After taking two such tours this week with my middle son, Harris, I’ve concluded that, yes, touring campuses starts to feel like deja vu after a while, but if you’re paying attention, there’s a lot you can learn about your children… and yourself.
I never took a campus tour at what was then Troy State University before deciding to matriculate there in May of 1988. I took them up on their scholarship offer late in my senior year of high school. It was a practical decision made for purely financial reasons. The first time I set foot on the Troy campus was for pre-college orientation that summer.
I have taken a few campus tours since, and now that I work in higher education, I’ve given a few. Carla and I did a round of college visits with our oldest when he was making his college selection. Visits to University of Georgia, Clemson, and Kennesaw State along with an informal, football-centric trip to Auburn (thanks to our friends, the Hursts!), rounded out his explorations. He ultimately landed at KSU for a year and a half before transferring to Georgia where he is now happily ensconced.
Barron was all about the college experience, particularly the marching band experience. He was coming off two years as drum major of his high school marching band, and he wanted to march in a big-time college band that played big-time games on big-time television and gave him big-time memories. At the time of those tours, he didn’t really know what he wanted to major in, vacillating between communications and music education.
Fast forward three years and he’s now a furnishings and interiors major with a concentration in historic preservation and played his trumpet on the field at the national championship game in Indianapolis back in January. So things worked out just fine. The campus tour did not make or break his future.
Our second son, Harris, is different in just about every way possible. While he has loved his marching band experience in high school, he is not seeking that from college. He is already working his 30-year plan, which includes a run for public office concluding with the White House. The two visits he took this week were to Mercer and UGA where one of the chief features the two have in common is a law school. (Emory is on the list to visit as well.)
The rah-rah portions of the tour didn’t appeal to him as much. He did soak up the vibe, which was a hot one this week, but his interests were more about academics, application processes, scholarships, honors programs and dual degrees that allow a student to complete a bachelor’s and master’s in an abbreviated time. His goals are more academic and profession-based than his brother’s.
As the parents on these tours, Carla and I try to be present and offer advice without taking over. That was easier at UGA than at Mercer from which both of us have a degree. Carla particularly wanted to go into every building to see how it was different from when she went there back in the ‘90s. Spoiler alert: the campus has changed quite a bit.
I think our nostalgia annoyed Harris more than it helped, but our personal connections to the institution made that inevitable. Those connections did lead to Harris getting to meet Mercer President Bill Underwood, something no one else on our tour with Kelli was able to do. I don’t think Harris minded our Mercerian status then.
Here’s what I have learned from the college visit process from two cycles:
Separate emotion from data. Start with your child’s career interests and work backward. It’s not criminal if they don’t know what they want to do, but if they have an idea, it’s a good starting point. Then look at the academic degrees offered. Faculty matter in those fields, too, but don’t get hung up on rankings and reputational stuff. Good students succeed no matter where they are planted. And if you, like us, have some alma maters in the running, try not to let your glory days have too much influence. Our children need to blaze their own trails. If they do choose your school, know that their experience will be different from yours.
Your child’s future is not at stake. Try to relax and help your child enjoy the tour. It may feel like getting into the right school and making the right college choice is a life-or-death decision, but it’s not. Transferring is a reality. There are many paths to success. If you feel your anxiety level rising during the campus tour, take a time out and try not to let your issues infect your child. They will make better decisions without all the extra emotional baggage.
Don’t bring that helicopter. A colleague at another university recently told me that at their college orientation, the student life staff purposely have multiple options for free T-shirts just so they can force students to make a decision. It’s part of their preparation for college. She said all too often parents will step in, or, even worse, the student will turn to the parent and ask them which shirt they should pick. Staff are trained to then redirect the question to the student: “Which shirt do YOU want?” If you haven’t already built the habit of letting your child make some decisions for themselves, the campus tour is a good place to start.
As we wait for test scores and applications to open, I’m working on being present with Harris as he contemplates his future. It’s both a help and a hindrance that I work in higher education. You don’t have to be an expert to help your child navigate this decision, and your child’s choice will not determine the course of their entire life. Their future is still very much in their hands.
We’re on our second of three times through this journey of campus tours and college selection. Harris’ experience is different from Barron’s, and I’m sure Carlton’s will be unique from his older brothers’.
Carla likes to talk about seasons of life. This is one of those seasons that I’m learning to enjoy. It’s fun to reminisce, but I’m trying to let Harris make his own memories.
Hey, let me tell you about that time my roommate Scott skulled a possum in the parking lot of our dorm…
What was your campus tour like? How has it been different with your children? Did you find it stressful? Let’s process this together. Leave a comment and contribute to the conversation.
As I age, I hear my father’s words come out of my mouth with greater frequency.
I see how strongly I have been imprinted by my father. I have his creativity, work ethic, conviction, stubbornness, and tendency toward anger as a way of expressing concern.
I deeply love and respect my father, and as my own set of three boys grow up, I understand and relate to him better with each passing year. He has walked this journey ahead of me and did a good job raising three boys into men of character. I hope to emulate him in that achievement.
My dad is no longer on a pedestal of perfection. He is accessible and knowable and human. I am innately made up of his best – and worst – qualities. Our weekly phone conversations often provoke tiny revelations about my character and call attention to my own tendencies that are adding up to the inevitable self-discovery and self-assurance that leads to wisdom.
My father’s personality made a strong impact on my brothers and me, and his traits have been both adopted and resisted. Maybe it is the way of fathers and sons, but love and conflict have been part of our relationship since early adulthood.
When I was very small, my earliest memories were of him working night shift for American Airlines and having to be quiet during the day while he slept. I remember him retiring from American to go to Bible college and go on staff of our church as associate pastor. I went from being fairly anonymous in our church to garnering attention wherever we went. From the point he “surrendered” for the ministry, he worked at being a better person to others. He was kind and attentive when approached, and I saw him apply himself academically.
Dad has always been a hard worker. Whether it was long days of sermon preparation and visitation at area hospitals or in people’s homes, he was not afraid of effort. He was the kind of church staff member and senior pastor who was willing to roll up his sleeves, literally, and unclog toilets, set up tables for the senior adult program or mop the fellowship hall.
In his younger days, Dad could be bold and impulsive. He may have been afraid of the life-changing career move when he answered God’s call on his life and left the world of airplane maintenance, which he knew well, but I never saw it. He handled the disappointment of not being called to a church in Orlando where he preached in view of a call. And he humbly went back to work on aircraft at General Dynamics when our church in Texas could not afford to keep him on staff. Those were big risks, and I’m sure stressful and trying times for him, full of doubt and concern for providing for his family. But he never failed us.
I saw my father take on the biggest responsibility of all when he accepted the senior pastor position at another church in Central Florida. When we moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to Lake Wales, Fla., we all viewed it as an adventure, and no one was more affected by that adventure than Dad. He became consumed by the stresses of the congregation, which also operated a kindergarten through 12th grade Christian school. The finances of both institutions were a wreck, and no one had informed him of those issues before he took the job. But as was his way, Dad internalized those stresses and did his best to shelter us from what kept him up at night.
