Watching the Braves with Paw Paw

At 11:39 p.m. , Wednesday,  – well past my bedtime – Braves rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play, ending the Braves season. As I struggled to stay awake during the final two hours of the 13-inning marathon game, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather as I watched the drama unfold.

Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson and Pete Van Wieren
The voices of the Atlanta Braves circa 1977. From left, Skip Caray, Ernie Johnson and Pete Van Wieren.

Paw Paw was the kind of Braves fan that followed their occasional ups but mostly downs with a chuckle and pitying head shake. Paw Paw was a SuperStation fan, letting the voices of the late Ernie Johnson, the late Skip Caray and Pete Van Wieren form the background noise of summer.

The kindest and gentlest of grandfathers, Paw Paw never got outwardly angry at the Braves’ shenanigans. When a bad play caused another loss, the worst oath he would utter was an elongated “shewwwwt.”

Watching ballgames with Paw Paw was less about baseball for me and more about being with him. He didn’t try to explain the action or teach me any of the intricacies of a sport that still baffles me most of the time. He simply uttered little expressions of disbelief or humor as the Braves’ antics unfolded on the field.

2011 season ends with loss to the Phillies
The scene from the dugout after Wednesday night's loss to the Phillies.

While the 2011 edition of the Braves were losing a game they should have won to end a season that should have ended in a trip to the playoffs, I thought about the summer I became a Braves fan. The magical 1982 season began with a record-setting 13-game winning streak. Manager Joe Torre made all the right moves that season with an MVP year from Murphy, 17 wins from knuckleballer Neikro and the amazing double-play combo of Glenn Hubbard at second base and Rafael Ramirez at shortstop. That also happened to be the summer we moved from Texas to Florida, and during the transition, my brother, Lee, and I spent two weeks in Columbus, watching the Braves every night with Paw Paw.

We went to our first Braves game on Aug. 20, 1982, with Paw Paw’s church. My Aunt Phyllis took us to see the Braves play the Mets, a game that was supposed to have been pitched by Neikro but ended up in the hands of Pascual Perez who missed his start the previous night because he got lost on I-285 on his way to the ballpark. The Braves won, and I was hooked.

Florida had no major league team at the time, so as we settled in Lake Wales, we adopted the Braves who were conveniently on television every night, thanks to WTBS. For me, it was as simple as liking the Braves because Paw Paw liked them.

Paw Paw died in the winter of 1992. He lived to see the Braves play in a World Series, completing a worst-to-first turnaround from the 1990 to 1991 season. He didn’t get to see their lone World Series championship in 1995. I’m sure, though, that he wouldn’t have gotten too worked up during the Braves’ 15-year playoff run nor too discouraged when all but one of those seasons ended with a loss.

As they failed to reach the postseason Wednesday night after blowing an 8-and-a-half game lead in September, I frowned, shook my head, let out a soft “shewwwwwwt” and went to bed.

Thank you, Braves, for another interesting season and another chance to remember my Paw Paw.

What’s your name?

"Mr. Lance" with his Tiger and Webelos, Harris and Barron.
"Mr. Lance" with his Tiger and Webelos, Harris and Barron.

After going through Cub Scouts all the way from Bobcat to Webelos with my oldest son, Barron, I’m now re-entering the cycle with Harris, my middle son. Only this time, I’ve put myself on the sacrificial altar of den leadership.

Planning and executing meetings and outings with my co-leader, Kathy, isn’t the hard part. The challenge is building good relationships with the boys, finding the right balance between authority and approachability that makes the experience enjoyable and meaningful for them.

Last month our den met for the first time, and I was once again faced with a conundrum. When introducing myself to a group of children I’m about to lead in an activity, I have no idea how to refer to myself.

Am I Mr. Lance or Mr. Wallace?

As a child, I was always taught to call people by their last name with the appropriate courtesy title, as in “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Jones.” But when I became an adult, I was reluctant to insist on children calling me the stodgy “Mr. Wallace” and often opted for “Mr. Lance.”

To me, the first name with courtesy title approach is more informal and friendly. Using a person’s last name with a courtesy title feels stuffy and self-important. I prefer “Mr. Lance” in most settings because I think of myself as friendly and approachable. It’s as much about how I see myself as how I want the kids to see me.

I first adopted the title of “Mr. Lance” back when I taught a group of about a dozen boys in a missions class on Wednesday nights at my church in Macon. I was comfortable being “Mr. Lance” back then because I was newly married, still in my 20s and didn’t have any children of my own. Three minutes into the first session I realized I needed a whistle, lion-tamer’s chair and more authority than even “Mr. Wallace” could create.

