nothing to be sad about, Brucie. Just put on a happy face.”), and emotionally restrained (“Stop that whining or I’ll give you something to whine about!”).

Employing the time-honored childrearing methods of the era—blaming, shaming, criticizing, withdrawing love, and spanking—my relatives did their best to mold me into the dominant cultural paradigm’s ideal of maleness and away from any behavior that even hinted at femininity. My mom, young, fearful, and insecure, was overprotective of me, and she generally followed the lead of Janie and Mae. With no kids my age in the neighborhood, I hung out with Lucky, Mae’s mongrel dog, and I listened to the adventures of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and the Lone Ranger every afternoon on the radio.

Me in 1950

As a result of all this negative feedback, I unconsciously began to doubt my worthiness and my lovability. For after all, how could these women care about me if they treated me in such an heartless manner? Furthermore, beneath my awareness, I began to question my natural way of being, the essence of who I was, since it so often seemed to offend my elders.

A few more Christmases came and went before I fully realized the pony would never materialize no matter how I longed for it. But without the pony, I’d never be a cowboy, and if I’d never be a brave, adventurous, heroic buckaroo, who was I to be? However, while attending an SMU-Texas A&M college football game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas with my dad, Plan B crept into my unconscious mind. The roar of the crowd as the teams ran onto the field, the rousing refrains from the band, the fans’ fervent adulation of the All-American running back after scoring a touchdown; the seed was planted.

After we moved to Mount Pleasant, Texas, I learned the rudiments of the gridiron during sandlot games with my coterie of neighborhood pals. Ed and Marvin, the two older guys, taught us the basic techniques and rules, then we chose teams, and the mayhem commenced. Our games took place on a nearby vacant lot almost every afternoon after school, and though we wore no protective gear, we played tackle rather than touch football. Lots of bumps and bruises, but never any serious injuries. Scrawny, shy, and self-conscious, I was not one of the first players chosen, but I certainly became one of the most enthusiastic. Driven to conduct myself like I thought a real football player should and to fit in with my teammates, I unconsciously began to cobble together a hypermasculine persona based on the attitudes and behavior of my peers, adults, and radio and movie characters—tough, competitive, wary, and loyal. And before long, I was accepted as a full-fledged member of our little band of ruffians.

I never had second thoughts in 1955 about trying out for the Tullahoma (TN) Junior High football team after we’d moved there in the early fifties. It was just what real boys did. While I was certainly not a standout player, I held my own and became a starter in my final year of junior high—the ninth grade. I savored the camaraderie and bond with my teammates, and it was clear that being a team member provided a higher social status with the other students (including the girls) than the guys who weren’t on the team. My dad, with unfulfilled gridiron aspirations of his own, was highly supportive and very proud of my efforts.

After playing on the junior varsity football team my first year of high school, I became obsessed with becoming the best football player I could possibly be. I lifted weights religiously, ran sprints in the off-season, and abstained from alcohol and tobacco. I listened to the University of Tennessee Volunteer’s football games on the radio and visualized myself as a standout college receiver. And while I was not large for a football player—a little over six-feet tall and 175 pounds, I was strong, quick, and a vicious tackler and blocker, impulsively taking out my pent-up adolescent angst on my opponents. My junior year I became a starter on a team comprised almost entirely of seniors that went 8-2 and was ranked in the top ten teams in the state before running out of steam and losing two of our last three games.

Preparing to lay a blind side block on my opponent

Prior to my senior season in the autumn of 1960, the local newspaper sports columnist accurately asserted that this would likely be a rebuilding year for the Tullahoma High School Wildcats. We wound up with a 5-4-1 record, but gained momentum as the season progressed and won our last three games by large margins. I was voted team captain, chosen for the All-Midstate team, played in a high school all-American game in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and was awarded a full football scholarship at the University of Tennessee. Acknowledged and held in high regard by my fellow students, my teachers, and townspeople alike, I’d attained my vision of gridiron glory. But most importantly, I had achieved wholehearted acceptance by my teammates and my other pals.

On the surface, I was the epitome of the All-American boy—athletic, attractive, bright, cool, and tough. But despite my newfound status, just beneath my awareness, the limiting beliefs I’d taken on out of the events of my early childhood—that I was worthless, inferior, helpless, unlovable—festered. Ever on high alert that anyone might glimpse behind my fabricated façade, I was driven to be perfect—always do the right thing, say the right thing, always show up as the macho stud I pretended to be. And whenever I thought I hadn’t lived up to my unattainable standards, my fierce inner critic would harshly berate me, my brain would drop into its fight or flight mode, and I’d spend hours attempting to repair the perceived breach.

