Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Incident

If you're a parent, you know the moment.

Your kids have misbehaved in some shape, form or fashion, and what they've done has left you momentarily speechless. Your jaw drops, and maybe your eye twitches a time or two. There's a ringing in your ears that won't go away. You don't ever recall being this ... this ... "angry" isn't even a good enough word to fully encompass it.

My mom and one of the many, many cakes she decorated over the years.
That kind of thing doesn't happen very often around here, but there are times when I can't help but wonder what could possibly have crossed Adam and Jess's minds ... or if they were even thinking at all.

Adam turns a blind eye to any basket of freshly laundered socks and underwear that happens to enter the room. Place it in "his" seat in our den, and he'll sit in another without saying a word. Plop it in front of the door to their bedroom, and he'll step over, around or quite possibly right in the middle of it. Situate it on his bed, and he'd sleep in the floor.

Say anything about it, and he's got his alibi ready.

I didn't see it.

Drumming his fingers ... oh, man ... that's another Adam specialty. He's actually got great timing and rhythm, but one solo is followed by another. And another. And then an encore worthy of every great drummer in history. I honestly don't think he's even fully aware that he's doing anything.

Adam ... stop.

Stop what?

Drumming your fingers. 

Oh ... okay.

Peck ... peck ... peckedy ... peck-peck ... 

Adam ...


Please. Stop it.

I'm sorry.

Peck ... peck ... peckedy ... peck-peck ...


My 17th birthday cake, right after football practice.
And then there's Jesse. Born three minutes before Adam, it was the first race Jesse ever won and it will most likely be the last. Jesse has only one speed, and that's Jesse Speed. Whether it's a personality trait or a function of his Asperger's, the kid is never in a hurry.


The good thing is that he'll never have to deal with any stress-related issues, because he simply does not concern himself with moving any faster than he already is. Jesse is perfectly content to get where he's going in his own time, moving at his own pace all the while. That's just Jesse being Jesse.

While Jesse may never be stressed, the same can't be said for me when I'm trying to get him on the move. Counting to ten causes him to speed up sometimes, but only by a little bit.

Throw in the fact that both Adam and Jesse are just beginning their journeys as teenagers, and life can often seem like one small battle after another. Just when I think I've had it up to here with one or the both of them, though, I remind myself that while Adam and Jesse might not be perfect, they've never come close to the dumbest, stupidest, most misguided, ill-advised, ignorant and childish thing I've ever done.

My brother Doug and I just call it The Incident.

Our mom baked and decorated cakes. It was her outlet, a way of expressing herself in a way that others tended to appreciate. I seem to remember a formal wedding cake or two, but her specialties were kids' birthday cakes with as many bright colors as possible.

The occasion escapes me, but Mom had spent most of a Friday night on a cake. There were bowls of colored icing everywhere in the kitchen, and when she and Dad left to deliver the masterpiece, both the bowls and several nearly full tubes of icing were left behind. Because of that, I've got to think that what happened next was actually their fault, not mine and Doug's.

My brother and co-defendant in The Incident, with one of HIS birthday cakes.
I honestly don't remember who struck first, whether it was me or my younger sibling, but one of us picked up a tube of icing and tried to squirt the other with it. That, of course, elicited retribution with another tube. It was on from there.Two squirts of icing became ten, and then twenty. There was not the slightest pause when one tube was emptied, because we had plenty more in our arsenal.

If only we'd limited our battle to the linoleum-floored kitchen that would've been relatively easy to clean ... if only ... if only ...

Not content with the destruction of one room, we began chasing each other through the house with the icing tubes. There was icing everywhere ... on furniture, in the carpet, smeared on the walls ... everywhere. If it had just been red icing, it would've looked like the goriest murder scene in the history of crime, but this had been a special cake with lots and lots and lots of colors.

You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the black-and-white Kansas scenery is suddenly replaced by the mind-blowing Technicolor of Oz? Yep. That was our house that day. 

