What I learned from being a ‘Big’

As a husband and father, many of the choices I make are inherently selfless because there are so many people for whom I am responsible. This is baked into the experience of middle age; it doesn’t even register with me as selfless.

What stands out in my mind as one of the most selfless acts I’ve performed was a commitment I made to serve as a “Big” in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in Macon, Ga. This seems so long ago now, back in the early 1990s when I was single and on my own. It was back when being selfless was not baked into my stage of life.

A boy standing next to a boy in a motorized wheel chair.
Cleven and Steven possessed infectious joy.

I went to work as a features writer at The Macon Telegraph in August of 1992 right out of what was then Troy State University. After a summer of working at home mowing lawns and doing odd jobs around my dad’s church office, I was ready and excited to begin my post-college journalism career and live on my own. I don’t think I was any more selfish than any other person at that age who by necessity focuses on themselves as they start their career and begin their life separate from their family. I was in a new place among new people. While I did seek a church, I was not looking for community involvement. As a single guy in my early twenties, volunteering was not high on my to-do list. A series of personal connections put it on my list.

Ed Grisamore was a columnist and long-time news reporter at The Telegraph who was growing into a fixture in the community he chronicled. As his career progressed and the senior members of the writing staff retired, Ed became THE columnist, writing compelling human-interest stories several times a week. Ed’s wife, Delinda, ran the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization, and she frequently visited Ed in the newsroom. The features staff sat up at the front of the newsroom, and with her outgoing personality, Delinda never failed to speak to us and engage us with good humor and a positive disposition. She was a welcomed distraction in our day.

Delinda was also an outstanding ambassador for Big Brothers/Big Sisters and never missed an opportunity to promote her organization and her cause. The young people of Macon and Bibb County needed mentoring. They needed adults in their lives who could invest in them. The problem she kept running into was the time commitment. There simply weren’t enough people willing to give the time to a child that the program required. In hindsight I see now that I would never again have so much free time, but back then I, too, felt l was too busy to take on such responsibility. “I don’t have the time” was an excuse, and a poor one at that.

The day Delinda approached me about participating in a new program through the schools requiring only one hour a week, I was defenseless. Tailor-made for people who thought they were too busy to take on the full schedule of having a little brother or sister in the program, this special pilot project let the school counselors identify which students could benefit most from an adult’s involvement. They provided a space at the school for the student and their mentor to meet, and the time was typically around lunch. This allowed the big brother or sister to socialize with their student as well as time to work on academic subjects they needed help with or issues they needed to work out. Delinda recruited several of us in the newsroom during one of her visits, and the built-in accountability of knowing other colleagues had been asked took away any objection I might raise. I signed up, got the background check, and in no time I was sitting at a conference table in the library of Tinsley Elementary being introduced to a third grader named Cleven.

Our first meeting proved challenging. He was friendly, outgoing and delightful, but he would not sit still. He crawled under, around and over the top of the table. Always smiling, he ran circles around the table, and our conversation was halting at best. His incredibly short attention span and hyperactivity were clear issues that would need to be dealt with. But there was something intangible about him that melted my heart. He was so happy and kind. He thrived on winning my attention, affection and approval.

We started by reading together. He read a page, and I read a page. We gradually worked our way up from board books to chapter books, and his counselors reported great improvement in his reading scores. I began to notice, too, that his personality seemed to become more subdued. He was often tired and would put his head down during our sessions. I learned that Cleven had been prescribed medication, and while it was working at calming him down in the classroom, it was making him sleepy and lethargic.

Our lunches were always interesting. At 6-foot-4, I stood out in the elementary school lunch line. His classmates interrogated Cleven about me every time I showed up.

“Who is that?”

“He’s tall!”

“Cleven, is that your daddy?”

Cleven thought the questions were hilarious.

“Nah, he’s just my friend,” he would say.

Tinsley was in the heart of Macon, and Cleven rode the bus from South Macon each day. Tinsley had a program in which kids with a range of physical and/or mental disabilities were integrated into the classroom and not kept apart in special education classes. Cleven was at Tinsley because he had a twin brother, Steven, who had developmental disabilities and was confined to a motorized wheelchair. When I met Steven, I couldn’t miss the resemblance. Steven was as bright and cheerful as his brother. He performed better academically because he was not as prone to distraction as his twin. They gave each other a hard time, but they were mostly sweet together. It was clear that Cleven craved attention partially because his brother received so much of it, by necessity.

When I left The Telegraph to work at Mercer University, I continued to see Cleven once a week during the school year. My new boss, Ben, recruited me to coach a youth basketball team in his church’s Upward Basketball League, a type of youth sport focused on learning the game, building teamwork, and exposing families to faith. Ben thought it might be a good idea to involve Cleven. I got permission from Big Brothers/Big Sisters to transport Cleven from his house to the church for weekly practices and games, and our relationship began to take on a new dimension.

Cleven had never played team sports before, but he was a natural athlete. He was quick and showed good hustle, even if his dribbling and shooting skills were underdeveloped. Upward Basketball divvied up its teams on the basis of skills. Each participant performed a series of drills and was evaluated during a try out. The teams were formed so that talent was evenly distributed across the league. On paper this was a great organizing principle. In practice, however, Upward neglected one key characteristic that impacts success at basketball – height. I had a team with quickness, sound ball handling and decent shooting, but the boys were all undersized. This disadvantage emerged in our first game. When kids who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time loomed over our little players repeatedly blocking their shots. We also had the mathematical anomaly of addition by subtraction. After all the tryouts had happened, teams assigned and practices started, we were assigned a new player. We were not introduced to this new player until the first game. He lived with his grandparents, and like a lot of the boys, had never played sports before, much less basketball. He showed up late for the first game, and when he arrived in the gym, without a uniform or even a sense of which team he was on, he immediately charged onto the court and started harassing the dribbler and trying to steal the ball. I had a lot of work to do.

The season lasted eight or 10 weeks, and our team improved. Cleven and I bonded. On Saturdays, I would load Cleven and Steven into the cab of my little Chevy S-10 pickup, strap Steven’s mechanized wheelchair into the bed of the truck and head to the church gym for our weekly thrashing. We lost every game.

