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.

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.

My little brother the leprechaun

Tomorrow is March 17, a date that looms large for my family.

My little brother, Lee, turns 39 tomorrow. He's slightly bigger now.
My little brother, Lee, turns 39 tomorrow. He’s slightly bigger now.

No, we’re not Irish. Well, we’re a little Irish, but not THAT Irish. You see, 39 years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, my little red-headed brother was born. He would end up being my first little brother, but none of us knew that at the time.

Arthur Lee Wallace, named for my mom’s father, proved to be a handful then and continues to enlighten and entertain us with his witticisms and misadventures. I was a mere 3 years and eight months old when Lee was born. When he came home from the hospital, I tried to hold him in my lap but failed to properly support his neck and head.

“His head is falling off!” I yelled as his fuzzy noggin lolled across my knees.

Lee, seen here on his first Easter, also survived my fashion disasters. Although to be fair, this wasn't my fault.
Lee, seen here with me on his first Easter, also survived my fashion disasters. Although to be fair, I didn’t choose this outfit.

He survived my fledgling attempts to hold him – though any damage he sustained may explain some behavioral eccentricities – and much worse at my hands as the years went on.

I will never forget the sick feeling in my stomach when I looked into the rear view mirror on my parents’ van and saw him rolling across the pavement of our driveway after I gunned it up the hill with him clinging white-knuckled to the spare tire on the back.

And then there was the time we fought. OK, well, we fought a bunch. In fact, the last whuppin’ I got from my dad occurred when I was 13. Lee and I we were hitting below the belt in a knock-down, drag-out tilt. I’m still not sure if we were punished for fighting or for fighting dirty.

Lee has also survived many a tongue lashing from my parents for following through on ideas I may or may not have planted in his mind.

“Lee, ask Dad if we can stay up and watch TV.”

“OK!” he eagerly responded.

Minutes later, after my father erupted at his post-bedtime appearance in the den, Lee returned, crying.

“Oh well. Guess that was a ‘No.’ Thanks, Lee. Good night!”

Lee is a talented musician and choir director. He sings WAY better than me and plays several instruments.
Lee is a talented musician and choir director. He sings WAY better than me and plays several instruments.

We shared a bedroom from as far back as I can remember until I left for college. We had long late-night chats about important topics like the Dallas Cowboys’ chances of winning a Super Bowl with Gary Hogeboom as the quarterback and how Darth Vader could possibly be Luke Skywalker’s father.

The conversation Lee likes to remind me of happened one night when I was 16. I professed to have found the woman of my dreams. Really, really, really wish I never shared that. Now Lee uses it to great comedic effect at family gatherings. He has a way of keeping me grounded if I ever get too full of myself.

Lee and the girl of his dreams, Karrie. What a handsome couple.
Lee and the woman of his dreams, Karrie.

Many years later I eventually found the woman of my dreams, and so did Lee. He actually preceded me in marriage by a full three years.

Although I would never tell him, I’m very proud of all that he has accomplished. He has been a youth and music minister for nearly 20 years, impacting the lives of hundreds of teenagers. He helps his wife, Karrie, run a very successful business in Lake Wales, and is excelling at selling nutritional and weight loss products. He and Karrie are raising an intelligent, beautiful and talented 11-year-old daughter, Kalee.

Our infrequent opportunities to catch up are treasures for me, and I enjoy following his exploits from afar on Facebook. My life changed forever 39 years ago tomorrow, and despite what I may have said in the heat of arguments during our childhood, I’m glad he was born.

While everyone else is donning the green tomorrow in honor of St. Patrick, I’ll be thinking of Lee, our family’s own lucky leprechaun. Having him in our lives is worth more than a pot of gold.

The gift of a time machine

Programming note: For nearly two years, New South Essays has been published on Friday mornings. Because of my job change, I’m finding that Saturdays are working better. I hope you’ll stick with me as I move to Saturdays. To ensure that you never miss a weekly post, click the email subscription link on the right. Thanks!

I was minding my morning business a few months back, checking the daily media mentions of my employer, when I ran across an article with the ominous lead sentence: “The video game is 40.”

I nearly fainted.

