Note: This is the third in a series on the unexpected twists and turns of my career. If you didn’t see part 1, go back now and catch up on part one and part two.
Transitions are never easy, especially when you believe you are following a calling.
When I interviewed with CBF, then national Executive Coordinator Daniel Vestal warned me that working at a faith-based organization can cause you to lose your faith. I don’t think I lost my faith, but the economic recession of 2007-2008 certainly tested it.
As giving to churches dropped, the funding from churches to CBF fell even more precipitously. In response, the CBF leadership was forced to lay off 13 employees, several of whom I was close to. In addition to financial difficulties, CBF faced a leadership transition. Daniel Vestal was retiring, and after 10 years on staff, I felt like Daniel’s transition was the right time to test the job market. I decided my resume and experience matched up best for internal communications and media relations jobs in the non-profit or higher education sectors. I began applying for jobs in April 2012 but didn’t get many bites.
While working in the newsroom of the CBF General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, that summer, I received a call from an Atlanta area code. Convinced it was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s religion writer working on a story about the Assembly, I took the call only to discover it was the administrative assistant for the vice president of communications and marketing at the Georgia Institute of Technology wanting to schedule an interview. I had applied for the director of communications and marketing position at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) but hadn’t heard anything for several months. Grateful for a call-back of any kind, I put the time and date on my mobile phone’s calendar and returned to the pressing matters at hand. After the Assembly, I did my homework on GTRI and decided it was a much larger, more respected and more profitable version of the applied engineering research center at Mercer University for which I handled the public relations as a part of my School of Engineering duties.
When the day came for my interview, I was on a conference call for a CBF project about an hour before my interview. That same 404-area code phone number popped up on my cell phone, and I knew I had to answer. I begged off the conference call, thinking it was the administrative assistant just confirming the details of the phone interview. I called the number back only to learn I was 15-minutes late for the actual interview.
Back when I put the appointment on the calendar through my cell phone, I was in the central time zone. When I came back east to Georgia, my cell phone automatically shifted the appointment back an hour. Frazzled and confused, I did my best to talk my way into the interview even though I was late. It took me about 10 minutes to slow my heart rate and get into the flow of the interview, but fortunately I had scripted my answers to the first few obvious interview questions. From there, we had a great back-and-forth with my natural curiosity driving my interaction with the committee. Whether or not my time zone mishap had blown it, I felt good about my performance and left the results up to God.
Returning to higher education seemed natural, but joining the staff of one of the top ranked public institutions in the country was intimidating. I was invited for in-person interviews and spent 90 minutes being grilled by a 10-person committee. Rather than frightening, I found the experience invigorating. I enjoyed the engaging questions and again let my curiosity into their processes drive my questioning.
The co-chair of the search committee, GTRI’s chief of staff at the time, Tom Horton, (may he rest in peace), addressed the elephant in the room right away, much to the dismay of the human resources representative. He wanted to know how my work for Baptists could translate into working with engineers and researchers. I deflected with humor and focused on the work I had accomplished in media relations, publications, web development projects, fundraising campaigns, and advocacy marketing. I walked away from the interview feeling I had made a connection with the members of the committee and given good answers to their questions. I was sure I would be invited back for the final round.
That invitation came during our family beach vacation less than a week after my in-person interview. They scheduled me for a full day at Georgia Tech. I met with GTRI’s director and deputy director and held up under an hour of grilling from two obviously brilliant scientists. When it was over, they took me down the hall to Tom’s office where I had a few minutes to catch my breath before heading to Institute Communications for my interviews with their leadership. Tom asked if I knew where I was in the process. I told him I thought I was a finalist and today was my “make-or-break opportunity.” He took all the pressure off when he said, “No, you are THE finalist.” He explained the committee’s scoring process and that I was the leading candidate. Reassured by Tom’s revelation, I had a good day interacting with the staff at Georgia Tech.
I spent three years in that role at GTRI and relished learning a completely different domain. I had to fight feelings of imposter syndrome that constantly reminded me I didn’t have technical training. Despite my lack of engineering savvy, I tried to keep in mind that I was hired because they thought I was competent and could help them with their communications. Another challenge was managing the staff. There were personnel issues, and I had to learn to navigate those conflicts. GTRI’s leadership wanted to centralize communications, so my staff expanded from eight to 20. Tom, who was a great boss, retired, and one of the lab directors, Jim McGarrah, was hired as chief-of-staff. A Georgia Tech and Annapolis-trained Navy engineer, Jim was a former admiral and AT&T executive who brought a world of experience to the job. His heart was in the right place, he had the highest ethical standards, and he was a person of faith. I enjoyed our one-on-one interactions.
When GTRI’s director left and a change of leadership was on the horizon three years into my tenure, the director of media relations in the central communications office for all of Georgia Tech became available when my friend and trusted colleague, Matt Nagel, left to take a job at New York University. I wanted to be more directly involved with the Institute’s president and senior leadership, providing communications counsel and handling more complex issues.
In what had to be an incredible difficult decision by then Associate Vice President Lisa Grovenstein, I was selected for the position over an internal and much-beloved candidate. That candidate, Jason Maderer, would turn out to be one of the best and most supportive team members of my career, and he could not have handled the situation with more class and dedication to the work.
But unbeknownst to me, I was taking on what would turn out to be one of the most challenging and stressful jobs of my career.
Learning the ropes of public relations from Ben McDade reinvigorated my career. Getting home before 6 p.m. every day reinvigorated my relationship with Carla. After a year, I was able to start, tuition-free, Mercer’s Master of Business Administration program. I had a new vision for what I could achieve, and my career expectations shifted from running a newsroom to running a university relations office.
Two years into my tenure at Mercer, Ben left to start his own consulting business. A new AVP named Judy Lunsford was brought in to run the office. Judy was a nice person and a capable public relations professional. I had no qualms with working for Judy, and I was well into my MBA. There were elements of the job that frustrated me, but overall, I was happy. Carla and I even began planning to start a family. My dreams, which seemed ambitious at the time, were actually pretty confined: enjoy our new house, start a family, work my way up to AVP at Mercer, stay close to Carla’s parents in Sandersville, and enjoy life. That was disrupted when Ben called me one day in early summer out of the blue. He wanted to meet for breakfast and “check in.”
After “rescuing me from newspapers,” Ben had a new proposition. Among his marketing clients was a faith-based nonprofit headquartered in Atlanta called the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Founded in 1993, CBF had its national headquarters in Atlanta, and Ben had a contract with them to do marketing and public relations. CBF’s chief communications officer, David Wilkinson, was leaving, and CBF asked Ben to come aboard and lead the communications and marketing efforts. Ben explained to me that he planned to take the job and would be voted on at the Fellowship’s General Assembly in a few weeks. Among his conditions of accepting their job offer was that he be allowed to hire someone to come in and build a media relations enterprise from scratch.
