Beach happy

I am blessed with myriad joys in my life — being married to Carla, parenting three wonderful young men, participating in our family of faith at Parkway Baptist Church, and many more. When joy is given a location — the now cliche “happy place” — my mind always goes to our summer family vacations to Santa Rosa Beach.

Every summer since 2001, we’ve taken a family vacation to the beach. The first time we took Barron, still an infant, to Saint Simons Island. Then we discovered Santa Rosa Beach on County Road 30A in South Walton County in the panhandle of Florida. Except for one visit to Cocoa Beach with our friends the Bennetts in 2010, we’ve been there every summer since. Discovering the beaches of South Walton – or, more accurately, re-discovering them for me – has brought me as much happiness as anything in my life.

Lance Wallace in straw hat and sun glasses with beach and blue-green waters in the background.
Unshaven, big sun hat, long sleeve swim shirt, SPF 5000 sunblock and prescription sunglasses — It’s the old man at the beach look, for sure, but it’s worth it for a little peace and rest.

The warm, clear waters of the Emerald Coast are the best anywhere for playing and relaxing. The bright, white sand beaches are beautiful to behold and perfect for setting up chairs under an umbrella and listening to the waves. The restaurants serve up our favorite seafood and provide unmatched atmosphere. The music venues feature local and unknown artists putting their heart and soul into their music, giving us many great nights under the stars. Santa Rosa Beach has been my haven of happiness.

I wrote the first five chapters of my novel at the beach. I taught Harris and Carlton to ride a bike in the lawn at Gulf Place. I played board games with the boys and made Skip-Bo our family card game. I watched family movies revealing to the boys such classics as “Jaws” and “Treasure Island.” I walked the beach at sunset, holding hands with Carla and watching our boys run along the water’s edge, splashing each other and chasing sand crabs. I ate a lot of ice cream. There were years when it rained more than we would have liked or when we spent too much time in the beach house rather than at the pool or on the beach, but I cannot remember a bad vacation at Santa Rosa Beach.

I think our vacations there create so much happiness because the stresses of our lives at home are stripped away. All that’s left is each other and time. Truth be told, we could probably make space for such experiences anywhere in the world. In fact, we do achieve these moments when we are at home, but the beach brings happiness in the anticipation of it as much as the actual trip. For me it’s like the season of anticipation before Christmas.

Lance Wallace and his three boys sit at a picnic table on the balcony of a beach condo overlooking the Gulf of Mexico with plates of corn, red potatoes, shrimp and sausage in front of them.
One of our favorite meals at the beach is Carla’s low country boil with fresh Gulf shrimp caught that morning and purchased from Shrimpers. The family time is what makes this vacation so important to me.

Peace, contentment, relationship, creative stimulation, success, discovery, and rest are all common threads in my happiest times. Now that I have surpassed 50, I have come to believe more firmly than ever that happiness is a state of mind I can create for myself rather than rely on circumstances to dictate.

I’m looking forward to this year’s version of beach happiness and hope your summer has some for you, too.

Where is your beach happy? Share your favorite beach destination and why in a comment below.

College visits produce anxiety, nostalgia

The joke about campus tours is that they’re all the same.

This short video from College Humor captures it nicely.

After taking two such tours this week with my middle son, Harris, I’ve concluded that, yes, touring campuses starts to feel like deja vu after a while, but if you’re paying attention, there’s a lot you can learn about your children… and yourself.

I never took a campus tour at what was then Troy State University before deciding to matriculate there in May of 1988. I took them up on their scholarship offer late in my senior year of high school. It was a practical decision made for purely financial reasons. The first time I set foot on the Troy campus was for pre-college orientation that summer.

Lance and Harris pose with the bronze statue of the Mercer Bear in front of the University Center building.
Harris and I pose for a selfie with the ferocious Mercer Bear outside of the University Center.

I have taken a few campus tours since, and now that I work in higher education, I’ve given a few. Carla and I did a round of college visits with our oldest when he was making his college selection. Visits to University of Georgia, Clemson, and Kennesaw State along with an informal, football-centric trip to Auburn (thanks to our friends, the Hursts!), rounded out his explorations. He ultimately landed at KSU for a year and a half before transferring to Georgia where he is now happily ensconced.

Barron was all about the college experience, particularly the marching band experience. He was coming off two years as drum major of his high school marching band, and he wanted to march in a big-time college band that played big-time games on big-time television and gave him big-time memories. At the time of those tours, he didn’t really know what he wanted to major in, vacillating between communications and music education.

