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James R. Stout


Friends

             It was December 28, 1972 when I first had an interaction with my friend Jess Sumrall. The youth group at our church had a “working” retreat for three days. We had some Bible studies, got to watch a movie, and went out to Bear Creek Park for some fun and games. But the working part was the big deal for that retreat. Our youth minister, Ed Humphrey, had gotten permission from the church to convert the upstairs storage area of the gymnasium into a coffeehouse that would be used by the youth group. That upstairs storage loft was a mess. It had become a catch-all for just about any and everything the church didn’t want to deal with. Old tables and chairs in disrepair, discarded costumes from church programs, and just about everything else you can think of. The guys were put to work hauling off the junk to a landfill while the girls cleaned and scrubbed. They sewed curtains for the windows in the loft, did some painting, and made table clothes etc. A small stage was made and there was a sound system installed. Someone had donated a bunch of empty spools, the kind that holds utility wiring, and these got painted to be used as tables. Old bottles had candles stuffed in the top to drip down the bottle and provide ambiance. I can’t say for sure if all of this was done in those three days, but it was the big push with perhaps some of the facets being added over the next month.

            Remember that old pool table? Ed Humphrey asked me and Jess, someone who I had seen around at church, but didn’t actually know him yet, to haul the pool table down the stairs, load it in a deacon’s truck, and carry it to the landfill along with some other items. There were two stairways to the loft. One was a zig-zag stairway that the pool table would never have fit going down. The other was a rarely used, but straight shot stairway. It was quite steep. As I recall, we had to clear it of debris before we could get anything down it. So, Jess and I turned the table on its side, folded the legs, and started towards the stairway. Did I say that table was old and decidedly heavy? No? Well, believe me it was! We got it to the stairway and lucky Jess got the front end with me on the back end. We had just tipped it down to make our way down the stairs and I realized that I didn’t have a good grip on the table. In a panicked voice I alerted Jess of the situation. However, gravity took over and before I could get a better grip the darned table took off on its own. It was in hot pursuit of Jess. It was a race for his life! I still recall that table sliding down the stairway, picking up speed as it went, with Jess taking the steps by twos and threes. The end result was Jess won the race. The pool table landed in a heap on the floor at the bottom of the stairway. Well, we got it in the truck and hauled it off to the landfill.

            Over the next year or so Jess and I were frequently at youth gatherings and even after only a few months would reminisce over “The Great Pool Table Caper”. Fast forward to the spring of 1975. Jess and I had become friends over that time, and I expressed to him that I wanted to form a Christian music group. He said that he could sing, and we decided to form the group. It turned into a trio with another guy from the church. I was the only one of us that played an instrument. What I didn’t know at first was that Jess could sing the melody just fine. But the concept of harmony was beyond his comprehension! Although, he did get better as time went by. The truly funny part was the “melody” was whatever part that Jess sang. Sometimes he would get a harmony part stuck in his head and there was just no way of getting him to do another part. So, me and the other guy would sing parts around whatever part Jess knew. However, despite that minor limitation, Jess was the soul of that group. I guess I was kind of the heart given we performed songs that I wrote, and I played either guitar or piano for the given song. Jess brought his incredible love for God, his faithfulness, and his wisdom to our group. God put Jess into my life as a sort of big brother and spiritual advisor.

            The group took a hiatus during 1976 while we were all busy doing other things. But back in June of 1975 we won “Best Duo, Trio, Quartet” at a huge competition during a day-long event at Astroworld. It was an incredible honor and given we had only been together for three months it was nothing short of amazing. In early 1977 we performed as His Story at several churches and then we did a farewell concert in August of that year. Jess was headed off to the seminary in Ft. Worth, the other guy was headed off to medical school, and I was not headed much of any place at all. I was married by then and working for a living.

            Jess and I kept up with each other while he was in seminary and then when he was a youth minister at a couple of churches. He would come out to dinner at our house and we would always get to singing. Sometime in the mid-80’s Jess got married. We still talked on the phone, but our lives were rather busy. I had two children by then and Jess would be blessed with his son in the early 90’s. The last time that I saw Jess was when we were both at a youth camp in the summer of 1991. He was the youth minister from one church, and I was the youth minister from another. During the next 28 years we talked on the phone many times, exchanged emails and comments on Facebook, and such, but we were both working and raising families as well as living in different states.

            That is until today. Jess and I had lunch together in The Woodlands today. The first time that we’ve seen each other face to face in over 28 years. As usual, I got to the restaurant first (I’m habitually early) and as I sat there waiting, I saw this gray-haired old man walking towards the restaurant. Well, I knew that face even if it had some wrinkles and the hair was a little thin. We gave each other a great big bear hug and spent the next hour visiting and eating lunch. At one point as Jess was talking, I closed my eyes and hearing his voice I could see that long-haired 19-year-old that got chased down the stairs by a pool table. The voice is still the same. We reminisced and enjoyed the opportunity to see each other again. Some friendships don’t ever fade away. My friendship with Jess is one of those. He’s 66 now and I’m 64. But for a few minutes today we were 19 and 17 again. I will always treasure his friendship and to say that I am proud of him doesn’t cover it. Jess has a wonderful sense of humor, can discuss the Bible with scholars and barely skip a beat and be talking to me about Neil Young or Steeley Dan. He is the kind of guy that the word friend was evented for. We parted today and Jess headed back to be with his father who is in hospice now. I know that he is a great comfort to his dad as his life winds down. As for me, I came home and took a nap. Hey, it’s a sign of the times! Seriously though, I consider it a great blessing to have a friend like Jess in my life. The best part of all of this is the sure knowledge that when this life is over, we’ll be enjoying Heaven together. I just hope there’s no pool tables to haul off!

