My twin brother and I shared a room from womb to thirteen-years-old. Those of you who have had a roommate know that you must develop and agree on certain rules to keep the peace. For example, we agreed that the last person to get in bed must turn off the light. Paul was notoriously and egregiously derelict in following this rule. There were several nights when, in our stubbornness, he and I would leave the light on until two or three in the morning because Paul refused to turn out the light under the terms of our agreement. Of course, I would eventually give in, huffing and fuming, and turn off the light.
July has become a natural time for me to think about Christmas. I, as do many, absolutely adore the Christmas season, and I begin to long for it in the hot month of July for so many reasons. So why not?
I’m a believer.
When there is inadequate evidence to support something I want to believe–something which enriches my life in some way–I often choose to believe it anyway. I’m good with Bigfoot, psychic powers, magic, aliens, ghosts, and God. Most adults believe in at least one of these. But what about Santa Claus?
I believe it’s accurate to say that I had a reputation for being straight-laced in high school. If I showed up at your party (rare), and you were thinking of bringing out booze or some illicit substance, you might ask your friend,
“Do you know that guy?”
“Who? Oh, that Burns twin? David?”
“Will he be cool if I bring this out?”
“David? Uhhhhh…better wait until he’s gone.”
I grew up at a time when the brand of your clothes you wore was a major factor in you determining social status. Polo, Izod, Gant, OP, Jams, Guess, Reebok–it didn’t matter if the off-brand clothing item was identical; without the brand, it was absolute TRASH and you were better off not even trying.
I learned this in my days of middle school in Norman. I moved from a small farm town in Arkansas where I was aware of name brands, but so many of us were poor and I think we were more forgiving about clothes. In that town, Lee jeans were the standard. You looked for that genuine cowhide patch with “Lee” branded on it. They weren’t expensive. They didn’t promise any kind of status. We just liked them. But Lee was not cool in 1984 Norman. I was set straight very soon at Whittier Middle School. In a panic, I begged my mom to buy me a couple pairs of Levis, but I had to wait.
Once in a while, my wife and I get asked how we met. We both love to tell it. It shares themes with many love stories–politics, prestige, perseverance, admiration, and hearts that went pitter-patter.
Our story begins with music. Jennifer and I both played instruments in the band at West Mid-High in Norman, Oklahoma. She played the flute and I played the tuba. She sat on the front row and me on the back row. Ninth grade passed without any interaction that I remember. Other, she was just one of the nameless gaggle of giggly flute players on the front row.
It’s a little early to think about Halloween, but this story is ultimately about growing up with an extraordinary father.
Eighth grade is a weird time for Halloween. Eight-graders are caught between childhood and adolescence. They want to enjoy all the fun of a childhood Halloween and also enjoy the teenage and adult age fun of parties. It was the last year I tried to trick-or-treat. Over the summer, I’d become a six-foot-tall bass-baritone. I wondered if I could still pull it off one last time. I blew what little money I had on a hobo mask. Yes, this was a day when dressing like a homeless person for Halloween was acceptable. The mask was replete with a tattered cigar protruding from a weather-worn, unshaven rubber face.
My grandfather, Daddy Boots, has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve written some about him in these posts.
A Tuba Named Boots: The Audition
Today, a memory returned to me about something that happened very soon after his death. Daddy Boots was a computer enthusiast. You could call him an early adopter. He bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer when I was a small boy. 1979? 80? Not sure. He was also a stock market enthusiast. He retired early and he had money to invest. Perhaps if he had put it in a mutual fund instead of playing the market he would have been a multi millionaire, but it wouldn’t have made him happy.
He loved to watch tickers and read journals and buy and sell stocks. Perhaps it is what kept him alive so long after his wife’s death. He was very clever, too. He’d become so knowledgeable about the stock market and about computers, that he developed software based on his investment algorithms. He used it to do his business every day, first thing, in slippers and ancient pajamas.