My favorite part was seeing Cleven develop a rapport with the other boys and listen to Steven’s post-game analysis on the way home.

“Cleven, your team is terrible!” Steven would say with brutal honesty. “You guys can’t even shoot the ball.”

“Shut up, Steven.”

“I mean, you pass it around real good, but you can’t get it in the basket.”

“Yeah, well you can’t even walk. What do you know about basketball?”

One weeknight after practice, I had to take one of my other players home in addition to Cleven. He lived way out in North Macon, practically in Monroe County. As we rode out of the city limits and deeper into the woods, Cleven asked excitedly, “Where are we going? There aren’t any lights out here. We must be in the country now. I’ve never been to the country.”

Cleven and I went a lot of places we had never been before. I was introduced to his parents one day when I was still working at The Telegraph. My editor, David, who was bent on expanding my cultural horizons, insisted on taking me to his favorite soul food restaurant. It happened to be the one where Cleven’s parents both worked. I could see the family resemblance with his father immediately. He inherited his father’s smile and his mother’s kindness. As I watched David eat his pig’s ear and grin, I couldn’t help but wonder who benefitted most from this relationship, me or Cleven.

The program ended when Cleven went on to middle school. I called him occasionally for a few years to keep in touch, but then my life took its own turns. I got married, we bought house, we started a family, we moved to the Atlanta area, and over time I lost track of Cleven. A few years back I found him on Facebook. He seemed to be well and doing fine. At least that’s what his curated social media presence showed. In any case, I hope I made a difference to him. He certainly did to me.

It’s hard to call this a selfless act, though, because I gained so much from it. Doing something for someone else and becoming involved in his or her life with no strings attached and no expectations of receiving anything in return was transformative. It prepared me for the stage of life I’m in now. It helped me grow as a person. It defined my character. I am grateful Cleven was a part of my life.

Just Like Mama Used to Say

I really miss colorful, old-timey idioms in everyday speech.

Original turns-of-phrase catch my ear and bring joy to my heart. The better a person is at coming up with such quips on the spot, the more I admire them for their quick wit, intellect and personality.

You know the kind of sayings  I’m talking about: “Dumber than a bag of hammers,” “Best thing since sliced bread,” “Poor as Job’s turkey,” “Useful as a screen door on a submarine” among others. I found an interesting starter-pack compilation over at HotToddy.com if you need a refresher.

Back in October when I was watching a lot of ESPN College GameDay, on account of my interest in glimpsing a certain Redcoat Marching Band trumpeter on the TEE-vee, I was treated to a special session of a Southern master of the art at the height of his game. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy was the guest picker for the segment when the show’s hosts and analysts pick the winners of the biggest games of the day concluding with Lee Corso donning the headgear of the mascot of the team he thinks will win the game of the week.

Georgia was hosting Kentucky in Athens and Foxworthy was the celebrity guest picker. He not only had interesting insights about each game, he crafted a special metaphor to match. My favorites were “tighter than Aunt Trudy’s stretch pants the day after Thanksgiving” and “As welcomed as a muddy dog at a wedding.” You can watch the whole segment over at the YouTube.

To be honest, I wish I was better at idiomatic language. I find that I increasingly cannot easily recall names, places, titles or even sometimes simple words in everyday conversation, nevermind being original, hilarious and insightful with my comparisons. But there’s hope.

Friends, I’m here to say that I’ve discovered the perfect antidote to mundane palaver. If you aspire to quintessentially Southern oratory, run, don’t walk, to the internet and pick yourself up a new card game that will test your creativity and provide hours of family fun, not to mention practice at being the envy of all your dialogical partners.

Just Like Mama Used to Say is a card game from the Birmingham, Alabama,-based media company It’s a Southern Thing. If you are a self-identified Southerner, your social media algorithms have probably brought their videos to your feeds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok.

During our COVID-impacted Christmas vacation, our family thoroughly enjoyed Just Like Mama Used to Say. We gave it to our oldest as a gift because he shares my love of Southernisms and making just the right comparison. It was a hit.

From our first session, we had some doozies. My favorites were “His truck was as fast as a pack of wiener dogs on a treadmill.” I don’t know that a pack of wiener dogs is all that fast, but it sure is fun to say.

Harris, Carla and Barron Wallace playing a card game called "Just Like Mama Used to Say."
“Just Like Mama Used to Say” entertained us mightily during some unplanned COVID-related down time during the holidays.

Gameplay is easy. If you’ve ever played Apples to Apples, you will immediately know how this game works. Players draw cards containing phrases, put them together to make an original phrase that is then selected as the winner of that round by the designated judge. Each player in turn gets a chance to be the judge, and the topics of each round are selected by random draw of a set of cards. The winner is the first person to have five of their idioms chosen. You can shorten or elongate games by decreasing or increasing the number of times your combination of cards is chosen, but you get the point. It’s as easy as instant grits.

After you’ve mastered the original deck of cards, you can order the “Back to School” and “Go to Church” expansion packs. It’s more fun than poking doodle bugs with a chopstick.

So if you appreciate a well-turned phrase, I encourage you to join me in committing to putting in the effort to be more colorful with your language. Maybe you have a few such sayings in your family’s collective memory you can bring back, if only to use ironically. Some may not have aged well, but if you act like you’ve got some sense, you can navigate those sensitivities.

Meanwhile, I’m going to be working on my material over on the Twitter. Not all of them will be winners, so y’all just give me a little grace. My hope is that in making the attempt, I can contribute to elevating our discourse, bringing a little laughter to our lives and inspiring others to make an effort at connecting and communicating.

I don’t know about you, but I could sure use a good dose of all that right about now.

Do you have any favorite Southern idioms? Leave a comment. You can even try out a few original lines. I promise no one will judge. We might say “Bless your heart,” but we won’t judge. 

My spelunking adventure

In February 2008, not long after my oldest son, Barron, turned 7, the two of us went with our Cub Scout pack to Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, Tennessee.