I had refrained from drinking entirely throughout high school in my pursuit of excellence. But it was springtime, and we were about to graduate and go our separate ways, so what the hell. Donnie drove on that day in mid-May of 1961, Billy Ray had shotgun, and I sat in the back seat. We stopped at a dumpy little package store whose proprietor was known to sell beer to minors, and we each purchased a quart of Country Club Malt Liquor, which was reputed to have more bang for the buck. We cruised out the country road toward Rutledge Falls sipping our cold brew, laughing, joking, prematurely celebrating the independence that was at hand with the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” booming from the car radio.

Though it was more than sixty years ago, I still distinctly remember the malty smell and the slightly pungent taste of the beer, but mostly I remember the peaceful, serene feeling that came over me as the alcohol took effect. Not fully cognizant of it at the time, the tension in my jaws, my throat, and my shoulders diminished, and my inner critic went silent. I was immediately and unconsciously hooked.

So, I began drinking, ostensibly for fun and enjoyment, but really as an unwitting attempt to regain the harmony, inner peace, and wholeness that I had experienced in my early youth and only infrequently since then. Besides, real men were big-time boozers, right?

My ungainly and often challenging journey toward authenticity began this day with the bottle, and I would go down a number of other blind alleys before finally discerning the wake-up calls that would lead me to the path back home.

To be continued

Two Attempts to Change the Course of Our Nation’s History

One morning a few weeks ago, I was browsing the daily online headlines when I came across an article describing the lengthy prison sentences, ranging from 10 to 22 years, given four Proud Boys. Each had been convicted for playing a major role in the rampage at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in an attempt to derail the peaceful transfer of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. “Fuck around and find out, boys,” I laughed to myself while sipping the last dregs of my coffee.

As I savored the consequences that had been dealt, however, my mind flashed back to another confrontation at a federal building in Washington, D.C., this one over half a century ago.

It was 1969, and the war in Vietnam raged on. I was twenty-six years old and had helped organize the October 15 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam at Middle Tennessee State University, a day on which anti-war demonstrations took place in cities and on college campuses around the nation. Intent on doing my part to end what I believed was a disastrous, unjustifiable, and immoral war, my then-brother-in-law Johnny and I drove from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. to participate in the second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam protest on November 15, 1969. We would stay with Harry, Johnny’s older brother (also my then-brother-in-law) at his D.C. apartment.

We arrived too late to join in the March against Death, which began on Thursday evening (November 13) and continued all day Friday (November 14). More than 40,000 people silently paraded single file down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Each marcher carried a placard with the name of a dead American soldier or a destroyed Vietnamese village along with a candle. The march was entirely silent except for six drums tapping out funereal dirges. At the Capitol Building the placards were placed in coffins.

On Saturday, we joined 500,000 demonstrators from across the nation at the Washington Monument. We sang along as Pete Seeger led us in John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” “All we are saying is give peace a chance” with Pete shouting above the crowd’s chorus, “Are you listening, Nixon?” “Are you listening, Agnew?” “Are you listening at the Pentagon?”

Peter, Paul & Mary performed three tunes including Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing,” Arlo Guthrie led us in “This Land Is Your Land,” and Richie Havens gave a rousing rendition of “Freedom.” Other performers included including Earl Scruggs, Leonard Bernstein, Joan Baez, the Cleveland String Quartet, and the touring cast of “Hair.” In addition, Coretta Scott King, Dick Gregory, John Denver, and Senators Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Charles Goodell (a Republican) gave stirring speeches calling for an end to the war.

Washington Monument, 11/15/69

Johnny and I sang along and chanted with the crowd. “Peace now!” “Hell, no, we won’t go!” Exhilarated to be a part of this extraordinary event, we believed our efforts would change the course of history. After the demonstration concluded, deeply satisfied, heartened and energized, we began walking back to Harry’s apartment, when a group of militant activists cajoled, “Come on, we’re headed to the Justice Department.” Without a second thought, Johnny and I joined in.

When we arrived at the Justice Department, a crowd of around 10,000 demonstrators had gathered in front of the building, separated from a phalanx of policemen in full riot gear by a team of volunteer Moratorium marshals, who were attempting to maintain order. Demonstrators verbally taunted the policemen, but I saw no physical violence taking place. Using a bullhorn, the police demanded that the assembled crowd of demonstrators depart the premises immediately. But before anyone really had an opportunity to respond to their demand, the police set off a massive tear gas attack with clouds of gas that enveloped everyone present.

