Beware of the sloppy joe

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.

A sloppy joe sandwich on a white rectangular plate with a blue gingham cloth in the background
Have plenty of napkins on hand and maybe look into some anger management before enjoying a good sloppy joe. Photo courtesy of Sweatpea Lifestyle

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.

And, eat your sloppy joes carefully.

My mother’s voice

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.

Sharon Wallace seated surrounded by her three sons and her husband
Mom and her boys, circa 2002

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.

What’s in a name, part 1

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.”

A young father holds his newborn son who is wrapped in a hospital blanket.
See what I mean about the hair?

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!

My earliest memory

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.

a German shepherd dog lying prone in green grass
Alas, but the only images of me with Tippi are on slides. This photo of a female German Shepherd from Vertrauen German Shepherds, a breeder in Kansas City, is the closest I could find to what Tippi looked like, or at least my memory of her.

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, don’t fail me now

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.

1978 light blue four-door Chevrolet Nova outside a mechanic's garage
This photo from a model cars enthusiasts forum is of a 1978 light blue, four-door Chevrolet Nova, exactly like the one that failed me when I was attempting my driver’s test in 1987.

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.

The best day ever

My family moved from Bedford, Texas, to Lake Wales, Florida, in the summer of 1982.

For a 12-year-old kid, that summer had been a good one. I finished sixth grade and was preparing to transition to junior high school. I had a season pass for the Six Flags Over Texas theme park. My family had an above-ground swimming pool which my brother and I enjoyed extensively every day. My little league baseball team, the Braves, won the league championship.

In fact, I was in the car on the way to the team’s end-of-season picnic when my parents broke the news to me that Dad had accepted the call to pastor a church in Lake Wales. The news was as exciting as it was surprising. What I knew of Central Florida came from a childhood visit to Walt Disney World. I had no idea what I was in for.

I often joke Lake Wales is the farthest away from the beach as you can get and still be in the peninsula of Florida. Located 40 miles south of Walt Disney World and 60 miles east of Tampa, Lake Wales is in the heart of rural Polk County. It is home to orange trees, retirees, and cows.

More than the culture shock of shifting from the urban Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the move to Florida created a social upheaval in my life. I lost my best childhood friends: Ryan Nowlin, who lived down the street; Eddie Yancey, my constant companion at church; and Fred and Robbyn Lister, brother and sister who because of our parents’ friendship frequently spent time at our house or had my brother and I as sleepover guests. I left them all behind when we moved in August, and it didn’t take long for the newness to wear off and loneliness to set in. I was a preacher’s kid in a new town and had no friends. The first year was tougher than I had imagined. Living in Florida was not like a trip to Disney World.

The following summer of 1983 was our first full summer as Floridians, and our Texas friends began making pilgrimages to spend time with us as they visited the Orlando attractions. The best day of that summer and one of the best days in my memory was a confluence of visits from the Yanceys and the Listers. Their vacations overlapped and culminated in a visit to the Magic Kingdom together.

Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1983 with people walking nearby.
This isn’t my photo from that day, but thanks to the good people at RetroWDW.com, a fully-owned subsidiary of the Lake Buena Vista Historical Society, I have this image from the Magic Kingdom from the same summer.

I grew up going to theme parks. As I said, the last summer we lived in Texas, I had a season pass to Six Flags Over Texas and was able to go five or six times. I loved thrill rides from the time I rode my first roller coaster called “The Big Bend.” I was 5 or maybe 6, and I remember the car clacking as it ascended the first hill.  I crouched in the seat next to my dad, gripping the foam-padded safety bar, white knuckled. From that moment on I was hooked, and I loved everything about roller coasters. I loved the buildup of anticipation as I stood in line as well as the feeling in the pit of my stomach on the drops.

As much as I enjoyed Six Flags and its coasters, that first trip to Disney World around age 9 or 10 opened my eyes to theme parks at a new level. Disney was not just a collection of rides. It was an escape from the real world. It was an immersion in a highly landscaped, thoroughly swept and cleaned environment that spurred the imagination with its attention to detail, authentic costumes, and painstakingly decorated themed areas of the park. When I went to the Disney parks, I was transported to another place and time, and I loved it.

That magical day with the Yanceys and Listers at the Magic Kingdom offered two appealing experiences at once: an escape from the real world and a respite from loneliness.

All these years later, the details of the day are fuzzy. I’m sure it was hot – it was Central Florida in either late June or July. I’m sure the lines were long – it was summertime at Disney World. I’m sure the food was fast and not nutritious – it was overpriced burgers and French fries. It was all those things, but it was also glorious.