Immediately, two conflicting thoughts flashed to mind: “Has it really been that long?” and “Have video games really only been around for 40 years?”

Carlton plays Space Invaders
Carlton at 4 had no trouble picking up Space Invaders.

Fast forward to Christmas. During our visit to my parents in Lake Wales, Fla., we took the boys to see “Wreck it Ralph,” one video game villain’s quest for heroism that featured a walk down arcade game memory lane with dozens of characters from video games of the past. It was one of those occasions when the boys stared at me in wonder as I laughed out loud at what they thought were inappropriate moments.

On the night we arrived in Florida, not long after opening our gifts from Mom and Dad, we discovered my mother was obsessed about one Christmas gift she ordered on Amazon that didn’t get delivered in time. True to my parents’ form, they had ordered one for each of their three sons, but it had not arrived for any of us. Sitting at her computer, Mom diligently followed the tracking number across the country and each morning over my coffee she updated me on the shipping status of the mystery gift.

Honestly, I had forgotten about it by Wednesday when I returned to work. With the resumption of my routine, Christmas and its gifts were far from my mind when the UPS truck pulled up outside our home. Then I remembered there was one more gift to open.

We made the boys wait until after supper before diving into the plain cardboard box. I could not have predicted the bizarre emotional reaction I felt when the “Atari Flashback 4” emerged. I stared at the box, not with the eyes of a 42 year-old father of three but with the eyes of a 10-year-old on Christmas morning unwrapping a pulse-quickening, hours-wasting, life-changing, dream-making device. It was the Holy Grail. It was my Red Ryder BB gun. It was the most amazing device my brother and I had ever seen.

Desperate to plug it in and get started on the 75 games that came pre-programmed on the slightly smaller console, the boys pleaded and begged for me to set it up. As I examined the contents, I had that strange feeling of deja vu. The console and power pack were smaller. The joysticks were wireless. There were buttons on the front of the console where the little levers used to be. I was both taken back in time and a little confused.

So I did what any parent does in those moments: I sent the boys to bed. I needed time to sort this out. No, I didn’t need help plugging it in and turning it on. I needed to sort out the complex emotions this gift evoked.

Harris plays Atari
Harris didn’t know what to do with the overly simple controller at first.

By the time I got home from work on Thursday, the boys had figured out how to hook up the system. The family was gathered in the living room around the “old TV”. As I made my way from the kitchen, I could hear the rumble of tanks. The appropriately named “Flashback” did just that, taking me back to my youth when my brother, Lee, and I would press the red buttons and strain the vinyl-covered stick as we tried to put English on the bullets coming from our tanks.

Video games have played a part in my life almost since I was old enough to play them. Seeing that Atari’s Pong had turned 40 and then seeing this “Flashback” console made me wonder what will be the retro toys my boys will find memory-provoking 40 years from now.

I can’t imagine where technology is headed. I just hope my boys will have positive memories from their wasted hours playing video games together. For me and my brothers, the memories are what made the wasted hours worth it.

So what’s your earliest memory of video games? What was your favorite? Were you an Atari or an Intelivision person? Did you blow untold fortunes in quarters at the arcade? Share your memories by leaving a comment below.

Orlando beckons

In less than an hour on Interstate 75 the week after Christmas and it becomes abundantly clear that the entire population of the Eastern and Midwestern United States along with a great portion of Canada is heading to Central Florida.

Luminescence show at Gaylord Palms Resort in Orlando
We ventured into Orlando from Lake Wales on Friday to check out the scene at the Gaylord Palms Resort. The ‘Luminescence’ show was an impressive combination of music, arial acrobatics and lights.

The mass migration is led by the exodus of Atlantans, fleeing the onset of a mild winter to visit Mickey, Harry Potter, Shamu and any fictional character built out of Legos.

I have the great advantage/disadvantage of having kin in Central Florida, and the week after Christmas is one of the rare times we get together. My parents and my middle brother and his family still call Lake Wales home, the area where I spent six years as a full time resident in junior high and high school in the 1980s.

More than 51 million visitors came to Orlando in 2011, up 7.5 percent from the year prior. According to the Orbitz Holiday Travel Insider Index, Orlando is the number one American travel destination for Christmas and New Year’s this year.

