RAMBLINGS • COVID Contemplations On Blessed Life

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Years ago Judy and I bought an RCA console stereo from Big Ed in Litchfield. A wonder of its mid-60s era, it had a turntable, an AM/FM radio that would pull in stations from far away, especially on the AM side after nightfall, and a turntable capable of holding a stack of vinyl records of various sizes. Our tastes in music were similar; one of the first Christmas presents I gave her while trying to win her affections was Andy Williams’ Moon River album.

I still have the stereo sitting in my den, and it still works; at least it did the last time I took the stacks of books and magazines off its lid to open it. I still have a collection of albums too, some stored in the machine and the rest somewhere in the clutter that pervades the house. I haven’t bought an album for a long time though, not even at an auction or yard sale. I haven’t attended either since she passed.

The stereo was a step-up from the portable record player I gave her for our first Christmas as a married couple. We were in an apartment in Carlinville; she had just finished at Blackburn and had a job–teaching sixth grade in Coffeen–to begin in January, but our only income was from my part-time job at Mefford Shell in Carlinville, so there was no money for a trip back to Pennsylvania nor for big presents. We were happy, though, too dumb to know how perilous our financial situation was.

She loved Christmas music, so the albums I bought to go with the record player were Christmas albums. We had a black and white TV I bought in September for $10 from a motel switching to color sets. The picture wasn’t great and we didn’t bring it with us when we moved to Hillsboro in January, so the record player was it when we wanted quality entertainment. I owned a transistor radio, I’m sure, because I saved for one of those in the late ‘50s, and our car had a radio, but we listened to records when we had time together.

We liked Elvis; folk singers like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary; Mo-Town; most rock and roll when it was innocent, before hard and acid rock, and the Beatles, again in their ballad days. Ricky Nelson was always an easy listen. I personally came to like the Rolling Stones, but it was an acquired later taste.

Both of us enjoyed the country crooners: Eddie Arnold, Ronnie Milsap, The Statler Brothers; though he’s not a country crooner, I liked Ray Charles, and I still list Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson as my all-time favorites.

Later, when we both had jobs, we’d travel to the Convention Center or the state fair, both in Springfield, to see our favorites in concert. Judy’s pick was the Andy Williams Christmas concert; I saw several Hillsboroites present when we watched Johnny Cash. After Judy’s passing, during my brief dating phase when I halfheartedly looked for someone to replace her, I escorted ladies to see Joan Baez in Springfield and Loretta Lynn and Milsap in Taylorville–a venue I still miss, by the way. Now I don’t go anywhere with anyone, but I am strangely content.

Several of the artists Judy and I listened to had a song either titled or containing the line, “But you don’t know me.” Ray Charles’ rendition seemed particularly poignant. Lately that line revisits me, but not in its context. The context? A man sees his wish-she-were-mine heart throb with another person, perhaps on a date or perhaps at the altar, and shakes her hand while wishing the couple well. The wish is sincere, but his heartache is real as well. I have enough empathy within me to know how he feels.

Still, that isn’t how I see that lyric as I enter my 78th year. It’s taken 77-plus years for me to realize that it is I who doesn’t know me–but I’m working on it.

That process began in earnest during the COVID 19 in-home isolation. I’ve always been introspective, I suppose, but staying at home 23 of 24 hours a day gives me the time to think about my past, which is much more extensive than my future. I do remember telling Terry Todt on air after a soccer match in which Hillsboro as a relatively young program defeated a much stronger, more experienced Nokomis team 3-0 that we as a team were blessed that afternoon. It wasn’t one of our stronger teams in terms of talent nor depth (the first year of the program when home-schooled boys were allowed to play was by far the best collection I had to coach), but on that day we scored first, went into a defensive shell and scored twice more as they became frustrated as the minutes ticked off the clock.

Thanks to Terry’s efforts (he was a soccer fan who promoted the game locally when that wasn’t the politically correct move to make), the game was on WSMI; afterwards he interviewed me as we sat in his truck out of the wind. Over the seven years I coached both the boys’ and girls’ squads, I garnered many memories; but that was one of the better ones.