Fast forward three years and he’s now a furnishings and interiors major with a concentration in historic preservation and played his trumpet on the field at the national championship game in Indianapolis back in January. So things worked out just fine. The campus tour did not make or break his future.

Harris Wallace listens to a tour guide outside of the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building on the historic quad of Mercer University's campus.
When we think of Mercer, we think of the historic quad, including the R. Kirby Godsey Administration Building.

Our second son, Harris, is different in just about every way possible. While he has loved his marching band experience in high school, he is not seeking that from college. He is already working his 30-year plan, which includes a run for public office concluding with the White House. The two visits he took this week were to Mercer and UGA where one of the chief features the two have in common is a law school. (Emory is on the list to visit as well.)

The rah-rah portions of the tour didn’t appeal to him as much. He did soak up the vibe, which was a hot one this week, but his interests were more about academics, application processes, scholarships, honors programs and dual degrees that allow a student to complete a bachelor’s and master’s in an abbreviated time. His goals are more academic and profession-based than his brother’s. 

As the parents on these tours, Carla and I try to be present and offer advice without taking over. That was easier at UGA than at Mercer from which both of us have a degree. Carla particularly wanted to go into every building to see how it was different from when she went there back in the ‘90s. Spoiler alert: the campus has changed quite a bit.

Harris Wallace poses in front of the University of Georgia School of Law.
Harris can envision himself attending classes here at the University of Georgia School of Law one day.

I think our nostalgia annoyed Harris more than it helped, but our personal connections to the institution made that inevitable. Those connections did lead to Harris getting to meet Mercer President Bill Underwood, something no one else on our tour with Kelli was able to do. I don’t think Harris minded our Mercerian status then.

Here’s what I have learned from the college visit process from two cycles:

Separate emotion from data. Start with your child’s career interests and work backward. It’s not criminal if they don’t know what they want to do, but if they have an idea, it’s a good starting point. Then look at the academic degrees offered. Faculty matter in those fields, too, but don’t get hung up on rankings and reputational stuff. Good students succeed no matter where they are planted. And if you, like us, have some alma maters in the running, try not to let your glory days have too much influence. Our children need to blaze their own trails. If they do choose your school, know that their experience will be different from yours.

Your child’s future is not at stake. Try to relax and help your child enjoy the tour. It may feel like getting into the right school and making the right college choice is a life-or-death decision, but it’s not. Transferring is a reality. There are many paths to success. If you feel your anxiety level rising during the campus tour, take a time out and try not to let your issues infect your child. They will make better decisions without all the extra emotional baggage.

Don’t bring that helicopter. A colleague at another university recently told me that at their college orientation, the student life staff purposely have multiple options for free T-shirts just so they can force students to make a decision. It’s part of their preparation for college. She said all too often parents will step in, or, even worse, the student will turn to the parent and ask them which shirt they should pick. Staff are trained to then redirect the question to the student: “Which shirt do YOU want?” If you haven’t already built the habit of letting your child make some decisions for themselves, the campus tour is a good place to start.

As we wait for test scores and applications to open, I’m working on being present with Harris as he contemplates his future. It’s both a help and a hindrance that I work in higher education. You don’t have to be an expert to help your child navigate this decision, and your child’s choice will not determine the course of their entire life. Their future is still very much in their hands.

We’re on our second of three times through this journey of campus tours and college selection. Harris’ experience is different from Barron’s, and I’m sure Carlton’s will be unique from his older brothers’. 

Harris Wallace talks with a female UGA tour guide on the Million Dollar Staircase on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens.
Harris gets to know “Lou” our UGA tour guide from Greensboro, NC, as they walk down the “Million Dollar Staircase.”

Carla likes to talk about seasons of life. This is one of those seasons that I’m learning to enjoy. It’s fun to reminisce, but I’m trying to let Harris make his own memories.

Hey, let me tell you about that time my roommate Scott skulled a possum in the parking lot of our dorm…

What was your campus tour like? How has it been different with your children? Did you find it stressful? Let’s process this together. Leave a comment and contribute to the conversation.

Becoming my father

As I age, I hear my father’s words come out of my mouth with greater frequency.

I see how strongly I have been imprinted by my father. I have his creativity, work ethic, conviction, stubbornness, and tendency toward anger as a way of expressing concern.

I deeply love and respect my father, and as my own set of three boys grow up, I understand and relate to him better with each passing year. He has walked this journey ahead of me and did a good job raising three boys into men of character. I hope to emulate him in that achievement.

Larry Wallace sitting on a green sofa with his two young sons, Lance and Lee, in his lap.
My dad with Lee and me when we were all MUCH younger.