What caused me to contemplate Orlando and its stature as a destination city was a run-in with Atlanta friends for the third consecutive trip. Several years ago, we made the obligatory spring break trip with the boys to the Walt Disney World Resort. Fittingly, we ran into the Todds, our up-the-street neighbors, outside of “It’s A Small World.”

Then, two springs ago while staying with my parents over spring break we ran into the Nguyens from church at Seuss Landing in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

My niece and my brother
My niece, Kalee, and my brother, Lee, wait for the start of the ‘Luminescence’ show at the Gaylord Palms in Orlando.

It happened again on Friday. While enjoying an evening at the Gaylord Palms Resort with my brother, Lee, his wife, Karrie, and their daughter, Kalee, we bumped into the Paynes, more friends from church. Mind you, we don’t go to a big church.

While searching for stuffed polar bears as a part of a Gaylord promotional scavenger hunt, we came around the corner, and there was Trish, Brooklyn and Jordan, in town for a soccer tournament. Unfortunately, Dan, the Payne family patriarch, had to work and couldn’t make the trip.

What’s odd about the encounter was that I wasn’t surprised in the least. In fact, I half expected to see someone I knew, and the Paynes were as likely as anyone. Jordan, a high school senior, was playing in a soccer tournament at Disney’s Wild World of Sports, and the team was staying at the Gaylord.

If you are looking for someone in Atlanta this week, there’s a pretty good chance they are in Orlando.

Why has Orlando become the New South winter vacation destination? There are as many reasons to visit Orlando as there are dialects heard at the attractions, but the most consistent reasons are relative proximity, weather, abundance of family entertainment, and, at least for the New Year’s holiday, college football bowl games. This year, more Atlantans are here because Georgia plays Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day.

Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.
Uncle Lee and Aunt Karrie try to recover from the Mediterranean buffet at Villa de Flora inside the Gaylord Palms Resort.

I’m glad to have family here. It’s about more than just having a free place to stay. It’s the one time a year the boys get to spend with my parents on their turf, enjoying their company doing things the boys don’t ordinarily do: climb in Spanish moss-filled Live Oaks, help Paw Paw with imaginative projects, serve as photo subjects for Granny’s constant picture taking, play games with their cousin and go on outings planned by their creative Uncle Lee.

New Year’s Day we’ll join the 450-mile conga line of minivans and SUVs heading back to the ATL. I just hope that with a mid-week holiday and a school vacation extending until Jan. 3, we can beat the traffic home.

And on the way home, we’ll plan our next Central Florida excursion, probably just like all our neighbors.

Is it just me or do people flock to Orlando this time of year? Have you made the trek during Christmas vacation? What memories do you have of Orlando? When is the best time to go? Share your travel secrets in a comment below and help make us all savvy travelers.

Playing catch up

I’ve spent the better part of the last week in Fort Worth, Texas, working long hours, enduring incredible heat and spending time with my youngest brother and his family.

The 8-day odyssey to the place of my birth felt more like two trips in one.  The first four days I was engaged in the annual meeting of the organization for which I work. The second four days, I was treated to a laid back schedule and the rare gift of time with my brother, whom I had not laid eyes on in two and a half years.

Lyle and his bass
See the family resemblance? With the guy in the hat, not the bass.

The oldest of three boys, I have found it difficult to keep in touch with my brothers as our lives have gone in divergent directions. My family and I ended up in Atlanta, my middle brother and his family live in Lake Wales, Fla., and my youngest brother and his family are back in Fort Worth after a two-year stint in Junction, Texas. I do okay keeping in touch with my parents, who serve as connectors for the three of us, but there is no substitute for spending time one-on-one.

Lyle is 10-and-a-half years my junior. He was entering second grade when I went off to college, and for the next 24 years, we’ve only had stolen moments to spend together: spring breaks, Christmas holidays, occasional shared family vacations and rare business trips that took me to his neck of the woods. And because of his family’s transitions the last few years, we haven’t even been able to get together at Christmas.

This lack of a relationship with my brother affects me in ways I don’t like to think about. While Lee – the middle brother – and I catch up at Christmas as the grounding point for our relationship, Lyle and I have missed out on that altogether. And unlike my weekly routine of calling my parents, with Lyle there is no consistent time that our schedules converge to allow meaningful conversation.