The Listers had multi-day passes, and they had already been experiencing the parks before the day my brother, Lee, and I joined in the fun. With a couple of days head start, Fred and Robbyn had figured out how to maximize enjoyment for a day at the Magic Kingdom. Even though Lee and I were the locals, the Listers had learned how to squeeze in the most rides. Adding to the thrill of being with our friends was the sense that we were getting our money’s worth.

The Listers taught us a trick we would use on many repeat visits to the Disney parks in the pre-fast pass era. Hit the rides with the longest lines during the parades. At the time, Disney had several character parades in different areas of the park throughout the day, and at night, their “Main Street Electrical Parade” ran twice.

My intuition would have been to avoid Frontier Land when the characters were parading through it, but Fred and Robbyn taught us that as long as you didn’t get trapped on the wrong side of the street, you could ride Thunder Mountain Runaway Railroad several times during the half hour or so the streets were blocked off for the parade. That day we got in at least three rides in 30 minutes, unheard of in today’s Disney of at least 90-minute wait times.

The key to Space Mountain, by far the most popular roller coaster in the park, was to ride it during the night parades for the ultimate space experience. If memory serves, we rode Space Mountain nine times that day, once in the afternoon, and eight more times during the two nighttime parades. It was my all-time record for Space Mountain, a statistic that inexplicably takes up space in my brain to this day. I probably suffered internal injuries or a concussion from all the shaking and rattling my body endured.

Another highlight was the Haunted Mansion. The puns and creepy mystique made it a nighttime favorite as well. Reading the joke tombstones and anticipating the opening area of the room that stretches, which was really just a big, open-ceiling elevator, and the perfectly themed costumes and dispositions of the ride operators contributed to our love of the slow-moving ride. We were too young to view it as a time to make out with girlfriends. It was great fun to just soak in the safely spooky ambiance.

We may have skipped the parades, but we made time for the fireworks. According to the Listers’ formula, most visitors viewed the fireworks from Main Street near the front gate before leaving for the day. I’m sure that’s what the park’s management had in mind: Get guests to move toward the exit to help empty the park as soon as possible after the fireworks. The trick the Listers taught us was to watch the fireworks from the Adventureland side of Main Street, then hit the rides in Adventureland before the park closed. I lost count of how many times we rode the Pirates of the Caribbean that night, but I do distinctly remember singing “Yo ho, yo ho, the pirate’s life for me” all the way back to Lake Wales, driving Mr. and Mrs. Lister crazy.

The thrill rides were a blast and the sense of maximizing our time heightened the fun. But the one ingredient that made it such a great and memorable day was friendship. Having Eddie, Fred, and Robbyn with us brought back some of what we missed most about Texas. The lines we did have to wait in provided time to reminisce and crack jokes. Fred and Robyn were a few years older than us, so we were under their supervision and largely parent-free in our quest to explore every inch of the parks. It gave us a sense of freedom that Lee and I rarely felt being cooped up in lives of scrutiny that came with being preacher’s kids. We had not yet established any deep friendships, and that day was a reminder of what it felt like to be known, to be appreciated, and to have a shared history.

I lost count of how many times I have been to the theme parks that make up the now sprawling Walt Disney World Resort, but that day was by far the best. It beats out other visits with family and high school friends. It was better than day trips with girlfriends, including my eventual wife. That day was better than the multiple times I stayed on the property in one of the resorts and pushed my children around the parks in strollers and took too many pictures with poor, sweating people in character costumes.

I have experienced the magic of the Magic Kingdom, and it was grand. It helped me understand on a deep level that escaping from life’s stresses is OK every now and then. I learned that escape is necessary for relaxing, making memories, having fun, and reconnecting with old friends.

That day in the summer of 1983 was just the magic I needed.

Fists of fury

“I’m a runner, not a fighter” is my standard line when the subject of fighting comes up.

I am not prone to aggression, but twice in my life I found myself involved in the kinds of fisticuffs that boys have been getting into since the beginning of time.

vintage sketch of two men with mustaches boxing
My fighting form resembled the gentlemanly and antiquated form best described as “old timey.”

The first of these bouts occurred when I was about 10 or 11. We were living in Bedford, Texas, and a new kid my age named Brad moved in across the street with his mom and teenage brother. My friend Jason had lived in that house, and we had always played well together. It was only natural that Brad and I would become friends purely on the basis of age and proximity.