My dad is no longer on a pedestal of perfection. He is accessible and knowable and human. I am innately made up of his best – and worst – qualities. Our weekly phone conversations often provoke tiny revelations about my character and call attention to my own tendencies that are adding up to the inevitable self-discovery and self-assurance that leads to wisdom.

My father’s personality made a strong impact on my brothers and me, and his traits have been both adopted and resisted. Maybe it is the way of fathers and sons, but love and conflict have been part of our relationship since early adulthood.

When I was very small, my earliest memories were of him working night shift for American Airlines and having to be quiet during the day while he slept. I remember him retiring from American to go to Bible college and go on staff of our church as associate pastor. I went from being fairly anonymous in our church to garnering attention wherever we went. From the point he “surrendered” for the ministry, he worked at being a better person to others. He was kind and attentive when approached, and I saw him apply himself academically.

Dad has always been a hard worker. Whether it was long days of sermon preparation and visitation at area hospitals or in people’s homes, he was not afraid of effort. He was the kind of church staff member and senior pastor who was willing to roll up his sleeves, literally, and unclog toilets, set up tables for the senior adult program or mop the fellowship hall.

In his younger days, Dad could be bold and impulsive. He may have been afraid of the life-changing career move when he answered God’s call on his life and left the world of airplane maintenance, which he knew well, but I never saw it. He handled the disappointment of not being called to a church in Orlando where he preached in view of a call. And he humbly went back to work on aircraft at General Dynamics when our church in Texas could not afford to keep him on staff. Those were big risks, and I’m sure stressful and trying times for him, full of doubt and concern for providing for his family. But he never failed us.

I saw my father take on the biggest responsibility of all when he accepted the senior pastor position at another church in Central Florida. When we moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to Lake Wales, Fla., we all viewed it as an adventure, and no one was more affected by that adventure than Dad. He became consumed by the stresses of the congregation, which also operated a kindergarten through 12th grade Christian school. The finances of both institutions were a wreck, and no one had informed him of those issues before he took the job. But as was his way, Dad internalized those stresses and did his best to shelter us from what kept him up at night.

Dad has always been a man of conviction, willing to act on his beliefs. He does not do lip service. A firm believer in the proverb “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” he insisted we help him change the oil, brakes and spark plugs on the car, so we would learn some self-sufficiency. He couldn’t abide the thought of being dependent on anyone, and he didn’t want us to not learn to fend for ourselves.

His commitment to serving the Lord obviously stemmed from conviction. I remember as a small boy looking up at him during the invitation hymn at the end of the service as he prayed and hoped someone would respond to the message and walk the aisle. Even when he worked nights, he was still at church every time the doors were open, and by the time he went on staff, he was already doing everything he could do for our church. He was basically an unpaid staff member.

Dealing with the stress of leadership may not have suited him, but the creativity called for writing and crafting and delivering sermons did. A fiery pulpiteer, he blended well the Scripture with illustrations, and when he had the time, he enjoyed studying and writing sermons. He flashed that same creativity in his storytelling around the table or with company. Whether they were stories of his growing up, his time in the Air Force, working for American Airlines, fishing trips or church life, he had a knack for holding people’s attention and spinning a good tale. He once confided in me about a book series he would like to write about an international spy with a photographic memory. I should steal his idea and write it now as a tribute. I think the idea has enough merit that I haven’t forgotten it.

He loved surprising us. Whether it was secretly packing the car on Thanksgiving Day to take us on a surprise weekend getaway to Galveston or bringing home an above ground swimming pool, Dad loved seeing our curiosity turn to joy.

Lance Wallace sits in a brown chair holding his newborn baby son who wears a knit green cap.
See the resemblance? I guess having three boys does make me and Dad more similar than different.

Like Dad, I, too, have shown a propensity for hard work. It didn’t strike me as unusual to work long into the night at the newspaper, and when I transitioned to public relations, I put in many 60-plus hour weeks writing and disseminating messages for my nonprofit employers. Yard work was my therapy. Mowing, trimming, blowing, raking, weeding – I grew up doing yard work year-round in Florida, and the dirt and sweat was as familiar to me as the computer keyboard and notepad. Like Dad, I am not afraid of working hard.

I also made a big career jump, though not as big as Dad’s, when I left newspaper journalism for public relations. I didn’t have to relocate, at least not immediately, but I embraced the big life change a few years later when we moved from Macon to Lilburn for my job.

