the very stuff you've been looking for … like finding a purple rock in a world of plain gravel

December 7, 2017
by John Shouse
1 Comment

a day in the life. with foam.

This one is weird.  If weird ain’t your thing, stop now.  You’ve been warned.

Very strange dream last night.  Vivid.  One of those dreams where when you wake up you kind of have to pause a minute, and are just a little shaken because it seemed so real.  I have a lot of dreams like that.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I filled in just “a few” gaps here and there.  But overall, this is very accurately my dream.  Not sure I should admit that.)

I was homeless, dirty, and living on the street.   I had long, greasy matted gray hair, and a very long, scraggly, bushy and out of control gray beard.   I was wearing a dirty sweatshirt, but had on no pants.   Yes…I had on no pants, but around my waist was wrapped a very dirty and ragged chenille blanket … the kind you used to see on grandma’s bed.  It was wrapped around me sort of like a diaper.

I was in a big city, skyscrapers all around.  There was a lot of vehicular traffic … cars, cabs, buses, etc. in the street.  And lots of pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks.  It was a gray blustery day.  It was cold and there was a sense of foreboding … as if the sky was about to break open at any moment.

I was lying in the dirt in a large planter, at the base of a tree that had been planted there as part of a project to “beautify” the city.  As such, I was up about 3 or 4 feet off the sidewalk.   I had a small dilapidated dirty foam pillow wadded under my head, and a filthy old sleeping bag pulled up around me.   I would occasionally call out to people passing by, but no one paid any attention.

Two women walked by, whom I recognized as girls from my high-school class.   I hollered out to them….. calling their names. “Sharon!  Ann!”  They turned and briefly looked at me but kept on going, apparently not recognizing me …. Even though I obviously knew their names.    I reached out towards them, but they paid no heed.    (In real life, these same two women were just back in my hometown for a visit at Thanksgiving, a visit that was documented by a photo, with a third friend, and posted to FB.  Bolstering my theory that dreams are basically the mind rehashing and reinterpreting events from waking life.  Although the rest of the dream sort of belies that theory.)

Before long, three of my (real-life) co-workers walked by.  I called out to them.  They came over to where I was laying.  One of them said, “Geez, man … what happened to you?”

I said to him, “Nothing happened to me. What do you mean?”

They shook their heads, turned and walked off.  I reached out towards them, and called out again … but they paid no heed.

People continued to walk by.

I felt so profoundly sad.

I looked up and noticed that a man in a nice dark gray overcoat and scarf was standing just inside the building near where my planter was. He was taring at me through the large plate glass window.    It was Peter Bogdanovitch.  It was then that I realized that the whole dream was in black & white.   (I usually dream in color).

The Director

Clouds were moving rapidly overhead.

I got up and walked over to the glass, just where he was standing, and stared back at him.   He said something to me, but I could not hear.  I motioned that I did not understand.   He opened up a clipboard with a notepad, took out a pen and wrote in big letters on the page….. holding it up for me to see.  “May I buy you a meal?”

I was hungry, so I nodded in the affirmative.   He motioned for me to come inside.

Once inside, he introduced himself.  “Hi.  I’m Peter. There’s a restaurant here in my building.  Is that ok?”   I said that it was.

I knew he was Peter Bogdanovitch, the famous director, but I did not let on that I recognized him.

As we walked into a fancy restaurant on the ground floor of the building, the maître ‘d  looked askance at me, and started to say something.   Peter cut him off and asked disdainfully, “Do you have a problem with my friend?”     The maître ‘d said that he did not, and showed us to a prime table in the center of the restaurant.

The waiter showed up, glanced hesitatingly at me, but focused on Mr. B.

Bogdanovitch ordered for us, I did not understand what it was he ordered.   I heard the words, they were just unfamiliar.

He asked if I minded if he took some notes.   I said that I did not.  He took out that same clipboard.

He asked my name, and where I was from.  I could read what he was jotting down on his notepad.  “Preliminary Production Notes:   Homeless man, named John.  Small town Missouri.   Dirty hair and clothes.  No possessions.  Hollow eyes.  Opening scene, John, sleeping in planter on city street on gray, gloomy day.  Invisible to passersby.  Kind man sees him, and offers to buy him some food.”

The “food” came out shortly. It consisted only of four small colored mounds of foam on a white plate. The small mounds were touching one another.  They were … well … foam. Hardly a filling meal.   I had a goblet of water as well.  The mounds of foam were the ONLY things of color in the whole scene.

I asked Peter, “What is this stuff?”

He said…. “It’s foamed food.  The very latest thing.   I’m sorry.   I should have warned you.  Many of the best restaurants in the city now foam their food”

I asked again…. “Ok, but what IS it?”

He said, “The red is roasted red foamed peppers.   The green is foamed spinach.  The grayish-brown is roasted duck breast, also foamed.  The blue is …… well, we don’t really know what the blue is.  But everybody eats the blue.  It’s delicious and good for you.   Just try it.”

He jotted down more notes on the clipboard.  “Homeless man is uncomfortable and unfamiliar with foam cuisine.  Especially the blue.”

I took a bite of the red.   It was just tasteless foam.  Sort of like eating soap suds, but without the soap suds taste.  I took a bite of the grayish-brown.   Again, like eating soap suds. But this tasted bad.  I made a face and spit it in my napkin and took a drink of water and swished it around to hopefully wash the foul tasted out of my mouth.  I said, “This tastes like crap.  Looks like it too.”

Peter Bogdanovitch jotted down more notes.  “Homeless man is ungrateful and rejects food. Becomes agitated.”

I said, perhaps a little too loud.  “I’m not agitated dammit.  Stop making your damn notes!”

Peter Bogdanovitch looked at me and apologized. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to upset you.  I only wanted to get you a square meal.   I’m actually interested in perhaps making a movie, portraying your life as metaphor for the hopelessness of the age.”

“My LIFE is not a METAPHOR for anything you pompous windbag!!   You don’t know a damn thing about me!”

Then he jotted down in his clipboard….  “Homeless man is ungrateful, on verge of rage.”

“I’ll show YOU the verge…..”

At this point I stood up and angrily overturned the table, sending plates, food, water glasses, and silverware crashing to the floor. I was cursing like a sailor, calling Mr. Bogdanovitch every vile name I could think of.  I yelled that if he even TRIED to make a movie out of my life I would sue him and I would win.  Diners and staff scattered around the restaurant froze in shocked silence.  I strode out of the restaurant, with my last glimpse being of Peter Bogdanovitch scribbling away furiously on his notepad.    The maître ‘d is on the phone.  Probably to the cops.