There came a point when I realized the gravity of what was taking place, and what was going to happen when Mom and Dad got home. It didn't matter, because the damage -- literally -- had already been done. We kept right on going, right up until the very end. I vaguely remember the sound of a car pulling into the driveway and the front door opening, but not much after that.

My first R2-D2 birthday cake.
Let's just say that Mom and Dad believed in corporal punishment, and practiced it to its fullest extent that day. They tag-teamed Doug and I ... when one of them got tired of wearing our hind-ends out, they tagged out and allowed the other to take over.

And, really, who could blame them? They were the closest to being perfect Christians that day than they ever were, and that's simply because they didn't kill us.

Tony Rankin was my role model growing up -- he still is, for that matter -- and he was getting married that day to his fiancee, Amber. I didn't get to go to the wedding, which is probably for the best. If either of my parents had dropped me off anywhere that day, they almost certainly would not have returned to pick me up.

What's all the more shocking to me today is that the date was June 4, 1983. I was fifteen years old, and it was the summer before my junior year of high school. I was old enough to know better, for crying out loud, but did that stop me from taking part in The Incident?

Noooooooooooooooooooooooo ...

So, yeah, we can deal with some unsorted laundry and a little slowness afoot. Adam and Jesse have absolutely nothing on their old man and uncle. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Say Goodbye

The photos are like a kick in the gut.

Jeanie and I took the boys on a road trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame back in 2009, and on the way back, we stopped in Gettysburg. I've always been a baseball fan and a Civil War buff, so it was the ultimate vacation for me and the boys. I had a blast.
At Babe Ruth's locker in the Baseball Hall of Fame ... and Adam's in front.

The problem is, I can barely stand to look at photographs from the trip. In almost every single one in which Adam, Jesse and I appear, I've very carefully placed one or the both of them in front of me in an attempt to cover up my belly. I look at the pictures, and then I look away because they break my heart.

More than a year would pass before I seriously started trying to lose weight. Deep down inside, I knew I had to do something but couldn't conceive of how to actually begin. It wasn't that it was going to be difficult. It was something far worse than that. It was going to be very nearly impossible. I'd tried too many times before, only to fall flat on my flabby face.

There was the time I stormed out of the Y because a group of uber-jocks refused to include me in what was evidently a private game of Wallyball. I didn't go back for nearly three years, regained the few pounds I'd lost and then some. And then some more. I really showed them.

With a display honoring the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds ... and Jesse's in front.
 The images are also a reminder of how hard it has been to lose weight. Even today, I still sometimes feel like a complete fraud. If people only knew how badly I want to dive into a Chinese buffet ... an extra-large super supreme Papa John's pizza ... a six-pack of Reese's Peanut Butter Cup eggs ... a bag of Oreos, regular, double-stuff, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup-flavored or what have you ... they would know that all this is nothing but a smoke-and-mirrors show.

What would people think if they knew that I don't actually get a kick out of working out or running? I enjoy the sense of accomplishment, but only when it's over. I don't like pain. I'm allergic to it. Rolling out of bed in the mornings, especially on Saturdays, and going for a run is hard. It's especially difficult when it's cold ... or hot ... or when I plan on running a longer distance ... or when I'm still sore from my last run or boot camp workout. 
On Little Round Top at Gettysburg with the 20th Maine monument ... and both are in front.

It just seems like all this should be getting easier ... not easy ... just ... easier.

I'm not giving up, though. I've come too far to let a little thing like discouragement turn me back into the man I used to be. That. Ain't. Gonna. Happen. It's one of the reasons I've come to love the music of contemporary Christian music artist Mandisa so much. When she was on American Idol, Simon Cowell made some incredibly insensitive remarks about her size and weight.

Mandisa knows.

Mandisa knows, and she's recorded several songs just for the two of us. "Overcomer" is one. It comes on when I'm running, and I fix in my mind how far down the road I'm going to be when the song finishes. A lot of times, I make it. Sometimes, I don't. But I try, and I try hard.