Friends

             It was December 28, 1972 when I first had an interaction with my friend Jess Sumrall. The youth group at our church had a “working” retreat for three days. We had some Bible studies, got to watch a movie, and went out to Bear Creek Park for some fun and games. But the working part was the big deal for that retreat. Our youth minister, Ed Humphrey, had gotten permission from the church to convert the upstairs storage area of the gymnasium into a coffeehouse that would be used by the youth group. That upstairs storage loft was a mess. It had become a catch-all for just about any and everything the church didn’t want to deal with. Old tables and chairs in disrepair, discarded costumes from church programs, and just about everything else you can think of. The guys were put to work hauling off the junk to a landfill while the girls cleaned and scrubbed. They sewed curtains for the windows in the loft, did some painting, and made table clothes etc. A small stage was made and there was a sound system installed. Someone had donated a bunch of empty spools, the kind that holds utility wiring, and these got painted to be used as tables. Old bottles had candles stuffed in the top to drip down the bottle and provide ambiance. I can’t say for sure if all of this was done in those three days, but it was the big push with perhaps some of the facets being added over the next month.

            Remember that old pool table? Ed Humphrey asked me and Jess, someone who I had seen around at church, but didn’t actually know him yet, to haul the pool table down the stairs, load it in a deacon’s truck, and carry it to the landfill along with some other items. There were two stairways to the loft. One was a zig-zag stairway that the pool table would never have fit going down. The other was a rarely used, but straight shot stairway. It was quite steep. As I recall, we had to clear it of debris before we could get anything down it. So, Jess and I turned the table on its side, folded the legs, and started towards the stairway. Did I say that table was old and decidedly heavy? No? Well, believe me it was! We got it to the stairway and lucky Jess got the front end with me on the back end. We had just tipped it down to make our way down the stairs and I realized that I didn’t have a good grip on the table. In a panicked voice I alerted Jess of the situation. However, gravity took over and before I could get a better grip the darned table took off on its own. It was in hot pursuit of Jess. It was a race for his life! I still recall that table sliding down the stairway, picking up speed as it went, with Jess taking the steps by twos and threes. The end result was Jess won the race. The pool table landed in a heap on the floor at the bottom of the stairway. Well, we got it in the truck and hauled it off to the landfill.

            Over the next year or so Jess and I were frequently at youth gatherings and even after only a few months would reminisce over “The Great Pool Table Caper”. Fast forward to the spring of 1975. Jess and I had become friends over that time, and I expressed to him that I wanted to form a Christian music group. He said that he could sing, and we decided to form the group. It turned into a trio with another guy from the church. I was the only one of us that played an instrument. What I didn’t know at first was that Jess could sing the melody just fine. But the concept of harmony was beyond his comprehension! Although, he did get better as time went by. The truly funny part was the “melody” was whatever part that Jess sang. Sometimes he would get a harmony part stuck in his head and there was just no way of getting him to do another part. So, me and the other guy would sing parts around whatever part Jess knew. However, despite that minor limitation, Jess was the soul of that group. I guess I was kind of the heart given we performed songs that I wrote, and I played either guitar or piano for the given song. Jess brought his incredible love for God, his faithfulness, and his wisdom to our group. God put Jess into my life as a sort of big brother and spiritual advisor.

            The group took a hiatus during 1976 while we were all busy doing other things. But back in June of 1975 we won “Best Duo, Trio, Quartet” at a huge competition during a day-long event at Astroworld. It was an incredible honor and given we had only been together for three months it was nothing short of amazing. In early 1977 we performed as His Story at several churches and then we did a farewell concert in August of that year. Jess was headed off to the seminary in Ft. Worth, the other guy was headed off to medical school, and I was not headed much of any place at all. I was married by then and working for a living.

            Jess and I kept up with each other while he was in seminary and then when he was a youth minister at a couple of churches. He would come out to dinner at our house and we would always get to singing. Sometime in the mid-80’s Jess got married. We still talked on the phone, but our lives were rather busy. I had two children by then and Jess would be blessed with his son in the early 90’s. The last time that I saw Jess was when we were both at a youth camp in the summer of 1991. He was the youth minister from one church, and I was the youth minister from another. During the next 28 years we talked on the phone many times, exchanged emails and comments on Facebook, and such, but we were both working and raising families as well as living in different states.

            That is until today. Jess and I had lunch together in The Woodlands today. The first time that we’ve seen each other face to face in over 28 years. As usual, I got to the restaurant first (I’m habitually early) and as I sat there waiting, I saw this gray-haired old man walking towards the restaurant. Well, I knew that face even if it had some wrinkles and the hair was a little thin. We gave each other a great big bear hug and spent the next hour visiting and eating lunch. At one point as Jess was talking, I closed my eyes and hearing his voice I could see that long-haired 19-year-old that got chased down the stairs by a pool table. The voice is still the same. We reminisced and enjoyed the opportunity to see each other again. Some friendships don’t ever fade away. My friendship with Jess is one of those. He’s 66 now and I’m 64. But for a few minutes today we were 19 and 17 again. I will always treasure his friendship and to say that I am proud of him doesn’t cover it. Jess has a wonderful sense of humor, can discuss the Bible with scholars and barely skip a beat and be talking to me about Neil Young or Steeley Dan. He is the kind of guy that the word friend was evented for. We parted today and Jess headed back to be with his father who is in hospice now. I know that he is a great comfort to his dad as his life winds down. As for me, I came home and took a nap. Hey, it’s a sign of the times! Seriously though, I consider it a great blessing to have a friend like Jess in my life. The best part of all of this is the sure knowledge that when this life is over, we’ll be enjoying Heaven together. I just hope there’s no pool tables to haul off!