Scarlett O'Hara
I guess you have to go by "Miss Scarlett" if you've been married so many times people don't know whether to call you Ms. O'Hara, Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Kennedy or Mrs. Butler.

I have a theory about this calling-adults-by-their-first-name-with-a-courtesy-title business. I think it’s Southern. It wasn’t until I got to Macon that I ever heard this practice. And now whenever I hear it or say it, I can’t help but think of Miss Scarlet from
“Gone With the Wind.”

There are some settings in which I prefer the use of my last name. When I’m in a waiting room for a doctor’s appointment, for example, I don’t want to be called “Mr. Lance.” That’s just weird. When it’s time for me, just call me “Mr. Wallace.” There are plenty of settings when formality and distance are preferred.

My reaction against “Mr. Wallace” isn’t because it sounds like my dad. My dad is a preacher, so he is rarely referred to as Mr. Wallace. In fact, he goes by a courtesy title that’s even scarier to me: Rev. Wallace. Because both my brothers are ordained Baptist ministers, they may have more of an issue with being confused with our father than I do.

So what is your practice? Is this a Southern thing? How should kids refer to adults in the New South?

For now, I think I’ll stick with Mr. Lance. I’ve got a whole den of Tiger cubs calling me that, so turning back is not an option.

Running on fumes

Glowing like a nightlight in my reflective vest, I barreled down the hill as a Parkview school bus chugged past. On the last leg of a four-mile pre-dawn run, my lungs filled with the noxious fumes the bus belched as it crawled up toward the intersection.

Diesel fumes
Who wouldn't love a face full of this stuff to help get them going on a morning run?

In my 18 years as a runner, this scene has played out roughly the same so many times I can’t even count. What made this notable was that it was my first diesel fume blast of the season.

I have no experience with inhalants or hallucinogenic drugs, so I can’t really compare the sensation you get when your muscles, starved for oxygen are instead fed a helping of
carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and aldehydes
. Let’s just say it feels as if all of your energy seeps out like air escaping from a leaky balloon.

You don’t need a code orange smog alert from the Clean Air Campaign to know this really isn’t good for you. Our awareness is probably greater here in Atlanta because of the annual emissions tests our cars have to pass before we can renew our tags, but I think in general people who walk or run for exercise are the most sensitive to the contents of our air.

I remember watching the marathon during the Beijing Summer Olympic games as the athletes choked through smog so thick it was visible on television.

“That can’t be good,” I thought.

I’ve already written about the prevalence of asthma inhaler use I’ve noticed among kids in the Atlanta area, and I’ve used this space to tell how I relive my grandmother’s cooking when I smell bacon cooking. Diesel fumes cause a similarly evocative experience. While I’m coughing and gagging and losing precious seconds on my split times, I’m simultaneously transported back to the fall of 1991 when I interned in Washington, D.C.

You can insert your own political commentary about how the smell of pollution makes me think of our nation’s capital, but during that fall, I didn’t have a car. I really didn’t need one because the Metro took me everywhere I needed to go. But to get to the Metro, I walked. And as I trod upon the sidewalks around the Capitol, dodging the homeless and avoiding the picketers, I was frequently treated to a puff of diesel fumes from the ubiquitous transit buses.

The Capitol
Maybe as much air pollution inside this building as outside.

Maybe it’s the combination of the fall air with the smell that makes me think of that semester I spent in D.C., but once again, last Thursday as another school bus rumbled past me, I thought about that time on Constitution Avenue with my four roommates as I learned the way journalism works or doesn’t work inside the Beltway.

I know buses are a necessary evil. I know clean air should be a right not a luxury. I know alternative fuels come with their own set of problems. But, I look forward to the crisp, fall morning when a jog doesn’t have to result in a face full of toxic fumes.

Guess I’ll just have to get up earlier.

An Afternoon with Clyde

You’re dressed up,” Carla said from her chair in the playroom.

She’s mocking me, but I don’t care.

“If I get to meet the man, I don’t want to look like a hobo.”

Clyde Edgerton
Clyde Edgerton

At a time when good, churchgoing people are sleeping off Sunday lunch, I head to the Decatur Book Festival to hear and hopefully meet my favorite writer, Clyde Edgerton.

Heavy clouds finally threaten rain after a two-week absence. The traffic is light, but Jim and Don tell me the Braves are losing to the Dodgers 3-0. I look up at Stone Mountain on my left as I accelerate onto Highway 78. I’m always amazed by that piece of granite.

“Why am I nervous?” I think as I find a seat on the fourth row of the right center section in the First Baptist Church of Decatur sanctuary. It’s half an hour before it’s supposed to start, but there are already a good number of folks finding their seats.

