Holy costume, Batman, it’s Halloween!

Life is filled with difficult decisions. When you are the ages of my boys, one of the most agonizing choices is which costume to wear on Halloween. The conversation this year began in earnest about April.

The Wallace boys as Batman, Robin and little Batman
Gotham City would have no doubt been cleaned up a long time ago if Batman and Robin had been joined by a Batman Jr. to help out.

My boys have a bin of costumes from which they could select any number of identities: Power Ranger (Red), Power Ranger (Blue), cowboy, farmer, soldier, train engineer, train conductor, doctor, chipmunk (can’t tell if it’s Chip or Dale), Abraham Lincoln, Indiana Jones, Darth Vader, Bob the Builder, fireman and those are just the ones I can think of without really looking.

But these will never do. Each year, we must come up with something new. Gone are the days of rushing out to the retail outlet a couple of days before Halloween to pick up a flimsy, plastic (and highly flammable) suit with a stiff, plastic face mask with thin slits for eye holes, nostrils and mouth and a thin rubber band to hold it all together. Back in the day we didn’t
look any more like Superman or G.I. Joe than the man in the moon, but that’s just what everybody did.

In the New South, everybody has to have muscles. Costumes are much more realistic these days, if you call fake foam muscles on a three-year-old “realistic.” Every boy has the abs of Ryan Reynolds and the pecs of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This year, the official Wallace family Halloween costumes are the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin. And, well, Batman again. When you have three children it makes it difficult to be a crime-fighting duo. While the older two wanted their 3-year-old brother to dress up like one of Batman’s numerous nemeses, Carlton wanted no part of the Joker, Penguin, the Riddler, Two Face, etc.

So we have Batman, Robin and Batman Jr.

Most of what my kids know of Batman comes from two comic book series they’ve been reading and a Cartoon Network show, which is the basis of one of the comic books. The obsession grew when Harris wanted to watch a movie on his birthday. At the time, we were still among the 800,000 or so people who hadn’t dropped Netflix, so I went to the streaming options and found the 1966 ”Batman” starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Batman 1966 movie poster
The REAL Batman and Robin, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, minus phony abs.

They fell in love with the whole campy concept: everything with a “bat-” label, such as “Bat Cave,”  “Batmobile” and even “Bat Shark Repellent Spray;” not-so-scary villains in garish getups, the convenient placement of vehicles wherever Batman and Robin needed them, and, of course, the deductive dialogues between the caped crusaders frequently involving the phrases “Holy” and “Precisely!”

Current Batman obsession + a half hour of Internet shopping + $50 = Halloween costumes. Did you know that Americans spend nearly $7 billion on Halloween? That puts Halloween number two on the most commercialized holiday list behind only Christmas.

The costumes are getting good use, though, with a Trunk-or-Treat event at church, a costume party Saturday night and Trick-or-Treating on Monday night – not to mention all the photos that will be taken, digitally scrapbooked, Facebooked and shared with grandparents in a variety of media.

When the sugar-induced comas wear off, the Dark Knight, the Boy Wonder and the little Dark Knight will undoubtedly retire to the costume bucket where perhaps they can be recycled for some other Bat-o-philes in the future.

In the meantime, Carla and I have to begin thinking about our biggest Halloween decision: how to discard 20 pounds of candy without the boys noticing.

So what’s your costume this year? What was your favorite costume of all time?

Let us know and have a safe and happy Halloween.

Muzzle control

There once was a day when it was presumed that all Southern males intuitively knew how to handle a firearm. That day ended in Georgia when the state required everyone born after 1961 to take a hunter education course before applying for a hunting license.

Hunter safety
This is muzzle control. Note that both hunters are wearing orange to be seen by other hunters.

With the onset of deer season for firearms this weekend,  I couldn’t help but reflect on my experience in the classroom back in 1996 when I took the state’s 10-hour education course
so that I could go hunting with my then-girlfriend’s father. In hindsight I see the inherent danger in this scenario on several levels, but at the time, I blissfully signed up and dedicated myself to the art and science of hunter safety.

All hunters over the age of 12 are required to take the course, so for 10 hours of instruction, I found myself in a large, auditorium classroom on the Macon State College campus filled with more than 100 12-year-old boys. I looked like Jethro Bodine in sixth
grade cypherin’ class, two feet taller than my fellow pupils. Our assigned text was a coloring book.