So we rely on Facebook to keep up with the daily events of each other’s lives, a weak substitute for an actual relationship.

This week went a long way toward helping to bridge the gap between us. As we toured the Fort Worth Stockyards, worshipped together, visited the national scouting museum, took in the giant Cabela’s store, swam with our kids and beat the 100-plus-degree heat with a dollar movie, our conversation was easy, genuine and full of the respect and affection brothers often feel but rarely express.

Typically, brothers express their emotions with a slug and an insult. Lyle and I simply don’t have time for that. When we’re together, we have to connect in meaningful ways or else we could completely lose touch.

Lyle and Haydn at Cabela's
Lyle and his 7-year-old son, Haydn, try out reels at Cabela’s on Tuesday.

That’s what struck me so much about our time together this past week. I was able to relate to Lyle, not as my little brother, but as a minister-in-training, parent, tour guide and friend. Yes, we spent some time around the table telling stories on each other, and on Uncle Lee, much to our children’s delight, but the inadvertently weakened bonds of our brotherhood were strengthened just at the time they needed it most.

I can’t remember a time that Lyle and I have been at odds, but that’s because we’ve been so distant we haven’t had a chance. I don’t want to pick fights with anyone, least of all my brothers, but I would trade a few disagreements for a closer relationship.

So as my summer heads into a middle stretch between trips, I’m back in my comfortable routine. I’m just going to commit one more time to find a way to not lose touch with both my brothers as life unfolds.

There’s simply too much to be gained to let go.

How do you keep up with your siblings? Have you recently been able to share in some quality time with your brother or sister? Leave a comment below and share your secret to staying connected to your siblings.

Time passes one brick at a time

Yesterday we took the boys to the new Legoland Florida theme park. The boys had an amazing day, judging by their smiles, laughter and my over-exuberant uploading of photos to Facebook.

Carla and I couldn’t help but reflect on our two previous visits to that property, each in a very different set of circumstances.

Barron and his cousin, Kalee
Barron and Kalee at Cypress Gardens in 2005

Before it was Legoland, the 150-acre site was Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s first theme parks, built around the natural beauty of Lake Eloise, meticulous and exotic gardening and incredible feats of skill on water skis.

I moved to central Florida at the age of 12, and had been to the park numerous times before Carla and I visited in 1996 while we were still dating. Carla was down to meet my family for the first time and see what many tourists spend thousands of dollars during vacations to experience.

During that trip we visited the Magic Kingdom, which stood in stark contrast to the aging and low-key Cypress Gardens. Leisurely strolling through the gardens hand-in-hand was a welcomed change of pace from the crowds at Disney, but other than dozens of photos of each other in front of various plants, waterfalls and other natural phenomena, there wasn’t much that was memorable from the trip.

The next time we visited, it was about 10 years later. Carla and I were married, and Barron was 4 and Harris was just a baby.  Cypress Gardens had been sold, refurbished, upgraded with new rides and reopened as “Cypress Gardens Adventure Park.” My brother and his family went with us, so Barron had his cousin, Kalee, to go on the kiddie rides with.

There are few pictures of the natural beauty, and almost none of Carla or me. We have dozens of images of Barron and Kalee, looking cherubic in their poses, but I don’t think we spent much time in the gardens.

Our boys at Legoland
Our three boys at Legoland

This time, Cypress Gardens had undergone the biggest transformation of all. Engulfed by the new Legoland identity, the gardens are still there but they are relegated to a corner of the park. We didn’t even go into the gardens during this visit. We were too busy admiring plastic brick creations, shuffling our boys between rides and taking in Lego-themed shows.

Carla and I took turns pushing the stroller, which alternated carrying Carlton and our backpack. As my Facebook friends can attest, we have more than a hundred photos, only one of which has Carla and me together. I don’t think we held hands once the whole day.

Life just isn’t about us anymore. With three kids, we spend our time, money and energy being parents and making memories for our family. It doesn’t even occur to us to think about what we want to see, ride or do during a day at a theme park.

The Wallaces at Legoland
The Wallaces at Legoland on Island in the Sky, Carlton's favorite ride.