I decide I’m more excited than nervous. I wish I had brought something to read. It would have been nice if I had brought a copy of the book for Clyde to sign, but, alas, in this digital age I have it downloaded on my Kindle. Don’t want him autographing that.

I pull out my Moleskine and start jotting notes, impressions really, of the scene. Old journalist’s habits die hard.

I wonder if I might see my buddy, Keith, a North Carolinian book editor who let me borrow Edgerton’s books on tape when I was commuting from Macon to Atlanta. I developed an appreciation for Edgerton’s humor and ability to create three-dimensional characters back in 1994 when I read “Walking Across Egypt” and “Killer Diller.” My fondness grew into adoration when I got to hear Edgerton performing more than reading “Raney” and “Where Trouble Sleeps” on the cassettes Keith loaned me. His dialogue was so authentic and the dialect so real.

The auditorium is a little more than half full when in walks Edgerton, wiry and energetic, a backpack slung over one shoulder like the students he teaches at UNC Wilmington. Round gold wire-rim glasses, a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, khaki dress pants and some type of hiking sandal make up his wardrobe. He’s taller than I thought he’d be, but he carries himself with a hint of mischief, just like I had imagined.

He talks graciously with a few of the event organizers before setting his notes on the podium. He goes to the piano and picks out a tune, gaging the sound. He confers with the sound guy.

Who I later learn are long-lost former neighbors and an Air Force buddy find him in a flurry of hugs and laughter. I’m secretly jealous.

The church’s lower level is full, and four women fill in the rest of my pew, trapping me in the middle. The view is great, but I begin to doubt I’ll have a chance to meet him.

Then, a guy in cargo shorts in front of me gets up and walks over to him. I can’t believe it. He just got up and walked right over there and talked to Clyde Edgerton. And he was wearing shorts!

A woman from the Decatur Book Festival takes the microphone and encourages us to Tweet and tells us there will be time for questions before Edgerton will go to a tent
outside to meet people and sign copies of books. Dang Kindle.

Atlanta author Charles McNair provides a magnificent introduction, retelling how he suggested to Edgerton in an e-mail that his remarks might go something like this: “Someday  William Shakespeare will be called the ‘Clyde Edgerton’ of his day.” McNair tells us Edgerton responded “Sounds about right.”

Full of nervous energy and overly conscious of his 45-minute time limit, Edgerton dives in with two relatively recent stories, one on his 29-year-old daughter in a hardware store and the other about taking his three younger kids to the open casket funeral of his aunt who “got kicked out of hospice because she wouldn’t die.”

The Night TrainHe gets to the main event in short order telling us his new novel “The Night Train” is about “music and friendship.” Edgerton, who himself played in a rock-and-roll band in the early 1960s, translates his experience into the story of a white kid trying to recreate James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” album note-for-note. The boy forms a forbidden friendship with an African American teen named Larry Lime looking to escape the South by becoming the next Thelonious Monk.

Edgerton reads the opening pages of the story, and although the words were familiar, Edgerton brings them to life, infused with his energy, passion and perfect pitch dialects.

The 45 minutes fly by. He plays and sings a tune he calls “Fat from Shame” and shares samples of “The Jam Part 1” and “I Need Your Lovin’ Every Day” by holding his Apple laptop next to the podium microphone.

“If I had an hour I’d play all of these,” he says with a grin.

Too soon we’re into the question and answer session, and like a rookie just called up to the majors, I am frozen. My mind is blank. I have so many questions. People are firing off their questions left and right, almost as if they had rehearsed them. Why didn’t I rehearse?

He tells them he’s listening to Randy Newman and a jazz pianist named Monty Alexander on his iPod these days and that his next book is going to be about fatherhood. He even gives us a sneak peak at the first two sentences: “Before the baby comes, install the car
seat and put together the crib. It will take four to seven days.”

He whets our appetite for his next novel, a book about a rag-tag group of guys who are paid to perform 21-gun salutes at military funerals.

“There’s going to be lots of tension and suspense in this book. You’ve got to have tension and suspense in a novel.”

Clyde Edgerton
Edgerton plays his favorite tunes from the early '60s on his laptop.

He closes with another tune from his laptop. He says he wanted this musical concoction to be the real title of “The Night Train,” but his editors would have nothing to do with it.

He smiles broadly as the song integrates Stravinsky with James Brown.

The room swells with applause, and before I can escape my pew, Edgerton is escorted to the book-signing tent on the lawn. When I do make it out of the church, the line is already a hundred deep and a sprinkle is picking up steam.

I decide I’ll meet one of my heroes another day. Instead, I revel in the enjoyment of the written and spoken word, so ably crafted by one of the South’s most gifted storytellers.

