My greatest surprises

Genuine surprise strikes rarely. When the circumstance is good, we treasure the experience. When it is tragic, we spend a lifetime ridding ourselves of the impression it made on our psyche.

I have been blessed to have more of the good and fewer of the traumatic. Here are some of the memorable and significant surprises I’ve experienced:

Christmas mornings as a child. My parents knew how to celebrate Christmas well, and they outdid themselves year after year with amazing gifts under our tree on Christmas morning. My brothers and I studied the Sears catalog and had wish lists, but the best surprises from my parents or from Santa Claus were the gifts we hadn’t asked for but brought tremendous enjoyment.

My earliest memories were of G.I. Joes with watch towers, jeeps and airplanes. The scale of the 12-inch dolls — er…. action figures… and their vehicles made for dramatic Christmas morning reveals. Those set the standard for future Christmases. After G.I. Joe, “Star Wars” action figures and their playsets and vehicles took over. It always felt like too much to wish for to want the bigger playsets, and my parents always downplayed the possibility that Santa would bring something so large and expensive.

But when Christmas morning came and the Death Star, Millennium Falcon, tie fighter and X-wing and AT-AT were under the tree, it made for a satisfying surprise that entertained us for hundreds of hours.

Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. Speaking of “Star Wars,” the most shocking surprise from my childhood obsession with the science fiction films came when my mother took my brother Lee and I to see “The Empire Strikes Back” at a large theater in Fort Worth. We had been waiting for three years, and it was Lee’s first chance to experience “Star Wars” storytelling on the big screen.

The payoff matched the anticipation, and I was thoroughly engrossed from the opening scene-setting screen crawl to the climactic lightsaber duel between the evil Darth Vader and the young jedi knight in training, Luke Skywalker. When Vader maimed Luke by cutting off his hand, it truly felt that evil was going to triumph. My heart was in my throat as Darth menaced the wounded and defenseless Luke and invited him to join the dark side. His appeal rejected, Darth Vader then made the all-time most surprising reveal in movie history. Spoiler alert: He had not killed Luke’s father. He was Luke’s father.

From that moment on, all other cinematic surprises would be compared to that plot twist. My age and impressionability caused the moment to be deeply imprinted on me like no other piece of entertainment had before or probably since.

Harris, Carlton and Lance Wallace on big, red tube on Lake Oconee
My big 5-0 was a great surprise, made more difficult by Carla’s successful surprises at 30 and 40. Even with the COVID pandemic on, we had a great time out-of-doors at the lake.

My last three milestone birthdays. Carla is a master planner, and those skills were sharpest in pulling off surprise parties for my 30th and 40th birthdays and a surprise family trip for my 50th. At 30, she conspired with my dad to delay me after Sunday night church with a meandering trip through Walmart. I was none the wiser because my parents were in town, and I believed an intimate celebration with them was plenty for a happy birthday. I also didn’t suspect Dad was stalling because I have been on many meandering trips to retail stores with him, and this shopping experience didn’t seem any different. When we got home and entered the house, it was mysteriously quiet. Stepping into the dining room and being greeted with the requisite “Surprise!” truly caught me off guard. Carla had commissioned a running shoe birthday cake from our friend, Tonya Allen, and all of our best friends from church were there to celebrate. It was a lot of fun, and I know, a lot of work.

Having been surprised at 30, I was convinced there was nothing surprising about turning 40. Again, my parents were in town, and this time, Carla’s parents joined in the fun. We all celebrated with a lovely meal in our dining room, and I had no reason to suspect the celebration would continue. But the next day, I was summoned to a meeting at work. In those days, I worked as director of communications at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The office was divided into two halves by a large atrium, and my sudden meeting was on the other side of the building. Only when I arrived there did I find all of my colleagues, my parents, Carla and the boys waiting with a big cake. They hit me with a hearty “Surprise!” which caught me off guard, again. It was one of my best days at CBF, and Carla had managed to “fool me twice.”