Dad has always been a man of conviction, willing to act on his beliefs. He does not do lip service. A firm believer in the proverb “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” he insisted we help him change the oil, brakes and spark plugs on the car, so we would learn some self-sufficiency. He couldn’t abide the thought of being dependent on anyone, and he didn’t want us to not learn to fend for ourselves.
His commitment to serving the Lord obviously stemmed from conviction. I remember as a small boy looking up at him during the invitation hymn at the end of the service as he prayed and hoped someone would respond to the message and walk the aisle. Even when he worked nights, he was still at church every time the doors were open, and by the time he went on staff, he was already doing everything he could do for our church. He was basically an unpaid staff member.
Dealing with the stress of leadership may not have suited him, but the creativity called for writing and crafting and delivering sermons did. A fiery pulpiteer, he blended well the Scripture with illustrations, and when he had the time, he enjoyed studying and writing sermons. He flashed that same creativity in his storytelling around the table or with company. Whether they were stories of his growing up, his time in the Air Force, working for American Airlines, fishing trips or church life, he had a knack for holding people’s attention and spinning a good tale. He once confided in me about a book series he would like to write about an international spy with a photographic memory. I should steal his idea and write it now as a tribute. I think the idea has enough merit that I haven’t forgotten it.
He loved surprising us. Whether it was secretly packing the car on Thanksgiving Day to take us on a surprise weekend getaway to Galveston or bringing home an above ground swimming pool, Dad loved seeing our curiosity turn to joy.
Like Dad, I, too, have shown a propensity for hard work. It didn’t strike me as unusual to work long into the night at the newspaper, and when I transitioned to public relations, I put in many 60-plus hour weeks writing and disseminating messages for my nonprofit employers. Yard work was my therapy. Mowing, trimming, blowing, raking, weeding – I grew up doing yard work year-round in Florida, and the dirt and sweat was as familiar to me as the computer keyboard and notepad. Like Dad, I am not afraid of working hard.
I also made a big career jump, though not as big as Dad’s, when I left newspaper journalism for public relations. I didn’t have to relocate, at least not immediately, but I embraced the big life change a few years later when we moved from Macon to Lilburn for my job.
Church is important to me, and I have wrestled with a sense of calling all my life. I spent 10 years communicating for a missions-sending organization which gave me close proximity to church leaders and ministers. I traveled and spoke in churches and saw the lives and work of missionaries up close. As much as that experience profoundly influenced me, I did not ultimately believe I was called to serve the local church like Dad or my brothers. I am at church every time the doors are open, teaching Sunday School, leading committees, chaperoning kids to camps, chairing the board of deacons and serving in a variety of capacities as needed. I love the local church and profess that love in a monthly blog called View from the Pew that captures a lay person’s perspective of church life.
Mom is the one who convinced me one day that my inclination toward writing came from Dad. I am compelled to write, recommitting myself to New South Essays during the pandemic. Whether any of my avocational writing amounts to anything, it gives me such mental satisfaction to complete even small writing projects that I have to acknowledge a genetic predisposition to creative expression.
In the days of stress that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, I have also become keenly aware that I share Dad’s habit of showing concern as anger. When I fly off the handle, it is never about the thing I’m raging against. It is the buildup of unvented frustration over circumstances outside of my control. And when I do explode, I feel shame and guilt that I now know Dad felt, too.
I am learning to handle my temper better. I wish I could be infinitely long suffering. I want to express concern as compassion and empathy. To do so, I need to go against my programming and nurture and establish a new model for my boys. Men of previous generations did not have permission to handle their emotions in constructive ways or even acknowledge that they had emotions in most cases. I have learned to recognize Dad’s feelings for what they truly are and not be scared because he seems angry at me.
In these and many more ways, I am like my father. I hope the world is better for it.
Tell us about your father. Leave a comment with what you’ve learned about yourself as it relates to your dad. Reflecting on the commonalities isn’t always easy, but it is meaningful.
From my earliest days as a rookie features writer at The Macon Telegraph in 1992, I heard reporters talk about canoeing the Ocmulgee River and writing about it for the paper.
I was young and foolish enough to attempt it.
In the late summer of 1993 I began the ambitious project of paddling the entire 255 miles of the Ocmulgee River from its origin at the base of Lloyd Shoals Dam at Lake Jackson to the confluence with the Oconee River forming the Altamaha River near Lumber City.
The grand adventure would have been to canoe it from start to finish in one multi-day trip, camping along the route. If you figure the average person can cover 10-15 miles of river a day, you can quickly see how impractical that was. I could not put my life on hold nor would my editors at The Telegraph let me out of my other duties for three weeks.
As I puzzled over the logistics, the Central Georgia River Runners canoeing and kayaking club learned about my ambitious project and one of its members, Joe Beall, took an interest. A former naval aviator and graduate of the Citadel, Joe was single, in his early 40s, and had a lot of time on his hands. He loved kayaking and history, and his unquenchable curiosity provided the impetus and skills I needed to make the journey a reality.
Joe became my unofficial guide. We spent hours together pouring over topographical maps and looking at ways to break the trip into segments. Being a young, single guy myself, I was willing to give weekends and occasional weekday trips to the journey so as not to interfere with my regular workload. We divided the entire project into 10-15 mile excursions, invited the River Runners to join us when they could, and began the quest.
The Ocmulgee River, which derives its name from the Hichti words “oki” (water) and “molki” (bubbling or boiling), acts like two different rivers. The upper Ocmulgee above the Fall Line, which runs just north of Macon, is bubbling like the mountain rivers and streams in north Georgia and Tennessee. There are shoals and rapids through which the water moves quickly and can prove challenging for inexperienced paddlers like I was. Truth be told, I had to be rescued several times after falling in when my canoe was toppled by a small rapid. The River Runners called the shameful act “swimming,” and even devoted a column in their monthly newsletter called “Seen Swimming” to call out those who turned over during an outing.
“Seen Swimming” included my name several times the first few trips because I was so inexperienced. I made the beginner’s mistake of sitting up too high and grabbing the gunnels when I started to lose my balance. I had to learn to fight those instincts, get low in a canoe, and keep paddling to maintain my balance. I think the River Runners drew straws to see who would take me in their canoe those first few trips because they didn’t want to be “seen swimming” along with me.
South of the Fall Line as Georgia’s Piedmont region gives way to the Coastal Plain, the Ocmulgee spreads out, slows down and becomes a wide, meandering river, like a smaller version of the Mississippi. We did several of the southern segments in multi-day, overnight trips camping on the shoreline or on sandbars. Particularly near the end, we tried to cover as much of the river as we could with each trip.
North of Macon, the river ran fairly straight, but south of town, there were stretches where the Ocmulgee was winding and serpentine. Even with Joe’s navigational skills, it was sometimes hard to calculate the distance of a trip from a topographical map.