Noseworthy Reflections

            My brother-in-law is sick. No, that’s not meant to say he’s demented or warped. He’s got some kind of crud. You know what I mean? His tenor voice is now a bass, his sinuses are completely out of whack, and his throat feels like a badly skinned knee. So, I’m not going anywhere near him or their house for the foreseeable future. No thank you! But while contemplating his condition, I remembered a couple of things from my childhood. Well, to be exact, three things. One of them has absolutely nothing to do with the other two, but there was a bird seed trail between them that I couldn’t seem to shake.

            Let’s talk about being noseworthy. When I was a child and I would get a stuffy nose (when my son was little he would say, “My nose is stomped up.”) and it was perhaps one of my least favorite things in the world. But there was a remedy. Yes, a remedy that only Mom could administer because Mom was the keeper of the medicine cabinet. There was this little greenish-brown bottle of magical liquid that was on the very top shelf of the cabinet that I couldn’t reach if my life depended on it. The bottle held within its darkened glass the remedy. It was known as “Nose Drops”. Remember, this was before nasal spray. Speaking of which, I seriously believe that nasal spray has greatly increased the number of sinus infections. Yes, it will clear up your sinus passages (“All 8 of them” as an early advertisement bragged), but too much is too much.

             Back to nose drops. A typical example of how things transpired in those days went something like this. I would have a cold or stopped-up sinuses and I would beg Mom for the remedy. She wasn’t uncaring. Not hardly. But for some reason she wouldn’t just use those nose drops willy-nilly. She had a job to do and part of that job was to allocate the remedy appropriately. After much complaining on my part she would finally tell me to lay down on the couch. I dutifully laid down on the couch and anxiously awaited the bliss that I knew would be coming my way within 5 minutes. Mom would go into the only bathroom we had in our house and retrieve that bottle of nose drops from the top shelf. She would come back to her impatient patient and give me two drops per nostril. At first, there was a slight stinging in my nose. Now, I have never done any kind of illegal drugs. But I’m guessing it must have been like the little needle prick a heroin addict feels right before the drug takes effect. I was told to stay on the couch for a couple of minutes with my head reclined. You didn’t have to tell me twice. I knew what bliss was headed my way. A couple of minutes would go by and I would sniff lightly at first and then I would take a deep breath through my nose. Ahhhhhh. It was noseworthy to be sure.

            Second, and this is the bird seed trail element of the story, was Mercurochrome. We called it “Monkey Blood”. I have no idea why. It was a dark red antiseptic liquid that Mom would apply to scrapes and cuts to aid in the healing process. Well, that was the story we were told. In those days the stuff contained mercury. You can’t buy it with mercury anymore. They figured out that mercury isn’t the best thing in the world for humans. But good ole Mercurochrome was another of those remedies of my childhood years. That’s the correlation. Oh, I will say that when Mom applied that “Monkey Blood” on a scrape or cut I would walk away doing an impression of a chimpanzee. You know, maybe there was something to that mercury poisoning thing!

            Third, here’s the other noseworthy issue. I used to get a bloody nose spontaneously. Nothing caused it such as a hit in the nose or whatever. I would just be sitting there, and blood would come trickling down from my nose. When I was little, it scared me which didn’t help at all. Mom would get a wet washcloth and make me lay with my head back and that cloth pressed on my nose. Sometimes it would take 15 minutes or so for the bleeding to stop. They checked me out for hemophilia, and we were told if I did have it, then it was a very light case. The funny thing about that is 40 years later I needed some minor surgery on my leg. They ended up not doing it because they found that I had low platelets. Go figure. Now I’m in my 60’s and the platelets are still low, but I have made it this far with low platelets and I see no reason why I can’t keep-a-going. I do wonder about a few things from those long-ago days. Did Monkey Blood cause low platelets? Probably not. I mean, it’s not like I took long baths in the stuff. Did those nose drops cause me harm? Probably not. The Good Lord knows I still have my nose in all of its splendid glory. I did some research on those drops (where would we be without Wikipedia?) and it basically caused the blood vessels in your nose to thin out and thereby lessen your stuffy nose. But, that kind of makes me wonder if there might be a correlation between the thinned blood vessels and the nose bleeds.

            My brain is hurting now thinking about it. So, I am going to stop for now. Who am I kidding? Long after I say I’ve stopped thinking about it and I post this blog entry I’ll still be thinking about it. Hey, maybe all that ailed and ails me was because of when we lived in a house in the southeast part of Houston. It was near one of the chemical plants. We didn’t live there long though because my parents became concerned when the pollution that spewed out from that plant caused the paint on our house to turn black and start peeling. Mom figured if it did that to the house, then what was it doing to us? I think I’ll go outside and breathe in some fresh country air.

The Reunion

             It was planned for a long time by a group of fine folks from my high school class. A reunion of our high school class of 1974. I paid my fee in advance by a few months and it was my plan to attend. I have previously been to my 10th, 30th, and 40th reunions. But this one was a bit harder for me to muster the courage to go to. Perhaps it was vanity on my part. Perhaps a little bit of embarrassment. Maybe even a little apprehension.

            Well, this brings us to the reunion last Saturday. I wanted to go. There were people that I wanted to see again. People who I communicate with often on Facebook, but not in person. As bad as Facebook may be a times, there has been some good things come out of it. I am back in touch with people that I knew half a century ago and what’s even better is I have made lasting friendships with classmates that I had barely known in high school. But there was the apprehension about going that got me down. Several months ago, I started having some problems with my legs. Frankly, I’m still waiting for a full diagnosis. Next stop, another neurologist. The deal is I’m not moving around like I was. I’m not as steady on my feet as I should be. Vanity kept me from taking my cane into the reunion. I just toughed it out. As vane as it may sound, I very nearly didn’t go to the reunion. Why? I had this image in my head that I would be the only one there with gray hair, wrinkles, and walking like Tim Conway’s “Oldest Man Alive”. The good news was that I have lost about 40 pounds since the last reunion. Even so, I figured I would be this old fat man that moved like he was 90 and people would be thinking how pathetic I was. Wanna hear something crazy? I went and bought a new pair of shoes and a new shirt to wear. I thought maybe that would help.