“There’s only one person in the country for this job,” Ben said over coffee at the North Macon Cracker Barrell. “You have the background in Baptist life and journalism. You’re it.”
Once again Ben had taken me outside of my comfort zone. My immediate response was threefold: I didn’t want to quit on my MBA, I didn’t want to move to Atlanta, and I didn’t want to work for Baptists. The whole thing felt sketchy and unstable. Our first born, Barron, was just an infant, and being close to Carla’s family, our babysitters and support, was a primary concern. I told him I would pass on his offer and thanked him for thinking of me.
After the General Assembly, I started following CBF in the Baptist media. A controversy over a plagiarized sermon plagued the meeting that summer, and I felt even better about passing up working for Baptists. Then Ben called a second time to ask if I would join him at CBF. The answer was still an emphatic “No.”
Unbeknownst to me, Ben had a mole at Mercer. Ben enlisted Mercer Creative Director, Steve Mosley, a close colleague and confidant, to inform him the next time I had a particularly difficult or frustrating day. Inevitably such a day came. It was a Friday, and I had spent the morning rising early, driving to Atlanta, filling a seat at an event that was not the least bit related to my job, and returned to Macon after lunch with a full day’s worth of work ahead of me. Steve and I were working on a redesign of the university’s signature alumni magazine, The Mercerian, and it wasn’t going well. The first new design we submitted was rejected as “too fresh,” and we were sent back to the drawing board. It was a long, hard day. Ben later confessed to me that Steve called him on his way home that night and told him “Now is the time to give Lance a call.” I wasn’t the least bit suspicious when my cell phone rang on Monday morning. Ben reiterated his offer, and I found myself coming around to the idea.
“I’ll think about it,” was my response to Ben’s third offer.
At the time, I was also struggling with a sense of calling to ministry. As I told my pastor at the time, Dr. Jim Dant, I had done every role in a church except serve on a church staff and was wondering if I should be pursuing full-time ministry. At Mercer I was handling the public relations for the relatively young seminary, the McAfee School of Theology, and was intrigued by the possibilities of enrolling. When Ben made repeated appeals for me to join him at CBF, I believed it was the answer to my prayers, combining both my sense of calling and professional skills and experience.
When Ben was able to commit to helping me financially finish the MBA, that sealed it for me. Carla and I believed we wouldn’t have to move, and I could just commute to Atlanta. My three initial objections had been addressed. The last remaining roadblock was resigning my current job. Leaving Mercer meant telling the Vice President for Advancement, Emily Myers, the most feared and effective administrator in Mercer’s history. Other than telling me “Ben’s just hiring you to do all of his work,” she did not try to stop me from leaving. In November 2002, I went to work for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
I flourished at CBF. I immediately hit the road with Ben, traveling across the country, building relationships with reporters who covered religion, introducing them to CBF and helping them understand who we were in the crowded and confusing Baptist landscape. Those first four years, I visited more than 140 newsrooms and averaged 5-10 nights away from home each month. I juggled graduate school, a young child and marriage. It was a difficult period made more difficult by our transition to the metro Atlanta area.
After commuting the nearly two hours from Macon to CBF’s office on the north side of Atlanta four days a week, it was clear that I couldn’t sustain such a grind. We started looking for a house in the areas near CBF and found a great neighborhood in Lilburn with a house that met all of our conditions.
I found the work at CBF challenging and rewarding. After I finished my MBA, I was promoted to director of communications and marketing and for the first time in my career inherited more marketing responsibilities. Working for a faith-based non-profit satisfied my sense of calling to ministry because I was telling stories and facilitating CBF’s annual fundraising campaign for missions. The first year I was in charge of the Offering for Global Missions campaign, I cut the amount we spent producing the promotional materials by $75,000 and increased the amount raised by $75,000. Making a $150,000 difference felt good. I traveled to ministry sites for CBF’s domestic rural poverty initiative, Together for Hope, on Native American reservations in South Dakota, small towns in the Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas, and communities along the Rio Grande River Valley of Texas. I went to Southeast Asia seeing firsthand the work in northwest Thailand, Singapore, and post-tsunami recovery areas of Aceh Province in Indonesia.
The position helped me develop communications abilities beyond writing. I spoke frequently in churches and developed a network of advocates with whom I frequently met to resource them to promote CBF in their congregations. I was given the opportunity to run the media relations operation for more than 100 reporters at the historic New Baptist Covenant first meeting in Atlanta with representatives from Baptist denominations all across the country. I achieved so many career firsts while engaging my faith in my vocation. In many ways, CBF felt like the perfect fit and a place where I could work for the rest of my career.
I did not see how the seeds were being planted for the next big transition of my career.
My life is full and has surpassed my highest expectations in profound ways.
Carla is a beautiful person who chooses to share life with me through mundane, jubilant, and challenging times. Barron is a creative, goal-oriented and industrious son who shows gratitude and kindness. Harris is bright, engaging and is committing himself to a life of service to address societal problems. Carlton is finding himself in song and drama, flashing a keen wit and possessing insight and awareness beyond his years.
I wished for such a wonderful family, but they have exceeded my loftiest dreams.
The biggest difference between my expectations for life and reality is my career. The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” had different answers at various points in my life. I went through a phase in adolescence when I adopted my father’s dreams of becoming a fighter pilot and having a post-military career flying commercial jets for an airline.
Well into adulthood, I wondered if I was called to local church ministry. I sincerely and diligently prayed for a revelation of that calling and have always been involved in church as a layperson performing every possible duty.
As early as the 7th grade, I envisioned a life of writing novels. I believed that newspaper journalism could pay the bills while I pursued writing books, which was less financially secure. Writing led me to pursue a high school internship at our local paper, The Daily Highlander, and once I began to understand how that world operated, I held ambitions of one day rising through the ranks of reporter to editor and running a newspaper.
That goal served me well through high school and college. I became editor of the Troy University school paper, The Tropolitan, in college as a sophomore and worked internships at The Destin Log, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau and the National Journalism Center. A difficult job market in 1991-92 forced me to seriously question my career choice as I unsuccessfully interviewed for reporter jobs at The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, and The Huntsville Times.
I finally landed an interview at The Macon Telegraph in Middle Georgia, and the rest, as they say, was history. During my seven plus years at The Telegraph there were pivot points along the way that forced me to recalibrate my expectations and amend my goals. When I graduated from Troy University with a double major in print journalism and political science, I saw myself returning to Washington to cover politics. I thought I could one day work my way back to Knight Ridder’s Washington Bureau if I went to a Knight Ridder paper, excelled and earned a promotion to fill an opening in the company’s high-profile D.C. office.
I held onto that notion for about four years as I worked as a general assignment features writer. Editorial page editor Ron Woodgeard asked me to contribute to a series he was editing about Georgians on the Titanic, and during our closer work together, he asked me about my career goals. I told him I wanted to cover politics in Washington. He rather bluntly informed me I was in the wrong place to do that. He said if I wanted to cover politics in Washington, I should already be in Washington. I told him my plan, and he explained that political journalism didn’t work that way.