Perhaps her greatest challenge was when I turned 50. In the middle of a pandemic, there would be no surprise gatherings of any kind. Content to celebrate with immediate family at a meal of my favorite barbecue pork ribs and German chocolate cake, I did not anticipate or desire another component to reaching the 50 milestone. But Carla planned a wonderful getaway.

Because of my work schedule, she had to delay until the week after my birthday, and all I knew initially was that I needed to take three days off work. The night of my birthday party she hit me with the news that we would be spending three days at Lake Oconee. She had rented a fourth floor condo overlooking the lake. She needed a little help finalizing the plan to rent a pontoon boat and deciding on a takeout/eating out schedule given the pandemic, but again she outdid herself with her planning. It was one of the best family trips we have ever taken, and I will treasure the two days we spent on the lake alternating swimming and tubing while hitting up waterfront restaurants and listening to tunes out on the water. All three birthdays were glorious surprises.

Meeting Carla on a Sunday night after church. It is no exaggeration to say I was the only single guy under 40 at Highland Hills Baptist Church in the early to mid-1990s. Perhaps because I was the only single guy, my love life attracted quite a bit of attention from the matchmakers in the congregation. At the time I didn’t fully appreciate their efforts and worked to keep news of my socializing to myself.

Who I went out with was none of their business, I reasoned, and besides, as a preacher’s kid, I had experience with the whole church meddling in my relationships. I was not eager to go back to having everyone in the church in my business. I had been a member of Highland Hills for about four years when I started hearing about a young woman who worked in the nursery. I don’t know how deep the conspiracy ran, but I know it included the pastor’s wife, Susan; the children’s minister, Ruth; and the director of preschool ministries, Carol. The holy trinity of matchmaking worked overtime to finagle a “chance” meeting for me and the nursery worker.

One Sunday night in January as I was unsuspectingly exiting the chapel after vespers, I was greeted by a crescent of smiling faces. A quick scan of the half dozen or so greeters failed to register what was happening until I saw someone I didn’t recognize. A young, attractive woman. I wasn’t so deep into my self-declared monasticism that I couldn’t recognize true beauty. That’s when it hit me. This was the nursery worker. This was a set up. I was introduced to Carla, the nursery worker who had just finished at Mercer University.

Because I had already prepared for the cold and put on gloves, I had to awkwardly remove them and even more awkwardly shake Carla’s hand. I can’t say there was electricity, except maybe the static kind that frequently strikes during the winter when the air is dry, but there was definitely curiosity. And as the old campfire chorus goes, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.”

In the weeks that followed, the “committee” arranged an after-Sunday night church group dinner at Cracker Barrel that just coincidentally included both Carla and me. I somehow doubted that nursery workers were invited to such gatherings, but by then the conspiracy was in full bloom. Although I waited another four months after that initial meeting to ask her out, I did begin to frequent the lower level on Wednesday nights, chatting up the nursery workers, and all the while the “committee” did their work. Ultimately, it was Susan who proved most persuasive when she pronounced Carla “quality.” I finally asked Carla out the second weekend in May, and we were married 51 weeks later. My life has been immeasurably enriched because of that Sunday night surprise.

Learning we would be parents. It took us many months to get pregnant with our first child. We were both overly stressed about the process the way first-time parents are. I was biologically a step removed from the awareness of conception and gestation of a baby. I’m sure Carla had suspicions which led her to purchase the home pregnancy test. Preparing to drive to Lake Eufaula for a week of vacation with my family, I went out for a 6-mile run, which was my habit.

It was already mid-summer hot and humid though the calendar was still in June. Drenched with sweat, I stood on the back deck going through my regimen of post-run stretches. Carla appeared at the back window looking out onto the deck. I went over to the window, and she held up the pregnancy test with the faint plus sign visible. It took more than a few seconds for me to catch up to the significance of the plus sign. I felt more and more overwhelmed as the reality set in. Now 22 years later, I can truthfully say I had no idea what that moment meant for the course of our lives.

Our lives changed when we learned we were expecting each of our three boys. The impact of bringing a new life into the world is unique among all surprises, and I’m grateful for each of those three lives and the journey we have been on as a family.

What are your biggest surprises? Leave a comment below to share your unexpected moments.