During the pandemic I realized I’ve indeed had a blessed life, and in areas not quite as shallow as just one soccer win. Judy and I had 25 years together. Though the relationship wasn’t always smooth (once, after she had her driver’s license, she became so angry she put Dawn and Jenni in the car to head for Pennsylvania, but they were back in the driveway five minutes later), I see now that I was the problem 90 percent of the time. Sometimes the kids were more mature than I; she tolerated much until I grew into my role as one who had to consider her needs too.

The kids? I’ve been blessed to live long enough to know them as friends; I played the authoritarian father well, I think. I tried to control who their friends would be, set curfews more strict than they wanted, stayed up watching television, reading, or checking papers until they came home on Friday and Saturday nights. I coached their softball teams after they reached junior high age (as I remember, Harrell Clinard and Elbo Grindley coached their first efforts–thanks, Harrell and Elbo). It was before Title IX and high school girls softball, but we had a very competitive softball team that played in the summer against girls that did play high school ball. Jenni was upset with me when I had her play first base instead of shortstop, but Julie Murray was the best female shortstop in the county, so that was her spot. I was never a coach who gave favorite treatment to a family member (or a friend’s child, for that matter).

Parents must be adversaries at times for the sake of their offspring and society. I’m grateful that isn’t my role with my daughters now; the shift was gradual. On the other hand, grandparents are seldom in an authoritarian mode, although I’ve been told at times I’ve gone too far the other way. A doctor (whom I still consider a friend) once told me I needed to spend some of the money I spent on grandkids on a personal trainer so I could lose weight to live longer. Obviously my 5’7” 247 pound self ignored his advice. As a coach, I felt I knew what I needed to do to round (perhaps that’s a poor choice of words) into shape. Lack of time, not lack of funds, especially after retirement, has put me in the shape I’m in. Secondly, when I was 17, I resented people telling me what to do; at 67 (or 77) that attribute hasn’t changed.

At any rate, grandchildren Kaylyn and Kyle are slowly becoming more like friends than beneficiaries of grants as they mature. I really had as much pleasure from seeing them drive the Thunderbird they shared while in high school as I would have had from driving it myself. Kamryn, who to me seems to have always been mature, enjoys the VW convertible which came into the family as the Thunderbird left so much that I have much content in knowing she enjoys it. When I was in high school, I didn’t have a vehicle to call my own. Not many of my classmates did either, but the world has changed, and I’m blessed to have the wherewithal to see they have an easier path to take than I had. Now there is great granddaughter Emma with a wide smile and ready laugh, though not yet for me. If I ever need a motive to battle for life, that’ll be it–to see Emma know me well enough to smile when I enter the room she’s in.

My blessings don’t end with family. I have more friends than I can count. I’m welcome at The Journal-News office when I appear; one of my nightly prayers is that I have health enough to contribute there for a few more years. I also ask for the strength to show up at county board meetings for the rest of my two-year term; I generally feel welcome there despite vast policy differences. I hope I live long enough to keep the stats for more high school athletic events. That depends on COVID-19; if many more seasons are affected, I will have lost contacts I truly treasure.

I am blessed with memories of a long career in the classroom. I sincerely thank those parents who have told me I taught their children to write or to think critically or to enjoy reading, to understand Shakespeare or something about the human condition. Sometimes I think I was a failure, especially last fall when both parties filled the airwaves with propaganda rather than policy in an effort to win votes, but I tried to teach common sense. I take comfort in the attempt.

Could I have spent the days of my life doing other jobs? Had I started higher on the social-economic chain, I know now I could have been an accountant, an attorney, a minister, or earned a PhD. in language (English or American Literature). Perhaps with more to say I could have been a writer.

However, I’m lucky–I was pushed into attending a junior college and then into obtaining a B.A. After helping a friend with her Master’s Degree work, I felt confident (at 35) that I could earn one for myself. In turn that allowed me to teach a couple years at Graham and then at LLCC in Litchfield. I gained much from both experiences. I’ve written about high school sports for nearly 50 years and about city government for the last ten or so. I’ve written this column, which has really put me in touch with my past and present, since Jan. 4, 1999. I’m grateful for the reception it has received and blessed by the thoughts it’s made me formulate.

So, in my professional life, I’ve been a minister (supply for the Open Door Parish), high school teacher for 39 years, high school coach, college teacher, journalist, politician, and essayist. In private life I’ve been a son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather. I’ve enjoyed all of those roles.

If that isn’t blessed (and lucky), I don’t know what would be.

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