Next thing I know I’m standing in front of an elevator.

The doors open and I get in.  I’m still seething from the Bogdanovitch episode.   There are a few other people in the elevator, and they can sense my anger, and they all scrunch to the edges to get away from me.  When the doors open, everyone but me gets out.   I’m pretty sure most of them had other floors in mind.

On a floor way up at the top of the building, I get out of the elevator.    It’s my old dorm floor from college at Mizzou.  Hudson Hall.  I walk down to my room, and go in.   It’s exactly my old dorm room, except that there’s a bathroom and shower in there.    (The dorms in real-life actually had a communal bathroom/shower for each wing).

I looked out the window at the building across the street, another dorm, and thought of my dear friend R. who lived over there.  I wondered how she was doing, and what she would think of the state I was in?

I felt ashamed and started to cry.  The hot tears made dirty salty tracks down my unwashed face.

I resolved to clean up.  Literally and figuratively.

I took off the sweatshirt and unwrapped the chenille blanket from my pasty, dirty body.   I stood there naked and looked at my bowed, gray legs and bad posture and ridiculous nest of hideously dirty hair in the full length mirror.  I was particularly appalled at the state of my toenails.  What a state.  I wondered how I’d gotten in such bad shape.

I walked to the bathroom, and opened the door to go in and take a shower.

Inside there was a middle-aged, slightly heavy-set African-American maid, cleaning.   In a uniform like the ones worn in the movie, “The Help”.    (What, your dorm didn’t have maid service?)

She turned around and took one look at my naked and bent body and started screaming in terror.  Threw her hands up in the air and ran out.   I called after her to wait. I think I wanted to apologize for scaring (or scarring?) her.   But she kept going on down the hall.

I turned on the hot water and stepped into the shower, which was made of brick-red tiles.  The maid had left all of her cleaning supplies.   Yellow bottles, blue bottles, etc.    (The dream was back in color apparently, as per usual).

The hot water felt really good as it streamed down through my dirty hair and over my body, and I started lathering up with the soap.

The foam felt good on my body.

That’s when I woke up.

August 18, 2017
by John Shouse

one bagel at a time, we’ll get there …

I woke up this morning with a heavy heart, thinking about the current news of hatred, intolerance, and violence in the world.  The events that turned violent and deadly in Charlottesville last Saturday.  The news reports just yesterday from Barcelona of terrorists plowing through crowds, killing over a dozen innocent people. These are only the latest two heartbreaking examples. The list goes on and on and on, and continues to grow at an alarming pace.   It is overwhelming.  Literally, overwhelming.

We live in a broken world.

I had one thought on my mind as I showered and went about my morning routine:

What are you doing to spread peace and love in the world?
What are YOU doing to spread peace and love in YOUR world?

As I began my morning commute, that thought was still with me.   I wondered to myself… “Seriously, what AM I doing to make the world a kinder and more loving place?  Me, John.  What am I doing?”

Not enough, for sure.  But not nothing either.   I certainly don’t mean to suggest I’m some saint, and I do not want this piece to sound like I’m wanting to toot my own horn.  I’m really not.   But I have very consciously tried to do a few things.  These things don’t necessarily make a huge difference.  But I think… I hope… they do make at a least a small difference.

I’ve tried to keep a “mantra” of sorts in my mind.  “Do the Loving Thing”.   Sometimes I think I do an okay job of it.  Sometimes I fail miserably.  Truthfully, I probably don’t do a good enough job of it with those I love most. I am sure that I don’t.  And that’s something I can work on.    If I am going to be true to my own belief system … if I want to act intentionally upon my faith, I can and must be “working on it” every day.

I’ve written about this idea of “Do the Loving Thing” here before.   In each situation, with every decision, make a conscious choice to “Do the Loving Thing”.  And we each face literally hundreds or even thousands of decisions every single day.

Some decisions are tiny and relatively inconsequential (Do I smile at this store clerk who is not of my native culture? How much do I tip this waitress, who may be struggling just to put food on the table and to make ends meet?   Should I offer a kind and understanding word to this mom struggling through the grocery store parking lot with an unruly toddler?).    Others are huge and with enormous potential impact. (Should we encourage mom and dad that it really is past time for them to move to an assisted-living facility?  What is the next step in the transition of my son with a disability from his school years to adult life?)

When faced with the onslaught of daily decisions, we don’t always know the difference in what is a big thing, and what is small.  And we don’t always recognize the opportunities that come our way to make a difference.  And we don’t always overcome the inertia to seize upon those opportunities when we DO recognize them.

Sometimes “The Loving Thing” is immediately obvious and easy.  Sometimes it’s not clear at all and terribly, terribly difficult.   Just because it may be obvious, doesn’t mean it’s easy.  And just because it may not be clear doesn’t mean it’s difficult.

Still, “Do the Loving Thing”.

So, there I was this morning driving along on Franklin road, heading into Nashville, I wondered if I should I use that thought  (What are YOU doing to spread peace and love in YOUR world?) as my latest clever Facebook status message?   Then I felt a little chagrinned ….even ashamed … to have even “gone there” in my mind.

I mean, I really did NOT want to turn this thought … this question … into something about me.   “By golly, look there… another clever Facebook Post from John!   I love his stuff so much!”

I really don’t want to be that guy.   The question that was burning in my heart this morning is about how to get EACH of us asking ourselves what are WE doing?

What are YOU doing to spread peace and love in the world,  and what MORE can you do?

Yes, we live in a broken world.  We really do.

But WE don’t have to be broken.  WE are better than that, and we CAN be a small source of light and love to the world.

Do the Loving Thing.