We played together outdoors mostly, riding bikes, pretending to be soldiers or re-enacting our favorite “Star Wars” scenes. Because his single mom worked, Brad and I were typically under the supervision of Brad’s brother when we played in and around his house. Brad’s brother, whose name I have stricken from my memory, often abused his authority, arbitrarily ending our playtime or mocking our play. He couldn’t have been older than 13, but he exuded an air of superiority to distance himself from us “little kids.”

Martial arts fascinated Brad’s brother. Like a lot of kids at that time, he had discovered Bruce Lee movies and he made a set of nunchucks from wood and rope. He practiced with his nunchucks in the garage while Brad and I pretended to have lightsaber duels in the driveway. It was during one such session that Brad’s brother inserted himself into our play. Without warning, he started calling us names and used words I was forbidden from ever using.

When Brad protested, his brother forced him to go inside and closed the manual garage door in my face. Angry at the injustice and Brad’s brother’s general air of superiority, I began to hit the garage door with my “lightsaber,” a cut off wooden broom handle about two-and-a-half feet long. After just a few swings, Brad’s brother raised the garage door and confronted me with more yelling and cursing. In a rage, I began hitting him with the broom handle. Several blows landed on his legs and hips.

Any unbiased observer could see I was clearly the aggressor, and for a brief moment I had the upper hand. But this was not a duel of equals. Taller and stronger, Brad’s brother picked up one of the wooden handles he was using to make another set of nunchucks. He dodged my swing and flashed the nunchuck skills he had been practicing, hitting me square in the temple. The blow ended the combat immediately. Blinded by pain and seeing stars, I dropped my own weapon and ran home, crying. I knew enough not to involve parents, and I also knew I had started it.

Brad and I remained friends, but after that incident, we stayed in my yard. I avoided his brother and never had any more problems. We moved to Florida a year or two later.

That first fight taught me not to start something with someone bigger than me, and if you have to fight, aim for the head.

Not long after we moved to Lake Wales, I had the second and final fight of my life. Predictably, it came during an unsupervised moment in P.E. class in the spring of seventh grade. I attended Lake Wales Christian School, a kindergarten through 12th grade institution operated by the church my dad had been called to pastor the year before, and all of the boys from 7th to 12th grades had physical education together. One sunny day as we made our way down the hill from the locker room in the gym to the backstop for a game of softball, my seventh grade classmate David Griner overtook me from behind, playfully slapping the top of my head with his baseball glove.

It wasn’t a malicious attack, but I didn’t take it well. For reasons still unclear to me, I didn’t appreciate and didn’t see his swat on the head as innocent. Adrenaline flowing, I immediately turned to square off against my adversary. David’s mocking smile invited a punch, and I obliged. I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t realize I was wearing my baseball glove. Though I am right handed, I inexplicably swung at him with my left hand. The leather Rawlings made contact with David’s lip, which immediately split spilling blood.

When he wiped his hand across his lip and saw blood, his playfulness evaporated. We squared off with the boys encircling us and began to wrestle, pulling at each other’s shirts and falling to the ground grappling in the Florida sand. In just a few seconds, several of the seniors stepped in and broke it up. David and I were wary of each other the rest of the day and probably for the rest of the week, but by the end of the school year, we were laughing about it with no lingering ill will.

It would be presumptuous to declare myself the winner of my fight with David, but I was the clear loser of my fight with Brad’s brother. My record in such contests wasn’t great, and as I matured, I learned to control my temper and found other ways to settle disputes.

The fights aren’t significant, and I’m not proud of them. They were stupid and childish, but they did teach me important life lessons. I do not advocate resorting to violence to sort out your differences, but getting walloped in the head and drawing blood in hand-to-hand combat gave me enough of a taste of fighting to know that calmer heads could arrive at better solutions.

Boys will be boys, but there are better ways to settle your differences.

The wisest person I’ve ever known

The Rev. Billy Mauldin was my pastor from birth until age 12 when my family moved to Central Florida. Brother Mauldin, as he was known in our home and in our church, embodied the calling of “pastor” for me and was my ideal for a preacher, counselor and leader.

Portrait of Pastor Billy Mauldin in a suit and tie. He is wearing glasses and standing in front of a blue background.
The Rev. Billy Mauldin

My earliest memories in life are of the nursery at First Baptist Church of Richland Hills, Texas, and my encounters with Bro. Mauldin in and around the church figure prominently. I can clearly see him in my mind’s eye emerging from the door to his office that opened onto the construction site behind the church building to tell us boys to stop throwing dirt clods against the bricks. And I can hear his voice ring out, “Lee Wallace!” when my brother reached down for one more clod to throw.