The excursion included a walking tour, an adventure tour, spending the night in the cave, and eating breakfast underground the next morning. It was Barron’s first overnight trip with scouts, and my first spelunking experience.

Boy with a headlamp helmet on carrying a flashlight in a cave
Barron, age 7, navigated the cracks and crevices way better than his old man.

We made the Saturday drive up to McMinnville, and it was dark when we arrived. The weather was cold and nasty, with scattered accumulations of snow. We parked in a large, roped-off field, gathered our gear and hiked the few hundred yards to the rendezvous point in front of the cave. The cave entrance was large and inviting, and as a host of Cub Scouts and their families gathered, we had nothing at all to be afraid of. The temperature inside the cave was a consistently cool 56 degrees year-round, so even with freezing conditions above ground, a sweatshirt and light jacket was enough to keep me comfortable. Barron felt fine in long sleeves and a jacket.

There were about 50 of us from Pack 502 who made the trip, and we had a designated sleeping area inside the cave for our group. The caverns’ staff directed us to our place, an open stretch of cave with a 10-foot ceiling at its apex that gradually sloped to the floor on both sides. We found a spot that didn’t feel too confined, and Barron helped me lay out our tarp, foam pads and sleeping bags. In just a few minutes, we were ready for the tour to begin.

A guide led our group on the introductory walking tour of the spacious rooms not far from the entrance. Electric lights illuminated the paths and the rooms, and a glass chandelier and disco ball adorned the ballroom-like “Ten Acre Room,” which our guide explained was rented out for special occasions such as weddings and concerts. It was easy walking with no climbing or crawling. There was nothing to be afraid of.

They extinguished the lights for a full minute to demonstrate the sensation of total darkness. In the dark, the guide told us the story of surveyor Aaron Higgenbotham who discovered the cave in 1810. He was alone, and his torch went out while he was perched on a high ledge. He was trapped in the cave for three days before a rescue party found him. According to local legend, his hair had turned white, and he acted strange for the rest of his life. The story gave me my first shudder, and when the lights came back on, I breathed a sigh of relief and checked my flashlight batteries.

We learned about stalactites and stalagmites, why we shouldn’t touch the mineral deposits and rock formations, and the rule of three: “Always tell three friends where you are going, carry three sources of light, and always have three points of contact when climbing.” The tour demystified the cave, and it felt less intimidating the longer we spent in the more commercial spaces of the tour. Despite the darkness demonstration, I was lulled into thinking caving was no big deal. After a couple of hours, we were ready for the “adventure tour.”

It was about 10 p.m. when they called the more intrepid of our group together, and those not wanting to explore the more challenging areas of the cave were free to relax or go to bed early. The rest of us were lined up to crawl through a wooden box that was 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide to prove we could fit through some of the tighter squeezes in the tunnels. I easily squirmed through the box, a little full of myself for being physically fit, unlike some of the parents who were not able to go on the tour because they couldn’t fit through the box. One of the larger scout dads asked me to take his son in our group because he couldn’t fit, and I happily obliged.

The tour started easily enough with a few climbs, crawls and tight spaces. We were near the back of the group, but we all had our flashlights and could hear our female guide’s reassuring voice. About a half hour into the tour, however, the adventure really began. A fissure with an indistinguishably long drop required us to climb a series of metal ladders embedded in the rock. Barron and his friend with the too-big-for-the-box dad easily scampered up the rungs and waited for me on the other side. I made it without a problem but the final people in our party, a family of three completely decked out in obviously new and expensive REI spelunking gear, struggled to get across. Ever the good scout, I did my “good turn” by helping them across. When we were safely on the other side, we were confronted with two passageways and no sign or sound of the group or our guide. I thought I heard voices to the left, so I led our little band that direction and crawled on.

In just a few minutes, the need for an 18-by-24 test box became evident. Not wearing a helmet, I had to carefully maneuver so as not hit my head, trying to aim my flashlight in front of me while I pulled myself along with my forearms and knees. I was initially encouraged by our progress and was convinced that this was just a short tunnel. Doubt creeped into my mind the longer I crawled without seeing or hearing anyone in front of me. I tried to keep this disconcerting fact from the two seven-year-olds in my care and the REI family.

“It’s just a little farther,” I called back to them trying to reassure myself just as much as my followers.

But the cramped crawl space continued.  After what seemed like an eternity but what was only about 20 minutes, the son of the big dad started repeating, “We’re lost… we’re going to die.”

I held panic at bay and kept us crawling forward. It was clear my expectation of encountering one or two tight spots the size of the box was a miscalculation. We had been crawling on our bellies for a half hour, and it had been even longer since I had seen someone in front of me. I regretted taking the left-hand path back at the fork, and the refrain of “We’re lost… we’re going to die” eroded my thin veneer of calm.

“Listen, we are not going to die,” I finally said emphatically.

We pushed on into the darkness, and my limited, panic-influenced vision created the sensation that the crawlspace was narrowing the further we went. I could not imagine hitting a dead end and having to reverse course.

Just when I was convinced I had led us the wrong way, I heard voices in front of me.

“They’re up ahead, guys. We’re almost through,” I said to our group.

Less than a minute later, we emerged into a large room and were greeted by our guide.

“Glad you made it. I was about to head back in there to find you.”

The rest of the adventure tour was a piece of cake. The biggest challenge was keeping your shoes on as the floor of the cave was covered in a sticky, slippery mud. Navigating the tunnels was much easier, and the trail was often open vertically for 10 to 20 feet, allowing me to stand upright. We explored for about an hour before we came to another small opening which immediately triggered my fear. I just knew we were about to be forced onto our bellies again for another prolonged period of snaking along the ground in the dark.

I got down on my knees again and proceeded through the hole. In just a few feet, I came out with the noise of the campers standing directly in front of our tarp and sleeping bags. Exhausted but relieved, I turned to the boys, who both looked supremely pleased with themselves for not getting lost and dying.