I had listened last night to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest podcast, from earlier this week, in his “Revisionist History” series.   The specific topic doesn’t matter, but he ended it with these words:

“What is a child’s obligation to his parent? I took my father’s presence for granted while he was alive.  After he died, the first shocking realization was that I had to find a way to keep him alive in my heart … to honor his memory.  How do we do that?  Not by honoring our parent’s beliefs.  They are different people than we are, born in different eras, shaped by different forces. What we are obliged to honor in our parents is their principles.  The rules by which they lived their lives.”  – Malcolm Gladwell, The Basement Tapes    

I remember so clearly the example I was raised with.  The numerous examples of acts of kindness shown to others by my parents.   As I have written here before, I can remember so many times when mom & dad would stop and visit to brighten the day of elderly folks they knew.  I remember so many times when they would take a small basket of tomatoes or other vegetables from their garden to folks who were in some kind of need.  Just the fact that planted a garden with a yield far, far bigger than anything we ourselves could eat.  I remember  so many times when dad would go to a neighbor’s house and repair a furnace, or fix a plumbing problem.  (And if I had invested a dollar back then for ever radio, TV, or appliance he had repaired for folks, I’d be looking at early retirement now.)  There were so many times when they would give an elderly neighbor a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or offer to take them to the market.  I remember the times when mom would go to the hospital and sit and laugh and visit with Marge from across the street as she struggled through chemo treatments for her cancer.  One of the most touching things I ever read was after mom passed away, finding the note that Marge had penned, thanking mom for the love and friendship she had lavished upon her during her illness.

Do the Loving Thing.

Pumpernickel Bagel

So there I was this morning, driving along on my morning commute with these thoughts in my head. As I approached Brentwood, not having had anything for breakfast, I thought…. Bagel.    I want a bagel.

I pulled the car into the crowded strip-mall parking lot and pulled up near Bruegger’s Bagels.   I went in and got a fresh Pumpernickel bagel, toasted, with garden veggie cream cheese, sprouts and red onions, and a large black coffee.

Walking back out to my car, I looked down and saw that the SUV next to me had a front tire on the passenger side that was terribly, terribly worn.  I mean, the woven steel from the steel belts was exposed and frayed.  I looked at the back tire, and it was in relatively great shape, with plenty of tread.  I walked around and found the exact same situation on the driver’s side.  Front tire dangerously worn, and rear tire in good shape.

I looked into the car, and saw a few things there inside that led me to think the car belonged to a young woman.   I wondered if she realized the bad shape her tires were in, and how dangerous it is?  There was no way to know specifically who the car belonged to.  Maybe an employee of Bruegger’s or a customer?  Maybe some other business?   I looked again at the tires.

Badly Worn Tire

Do the Loving Thing.

This isn’t rocket surgery, John.   I asked myself, do you believe those words?

Do the Loving Thing.

If this car belonged to MY daughter, seen by some random stranger, how would I want that stranger to act?

Do the Loving Thing

I looked in my money clip.  I had exactly two twenties.  I found a piece of paper in my car and penned a note.

“You are dangerously in need of two new front tires!    Please get them replaced!   This won’t pay for them, but maybe it will help get you  part of the way there.    Be kind and do the loving thing.   (Pay it forward when you can.)” 

My Note

I tucked the note and the two twenty dollar bills in an envelope and wrote in big letters on the front:  “I hope this brightens your day.”   I placed the envelope under her driver’s side wiper, with the text on the front of the envelope down so it could be read from inside the vehicle.

In the face of events like Charlottesville, the decision to be kind, live peacefully in the world, and to “Do the Loving Thing”as often as we can may not seem like much.

On the other hand, maybe it’s everything.

I pulled away and drove on towards the office.  It’s Friday.  This new day is another gift that I was not promised, and it’s a good, good day.

And the pumpernickel bagel was so very delicious.




July 19, 2017
by John Shouse
1 Comment

ride like the wind!

Boys’ Life cover

When I was a boy, like many other Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts, I had a subscription to “Boys’ Life” magazine.   It’s the official magazine of Scouting.   Lots of great adventure stories, history, educational articles about nature and wildlife, science, humor, and all sorts of things designed to show what the life of a young man of good character really looks like.  It also included reports of interesting things that Scouts around the country had done.   A fascinating and much anticipated monthly read.

Right.  I read it for the ads in back.

The last few pages were chock full of ads for anything that might grab the attention of a young Scout  and sucker him into parting with a few bucks.    Gilbert erector sets, chemistry sets, “Build your own Radio!” kits, etc.   Then there were also the ads for Bikes, pocketknives, orienteering supplies, camping equipment.  Lionel Electric Trains, money-making opportunities by learning to raise bees and sell honey, or to build a working Steam Engine.   And then there were plans.  Plans to build your own rowboat or tree-house or clubhouse in the woods … you name it. 

There were ads for all kinds of things.   If there was any off chance that some boy somewhere might salivate after it, there was an ad for it.

One of the ads that regularly caught MY eye was one where you could send in $1, along with a Self-Addressed-Stamped-Envelope, and get plans to “Build Your Own MOTORIZED Bike!”    The word “MOTORIZED” was in all caps so as to differentiate it from all OTHER bikes.   Not just a “bike”.   A MOTORIZED bike.

The ad showed an old Schwinn Cruiser, fitted with a small gas engine.  A boy with a slightly maniacal smile was astride it, looking like he owned the world.   There were “speed lines” added to the picture as well, indicating that any bike so equipped would veritably zip along at breakneck speed, providing not only rapid transportation, but a thrilling ride in the process.   In script below the “Build Your Own MOTORIZED Bike”, was the phrase, in a font designed to connote action:  “Ride Like the Wind!

I had to have one.

I’m not kidding.   I HAD to have one.   I thought about that thing for weeks and weeks.

So, finally, unable to resist any longer, I took my $1, tucked it into an envelope along with a S.A.S.E., and waited for my plans.   Never mind that I did NOT have one of those Schwinns, or even anything remotely similar.  I had a typical “Sting Ray” bike, with raised handle bars, banana seat.  Like ALL the kids had in those days.   But that was a technicality.

It was weeks before I heard back.  Weeks.   Truthfully, life moved on and I pretty much had forgotten about it.

But on the day the envelope arrived, with MY OWN HANDWRITING on the outside, it thrilled me all over again to imagine that soon, very soon indeed, I would be smiling that maniacal smile, and would join the ranks of boys all over the world who could now, “Ride Like the Wind!“.

I eagerly tore open the envelope to find inside, one single solitary page.

It was a rough, primitive photocopy of a drawing with a bike with a steel plate welded just above the crankset, with a small gas engine mounted on the plate, with chain and sprockets to drive it.  I think there was an arrow pointing at the plate, with the words “weld plate here, and mount engine”.

There was not much that a typical 12 year-old Boy Scout could “build”, unless that 12-year old Boy Scout ALSO happened to own a machine shop and be an expert welder.  I didn’t know any Boy Scout welders.