Bro. Mauldin had authority and dignity in the pulpit. His respect for the Bible and reverence for God were not artificial. His sincerity connected with me so profoundly that even when I didn’t understand all the words in his sermons, I understood the point. His ministry to our family was personal and infused with love. My parents had no better friend or trusted confidant.

Bro. Mauldin was one of the few people who exhibited a literal twinkle in his eye. At times his smile would be betrayed by a sadness in his eyes, but even in those moments, a tenderness and compassion came through that displayed genuine concern and affection for people.

He was tall with broad shoulders and hair that was always in place. Around me, he was almost always wearing a suit and tie, or else he had just taken off his tie after church. The rare times he was more casual and not in his “preacher’s suit” stick out in my mind. I remember him batting in a softball game at a church picnic, laughing from the porch swing during church camp at Jan-Kay Ranch and elbowing me at lunch to punctuate a joke at my father’s expense.

“You know, if your dad had been a girl, he would have been an old maid,” he would often say.

My dearest and most profound memory of Bro. Mauldin is of a Sunday immediately after church, when he welcomed me, all of 10 years of age, into his office and listened attentively as I declared through tears that I needed to be saved. I will never forget his kindness, smile, generosity, conviction and comfort in those moments as he led me through the sinner’s prayer and helped me experience the relief and elation of God’s forgiveness. He was with me at that life-changing moment and a week later when he baptized me.

He personified wisdom for me during my formative years as I sat under his preaching and experienced the blessing of his friendship. As a young adult I saw and appreciated how much his friendship meant to my dad, and when my dad couldn’t talk about his challenges in the ministry with anyone else, he could always count on Bro. Mauldin to listen and offer wise counsel.

I learned practical lessons from Bro. Mauldin as well. He lived in a modest but well-kept home that was always comfortable and welcoming. I experienced his hospitality firsthand the summer I turned 13 and spent a week with him and his wife, Jean, during a visit from Florida. He saved his money carefully and drove a new Oldsmobile or Cadillac every two years, always paying cash and never having to worry about maintenance or car repairs.

As I grew into adulthood, I appreciated that although he had deeply held convictions on the Bible and what it meant for our lives, he could see both sides of an issue. He was quick to point out, like a true prophet, the failings of both political parties in this country, though he was conservative through and through.

Bro. Mauldin passed away in March 2015, still very much a part of our family’s life up until his death. My youngest brother, Lyle, married his granddaughter, Nicole, and we were blessed to be connected by family as well as ministry.

Billy Mauldin was a role model, and his wisdom made a profound impact on me. I know many others from our days at First Baptist Church of Richland Hills who could say the same. I hope I have retained a bit of his humor, his kindness, his conviction and his wisdom and that it will be a part of my legacy when I’m gone.

Appreciating my brothers, part 1

Arthur Lee Wallace arrived on the scene on March 17, 1974, changing all of our lives. I was three-and-a-half and not convinced it was for the better. I eyed him with suspicion as he disrupted the established order that had me at the center. New baby Lee got all the attention. In my shyness, I shrank back from the cheek-pinches and glad handing. Lee stole the limelight.

Mother holds a young boy and a baby boy on her lap
In March of 1973, Mom brought this little guy home from the hospital. You can see my enthusiasm.

Our little St. Patrick’s Day leprechaun overcame a number of early illnesses and a crazy array of allergies to grow into one of my closest companions. As we both grew, the three-plus years that separated us didn’t seem to matter as much. Particularly when we moved from Dallas-Fort Worth to Lakes Wales, Florida, Lee was my constant playmate and only confidant. We shared a bedroom, so many hours of procrastinating sleep were filled with jokes and stories and imaginings.

As he grew and matured, Lee took to music both as an artistic expression of his creative impulse, and a sincere act of worship. Deeply spiritual and serious about his faith, Lee used his talent to express his love for Jesus and glorify God. Whether it was his voice, saxophone, piano or guitar, Lee’s musical talent always impressed me, and I still marvel at his ability to conduct a choir or orchestra.

A young boy in a plaid suits sits next to a screaming baby in a baby carrier on a sofa.
Despite appearances, I had nothing to do with Lee’s caterwauling on his first Easter, but, boy howdy, I sure was a sharp dresser.