Such was the case on an early spring day when Joe and I had hoped to paddle a section south of Macon originating near Bond Swamp that would end up at the Bullard Landing public boat ramp near Dry Branch in Twiggs County.
There were several factors that freighted the day with stress. First, we needed to have The Telegraph’s photographer with us on more of the trips to capture some good imagery to accompany my story. Maryann Bates and I had worked well together on multiple projects, and she had expressed interest. Our plan was to go back after the story was outlined and get photos from the bank, but we did need her to join us on a couple of the trips. We didn’t want to risk her equipment, so picking an easier segment without rapids or shoals seemed ideal.
Maryann was like a big sister to me. Older and wiser, she had taken me under her wing at the paper, dispensing good natured teasing and wisdom in equal measure. She and her husband, Larry, were good friends, and at times I felt like I was part of their family, which back then included three kids. Maryann had commitments that I didn’t, so finding a day to be on the river proved challenging.
When we paddled a section of the river, we had to start the day by setting the shuttle, which meant leaving the canoes and kayaks at the put-in point, driving to the take-out with two vehicles so you could leave one to get you back to your other vehicle at the end of the day, and driving back to the boats at the put-in. Maryann drove a Nissan Pathfinder, so we left the canoe and kayak at the put-in and planned to leave her truck at the take-out. The last half mile of the road to Bullard Landing was red clay, and recent rains left it slick. Maryann handled it well, but we were both tense from the slipping and sliding to get to the takeout.
Once we put in and found our pace, and the trip became pleasant. I could hear Maryann’s camera clicking away, and the warming sunshine eased our minds. That section was somewhat remote, but there was ample evidence we were south of an urban area. We found pockets along the route where fallen trees created eddies that held captive all manner of detritus, including basketballs, styrofoam ice chests, and other garbage that washed into the river from the streets of Macon.
After a full eight hours of paddling, Maryann began to grow anxious about the time. She had a family commitment that evening and needed to be home by 7 p.m. Based on Joe’s calculations, we were doing a 13-mile stretch and should have been off the river well before nightfall. The Ocmulgee’s twists and turns proved deceptive, though, and the sunset, though beautiful, fueled our nervousness about the time.
Finding a takeout, even a well-marked public boat ramp, can be challenging if you’ve never before approached it from the water. It’s easy to miss landmarks because it all looks so different from the river. In the dark, it’s impossible to find your take out. Missing it compounds the aggravation. You eventually paddle so far down river that you realize you must have passed it. You find a spot to get out, leave your canoe where you can get back to it, and walk back up the bank through trees and thickets to where you think your vehicle should be. It can add hours to your excursion.
Maryann’s tight schedule upped the stakes of finding the take out on the first try. With daylight fading, we studied the left bank as we rounded each bend hoping for a glimpse of the Bullard Landing boat ramp. We had been on the river in excess of 10 hours as the dim light of dusk completely faded.
Joe had been apologizing for an hour when Maryann finally broke.
“SHUT UP, JOE!” she yelled at him, unable to contain her frustration.
He wisely held his tongue as we kept paddling in the dark, getting as close to the left bank as possible risking getting hung up in a fallen tree.
Just when I gave up all hope, I heard the sound of a boat motor in the distance behind us. As it grew louder, I turned to look over my shoulder to see the beam of a spotlight scanning the shoreline. Their light hit our canoe, and they called out to us.
“Hey, y’all know where the Bullard Landing boat ramp is?” a friendly male voice called from behind the light.
“We think so. We’ve been trying to get to it,” Joe answered.
“Y’all need some help?”
“Yes! Please!” Maryann answered.
Illuminated by a lantern and the spotlight, our saviors appeared to be two guys in a jon boat. Whether they were fishermen who had been caught on the river by the darkness or deer hunters looking to do some illegal “shining,” we did not know… or care.
They threw us a rope, which Maryann tied to the front of our canoe. They continued sweeping the bank for the boat ramp as they gently accelerated, pulling us safely behind them. Joe followed, pushing his tired arms and shoulders well past exhaustion.
In just a few minutes, they spotted the ramp. When the light reflected off Maryann’s Pathfinder, I exhaled in relief.
Such was life on the river. For the eight months it took us to paddle the Ocmulgee, I experienced an array of feelings: the ecstasy of seeing nature’s beauty, exhaustion from effort, fear of noises in the night, inconvenience of logistical mistakes and accomplishment when each stretch was completed. We had other mishaps. I even turned over our canoe one more time on a more southerly segment when we took a high water cut through and got pinned against a tree trunk. But that night in the darkness, searching desperately for Bullard Landing, I was rescued and I was grateful.
The only clue I have to the identity of our rescuers is a scrap of paper torn from the small manilla envelopes Telegraph photographers used to put their film in for processing. It bears the names “Rusty Evans” and “Dave” in ballpoint pen. There’s a phone number, and the words “coon hunter” and “airboat Bullard’s Landing” written under them.
Rusty and Dave didn’t make it into my story that ran over two successive weekends in The Telegraph June 12 and June 19, 1994. But their rescue has been forever imprinted in my memory.
This time of year always makes me nostalgic for the glorious summer-and-a-half my family had an above-ground swimming pool. With temperatures climbing into the 90s now, I can’t help but wish for a dip in the pool like those carefree summer days in my pre-teens.
In late spring of 1981, my dad installed a 24-foot-in-diameter, 4-foot-deep, above-ground swimming pool. We lived in Bedford, Texas, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, and summers were brutally hot.
I don’t know what possessed my dad to make such a purchase or to go to the trouble of leveling the backyard, erecting the metal frame, unrolling and rigging the lining carefully so as not to tear a hole in it, patching the lining when the inevitable leak sprang up, connecting the filter system, checking the PH balance and maintaining the water purity daily.
It was a ton of work. His decision to give this gift to the family came with it the commitment of upkeep and repair. I’m so glad he made the sacrifice.
For two summers, my middle brother, Lee, and I were sun-drenched and tan. It was one of the only times in my life I was tan. Not allowed to swim during the heat of the day, we typically spent time in the pool from breakfast to lunch, late afternoon to supper and after supper to bedtime.
Those two summers we were immune to the soaring Texas temperatures, and we were never bored. We ran laps in the pool trying to generate a swirling current. We set up our scuba diver action figures and played shark hunt and dolphin rescue. Shouts of “Marco” and “Polo” echoed off our storage shed and the back walls of our house for hours. We threw waterlogged Nerf footballs and tennis balls, making spectacularly splashy diving catches. We didn’t have a care in the world.
My only not-so-found memory of the pool came in March of 1982 when the leaves-infested, dark green waters of the pool demanded cleaning. It was way too early to even think about swimming, but one particularly chilly Saturday I went out with the dip net to start cleaning the scum and filth I could reach from around the circumference and the ladder.
I guess I just couldn’t wait until summer. As I leaned out from the ladder, holding onto the rail and reaching the net as far as possible, Lee, who was all of 8 at the time, came from nowhere and gave me a playful push. My hold on the ladder handle was firm, but I cried out “Lee!” in terror at the thought of falling into the icy sludge.