But you COULD save up a what amounted to a small fortune for a 12-year old Boy Scout, and buy a gas engine from the supplier listed on the “plans”,  along with chain and sprockets, then take the picture to a machine shop and have THEM weld the plate on for you, etc.

My feeling of “being had” was palpable.   I looked and looked at those plans, and it just seemed unreachable. Needlessly complicated, and more than a little disappointing that I’d paid a whole DOLLAR for this sheet of paper.

A more modern “Motorized Bicycle”

But I never soured on the IDEA of a “Motorized Bike”.


So, no, I never actually got one.  But I always wished that I had.

Yesterday after work on my way to pick up Janet, I was running a bit early.   So I did something I do from time-to-time, and I stopped on the Vanderbilt University campus to walk the Labyrinth out beside the Scarritt-Bennett library.  It was just the thing I needed to center my mind and bring back a feeling of balance that I had allowed a hard-day to steal.

Heading back to my car, I heard the faint “putt-putt-putt” of a small engine, and wondered what it might be.

Imagine my delight when I looked up to see an older gentleman, with snowy white hair underneath his bicycle helmet, wire rim glasses, and a smile that said he owned the world … riding down 19th Avenue South on my “Motorized Bicycle”.

He had what appeared to be that EXACT Schwinn I had envisioned all those years ago, complete with leather panniers, whitewall fat tires, and yes … a puttering, sputtering gasoline engine.

There was only one phrase that could possibly have escaped my lips.

And it did.

“Ride like the wind!”

I smiled and waved. He smiled a giant, somewhat maniacal but knowing grin and waved back.    I laughed.  Honestly, I laughed out loud, and I even shed a couple of very, very happy tears.  He saw my laugh, threw his head back just a bit and laughed too.

I so, so , SO wish I could have had the opportunity to chat with him, to find out if he had been a Scout.   To see if he read Boys’ Life.  To see if rather than feeling like he had been duped, that when he saw those same rudimentary “plans” I had seen all those years ago, he had thought to himself:

“Hell.  I can build THAT!”

Beauty, they say, is “in the eye of the beholder”.  That is true, I guess.

But sometimes … sometimes … beauty is in the imagination of a boy.  A boy who then rises to the challenge of the chance to do something daring.  Something that nobody he knows has ever done before.

And brothers and sisters, I am here to attest, it is all the more beautiful when you can look at an old man having the time of his life, and see the wonder of the boy that still lives inside.


“Ride Like the Wind!”

July 14, 2017
by John Shouse

egg foo yung and cognitive plankton

Except for the parts that aren’t, this story is almost entirely true.  I have lost touch in the ensuing years with everyone mentioned.  Except for myself.  I have not (as yet) lost touch with myself.  That will likely happen at some point.   

Unless you count Bello’s Pizza as an exotic Italian restaurant, my hometown of Mexico, Missouri back-in-the-day didn’t have much in the way of “foreign cuisine” that I remember.  Mexico people, am I wrong?

I do remember the time a few decades later when we got our first gen-u-wine Mexican restaurant on East Liberty.  A sweet older gentleman who lived nearby was among the first brave souls we knew who went there one night for dinner.  When he got home he was telling my mom and dad about it.  Mom asked him what he had eaten.  “I don’t really know. I just told the waitress to bring me whatever she thought I would like. It was something wrapped in a dishrag I think”.

So, in our family, it was pretty much the old “meat and three” at meal time, every single day.  We did on rare occasions bring home a pizza, or go to the A&W, or if we were out on the road, we might go to a truck stop (as I have written about here before), or a local restaurant in another town.  But at home it was mostly roast beef or fried pork chops or fried fish or fried chicken or fried “cube steak” or ham, etc. and always with vegetables that may have (or at least could have) come out of our garden. (Corn, green beans, potatoes, peas, tomatoes, cucumber salad, etc.)   Occasionally dad would BBQ ribs or cook steaks out on the grill.   My mom was truly a great cook, and to whatever extent I’m a decent cook today, I owe that all to her. But she didn’t venture much beyond the country cooking that she learned from her mom and sisters as a girl growing up on the farm in Callaway county.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I was living in Columbia with a roommate from the exotic environs of Wentzville.  A real man-of-the-world.  He had met a girl that he was interested in named Kate.  She was a sweetie.  One night sitting around talking, the subject of our favorite foods came up.  Kate got excited, and suggested we get a group up and go out on a Friday night to a “real” restaurant.  One with menus and waitresses who came to your table, and everything.  Kate and her family from Kansas City loved to eat Chinese, and since I’d never ever even THOUGHT about eating Chinese, she insisted that was what we had to do.  So that was that.

Along with the other guy we shared a house with, and a couple of Kate’s friends we headed downtown to an upstairs place on 9th street, maybe called Kai Min?  Not sure.  In any case, it was just north of campus, on Ninth, near Booches.  Club La Booche.

Booches was (and is) the home of one of the best cheeseburgers on the planet. And a bunch of pool tables.  And a long, saloon-style bar that had been there (even then) for just shy of a hundred years. It is almost always packed with a cast of characters that ranges from silly frat-boys to blue-collar workers to accountants to University Professors, to City Fathers, journalists, lawyers, politicians …. and even wannabe hippies like me.  You get the picture. And they’ve got the coldest long-neck Budweiser bottles on the planet.  If you say you’ve found a better cheeseburger, I will not believe you.  You are mistaken.   But this has nothing to do with my story.

So, anyway ….

We climbed the dark stairs to the Chinese place on the second floor.  It also had the feel of having been there a while, and it may still be there for all I know.  It was, of course, all red and gold décor, with plants around a fountain at the entrance, full of big spotted goldfish (I’d never heard of “koi”).   There were little paper lanterns on the table, chopsticks wrapped in paper, hot tea (unsweet… ack) served in little tiny cups with no handles, and the whole nine yards.  The faint tinkling of Chinese music playing from tinny sounding speakers in the ornate ceiling.    We were shown to a big round table.

I took one look at the menu and had NO clue what to get.   Kate was sitting next to me, and was helping me with the menu and saying, “Oh, THIS is good right here, and you’d like THAT…”    A couple of the others were just as clueless.  So finally Kate did what Kate always did and just took charge, and suggested to everyone that we let her order a bunch of stuff for the table, and all share.