We brushed our teeth and readied for bed. Little did I know that the real adventure would be trying to sleep in a cave full of snoring scout dads. From that trip forward, I always remembered to pack ear plugs on camp outs.

I wasn’t the least bit claustrophobic before heading underground, but after spending a night spelunking, I developed a healthy suspicion of enclosed spaces.

First born

I am the firstborn son of a firstborn son, but it wasn’t until my first son was born 21 years ago that I began to understand how little I knew about being a parent.

Carla and I waited until she finished her master of social work degree before having children. It took us a little while to get pregnant. I never liked the phrase “we’re trying to get pregnant” when describing our status as a young couple because everyone knows what causes pregnancy. It seemed a little too revelatory and put visuals in people’s minds I’d rather them not have.

Carla Barron Wallace holds her newborn son, Barron, in the hospital room.
Life changed forever in this moment, 21 years ago.

That summer day I learned we were pregnant is burned into my memory. I returned from a morning run and was stretching on the back deck of our small, brick house on Highpoint Drive in Macon, Georgia. Carla came to the back window of what would become our baby’s room and held up a pregnancy test. It took it a minute to dawn on me what she was saying. She came out the back door and despite my sweat and odor, she hugged me, and through tears said, “It’s positive!”

Telling family and friends was the fun part. In the pre-social media days of the year 2000, there wasn’t as much pressure to be instantaneous. We didn’t have to worry that word would leak out through Facebook or Twitter, and loved ones would find out, offended they hadn’t heard it from us directly. There were considerations, however. We were due to spend a week with my family at a cabin on Lake Eufaula in Alabama. We could not imagine telling my family before Carla broke the news to her parents, who themselves experienced great difficulty in conceiving. An only child, Carla knew how much the news would mean to them and strongly desired to tell them in person. Despite the geographic inconvenience, on the day we were due at Lake Eufaula, we got up early and drove east to Sandersville to surprise Mama and Daddy.

They were down by the lake where Daddy was building a brick barbecue pit when we arrived. Making sure he could hear us, Carla loudly announced our news. Mama squealed with delight, and Daddy issued a laughing “Sho ‘nuf?!?” Tears of joy flowed.

Telling my family proved to be a little more fraught. Buoyed by bringing Mama and Daddy into our little secret, we drove to Eufaula deciding that dinner would be the best time to break the news. When we arrived at the cabin, we learned that my dad had not made the trip because of his health. He had not yet been diagnosed with diabetes, so his absence was confusing and disappointing. Undaunted, we shared the news with my two brothers, my sister-in-law and my mom over combination dinners at the Mexican restaurant in downtown Eufaula. The response was more subdued than when we told Mama and Daddy, but such is the way of things with my family. There was still joy, and they offered sincere congratulations.

Those nine months of preparation were by turns interminable and fleeting. I started a master of business administration program at Mercer University, taking a prerequisite economics class during the day with undergraduate students and a corporate accounting class with the MBA students two nights a week. As diligent as I was in my studies of earnings, asset ratios and debt loads, I was even more intensely studious about childbirth and infancy. I read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Now That You’re a Dad,” and a big medical book, “Conception, Pregnancy and Childbirth.” Knowledge gleaned from books on a subject as experiential and instinctive as having a child is insufficient. It is a classic example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.”

I was anxious about the health of the baby and Carla’s condition. I worried for her when I thought about the labor and delivery. The minor inconveniences I had to endure were nothing compared to Carla’s adapting to hormones and her ever-changing body. My strongest memory is of our sleeping arrangements. Our first bed was a full-size, perfect for snuggling when it was just the two of us. But when she started growing and needed a body pillow to find a comfortable sleeping position, there was less and less real estate for me. Carla always was a “tuck-and-roll” sleeper, grabbing more and more blanket with each turn throughout the night. That combined with her keeping the air conditioning lower to accommodate her elevated body temperature helped prepare me for the sleepless nights that awaited us once our bundle of joy arrived.

Carla is not into delayed gratification. She is a planner, so knowing the sex of the baby was vital for making decisions on paint colors, window treatments and bedding in the baby’s room. I was fine to know, and I didn’t see any point in going into the big day even less prepared by keeping the sex a secret. We found out at the 20-week ultrasound appointment we were having a boy.

That’s when the name game started in earnest. We knew early on we wanted Carla’s maiden name “Barron” to be the first name. We were committed to having family names only. We also liked pairing “Barron” with my middle name “Elliott,” which was also Dad’s middle name and his mother’s maiden name.

Going into the holidays, it was nice to know that swelling in Carla’s belly was our son, Barron. I even on occasion did that awkward thing new parents do of reading to him in utero. It added to the expectation and joy. Traditionally, we spent Christmas day with Carla’s parents and then traveled to Florida see my family the days immediately following. With the due date coming so close to Christmas, we didn’t feel we should travel 8-10 hours away, and with Carla’s growing discomfort and frequent restroom visits, a car trip was out of the question. My Dad and youngest brother came up with presents from my side of the family after Christmas while Mom stayed behind in Lake Wales to look after her mother. It was a quick trip, but at least it allowed us to keep connected with my family as we anticipated the arrival of the first grandchild for both sides of the family.

One of my favorite parts of the preparation time was the childbirth class. Beyond eye-opening, he weekly sessions for couples helped expand my knowledge in ways the books couldn’t have. To this day I am grateful for the father-to-be who asked all the questions I wanted answers to but was too embarrassed to ask. I never got his name, but I knew he drove a Snap-On Tools truck, so he became “the Snap-On Tools guy” to us.

We have always been creatures of habit, so it was no surprise that on the night of Monday, February 5, 2000, a day past the due date, we were in bed watching one of our favorite TV shows, “7th Heaven.” The idealized family drama about a minister’s brood of seven children in many ways affected my view of having children. It was silly, I now know, but I really did think parenting was all about having deep, meaningful conversations with your children the way Rev. Camden and Annie did with their children on “7th Heaven.” When that night’s episode ended, exhausted from a day of work, I turned off the lamp and told Carla, “Please don’t go into labor tonight. I’m too tired for us to have the baby.” Less than a half hour later, we were up with the onset of labor.