Dad heard my cries and immediately knew what had happened. He emerged from the garage with a stern expression.
“Lee, don’t you push your brother into that pool,” he said with finger pointing at my red-haired mischief maker of a brother. “If you do, you’ll get a whipping.”
Thinking the threat was enough to secure my safety, I resumed cleaning. My trust in Lee’s fear of my father was so complete, that I continued to lean out over the water perilously. But Lee was undeterred.
Only a few minutes after the warning, I stretched to reach a clump of leaves. A much firmer push caused me to relinquish my grip and sent me hurtling downward into the cold depths of untreated pool water. The splash alerted my father that his threat had gone unheeded. Lee was forced to face the promised punishment.
To this day, Lee still says that was the only spanking he ever received that was worth it.
We moved to Central Florida in the summer of 1982, cutting short our swimming season. We sold the pool to the family of my best friend, Eddie, and we packed up and moved to Lake Wales.
If the Yanceys enjoyed the pool half as much as we did, it was a great investment.
We’ve reached the season of commencement ceremonies, high school graduations, end-of-year awards banquets and last-day-of-school parties. As another exhausting academic year comes to a close, remember to thank your teachers.
I graduated from Troy University 30 years ago next month. Here’s a heartfelt note of appreciation to my primary journalism professor:
We arrived at Troy State University’s Hall School of Journalism at the same time in September of 1988.
Gordon “Mac” McKerral was an assistant professor of journalism, and I was a freshman journalism and political science major.
A cliched mix of hubris and insecurity, I resembled the stereotypical immature college freshman. Because I had worked at my hometown newspaper since the summer of 1987, recognized the MicroTek typesetting computer system the journalism department used to produce the student paper, knew a little Associated Press (AP) style, and had front-page stories with my byline, I believed I already knew a lot about journalism.
But I was also a college freshman. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It was my first time out on my own, and though I lived in a dorm with 500 other guys, I suddenly had a level of self-determination and freedom I had never experienced. I wanted to be true to my faith, my upbringing, my values, and myself, but I also wanted to make friends, fit in, and achieve goals. I wanted to become the editor of the student newspaper, The Tropolitan, and I wanted to graduate with top honors. I had my eye set on landing a good job at a big paper, making a name for myself in the process. In contrast to my veneer of self confidence, I questioned my abilities and intelligence. I wondered if I had what it took to become a respected journalist.
Enter Mr. McKerral.
We first crossed paths in Reporting I the winter quarter of my freshman year. After only one quarter at Troy, Mr. McKerral had earned a reputation for being tough but fair, a good lecturer drawing on his varied real-life experiences and a challenging mentor who pushed students to achieve more than they thought they were capable of. As I had with every adult I had met since adolescence, I tried to win his approval, impressing him with my journalistic background and talent. I was the only freshman in the Reporting class that quarter, and Mr. McKerral seemed to cater to the upperclassmen, making jokes and building an easy rapport with them. I wasn’t offended. I vowed to earn his academic AND social affirmations.
Mr. McKerral’s curriculum for Reporting I included weekly quizzes on entries from the AP Stylebook. A firm believer that journalists should know the book inside and out, he gave us sections to study each week. After only a few weeks, he gave us the assignment of creating our own AP Stylebook quiz. His educational goal was for students to become familiar with the entries by drafting their own 10 questions. I scoured my Stylebook, building my quiz around the most obscure entries that no one would possibly know off the top of their head and would almost never use. To my horror, the next week Mr. McKerral passed out my assignment as the weekly quiz. He did not cover my name which appeared in the upper righthand corner. As we all struggled through the quiz, I heard grumbling around the room as my classmates cursed the sadistic questions. If I had been an anonymous freshman before that ended with the authorship of the impossible Stylebook quiz. My reputation plunged further the next day when Mr. McKerral handed back the graded quizzes while offering a derisive commentary to each student. If looks could kill, I wouldn’t have made it to Spring Break. Mocking everyone’s performance with a quip, Mr. McKerral saved my quiz for last. He relished pointing out my own poor performance to the class.
“As you all know, Young Wallace here wrote this quiz,” he said holding my paper aloft and fluttering his eyelids. “What you probably don’t know is that he missed three on his own test.”
Mr. McKerral’s laughter relieved the tension, and my classmates released their frustrations by following suit. Standing at the lectern with his foot propped on the base, he dismissed all of our fears with a wave of his hand. He declared the quiz would not count in the grade book, but it was by far the hardest Stylebook test he had ever seen. Though he prided himself on his Stylebook acumen, he confessed that even he had to look up many of the answers. He said he had to make us take that quiz on principle.
“Let that be a lesson for you: You can never know the AP Stylebook too well.”
I no longer had to wonder if I had captured his or my peers’ attention. From that moment on, I was the wunderkind, the Doogie Howser of Reporting, the freshman phenom, the journalism nerd.
Soon we moved on from AP Stylebook quizzes to actual writing assignments. Mr. McKerral served as our editor, treating the campus as our coverage area. He assigned stories that required us to contact administrators, faculty, staff and students for interviews, and in some cases, dig up information from public records or the library. Each week, Mr. McKerral handed out the juiciest stories to my classmates and stuck me with the most mundane topics. After several weeks, I worked up the courage to confront Mr. McKerral during his office hours.
“You’ve written plenty of those kinds of stories before,” he said about the more exciting topics given to my classmates. “If you are going to improve and grow as a reporter, you’ve got to learn to make something out of these stories that don’t have much appeal on the surface.”
He could have told me that up front, but Mr. McKerral understood that I would learn better if I grappled with it on my own. He was right, and I attacked each subsequent story with vigor, embracing the challenge, determined to draw readers in with my writing. I didn’t always succeed, but the struggle made me better.
At the end of the spring quarter, I applied for the vacant editor position of the student newspaper, “The Tropolitan.” Mr. McKerral served as the Trop’s adviser and was a member of the search committee. It was rare for a sophomore to be named editor, and the committee looked for evidence that I could handle the responsibility. My resume and reporting experience spoke for itself. What they needed to see in the interviews was how I handled pressure and conflict. Other than being asked arcane grammar questions and probing about my experiences at The Daily Highlander, the committee didn’t focus on journalistic skills as much as I anticipated. Led by a cross examination from Mr. McKerral, I left the interview having learned more about myself than the committee learned about me.
I don’t remember who else competed for the position, but I got the job, which I would hold for two years. This journalism lab exposed me to such challenges as deciding when to run and when to hold a story, getting the paper to the printer on time, how to handle corrections and managing a staff. College students were not always reliable. I couldn’t always count on a student reporter to submit his or her assignment on time, and section editors had a habit of disappearing as the quarter wore on. I recruited a good team of section editors and found myself spending more and more time in The Trop’s offices. It became my life and my obsession. My friends never saw me. They even started calling me by a new nickname: Trop. The paper was my identity.