As close to home as "Overcomer" hits, it's another song that has come to be my anthem in this journey. "Say Goodbye" is everything I wish I could say in song.

To the voice/To the liar in the mirror/ Saying you can't ever change/To the guilt that's sittin' on your shoulder/Always keeping you wrapped in chains ... 

These photos were taken years ago. That's not me any more. Don't give up. Keep going.

Say goodbye/Say goodbye/To the one that used to be/Say goodbye/Say goodbye/Every day is a brand-new mercy ... 

 My legs are hurting and I've got a couple more miles to go, but I'm not going to stop. I've got to keep going.

This is where it starts now/Everything can turn around/In a moment, here's your moment/You can say goodbye ...

As bad as it hurts to run and work out, I'm so desperately thankful that I'm not in the place I used to be. Keep going.

There is grace that you can't imagine/There is love that you can't outrun/There is peace you can hold onto/When your world is coming undone ... 

You don't have to give into the fear/Don't have to let your story stop here/When the hand tries to pull you back/You don't have to go back/You don't have to go back ... 

To everything that breaks you down/It doesn't have to define you now/Jesus can take it all away/Say goodbye/Say goodbye/You're not the one you used to be ... 

Amen. Thank you, Mandisa. You'll never know how much I appreciate you.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Most Sincere Prayer I've Ever Prayed

Rock bottom came for me on October 2, 1992 in the media parking lot of North Wilkesboro Speedway.

There was nothing left to lose back home in Nashville. I'd gone through the agony of a divorce, and after my ex-wife remarried, my son Richard was calling another man Daddy. That was a pain unlike anything I'd ever experienced, even more than the breakup of my marriage, and my job prospects were going nowhere fast. I was working as a telemarketer, a "profession" I absolutely despised with every ounce of my being.

I'd moved back to North Carolina a few weeks before, trying once again to find my way into the wondrous world of NASCAR. I had no job, no money and very nearly no home. I was being paid nothing for the stringer work I was doing for the newspaper in Columbia, Tennessee -- nothing for the stories I filed, no expenses, no nothing. The only thing I got out of the deal was a press pass. 

Having covered a race at Martinsville the week before, I wound up sneaking food out of the press box for dinner and sleeping in my car. The plan was to do the same the next weekend in North Wilkesboro, but when I arrived, it didn't take long to figure out that meals wouldn't be provided to the media until race day on Sunday.

It was Friday morning, and I had not a cent to my name. Panic set in. I was devastated. Scared. Hungry. And worst of all, completely alone. There was nowhere to turn. More than two decades have passed since that day, and even now, I can smell the personal-sized pizzas other reporters were able to buy from the concession stands.

I'd met fellow reporter Jerry Lankford in the Bristol press box several weeks before, and I asked him if I could borrow a quarter to make a phone call. I had not told Jerry anything about my circumstances, but I guess he sensed them. Jerry gave me two dollars, and that's what I used to buy my dinner that night ... a small bag of potato chips and a Baby Ruth candy bar.

After practice and qualifying that day, I waited until every other media member had left the grassy parking lot behind the frontstretch grandstands. No way did I want them to see me setting up shop for the night in my car, and in that car in particular.

The next twelve hours or so were the longest -- and emptiest -- of my life. I ate the potato chips slowly, one at a time. After they were gone, I chewed every bite of the candy bar until there was nothing left to chew.

I cried that night, not knowing how things were going to turn out. I was more than 400 miles away from anybody I knew well enough to ask for help, and I was more than 400 miles away from my son. I tried to pray, but had no eloquent words. There weren't even any complete thoughts ... all I could manage was the same basic phrase, over and over again.

Oh, God ... 

I was scared and saw no way out of the fix I was in.

Oh, God ...

Chips and a candy bar are no way to live. 

Oh, God, please ... 

Sleep was next to impossible. As soon as day broke, I washed off, changed shirts and walked to the garage. Not long afterward, I ran into Deb Williams, the editor of Winston Cup Scene. 