As I puzzled over Ron’s revelation, my fellow church member, Larry Brumley, who ran the University Relations office at Mercer University, asked if I would be interested in applying for a media relations representative vacancy on his staff. I had never seriously considered working in public relations, often deriding the PR majors in college as “paid liars.” With a chance to cover the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, I told Larry the opportunities on my immediate horizon were too good to pass up. I remained committed to journalism.
As difficult as it was to hear, Ron Woodgeard had been right. Career panic set in, and I felt an urgency to move on from Macon. But by that point, my social life began to factor into my life’s plan. Carla and I had started dating, and our relationship was growing serious. Just a few months into our relationship, covering the Olympics combined with a newsroom shakeup by incoming Editor-in-Chief Cecil Bentley proved to be my opportunity to shift from general assignment features to the City Hall beat. It was my first shot at writing about politics at any level since college.
I thoroughly enjoyed covering Macon and Bibb County government and quickly acclimated to working nights attending council and committee meetings. I dedicated myself to increasing my profile at the paper and winning reporting recognitions. The awards never came, and though I covered the beat diligently, I exposed no major scoops or scandals. Ron’s words were becoming clear to me. The way to make it to the Capitol did not go through Macon City Hall.
Carla and I were not married long when the statehouse reporting job opened at the Knight Ridder-owned newspaper in Columbia, S.C., oddly titled The State. I interviewed, and it looked promising enough that Carla and I spent the day driving through neighborhoods there getting a vision for what life could look like for us if we started over somewhere else. The job evaporated, however, when the editor I was interviewing with gave up his desk job, returned to reporting, and took the position.
My goal then shifted from leaving Macon and covering D.C. politics to moving up the ranks and becoming an editor. A new, more aggressive managing editor had been hired, and he began pushing me to “leverage the facts” of the stories I was covering at City Hall to make them seem more scandalous. I wanted no part of that. Fortunately, I was able to transfer to our Warner Robins Bureau where I was assigned the Robins Air Force Base beat.
I didn’t mind the half-hour commute from Macon, and I found the base infinitely fascinating. When units at Robins started deploying on missions over Kosovo and to Kuwait, I was able to write stories with impact and emotion. I built solid relationships with the public affairs officers on base and really took to the assignments.
After about 18 months, more newsroom transitions opened an assistant metro editor position back in the main office. I applied and earned the spot, working side-by-side with my former features editor, James Palmer. We supervised the entire news reporting staff, and I began to see the writing on the wall. When I first arrived in Macon, there had been six such editors – a metro editor, two assistant metro editors, night editor, business editor, and region editor. There was just James and me at that point, and I knew more cuts were on the way. I began to seriously question if newspapers were a sustainable way to earn a living. I had always wanted to get my master’s degree, which seemed impossible with my schedule. I knew I would have to leave journalism if I wanted to further my education and set myself up for career advancement. I had put so many eggs in the journalism basket it was hard to figure out what was next.
One of my duties was editing the weekly business tabloid that published on Mondays. A feature of that publication was a weekly column written by Mercer University business faculty members. The column was supposed to be submitted by 5 p.m. on Thursday, so it could be edited on Friday and laid out before the end of the day. We printed the business tab on Saturday when the presses were available. The Mercer professors consistently missed their deadline and submitted work that required a lot of editing. Even though we didn’t pay for the content, the columns were more trouble than they were worth. I called Mercer’s public relations contact for the business school and told her we were canceling the arrangement. She begged for mercy and asked for me to come by for a meeting. It got me out of the office, so I was amenable.
The meeting went fine. The PR rep, Jennie Treby, let the assistant vice president, Ben McDade, do all the talking. In exchange for one more chance to continue the columns, Ben promised each submission would be on time, the right length, and free from errors. I had no reason to deny the request, so I agreed to continue the columns. When the cordial meeting ended, Jennie left, and Ben asked if I could stay a minute or two longer. He closed the door and told me that when his predecessor, Larry Brumley, left Mercer to work as the head of university relations at Baylor University, Larry told Ben he should hire me. I was flattered but shocked. I still was not ready to leave journalism. Ben said he had an opening and would like for me to think about applying. I told him I would.
Over the next several weeks, I did much soul searching. Leaving journalism was more than a job change, it was an identity crisis. I viewed journalism as a calling and had even served on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists. I was an advocate for free speech and the First Amendment. I believed public relations practitioners were less than credible, and they mostly just sat around and waited on reporters to call. While I considered the opportunity, conditions at The Telegraph took an even greater toll. The problematic managing editor left, and James and I felt the crush of even more responsibility. I worked past 10 p.m. five days a week and was even coming in on Sundays after church to get the Monday paper out. Carla was in graduate school, driving two nights a week from Macon to Lawrenceville, about a two-hour journey one way, to take classes in the University of Georgia’s part-time Master of Social Work program. We were newlyweds in duration of marriage only. We barely saw each other during the week, and the stress of so much work, school and time apart had us seeing a therapist in our first year of marriage.
One difficult week of working at least 12 hours a day plus Sunday gave me the clarity I needed to make the career move and shift my ambitions. I took Ben up on his offer and left newspaper journalism behind. When I submitted my resignation, Cecil asked if there was anything they could do to keep me or if this was “a lifestyle decision.” I told him it was definitely the latter and didn’t look back.
The next phase of my life and career was uncharted territory.
I was blessed to know three of my four grandparents well.
Minnie Ruth Elrod, my mom’s mother, whom we called Maw Maw, was always a part of my life. We had frequent visits with her when we all lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She eventually followed us to Lake Wales, Fla., and moved in with my parents for the last 11 years of her life. She passed away just before her 95th birthday in 2003. My mom’s father, Arthur Lee Elrod, passed away when she was 17, so I never had the opportunity to know him.
Ernest and Addie Wallace were my dad’s parents, and I was their first grandchild. I saw them once or twice a year when we would trek from Texas to their home in Columbus, Ga., or vice versa. By all accounts they spoiled me with gifts and attention. I always felt close to them despite the miles that separated us. I was in my senior year of college in 1992 when my grandfather, whom I called Paw Paw, passed away suddenly from a heart attack. Granny, as I called her, lived two more years before succumbing to bone cancer. Because I lived in Macon, just a two hour drive from Columbus, I was able to visit a few times and have precious one-on-one conversations.