The Tropolitan went to press on Thursday nights. We had to deliver the pages to the printer in a nearby town for printing by 10 p.m. Mr. McKerral accepted no excuses for being late, and without fail, he would check on us each week around 7 p.m. uttering his unique brand of sarcastic encouragement.
“Is this the Tropolitan or the Palladium?” he would yell out, comparing our weekly newspaper to the university’s annually printed yearbook.
“What’s this comma doing here?” he would say, leaning over an already completed page on the paste-up board.
“That’s not how you spell ‘fiduciary!’” he would chide.
And his staple: “Start a page, finish a page!”
On one particularly tense Thursday production night, he made the rounds in the newsroom and paste-up room barking orders and offering “encouragement.” When I heard his office door close, I began to mimic him, yelling out editorial admonishments in his Chicago accent. I ranted and raved, waving my arms in imitation of Mr. McKerral’s signature gestures. A minute into my performance, I noticed the staff had stopped laughing. Their eyes shifted from me, so I turned to see what had stolen their attention. Mr. McKerral had quietly opened his office door and re-emerged into the Trop’s offices. He stood behind me with his hands on his hips and his eyebrows raised.
“I do not talk like that!” he said before dramatically exiting through his office and slamming the door.
Always able to come up with the perfect quip, my all-time-favorite McKerralism came during one of our staff meetings at the beginning of the term. My use of the slogan “Get a Staff Infection!” on recruitment signs throughout the journalism building had invoked a raised eyebrow and a head shake. I was leading a Q&A after my presentation about the glory of working on the student newspaper. The Trop’s office was about two-thirds full with a mix of new and familiar faces. An artsy, very earnest Bohemian-type in the back raised his hand. I pointed to him.
“Do you publish fiction?” he asked sincerely.
Before I could even process what he was asking, Mr. McKerral called out from behind me, “Not on purpose!”
In his role as adviser to The Tropolitan, Mr. McKerral met with me each Friday after the latest edition hit the streets. We discussed grammar and punctuation mistakes, poor wording choices, pushed deadlines, personnel issues and even AP Stylebook errors. He would offer his critique, sometimes gentle and other times more personal. He helped with personnel management of the newspaper staff and even had to point out how disruptive it was when my girlfriend, who was the business manager, and I argued. He illuminated my blind spots and made me a better journalist, editor and leader. Those weekly one-on-ones proved to be some of the most beneficial learning experiences of my time at Troy.
He was also my academic adviser, and two of the best pieces of advice he gave me were about my internship and how to round out my course load my senior year.
I had worked at newspapers every summer since my junior year of high school, but I wanted my for-credit internship to be at a big-city paper that would open doors for my future career. The Indianapolis Star’s conservative former editorial page editor and frequent cable news show pundit M. Stanton Evans taught an editorial writing class once a year at Troy. Mr. McKerral advised me to take the class, telling me I wouldn’t have another opportunity to learn from someone so accomplished, skilled and connected. Of course, Mr. McKerral was correct, and I found the class one of the most challenging and beneficial during my major course of study.
Having Mr. Evans as an instructor also gave me a leg up in applying for the internship program he ran in Washington, D.C., called the National Journalism Center (NJC). I was aiming for an internship at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Birmingham News, or one of the big daily newspapers that was part of the Knight Ridder chain. Mr. McKerral told me to go study in D.C. with Stan for a quarter. It turned out to be sound advice, and I had a life-changing and career-building experience in Washington.
The program was formatted to have six weeks at NJC covering hearings and press conferences for practice while writing an in-depth project. The second six weeks required a placement at a D.C.-area media outlet. I ended up covering Senate hearings on a retiring ambassador to Russia and wrote my project on the growth of the federal budget during the Reagan administration, pouring over the gigantic volumes at the Library of Congress for hours at a time. Then I spent my outside assignment at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Knight Ridder Washington Bureau, gaining invaluable experience and clips for my portfolio with bylined front-page stories in The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The St. Paul Pioneer-Press, among others. Mr. McKerral’s advice had been right, and that internship helped me land my first job at the Knight Ridder-owned Macon Telegraph the summer after I graduated.
When I returned to Troy for my last two quarters, Mr. McKerral advised me to fill out my schedule with business classes. Advanced Placement courses from high school had given me a head start on my credits, so I finished both my journalism and political science majors by the end of the fall quarter of my senior year. Wisely, Mr. McKerral said I would never regret taking the business classes, and they would help me with management jobs as my career progressed. I took economics, marketing and management, all of which came in handy when I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in business administration in 2000.
The closer I got to graduation, Mr. McKerral evolved from teacher and adviser to mentor and friend. I was no longer enrolled in his classes and wasn’t editor of the school paper. He insisted I call him “Mac,” and enjoyed continuing our conversations about journalism and my career in more social settings. He even loaned me his car a few times, an older model Mazda stick shift that took some getting used to but ultimately helped me learn a new and important skill. He also gave me his father’s golf clubs. We played golf together a few times when I took golf for a physical education credit, and he proved to be as good a coach on the course as in the classroom.
Mac would do anything for his students, and I learned to trust and count on him no matter the circumstances. One quarter, the honor society I was a member of, Alpha Lambda Delta, needed a speaker for its induction ceremony. I asked Mac, and he reluctantly agreed. He said he didn’t see himself as a very good example for honors students.
“That’s not really my crowd,” he said.
His speech was one of the best and most inspiring I heard in college. He shared how he had gone to Arizona State University, partied too hard and flunked out after a semester. Returning to Chicago and working a number of manual labor jobs, including a stint as a grave digger, gave him the focus and clarity he needed to return to ASU. He not only completed his undergraduate degree in secondary education with good grades, he went on to earn a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Illinois. He encouraged the inductees to seek out educational experiences beyond the classroom and not waste the opportunities they were given. I was moved.
As adviser to the collegiate chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at Troy, Mac chaperoned our group trips to regional and national conventions. He encouraged me to run for one of the two student positions on the national board, which proved to be another impactful experience.
Mac and I served on the national board of SPJ together for several years after I graduated. I was the representative for the southeast region on the board, and he represented the campus chapters. The mentoring continued, and we worked together to plan several regional conventions. He was truly a trusted adviser and friend.
We kept in touch in those early years of my career, and I frequently sought his advice. Unable to attend in person, Mac sent one of the most thoughtful and meaningful wedding gifts to Carla and me. It was a pewter cup made in the shape of a woman holding a bowl. The bowl was on a swivel. The cub was designed for the bride and groom’s first toast, with the bride drinking from the upturned dress and the groom drinking from her bowl on a swivel. We used it at our reception, and though he wasn’t there in person, Mac was with us in spirit.
When I had been at The Macon Telegraph for more than seven years, a job offer to go to Mercer University to work in public relations came my way. It would mean leaving newspaper journalism behind, so naturally, I consulted Mac. Looking back on it now, I think I needed his permission to give up on journalism as a career more than I needed guidance on taking the job. My identity was so intertwined with my profession, and I did not want to disappoint him as my journalism professor and mentor. As always, he had good advice.