You know, the way God intended Chinese food be eaten.

Our exotic meal started with soup, not bad.  Pretty much like chicken noodle, but they forgot the veggies.    Then a bunch of appetizers. Something called “egg rolls”.   Hmmm.  Ok, they were a bit odd, …. but again, not bad. To me it sort of seemed like weeds rolled up in dough and fried.  Also, little flowery, crispy fried things with crab meat and cream cheese inside.  Kate said it was “fried wonton”, and told me it was the “best stuff in the whole world”.  I did not agree.  I’d never had crab, OR cream cheese.  Not a lot of crab and cream cheese recipes are learned on the farm in Callaway county.   And “pot-stickers”.   We were college students, so of course there were jokes about whether they ACTUALLY contained any real “pot”.     They did not.

Then the entrees.  Egg Foo Yung… once again with the fried weeds, but this time flattened into pancakes, and served with gravy.  ack.   Moo Goo Gai Pan.  Seemed like leftovers, all mixed together and once again, that sticky gravy.  ack.  Sweet and Sour Chicken.  Even though the world was still several years away from discovery of the McNugget, this was certainly its precursor.  Basically just fried chicken.  But with a creepy blood-red sauce. I tasted the sauce and didn’t like it much. Too sweet, too sour … and in my opinion just a weird thing with which to ruin fried chicken chunks.   “Sweet” and “Sour” are two flavors that do NOT belong with meat.  Much of the rest of it was just as strange to me.

Some of it just seemed wrong.  Some of it wasn’t bad.  A little of it I thought I would gladly eat again.

After dinner, we all went back to the house to hang out and listen to some music, and Kate sat on the couch next to me and made fun of my reactions to the food.  She laughed and put her hand on my arm. My roommate kept looking at me with a weird and somewhat perturbed look in his eyes.  I was stupid and clueless.  Still am.

A few days later, I was back in Mexico visiting my folks.  I mentioned that I’d eaten Chinese food. From their reaction, I might as well have said, “Hey folks, guess what? I just got a hairless dog with three heads”. They weren’t exactly horrified, but they were obviously confused. You could hear a pin drop.

Neither my mom or dad said anything for an uncomfortably long moment, unsure how to react.  Then dad pretty much summed it up.  He looked at me and just asked, “Why?”

Within a few months, my roommate graduated and moved to Wisconsin for grad school, where he went on to get a PhD in Cheese Studies. (I’m not making that up).   His relationship with Kate never really got off the ground.

But mine did.

She was wicked smart, funny, and pretty much the right person at the right moment in my life, and for all the right reasons.

One night, sitting out on the deck of a bar in Westport in Kansas City, quite late and under a full moon, we began to talk about “Space, the Final Frontier.”   Not Star Trek.  Rather, just speculating on whether or not we were alone in the universe.  As you do.

We ended up arguing about whether, if aliens were to visit earth they’d be advanced so far above us in intelligence that humans would appear to them as nothing more than “cognitive plankton”.

She took the affirmative, “cognitive plankton” viewpoint.   I can remember exactly how I felt sitting in the moonlight, watching the sparkle in her eyes and the smile on her lips when she uttered the phrase, “cognitive plankton”.   It was pretty swell, and I am not making that up.

Conversely, I argued from the position that we would *at least* be as interesting to our other-worldly visitors as a Life Insurance salesman.  I felt like at a bare minimum, we would get that classic “Take Me to Your Leader” question from our interplanetary visitors.  I realized right then, that as much as I dug her, we really had very different ways of looking at what it means to be in the world.  It was never the same after that, and we eventually just lost touch.

But at least before we split, she taught me to love Chinese food.  I occasionally still think about her when I bite into an egg roll.

But she never got me to like Egg Foo Yung.

I will never like Egg Foo Yung.



May 17, 2017
by John Shouse

Jackson makes the sale …

May 17, 2017.  Strange dream last night.

I can unravel some of these threads.  Others, I won’t even try.    I’m not a huge believer in subtle messages being communicated in dreams. 

On the other hand, this dream wasn’t particularly subtle.   

I flew into a big airport somewhere, not sure what city, but I was there to make a “sales call” on an automotive plant.   I met my company’s local sales rep at the baggage claim, and told him we’d need to wait for Mr. Browne, who would be joining us on the sales call.   He looked puzzled.

Soon, departing from another flight and there to meet us, who should come strolling up but none other than Jackson Browne.   He was wearing jeans, sneakers, a dark jacket over a black T-shirt, sunglasses, and with his guitar case in hand.

He took off his shades and put them in his jacket pocket, as we exchanged pleasantries. Then we went outside and got into a waiting Lincoln Town Car.   Jackson and I were in the back seat, my local sales guy in the front, driving.

I realized we were very early for our appointment, and I asked Jackson if he’d had a chance to have breakfast.   He said that he hadn’t, but he was hungry.  I confirmed that was my condition as well.

So we went to a local pancake house on the highway, with a big sign out by the road that said, “Pancake House”. My sales guy found a parking spot, we all went in and found a booth.

Jackson ordered a tall stack of pancakes and “coffee, hot and black”.    I ordered the same, but also ordered fried eggs.   I asked Jackson if he didn’t want to order some eggs too, and he just looked at me a little concerned and said, “Nah, man…. eggs will kill you!”   I told him that the notion that eggs would kill you had been completely debunked, and that eggs in moderation were an important part of a healthy diet.   He declined.

No eggs for Jackson Browne.  I had two, over easy.

We sat there and ate our pancakes.  Jackson and I talked about guitars and music and life and such. It was a far-ranging discussion, and I have to say that my sense (in the dream) was that I really, really liked this guy.

We talked about the environment, and being a responsible citizen on the planet, and about how important it is to “get involved” in social issues, with worthy organizations, and to give back to your community.   I told him about my volunteer advocacy work.  He seemed genuinely interested in my “causes”.

(Side note:  Jackson Browne LOVES him some maple syrup.   His pancakes were soaked, and his plate was fairly brimming with it.)

Jackson found out in our talking that I play guitar a little, and he was very interested in the details of my guitars, including how they were set-up.  He wondered how I liked the LR Baggs Lyric pickup I have installed in my Martin D28, and wanted me to describe in detail how I EQ’d it, and how did I think it compared to other pickups I had used.  I told him I would gladly make a call and hook him up with Lloyd Baggs.  (this is John, back in “real life” here.  While I DO have a Lyric pickup in my Martin, I do NOT know Lloyd Baggs personally.) 