Church is important to me, and I have wrestled with a sense of calling all my life. I spent 10 years communicating for a missions-sending organization which gave me close proximity to church leaders and ministers. I traveled and spoke in churches and saw the lives and work of missionaries up close. As much as that experience profoundly influenced me, I did not ultimately believe I was called to serve the local church like Dad or my brothers. I am at church every time the doors are open, teaching Sunday School, leading committees, chaperoning kids to camps, chairing the board of deacons and serving in a variety of capacities as needed. I love the local church and profess that love in a monthly blog called View from the Pew that captures a lay person’s perspective of church life.

Mom is the one who convinced me one day that my inclination toward writing came from Dad. I am compelled to write, recommitting myself to New South Essays during the pandemic. Whether any of my avocational writing amounts to anything, it gives me such mental satisfaction to complete even small writing projects that I have to acknowledge a genetic predisposition to creative expression.

In the days of stress that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, I have also become keenly aware that I share Dad’s habit of showing concern as anger. When I fly off the handle, it is never about the thing I’m raging against. It is the buildup of unvented frustration over circumstances outside of my control. And when I do explode, I feel shame and guilt that I now know Dad felt, too.

I am learning to handle my temper better. I wish I could be infinitely long suffering. I want to express concern as compassion and empathy. To do so, I need to go against my programming and nurture and establish a new model for my boys. Men of previous generations did not have permission to handle their emotions in constructive ways or even acknowledge that they had emotions in most cases. I have learned to recognize Dad’s feelings for what they truly are and not be scared because he seems angry at me.

In these and many more ways, I am like my father. I hope the world is better for it.

Tell us about your father. Leave a comment with what you’ve learned about yourself as it relates to your dad. Reflecting on the commonalities isn’t always easy, but it is meaningful.

River rescue

From my earliest days as a rookie features writer at The Macon Telegraph in 1992, I heard reporters talk about canoeing the Ocmulgee River and writing about it for the paper.

I was young and foolish enough to attempt it.

In the late summer of 1993 I began the ambitious project of paddling the entire 255 miles of the Ocmulgee River from its origin at the base of Lloyd Shoals Dam at Lake Jackson to the confluence with the Oconee River forming the Altamaha River near Lumber City.

The grand adventure would have been to canoe it from start to finish in one multi-day trip, camping along the route. If you figure the average person can cover 10-15 miles of river a day, you can quickly see how impractical that was. I could not put my life on hold nor would my editors at The Telegraph let me out of my other duties for three weeks.

As I puzzled over the logistics, the Central Georgia River Runners canoeing and kayaking club learned about my ambitious project and one of its members, Joe Beall, took an interest. A former naval aviator and graduate of the Citadel, Joe was single, in his early 40s, and had a lot of time on his hands. He loved kayaking and history, and his unquenchable curiosity provided the impetus and skills I needed to make the journey a reality.

Lance Wallace holds up a Central Georgia River Runners T-shirt beside an aluminum canoe at the shore of the Altamaha River in Lumber City, Georgia, with the Uvalda Bridge in the background.
I earned my Central Georgia River Runners bumper sticker and T-shirt when I finished paddling the Ocmulgee River here at the bridge in Lumber City just below the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers, but I did need rescuing a time or two along the way.

Joe became my unofficial guide. We spent hours together pouring over topographical maps and looking at ways to break the trip into segments. Being a young, single guy myself, I was willing to give weekends and occasional weekday trips to the journey so as not to interfere with my regular workload. We divided the entire project into 10-15 mile excursions, invited the River Runners to join us when they could, and began the quest.

The Ocmulgee River, which derives its name from the Hichti words “oki” (water) and “molki” (bubbling or boiling), acts like two different rivers. The upper Ocmulgee above the Fall Line, which runs just north of Macon, is bubbling like the mountain rivers and streams in north Georgia and Tennessee. There are shoals and rapids through which the water moves quickly and can prove challenging for inexperienced paddlers like I was. Truth be told, I had to be rescued several times after falling in when my canoe was toppled by a small rapid. The River Runners called the shameful act “swimming,” and even devoted a column in their monthly newsletter called “Seen Swimming” to call out those who turned over during an outing.

“Seen Swimming” included my name several times the first few trips because I was so inexperienced. I made the beginner’s mistake of sitting up too high and grabbing the gunnels when I started to lose my balance. I had to learn to fight those instincts, get low in a canoe, and keep paddling to maintain my balance. I think the River Runners drew straws to see who would take me in their canoe those first few trips because they didn’t want to be “seen swimming” along with me.