“It’s a big change, but you can do that job. It’s really no different than reporting. You get the facts, you organize them and you tell them in a truthful, compelling way. You’re a strong writer, and you’re good with people. Journalism is changing. I don’t blame you for getting out. But by all means, get your master’s degree, especially if they’ll pay for it. You’ll never regret having that degree, and it will open doors for you down the road.”
I’m sure I’ve told Mac “thank you” dozens of times for all the kindnesses, gifts, opportunities and advice he’s given me over the years, but it seems insufficient for the degree to which he contributed to my growth and development. He helped shape the person I am today. His impact on my life went well beyond his role as my journalism professor.
Thank you, Mac, for everything. I am grateful for your generosity, patience, tough love, and wisdom. If you have made a fraction of the difference in your other students’ lives throughout your career as you have made in mine, you have a profound legacy of which you should be proud.
All families have stories that approach legendary status. Ours is the story of my dad and the sloppy joe.
It’s probably the family story I tell most often because my tradition-loving middle son, Harris, insists I tell it every time we eat sloppy joes.
Like all stories handed down orally in families, I’m sure the details aren’t quite exact, and even my parents’ memory of it may be fuzzy. The way I tell it goes something like this:
During my early childhood, Dad worked the night shift as a mechanic for American Airlines. We lived in Bedford, Texas, just a few miles from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. It was a good job that provided a good life for our small but growing family, which at the time consisted of my baby brother, Lee, and me. The job had the normal downsides of shift-work. Namely, my dad’s circadian rhythms were opposite of ours. He worked at night and slept during the day. Mom and I slept at night and spent our days engaged in activity, although quietly so as not to disturb Dad’s sleep.
This was true for meals as well. What Mom, Lee, and I experienced as supper was Dad’s breakfast. I wasn’t old enough to be aware of how this was negotiated, and I honestly can’t recall our family meal menus from those days, save a couple of disasters that are also part of our family’s lore. As the story goes, one evening Mom had prepared ground beef in a spiced tomato sauce on hamburger buns, more commonly known as sloppy joes, for supper.
Dad came to the table less than enthused about the night’s meal, and when he attempted to pick up the sandwich with both hands, the sloppy joe lived up to its name and ran down his right hand staining his shirt sleeve. In frustration, he plopped the sandwich back down on his plate and wiped his hand and wrist with a napkin. As the tension built, he grabbed the sandwich and again attempted to take a bite.
Predictably, the same results ensued with sloppy joe running down his left hand. With his patience exhausted, he threw down the sandwich in disgust, wiped his hands and left the kitchen table, giving up on supper altogether.
His temper boiling over, he stormed over to his large, black leather recliner in the den, sat down, and with great ferocity pushed on the arms of the chair to make it lay back. He did so with such speed and force, the chair tipped over backward, smothering him underneath.
Having only seen such hijinks on reruns of “The Three Stooges” or in cartoons, Lee and I could not refrain from laughing at what looked to us like a giant gorilla wrestling Dad in the middle of our den. The angrier he became, the more the chair seemed to pin him to the floor. Our laughing could not be shushed by Mom who was worried our cackling was only adding to Dad’s tantrum.
Mom helped Dad out from under the chair, and the rest of the evening passed uneventfully. What strikes me as remarkable now is that I often heard this story told by our pastor, Bro. Bill Mauldin, as a cautionary tale to my brother and me about not losing our tempers. He thought it was hilarious and relished telling it.
I don’t remember the first time I told it to my boys, but it obviously stuck. It is memorably humorous at Dad’s expense, but it also has the added benefit of carrying a message: don’t let your temper get the best of you or else you’ll end up under a recliner.
I can’t remember the last time I heard my mother sing.
I’m sure it was during a visit to my parents’ church before my dad retired, but that was four or five years ago now. I didn’t realize I missed hearing her sing until a clear childhood memory of Mom practicing a solo for our church’s presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” recently came back to me.
Mom always sang in the church choir. She played the piano in church on a fill-in basis when we moved to Florida in 1982, and for a time she was the full-time accompanist. But her strong soprano voice was needed most in the choir, and she often sang what our church called “Special Music” before the sermon. There were even occasions when Dad would spontaneously call on her to sing a particular solo he had in mind before he delivered his message. No rehearsal. No lead time. No preparation. No heads up. Just, “Sharon, would you come and sing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’” or some other hymn. She always sang beautifully from the heart.
From my birth in 1970 until 1982, my family attended the First Baptist Church of Richland Hills, Texas, located in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. In my memory, it was a large church, but in actuality, membership probably ran 200-300. Music was an important part of the church’s worship, and the choir director, Paul McPeek, was a stickler for well-rehearsed, traditional choral music. The choir rehearsed on Wednesday nights after prayer meeting, and when I outgrew the nursery, I sat in the auditorium while my parents participated in choir practice. At the time, sitting still through an hour-plus of rehearsal seemed arduous to me, but I managed to learn all of the great hymns of the faith, including Handel’s “Messiah” by osmosis.
Each Christmas season our church offered two special services, usually both on a Sunday night. One was the Christmas program featuring some re-enactment of the Christmas story that included us kids. The other was a cantata presented by the church choir. In my memory it was the “Messiah” every year, but they may have performed other works as well. I know they performed “Messiah” multiple times during my formative years between six and 12. “Messiah” is such a lengthy and challenging work for amateur choirs that rehearsal usually began during the summer. I remember how odd it felt to be in the sanctuary listening to Christmas music with the Texas heat soaring above 100 degrees outside.
My mother often sang one of the soprano arias “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” or the recitative, “Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened.” This required extra practice on her part, both at church with an accompanist or at home with a tape. The sound of her practicing at home gave me great comfort and became part of the soundtrack of my childhood leading up to Christmas.
Mom grew up singing, taking voice lessons even into adulthood. She has a structured, classical style with vibrato that has always sounded sophisticated and operatic to me. Despite my father’s Spirit-led, impromptu requests for solos, Mom preferred rehearsal and a good warm up before singing in church. She confessed nerves on occasion, but those bouts of stage fright were rooted in a lack of preparation. If she was nervous, you could never tell it in her performance.
Like most small kids, I believed my mom to be amazing and infallible. She was the most beautiful, the best cook and clearly the best singer. To my ear, there was no better sound than her voice. Mom’s singing is an indelible part of my childhood. Listening to her at home and at church strengthened our bond in a profound way neither of us understood or appreciated fully at the time.
The last time I saw “Messiah” performed in its entirety was in the mid-1990s in Macon at The Grand Opera House by the Mercer University choir. They did a marvelous job, and the performance moved me. In the opening notes of “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” I was surprised by tears welling in my eyes. The work, the performance, the atmosphere touched a memory that only now do I understand as maternal love.
Whether I ever have the opportunity to hear Mom sing formally again, I will count myself lucky to have had hours of sitting through rehearsals. Those experiences built a bank of memories of her voice which will sustain me for a lifetime.