Muzzle control.
Life lessons come in many forms.

The instructor was a pudgy man dressed in camo and khaki in alternating weeks. He led off his first lecture with all we really needed to know:

“Now, future hunters, the key to hunter safety is muzzle control,” he said with a nasally twang while holding a deer rifle out in front of him.

I energetically wrote this down in my coloring book.

The second class began with a series of videos starring Jim Varney, “The Misadventures of Bubba,” “The Misadventures of Bubba II” and “Bubba Goes Hunting,” in which Varney, channeling his Ernest P. Worrell character in the form of Bubba, teaches kids, presumably, important safety rules about hunting and guns.

Filling the margins of my coloring book with notes, I drew judgmental stares from the kids on
either side of me. I couldn’t tell if they were worried I was going to blow the curve or if they couldn’t believe I was so dense as to need notes on such important subjects as wearing orange and not shooting in the direction of another person.

Misadventures of Bubba video cover
And you thought I was making that up.

The night of the final exam – yes, I studied – I was not the first one to finish. I bubbled in
my answers, reviewing each step of field dressing a deer and other notable components of hunter education. While my anxiety level wasn’t quite what it was when I took the SAT, I felt the pressure of being the only adult and needing to pass the first time. Although, to be honest, if I had failed, I would have enjoyed more misadventures of Bubba.

But I passed with flying colors, and soon armed with a 30-06 deer rifle, a hunter education
certificate, head-to-toe camo and an orange vest, I found myself in November of 1996 sitting in a deer stand on my future father-in-law’s land, shivering in the darkness. This is when I learned that real hunter safety involves keeping warm and not going to sleep and falling out of the tree.

I hunted with Mr. Barron for four or five years, firing my gun only once. I saw the deer clear as day, but subconsciously, I think I didn’t want to hurt it. My reluctant aiming
resulted in a warning shot that sent the deer scampering away unharmed.

Fortunately, our oldest son came along and weekend visits to the in-laws didn’t require sitting in tree stands anymore because everybody wanted to see and play with the baby.

My lack of success or longevity as a hunter doesn’t really bother me. I learned one truth
through it all that has served me well ever since: muzzle control. If you learn this simple but profound skill, you will keep yourself safe in a lot of circumstances.

Happy hunting!

A foot in two states

Heavy clouds and the threat of rain couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for a trip on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway last Monday for Carlton’s third birthday.

Lance and Carlton on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway
Lance and Carlton inside car 549 on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway

For weeks leading up to the big event, I felt pangs of sentimentality about my youngest son following the same journey as his brothers from toddlerhood to full blown boyhood. I wanted – maybe even needed – this day to be meaningful and memorable.

After a 2-hour circuitous journey from Lilburn to Highway 5 that took us through Forsyth and Cherokee counties, we arrived in the quaint town of Blue Ridge all set for our low-speed adventure.

Thanks to a school holiday there were a few families among the 515 passengers on the full train, but the clientele was mostly seniors, including a group of Lutherans who filled our car. My wife and I had agonized over the decision to purchase seats in a closed car rather than an open air car. As it turned out, we had plenty of opportunity to enjoy both.

With the airbrakes wheeshing and the whistle blowing, the Lutherans belted out a rousing rendition of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” It was value added.

The train covered the 13-mile journey to McCaysville in right at an hour. The leaves weren’t quite at their peak, but we weren’t really looking at the leaves. The boys seemed more interested in the snack bar and the on-board toilet.

I could write an entire essay on the juxtaposition of the hillside mountain homes with the ramshackle houses along the Toccoa River, but let’s just say the scenery was a mix of urban escapism and quaint nostalgia backdropped by an occasional golden- or crimson-leafed hardwood.

When we got to McCaysville, our volunteer hostess, Frances, helped us escape the train before the Lutherans, allowing us to get at the front of the line at Georgia Boy BBQ. After pulled pork sandwiches, slaw, beans and sweet tea, we poked around in the railway’s northern terminus gift shop before following the walking map to McCaysville City Park overlooking the river.

The boys worked out their restlessness, and Carlton met a friend, a boy about his age with the appropriately Southern name of Atticus. They pointed at ducks in the river, enjoyed the slide and swung on their stomachs like toddlers do.

Blue Ridge Scenic Railway engine
Thankfully, the engines don't talk or sing on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.