            I decided as late as 10 a.m. on Saturday that I would definitely go to the reunion. I just decided that even if I wasn’t the guy that I once was (appearance wise) that I was going to go. I wanted to see my old friends and I figured they wouldn’t care much how I looked. Now for the funny part. I got to the reunion and guess what I saw? About 100 other people looking about the same as me. Some gray hair (some guys wishing they had hair), enough wrinkles (mine included) to challenge a herd of Shar-Pei for supremacy in that department, several other people moving as slow I do, and some grandpa’s with guts to challenge mine. But very quickly NONE of that mattered. What mattered was seeing the faces of the kids that we once were lurking just beneath the faces of the older people that we are now. I recognized some people immediately. Gina Marek and Pam Johnson were just as pretty and fetching as always. Bill McDaniel looked like himself only a bit more distinguished. Yes, some of us had changed a lot. But those changes are merely testaments to our survivorship. I looked into the face of Patti Turk and could still see the 12-year-old girl that I attended church with 50 years ago before high school began. I felt a warmth in my heart as I talked with different people and realized how great they are. I realized their sweet spirits were probably there all along, but it took time for me to break down the walls of youth to see it. What I enjoyed most was talking to sweet grandmothers and loving grandfathers. And heck yea, some of those grandmothers got my heart beating a bit faster! The single ones only though!

            Unfortunately, the table with class members who have passed has grown. After all, we are all in our mid-60’s now. Maybe that isn’t ancient, but then we are certainly not young anymore. I couldn’t help but wondering if some of those fine people that I was spending time with on Saturday night might be gone by the time we have our 50th reunion. Heck, I might be gone. And on that note, I would like to say something to those of you that I visited with. It is truly a pleasure to know you. We have a special bond given we shared time together when we were kids. But the bond is so much stronger now. In those long-ago days, we were tethered together with a rope of sand. All it took was for someone’s father to be transferred to another city far away and that rope of sand sifted away through our fingers. But for those of us who have maintained relationships throughout the past 50 years the rope of sand is now a rope as sturdy as they come. It’s an anchor that steadies us as time passes. I am so very glad and proud to know you one an all. Yes, none of us are as spry as we once were. None of us have escaped the ravages of time (although a couple of the ladies are like fine wine that just gets better and better with age!). I’m glad that I went to the reunion and didn’t succumb to my silly vanity and fears. I’ll be at the next one no matter what shape I’m in unless I’m in Heaven. If that happens, then I hope you’ll understand that I got promoted and rejoice in that event. See you all on Facebook and perhaps in person whenever possible. Thank you for being you and for being a part of my life.

The Path

Please allow me to share a poem that I recently composed. Thank you!

The Path

I crawled along a manicured path made of dirt and grass with dew.

Strange and wonderous things I saw, shiny, bright and new.

My eyes soon focused, and my understanding of life blossomed and grew.

and as I journeyed the path countless others joined on cue.

 

Soon the path was paved with stone and I walked and then I ran.

Curves and twists and turns appeared and the path darkled in short span.

Stones honed by hand were replaced by concrete made to tran,

and the tempo of life accelerated as did the speed of man.

 

I settled down in a pod of sorts to navigate the highway sky.

The miles were many, and the visions legion, questioned the aged “why?”

And all too soon I began to gray and grew weary of the buy and buy.

So, I returned to seek a simpler life, free from the eternal lie.

 

Time does not exist, yet it is a precious commodity all men seek.

And in my seeking I came upon a path, that belonged to the humbled meek.

A path that seemed familiar, that previously I had only glimpsed a peek.

The light grew dim, the sounds were silent, and numbed nerves were stilled,

but the cacophony blinded and deafened me as the path lead home, and my

heart, soul, and mind were filled.

 

 

The Fly and The Nod

            Sometimes humility is thrust upon us at the most inopportune times. I’m not sure if those events are God’s way of adjusting our attitudes or if they just happen via our own inadequate devices. I’m guessing it’s a little of both. It was the fall of 1988 and I was the part-time youth minister at the church that I grew up attending. Money was tight given I was working two part-time jobs while attending college. The only suit that I owned was a hand-me-down suit from my father. It was beige in color and probably had been quite in style a decade before. It didn’t fit very well either. The sleeves were a little short and the pants had been altered for my father who had a higher waist than I did. So, they were a little tight in all the wrong places. We didn’t have the money to have it altered and it likely would have cost as much to have it altered as a new suit would have cost. I did own a sport coat that I could wear with some dress pants and those two outfits took turns on Sunday mornings. The sport coat was itself about 6 or 7 years old and I could get by with it as long as I didn’t try to button the buttons!

            Sunday morning services required me to sit up on the stage area with the part-time music minister, part-time education minister, and our pastor. We all faced the congregation throughout the service. The only time that I would get up and speak was to make announcements regarding upcoming youth events and to do the children’s sermon. I especially enjoyed the latter because I was always a kid at heart. Still am.

            I always tried to look my best despite my woeful attire. I had been a long-haired type for most the prior 15 years, but I got a short haircut and shaved my mustache and beard. I didn’t feel like myself though. I didn’t look like myself either. But I felt it was expected of me by the older folks in the congregation. It was about that time that I discovered that I didn’t like my ears at all. They are much better operatives when under cover.