In the NASCAR world, Winston Cup Scene reigned supreme. It was The New York Times, Washington Post and Sports Illustrated of NASCAR, and its writers were the best of the best. They were, in many ways, my rock stars -- Deb, Steve Waid, Joe Whitlock, David Green, Gary McCreadie, Gene Granger, Ben White and even the folks who freelanced for Scene like Mike Hembree and Ray Cooper.

More than two years had passed since I first contacted Deb and Steve about the possibility of writing for them, and for more than two years, they'd put me off. They'd finally consented to let me file a story on Robert Callicutt, a gasman for Richard Petty's team who'd been badly burned during a pit stop. Filing a story is one thing, but actually seeing it in print is another matter entirely. 

Deb told me my story was going to run in the next week's issue. It wasn't a full time job, it was just one story, but it was at the very least an opening. Maybe I did belong. Maybe. I headed to the press box overlooking the track, and it was there that I again saw Jerry.

"Rick, I don't know why I didn't tell you about this yesterday," he began. "The family that owns the paper I work for owns another one not far from here, and they need a sports editor. Would you be interested?"

Before I could stop myself, I bellowed, "YES!!!" I didn't ask about the details, because they didn't matter in the  least. I didn't ask where the paper was located -- it turned out to be in a little town in the mountains called Sparta -- or how much it paid. All I cared about was that it was a job, and even better, it was a job with an established newspaper.

Just a few days later, I drove from Gastonia to Sparta to interview for the gig. By the time I made it back "home" to the motel, I had a call that I'd gotten the job. It was mine. I was officially the sports editor for The Alleghany News. I started on October 15, 1992, twenty-two years ago tomorrow.


Some would call it a simple coincidence that I'd learned of my story running in Winston Cup Scene and the job possibility on the morning after such a terrible, dark, lonely night. No. No way. God heard the simple prayers I prayed that night, and He honored them. I'd heard the words of Psalm 30:5b many times before, but that day, I lived them.

Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Monday, October 6, 2014

My Bucket List

Over the course of my career, I've been fortunate enough to do some really cool stuff. I've driven a race car at Talladega, and got so jacked up by an adrenaline rush in the process that I literally could not dial my cell phone more than thirty minutes later. My hands were still shaking that badly.

I've shot the breeze over a two-hour dinner with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and stood in Dale Sr.'s pits as he crossed the finish line to win his first and only Daytona 500. I've whacked Buckshot Jones in the face with a whipped-cream pie as he was being interviewed on ESPN, and laughed myself breathless as Buckshot's arch-rival Randy LaJoie explained in great detail the things you can and cannot do with a TENS nerve-stimulating pain-relief unit.

I've watched as Sandi Estep -- my best friend's mom and the woman I call my godmother -- rode in the pace car at Daytona, and then listened as Sandi told me all about it hours later, still as giddily excited as a young schoolgirl.  Come to think of it, I've actually driven the pace cars at Homestead and the Madhouse, Bowman Gray Stadium. Several times, I've watched as the sun came up over breakfast at Junior Johnson's shop.

I've stood on the flight deck of two honest-to-goodness Space Shuttles, and peeked in the hatch of a third. I've practiced for two launches and five landings on the Shuttle's motion-base simulator. I've sat alongside former flight controller Bob Carlton at his console in an otherwise empty MOCR as we listened to audio of him helping land Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon. 

I watched from just three miles away as a Shuttle rose to orbit for the final time, and stood by on the runway as Endeavour landed to bring an earlier mission to an end.

There's no doubt that my life on the job has been pretty doggone amazing at times. Still, there remains one adventure that's far and away the Number One item on my bucket list.

I would dearly, dearly, dearly love to fly with either the United States Navy's Blue Angels or the U.S. Air Force's Thunderbirds. Take your pick, because beggars can't be choosers. Strapping into either one of those blue-and-yellow or red-white-and-blue birds and soaring off into the wild blue yonder would immediately go to the very top of the list of everything I've ever done in my career, hands down, without a doubt.