We headed back a few minutes before the train gave the four blasts on its whistle to signal the return trip to Blue Ridge. Carrying Carlton, I stopped at the blue dotted line in the parking lot of the IGA grocery store.  Frances had told us it was the state line, separating McCaysville, Ga., from Copper Hill, Tenn.

Deriving an odd thrill, I straddled the line, holding Carlton close.

“Hey, buddy. We’re in two states now,” I said, prompting a puzzled look from the newly-minted three-year-old.

That’s how I felt – a foot in two states. I still wanted to be a parent of a toddler, at least for a day longer, but I knew Carlton was quickly maturing into boyhood.

There would definitely be more monumental birthdays and more significant rites of passage along the way, but for me, this was the moment I had been searching for to validate my grieving the loss of Carlton’s infancy and early childhood.

The ride back was nap inducing, but Carlton sat in my lap and forcibly held my eyelids open. He didn’t want me to miss anything. Though drowsiness almost overtook me, I didn’t want to miss anything either. It all goes by too quickly, even on a slow train.

We concluded the experience with a fried apple pie at Mercier Orchards and set off back toward Atlanta. It had been a good day. The Blue Ridge Scenic Railway provided a journey I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

Two nights in Texas

Kate Campbell
Kate Campbell

Mississippi-born singer songwriter Kate Campbell intruded into my awareness in the late ‘90s, and since then, each lyrical and patently Southern album she releases is a must-own in my limited collection.

On Sept. 27, she released her latest, a live album called “Two Nights in Texas,” with recordings from back-to-back shows April 8-9, 2010, at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas.

The 14 tracks showcase Campbell’s diverse range of styles and topics, although all are grounded firmly in the red clay of Dixie.

Her repertoire, while not exclusively ballads, tells stories. I had the opportunity to hear Kate explain her songwriting process back in 2005 at a conference in San Antonio. That peek behind the curtain has helped me hear the stories she tells even as I tap my foot or sing along.

Of course, I’m partial to “New South,” a 2002 song chronicling the obvious as well as the subtle changes to southern living that indicate even tradition-laden Southerners are evolving. The version on “Two Nights” is a little more up-tempo, and the dobro gives it a rich sound.

A compelling element to the album is a seamless medley called “The Steal Away Trilogy.” At a little more than eight minutes, the piece includes her songs “Would They Love Him Down in Shreveport,” “Peace Comes Stealing Slow” and “Steal Away.”

As a fellow preacher’s kid, I resonate with the way she weaves deeply spiritual themes into her stories, letting hymns, Southern gospel and spirituals infuse and inform her music. I like that I can put the windows down and turn up the car stereo, as she suggests, and crank out “See Rock City” or mull the truths of “10,000 Lures” in mellow contemplation.

Of “10,000 Lures” Kate says from the stage: “My mama said ‘I believe that song could go in the Baptist hymnal.’ I said ‘I don’t believe the word ‘voodoo has ever been in the Baptist hymnal.’”

Two Nights in Texas album coverThough I’ve heard it dozens of times, I’m still haunted by “Crazy in Alabama,” and this rendition is a good one. The story of the Fall of Adam gets a Mississippi Delta reinterpretation in “Genesis Blues.” Your heart will melt when you remember your old home place as Kate reminisces on “Tupelo’s Too Far,” and I defy you to listen to “Look Away” without feeling a pang of regret at how insidious the snare of racism has been in the South.

As I’ve previously stated in this space, I’m more of a writer than a musician, but unlike some singer songwriters, Kate has a beautiful voice that can lilt or twang depending on the context. And on this album, the very accomplished musicians accompanying her deserve credit, including Sally Van Meter on dobro, Scott Ainslie on guitar and Don Porterfield
on bass.

If you’ve had the misfortune of missing out on Kate’s music this long, I urge you to start with this live album. Kate spins a good story with or without music, and her comments captured on the album will give you a taste of her colorful personality, eye for telling details and sharp wit.

After you’ve soaked in “Galaxie 500,” “Free World,” “Cotton Field Away,” “Jesus and Tomatoes” and the rest, you’ll be ready to appreciate her broad discography. My recommendation: Listen to “Two Nights in Texas” for a few weeks, then go and buy everything she’s ever recorded.

I promise the experience will make you wiser and more in tune with Southern culture in all its expressions.