I have almost nothing but fond memories of Maw Maw, Granny, and Paw Paw. These are among the best:
Maw Maw. Because her husband died so young, Maw Maw used her entrepreneurial spirit to support herself and her two daughters. She started and operated Elrod Florist in downtown Fort Worth, and I have many fond memories of visiting her shop. Any time I step into a florist today, the smell of fresh cut flowers takes me back to her shop. One of the grandest events of my childhood was Rodeo Day in Fort Worth. We would have a holiday from school and go downtown to Maw Maw’s shop to watch the rodeo parade from the elevated walkway. Though she was extremely busy, she always made time for us, usually letting us get an ice cream from the cafe next door.
We spent the night at Maw Maw’s house on Astor Street in Fort Worth on a Friday night some point before my youngest brother, Lyle, was born. It was just Lee and me, but we could be a handful. Maw Maw had no trouble handling us, however, and she was the kind of grandmother who didn’t mind telling her beloved little darlings to “shut up” if we were making too much racket. On that Friday night, she made her famous potato burgers, a recipe she perfected as a Girl Scout leader. She peeled and shredded potatoes, mixed them in with the ground beef, rounded them into patties and fried them in a skillet. They were served on a bun.
Her house held many objects to fascinate us, including a real cuckoo clock she purchased on a trip to Europe, a kiln for her ceramics, and a strange rubber toy that when squeezed, its eyes, nose and mouth would bug out.
Lee and I slept in her den with the TV. She let us watch our favorite Friday night programs, “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Incredible Hulk.”
Spending the night away from home, even if it was just on the other side of town, was a treat, and Maw Maw’s potato burgers were made with love.
Granny. My dad’s mother had a gift for telling stories, and on our visits to her home in Columbus, I remember her sitting in her chair, playing solitaire on a TV tray, watching the news and telling us story after story. I’m sure it was her laugh and zest for life that initially attracted my grandfather, and those same qualities made her a delight to listen to, even when I was too young to really understand the point of her stories.
Her go to expressions were “tickled” to describe someone who started laughing, “pulling your leg” to describe someone playing a joke on you, and “and uh” as an almost melodic linking phrase to let you know the story was still going on. I knew when the story was over when she burst into laughter or narrowed her eyes and pointed her finger.
During one of my last visits with her, I brought her a photo album of pictures I had taken in and around Macon based on the settings of stories I had heard her tell. She was from McDonough, north of Macon, and had met my grandfather while he was in the Army stationed at Camp Wheeler just east of Macon. Their first apartment was in Macon, and my father was born there. It was a moving and powerful experience to sit with her, though wracked with pain, as she re-lived her courtship and early days of her marriage. We connected in a way few people have a chance to with their grandparents — as adults. We both started our adult lives in Macon, and we could relate to one another’s experience through a common location.
Paw Paw. I admired my grandfather greatly. Now that I’m over 50, I admire even more that he and Granny took my brother, Lee, and me to Walt Disney World around 1980 while they were in their late 60s. My mom worked for American Airlines at the time and was able to get us airplane tickets to fly to Orlando. Paw Paw and Granny drove their golden brown Cadillac down from Columbus and met us there. We stayed at a hotel with a pool, and after a night, we all went to the Magic Kingdom for the first time.
It was no doubt hot and crowded, but Paw Paw endured it all, smiling at our joy and amazement. The moment from that day that is seared into my memory happened on the first attraction we rode, the Star Jets. Located in the Tomorrowland section of the park, these rockets were white and black with red nose cones, painted to resemble Apollo-era ships. Riders could pull the throttle back to make their individual rocket move up and down as it circled a central replica of a Saturn V rocket.
The line formed under the base of the rocket platform. There were only 12 rockets holding two people at a time, which restricted the number of riders to 24 every two to three minutes. Riders were taken from the line beneath the platform to the platform itself by an elevator. If I had to guess today, I’d say we probably waited 45 minutes to ride, but as a small child, it seemed like an eternity. Paw Paw stood with us in the line, waiting the whole time without complaint, though he would not be riding. And when our rockets “landed” and we raced down the ramp to breathlessly tell of our experience, he was the first to greet us with a laugh at our excitement.
Paw Paw and I had many more memories together before he passed away in the winter of 1992, but that day at the Magic Kingdom is one I treasure.
Hindsight and adulthood have altered my perspective, but when I reflect on my childhood, my daily activities offer clues about what life was like. Here are a few snapshots of growing up in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth in the 1970s and ‘80s:
We had only four or five channels, which we tuned in to with an antenna. Our first television required a person to get up, walk over to the set and physically turn a knob to change the channel. I grew up hearing my parents watch the evening news, and sometimes I was awake to hear them watching Johnny Carson at bedtime. I don’t know what else they may have watched after we went to bed, but I remember on the weekends my dad watched nature documentaries and fishing shows like “Bill Dance Outdoors” and “Jimmy Houston Outdoors.” Concerns about screen time back then were as much about how close to the TV I sat as the hours I spent consuming programming.
I clearly recall TV sets evolving with such innovations as remote control and cable, expanding our channel selections. But what extended my screen time beyond a few hours a day was the advent of video games. When my brother and I received an Atari video game system for Christmas in the late 1970s, it took over the main television in our living room. My dad came up with a creative solution. To ease the competition for our family’s main screen, he set us up in my grandmother’s old florist delivery van in the garage. My dad put our old color TV and two chairs in the cargo area of the van. When it got too cold, he added an electric space heater. We imagined it was the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It sparked our imaginations and kept us occupied for hours, allowing him to watch the TV in the den in peace.
At first we only had two Atari games, Space Invaders and Combat. Undeterred, we logged hours of screen time. With each birthday and Christmas we added to our game cartridge collection with such classics as Breakout, Missile Command, Asteroids, Adventure and Pitfall. The games advanced marginally with slightly fancier 8-bit graphics and more complicated storylines. Eventually, there were cinematic tie-ins with games like Indiana Jones and E.T. We had about 50 cartridges by the time we graduated to computer games when I was in high school.
The only portable games we had were the handheld electronic sports games: Football, Football II, Basketball, Soccer and Baseball. These were powered by 9-volt batteries and featured red LED lights representing the players. The player with the ball glowed just a bit brighter, and we had to hand the device back and forth depending on which player was on offense. The noisy games were nerve-wracking with their bleeps and bloops, so we kept them on mute for long car rides.