Like all first-time parents, we probably went to the hospital too soon. Trying not to be stereotypically over-anxious, we waited at home as long as we could, timing contractions and getting our stuff together for a hospital stay. We went on to Coliseum Hospital when the contractions were consistently eight minutes apart believing Barron’s arrival would come before daybreak. It was a busy night for labor and delivery. We were well taken care of, but after medications were administered, Carla’s labor slowed way down. She labored through the night and into the next day. I felt more than a little guilt at slipping away and grabbing lunch at Nu Way with my buddy, Mitch, before returning for the main event.

Juggling our video camera, and doing my best to preserve Carla’s modesty and dignity, I experienced sensory overload. The room was dimly lit except for a spotlight on the “area of interest.” Barron glistened in the light when the doctor delivered him, and in seconds the nurse had him at a table in the corner, taking his vitals and cleaning him up. I felt a rush of emotions – relief that Carla’s suffering was over, joy that Barron was healthy, anxious about what was coming next, and eager to share the news with the world.

The next couple of days in the hospital started the sleep deprivation with hourly checks by the attentive nursing staff. I slept in the pull-out sleeper chair as we kept Barron in the room as much as possible to change his first diapers, cuddle and bond with him, and work on the tricky but necessary latching on required for breast feeding. Visitors lifted our spirits, and there were many, many pictures.

The experience, though, is probably best summed up in our car ride home. Always fastidious about vehicle safety, Carla ensured we had properly installed the car seat in her Honda Accord. We tucked Barron in and headed toward our house. We didn’t get far before he started crying, as infants do. At a loss for what was causing it, we pulled over to make sure he wasn’t being pinched by the straps or was suffering in some less-than-obvious way. Ultimately, we buckled him back in and made it the rest of the way without incident.

That’s how I felt about having our first child. I was nervous. I wanted an explanation for every whimper and reaction. I worried about doing the right thing in caring for his physical needs. I loved holding him. I got a rush every time I read to him. I was happy to have a healthy son and watch his every reaction. I was caught up in the day-to-day, subtle changes; so much so that it was hard to imagine what his journey to adulthood would be like.

Looking back 21 years later, I can’t believe how little I understood about life and being a parent back then, but I’m profoundly grateful for the experience and for the intense bond I now have with Carla and all three of our boys. I may not know much more about parenting a young adult and two teenagers, but I am comforted by the knowledge that we’ll get through it together.

Winner, winner hamburger dinner

I attended what was then known as Troy State University from 1988 to 1992 on a full academic scholarship. The financial aid package, named for former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace (no relation), covered tuition, fees, room, and board.

The “board” part of my scholarship entitled me to 20 meals per week in Stewart Dining Hall, located conveniently adjacent to my dormitory, Alumni Hall. Stewart, or “Saga” as it was known by the students because of the former contracting company who ran the food service, was closed on Sunday nights. That supper was the only meal each week I had to come out of pocket for and fend for myself. That usually meant the TSU student deal at the Western Sizzlin’ steakhouse for about $5.

I didn’t have a lot of expenses at the time. I had to pay for my books each semester, buy school supplies like notebooks and pens, any clothes to replace what was worn out or out of fashion, and entertainment. I worked at spending as little as I could. I had so much paid for by my scholarship that I did my best to stretch my dollar to the very last penny. I learned to be frugal from my father, who was always finding ways to spend less and get the best deal at restaurants and retail establishments.

During my matriculation at Troy, the student activity fee covered admission to many activities and campus events. Since that, too, was covered by my scholarship, I viewed these opportunities as added value to my college experience. I attended on-campus movies, sporting events, plays, and musical performances throughout my four years of college, all at no additional charge.

My buddies and I found the Trojans Men’s and Women’s basketball games to be a particularly good source of entertainment. Tom, Ross, Donavan, Trey, Troy, Mike, Dino, Eric, Harold, et al, made up a noisy student section intent on both cheering our Trojans on to victory and heckling the other team’s star player mercilessly. It was the best free entertainment to be had in Lower Alabama.

The men’s team in particular was very competitive at the time. Led by Coach Don Maestri, the Trojans ran an up-tempo style offense that relied on three-point field goals. This run-and-gun style of play led to Troy setting the NCAA scoring record in 1992, my senior year, when they beat DeVry 258-141. It was one of the most memorable sporting events I ever attended, and it was great fun to see our Division-II Trojans on the ESPN SportsCenter highlights.

But the game that meant the most to me came on a Saturday night during my freshman year. My bank account had dwindled to pennies, and I had almost no money to my name. Sunday night was coming, and I had no money for supper. But free admittance to the basketball game on Saturday helped put my financial woes out of my mind.

In those days, the athletic department ran a promotion in the second half of each men’s game. Fans were encouraged at halftime to fill out slips of paper with their name and student ID, and every time Troy hit a three-pointer in the second half, they would draw a name and award a prize from an athletics department sponsor.

This was a free lottery, so my friends and I availed ourselves of this opportunity every game. Troy was so prolific at three-point shooting, and we were such faithful attenders to the games, I almost always knew someone who won something from the three-point shot promotion. When one of our names was called, we celebrated like we just hit the game-winning shot. We extracted personal glory from sheer, blind luck.

At halftime on that night, we gathered around the table, filling out slips of paper like madmen, and raced back to our seats. It was our habit, our tradition. I had never won the drawing before and didn’t give it a second thought. As the Trojans came out of the tunnel and back onto the floor for warmups, the pep band fired up, and I was living in the moment, having a great time with my buddies. I was succeeding at forgetting that a hungry Sunday night was in my future.

I don’t remember who Troy played that night, but the score was close. A competitive game in the second half was good for the three-point contest because that meant Troy would keep shooting three pointers, increasing the odds one of us would win a drawing.