            Before the service I had just enough time to get from the youth classes to the sanctuary with a very brief moment to perhaps get a drink of water and to visit the restroom. You simply can’t just get up and leave the service when you’re up on the stage during the service. On this particular Sunday I was running a little late and had to make my pitstop in a hurry. But I made it just in time and was seated in time for the call to worship. We stood up and sang a hymn and then the education minister made the morning announcements for the coming week. Then another couple of hymns. It was during the second hymn when I happened to look down and what did I see? My fly was unzipped. In church. There I was in front of the whole church with my fly unzipped. I quickly bent down and got my Bible and folded my hands in front of me, holding the Bible, and covering the gaping hole. I was mortified. I had visions of the lights bouncing off my tidy whitey’s, which were no doubt peeking out and blinding the congregation. Then I realized that when that hymn was over, I was going to have to walk by myself down to the steps of the stage and gather around the kids for their children’s sermon. How was I going to do that? I couldn’t turn around on some pretense and zip up the zipper because the choir sat behind us and would all have something special to talk about at lunch. I dared not look down for fear of calling attention to my current condition.

            So, what did I do? I became a surgeon. Well, as deft as one anyway. I held the Bible with one hand but managed to make it look like I was using both hands by placing two fingers on the Bible. Then with my right thumb and forefinger, hidden by the Bible, I slowly inched the zipper up. Thankfully it worked smoothly. Just as the hymn ended, I completed the task. Then as I was about to walk down to talk to the kids a thought went through my head. What if it works itself down again?

            I’m glad to tell you that it didn’t. I did the children’s sermon and went and sat down. You would think that would have been enough for one morning. But nooooo! As usual I was operating on about 2 hours of sleep due to I had been up all night delivering newspapers. As exciting as the first 30 minutes of the service were for me, I found myself starting to nod off during the sermon. I took to pinching the soft spot between my thumb and forefinger. If they could have talked, then they would have said something like, “So this is how you treat us after saving your bacon?” Any port in a storm. I didn’t fall asleep, but I sure did a lot of fidgeting up there keeping myself from nodding off.

            Finally, the service was over, and I was ready for a nap. Sunday afternoon naps after lunch were always welcome in our house. As we gathered our two children from the nursery one of the deacons came up and shook hands. He looked at me and says, “You did really well up there today.” To this day I don’t know if he and the rest of the congregation saw it all or not. I certainly was feeling humble after that experience. And, my attitude got adjusted whether it needed it or not.

Stand By Me

            My father used to say, “Any job worth doing is worth doing right.” He also used to say, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” I have tried very hard to follow his advice. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been able to accomplish everything that I set my mind to. The truth is there are always going to be things outside of our control that may ultimately thwart our attempts to accomplish a task. Let me tell you about one accomplishment that I set my mind to doing and despite the odds being against me I managed to not only accomplish it, but to do it right. But it sure wasn’t easy.

            I graduated from high school in 1974. I thought about going to college then, but I was too interested in trying to “make it in music”. I made a very brief attempt in the summer of 1978 and managed to get 9 hours college credits. Then the desire to keep trying to make it as a singer and songwriter got in the way again. The next several years were a series of ups and downs. In 1979 I was offered a staff songwriting job for MCA records in Nashville. I was ready for the adventure. Unfortunately, my wife of not quite 3 years didn’t want to move so far away from her parents. It was briefly discussed, and it was my feeling that I had a choice. Move to Nashville and take the job or stay married. Well, I loved my wife and I took my vows seriously. I called my contact at MCA and declined the job.

            By 1982 I had bought equipment for a home 8-track recording studio. It was a modest set-up, but capable. It was my idea to record demos and keep trying to shop them around via correspondence. That was just plain naivete on my part. Most of those tapes were likely thrown in the trash without ever being opened. You just couldn’t get your songs heard that way. In September of 1983 we learned we were expecting our first child. That changed things drastically. For one thing, it was a difficult pregnancy for my wife, and she was unable to work. I had recently (before knowing about the pregnancy) left my job in the architectural hardware business (a job that was going to play out within months anyway due to a severe downturn in the building industry in Houston) and secured a 2 month contract to play at a Houston restaurant and club chain. It was a good gig. The plan was for me to keep getting more contracts. But then another one of those “out of your control” things came into play. The new fad of DJ’s was starting, and a lot of the clubs were switching over from live music to DJ’s. I was unable to secure any concrete gigs after the 2 months and now we were in serious money trouble. I took what I thought would be a temporary job in the delivery business and it ended up lasting nearly 3 years. Our son was born in April of 1984 and then our daughter in August of 1985. We were barely making ends meet and in some cases the ends weren’t meeting. I even sold all of my musical equipment except for one 6-string acoustic guitar. It was a very rocky time.

            By 1986 I decided that I would have to do something to better myself and therefore provide better for my family. In those days, you couldn’t even get an interview for a good job without having a college degree. So, we made a plan. My wife was on board, but somewhat leery. The plan was about as cockamamie as they get, but if we stuck to it, I knew we could make it to our goal. The road was going to get pretty bumpy for the next 4 years. The plan was that my wife would get a full-time job doing what she had been doing prior to the babies. We moved closer into town and leased a house for less than what we had been paying for our house out of town. I took a series of part-time jobs and at some points a full-time job while attending school at night. Over the next four years I delivery pizzas, delivered the Houston Post, Houston Chronicle, and Wall Street Journal (the first two were 7 days a week from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.!), worked as a locksmith for the University of Houston, worked route sales one summer for Borden’s Ice Cream, and for two years also worked a part-time position (on top of the delivering papers etc) as the youth director at two different churches. I kid you not when I tell you that I don’t believe I got more than 3 hours sleep in a row for four years! I was taking an average of 12 college hours a semester. Oh, and I stayed home all day to be the primary care giver to our children. This allowed me time (during their nap) to study. It also saved us the money that would have been spent on daycare and most importantly it allowed our kids to be raised by a loving parent.