He took the time to show me. He would put me on his lap and teach me how to navigate the operating system so that I could play the simple games which he taught me to load from floppy discs. His computer room was up the stairs from the laundry room above the garage. It was not connected at all to the rest of the house. The best word to describe the room is “den”, not in the living room sense of the word, but as in an animals den. It had all the things that were important to him stashed away in it. It had a strong smell which I had associated with the room, but when he moved to Norman and I visited his apartment I realized that it was him. Not the room at all. His smell is a vivid living thing in me. Not just a memory. If I choose, I can put it right into my nose as if he were here.
In a day where men and women his age are still struggling to use phones and email, he had already been using computers and modems and faxes and printers for 30 years or so. I marvel at that to this day. Perhaps I am a computer programmer today because of him, and perhaps I am a musician today because of him.
I remember during a visit to his and Granny’s home that he sat down on the couch with a clarinet case in hand. He’d kept this clarinet since he was a very young man in high school. He had taken it in to get it recorked and cleaned up. He played in dance bands in high school and when he enlisted, I believe he brought his clarinet with him. He told a story about playing in the barracks at night with the window up, and how he’d been called in to see the commander of the camp to be recruited to play. And once again, I marveled. He could only squeak out a few notes in the living room, but at one time he had been good enough to be a small time professional musician. I liked to imagine how he must have sounded. It was on a stage at a high school dance playing Moonlight Serenade that he first saw Dellalou Morris. He fell in love with her on the spot and loved her till his dying breath.
All of my life, I loved him very much, but I only saw him once or twice a year. I treasured those moments, but as an adult I did not know him very well at all until he moved to my town to live his last days. I became much closer to him in those years.
A few days after he died, I had a dream. I was in a dark room fill with TRS-80s or some such. They were all “green screen” monitors like you may have seen in a bank or at an airline. They are black screens with green words. I could smell something very familiar that seemed to ride on the a low hum from all of the little fans in the computers keeping the heat down on the processors. Then the hum changed. Something was emerging from it, I could make out word: “David”. It was a distant voice, modulated in some way, perhaps by the technology it was being emitted from. I came closer to one of the computers and a face emerged with old glasses, familiar bushy eyebrows, and a striking nose all in the form of a green outline. It was peering at me; alive
He didn’t say anything else, but a beautiful sound came forth. It was a clarinet playing low and smooth.
When I woke, I pondered the dream. I thought about that face and glasses and eyebrows and nose. Without doubt, I concluded that it was Daddy Boots. This was a Daddy Boots I hadn’t seen in a long time. This man was at last content. The death of his wife, my Grannie, froze him some way. I’m not really sure that his mind ever left that year. I knew him to be a man living with the ghosts of people long gone, the ghosts of bomber planes and flight jackets. He was restless and he missed the one person who perhaps kept him living in the present: Dellalou, his beautiful bride.
Maybe it was just a dream, but I like to think that if his soul continued on to a better place that this would be his heaven. Living and breathing computers and playing clarinet for his wife to dance to. I can never be certain, but I like to think he was playing their song.
In fourth grade, my teacher was Ms. Brown. She was my favorite teacher to date. She was young and had a wonderful sense of humor; something that my previous teachers had never shared with us. Her hair was curly and she was short and stout. I thought she was pretty.
I saw myself as the “good” kid. I did well in school, although I didn’t work for it. I followed all of the rules and participated in class, mainly to show the teacher that I was smart. Truthfully, I was a very wholesome and naive kid, regardless of my intentions.
I didn’t think twice when she put my desk next to hers facing the class. I believed that she did so because I must have been her favorite student. It didn’t occur to me until the year 2000 that that might be an absurd assumption. I had come to learn, having been a teacher myself, that teachers put problematic students close to them.
I’ve mulled this over years now. Why did she put me in the front like that? I’d never had detention. I’d never received a bad report for behavior that I could remember other than me being a little too talkative and day dreamy. It was a different time. Teachers did all kinds of inappropriate things. Perhaps she did favor me. I believed I was special, but never in a troublesome way.