Our middle son will turn 17 on May 2, and this is the perfect time to look at how our penchant for family names resulted in him being named “Harris Goodman Wallace.”
Our second born was the only one of the three we didn’t know the gender of until he arrived. We’re planners. With Barron we learned the gender of our baby as soon as we reliably could tell from the ultrasound image. So in early December during Carla’s second pregnancy we went for an ultrasound, assuming it would be just as straightforward.
We thought we would know immediately the baby’s sex, and we could go to the deacon-church staff Christmas party that night at our pastor’s house and share the good news with everyone. Harris had other ideas. Despite the technician’s best efforts, his position and the placement of the umbilical cord prevented her from getting a conclusive image.
Not only were we glum at the party, we had to go with a neutral green to decorate his room. As with our firstborn, we had “Ruth” and “Helen” on standby if it was a girl. We were partial to a double name, and Carla liked both of my grandmother’s first names “Addie” and “Minnie.” “Ruth” was prevalent on both sides of our family, so it had to be in the name somewhere.
“Harris” was the middle name of Carla’s paternal grandfather, Lee Harris Barron. We were clear it was to be “Harris” and not “Harrison,” just like my name isn’t a short form of “Lawrence.” His middle name would come from Carla’s mother’s side of the family. “Goodman” is my mother-in-law’s maiden name, and we both liked its strength and predictive quality.
Of all our boys, Harris fittingly came out with the most hair allowing for a few gentle puns with “Hair-is.” Like his brothers, Harris also likes his name, although he is annoyed when people call him “Harrison” and the silly nickname our neighbor, Charlie, once gave him: “Hair-less.”
At 17 he is planning a career in public service and politics. He likes the sound of “Governor Harris Wallace,” “Senator Harris Wallace,” or even “President Harris Wallace.”
And for campaigning purposes, it doesn’t hurt that his middle name is “Goodman.” You may have heard that they’re hard to find.
What was your naming conventions for your children? Leave a comment on how you came up with your kids’ names and join the conversation!
It’s difficult to separate my actual memories from my memories of old photographs. It’s why people take pictures in the first place.
Many of the images of my early childhood are captured on slides rather than prints, and the slides are in carousels at my parents’ house, packed away in closets, unseen in 30 or more years.
Whether I am remembering my childhood or the photos is hard to know, but one of the strongest impressions I have from those years is of our dog, Tippi.
My dad worked nights as a mechanic for American Airlines, first at Love Field in Dallas and then at the new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. In the 1970s, new neighborhoods were springing up across the Metroplex, and such was the case with ours in the suburb of Bedford, just a few minutes from the airport. Our house was the first one built on our street.
These circumstances led my parents to get a dog, a reliable guardian to keep my mom safe at night while Dad was at work, and a companion during the day in an isolated community that did not yet offer neighbors. My parents settled on a young but well-trained female German Shepherd. She was named in German, “Schwarz Spitze,” or “black tip,” because, obviously, the tip of her tail was black. My parents called her by the shortened nickname, “Tippi.”
As a toddler I struggled to say words that began with the letter “T.” In my language, “Tippi” was “Pippi.” My dad tried repeatedly to train me to say it correctly. He worked it into a list of other “T” words to trick my brain and tongue to suddenly cooperate.
“Say ‘tea,’ ‘toy,’ ‘top,’ ‘Tippi.”
I would respond with “’Tea!’ ‘Toy!’ ‘Top!’ ‘Pippi!”
The way he reacted with exasperation and laughter probably made me think it was a fun game. That and my genetic predisposition toward stubbornness kept me saying “Pippi” long after it was cute.
I remember watching “Sesame Street” while laying on our black couch, coffee table or red-tiled floor, always with a hand on Tippi. My protector, Tippi would sit obediently by my side or at my feet. And as I grew, Tippi remained attentive and fiercely loyal, (emphasis on the fierce). Anytime she perceived a threat to me, she growled and barked. Her protection extended to my friends who would come to the house to play. If we ever wanted to go in the backyard, we had to make sure she was in the garage or in the house.
A faint memory that has grown in impact because of its constant retelling was a time I marched along the fence in the backyard with a bucket on my head, holding Tippi by the tail and singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” If I had to guess, I was inspired by a scene from the World War II prisoner-of-war comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” in which armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the camp with German Shepherds. Never mind the questionable origins of the idea, my parents thought it was hilarious.
In the heat of Texas summers, Tippi loved to play with me in the water hose or the small wading pools my parents would set up for me. I clearly remember how she would try to bite the stream of water flowing from the hose like she was attacking a snake.
She retrieved balls, gnawed bones, ate crunchy dog food from a metal dog dish in the garage, and, according to family legend, once turned her nose up at a plate of beef stroganoff my mom had branched out to prepare for supper. My dad, lacking grace about his distaste for the meal, suggested the dog wouldn’t even eat it. In response, my mother jerked up his plate, opened the door to the garage and set it down in front of Tippi. She sniffed the plate, turned around and promptly went into the backyard.
I also have clear memories of the tumors Tippi began to develop when I was eight or nine. When I petted her, I was careful to avoid the painful lumps that had formed on her body, particularly the back of her neck. I observed her grow more and more listless, less active, displaying less of an appetite, and emitting the high pitched whine more frequently when there was no apparent prompting.
Finally, my parents had seen enough of her suffering, and one day while I was at school, they took her to the vet “to be put to sleep,” as they called it. Tippi left our lives that day, but she has never left my memory.
So strong was our bond that even though we had other dogs after we moved to Florida, I never allowed myself to feel attached. I knew no dog could ever be as good and smart and loyal as Tippi. I’m sure she frustrated my parents at times in the way our family dogs have frustrated me in my household, but as the kid with the dog, I have nothing but the best memories of my Pippi dog.
Car trouble is never convenient. I’ve experienced unfortunately timed car trouble twice in my life.
The trauma of the episodes, though not life threatening, imprinted on me the lifelong commitment to only drive reliable transportation. When mileage or frequency of repairs begin to add up, I lose faith in my vehicle and must sell it or trade it in. I value reliability over style, trendiness or performance.
My first car, a 1978 light blue, four-door Chevy Nova, was our family car that my dad had kept running through his mechanic’s skill. He handed it down to me in 1987 as the vehicle I would learn to drive and have until I bought my own. In many ways it was a great first car, but there were a few bumps along the way. The first and foremost occurred during my second attempt at passing my driver’s test.
I had not taken driver’s education at school and was largely a self-taught driver. My parents let me drive to school and church with them after I passed the written test and secured my learner’s permit, but I didn’t have the benefit of formal driver’s ed. If I had, I believe I would have passed the driver’s test the first time. Instead, when I was instructed to put the car in reverse and back down the street for a certain distance, I used my mirrors rather than turn my body, put the arm behind the front seat and look through the rear window to see where I was backing. That combined with a few other minor mistakes caused me to fail on my first attempt.
