FROM APRIL 17, 2014
I have seen the look. So damned many times. It had been a while, though. The kids I hang out with these days don’t need me to encourage such things so much. Their parents and family make sure of that. But the dad of my current bunch of young-ins, my son, used to show me the same eyes I saw the other day. So did his young friends of years ago. So did so many young and coachable youth league basketballers and others from those days when, as a grown man, most of my friends were under the age of 15.
As a kid, I was quite the dweeb. I was skinny and slightly asthmatic. And extremely self-conscious. Some role models in my life said some things back then. My dad, a traveling insurance guy who at the time was rarely home, did come home one day when I was around the age of four to see me urinating just like my mother and sister always did – in a sitting position. My sister was my closest family member at the time. She and I are less than two years apart in age.
He said to my mother, “You’ve GOT to separate those two!”
My grandmother never let me mow her yard. My younger cousin always did that. We used to travel from our Jacksonville, Florida home to spend some summer months with my grandmother and grandfather in Burlington, North Carolina. Every summer I was there, I asked her if I could mow instead of cousin Lonnie. I don’t remember her exact words, but the ones this young dweeb heard were these:
“Oh, honey, you are so skinny and sickly. Let Lonnie do it.”
What I felt as a kid those two times and the many others when I was overlooked as having any male human value at all is not, I am sure, limited to a guy thing. But at the time, I just didn’t live up to what was expected of a male child. That’s kind of a harsh thing to admit.
But my Burlington grandad had a workshop on the back side of his property. The door to that shop was always padlocked. When I was a kid, I always thought that little white frame building was off limits to folks my age. On one of our summer visits, Grandaddy Mangum opened that door. He showed me his tools and supplies and he welcomed me into his man-world there. He showed me some stuff, and he left me there alone to do whatever the hell I needed to do. I built the most feeble little dog house. It collapsed within 30-seconds of my hammering the last nail. But Grandaddy Mangum was proud of his young dweeb. And until it collapsed, I was even more proud of that dog house.
On a day during one of our Burlington visits, I was doing what I mostly did there. I was watching “I Love Lucy” reruns or something in my grandparent’s den. I was mostly bored there during those visits. I wanted to be back home, in Jacksonville, with my neighborhood friends who mostly helped me forget what a sickly dweeb their young friend was perceived to be. That was one of those days.
On that day, my dad’s youngest brother came to my mom’s parents’ house. Uncle Gene had no kids at the time, and at the time he and I were not very close, either. But the man came by with his fishing gear in tow, to take his dweeb nephew fishing at a pond on some property he owned. It was just Uncle Gene and me! No skinny excuses. No sickly explanations. Just two guys going fishing.
I learned some big time stuff from my dad and grandmother. Some damned important stuff. I needed to be belittled by them a time or two. To get to where I am, I needed to
And I needed my timely heroes – Granddaddy Mangum and Uncle Gene.
God knows, y’all, I am not perfect. That notion is not at all what this is about. It’s about remembering. Our youth, our youthful disappointments and triumphs. This is about seeing where we were, how we got to where we are, and how in the hell we use what we have learned to embrace the children we now love – like Granddaddy Mangum and Uncle Gene did for such a skinny young asthmatic dweeb so many years ago.
This is simply about embracing all children in ways that we clearly know.
Years ago, I coached a Chapel Hill, North Carolina summer basketball league team. I was the coach of the “waiting list” players. Kids who knew each other and had a coach, registered for the league as a team. Those kids played together all the time and were very good. The “waiting list” kids had no team to join and no coach. Those kids got stuck with me. And my talent as a coach was only slightly better than their talent as players.
No team wanted these kids. On our team had the shortest but happiest kid in the league. He knew nothing of basketball, and I could teach him very little. He was Japanese, and could speak no English at all. Also on the team was a great kid and a good player. He was maybe our best player, but still no match for the worst player on all the other teams. And – he was Korean. The Korean kid explained to me, in English, that Korean and Japanese languages are entirely different, but he did his best to translate everything I ever said to the short little happy guy.