Most of the basketball players lived on the second floor of Alumni Hall in the wing where my roommate, Dave, was the resident assistant. We got to know many of them. Shooting guard Neal Murray lived on the first floor, next door to Tom and Donavan, two of my first and best friends. Neal was always gracious with us, tolerating our breaking down the games when we ran into him. We cheered a little harder for Neal because of our connection, and he often delivered with well-timed three-point shots. He still holds the Troy record for three-point shooting percentage for a season (46%).

1989 Troy State University Trojan men's basketball team pose for a team photo on the porch of a cabin.
Neal Murray, circled in red, is my all-time favorite Trojan Basketball player, for obvious reasons. Several of his three-point shooting records still stand.

And so it was on that winter night, destitute and trying my best to forget my problems, I clapped and cheered for Neal and his teammates. And then it happened. A few minutes into the second half, Neal delivered a signature three, and we celebrated.

Our cheers hit a new level, though, when a few seconds later they called my name as the next winner of the three-point drawing.

“Lance Wallace, you’ve just won a Wendy’s single combo!”

In that instant, Neal Murray had not only helped the Trojans close in on another win, he helped me secure my Sunday night supper.

I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t won the drawing. I guess I just believed something would come up. Maybe I could sneak a few extra biscuits out of the cafeteria at lunch, or someone would graciously offer to share their Domino’s delivery. Neal Murray made all that moot. After the game I claimed my coupon, and on Sunday night, I enjoyed a Wendy’s single more than I had ever enjoyed a hamburger before.

Was it a miracle? I don’t use that term lightly. I don’t think so. Was it an answer to prayer? I can’t say for sure because I don’t remember making it an urgent matter of prayer.

I can say the one and only time I won the three-point shot drawing during my four years at Troy was at a time I needed it most. Neal Murray will forever be my favorite Troy basketball player.

What I admire most about my dad

Today’s post is in celebration of my dad’s 78th birthday.

All relationships are complicated at times, and the bond between fathers and sons is especially freighted with family history, birth order dynamics and role expectations. I have been blessed to enjoy the benefits of a healthy relationship with my dad for nearly all of my 51-plus years.

Larry Wallace holds a largemouth bass in a boat on a lake in Central Florida
A largemouth bass always elicits a huge smile from Dad, whether he or one of his boys caught it.

Neither of us are perfect, but our human frailties do not prevent respect. He has many skills I covet, including fishing, grilling, and repairing everything from lawnmowers to cars to home furnishings, but here are the his qualities I admire most:

Conviction. Dad stands by what he believes. He believes the worship of God to be a sacred act and dresses accordingly when attending church. He believes Jesus Christ died for his sins, and he can, at the very least, prioritize participating in the life of the church as a response to that sacrifice. He believes everyone needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and he prays fervently they will, witnesses when he has an opportunity and invites people to come to church who might otherwise not hear the Gospel. He leaves Gospel tracts with restaurant servers and toll booth workers. He gives generously to missionaries who take the Gospel to the far reaches of the world. My dad has religious convictions that he stands by and organizes his life around, and I have always admired him for it.

Calling. The direct result of his conviction was his response to God’s call on his life to become a pastor. A mechanic for American Airlines, Dad was not looking to be a preacher when he began to feel the Holy Spirit’s nudging that more was required of him. He did not have an ego-driven need to stand in front of people and be affirmed. He wasn’t looking to turn his life upside down and take on a difficult challenge. He had a good job with a clear career path and a young family he was able to provide for financially. Though he wrestled with what surrendering to the ministry might do to his family and his financial stability, he ultimately knew God was calling him to set aside those doubts and trust Him. So after 10 years at American Airlines he retired, went back to Bible college to earn a degree, and joined the staff of our church as associate pastor. He remained faithful to that call even when circumstances forced him to leave the church staff and return to aircraft maintenance work at General Dynamics. He continued to give his life to serving the Lord through our church until he was called to serve as the pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Wales, Florida. I’m sure it was a difficult decision to relocate his family from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to rural Central Florida, but because of his commitment, he followed through.

Laughter. Not every part of Dad’s life was deadly serious. As much as conviction and calling drove his daily decisions, he has always been a person who enjoyed laughter and making other people laugh. His sense of humor helped him cope with the stresses of the ministry and his skill at storytelling made him an appealing preacher and speaker. I remember countless dinners we were invited to in people’s homes where he became the evening’s entertainment. He regaled guests and hosts alike for hours with stories from his childhood in Georgia, serving in the Air Force, catching fish, or raising three boys. When our church started a senior adult ministry called “Keenagers,” he found a willing and eager audience for the most cornball of his jokes, relishing in their groans and chuckles. I hope I inherited some of his storytelling skill, though I confess I don’t have as good a memory for jokes.

Adventure. Dad would go out of his way to surprise us or spark our imagination. When Santa brought us our first Atari video game system, he converted the interior of my grandmother’s old florist delivery van in our garage into the cockpit of a spaceship. While we blasted space invaders on our old TV screen, we felt like we were in the Millennium Falcon dodging Imperial star destroyers and tie fighters. He also put in an above-ground swimming pool at great expense and effort. We spent many hours over two summers splashing and playing through the Texas heat before we moved to Florida, and the pool immeasurably enhanced our summer fun. I will take to my grave the year my parents secretly packed the car on Thanksgiving while we unsuspectingly played in the yard all day. That evening after our traditional meal, Dad piled us into the car for what he called “going for a drive.” As dusk turned into night, my brother, Lee, and I repeatedly asked, “When are we going to turn around?” Dad responded each time with “Do you want to turn around?” That simple but profound question not only helped me embrace adventure and new experiences on that trip to Houston, Galveston, and the Texas monument in San Jacinto, his igniting the exhilaration and reward of encountering the new and unknown fueled so many of my choices throughout my life.

My dad, like all dads, is complicated, but I am grateful for his love and support throughout my life. I hope I am able to give the same gifts and pass on these qualities to my boys. It is a tremendous legacy worth passing on.

Rivalry weekend: Why can’t we all just get along?

We’ve reached that special time in the college football season when interstate and intrastate rivals meet head-to-head for bragging rights, championships and bowl invitations.