            Now, I would love to tell you that everything was great, and it all worked out the way we wanted. But the fact is the stress and strain of all it was causing some problems between me and my wife. She didn’t like her job (and I understood the feeling very well) and I would find out later that she resented me going to school when she wasn’t able to. But that’s another story. Things were really getting dicey by the fall of 1987. I wanted badly to tell my wife that I just didn’t think I was going to be able to do it without her support. Well, it was true. I had a lot of reasons for accomplishing my goal, but I needed to know she was standing right there beside me and that I had her support.

            One day in November I needed to go to the mall near the townhouse we were then leasing (even cheaper than the other lease house). As I was walking through one of the main areas near the food court, I saw a sign that caught my attention. There was a little fad at the time that I had pretty much laughed at but seeing that sign gave me an idea. It was for a new recording booth operation. It was pretty cheap. Well, it was downright cheap. They had some very cheaply made background tapes of a boatload of songs and you would go inside a little booth and while they piped in the background tape you sang along, and the finished product was recorded. It cost you $15. I looked through their list of songs and one jumped off the page at me. It was the old Ben E. King song, “Stand By Me”. It was getting a lot of airplay again despite being 27 years old. The reason was because of the movie with the same name and that the song was featured in the movie. Great movie, by the way. I had also liked John Lennon’s version from 1975. So, I decided to pay the $15 and record that song and then give the cassette tape to my wife as a way of asking her to stand by me as I worked towards our goal of me finishing school and then being able to get a better paying job to support our family. A funny side note to this is I didn’t realize that they were going to be piping me through the loudspeakers set-up in the food court! I’m sure glad I didn’t stink the place up! I knew the song quite well because I had sung it hundreds of times in clubs. It only took one take. When I stepped out of the booth a crowd had gathered outside and gave me big round of applause. I think I turned several shades of red.

            Well, I took that tape home and after the kids had gone to bed, I told my wife that I wanted to talk to her about something serious. I told her how much I loved her and the kids. I told her that I was sorry that I hadn’t made better plans when we were younger. I told her that more than anything I wanted to complete school and provide a better life for her and the kids. Then I told her I wanted her to listen to something. I played the tape for her. Well, she cried. I wasn’t sure if she was upset or happy or whatever until she gave me a big hug and kiss and told me that she would stand by me and together we would get through to the end.

            The next 2 and a half years seemed to drag by. But some great things happened along the way. After completing 57 hours at the University of Houston, I was offered a full scholarship to Houston Baptist University starting in the fall quarter of 1988. All I had to pay for was the books. The scheduling of my part-time jobs became a tightrope act given my upper level classes were all daytime classes. My wife quit her full-time job and got a part-time job while I delivered the Houston Post 7 days a week and worked at the church. Her part-time job allowed her to be home with kids when I couldn’t be and visa-versa. It was a mess is what it was, but then I graduated in 1990 from HBU with a 3.5 G.P.A.

            I would love to tell you that we lived happily ever after. But life doesn’t always go the way you hope that it will. The marriage ended in 2003 shortly after our daughter graduated from high school. I won’t go into all of that now. I hold no animosity towards my ex-wife. I truly mean it when I say that I hope she’s happy. The point of this story goes back to those two sayings that my father used to tell me. The job was to complete college. I had set my mind to doing it and I did it right. Those are some good words to live by. Another saying, this one from my mother, was “Do your best” comes to mind. I did my best and with the help of God, the support of my wife during those years, and the right attitude I accomplished my goal.

            Just for grins, I've attached that 32 year-old recording. The instrumentation was very cheaply made. It sounds like someone did it all using a very inexpensive keyboard for all the parts. But, it did the job for the time. Just click the link.

https://youtu.be/ldouvgNjlEA

Perspective

            I’ve talked about it before. Perspective. The key ingredient to someone’s perspective on something is time. At least, it is for me. During the late 70’s the big fad in music was disco. 1977 and 1978 were the biggest two years and 1979 was fairly big, but by the end of that year disco was on its way out. It had all started back in about 1975 with songs like “Jive Talkin” and “Get Down Tonight”. Yes, there were some earlier disco hits that might lay claim to being the first disco song, but it wasn’t until late 1975 that we started to hear the word disco applied to a genre of music. For about a micro-second I liked a couple of disco songs. The aforementioned “Jive Talkin” is one of them. But within a year I was already making fun of the genre. Within two years I was wearing t-shirts announcing the death of disco. It was a fervent wish by then. I genuinely hated disco by the fall of 1978.

            It would be another two years before it was truly dead. Many people point at “Funky Town” as the last big disco hit. That was in the summer of 1980. Some “experts” say that “punk” music showed “disco” the door. Maybe to some degree, but frankly I didn’t much care for punk either. However, there were a few songs in that genre that I did like. Blondie had hits like “Heart of Glass” and “The Tide is High” (actually, it was more reggae than punk) that I enjoyed. I didn’t miss disco a bit.

            I only thought disco was as bad as it could get. The 80’s brought a lot of irritating music. The electronic fad became as annoying as disco (to me). Even groups that had been hard edged rockers were doing some dismal sounds in the 80’s. Heart is perfect example of that. I love their 70’s stuff, but the 80’s stuff just makes me cringe. Then came the 90’s and grunge. Some of it was good and some of it was decidedly not good. The first sign that perhaps I should re-examine my opinion on disco came in 1994. There was a made-for-tv mini-series based on a Stephen King book in which one of the bad guys loved disco music and played the song “Boogie Fever”. It didn’t sound terrible to me anymore. Now, I wasn’t anywhere near ready to listen to “Ring My Bell” or anything by Donna Summer, but I did have to admit I liked that song. Sometime in the late 90’s I bought some of those “Sounds of the 70’s” tapes. The original hits by the original stars! Each tape would include some of the disco songs and I found myself not repulsed. In fact, I got to where I would crank up the volume in my car on songs like “Play That Funky Music” and “Boogie Shoes”. I didn’t do that with anyone else in the car though. I wasn’t ready for that.