I was understandably a nervous wreck a month later when it came time for my second attempt. I felt the weight of my teenaged world on my shoulders when I took the Nova back to the DMV for my driver’s test, luckily with a different instructor. This time, I had brushed up on the driver’s handbook and redoubled my efforts to ingest the nuances of driving I had neglected before my first test. I believed I was prepared, but I was anxious about being the stereotypical honors student who was good academically but couldn’t function practically in the world. I couldn’t bear the thought of what shame I would endure if I failed the driver’s test a second time.
All was well through the first half of the test, and when it came to the parallel parking, the skill test most inexperienced drivers dreaded, everything went according to plan. I pulled past the space, turned my body appropriately and backed in the space and pulled forward. It was nearly perfect. But as the examiner made checkmarks on the form secured to his clipboard, the old Nova died. I put it in park, turned the key in the ignition again, restarted the engine and backed up a foot or so to make my exit from the space. When I cut the wheel, the engine shut off again. I restarted the car, was able to pull forward a few inches, and it died again. The Nova repeated this fainting spell six or seven times over the span of about 15 minutes, proving slower to restart each time. Finally, I was able to navigate out of the space, complete the course and return to the DMV office. I went inside where I was informed that I had failed the test because I exceeded the time limit. The Nova had cost me dearly, and I was devastated.
Apparently, the problem was only present when the tires were at an extreme angle. I honestly don’t remember the exact diagnosis, but after Dad did more repair work with me at his side holding the flashlight, the Nova got me through the driver’s test a third time, which proved to be the charm. But the damage had been done. I never fully trusted the Nova again. I had other notable breakdowns with the Nova before it finally reverted back to my parents who sold it, but none as traumatic as the day it failed me during my driver’s test.
The longest and most protracted car debacle of my life occurred in 1997. This time it was my car, purchased with my money, that failed me. When I was hired as a reporter at The Macon Telegraph in the summer after college in 1992, my dad took me down to West Palm Beach to see a dealer friend of his he believed we could trust. After several test drives, I settled on a teal green Oldsmobile Achieva. Teal was the color of the early ‘90s, and the Achieva was in essence a fancier version of the Chevrolet Cavalier. I was particularly interested in the two-door model, thinking it sportier and more appropriate for a young, single man beginning to make his way in the world. All of those initially attractive qualities faded over time.
Five years into my relationship with the Achieva, I had a newspaper assignment in Perry, Ga., on a Friday night. I planned to drive home to Lake Wales the next day for the celebration of my mother’s 50th birthday. It was a muggy August night as I drove the 30 miles or so back to Macon from Perry, and the inexplicable failure of the air conditioning was the first sign something was amiss. The second sign came early the next morning when the car was slow to turn over. After several attempts, it finally cranked, and I set off on what should have been a seven hour, straight shot down I-75. I should have been in Lake Wales a little after lunch, arriving in plenty of time for the party scheduled for that evening.
An hour into the trip, the tell-tale signs I had ignored grew into a catastrophe. Just as I passed the exit for Cordele, the speedometer began to go haywire, and the tape player shut off. Had I connected these new symptoms with the air conditioning malfunction and the slow start, I would have pulled off right then and sought a mechanic. But I was inexperienced with car ownership and failed to recognize my car’s electrical system was failing.
A few minutes later, the engine shut off completely. Luckily, I was in the right lane and was able to coast safely to a stop on the interstate’s ample shoulder. I made several attempts to re-start the car but without success. No indicators were illuminated on the dash. The Achieva was undeniably dead. I remember passing the exit for Arabi just a minute or so earlier and decided hiking backward toward a known exit was better than risking an indeterminate distance ahead. This was in the days before the ubiquity of cell phones, or “car phones” as we called them, so I could only go on my memory.
I walked back up the interstate a mile or so to the exit and found a gas station with a garage and an on-duty mechanic. I went in, explained my troubles, described my location and waited for the mechanic to get a spare minute to take the tow truck out to fetch my car.
“Sounds like it could be an alternator,” he said.
I had no idea what the alternator did, but this was the first major failure of any component on my five-year-old car. He could have said “We’ll have to replace the engine,” and I would have been none-the-wiser.
It took about a half hour before he was able to break away, and I was still optimistic I could make it to Lake Wales in time for my mom’s birthday party. I rode shotgun in the tow truck to my car and watched as he efficiently attached the front wheels to the lift. In about 20 minutes from the time we left the gas station, we were back.
As I retreated to the waiting area, I realized the room was full. There were three or four people ahead of me in line to be serviced. Apparently, Arabi, Georgia, was a popular place to break down. I called my parents from a pay phone outside to update them on the situation but reassured them I would still make it in time for the party. Little did I suspect it would take more than an hour for the mechanic on duty to confirm his failed alternator diagnosis, secure a replacement from an auto parts store in Cordele, have someone deliver it, and get it installed in my car. It was nearly lunchtime by the time I was headed south again. My arrival time would now be cutting it close.
Everything seemed to be running fine for several hours, but by the time I reached Lake City, Florida, the Achieva was rumbling in a way I had never heard before. The gages reverted to the erratic behavior that I recognized as an electrical problem, and I was forced to find another gas station garage with a mechanic. I was able to pull into a Mobil station before the car died this time, but unlike the set up in Arabi, there was only the mechanic on duty and no attendant. This meant he was interrupted in his efforts to solve my problem every five minutes by someone needing to pay for gas or buy a soda.
It turned out that the mechanic in Arabi had installed the alternator incorrectly, and the new alternator was now damaged. The mechanic, a pre-med student at Florida State working as a mechanic on weekends to pay for college, was an affable and knowledgeable guy who would have been a fascinating person to spend a few hours with under different circumstances. Instead, I couldn’t fully appreciate his quirky sense of humor and unusual combination of skills as the sun began to set, and I realized there was no way I was making the party.
My second stopover was about the same length of time but eminently more frustrating because of the constant interruptions. He probably could have had me back on the road in 20 minutes if he had been able to work continuously. I even offered to run the register for him if he could just focus on my car. He told me he wasn’t allowed to do that, and it would get him fired if the owners found out. The time at the Mobil station in Lake City exhausted my patience, and in defeat, I called Mom and updated her on my situation.
I pulled into the driveway at home about midnight. Exhausted, I wasn’t in a mood to celebrate, and I’m sure my car troubles worried Mom to the point of distracting her from her special day. On the bright side, I ended up extending my trip a day to get my car fixed at the dealership in Lake Wales where they replaced the alternator again and gave me a clean bill of health for the drive home on Tuesday. It was tough to trust the Achieva ever again.
Now that I have celebrated my own 50th birthday, that experience still looms large in my memory and taught me the profound lesson of leaving in plenty of time to make it to important events, even if it means leaving a day or two in advance. Cutting it close just isn’t worth it. And the most profound lesson from both experiences is that cars are just machines, not living beings. Machines break down without awareness of or concern for your schedule or convenience. Don’t fall in love with a machine.