If your family survived the political arguments over the Thanksgiving table and disagreements about decorating the Christmas tree, this display of division and antagonism can finish you off, sending family members to their respective corners refusing to speak to each other until the whole process starts over again at the next family get together.

The college football rivalry that will play out this weekend in closest proximity to my family is Georgia-Georgia Tech. I attended neither institution, but I have connections to both.

collage of two photos, one of dad and sons in Georgia Tech apparel and one of sons in Georgia Bulldog apparel
I’m coming clean from the outset. But we are not bandwagoners. We had/have our reasons.

First, I work for the university system that supports both schools, and I love all 26 of my university “children.” Second, I formerly worked at Georgia Tech and learned what “clean, old fashioned hate” meant to them, particularly during this current period when the University of Georgia has enjoyed the upper hand. Third, my oldest son, and my money, go to Georgia. He marches in the Redcoat band, and even my sports-averse spouse has spent Saturdays this fall watching WAY more college football than she ever imagined in hopes of spotting her baby on the TV.

With those bonafides out of the way, I have to confess that I have rooted for both teams in this rivalry at different times in my college football fandom. All it takes is a quick scan of my photos on Facebook to see which side we were on and when. Rather than deny it, I’m getting this out in the open now to avoid accusations of bandwagoning.

Carla grew up going with her daddy to ball games in Athens, so I married into a Bulldog family. She earned her master’s degree from Georgia, which reinforced our rooting interest in the Dawgs. But in 2012 when I went to work at Georgia Tech, I appreciated the Yellow Jackets in a new way. When the boys asked, “Does this mean we are Georgia Tech fans now?,” I responded that they were free to pull for whomever they liked, but Georgia Tech put food on our table.

We are unapologetically rooting for the Dawgs this year. Yes, I admit that I enjoyed seeing Coach Paul Johnson (CPJ in Georgia Tech parlance) lead the Jackets to several frustrating upsets over the Dawgs, but this year I am not pulling for any such unexpected outcomes. Besides, I don’t think this iteration of the Yellow Jackets under Coach Geoff Collins has it in them, but I could be wrong. That’s why they play the game, and that’s why we will watch.

The truth is, I want Barron to have the opportunity to play his trumpet on the artificial turf of Lucas Oil Stadium on Jan. 10, 2022, at the national championship game. In order for him to get to experience a dream-come-true, Georgia needs to run the table.

A native Texan, I largely ignored or was apathetic about the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry for my first 22 years of life. But when I moved to Macon in 1992, I quickly learned about its history and intensity. It does seem to be a bigger deal for Tech fans. Yes, they have conference rivalries in the ACC, but those seem to have dwindled in recent years as Tech’s performance on the field has been inconsistent.

Georgia has so many rivalries that Tech is at least third or maybe fourth or fifth on its list of adversaries. By the time you hate Florida, Auburn, Tennessee, South Carolina and lately Alabama, your hatred is spread too thin to muster venom for Georgia Tech.

Tech’s year revolves around this game. Their own fight song gives us much time to Georgia as their own combatants. The phrase “THWG” (I will not spell it out in this family blog) is as ubiquitous as “Go Jackets!” and is the equivalent of “Roll Tide,” “War Eagle,” “Boomer Sooner,” or “Go Dawgs!” They dedicate time each week to cursing the Bulldogs regardless of their opponent. There is much more hate on the Georgia Tech side of the equation which feels more like jealousy than anything else, at least in recent years.

It’s a fabled rivalry, though, featuring some truly great finishes. As we get farther and farther removed from years when it went back and forth, the game may pale in comparison to the heated debates around the table of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Here in the New South, I encourage all college football fans to cheer with vigor for their teams this weekend, but when the final whistle blows, adopt the spirit of sportsmanship that we teach kids in little league.

And if you can’t congratulate your opponent with a handshake, maybe you should hug it out. That’ll help clear the air so that y’all can be in the same room at Christmas.

Which college football rivalry do you follow most closely each year and who are you rooting for this Rivalry Weekend? Leave a comment with your team and why you pull for them. Please, as momma used to say, don’t be ugly.

The music, man

I’m not sure how it happened, but I have a musical family.

Saturday two weeks ago proved it. My oldest son played trumpet in the University of Georgia Redcoat Band in a game against the University of Arkansas. My middle son played trombone in the Parkview High School Marching Band in the Lake Lanier Tournament of Bands competition. My youngest son performed the lead role of Professor Harold Hill in the Smoke Rise Academy of Arts production of “The Music Man Jr.”

Scenes from a busy musical weekend for the Wallace boys.

That’s a lot of music in one day for one family, particularly one without much of a musical pedigree. The confluence of performances prompted several people throughout the weekend to say to Carla or me, “Where do your boys get their musical talent?”

Or, as my younger brother, Lee, put it in a Facebook Messenger note about Carlton’s performance, “Was he adopted and we missed this info? This can’t be Lance’s kid! How are all 3 gifted musicians?!?”

Good question, Lee.

Maybe it’s Carla’s genes. She took piano for nine years and played flute for several years, including her freshman year of high school in which she marched in the Washington County Golden Hawks Marching Band. But she confessed that her musical interest was primarily motivated by avoiding P.E., and her talents have, admittedly, eroded somewhat in the intervening years.

My music career is much more checkered. A vocalist of questionable quality, I famously failed at several solos at church, including an infamous rendition at age 13 of “My Tribute” which still elicits peals of laughter at family get-togethers.

I am equally suspect as an instrumentalist. I earned a B minus in flutophone in 2nd grade, and for Lee’s wedding rehearsal dinner, I performed “You Are My Sunshine” on the harmonica after several months of practicing. The command performance at my own rehearsal dinner was no more impressive.

During the past month I’ve witnessed six shows of “The Music Man” and “The Music Man Jr.” I’ve marveled that Carlton can carry a tune while executing movement. I couldn’t find the right note with a map, and I can’t even clap in time with music, much less move rhythmically in a way that resembles anything other than a muscle spasm.