Now, the phone I carry everywhere has more computing power than those early video game systems and home computers. The amount of time I could spend gaming is limited only to the number of hours in a day. Today’s plethora of distractions require stronger limits and greater discipline, and the portability of such systems as the Nintendo Switch allows my children to take the game they were playing on a larger screen with them anywhere. Gone are the 8-bit animations, except in those games trying to evoke nostalgia with purposefully rudimentary graphics. The games have complex storylines, musical scores, and stunningly artistic imagery. When you factor in video streaming apps on iPhones and iPads for such services as Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, and YouTube, my boys can access millions of hours of entertainment from anywhere, and it’s a special family event when we sit down together to watch something on our television, which leads to another clue…
Movies that captured our imagination didn’t come out every year. I was 7 years-old when the original “Star Wars” appeared in theaters where I grew up in the mid-cities between Dallas and Fort Worth. Though I may not have immediately grasped the plot, the inventive visuals were unlike anything I had ever seen. Lasers and spaceships and aliens all came to life in a way that my dreams took on a cinematic quality. What I saw on the big screen outstripped what I could imagine. In the years before VHS, though, we had very limited access to “Star Wars.” I remember listening to a radio play on my parents’ bedroom clock radio. It featured scenes cut from the original motion picture giving me precious nuggets of new information about the story of Luke Skywalker. I had “Star Wars” comic books as a way to delve into the world I had seen only once in a theater. The line of action figures, playsets, and spaceships allowed me and my brother, Lee, to tell our own “Star Wars” stories and stage our own battles even as we impatiently waited for the next installment in the series to arrive in theaters.
I was 10 and Lee was 6 when Mom took us to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” Our minds were blown during the climactic duel (spoiler alert) when Darth Vader revealed he was Luke Skywalker’s father. We were crushed when the movie ended with the swashbuckling Han Solo encased in carbonite being transported by the bounty hunter Boba Fett to the gangster Jabba the Hutt’s palace. No movie I had ever seen with such beloved characters had ever ended on such a down note. There was no immediate antidote to the depression. We had to wait another three years before “Return of the Jedi” lifted our spirits and filled us with the euphoria of victory over the galactic empire and the dark side.
In those intervening years, Lee and I received record albums of the movies’ soundtracks complete with dialog and the musical score. We listened to them so often we had large swaths of the films’ dialogue committed to memory. In a few years, we had VHS to allow us many, many rewatches of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. It was more than 20 years before another original “Star Wars” movie would come to theaters, and I had moved on from childhood and the “Star Wars” universe. With the release of “The Phantom Menace,” my childhood sense of awe and adventure came rushing back, even if the plot and acting were not up to the same level of excellence I had remembered from the original trilogy.
Now, I can literally watch “Star Wars” on television any time I want. There are more movies and weekly serial television-style stories that come through streaming services. If I wanted to inhabit the “Star Wars” universe, I can immerse myself any time I want. Gone are the days of waiting three years to discover the truth of Luke’s heritage and if Han will escape Jabba’s clutches.
For fans of “Star Wars” style action and adventure, there are also many more stories to consume. The Marvel Cinematic Universe cranks out two to three movies a year. It makes going to the movies a spectacle reminiscent of those childhood experiences with “Star Wars.” DC competes with a cinematic universe of its own, stuffing the comic book superhero genre with more movies than we can take in. My boys have far greater access to visual entertainment that appeals to them than I ever could have imagined in my youth. They also have far fewer reasons to go outside.
I played outdoors more often and played more sports as a child. Even though Texas summers could be unremittingly brutal, I spent most of my days outside. Armed with a toy gun arsenal no longer in vogue culturally, my brother and I matched up with neighbors and friends to play such traditional scenarios as army, cowboys and cops and robbers. When we got noisy “Star Wars” blasters for Christmas, we elevated our outdoor play to include “Star Wars” battles.
Bicycles were not only our primary mode of transportation, they were the source of hours of occupation. We were allowed to ride the neighborhood, which included a long, curving hill. We discovered the best way to get repeated thrill rides without having to pedal or push your bike back up the hill was to let the momentum carry you down the hill, around the curve, and down the street to the intersection. From there, you could turn right, go up a block, take another right, pedal down that street and you were back at the top of the hill. Occasionally we would be granted permission to ride our bikes to the nearby elementary school, which had a number of ramps and amphitheaters with thin steps separating the grade pods. The futuristic design and footprint of the campus enhanced a game of bicycle chase giving us the feeling we were on speeders tearing through Mos Eisley or some other “Star Wars” city.
I was very mindful of the seasons: football, baseball and basketball. Playing football one-on-one with my younger brother created some challenges. It forced us to follow special rules for rushing the passer and completing forward passes to one’s self. Football was always more fun when we recruited neighborhood friends to play, but our front yard field was often too confining to accommodate more than two-on-two. Larger games moved us out into the street where the call of “car!” caused frequent timeouts. Our world revolved around the Dallas Cowboys, so when we weren’t playing a game, we were recreating dramatic touchdown passes from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson.
Wiffle ball was ideally suited for our situation. This baseball variation had a plastic bat and ball, so no windows would be broken. We could play one-on-one using basic baseball rules. Our yard served as the perfect venue with the other side of the driveway serving as the homerun barrier. My brother and I took turns deciding which major league team we would be for that contest, and we tried to make each game last five innings, although most ended after three. One summer we even drew up a schedule and would play a different make believe matchup each day. We were fans of the Texas Rangers, so we knew more about American League teams. The Yankees were the most hated opponent, and my brother and I didn’t like having to be their stand-ins.
I don’t remember what year we got a basketball goal, but I do remember we were not very good. We broke out the windows in the garage doors, forcing my dad to install plastic. Like wiffle ball, basketball was particularly well suited for my brother and I to play by ourselves, and we could shoot baskets alone. Our favorite game was “H-O-R-S-E” or the shorter version, “P-I-G” in which we took shots from various positions around the court. When your opponent missed a shot you had made, he accumulated the letters of the games’ namesake words. We also marked the driveway with chalk to have a course of what we called “Around the World.” The winner was the first person to make a shot at all the pre-marked spots.
The only similarity to my childhood outdoor play experiences that my boys have engaged in during their childhood is riding their bikes. When allowed, they take them all over the neighborhood. Admittedly, we were more restrictive with their territory until they were older. Our first house in Lilburn had a large, shady backyard. They played outdoors in a sandbox and on a tree swing and swing set. There was a basketball goal, but our boys never got into sports nearly as much as I did growing up. The creative outdoor play seemed to vanish when we moved into our current house with a terraced yard on a hill.
Mealtimes were more about quantity than quality. My mom prepared all of our meals, except for the occasions when my dad grilled. She took time off to stay home with each of her boys after we were born, but I also remember her spending a fair amount of our lives working. When we lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, that meant stressful days, long commutes and limited time to cook supper. Unlike kids these days, we did not have options at supper time. We ate what was set before us, and we typically had no say in what would be on the menu. I remember such delicacies as Hamburger Helper, meatloaf and fried fish that my dad would catch on his frequent fishing trips around the area. Side dishes came from a can or from a box, and as we got older my mom used instant potatoes to fill us up. We never ate school lunches, instead taking a lunch box or brown bag with a sandwich and chips. If there was an emphasis on eating healthy, I was unaware of it. The only rules in our house were “clean your plate” and “no dessert if you didn’t eat your vegetables.”
Church was the focus of our activity. If the doors of the church were open, we were there. Even before my dad left his job as an airline mechanic at American Airlines to go back to Bible college to prepare for the ministry, we were always at church. And we weren’t the only ones. Society was more focused on faith, and schedules were based on the assumption that families would be tied up with church activities on Sunday and potentially Wednesday night.