Beyond his musical talent, I have always enjoyed Lee’s sense of humor. His wit is sometimes so dry and sarcastic that I don’t know how to take it when I’ve not had the pleasure of his company or conversation for a long time. He makes me laugh. His perspective finds humor in circumstances that would challenge a lesser person’s patience. His experience in ministry and public speaking has helped him hone his gift for comedy, but to me, he’s funniest one-on-one in the midst of day-to-day activities.

When we do have an opportunity to catch up, it’s his storytelling I enjoy most. Whether it’s describing a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles or a harrowing attack by an unleashed pit bull, Lee knows how to weave the details together to be poignant, suspenseful and hilarious, often all in the same tale. He’s always been truthful to a fault, but he knows how to season his stories with just a hint of exaggeration to give them impact. And when he gets on a roll, you will laugh until your abs hurt.

Two men in tuxedos
Lee was the first of the Wallace men to fall prey to matrimony, and he seemed so happy about it all.

My life and career have brought me into close and prolonged contact with preachers and other ministers. I never felt a call to local church ministry, but I’ve seen enough of it firsthand to know that sometimes ministers do not possess a strong work ethic. They feel that doing God’s work and making financial and reputational sacrifices entitles them to put forth less effort in their jobs.

Two of those Wallace boys… circa 2021.

Lee is not one of those ministers. He works hard and without complaint, understanding at a fundamental level that ministry is just as much about visiting the hospital and setting up tables as teaching a Sunday School class or preaching a sermon. He will clean toilets, mow grass, fry fish, wash cars, and visit people in their homes until he is completely spent, pouring himself into the lives of others. He has been a surrogate father to untold numbers of teenagers who needed Christ and the love and affirmation of an adult. He has been an encouraging presence to hundreds of elderly saints who needed a listening ear. I have always admired his dedication and approach to ministry, even if I have been concerned for his physical and emotional health.

A man and his wife and their teen-aged daughter stand on a bridge during the fall.
The boy turned out OK. This family portrait from a few years ago with his lovely wife, Karrie, and daughter Kalee, says it all.

Lee loves the Lord, his wife and daughter, and the church. He has the right priorities, and I love him for it.

Bravery isn’t the absence of fear

The concept of “being the man of the house” feels archaic in today’s equality-driven society, but in our home, that role comes with one unescapable duty: protect the occupants from bugs and critters.

That’s why I found myself doing battle in the middle of the night in my underwear with a little brown bat.

We moved to Lilburn, Georgia, from Macon in March of 2003. We were fortunate to find an affordable home with enough space to accommodate our growing family. It was located in a good school district and was only a 30-minute commute from my office. Built in 1973, the home had been updated in some ways and needed aesthetic improvements in others. One of the home’s best features was a large bonus room that had been converted from the garage. There were two huge closets, one we used for our computer desk and one that held all of our toys. It was the perfect playroom, and with a two-year-old, we spent most of our time in that room with a “Thomas the Tank Engine” DVD playing on the television.

The house also came with a big, tree-filled back yard. Developed in the 1970s, the neighborhood allotted a full acre per lot, and the huge, 30-plus-year-old pine trees in the back yard provided plenty of shade. The trees, including a huge magnolia and two silver maples in the front yard, also provided a habitat for a number of unwanted guests in our home. Those invaders helped us form a strong and long-lasting relationship with “Mr. Craig the Bug Man” to help keep our home bug-free. Because of Mr. Craig’s strong chemical defense, fulfilling my duty to serve and protect usually meant putting bugs out of their misery as the poison slowly took effect on their twitching carcasses or harvesting the stiff remains in the early morning before anyone else awoke to see the unpleasantness. I had not previously been called on to do hand-to-hand combat.

Our trees also provided ideal roosting spots for other potential unwanted guests in our home. At dusk in the spring and summer, I frequently saw bats dipping and diving, chasing mosquitoes and others flying insects. Not only did I admire their aerial maneuvers, but I appreciated their patrolling the skies around our house and eliminating pests. The eaves on our house had wire mesh screens covering the vent slats leading into the attic, but I never gave much thought as to why that was necessary. I certainly didn’t suspect that I would have an up-close encounter with the flying mammals.