After we finished, we left the Pancake House, and headed for the automotive plant.   I do not know what brand of car it was supposed to be.  But like ALL automotive plants, it was absolutely HUGE.

But unlike  “real-life” automotive plants, from the outside the building  was utterly featureless.  Just a giant gray monolith .  The three of us went into the main lobby and waited.   It was very ultra-modern and futuristic inside.   Smooth surfaces everywhere, more curves than straight-lines.  The walls, floors, and ceilings … all of the same neutral gray material.  There was sort of a glow everywhere from indirect light of an indeterminate origin.

Soon a small Asian woman, very professionally dressed in a dark grey business suit, with wire-frame glasses, hair pulled tightly back and holding the new large iPad came out to greet us.  She escorted Jackson, my local sales rep and myself back to “The Engineering Department”.    It was a very large room that was in many ways similar to the lobby.   Except for the fact that literally EVERYWHERE there were these featureless cubes and oddly-shaped rectangular solids scattered around the room.  Some were shaped like desks or conference tables, but they WEREN’T desks and conference tables.  Just featureless rectangles.

At each one, someone (or in some cases, several people) stood gazing at their cubes, seeming to write on it with a stylus, or even just rubbing their hands over it.   Apparently they were “working”.  Though it was impossible to say what in heck they were doing.  Most were Asian.  But not all.  Most of them completely ignored us.

There was, however one tall blonde American woman who kept looking over at Jackson with sideways glances, trying to be discreet about it, but she was obviously intrigued, and wondering why in the world he was there.  The Asian woman we’d met in the lobby led us to one of these large rectangles, which was a little over waist high, and indicated that we should proceed with our presentation.

I began to talk.  I took out my own large iPad tablet and began showing her something.  Not sure what.   I was going on and on about …..*something*.   Honestly, I have no idea at all what I was selling, what I was talking about, or what the words coming out of my mouth even meant.  I know it was very “high-tech” stuff, and whatever it was I was trying to get them interested in, it was going to cost a fortune.   My sales rep just nodded in agreement with all that I said with a rather vacuous smile.  The woman was stoic and showed no reaction at all.   Jackson, for his part, just stood there uninterested and looking around the room, with his guitar case in hand.  Just looking, looking, looking around, taking everything all in.   He saw the tall woman eyeing him, and he nodded and smiled and said “hi”.    The woman, embarrassed at having been found out, snapped her attention back to her cube.

When I was through with my rather lengthy spiel, having elicited essentially zero response from the Asian woman, she nodded, and said that they had arranged lunch for us.   Suddenly, we were outside, in some kind of smallish courtyard outside the factory, just next to a little nook in one of the walls.  It was a sunny day, but there were spots of shade under a few scattered trees. There were folding chairs everywhere.  We were seated, and had a box lunch.  A bento box.   There were factory workers spread out everywhere in the courtyard, just a few dozen at most, and all were busily eating their own lunches, and talking with the people near them.

Jackson was seated next to me, and we resumed our conversation from breakfast.

At one point he sort of just stopped and paused and looked at me and asked me a question.

“So tell me man, are you happy doing what you do?  I’m not talking the community stuff.  I get that.  I mean, the stuff that you were doing inside the plant there a while ago. Does it really make you happy?”

I had this sinking feeling, and realized I didn’t know how in the world I was going to answer in a way that made sense to him.   Or maybe not even in a way so that it made sense to me.

I started to open my mouth, not sure what was I going to say …..

Suddenly, the Asian woman was there again and just said, “It’s time for you to play.”

Jackson, though he HAD his guitar with him (and there was no apparent OTHER reason for him to be there in the first place) was obviously a little surprised and maybe even perturbed.   “Really?” he asked in a questioning manner.

Out of nowhere, there was a little raised stage with a stool and a microphone that appeared right there in the front of the courtyard area.  Jackson went to the stage, and I went along as well.   I stepped to the mic as he got his guitar out and tuned up.   I looked out on the assembled and said, “Ladies and Gentleman, this is a treat.  Trust me; this stuff doesn’t happen every day … not even in Nashville where I live.  It is my honor to present for you, my great friend, Jackson Browne!”    I took a seat out of the way at the edge of the stage, and Jackson sat down on the stool at the mic.

He looked out over the crowd, and then looked at me.  Then back at the crowd.

He randomly plucked a few notes, and said, “I’m glad to be here with John today and to have the privilege of playing for you all.   I’m going to start with a song that I wrote just for you.”  A bit more random playing. “I guess I should add that at the time I wrote it, I didn’t KNOW I was writing it for you.  …. But apparently I was.”    Then he looked back at me.

It was bright out.  He pulled his sunglasses out of his jacket pocket and put them on and smiled.

Then Jackson Browne, seated in a courtyard outside a nameless monolithic automobile plant, for a crowd totaling maybe 50 or 60 people at most, launched into the most astounding and heartfelt version of “The Pretender” that I’ve ever heard.

He played a number of his other wonderful and amazing songs as well, though that’s the only one I “heard” in my dream.  He told stories and anecdotes between the songs.  He was personable, funny, totally engaged in what he was doing, and just, well …. in his “element”.

After one song, he stopped and handed me his guitar and said, “Let’s hear one from John, shall we?”

I was REALLY taken aback, and more than a little panicked.   But I pulled another stool up to the microphone as the “audience” politely applauded.

I asked Jackson for a capo, and he handed me one.  I put it on backwards at the second fret, so it only covered the bottom five strings.   Jackson looked skeptical.

Then I said, “Ok.  Here’s one that is pretty much a never-ending work in progress.”  I looked over at Jackson.  “Sort of like me I guess.”

He smiled.

I went on:  “I call it ‘Coolsville Lunch’.  I play it when I think about how nice it would be, just hanging out and chilling with absent friends.”

Somehow I made it through the tune without embarrassing myself.

Next thing I knew we were back at the airport, and Jackson was getting ready to board his flight.

“It’s been real” he said.  (No, the irony of that statement is not lost on me now that I’m awake).

I said, “Hey.  Thanks man.  Listen, I’ve got this dear friend Cathy.  She has GOT to be one of your biggest fans. Seriously.  For years.  I remember her listening to your music almost obsessively back when we were neighbors in college.   Would you mind signing an autograph or something for her?”