            The last 20 years has seen perhaps some of the worst hit music of all-time. No joke. We’ve had to put up with Rap, Hip-Hop, Taylor Swift, and a whole host of “music” that is just downright bad. There were the boy bands too. Yuck. The only rays of sunshine were some of the old artists coming out with some surprisingly terrific albums. ELO’s “Zoom” and Tom Petty’s “The Last DJ” come to mind. Even an ex-Beatle, Paul McCartney, released one of his best ever albums in 2005 with “Chaos and Creation”. And, there have been a bunch of those same old artists that have released compilations. The Beatles released “1” and their entire remixed catalog (twice for some of the albums) and the Bee Gees have released several compilation albums. “The Record” by The Bee Gees included their 60’s hits as well as their disco hits and even some of their music up until 2001. It was this album that I bought and realized that as much as I had not liked their disco music in the 70’s I found myself liking it 25 years later. My perspective had changed with time.

            If you had asked me in 1990 what my least favorite year of my life up until then had been, I would likely have said 1977. It was not a great year. But now that it’s been 42 years and I’ve experienced some much worse years (and some much better too) since then, I don’t look on 1977 as harshly as I once did. I could tell you about the negatives such as money troubles and other things, but instead I’ll tell you the positives. I was in my early 20’s. Eight months of the year I was only 21. I was in great physical shape. I could do just about anything. I had all of life in front of me still. I was a newlywed having married in September of 1976 and I had a young wife who hadn’t gotten bored with me yet. It’s true that I will never think of 1977 as a great year in my life, but my perspective on how bad it was has changed. Trust me when I tell you that things could and would get worse. But the thing is I have learned that life has its ups and downs. As John Denver sang, “Some days are diamonds and some days are stones.” I’ll amend that by saying some days stones get thrown at you and hit you and it doesn’t feel very good. Meanwhile, some days are as magnificent as a huge diamond. And you know what else? Sometimes it is our attitude that makes the difference. While there will always be things beyond our control that affect us both positively and negatively, it is also always our attitude that colors our perspective.

            So as of today, the middle of September of 2019, I choose to have a good attitude. If I allowed myself to dwell on the negatives in my life, then my perspective would be tainted. I don’t want to do that. I prefer to dwell on the good stuff. The bad stuff is going to be there, but maybe I can do what Jill did in the song “Master Jack” by Four Jacks and a Jill back in 1968. I’ll tie up all my problems with a string and put them away. I wasted too much time in my life worrying over things or being upset over things. I am making a concerted effort not to do that anymore. How about you? Won’t you join me?

Struggles

            I’ve been struggling lately. It happens to all of us from time to time. We all have periods of struggle. We may even have prolonged periods of struggles that can bring us down no matter how strong our faith may be. After all, we are all human. Part of being a human being is struggling. Some say that life itself is a struggle. There’s some truth in that statement, but I think the age-old example of life being made up of peaks and valleys is more accurate.

            My recent struggles include highly personal struggles and generalized struggles. The latter of these would include witnessing our society crumble and decay on a daily basis. That’s not simply a negative statement. It is the truth. I am at times distraught over the world which my grandchildren will inherit. But ultimately, I know that there isn’t much that I can do on my own to change the hearts and minds of people. People who do not believe in God or right and wrong or good and evil. I can’t change those people. The sad truth is that all I can do is try to help and prepare my grandchildren for their lives yet to come. Ultimately, they will have to deal with the world that they will inherit. They will have to find ways of dealing with living in that world.

            As for the highly personal struggles that I face, most of these are physical in nature. It’s part of growing old. I’ve always been baffled at how one man can abuse his body with excesses and still live to be 95 while another man tries to live his life in moderation and dies at 55. Another way to express this is to give an example. I know a man who is 69 years-old. He is in great shape. He gets out and does hard physical work most of the week. The heat doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He is rarely sick. Colds and the flu just seem to pass him by. He enjoys the physical labor the way that most of us did when we were young. Compare this man to two different people. First, my sister Barbara. She passed away last year at the age of 68. The last 15 years of her life were misery for her. She battled a plethora of illnesses. Ultimately, her organs just ceased to work, and she died. Near the end of her life she was unable to get around without help. She was unable to do many of the things that we all take for granted. It was a profoundly sad thing to witness my sister in such pain prior to her death. Yet, she was a year younger than the man I mentioned earlier. What a huge difference in their physical lives.

            Then there’s me. I turn 64 next week. I’ll be five years younger than my 69-year-old friend who runs circles around me. I have perhaps mentioned in the past that I have fought a chronic illness for many years. Well, as I have gotten older that illness has most definitely left its mark. I go to see another specialist on my birthday. Hey, it was the only day available. I mean, it’s not exactly my idea of a happy birthday! I still get out and do what I have to do here on my small ranch. But it has become obvious that my days of doing many of those things are numbered. Sometimes I feel like “Pop” on “Spencer’s Mountain”. I am embarrassed to say that I have to use a cane at times. I no longer can step up onto the tractor without a small stool. The heat has become a problem. I have taken to doing my outside work before noon or after 6 p.m. Some of the things that I truly enjoyed doing here for many years have become unpleasant due to my physical limitations.