We didn’t have an alarm system until our first home in Macon was burglarized. Thieves took some of Carla’s family heirloom jewelry and our two VCRs, but as with all break-ins, the biggest loss was our sense of security. Within a couple of days of the incident, we had an alarm system installed, complete with window-break sensors. These tricky devices set off the alarm every time we dropped a book, slammed a door or otherwise made a loud noise. The sensitivity of those sensors caused to me question our purchase every time they went off. Our experience with security systems on our Macon house taught us what to avoid, so when we moved to Lilburn and had an alarm system installed, we shifted from glass-break sensors to motion sensors. This seemed to be a good move until one night a few months after we moved in. We were tucked in our beds sleeping soundly when the house alarm was triggered by a balloon floating through the playroom.

The control panel was in our bedroom, and it revealed the source of the offending motion. The playroom was a natural point of entry since it was the first room you entered from the parking pad. We got used to the stuff in the playroom setting off the house alarm. So one spring night after a year or two of being lulled into complacency, I immediately suspected a balloon or some other similar offender when the alarm went off, and the playroom zone indicator light flashed. I got up, turned off the alarm, reset the system and stood there, waiting to see if this was not a drill. Less than a minute later, I got my answer. The alarm went off again. My heartbeat accelerated, and I thought, “This could be the real deal.”

Even though we possessed a handgun, given to us by my father-in-law after we got married, I went downstairs unarmed to investigate. I felt anything but brave as I knocked around and called out “Who’s there?” adopting the tactic of scaring an intruder away. I suspected something had fallen over in the toy closet, causing the door to open and setting off the motion sensor. I slowly navigated the back hall from the kitchen to playroom, flipped the light switch and scanned the empty playroom. Everything was in its place and the closet doors were still shut. The door was closed and dead bolted. The windows all appeared secure. I began to think we had a malfunctioning sensor on our hands.

That’s when it attacked.

Movement to my right caught my eye, and I instinctively ducked as something flapped past my head. It settled into the far corner of the room, resting on the upper molding. The little furry, winged creature stared back at me, likely as frightened as I was. My mind raced. How in the world was I going to get that thing out of my house?

Little Brown Bat on a white, flat surface exposing his teeth
Doesn’t he look fierce? Photo by Todd Cravens from Forsyth Wildlife.

I opened the back door and hoped he would find his way out. By this time, Carla had descended the stairs and called to me from the front of the house. I ducked back into the hallway and yelled back, “It’s a bat!” My worst fear wasn’t being bitten by a potentially rabid bat. No, hearing Carla’s voice made me realize I was truly I afraid the bat would escape the playroom and go exploring our home. There wasn’t a door to shut off the playroom from the rest of the house.

The bat remained in the corner for several minutes before I decided I had to take some action to encourage it to fly out of the open door. I retreated upstairs, went to my closet and emptied the dirty clothes from the laundry basket. It was the best I could come up with to use as a shield or a net. I went back downstairs and grabbed a broom from our closet of cleaning supplies just off the playroom. The bat hadn’t moved. My hastily conceived plan was to somehow trap him in the laundry basket using the broom. Once in the basket, I would keep the basket up against the wall or floor and move him to the back door where I would tilt the basket and release the bat into the night. Like I said, it was hastily conceived.

I approached the corner warily, laundry basket in my left hand, broom in my right. I was wearing only my boxers and realized if my neighbors were awake, they were getting quite a show.

When I got close enough to the bat, I triggered its motion sensors, and it took off again, flying to the opposite corner of the room. We played this zig-zag game of tag for about 10 minutes before the futility of my plan became apparent. That’s when the old cliché “blind as a bat” came to me. I had blinded him when I turned on the light. I knew if I turned off the light, the bat would have the upper hand, but it was more important for me to see him and know where he was at all times.

As the encounter dragged on, I decided I would have to risk a sneak attack and turn off the lights. The back-porch light was on, and moths and other flying bugs were doing their nightly dance around it. Hopeful the bat’s echolocation would click on in the darkness and the prey would catch his attention, I turned the playroom lights off and stood in the doorway to the hall with the laundry basket raised in front of my face to create a barrier to the rest of the house. After all of my vain attempts to dislodge our unwanted visitor, I finally turned to prayer.

Almost immediately the prayer was answered. I heard the now familiar rustle of furry wings move across the room and out the door. I quickly closed the back door and locked the deadbolt, as if that was necessary.

I flipped the lights back on and scanned the room again, finally lowering my broom sword and basket shield. With the adrenaline of the hunt still pumping, I took several deep breaths to slow my heart rate and calm down. Carla called out from the staircase asking if it was safe to inspect the scene of the intrusion for herself. I told her it was.

I had successfully defended her castle, proving myself worthy as the man of the house.