Sitting next to her gave me some privileges. She allowed me to look through one of her desk drawers whenever I liked. That is where I saw my first calligraphy pen. It was a black, felt pen with a slanted, flat tip. I asked her about it. She told me what it was, and dug out a calligraphy book for me to look at.
I often had nothing to do in her class. I was generally the first kid to finish assignments and quizzes, so I worked through the book. I learned an entire font, though I didn’t know that there were other fonts. To me, this was just all that calligraphy could be. I practiced until I could write it without the book, always working to perfect it.
Ironically, my print and cursive writing was atrocious. One teacher sent back my work with a note that used the words “chicken scratch” on it. But calligraphy was different to me. It was art, and I was an artist in every way that I could figure out to be. It was one of many identities that I would experiment in my life. I took art classes at a museum across from MacArthur Park in downtown Little Rock every Saturday. My parents had allowed me to set up a make shift art studio in the storage room that connected the garage with their bedroom.
I shared the room with an old refrigerator that contained nothing but frozen Roman Meal bread. Sometimes, when I was waiting on my mother to cook dinner, I would beg her for a snack. She would insist that I wait for dinner, but I discovered that I could sneak into my art studio and swipe a piece of frozen bread to tide me over.
And so, I discovered that I could do with calligraphy what I could not do with print and cursive. It was a proud accomplishment. I loved to show it off. It made me feel special in a good way. After all, who would expect a fourth grader to know calligraphy? Was this why Ms. Brown kept me close? For enrichment? I’ll never know.
One day, I told my father that I wanted to buy my own calligraphy pens. Lonoke did not have an art supply shop, so he took me to Little Rock. Going into Little Rock with my dad was a big deal. He was very busy tending the First Presbyterian Church of Lonoke, Arkansas. Any alone time I could get with him was precious to me. It must have been winter, because I wore a winter coat and it was already dark outside when we arrived. The shop was small, but it had everything I would ever need. There were paint brushes, water color paper, sketch pads, colored pencils, and my favorite medium, chalk pastels, but that’s not what I was there for.
I did not take my coat off in the store. I was so intent on finding what I wanted. A woman showed me the pens and waited on me to choose, perhaps chatting with my father. I wanted one like Ms. Brown’s. It’s odd, but I remember the sound of my coat sleeves rubbing together as I carefully chose a pen. I wanted to demonstrate to the lady that I was a bit of an expert. I wanted her to see that I knew precisely what I wanted. And I did.
After choosing a pen, I browsed for other supplies. I bought a fan brush because I had seen it used on Polly’s Paint Shop, an Arkansas PBS program, to make wonderful landscapes.
I don’t know how long I worked on calligraphy, a week, a month? I have only a few memories of practicing in my studio. And although I can remember aspects of the font, I can no longer write it. But I do remember how proud I felt to show off what I had learned to Ms. Brown. I also remember that she loved Brazil nuts. She was prone to sharing random things about herself with us, and I adored her for it. So, I swiped a few from a wedding reception and wrapped them up in a cocktail napkin which I brought to her the next day. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was thanking her for making me feel special, even if it wasn’t the kind of special I thought I was.
And 5th grade? Guess where my desk was? Right next to the teacher’s. And she wasn’t as nice about it.
Many of you will recall that the standard for school cafeteria back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s was dramatically different than now. Sure, we complained mercilessly about Salisbury steak and lima beans, but try eating at a school cafeteria now.
I first realized how good I had it as a child when I began working for an elementary school in Moore. It was the food I remembered from childhood. Not the nachos, chicken nuggets, pizza, and crappy shipped in food. We’re talking big, scratch cinnamon rolls with a heavy dose of buttery icing drizzled on top. The kind where the center is so soft and moist that you just want to start in the middle and work your way out.