D.C. police repel demonstrators at the Justice Department, 11/15/69

Coughing and eyes watering, Johnny and I hastily began leaving when police fired a multitude of tear gas cannisters into the air that landed and exploded among the retreating crowd. Though breathing was difficult, I began to run with Johnny hanging onto my right coat sleeve and a woman we didn’t know hanging onto my left. After traveling a hundred yards or so, the woman suddenly released her grip, but Johnny and I continued to run as fast as possible. When we finally broke out of the cloud of tear gas, Johnny told me that the woman who’d been with us went down after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister. “Damn,” I said, “I wish we could’ve helped her.”

When we got to Harry’s place, we shed our tear gas-soaked clothes and showered before recounting our adventure, filled with hope that what we’d done that day would influence Congress and the President to end the war in which 1000 American soldiers were losing their lives each month, as well as additional thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

So, two attempts to change the course of history fifty-four years apart: At our nation’s Capital Building on January 6, 2021, protestors attempted to thwart the transfer of the office of the presidency from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. On November 15, 1969, protesters at the Justice Department attempted to compel Richard Nixon to end the war in Vietnam. As I reflected on the differences and the similarities of these events, I pondered: What if the D.C. police hadn’t been present in such overwhelming force? What if the leaders of the demonstration had broken into the Justice Department building? Would I, filled with passion and righteousness, have been caught up in the herd mentality? Would I have entered the Justice Department Building and desecrated the offices and their contents? Would I have believed such actions were fully justified in a noble attempt to end the war?

I wonder.


While we had hoped that our massive turnout and the growing public opposition to the war would bring the politicians to their senses, we saw little immediate evidence of such an effect. The war would rage on until 1975 resulting in the total deaths of 58,220 American troops and the additional deaths of approximately 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, 1,100,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters, and 2,000,000 civilians on both sides.

What we wouldn’t know until the release of declassified documents by the National Security Archive in 2015, however, is that our massive efforts for peace did have an effect. After receiving reports of the enormous crowd at the protest on November 15, 1969, Nixon reluctantly called off his irrational plan for a major escalation of the war against North Vietnam, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, an action that could have provoked the Chinese or Soviets to enter the conflict with nuclear weapons of their own and set off World War lll.

WHAT, ME 80?

An Octogenarian Looks Back on His Path to Good Health

Shonnie, Gracelyn & me

If you’d known me when I was in my 20s and 30s, a hyper-masculine, self-indulgent, beer-swilling rebel (without much of a cause), you might have wondered if I’d ever reach the age of 40. I ponder sometimes if I even wanted to. But here I am at 80, in pretty damned good shape—healthy, vigorous, and strong.

Obviously, I didn’t consciously set out on a path to nurture my physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Hell, I rarely even considered arriving at this realm I once considered to be geezerdom (pardon the ageism). But despite overindulging in alcohol and dabbling in other drugs early on, I have since instinctively pursued a path that supported me to reach this age with almost all body parts in working order, no need for any medications, a resting heartbeat of 55, and at the weight I was as a junior in high school—165 pounds.

Though my mind sometimes wants me to believe I’m still 40 (and cracking jokes of a pre-adolescent), there are some effects of aging that are undeniable. My hair is gray, my skin has wrinkles, my energy level has slipped, and my spatial awareness and balance have declined somewhat. Of course, I’ve worn glasses since my 40s, mostly to read fine print and road signs. And I have a benign enlarged prostate, necessitating drowsily arising in the middle of the night to urinate. Finally, after a decade or two of postponing the inevitable, I was compelled to get my hearing checked following this interchange with my daughter Gracelyn a few years ago.

Me to Gracelyn: So, what’s the best thing about having an older dad?
Gracelyn: When I whisper to Mom, you can’t hear me.
Me: OK, well, what’s the worst thing about having an older dad?
Gracelyn: When I whisper to you, you can’t hear me.

And yes, I got the hearing aids soon afterwards. And, they’re pretty cool in that, besides hearing Gracelyn whisper, I can take phone calls and listen to music through them.

So that’s the overview, folks. If you want details, read on. If not, you’re welcome to skip to the final paragraph.

. . .

A timeline of my quest for good health

Me (4th from left) and my 5th grade pals.