South of the Fall Line as Georgia’s Piedmont region gives way to the Coastal Plain, the Ocmulgee spreads out, slows down and becomes a wide, meandering river, like a smaller version of the Mississippi. We did several of the southern segments in multi-day, overnight trips camping on the shoreline or on sandbars. Particularly near the end, we tried to cover as much of the river as we could with each trip.

North of Macon, the river ran fairly straight, but south of town, there were stretches where the Ocmulgee was winding and serpentine. Even with Joe’s navigational skills, it was sometimes hard to calculate the distance of a trip from a topographical map.

Such was the case on an early spring day when Joe and I had hoped to paddle a section south of Macon originating near Bond Swamp that would end up at the Bullard Landing public boat ramp near Dry Branch in Twiggs County.

It’s those twists and turns that can make estimating the time and distance tricky on the river.

There were several factors that freighted the day with stress. First, we needed to have The Telegraph’s photographer with us on more of the trips to capture some good imagery to accompany my story. Maryann Bates and I had worked well together on multiple projects, and she had expressed interest. Our plan was to go back after the story was outlined and get photos from the bank, but we did need her to join us on a couple of the trips. We didn’t want to risk her equipment, so picking an easier segment without rapids or shoals seemed ideal.

Maryann was like a big sister to me. Older and wiser, she had taken me under her wing at the paper, dispensing good natured teasing and wisdom in equal measure. She and her husband, Larry, were good friends, and at times I felt like I was part of their family, which back then included three kids. Maryann had commitments that I didn’t, so finding a day to be on the river proved challenging.

When we paddled a section of the river, we had to start the day by setting the shuttle, which meant leaving the canoes and kayaks at the put-in point, driving to the take-out with two vehicles so you could leave one to get you back to your other vehicle at the end of the day, and driving back to the boats at the put-in. Maryann drove a Nissan Pathfinder, so we left the canoe and kayak at the put-in and planned to leave her truck at the take-out. The last half mile of the road to Bullard Landing was red clay, and recent rains left it slick. Maryann handled it well, but we were both tense from the slipping and sliding to get to the takeout.

Once we put in and found our pace, and the trip became pleasant. I could hear Maryann’s camera clicking away, and the warming sunshine eased our minds. That section was somewhat remote, but there was ample evidence we were south of an urban area. We found pockets along the route where fallen trees created eddies that held captive all manner of detritus, including basketballs, styrofoam ice chests, and other garbage that washed into the river from the streets of Macon.

After a full eight hours of paddling, Maryann began to grow anxious about the time. She had a family commitment that evening and needed to be home by 7 p.m. Based on Joe’s calculations, we were doing a 13-mile stretch and should have been off the river well before nightfall. The Ocmulgee’s twists and turns proved deceptive, though, and the sunset, though beautiful, fueled our nervousness about the time.

Finding a takeout, even a well-marked public boat ramp, can be challenging if you’ve never before approached it from the water. It’s easy to miss landmarks because it all looks so different from the river. In the dark, it’s impossible to find your take out. Missing it compounds the aggravation. You eventually paddle so far down river that you realize you must have passed it. You find a spot to get out, leave your canoe where you can get back to it, and walk back up the bank through trees and thickets to where you think your vehicle should be. It can add hours to your excursion.

Maryann’s tight schedule upped the stakes of finding the take out on the first try. With daylight fading, we studied the left bank as we rounded each bend hoping for a glimpse of the Bullard Landing boat ramp. We had been on the river in excess of 10 hours as the dim light of dusk completely faded.

Joe had been apologizing for an hour when Maryann finally broke.

“SHUT UP, JOE!” she yelled at him, unable to contain her frustration.

He wisely held his tongue as we kept paddling in the dark, getting as close to the left bank as possible risking getting hung up in a fallen tree.

Just when I gave up all hope, I heard the sound of a boat motor in the distance behind us. As it grew louder, I turned to look over my shoulder to see the beam of a spotlight scanning the shoreline. Their light hit our canoe, and they called out to us.

“Hey, y’all know where the Bullard Landing boat ramp is?” a friendly male voice called from behind the light.

“We think so. We’ve been trying to get to it,” Joe answered.

“Y’all need some help?”

“Yes! Please!” Maryann answered.

Illuminated by a lantern and the spotlight, our saviors appeared to be two guys in a jon boat. Whether they were fishermen who had been caught on the river by the darkness or deer hunters looking to do some illegal “shining,” we did not know… or care.

They threw us a rope, which Maryann tied to the front of our canoe. They continued sweeping the bank for the boat ramp as they gently accelerated, pulling us safely behind them. Joe followed, pushing his tired arms and shoulders well past exhaustion.