I was very skinny at that time, and the cafeteria ladies were determined to fatten me up, so they would make a special cinnamon roll for me that was about 30% larger than the ones the kids were eating. Their yeast rolls were equally good. It reminded me of my childhood cafeteria. Green beans stewed with bacon. Chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy. Steak fingers. Chimichangas. Apple sauce jello.
You may not remember apple sauce jello fondly. First, let me remind you of what it is. It was that Jello that wasn’t clear. It was grainy and opaque because instead of being just water and gelatin and sugar, it was made with applesauce to give it some nutritional value.
I was a cafeteria survivalist. I learned how to like the foods that the other kids did not like. Applesauce Jello was one of those foods. I looked forward to applesauce Jello days because I was the kid who would call across the table to you and say “You gonna eat that?”
I found that people also didn’t care for rolls, canned fruits, fish sticks, spice cake, and a few other odds and ends. My stomach was a bottomless pit. I could always eat more than my allotted share, and I hated to see food go to waste.
My twin and I recently shared a memory of the bad weather morning donut. In elementary school, when the weather was too cold or rainy for us to stand around the schoolyard before class, we would be ushered into the cafeteria. We were not permitted to talk. Goodness knows why not. But we were each given a donut and a carton of milk.
Pretty cool, right? Wrong. This went way beyond “pretty cool”. These donuts came to us warm in a little plastic package. They were soaked with melted glaze and when washed down with cold whole milk (yes we had whole milk in those days, white, chocolate, and my favorite, strawberry), it was, to this day, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. I’ve tried to replicate this with donuts in the microwave, but it’s never the same. We only got them a few times that I remember.
The cafeteria was also a social experiment. We had to sit in the order of the line that we marched to the cafeteria in. The best you could do to sit by your best buddy or the cute girl, was to jockey for a position in line next to them, and it would only be your best buddy in the scope of your home class. So this meant that you would be sitting by people who you wouldn’t normal be sitting by. People with cooties, people who’s head was shaven due to lice, kids who nobody played with on the playground. Turns out that “cooties” originates as another word for head lice, but in those days it simply meant the make believe germs that boys could give to girls and girls could give to boys making them persona non grata.
One particular day, I got to sit across from one of the cute girls in my class. She was very crushworthy. I often had fantasies around a particular song with a particular girl, and every time I hear this song I think of her. “I Keep Forgetting'” by Michael McDonald. I liked the idea that we’d already had our passionate romance and she’d thrown me away. I wasn’t in love with her. Maybe I just liked the song a lot, and she happened to be in front of me when I was thinking of her.
Another female friend taught me something that I’ve never forgotten. It’s not really rocket science, but I didn’t grow up in a house where we did this. I noticed one day that she was dipping her fat, perfect yeast roll into her whipped potatoes and gravy. I asked her if it was good, and she suggested I try it. Once you’ve done this, there’s no going back!
I couldn’t say if the food we ate was healthier than the food kids are eating today, but it was made scratch by the hands of women with large moles on their cheeks and hairnets over their tightly bunned hair. Kids today are so picky, I’m not sure they would even eat the food I ate as a kid, but we didn’t have a choice other than bringing bologna, American cheese, and mustard on Wonder Bread with Cheetos, an apple (which was meant to be thrown away), a Ding Dong wrapped in foil, and a Coca Cola in a Star Wars lunchbox.
To be fair, if given the choice between Salisbury steak and Pizza Hut, which would you pick?
Being a twin means sharing. We sometimes shared Christmas presents. We shared a room together. We wore the same clothes, but with different colors. Paul always got the crap colors. We shared friends. We shared many childhood memories. And we shared crushes.
I have an important shared memory with Paul. I called him this morning to ask him what he remembered. I was a little stunned and amused to hear his version of the story.
Here’s what he remembered. We both had a crush on the same girl in 4th grade. Let’s call her Tiffany. Tiffany was the sweetest, most beautiful, most kind girl we knew. She was our “Winnie” (see The Wonder Years). Unlike many 4th grade boys, we were into girls already. I was aware that Paul liked her, and he was very aware that I liked her, too.