Why would a guy like me who absolutely detests flying on board a commercial airliner want to do such a crazy thing? The first reason is also the most obvious. I want to be, for once in my life, That Guy ... the one walking across the tarmac in his flight suit, fully rigged up and ready to climb into his jet fighter, the Top Gun theme music playing in the background.

As silly as that sounds, there are other, more subtle reasons.

Flight was a big part of my dad's life before he got sick with lung cancer, the result of coming in contact with Agent Orange during his service in Vietnam. He told countless stories over the years of the flights he took in the First Cav's Bell UH-1 "Huey" helicopters, and after making it back to the States, Dad took to flying remote-controlled planes.

After my mom passed away, he got his private pilot's license and bought an interest in a small plane. We never really talked about it -- we never really talked about a lot of things -- but I think it was his way of dealing with the hurt of losing my mom. He proudly took me for a ride in the machine he'd nicknamed "The Vomit Comet."

When he got sick, he lost his license and could no longer fly. What he could do was return to his hobby of the early 1970s and began building remote-control airplanes with a vengeance. Rarely, if ever, did he take a chance on flying them, but instead contented himself with very patiently building the intricate models.

A yellow Piper Cub he put together had to have had a wingspan that stretched upward of four feet or more. That sucker was huge and the engine in it expensive. I teased him about spending my inheritance, but I actually couldn't have cared less how much it cost. He loved it, it took his mind off what was happening to his body, and that was good enough for me.

So, to fly with the Thunderbirds or the Blue Angels ... yeah ... it would be for Pops. Dad was Army through and through, but I don't think he would've minded me hanging out with these particular Navy or Air Force guys too awfully much.

Then there's the fact that I'm now far closer to being physically able to fly with either team.

Five years ago, I weighed nearly 400 pounds and couldn't possibly have squeezed myself into a flight suit, much less the cockpit. I'm reminded of that day in the motion-base simulator, the day that began my weight-loss journey when I was unable to fasten one of my safety harnesses. I'm reminded of the searing pain in my ribs when I tried in vain to suck in my gut enough for the latch to finally snap shut.

It never did, and it broke my heart and very nearly my spirit. I'm reminded of virtually every step of the nearly 2,000 miles I've walked and run since that day, and how badly so many of them have hurt. I've planked, squatted and lunged, Body Pumped and boot camped more times than I could ever count. Walking a 5k led to running one, then running a 10k, then doing both a 5k and a 10k on the same day and last but not least, a half marathon, the mother of all hurts.

The strange thing is, a Blue Angels or Thunderbirds flight would not make all that effort worth it. It was worth it just to get into better shape, to hopefully put myself in a better position to be there for my wife and kids later in life. It would not be a reward, because nobody owes me anything for trying to improve the quality of my own life.

What the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels have done, however, was serve as inspiration. Whether it was some foolish Quixotic quest or not, I've talked myself up many a hill and onward toward many a mile by imaging myself in a Blue Angels F/A-18 or one of the Thunderbirds' F-16s.Would I keep going up this hill or for another few miles if it meant the chance to fly with those folks?

You'd better believe it.

So ... Thunderbirds or Blue Angels, Blue Angels or Thunderbirds ... call me. I'll be here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Chapter Two: The Moon Rises!

Before I'd taken 10 steps in the 10k, I knew I was in trouble.

This was it, the big rematch with my arch-rival and friend Bob from the Y. I'd won the first round, and had to defend my honor over the course of 6.4 long miles in the second. Like before, though, I didn't really expect to beat Bob. Could our first race have been nothing more than a fluke?

We were about to find out. 

The gun sounded to start the race ... I took one step ... and felt my brand-new compression shorts shift. I took another, and they started to shimmy downward. Another few steps, and those suckers were in an all-out southbound retreat. By the time I made it out of the parking lot which marked the earliest stages of the event, the shorts were completely to my knees.