In just a few minutes, they spotted the ramp. When the light reflected off Maryann’s Pathfinder, I exhaled in relief.

Such was life on the river. For the eight months it took us to paddle the Ocmulgee, I experienced an array of feelings: the ecstasy of seeing nature’s beauty, exhaustion from effort, fear of noises in the night, inconvenience of logistical mistakes and accomplishment when each stretch was completed. We had other mishaps. I even turned over our canoe one more time on a more southerly segment when we took a high water cut through and got pinned against a tree trunk. But that night in the darkness, searching desperately for Bullard Landing, I was rescued and I was grateful.

The only clue I have to the identity of our rescuers is a scrap of paper torn from the small manilla envelopes Telegraph photographers used to put their film in for processing. It bears the names “Rusty Evans” and “Dave” in ballpoint pen. There’s a phone number, and the words “coon hunter” and “airboat Bullard’s Landing” written under them.

Rusty and Dave didn’t make it into my story that ran over two successive weekends in The Telegraph June 12 and June 19, 1994. But their rescue has been forever imprinted in my memory.

Above ground

This time of year always makes me nostalgic for the glorious summer-and-a-half my family had an above-ground swimming pool. With temperatures climbing into the 90s now, I can’t help but wish for a dip in the pool like those carefree summer days in my pre-teens.

A family frolics in an above ground swimming pool in the 1980s.
This vintage ad from the 1980s gives you an idea of what our pool was like, though we didn’t have the faux wood exterior resembling a barrel. Photo courtesy of ClickAmericana.

In late spring of 1981, my dad installed a 24-foot-in-diameter, 4-foot-deep, above-ground swimming pool. We lived in Bedford, Texas, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, and summers were brutally hot.

I don’t know what possessed my dad to make such a purchase or to go to the trouble of leveling the backyard, erecting the metal frame, unrolling and rigging the lining carefully so as not to tear a hole in it, patching the lining when the inevitable leak sprang up, connecting the filter system, checking the PH balance and maintaining the water purity daily.

It was a ton of work. His decision to give this gift to the family came with it the commitment of upkeep and repair. I’m so glad he made the sacrifice.

For two summers, my middle brother, Lee, and I were sun-drenched and tan. It was one of the only times in my life I was tan. Not allowed to swim during the heat of the day, we typically spent time in the pool from breakfast to lunch, late afternoon to supper and after supper to bedtime.

Those two summers we were immune to the soaring Texas temperatures, and we were never bored. We ran laps in the pool trying to generate a swirling current. We set up our scuba diver action figures and played shark hunt and dolphin rescue. Shouts of “Marco” and “Polo” echoed off our storage shed and the back walls of our house for hours. We threw waterlogged Nerf footballs and tennis balls, making spectacularly splashy diving catches. We didn’t have a care in the world.

My only not-so-found memory of the pool came in March of 1982 when the leaves-infested, dark green waters of the pool demanded cleaning. It was way too early to even think about swimming, but one particularly chilly Saturday I went out with the dip net to start cleaning the scum and filth I could reach from around the circumference and the ladder.

I guess I just couldn’t wait until summer. As I leaned out from the ladder, holding onto the rail and reaching the net as far as possible, Lee, who was all of 8 at the time, came from nowhere and gave me a playful push. My hold on the ladder handle was firm, but I cried out “Lee!” in terror at the thought of falling into the icy sludge.

Dad heard my cries and immediately knew what had happened. He emerged from the garage with a stern expression.

“Lee, don’t you push your brother into that pool,” he said with finger pointing at my red-haired mischief maker of a brother. “If you do, you’ll get a whipping.”

Thinking the threat was enough to secure my safety, I resumed cleaning. My trust in Lee’s fear of my father was so complete, that I continued to lean out over the water perilously. But Lee was undeterred.

Only a few minutes after the warning, I stretched to reach a clump of leaves. A much firmer push caused me to relinquish my grip and sent me hurtling downward into the cold depths of untreated pool water. The splash alerted my father that his threat had gone unheeded. Lee was forced to face the promised punishment.

To this day, Lee still says that was the only spanking he ever received that was worth it.

We moved to Central Florida in the summer of 1982, cutting short our swimming season. We sold the pool to the family of my best friend, Eddie, and we packed up and moved to Lake Wales.

If the Yanceys enjoyed the pool half as much as we did, it was a great investment.

My mother’s voice

I can’t remember the last time I heard my mother sing.

I’m sure it was during a visit to my parents’ church before my dad retired, but that was four or five years ago now. I didn’t realize I missed hearing her sing until a clear childhood memory of Mom practicing a solo for our church’s presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” recently came back to me.