“I can do better than that.” he said. And he opened up his guitar case and took out a really nice hand-tooled leather guitar strap that said “Jackson Browne” on it.  I recognized it was from Long Hollow Leather in Franklin, TN.  Very nice.  (I’ve got one too, but mine doesn’t say “Jackson Browne”)

“Think she’d like this?” he asked as he handed it to me.

“She’ll love it.”

He also reached in his jacket pocket, and pulled out a note-card with some abstract art on the front from a young woman who is an artist with autism.  He penned a quick note, and handed it to me.

I looked at it and read:   “For Cathy.  Kind thanks for listening. – always, Jackson Browne”

Then he picked up his guitar, and headed down the jet way.

I called after him….. “What about me??”

He laughed back over his shoulder.   “C’mon man! I already gave you your gift!”

That’s when I woke up.

Craving pancakes.

 – John



April 30, 2017
by John Shouse

going forward … in reverse

I remember the day of my Senior Prom in the Spring of 1975 very well, and not ONLY because of my fabulous date and how much fun the evening was.  I’ve got other reasons to remember the day.

I had arranged to borrow my mom & dad’s ’72 Pontiac Bonneville for the evening.  Now THAT was a car.  Dark Forest Green.  Huge.   455 cubic inches, four-barrel V8.   250 HP.   A family of four could live in the back seat.   It oozed power and class.  Worthy of a special girl on a special occasion.

And it WAS a special occasion.  Though I had known this girl since we were toddlers in Sunday School together, and we had actually been very good friends and “lunch buddies” through the last couple of years, I had only been out on exactly one other date with her.  The weekend before.  At her insistence.  Because when I asked her to prom, she said,  “Yes!  But only if we can go out on at least one other date first.  I don’t really want “prom” to be our first date.”    Well, ok.  So this was going to be our second-date, and  I wanted to make a good impression, especially since it was Senior Prom night!

I wanted to make a good impression, and I drove a ’72 Vega.

No matter how you spin it, the Vega was one of the worst cars ever put out by Detroit.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I loved that little silver car.  I was glad I had it, felt LUCKY to have it, and I had plenty of good times in it … and some great memories.  I even gave it a name.  Rudy.  Rudy Vega.    Drove it through my first several years of college. right up until the engine blew up.   As they do.

But I definitely needed a much spiffier ride for my big date on Prom Night.   Mom and Dad were happy to oblige with letting me borrow the Pontiac.

So after spending time early in the day thoroughly washing and waxing the Bonneville until it shone, and vacuuming it out, I had a few important errands to run ahead of the big dinner party being hosted by my date at her house for us and several other couples.     I had to go by the florist to pick up her corsage.  I had to go by Hagan’s to get the powder blue tux with ruffled shirt I’d rented for the evening.   And I needed to go by the bank to get some cash for the evening just in case we found ourselves somewhere needing folding money.

As I headed out the door to run those errands, my dad handed me the keys to his old work car.  A lime-green with white vinyl top 1967 Ford Galaxy 500.  His “work car” that he drove the half-mile to work each morning and back again, and that was just about it.

“Take the Ford,” he said, “and if you don’t mind, put a little gas in it for me while you’re out, it’s just about empty.”

So I went to florist first, picked up the orchid corsage, then by Hagan’s for the tux, then by the bank.  Last stop before heading home, I went to the discount gas station on the corner of Monroe Street and Western, catty-corner from Westlake’s Plaza   As I pulled in, I hit the curb with the right rear tire, and heard a “clunk”.   I didn’t think anything about it.     I pulled up to the pump, got out and put some gas in.   Went in to pay, then came back out to the car.

When I put the car in gear and started to pull off, there was a horrible noise, a hesitation, then the car lurched.   It mostly just didn’t seem to want to “go”.   I tried again.  Same thing.  It really seemed like something bad was wrong with the car.  Engine?  Drive train?  I wasn’t sure.    Hmm.   I was out near the street by then.    Instinctively, I put it in reverse to pull back closer to the station.   It went just FINE in reverse.   Hmmm.

I looked at my watch.    I needed to be getting home so I could shower, get in my tux, and get out to my date’s house on time.

I put the car back in drive ….. Lurch, THUMP, lurch, THUMP!!     Crap!

I put it in Park, got out, laid down on the pavement and looked under the car.   Nothing.   Not sure what I was looking for, it just seemed like the right thing to do.   I raised the hood and looked and listened.  It was idling just fine.    I got back in, put it in reverse and moved backwards some more.  No problem.

I looked at my watch.   Crap.

So I did what ANY logically minded teenage driver in a small town on prom-night with a looming deadline would do.    I decided to BACK all the way home in REVERSE.

Hey.  It’s a small town.

So, with the big Green Galaxy in Reverse, I backed across Monroe Street and into the parking lot of the liquor store across the street. Through their parking lot, through the alley and another parking lot to Jackson Street.  Looked both ways, and backed across Jackson to the “new” Post Office.  Through their parking lot, around the curve where the drive-up mailboxes are,  all the way back (IN REVERSE) past where the mail jeeps were parked, and onto Promenade Street.  I backed up Promenade to the appliance parts store and into their parking lot, behind their store, and then behind the old jail.

Now I had a problem, and was faced with my first real decision.  Where to go from here?    This was my first place where I knew I would deal with significant traffic.

I sat until there wasn’t any traffic at the stoplights, and backed out onto Clark Street and up onto the “Overhead Bridge”, over the railroad tracks.   This was the bridge that, before they put in “Green Boulevard” (sort of a downtown bypass) was actually US Highway 54.   Regardless, this was STILL the major route into downtown Mexico for anyone coming into town from the South.   Nevertheless, I navigated it just fine.  In reverse.  Yes there was traffic on the bridge.   But I was in the correct lane for the direction my vehicle was moving, if not for the direction it was FACING.  So I ignored the honking, and went BACKWARD across the bridge    Then turned east (backwards) on High Street on the north side of Hardin Park.   Backed down to the corner of High and Washington Street.

At this point, I sat there for a minute and thought.  I put it in drive and tried it again.  Lurch, THUMP, lurch, THUMP.    Crap!.

So I put it back in reverse, and proceeded to go IN REVERSE down Washington Street the four blocks or so to Central.  Backed down Central to Jefferson, and across to the old Hardin campus.   I’m not sure why I didn’t just back up Jefferson Street at this point, but in my “logic” the Hardin loop seemed right.  Maybe just for good measure.