The Korean kid could score points. The Japanese kid could not. When the Japanese kid touched the ball, he mostly threw it up in the air to avoid being defended. But with every turnover or missed shot, the kid smiled. We had other pretty good kids playing on that team. We had about 14 or so who could shoot a free throw better than the little guy. But when it came time for me to name a player to shoot a technical free throw during one game, I chose the tiny kid. The Korean child explained to the Japanese one what was going on. And while all the other players were yelling, “No coach! Let me shoot! Please, Coach,” I never thought I would see a smile as big as the one I saw after that explanation. Then the little guy made his free throw. It was as if the kid had single-handedly won the Final Four. Kid’s smiles that huge tend to stick with old folks. So do looks like the one the Korean kid gave me when he understood his coach made the right decision.
The Japanese kid smiled first at all of the doubters. He still had his smile when he turned my way, but he didn’t smile at me. That kid just gave me the look. The very same one I must have given to Granddaddy Mangum and to Uncle Gene a few times.
Rachael gave me the same look, just a few years ago. She is my oldest grandchild and by far the most beautiful. The times when she and my other three grandchildren, her younger brothers, would visit my place, we seemed to always be in a rush to eat breakfast and to be somewhere soon. Most of the adults in the crowd during those visits were anxious to eat, get dressed and to move on to more important things. And the also beautiful younger brothers were always very hungry. But I saw Rachael’s eyes every time that we both ignored the insignificant urgency of the moment and, instead, focused on just cooking bacon or sausage, eggs and biscuits and grits. That sweet girl wanted to help me cook. She needed to help. And she did. And every time I gave her a breakfast cooking task, she showed me that damned look.
Until the other day, I had forgotten about the joy Rachael’s eyes gave to me those times. I had forgotten about the little Japanese basketball kid’s eyes, too. And about the eyes of my young son and his friends so many years ago. I guess I just assumed that those remarkable times were all just a part of my old, weary and pleasant past.
But you know what? Kids need to see certain things. Just as much as old guys like me need to see their young looks and thoughts.
Just a few days ago, I was working with a crusty old guy. He’s even older than me. He’s ex-military, very regimented in his approach and one of the hardest workers I have ever
known. While working together the other day, a young dad and his early-teen son paid us a visit. They needed help loading their SUV with bagged mulch. The dad made it clear that he brought his young son to expose him to some hard work. The kid looked eager and up to the fatherly challenge. And while the kid’s nose wasn’t even close to the size of mine when I was at my dweebest as a kid his age, I recognized in him what he must have been feeling at the time. And I recognized as well how thin he was, and how narrow were his upper arms.
I saw myself in that kid. And in my co-worker that day, I saw my grandmother. And in the kid’s dad, I saw my own dad there as well. Those two other men there that day saw no worth in that young man at all. Every time he picked up or placed a bag of mulch in that SUV, he did it wrong. The dad yelled at him about something. And the kid looked embarrassed. My co-worker all but told the kid to stop trying to help. The kid was holding up the crusty old guy’s progress.
During that young man’s most stressful moments that afternoon, Grandaddy Mangum and Uncle Gene paid a visit.
“Hey, look, pal,” I said, “Why don’t I hand you bags off the pallet, and you place them in the car?”
The crusty old co-worker yelled, “Don’t hand him the bags!”
I looked at the kid, smiled my granddaddy’s smile at him and kept handing them off. The kid smiled back and kept doing his job. And within both our smiles came the silent and in unison words of, “Go to hell, crusty old man!”
When we all finished loading the SUV, the crusty co-worker thanked the dad for the business. The dad thanked the crusty guy for helping. Uncle Gene and I formed a solid fist, lightly pounded the young guy on his left shoulder, smiled again and said, “Good job, young man. Thanks for helping me, pal.”
The first thing I saw from that kid was his warm smile back as he reached to sort of “fist-pump” the one on his left shoulder. But the image that is burnished within my eyes is the one that came from his very own.
The look. The one that screamed loudly and clearly, “I matter after all!”
Damn it, that’s what kids need to scream! And that is why parents and old guys are still around! And if the joy of just helping a young kid stretch his vocal chords to such a fevered pitch does not do it for us grownups, then surely the look will.
It will. It does.
It did for me that day.
At least one more time.