My family is still very much focused on church, and we’re still there every Sunday and most Wednesday nights. But society has moved beyond accounting for church activities when scheduling youth sports, Scout trips, and even school activities conflict with worship services. As a child, it never occurred to me that there would be anything else to do at those times. My boys have grown up keenly aware of what other kids do instead of going to church.
It’s a cliche to say “life was simpler back then.” It’s also probably not completely true. My awareness of what was going on in the world was limited by my childlike understanding of events like the Vietnam War, Watergate, the oil crisis, the Iranian hostage situation, and many other world events of that era.
From my vantage point, life was good. When we moved to Central Florida the summer I turned 12, my life changed dramatically. Adolescence coincided with a new landscape, and my innocence slowly faded as I became a preacher’s kid, enduring the scrutiny of a congregation and having to live up to a higher standard.
I remain grateful for my childhood and don’t for a second believe I suffered any lingering trauma. I enjoyed being a kid and count myself lucky to have grown up the way I did.
Judging by what I see from my friends on social media, we are in the season of sending our kids off to college.
This year marks the fourth August we have experienced this, and next year we’ll go through the exercise with two kids. But whether this is the first time or a repeat experience, the act of loading a vehicle down with dorm or apartment stuff and hugging my son goodbye inevitably takes me back to that special time in my life when I made that journey for the first time.
In late summer 1988, my mom, grandmother and youngest brother loaded my stuff in the family car and drove to Troy, Ala. Dad was on a mission trip in Ecuador, so my freshman year began with unlikely entourage making the 8-hour trek from Lake Wales, Fla.
From my first day on campus at what was then called Troy State University, I made good friends with guys like Peter, Tom, Ross, Donavan, and Trey. David, who would become my roommate for nearly two years, and I met the first week as freshman tutors in the Writing Center.
As an extrovert, the college experience suited me perfectly. I thrived on the independence to make my own choices: when to go to bed, who to hang out with, what to eat, how much time to devote to studying. I excelled academically, and I enjoyed interacting with professors, particularly the journalism faculty.
A key to my happiness that first year was finding Campus Outreach. The evangelical campus ministry proved to be a safe place to grow in my faith and meet other people who had similar beliefs and faced similar challenges. Fun outings, meaningful worship services and connections to a local church expanded my horizons. Other groups that provided social opportunities included my Honors Program cohort and the staff of the student newspaper, The Tropolitan.
Dating came easily and naturally. If I saw someone I liked, I asked her out. One night during winter quarter of my freshman year, I happened to have scheduled back-to-back dates, and my across-the-hall neighbor, Dave, a football player, caught me between outings. When he found out I was about to leave for my second date, he dubbed me “the Love Broker.” It stuck because it was ironic. I was hardly a player.
I made friends with a group of guys from Miami who had somehow managed to make their way to Troy. My next door neighbor, Dino, shared a telephone with me, back when they were on the wall and had a cord. Dino took his calls in the hallway, and he once freaked out our resident assistant by yelling “Com quem? Com quem?” into the phone. He was asking his parents in Portugese “With whom? With whom?” The RA, who knew Dino was from Miami, thought he was placing a drug order, fitting the “Miami Vice” stereotype.
Trojan basketball games were a thrill for my group of friends, particularly the Sunday afternoon when they set the NCAA single game scoring record by beating DeVry 258-141. We saw a ton of movies at the Pike 3 cinema, went bowling at the all-night Bama Bowl in Montgomery and frequented the restaurants along the Highway 231 strip on Sunday nights when the on-campus cafeteria was closed.
That first year there was no hint of the drama that would unfold with my parents, and I frequently sent letters to my youngest brother, drawing little “Calvin and Hobbes” comics at the top. Lyle was in first grade and wrote to me about his G.I. Joe action figures and adventures with the dogs.
My freshman year of college capped off a great two-year run of happiness and put me on a road to a lifetime of happiness. I hope and pray the same will be true for my boys on their respective journeys to independence.
As I progress through my 50s, I can see the source of my personality and character with greater clarity. I was blessed to have good role models in both of my parents throughout my life, and I have tried to exhibit Mom’s and Dad’s best qualities.
I credit Mom with my strength, determination, unselfishness and patience. I wouldn’t date blame her for any of my shortcomings. Here are the other key traits I believe I inherited from her:
I have always credited my mother with my academic success. She was a high achiever and stressed the importance of doing your best in the classroom and making good grades. She majored in math and minored in English in college, which strikes me as atypical. She likes and understands structure. Logic helps her navigate the world, and her intelligence and problem solving serve her well. As she raised her three boys, Mom alternated between working full time in computer programming and staying home with her babies. Her career culminated in teaching high school math for more than 20 years, combining her ability to teach and nurture with her love of math and order.
Mom has a high tolerance for discomfort and puts others’ needs before her own. She always made sure we were well fed, received good medical care and were equipped with clothes and school supplies. She looked after our needs even while balancing the demands of her career and her responsibilities at church. She was our biggest fan and responded with an empathetic ear when our challenges threatened to overwhelm us.
My mother is a creature of habit.She builds and relies on routines. She spends time in prayer and scripture each morning, and in the past few years, she begins and ends her day with exercise. When she set her mind to losing weight so she could have knee replacement surgery, she well exceeded the 40-pound goal set by her doctors, and she has successfully rehabilitated from having both knees replaced, maintaining a healthy weight with self-control and discipline.
She is the ideal preacher’s wife.Mom understands that she has to be “above reproach” and makes an effort to not only do what’s right but also avoid “the appearance of evil.” She knows she isn’t perfect, but if people see her that way, she derives satisfaction from knowing she is doing her part to support my father’s ministry and the work of the church.
Mom loves her family and enjoys seeing her children and grandchildren succeed. It gives her joy to know when we are doing well, and it breaks her heart to hear about our setbacks and sufferings. Her resistance to showing emotion also extends to conflict, and it can be difficult to know when she is upset. Restraint is part of her discipline, though her capacity for love and affection is strong. She doesn’t force physical affection, but in her older years she has grown bolder in insisting on hugs for greetings and goodbyes. She doesn’t hesitate to say “I love you” at the conclusion of our phone calls now, but our tradition growing up was not as showy about our emotions.
Like my mother, I crave structure and maintain a regimented schedule, even when on vacation. I rise at the same time every day, seven days a week, and begin my day with coffee, Bible reading, reflection and prayer. I exercise six days a week, track my calories on a smart phone app, and strive to be disciplined about my health, seeing my primary care physician for an annual physical, visiting the dentist twice annually and making regular eye appointments.