I get in my car to hear Prado single to left, driving home Constanza. Braves win in the bottom of the ninth.

It was an afternoon well-spent.

I Gotta Go … listen to Robert Earl Keen

I’m a writer, not a musician. That’s the best way to explain my fascination with country music – specifically, alternative country and the work of singer-songwriters. I’m not much of a fan of that over-produced, impure sound coming out of Nashville the last 10-20 years.

Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen

A few years ago, my native-Texan friend, Bob, introduced me to the music of Robert Earl Keen. Texas-born and Texas-bred, Keen’s knack for storytelling outstrips his singing ability, so naturally, I immediately took to his music.

On Tuesday, Keen released his latest album, “Ready for Confetti,” with the pre-released  single “I Gotta Go.”

This album has a different feel than Keen’s previous work. The imagery-rich ballads such as the evocative “Black Baldy Stallion” and “I Gotta Go” are still there, but overall, the pace was slower and the mood more subdued. It’s as if Keen, 55, is slowing down after 30 years in the music business, and he thinks the world needs to slow down, too.

The title cut, “Ready for Confetti,” has a Latin flair, and if I knew the steps to one, I might be tempted to do a Latin dance. “I Gotta Go” reminds me the most of his other work. The story of an orphan who steals and gambles his way right into more and more trouble, “I Gotta Go” is a toe-tapping tragedy that will lift your spirits even as the lyrics depress. But who among us hasn’t felt upbeat even when faced with certain death?

I can’t help but think the line “I’m wasting time standing here, I gotta go” is also Keen’s not-so-veiled smirk at our over-caffeinated, texting-addicted, hurried society. This is particularly evident when juxtaposed with the next song on the album, the mellow “Lay Down My Brother.” With a little bit slower tempo, this song seems to be encouraging us to “take it easy, take it slow,” an admonition that might help us all live longer.  “Lay Down My Brother” has nice harmonies, which is frankly when Keen sounds the best.

“The Road Goes On and On” is a satisfying insult song that harkens back to one of Keen’s best loved songs “The Road Goes on Forever.” We’ve all encountered phonies who are so full of themselves that we just wanted to cuss. Keen captures the feeling well with such hurtful criticisms as “you’re malicious and downright cruel, superstitious, so uncool,” “you’re a regular jack-in-the-box in your clown suit and your goldilocks” and the coup de gras, “all duded up in your cowboy crocs.” Wow, now that’s a cowboy insult if I ever heard
one.

Ready for Confetti
Ready for Confetti album cover

I’m convinced that “Top Down” is best listened to live. The studio isn’t kind to Keen’s ability to hold pitch, but I admire the fact that it doesn’t sound artificial and over-modulated. Like “The Road Goes On and On,” this jazzy song seems to be poking at the stars who drive around with the “top down” and believe that “everbody’s clapping and it’s all about you.”

If “Top Down” makes you doubt, Keen returns to a familiar sound in “Play a Train Song.” From the opening guitar licks and harmonica strains, you know REK is back on his turf. Anyone familiar with his discography will immediately recognize his nod to the genre of train songs that Keen himself has helped populate over the years with such songs as “Number 9 Coal” and “Whenever Kindness Fails.”

Way back when I worked at The Macon Telegraph, page designer and copy editor Randy Waters and I played a word game we liked to call “Who da’ man?” We would ask each other that question back and forth until those around us demanded we shut up. Well, in “Who Da Man,” Keen turns the question into an adjective as the song proclaims the advantages of being a “Who Da Man,” who is able to evade law enforcement and other life consequences as he somehow sneaks through life.

A Bigger Piece of Sky
A Bigger Piece of Sky album cover

“Paint the Town Beige” is a rerun from 1993’s “A Bigger Piece of Sky” album. I think Keen repeats the song on this album to tell us that he really has slowed down. Keen seems to be saying with this even more laid back version that he craves the quiet life, and he’s put crazy antics behind him.

The final song, “Soul of Man” evokes images of a men’s quartet in a country church on a dusty central Texas farm-to-market road complete with funeral home fans, men in boots and starched white shirts and women in bonnets. “Soul of Man” is Keen’s take on the hymn, “Where the Soul Never Dies,” which has been recorded by a variety of artists, including the Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs and even Hank Williams Sr. My fondness for traditional hymns makes this a fitting ending to the album in my mind.

Overall, it’s one of Keen’s most understated works, but enjoyable and meaningful if you find yourself feeling wrung out emotionally and stressed from the busyness of life. In the New South, we could all use a little more time to “lay down” and less “I Gotta Go” urgency.

REK may be an acquired taste for those who like good singing, but for the storytellers of the world, enjoy.