In a way, Cypress Gardens and now Legoland is a door frame for us to put pencil marks on, measuring our relationship’s growth.

Who knows when we’ll be back or what life-changing circumstance will have occurred before our next visit. I do know that if the boys have their way, it will be soon.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens/Legoland? What was your experience like? Is there another place that helps you measure your life and growth? Share it with us! Leave a comment a below.

No matter how far away we roam

I’ll be home for after Christmas.

We’re at T-minus two days and counting until the big day. Soon, Carla’s parents will be arriving and we’ll being going to Christmas Eve services at church. The surprise and joy of Christmas morning will give way to the irritability and arguing of sleep-deprived children.

Cognitively, I know that Christmas isn’t for me. It’s for the kids. Emotionally, though, I need to have a connection with my past before I can truly feel I’ve celebrated Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, Christmas with my wife and children in our own home is special. I treasure the traditions we are developing and enjoy building life-long memories with our boys. But for me to feel like I’ve had Christmas requires a trip to my parents’ house in Central Florida.

Since I left for Troy University in 1988, I’ve been making a pilgrimage to Lake Wales some time during the holidays. The 502-miles of pavement allow my mind to travel through time to revisit memories of previous Christmases.

Michael Jordan cardboard stand up with Lee and Lance
Lee and I measure up with Mike, circa 1994.

Like the time I gave my brother, Lee, the life-size cardboard standup Michael Jordan for Christmas. All our Christmas pictures that year had Mike wearing a Santa hat in the background.

Or the year my youngest brother Lyle ate too many helpings of Lee’s famous barbecue meatballs during an all-night Madden football video game tournament. He has since sworn off meatballs.

Like Christmas itself, now that I have kids of my own, the trips to Florida have taken on a different meaning. My children look forward to these vacations because they get to spend time with grandparents they don’t often see, and, yes, they get even more presents.

My dad’s unpredictability adds to the excitement. One year he took the boys and their cousins for a night-time hay ride through the orange groves. Not a year goes by that he doesn’t introduce them to such classic songs as “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” and “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.”

Paw Paw takes the grandkids on a hay ride
Paw Paw's lawn tractor and trailer entertains the grandkids with a Christmas hayride in 2009.

So like so many snowbirds over the next several weeks, we’ll load up the minivan and head down I-75. If you have to drive home for Christmas, Central Florida isn’t a bad destination. At the risk of sounding like a member of the Florida Tourism board, this is really the best time of year to visit. It’s in that narrow window of about two months when the weather isn’t unbearably hot and humid. With temperatures in the 60s and 70s, we will be packing shorts and T-shirts, ready to enjoy outdoor play in my parents’ expansive yard or at one of the nearby parks.

Central Florida also just happens to be home to a number of theme parks. This year we’ll be trying out the new Legoland Florida, which opened this fall a convenient 20 minutes up the road from my parents’ house.

There is no place like home for the holidays, even for grown ups. I look forward to making more memories with my family even while reminiscing about a few that happened before I had one of my own.

Now I’ve got to go find my shorts to pack.

It’s your turn! Where do you travel for the holidays? Do you take family vacations or do you travel great distances to see family? Are you separated from family by geography and miss out and seeing family members? Leave a comment below on how you cope with holiday travel.

Making your mark

Before I met my wife, I don’t think I could spell “monogram.” Now, it is an oft-repeated word and an even more oft-repeated embellishment in my home.

Pillow cases, hand towels, diaper bags, back packs, purses, framed prints – you name it and most likely there are interlocking initials on it somewhere.

I may be “tardy to the monogramming party,” but this Southern trend seems to be reaching new heights. No longer reserved for wedding invitations and baby bibs, the monogram, and its close cousin the cypher, are everywhere.

Amy's Pilot
Amy's monogrammed Honda Pilot. Photo courtesy of Amy Penny.

After recently noticing my friend, Amy, had even adorned her Honda Pilot with a bright pink cypher, I had to ask the obvious question: Why? “For me, a monogram transforms anything that is ordinary into something special,” she said. “I like classic styles, so monogramming is a way to add uniqueness.”