How did it happen? I don't know, and didn't particularly care at that point. All I knew was that I was suddenly ... and there ain't no other way to put it ... going commando. I had a decision to make. Bob was a few yards ahead of me, and I couldn't let him gain too much ground on me. I was going to keep running, compression shorts or no compression shorts.

It was at about that point, however, that I saw a police officer directing runners at the first turn. He was laughing ... and he was laughing at me.

But why? I looked down and it dawned on me what I was wearing. My running shorts were made of sheer fabric, cool, lightweight ... and in the right light ... almost completely see through. And with my compression shorts down around my knees ... awwwwwwwwww, man ...

I was determined not to stop. If you can picture this, I ran/waddled/stumbled/shuffled maybe twenty yards with both arms reaching inside my running shorts and down to my compression drawers, desperately trying to tug the blamed things back up.

It didn't work.

Finally, I stopped at some bushes on the side of the road. I threw the gloves and hydration belt I was wearing to the ground, reached back inside my running shorts down to the compressions and pulled them back up to where they were supposed to be. I threw my belt back on and took off, putting my gloves on as I ran.

And as I did so, the compression shorts fell right back down again. !@#$%^&^%$#@!

Maybe a mile into the race, and it was all over. Bob was gone. Bob was history. Bob, by this point I was sure, was already back at the finish line waiting on me. I was never going to hear the end of it, and it was all because of these forsaken shorts. 

A patrol car from the local sheriff's department was up ahead. I had no choice. I had to stop again. As other runners made the turn, I went straight to the car. They asked if I was okay, and physically, I was. Mentally? That was another matter entirely. I was ticked, and I was ticked big time.

I ran behind the car and again tore off my gloves and hydration belt. This time, though, there was no awkward reaching down under my running shorts to get to my underwear. Nope. This time, I dropped 'em altogether entirely ... and in the process mooned Rural Hall, North Carolina. At that point, I just didn't care.

I took hold of the compression shorts and gave them a monstrous yank. I pulled them up very nearly to my chest, and in so doing gave myself the mother of all wedgies. Back up came my running shorts. Back on went my hydration belt and gloves. Why, I didn't know. The race with Bob was over, and I had to consider my options. I could quit then and there, or keep going.

By that point, I was so angry that I was all but in tears. Bob was nowhere to be seen, and neither were very many other people in the race, for that matter. The only ones around were a couple of ladies walking, one of them pushing a baby stroller. Forget about not beating Bob. I wasn't going to beat anybody.

I took off, up three small hills within the next mile or so. After that, the course was as flat as anything I've ever run before. I saw a runner I thought might possibly be Bob, but the figure was so far away, I couldn't be sure. As the course doubled back on itself, I began to meet runners heading in the opposite direction.

No Bob.

No Bob.

No Bob.

No Bob.

At last, he was there. He was probably a little more than a half mile ahead of me, with about three miles remaining. I was never going to catch him, ever. But still ... I picked up my pace.

Once I made the turnaround myself, I could see who I thought to be Bob. I wasn't completely sure it was him, but still ... I picked up my pace a little more. Bob came into focus. As soon as I was certain ... I picked up my pace a little more still.

Four and a half miles in, two miles to go. Pick it up.

Five miles in, a mile and a half or so left. Pick it up. I can see Bob. It's him. It's definitely him.

Five and a half miles in, a mile left, and I was at as close to a sprint as I could've possibly been after running that far. I'm gaining, but I'm not going to catch him. But still ...

Bob turned back into the parking where all this had started. I was a hundred yards back. Bob crossed the finish line, and then so did I. I finished in an hour and five minutes, my best ever time in a 10k by far. Jeanie made the comment that if it hadn't been for my problem at the beginning of the race, I would've made it in less than an hour.

That's not necessarily the case. If it hadn't been for those problems and trying to catch back up to Bob, there's absolutely no way I would've ever pushed myself that hard. Bob beat me by several seconds, fair and square. No excuses.

Except maybe for ...