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

Mom always sang in the church choir. She played the piano in church on a fill-in basis when we moved to Florida in 1982, and for a time she was the full-time accompanist. But her strong soprano voice was needed most in the choir, and she often sang what our church called “Special Music” before the sermon. There were even occasions when Dad would spontaneously call on her to sing a particular solo he had in mind before he delivered his message. No rehearsal. No lead time. No preparation. No heads up. Just, “Sharon, would you come and sing ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’” or some other hymn. She always sang beautifully from the heart.

From my birth in 1970 until 1982, my family attended the First Baptist Church of Richland Hills, Texas, located in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. In my memory, it was a large church, but in actuality, membership probably ran 200-300. Music was an important part of the church’s worship, and the choir director, Paul McPeek, was a stickler for well-rehearsed, traditional choral music. The choir rehearsed on Wednesday nights after prayer meeting, and when I outgrew the nursery, I sat in the auditorium while my parents participated in choir practice. At the time, sitting still through an hour-plus of rehearsal seemed arduous to me, but I managed to learn all of the great hymns of the faith, including Handel’s “Messiah” by osmosis.

Each Christmas season our church offered two special services, usually both on a Sunday night. One was the Christmas program featuring some re-enactment of the Christmas story that included us kids. The other was a cantata presented by the church choir. In my memory it was the “Messiah” every year, but they may have performed other works as well. I know they performed “Messiah” multiple times during my formative years between six and 12. “Messiah” is such a lengthy and challenging work for amateur choirs that rehearsal usually began during the summer. I remember how odd it felt to be in the sanctuary listening to Christmas music with the Texas heat soaring above 100 degrees outside.

My mother often sang one of the soprano arias “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd” or the recitative, “Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened.” This required extra practice on her part, both at church with an accompanist or at home with a tape. The sound of her practicing at home gave me great comfort and became part of the soundtrack of my childhood leading up to Christmas.

Mom grew up singing, taking voice lessons even into adulthood. She has a structured, classical style with vibrato that has always sounded sophisticated and operatic to me. Despite my father’s Spirit-led, impromptu requests for solos, Mom preferred rehearsal and a good warm up before singing in church. She confessed nerves on occasion, but those bouts of stage fright were rooted in a lack of preparation. If she was nervous, you could never tell it in her performance.

Like most small kids, I believed my mom to be amazing and infallible. She was the most beautiful, the best cook and clearly the best singer. To my ear, there was no better sound than her voice. Mom’s singing is an indelible part of my childhood. Listening to her at home and at church strengthened our bond in a profound way neither of us understood or appreciated fully at the time.

The last time I saw “Messiah” performed in its entirety was in the mid-1990s in Macon at The Grand Opera House by the Mercer University choir. They did a marvelous job, and the performance moved me. In the opening notes of “He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,” I was surprised by tears welling in my eyes. The work, the performance, the atmosphere touched a memory that only now do I understand as maternal love.

Whether I ever have the opportunity to hear Mom sing formally again, I will count myself lucky to have had hours of sitting through rehearsals. Those experiences built a bank of memories of her voice which will sustain me for a lifetime.

What’s in a name, part 1

Our middle son will turn 17 on May 2, and this is the perfect time to look at how our penchant for family names resulted in him being named “Harris Goodman Wallace.”

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

Our second born was the only one of the three we didn’t know the gender of until he arrived. We’re planners. With Barron we learned the gender of our baby as soon as we reliably could tell from the ultrasound image. So in early December during Carla’s second pregnancy we went for an ultrasound, assuming it would be just as straightforward.

We thought we would know immediately the baby’s sex, and we could go to the deacon-church staff Christmas party that night at our pastor’s house and share the good news with everyone. Harris had other ideas. Despite the technician’s best efforts, his position and the placement of the umbilical cord prevented her from getting a conclusive image.

Not only were we glum at the party, we had to go with a neutral green to decorate his room. As with our firstborn, we had “Ruth” and “Helen” on standby if it was a girl. We were partial to a double name, and Carla liked both of my grandmother’s first names “Addie” and “Minnie.” “Ruth” was prevalent on both sides of our family, so it had to be in the name somewhere.

“Harris” was the middle name of Carla’s paternal grandfather, Lee Harris Barron. We were clear it was to be “Harris” and not “Harrison,” just like my name isn’t a short form of “Lawrence.” His middle name would come from Carla’s mother’s side of the family. “Goodman” is my mother-in-law’s maiden name, and we both liked its strength and predictive quality.