            But as I write this blog, I am also doing some pondering. It could be a lot worse. A whole lot worse. I’m not rich, but I’m not likely to be starving anytime soon. I have been blessed with so many things. My children, my grandchildren, my family, the land that I live on, and other such things. I have been blessed with some talents that I am still able to use. I’ve always felt badly for someone who has had a great talent, but through either an accident or illness loses the ability to perform their talent. All these things, the good and the bad, create a fertile ground for struggles. As this life continues onward towards its eventual end and we grow older and lose some of our abilities we must deal with struggling. I admit that this past week has been tough for me. I have doubted myself. I have questioned my abilities. I have worried and I have at times felt like just finding a dark corner to go and be alone. But I can’t do that. The struggle that I have today may well yield a victory tomorrow. And if it doesn’t, then at the very least I can say that I tried. I gave it my best effort. I had one particularly dark day this week. I called a good friend on the phone and we talked. I needed to hear a friendly voice. At one point I asked this friend what probably sounded like a pretty strange question. I asked if my friend thought that I was an “OK” guy. I wasn’t looking for a compliment. I was trying to figure out if maybe I deserve these things that I have been experiencing. Are they my fault? Well, this friend got quiet for minute and I realized that they didn’t quite know how to answer my question. Was I kidding? I do tend to joke around a lot, so I can see how it might have seemed like I was just joking around. Finally, my friend said that I’m definitely an “OK” guy. At first, I had to decide whether or not my friend was just saying it or really meant it.

            Now for all of you who think that I am always upbeat and such a fun-loving guy, please just keep thinking that. Because 95% of the time I am that guy. But ALL of us have struggles that can lay us low at times. I ended up doing some comfort reading. It’s definitely comforting to me no matter how many times I read it. It’s Chapter 14 in the Gospel According to John. I feel a whole lot better having reflected on that Chapter again. So, what if I have to use a cane at times? So, what if I can’t do all the things that I used to be able to do? So, what if I got down for a few days? I am blessed. I have received the greatest gift of all time and when this life of struggles does come to its end, I will never again struggle. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy what I have come to consider the little party that comes before the big party. To each and every one of you that might read this blog entry, my wish for you is that I’ll see you at the big party some day and while we wait let’s make the little party a little bit better by being kind to each other, loving each other, and wishing the best for each other.

How Much is $3 Worth?

            I was recently digging through some boxes in my spare bedroom closet searching for some items that I wanted to photograph for my new book. I opened a box that I probably had not looked into for at least ten years. In fact, I’m guessing the items were packed into the box in about 2004 when I moved out of my house in Pasadena, Texas and never opened until a few days ago.

            Among the things that I found in the box included a high school graduation picture of my son in 2002, a book of maps of the Holy lands, a diary that I kept for about half of 1983, and other such keepsakes. Finally, I found something that is about to turn 56 years old. Seeing it again brought me a flood of memories. What is it that could do such a thing? My first Bible. It’s not a Bible that would be generally given to a child of 8 years old. There are no color pictures in it. It’s nothing fancy at all. I must say that it was made for someone with better eyesight than I have now! The printing is very small. There are some pictures in it from the Holy lands, but they are all in black and white and are of the way things were about the time the Bible was printed. It is amazing to me to realize that things were not that much different for everyday people in 1963 than they had been in the time of Jesus.

            I opened the Bible and there on the first page it shows that the Bible was given to me by my older sister, Barbara, for my 8th birthday. Now, I don’t know what the Bible cost was in 1963. As I stated, it’s nothing fancy. But I would assume that it probably cost about $3-$5. Today that would translate into about $50. That was some kind of expenditure by my sister for her little brother. A mostly bothersome little brother I would guess. She was only 13 at the time. She made money by doing extra things for my parents. Perhaps she washed the car a few times (50 cents), watched me and my other sister while my parents were at the store, or some such things to earn extra money. But the fact is she had to work hard for that money, and she chose to spend it on me. That flat-out amazes me today. She sure didn’t have to do that. She could have bought me a 50-cent spinning top and I would have been happy, but something told her to buy me that Bible. As it turned out, that was a gift that was worth far more than its monetary value.

            The Bible saw some wear over the next several years. It was my main Bible for the next five years. It’s replacement? Another Bible for my 13th birthday by Barbara. But during the five years that it was my only Bible I carried it to church every Sunday where it saw service in Sunday School, Church Services, Revivals, and Bible studies. It’s a King James Version. That Bible is dog-eared, some pages are scribbled on, and the imitation leather cover is bent and worn around the ages. But it sure saw some service. I’ll attach a couple of pictures of it at the end of this blog. I’ve owned or own several Bibles over the years in several different translations.

            All of this brings me back to one thing. No matter how many Bibles that I have owned or will own none of them means more to me than that 1963 Bible that my sister gave me. Why? Well, to begin with it was a selfless gift from my sister. It was given with the purest of reasons. She cared about my immortal soul and wanted me to own a Bible that I could learn the story of Jesus, the stories of the Bible, and could study them with my own copy. The other main reason it is so special to me is that not long after receiving that Bible as a gift I came to know Jesus as my personal savior. Becoming a Christian and understanding what that meant made that first Bible come alive to me. As a historian, I was first drawn to the several books of the Bible that are narratives of historical events. To this day some of those books are my favorite books that I love to read over and over again. The Gospel of Luke and Acts stand out in the New Testament for me. Of course, there are the meatier books that quenched my thirst beyond history. The Gospel of John, the Letters of Paul, and The Revelation of John come to mind. In the old Testament I found great interest in Genesis, Exodus, the stories in Judges and Kings, the books written by both major and minor prophets, and so many more.

            The truth is that the Bible, a set of books and letters, reveal to all of those willing to listen, God and His plans for mankind. He loves us more than we could ever understand. I am not a preacher. I do not claim to be a Biblical scholar. I am just a man who at the age of 8 was given a wonderful gift that opened my mind to who God is and in time opened my heart to Him. You just never know when a $3 gift might turn into a treasure beyond worth.

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