Over the past seven years, I’ve spent most fall Friday nights and many Saturdays watching my older two boys perform with the Parkview Marching Band. I love seeing the band march into the stadium with the drum line tapping out a cadence. I can’t help but feel the joy Harris exudes when blows a post-touchdown rendition of “Hail to the Victor” on his trombone, and it’s fun to see him lead as a band captain.

Barron is the one who had to break us in as band parents. He started with guitar in elementary school, graduated to drums and picked up a trumpet in middle school. He’s always been musically inclined, adorning the music room in our basement with a chalkboard sign that says “Without music, life would B♭.”

Get it?

Hilarious, I know, but it’s true.

This year he fulfilled a dream of playing with the Redcoats, and hopefully, he’ll march all the way to the national championship with them. A decade of labor is paying off. When he took the field at Bank of America Stadium for the Georgia-Clemson season opener, found his spot for the pre-game show, raised his trumpet to his lips, the realization hit him — “I’m really doing this!” he told us after.

I could write an entire essay about what it’s like for your kid to be a drum major, leading and conducting the band. Barron had two years of that experience at Parkview and a semester of it at Kennesaw State. We loved seeing him on the platform or at the front of the parade, and fortunately for him, he did not inherit my musical timing disability. The boy, and his brothers, mysteriously have rhythm.

Music means a lot to our family, and I’m grateful for this season of our lives. Given my lack of talent, I never would have predicted it. Hats off to all who dedicate their lives to teaching music in all its forms, particularly the teachers, theater directors and band directors who have molded my young men.

Right now our lives are filled with music and anything but flat.

Welcome to ‘Thrillburn’

Tonight thousands of Lilburnites will gather at Lilburn City Park for the Independence Day celebration known as “Sparkle in the Park.”

Or, as I like to nonsensically call it, “Sparkle in the Parkle.”

people on blankets with dogs and in folding camp chairs on a field enjoy an outdoor concert
The Fleetwood Mac tribute band “Rumors” rocks Lilburn City Park on June 4, 2021.

July Fourth is a time when our Atlanta suburb sparkles with more than just fireworks, and it’s the clearest demonstration that Lilburn is making strides in its effort to offer some of the same amenities that neighboring communities like Duluth, Norcross, Lawrenceville, Roswell and Suwanee have been rolling out in recent years.

People throw around nicknames ironically these days, and my own little corner of the world is no exception. We locals like to call our sleepy Atlanta bedroom community, “Thrillburn” to mock its unhurried attitude and tranquil spirit. The seven square miles that make up this little hamlet claims a population of 12,481, but the “greater Lilburn metropolitan area” is much larger.

It’s a tight-knit, primarily residential community with good schools, diverse religious environment and hotbed for youth sports and organizations like Scouts. The knock on Lilburn has been that it’s a great place to live, but there’s not a lot to do.

Truth is, Lilburn has become an overlooked and underappreciated destination that is working hard to make something of itself for the benefit of guests and residents alike. Located in the shadow of Stone Mountain, there is a growing commitment to improving the quality of life here.

In the “Before Time,” probably 2018 or 2019, our civically minded middle child, Harris, insisted on going to a Lilburn City Council meeting. He and my wife landed on a meeting night that featured a town hall with then Mayor Johnny Crist presenting plans for future development of the downtown area. They both came home breathless with the possibilities of the restaurants and improvements to the park that were intended to make what was being branded as “Old Town Lilburn” more appealing.

The plans have proceeded with the relocation of the city offices and police station to new facilities, freeing up space for the enlarged park bandstand, pavilion and splash pad. Interesting townhomes with character have gone up near the park, and an entire community designed for retirees is under construction nearby.

Dining and entertainment options are still modest, but there’s obvious progress. Our oldest son worked a summer as a dishwasher at 1910 Public House, named for the year Lilburn was founded as an agrarian town on the railroad line, and his friends frequently play gigs at Music on Main next door.

three young men pose for a portrait at a table in front of a brick and wood wall at 1910 Public House in Lilburn
The Wallace brothers – Harris, Barron and Carlton – prepare to enjoy a great meal at 1910 Public House in May 2021 before Barron heads off to his summer job.

Our family frequents Agavero Cantina Parkside, a Mexican cafe with outdoor seating attached to a rehabbed double decker bus. Thematically, it’s confusing, but if you’re downing an order of street tacos with a side of esquite on a cool spring evening, the luchadores painted on the side of the vintage British bus only enhance your experience.

The obvious changes started a few years ago when a community garden opened just across the tracks from the park, and the city completed work on a greenway trail. I trained for my last marathon 10 years ago on that trail, and it’s been improved over the years, despite the damage it suffered from a recent train accident.

About that time, Lilburn started offering free concerts in the park and bringing in food trucks for special events and “Food Truck Tuesdays” at the park. We saw tribute bands play the music of the Beatles, Jimmy Buffett, Fleetwood Mac, and the Avett Brothers in addition to the real Drivin’ and Cryin’ and local favorite, the Glow Band. Even more than the music, I enjoyed being with neighbors and friends from our diverse community.

In the New South, many small towns and other municipalities outside of the urban centers are putting resources into lifestyle amenities that blend the old with the new. When Barron takes his grandfather’s 1950 Chevy Styleline Deluxe out for a spin, he loves to cruise up and down Main Street. He likes driving an old car in an old section of town. Something old, something new.

bearded young man in a cap drives a 1950 Chevrolet by brick buildings in downtown Lilburn
Barron practices driving the column shifting 1950 Chevy Styleline Deluxe on Main Street in downtown Lilburn back in May 2021.

Further proof that the townsfolks are embracing Lilburn’s new identity are the seemingly ubiquitous “Lilburn is Hip” T-shirts. You can pick one up at Citizen’s Exchange on Main Street.

Lilburn may be behind our neighboring suburban communities striving to create a sense of community, but it is catching up. I’m glad to see it and would welcome a few more eateries and a coffee shop, bakery or ice cream parlor among the establishments on Main Street.

If you have some time and are looking for something cool and quaint, you could do a lot worse than moseying over to Thrillburn. I promise it’ll add some sparkle to your parkle.