Of all our boys, Harris fittingly came out with the most hair allowing for a few gentle puns with “Hair-is.” Like his brothers, Harris also likes his name, although he is annoyed when people call him “Harrison” and the silly nickname our neighbor, Charlie, once gave him: “Hair-less.”

At 17 he is planning a career in public service and politics. He likes the sound of “Governor Harris Wallace,” “Senator Harris Wallace,” or even “President Harris Wallace.”

And for campaigning purposes, it doesn’t hurt that his middle name is “Goodman.” You may have heard that they’re hard to find.

What was your naming conventions for your children? Leave a comment on how you came up with your kids’ names and join the conversation!

My earliest memory

It’s difficult to separate my actual memories from my memories of old photographs. It’s why people take pictures in the first place.

Many of the images of my early childhood are captured on slides rather than prints, and the slides are in carousels at my parents’ house, packed away in closets, unseen in 30 or more years.

Whether I am remembering my childhood or the photos is hard to know, but one of the strongest impressions I have from those years is of our dog, Tippi.

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

My dad worked nights as a mechanic for American Airlines, first at Love Field in Dallas and then at the new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. In the 1970s, new neighborhoods were springing up across the Metroplex, and such was the case with ours in the suburb of Bedford, just a few minutes from the airport. Our house was the first one built on our street.

These circumstances led my parents to get a dog, a reliable guardian to keep my mom safe at night while Dad was at work, and a companion during the day in an isolated community that did not yet offer neighbors. My parents settled on a young but well-trained female German Shepherd. She was named in German, “Schwarz Spitze,” or “black tip,” because, obviously, the tip of her tail was black. My parents called her by the shortened nickname, “Tippi.”

As a toddler I struggled to say words that began with the letter “T.” In my language, “Tippi” was “Pippi.” My dad tried repeatedly to train me to say it correctly. He worked it into a list of other “T” words to trick my brain and tongue to suddenly cooperate.

“Say ‘tea,’ ‘toy,’ ‘top,’ ‘Tippi.”

I would respond with “’Tea!’ ‘Toy!’ ‘Top!’ ‘Pippi!”

The way he reacted with exasperation and laughter probably made me think it was a fun game. That and my genetic predisposition toward stubbornness kept me saying “Pippi” long after it was cute.

I remember watching “Sesame Street” while laying on our black couch, coffee table or red-tiled floor, always with a hand on Tippi. My protector, Tippi would sit obediently by my side or at my feet. And as I grew, Tippi remained attentive and fiercely loyal, (emphasis on the fierce). Anytime she perceived a threat to me, she growled and barked. Her protection extended to my friends who would come to the house to play. If we ever wanted to go in the backyard, we had to make sure she was in the garage or in the house.

A faint memory that has grown in impact because of its constant retelling was a time I marched along the fence in the backyard with a bucket on my head, holding Tippi by the tail and singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” If I had to guess, I was inspired by a scene from the World War II prisoner-of-war comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” in which armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the camp with German Shepherds. Never mind the questionable origins of the idea, my parents thought it was hilarious.

In the heat of Texas summers, Tippi loved to play with me in the water hose or the small wading pools my parents would set up for me. I clearly remember how she would try to bite the stream of water flowing from the hose like she was attacking a snake.

She retrieved balls, gnawed bones, ate crunchy dog food from a metal dog dish in the garage, and, according to family legend, once turned her nose up at a plate of beef stroganoff my mom had branched out to prepare for supper. My dad, lacking grace about his distaste for the meal, suggested the dog wouldn’t even eat it. In response, my mother jerked up his plate, opened the door to the garage and set it down in front of Tippi. She sniffed the plate, turned around and promptly went into the backyard.

I also have clear memories of the tumors Tippi began to develop when I was eight or nine. When I petted her, I was careful to avoid the painful lumps that had formed on her body, particularly the back of her neck. I observed her grow more and more listless, less active, displaying less of an appetite, and emitting the high pitched whine more frequently when there was no apparent prompting.

Finally, my parents had seen enough of her suffering, and one day while I was at school, they took her to the vet “to be put to sleep,” as they called it. Tippi left our lives that day, but she has never left my memory.

So strong was our bond that even though we had other dogs after we moved to Florida, I never allowed myself to feel attached. I knew no dog could ever be as good and smart and loyal as Tippi. I’m sure she frustrated my parents at times in the way our family dogs have frustrated me in my household, but as the kid with the dog, I have nothing but the best memories of my Pippi dog.

Fists of fury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wisest person I’ve ever known

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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