I, too, prefer to put other people’s needs and wants ahead of my own.It is rare that I have a preference about meals or where we eat out, and if someone wants to taste what’s on my plate, I have grown comfortable with sharing. I usually don’t mind being inconvenienced to benefit a friend or family member, and I routinely yield the right of way in traffic and play a supporting role in my relationships and career.
I don’t mind discomfort. Everyone has a breaking point, but I try to ignore or push through mild aches and pains without medication. I have worked to internalize one of the seven habits of highly effective people: seek first to understand before seeking to be understood. I prioritize listening over speaking, though my gregarious nature can overtake me at times.
My career in public relations demonstrates my deeply internalized “above reproach” philosophy, and I care about and understand how my words and actions are viewed by those around me. I am a preacher’s kid, and, like Mom, I have worked to not undermine my father’s leadership in our home or in our church.
I am not overly emotional, but I have learned to be more expressive with my affection. Hugs aren’t second nature to me, and I am conflict averse. I have my mother’s capacity for restraint, but it can slip when stress builds up.
In these and many more ways, I am like my mother. I am grateful for her and hope the world is better because she passed on the best of her qualities.
Throughout my formative school-age years, my mother was very engaged in my academic career.
She expected her three boys to make all A’s and excel in everything we put our minds to. A mathematician, she worked to ensure that we take the highest levels of math available to us, believing that the knowledge and the resilience built by those courses would make us better people.
When I transferred into Lake Wales High School at the beginning of 10th grade, she advised me to take the math I needed in order to complete Advanced Placement Calculus in high school. OK, it wasn’t really advice as much as it was a statement: you will take the math you need in order to take calculus your senior year. She made it her mission to see to it I would follow through. It wasn’t easy for her or for me.
First, I was transferring in from a private school that lacked the resources or academic rigor in mathematics to give me a good foundation. I took Algebra I in 9th grade, while most of my peers in public schools who were aiming for Calculus their senior year took it in the 8th grade. I had a lackluster teacher who taught me very little of the algebraic foundational principles I would need to master in order to take advanced math courses.
Second, math was not my best subject. I made A’s in math. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do well, it just required effort. I still have vivid memories of workbook pages of repetitive math problems of long division, complex multiplication and even addition and subtraction with large numbers. It was tedious and boring and required focus I didn’t want to give to it. I can still hear Mom, in her frustration with my lack of progress on the homework in a very out-of-character outburst, “Ninny! Ninny! Ninny!” She was right. I was being a ninny. I needed to learn discipline to complete a task rather than whine about its tedium and difficulty.
Third, in order to catch up and get on track to take calculus, I would have to take both Algebra II and Geometry in 10th grade. Without the benefit of a strong foundation in algebra, this was a daunting task. Adding to the challenge was Mom’s insistence that I be in the honors sections of both courses. To her, I was an honors student and should be in honors classes. She made it her personal mission to battle the guidance counselors and administrators until they put me in those classes. To her credit, when school started and the homework piled up, she was with me every step of the way to help make up for my lack of algebra knowledge.
Fourth, I was transferring into the large public high school after spending eight of the previous 10 years in small, private schools. There was something about a big, public school that was intimidating. I had one friend who was in a similar boat who had gone to the same private schools I had from the time I moved to Florida at the start of 7th grade. I had one friend while most everyone else had long established relationships dating back to elementary and middle school. I wanted to play sports and take advantage of other extra-curricular activities, too, placing even more pressure on myself to excel in every area of teenage life.
The double math classes made socialization that much harder because I was with my on-track 10th grade peers in Algebra II and with the 9th grade honors math students in Geometry. It’s hard to say I felt like I was “left back” a year in school because, after all, it was an Honors Geometry class. The freshmen were bright and engaged students. They happened to be just as new to Lake Wales High School as I was. It was just a little socially awkward.
Fifth, although I was extremely goal-oriented, it was hard to keep my eyes on the prize when I understood the process as undergoing extreme math torture for the right to get more torture. Giving up was never an option, but my sophomore year of high school was not a cake walk. I learned in that year to trust Mom, not only for her understanding of mathematic principles, but also her wisdom in seeing this goal through to completion.
As it turned out, after earning A’s and B’s in both Algebra II and Geometry that year, it got easier my junior year. I got on track for Calculus, so I was with my grade-level honors student peers in Trigonometry first semester and Analytical Geometry second semester. With Mom’s help, I had learned the Algebra I had missed in 9th grade, and though I still had to work hard at it, my grades were consistently A’s throughout the year.
When I made it to AP Calculus, I knew I was biting off another big challenge, but I was buoyed by the knowledge I had already survived the worst. I focused on passing the AP exam, earning college credit and reducing or eliminating my need to take another math class ever again.
Mom knew I wasn’t headed to a career in math, but the wisdom of her insistence I get AP Calculus in high school cannot be disputed. I managed to pass the AP Calculus exam and earn a year’s worth of college math credit. I did not have to take another math class every again… or, at least until I enrolled in the MBA program 10 years after I graduated college. When we derived formulas for calculating risk in investments in my Corporate Finance class, my calculus came back to me — not so much like riding a bike but more like a ghost haunting me from the pages of a textbook.
Even more valuable than the quadratic formula or Pythagorean theorem was the character-building that took place. I learned resilience. I learned perseverance. I learned how to push through mental blocks and cope with frustration. I matured. I experienced the joy and exhilaration of completing difficult tasks. I experienced one of the most powerful feelings a human being can have: accomplishment.
Thank you, Mom, for the advice/command/willing it to be. Math did not kill me. It made me stronger. You deserve all the credit.
Our middle son, Harris, started his senior year of high school this week. We joke all the time about how sad it would be if high school really did turn out to be a person’s “glory days.”
He’s looking forward to a good senior year, but he’s also hopeful about college, graduate school, starting his career and making a difference in the world. All this talk with Harris about the future reminded me that I’ve had some great times in life, and while they may not have been “glory days,” my senior year in high school was pretty awesome.
The culmination of my high school career was a season of peak happiness. I’m sure there were academic struggles as I wrestled with Advanced Placement Calculus, but I remember my senior year at Lake Wales High School fondly for its blend of athletics, academics, career discovery, social opportunities and accolades. After transferring in as a sophomore, my senior year was the moment I felt like I belonged.
I finally played a full season of football for the Fighting Highlanders after missing out the previous seasons for logistical or health reasons (see last week’s post about my bout with mono.) I had played basketball since transferring to LWHS, but my strongest athletic desire since growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s under the enchantment of the Dallas Cowboys was to play varsity football. I tried out for quarterback in the spring of my junior year. The coaching staff wisely suggested I switch positions to tight end after it became obvious that I was not cut out to run a veer-option offense. That decision enhanced my playing time and my sense of camaraderie as I bonded with the offensive linemen. Together we battled the Florida heat and humidity, the ubiquitous gnats and our weekly opponents from around Polk County.