Ages 6-18:  As a boy growing up in the late Forties and early Fifties, I spent a great deal of time outdoors doing the usual kid stuff—bike riding, pickup baseball and football games, running, climbing trees, and more. I was called “sickly” by one of my elementary school teachers, and I underwent a tonsillectomy in 1949. Most notably, at age 13, I biked 50-miles in one day to earn my Boy Scout cycling merit badge. When I got to junior high, I entered the realm of organized athletics, playing on the basketball and football teams, suffering a broken collarbone during a football game And in high school, I took it up several notches, not only participating in those sports as seasonal pursuits, but running in the off-season and lifting weights year-round. My nose was broken in a junior varsity basketball game. To be in the best physical condition possible, I totally abstained from tobacco and alcohol. A footnote of this era: Sitting in my ’47 Plymouth business coupe, my feet on the ground as I changed from my school shoes to my camping boots, a bolt of lightning hit a nearby tree, and I felt the charge of electricity flow up my feet and legs through my entire body.

Ages 18-23: My hard work and intentionality paid off, and I was awarded an athletic scholarship to play football at the University of Tennessee. While I was a starter at receiver on the freshman team, big-time football was not what I’d anticipated, and I eventually transferred to Sewanee, a small liberal arts college, where there were no athletic scholarships. If you played football at Sewanee, you did it for the love of the game. It was during my college days that I began drinking beer and, occasionally, hard liquor.

I was a teenage Vol!

Ages: 23-30: Not much going on in my physical life except a lot of pot smoking, drinking, and occasional pick-up basketball and touch football games. However, after reading a book on yoga in my late 20s, I taught myself to breathe diaphragmatically and have breathed in this manner ever since. According to medical authorities, this type of breathing improves muscle function during exercise, increases the amount of oxygen in one’s blood, reduces blood pressure, and reduces heart rate.

Ages 30-40: When I was 30, I began playing handball and continued until I turned 80. I believe handball enhanced my agility and flexibility, muscle tone, stamina, and promoted my cardiovascular health. I also began weight machine workouts for building and maintaining my strength, and I have continued intermittently. And I played competitive volleyball—beach doubles and six-man indoors with benefits similar to those gained via handball. The drinking persisted.

Ages 40-50: I continued handball, volleyball, and weight workouts, and I began to run as well. Running helped me to build strong bones, strengthen muscles, and improve cardiovascular fitness. I also began a daily regimen of pushups and crunches, a practice I continue. In my mid-40s, I stopped drinking alcohol cold turkey and began eating an organic vegetarian diet. To expunge limiting beliefs and reawaken to my authentic self, I regularly participated in transformative personal growth workshops, including weeklong intensives featuring whitewater rafting, ropes courses, and solo camping experiences.

Virginia Beach doubles VB tourney –1980.

Ages 50-60: I continued handball, running, weights, and daily exercises. I also began training for marathons and lengthy trail races, and I completed several of each, along with some half-marathons and other shorter races. In addition, an effective stretching routine became an essential part of my post-run and post-handball regimen, a practice I continue to this day. Stretching in this manner has helped me remain more flexible and agile and maintain my range of motion. In addition, it increases the blood flow into my muscles and helps deliver nutrients that aid in recovery after a challenging workout.

Ages 60-70: I continued handball, running, weights, and daily exercises. I had arthroscopic surgery on my left knee in 1998 to correct a bouldering injury. And I began to pay even more attention to my mental/spiritual health through meditation, conscious breathwork, tapping, and EMDR. Whenever I meditated and did breathwork, I felt a powerful pulsating at my brow, an area some refer to as the third eye and the seat of intuition. I stopped eating foods containing refined sugar, I cut down on my caffeine intake, and I increased my filtered water intake.

Ages 70-80: I continued handball, running, weights, and daily exercises. I also began ingesting high quality liquid vitamins, minerals, and trace elements daily. And I took up intermittent fasting, which prompts an increase in human growth hormone (HGH), promoting cellular repair. I started paying more attention to my gut health by eating yogurt and fermented foods and ingesting supportive dietary supplements. I underwent a catheter ablation for SVT (occasional rapid heartbeat) in 2018. After being a devotee of the game for 50 years, at age 80 I quit playing handball, only because the pool of local players had dwindled to a handful due to injury, aging, death, relocation, and a dearth of younger players coming along. I persist in trail running (not as far, not as fast), occasional bike riding, and exercising every weekday, taking weekends off. I set aside my weight machine workouts during COVID but plan to begin again soon. Plus, my wife Shonnie is enthusiastically encouraging me to join her in the ranks of pickleball players, and it’s likely that I’ll succumb. Oh, and I eat a little fish from time to time and enjoy a beer with my evening meal.

Whacking the handball!

. . .

Despite all of this, I’m finally coming to grips with the fact that, no matter what physical/emotional/spiritual practices I undertake, time will ultimately have its way, though hopefully not for another decade or two. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I was not alive for millions of years before I was born, and I suffered no ill effects whatsoever.