One day, at recess, we were hanging out with Tiffany and she was giving me more attention than she was giving Paul. He got insanely jealous and did something that he felt guilty about for years. Something that I didn’t even remember. He shoved me hard from behind and I went down hard and ugly. Although I slugged a couple of kids in the elementary school, I was really not a fighter. My best defense was to go down ugly. If you ever push me hard, you will feel bad about it for the rest of your life. I used to create such pathetic scene that anyone who shoved me would feel like a total tool for doing it. I suspect that is still the case.
But one day, in fourth grade, she invited both of us to come to a carnival at the First Baptist church; the largest church in town. He thought that if he went, that he might garner some favor with her. So, we both road our bikes to the church. Our best friend was there as well. We shared a best friend. The carnival was the typical stuff. Bobbing for apples. Fishing for candy. All of the typical games. It was fun. But then the tone shifted, and I learned a lot about the differences between Presbyterians and Baptists.
We were invited into the sanctuary where Brother Eddie, the pastor, began talking to us about Salvation. He gave a very moving alter call sermon, and then came the dramatic moment that anyone who’s attended a Baptist event knows about. He asked us all to close our eyes and think about whether we wanted to give our lives to Christ that day. And if we did, we should meet him up front. Paul was deeply affected by this. The invitation had moved him profoundly. He says that he may have even been crying a little. I had been sitting next to Paul. And after a few moments, he opened his eyes and stood up. I was already two steps ahead of him.
We both said the words that Brother Eddie asked us to say. That we wanted Jesus to come into our hearts and save us from our sins. We were applauded by the congregation. Then we went back outside where we were treated to a hot dog dinner.
I was so touched by Paul’s remembrance of our shared experience, and in most ways our memories were identical. I also felt that if I came to the carnival Tiffany would like me more. I too enjoyed the carnival. I remember coming into the church after the carnival fun, but this is where our stories diverge.
I was starving. Hot dogs were one of my favorite foods. There were adults and kids, and we followed the Baptist kids’ lead in taking seats in the very front pews. Brother Eddie began talking, and my stomach started growling. I began to wonder if he would ever stop preaching. And when he seemed to be wrapping things up, he asked us to close our eyes.
When he made the invitation, it became very clear to me what I must do. I had gotten the idea in my head that in order to get the hot dogs, I was going to have to be saved. I thought it would be really rude for an unrepentant sinner to take the free hot dogs which I could now see were not free at all. So I jumped up to join Brother Eddie. Paul was fast on my heels. I figured he knew what was going on as well. I supposed that the other kids had done it long ago and were covered. They were Baptists after all.
I got my hot dogs that day. They pulled the dogs out of steaming hot water with tongs as a reward for my Salvation. I figured it was a small price to pay. A fourth grader doesn’t really have that much to repent.
All the ministers in town knew each other. My father was the 1st Presbyterian minister, so he probably knew Brother Eddie pretty well. My father even spoke at an evening Christmas service at the Baptist church one year. So it was no surprise to learn that Brother Eddie had called my mother the very night when we had been saved.
I don’t know exactly what was said, but I know it began with, “Mrs. Burns, this is Brother Eddie. I thought you’d like to know that your boys got saved at my church today.” Now, Brother Eddie had a good sense of humor, and we liked him for it. When I imagine the conversation, I hear him appreciating the humor of this tale. It is certainly funny to me looking back at it; the Presbyterian minister’s sons getting saved at the First Baptist church, a major coups for the Baptists.
However, my mom did not find it funny at all. Paul’s recollection is that she was angry about it. She hated that we were led to believe that we needed to be saved at all. Presbyterians believe that we were saved two thousand years ago and that there is nothing we can say or do to earn it. In her mind, we were already saved.
Perhaps if she’d known that for me it was all about the hot dogs, she wouldn’t have been so upset. But no matter how you look at it, this important event made an impression on both of us. My brother eventually became an ordained minister, and I still love hot dogs.