It was also fun to confound people who had stereotyped my interests based solely on my academic success. A girl told me during AP English one gameday Friday when I was wearing my jersey to classes, “You play football? You are a weird nerd.”
Then there was the particularly hot and sweaty afternoon when I was running drills with the receivers coach. Coach Warren paused in the middle of the drill and said, “Lance, what are you doing out here? You writing a book about this like that George Plimpton guy?”
I have always enjoyed defying social expectations. Even though I was far from the biggest or strongest guy on the team, the coaches graded me the highest rated lineman, hitting 97 percent of my blocks, in our first game, an upset of nationally-ranked Auburndale High School. I enjoyed the physical challenge, and overcoming obstacles of all kinds taught me resilience.
I had a good year in the classroom, too. Maintaining straight “A’s” all year, I finished my high school career ranked no. 3 in my class, the highest ranked male student, as my mother liked to brag. My choices of involvement ranged from Academic Team to football and basketball to drama led to my selection by my classmates as “Mr. Senior.”
My job as an intern and high school columnist at The Daily Highlander provided another source of satisfaction that year. It set up my career in journalism and communications by exposing me to new ideas, challenging me to write clearly and quickly and teaching me the meaning of ethics and professionalism.
The opportunity also introduced me to a recent college graduate out of Baylor named Bob Perkins. He came to The Highlander to be the sports editor, and because Lake Wales wasn’t exactly a hopping place for singles, we struck up a friendship. He taught me how to drive his stick-shift Ford Mustang when he broke his ankle playing basketball. Over time, I recruited him to our church.
We watched movies and ate pizza. We played basketball on the outdoor court next to the lake. We chipped golf balls in the grass by the walking path. He was a friend and mentor, and we’re still friends to this day.
Having my own car (the previously documented ’78 Nova), dating, graduating in the former Passion Play Amphitheater – or “downtown Jerusalem” as I like to tell people – all of it combined to make my senior year of high school some of the most “glorious” times of my life.
In the first two weeks after school ended, I met the younger sister of a woman in our church. She was my age and visiting for the summer from Chicago. When you grow up a preacher’s kid in a congregation with limited teenagers in a small town, the dating pool can be small. I immediately became interested.
Her name was Donna, and when I went on vacation to Englewood on the west coast of Florida with my best friend, Dwayne, and his family, I made it a point to send Donna a post card. It wasn’t an overly grand gesture, but it helped win her affection. When Dwayne and I returned from the beach, it didn’t take long before we were double dating. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that Donna also was facing limited dating options. A summer fling was emotionally safe and would help alleviate the teenage boredom of spending her days with her sister’s family.
I had a girlfriend in the 8th grade, but we didn’t really go anywhere or do anything together. Now that I was 15 going on 16, and I was seeing someone from the church, my windows of opportunity opened up. Donna and I spent a lot of time together that summer, including a day with Dwayne and his girlfriend at the nearby theme park known at the time as Cypress Gardens. There may or may not have been several make-out sessions in the gardens. A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell. In fact, there may or may not have been many make-out sessions over the course of our courtship that summer. And although a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell, teenage romance has a way of turning on you in ways you least expect.
In July my family took a camper trailer down to the Florida Keys for a week of vacation, and Donna returned to Chicago. Parting was such sweet sorrow, but worse than the emotional distance was the physical symptoms I began to experience. On our drive down to the Keys, I began to feel sick. At first I thought it was just a summer cold – congestion, sore throat, headache, loss of appetite, lethargy. I figured it would pass in a day or two and would not hinder my enjoyment of sun, sand and surf. But even though we were at the beach, I didn’t have much energy for all the activities I usually enjoyed on vacation. My parents tried to make it a fun experience for us, but I felt worse as the week wore on. I spent most of the time in my bunk. We had to cut our stay short when a church member passed away, and I was not sad to go home early.
The change to more familiar scenery did not improve my condition. Not long after we got home, Mom took me to our family general practitioner. He prescribed antibiotics, and our expectation was I would recover in time to celebrate my 16th birthday the next week. My grandparents came down from Georgia with my dad’s sister and her family, and the house was full of people and activity. As I got sicker, my parents wisely set me up in the camper in the backyard as a good place to quarantine from the rest of the family and get some rest.
Rather than recover, my condition deteriorated. Those days in the camper are fuzzy. I remember my throat hurting so bad each time I swallowed that I got a cup to spit in instead. It was awful.
Struggling to breathe and swallow, I didn’t eat, and I barely drank anything. On my actual birthday, the family pulled me out of isolation long enough to open presents before Mom took me to an ear, nose and throat specialist for a second opinion. He examined me, ran some tests and immediately sent me to Winter Haven hospital. It was mononucleosis.
My tonsils were so swollen the doctor was afraid my airway would close. I distinctly remember the doctor discussing the possibility of a tracheotomy. I was so sick I couldn’t even muster the energy to be worried about what was happening. The specialist’s office wasn’t far from the hospital, and it wasn’t long before I was in a room getting intravenous doses of strong medication.
I spent the first night resting intermittently, as people do in hospitals when nurses are checking vitals and administering medications every hour or so. The swelling in my throat began to abate, and by the next morning, there was no need for any procedure to poke a hole in my neck. I was so doped up and so miserable, the fact it was my 16th birthday was completely lost on me. My parents were extremely worried. They were more concerned for my health and recovery than whether or not my 16th birthday would be special.
As awful as it was, a bout of mono and a hospital stay is what made it special. Instead of getting my driver’s license, going out with my girlfriend or even just enjoying cake and ice cream with my family, I remember being too sick to swallow, staying in a camper, being admitted to the hospital and losing a bunch of weight. Those aren’t typical birthday memories, and my 16th wasn’t very “sweet.”
A few days after I came home, we did celebrate with cake and ice cream. I don’t remember much about the celebration. There are pictures of me, looking emaciated and out of it, sitting on our couch with my grandparents, aunt and cousins gathered all around singing happy birthday. I spent the rest of the summer recuperating. I moved into the guest room downstairs when our family left, and it was weeks before I could play video games and board games with my brothers or see my friends. My plans to try out for the football team were thwarted. I had lost down to 150 pounds, and at 6-foot-4, that’s not enough meat on your bones to play football. Instead, I gradually built up my strength and stamina to return to school by late August and ran cross country in September and October to get in shape for basketball season.
In addition to ruining a rite-of-passage birthday, my bout with mono had lasting effects. When I went off to college two years later, my parents were overly concerned about me getting enough rest and eating right. I believed the strong drugs I got in the hospital bolstered my immune system, and, in fact, I didn’t get sick at all for at least four or five years.
I do not mean to suggest causation when combining the story of my summer romance with the tale of my illness. Everyone knows mono is known as the “kissing disease.” When I tell my boys about the experience now, I just wink and say I got mono the summer I turned 16 “the fun way.”
I won’t call my 16th birthday “happy,” but it was definitely memorable.