The authority on this subject in my family is my sister-in-law, Karrie. She and my brother opened a monogramming and gift shop in Lake Wales, Fla., several years ago called Polka Dots & Co. (Check out the virtual tour.)

Karrie said adding an embroidered monogram gives otherwise traditional items extra flair.

“People have their monogram put on stuff because they like seeing their name,” Karrie said. “It’s personal, and it adds a personal touch to ‘their’ things. Plus, it makes everything prettier!”

Polka Dots & Co.
If you can wear it, Karrie can put a monogram on it at Polka Dots & Co.

Karrie attributes the trend at least in part to Pottery Barn. Their clean designs are perfect for monogramming, allowing their customers to customize their purchases. Karrie said she decided to open her business after her daughter, Kalee, was born.

My wife along with Karrie’s other Southern friends started giving her monogrammed items for Kalee. Then, on a trip back home to Dothan, Ala., Karrie and her mother discovered a boutique that she fell in love with. She was inspired to try something similar in Lake Wales. Now, she’s expanded her business to include Vera Bradley, Brighton and OkaB shoes.

Polka Dots & Co. has been so popular that she outgrew the original location and had to move to a new downtown location. She’s recently opened a coffee, sandwich and pottery shop next door called Beans & Brushes.  It’s run by my high-school friend, Krista, and
her husband, Keith.

Monograms are not new. They’ve been found as early as 350 BC, and like everything fancy and traditional, there are standards for their use. But the urge to imprint our belongings with our mark seems to be growing. I understand how a monogram can be visually appealing. I’m a word person, so fonts and lettering are artistic to me, but I sometimes struggle with the idea of tagging everything like a rancher’s cattle.

I will attest, though, that it does make things easier when picking up your child from preschool or the church nursery. Everything that goes with the child has his or her initials on it.

I embrace and highly endorse embroidered monograms on gifts. I believe they add meaning. As Amy said, “I love giving monogrammed gifts because it lets the recipient know that you took the extra time to purchase something that is specifically made for them.”

I’m learning to live with the ubiquitous “CWL” in our home, but if it shows up on my boxer shorts, I’m drawing the line.

Teach your children well

It’s an understatement to say my dad taught me a lot while I was growing up.

He taught me right from wrong, self-discipline, the value of a dollar, how to maintain cleanliness and order, the importance of doing a job well and how to nurture a strong faith. Dad also taught me a number of practical skills such as hammering a nail, turning a screw, mowing the grass, handling a weed trimmer and shaving.

My dad with Harris, left, and Barron

He taught me how to have fun, tell stories and jokes, play Monopoly and checkers and other essential board games, fish, throw and catch a baseball and how to do a pineapple
dive
(aka banana dive) that splashes everyone standing on the side of a pool.

But what stands out in my mind for some reason is the day he taught me to change the oil and brake shoes in the car. Now I could very well have forgotten exactly how this occurred: he probably taught me to do these two things at different times, but in my memory, they occurred together.

I was about 13 or 14. The car was on the parking pad at our house on Holly Street in Lake
Wales, Fla.
He showed me how to check the dip stick, jack the car, place the drip pan, remove the plug, remove the filter, replace the plug (very important), replace the filter and pour in the new oil with the assistance of a handy funnel. Brake shoes were a little more complicated and involved a clamp, I think.

I have changed my oil a number of times, although not recently. To do this day, I have never changed my own brake shoes. Sorry, Dad.

As Father’s Day approaches, all of this has me wondering what dads teach their sons in the New South?

I’m sure there are plenty of dads still teaching the finer points of team sports and the basics of throwing, catching, shooting a basketball and so on. I believe fathers are still teaching their boys to appreciate the outdoors and how to fish and hunt.

Carlton recoils at the sight of bass in the live well after our spring break fishing trip. Dad was teaching his grandsons that day.

There are plenty of new skills to be handed down in this digital era. In the New South, dads must teach their sons how to program a universal TV remote, master the misdirection play on the Madden football video game, download songs from iTunes, use a GPS, shop on Amazon, read a Kindle, pick movies on Netflix and upload videos to YouTube.

No matter the era and the practical skills required, I hope to pass on to my three sons the timeless essentials every boy of character must know and practice. My dad taught me well.