So I backed up the Hardin “out” driveway.   Around the circle drive in front of Richardson Hall and the old Gym.  Then I backed down the “in” driveway past the tennis courts.   Across Jefferson again, and up Seminary Street.   My street.   Finally, I pulled up IN REVERSE in front of our house.

Dad was standing in the garage.  He had looked up just in time to see me pull up to the house IN REVERSE.

There are times in my life when someone whom I respected has looked at me with such a look of utter confusion and puzzlement.  Today we know this look as “WTF??”   Back then we did not have such a succinct label.  I know exactly how I have felt in those moments.

This was one of those moments.

I shut off the engine, and stepped out of the car.   Dad walked across the lawn to where I was and asked, “Why were you backing up the street?”

“It won’t go in Forward”

“Oh.  Why not?”

“I don’t know.  It just won’t. “

He looked at me.

“Maybe the transmission has gone out?” I offered weakly.

“Hmmm.  Ok.  Let’s have a look.”

He got in, started the engine, put it in drive and stepped on the gas.    Lurch, THUMP, lurch, THUMP.   He put it in reverse and backed up a few feet.  No lurching, no thumping.   “Hmmmm.”

I said, “I gotta take the corsage and tux inside.”

I went inside, put the corsage in the fridge, the tux on my bed, and came back out.  Dad was laying on the street looking under the car.   (At least that was comforting.  I knew my instincts about laying on the ground and looking underneath had been right.)

“Ahhhh….. here it is!”    He rolled out, and got up.    “What is it?” I asked.

“Looks like a bracket broke and the exhaust pipe has dropped down so it’s digging into the tire when you’re in drive.  It doesn’t dig in when tire’s turning backwards.”    (I remembered hitting the curb as I pulled into the station, but I did not think this was something to mention).

He thought for a second.   “So, exactly how far did you go in Reverse?”

“All the way from down by Westlake’s Plaza.   Clear across town.”

Another of those looks.


“Uh huh.”

And that’s about all there was to say about that.    He just looked at me.   “Why didn’t you try to call?”

“I don’t know.  Didn’t have time.  In fact, I need to go in now and shower.”

And I walked into the house, with him just standing there looking at me.    I’d like to think it was with pride at my resourcefulness and ingenuity.    More likely (and I can say this in total confidence now as a father who has had teenage boys) … it was with bewilderment.

Me, Powder Blue Tux, Pontiac Bonneville. A killer trio by any standards. Watch out!

So.  I wore my powder-blue tux on prom night.

As you can also see from the picture, I did indeed take the Bonneville out on Prom Night.  The car is a beast.  It filled me with pride and confidence.  In a way that the Vega could never have done.

And what a night.  The amazing dinner party with a good, fun group of friends.  (We had brisket, twice-baked potatoes, and green beans.  Ice tea in stemmed glasses.   Cherries Jubilee for dessert.)  It felt so “grown up”.    I’d never had  “twice baked potatoes”.   I may have never had brisket. We were more of a roast beef family.  I remember that when my date told me the menu ahead of time, I asked, “Why TWICE baked?   Once isn’t good enough?”  She laughed, but explained it to me.  I was worried.  Being a picky eater, I thought they might be yucky.   They weren’t.  Quite delicious actually.

Then to the big dance.  (“Stairway to Heaven”).   She wore a peach-print formal dress.  I wore powder blue and ruffles.  We were a lovely couple.  You know, for 1975 anyway.   My hair was longer than hers.  Significantly longer, actually.

After the formal dance, we headed back to her house so she could change into casual clothes.    Then to my house so I could do the same.   Then, still in the Bonneville, out to the Empire Club for the big “After-Prom” party.   We danced the night away, and laughed and talked and laughed and danced some more.  Then afterward, we did some wee-hours cruising around Mexico and environs in the Bonneville, and talking and solving the problems of the world (as you do at seventeen), and other stuff.  …. then, at the appointed hour, off to the home of one of the other dinner-party guests where his mom had made a big breakfast for several couples.  Then finally, not long after sunrise, I took my date back home to her house, walked her to the door, held her tight and kissed her good night…. Or more accurately, good morning.

I drove pretty slowly back into town from Melody Lane, savoring the special memories of the evening.  I remember exactly how I felt.

I drove past the Country Club, and deliberately took the long way back to my house.   And never once did I ever think about putting the Bonneville in Reverse.

It was the right time for going Forward.

So I did.



April 7, 2017
by John Shouse

in my wildest dreams

Nobody succeeds beyond their wildest dreams unless they START with some pretty wild dreams.

Leather Journal

My Journal

I keep a journal, or a little Moleskine pocket-sized book, or at least a handy notepad with me pretty much at all times. I try to cultivate a habit of whenever I hear a quote that tweaks my thinking….or have an idea that seems interesting … I write it down, with attribution if needed, and with enough “context” to re-frame it in my thinking if I come back to it days or weeks or even months later.

Sometimes I’m really good at doing this, sometimes not so much.

Regardless of how diligent I am at any given moment at recording these things though, I do have ideas come through my mind all the time.  Or maybe just interesting quotes I hear at a conference or seminar.  Or an “aha moment”.    You know what I mean….  “Hey wouldn’t it be great if …..”   or “You know what I wish we had?  I wish there was a ……”   or “Holy Cow! Why had I never thought of THAT before?”.    That sort of thing.

You too?   Sure you do.

I *think* many of us come up with ideas, or encounter interesting possibilities, or come across things that challenge our thinking every single day.  Right?

What if you had the habit of recording them so they didn’t get lost?

That’s what I’m trying to cultivate the habit of doing. I flag some of the things that get recorded with the heading: “IDEA!” I put down some details, a date, and even a thought or two of what a “next step” might be. Then later, after it’s percolated for at least a day or so, or even longer, I like to flip back through and note whether it still seems like a “Great Idea”, or a “Big Idea” or “Interesting Challenge”, or “Not so much”.   Sometimes I write:  “Action Plan???” or  “Now What??”  I look at those “next steps” I jotted down and see if it seems like something that I should spend some more time on myself, or try to get some shared energy around.

I’m convinced that most of us are far more creative and innovative than we give ourselves credit for.  That’s not an original thought.  Others have said this, in many varied ways.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?  …  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

– Maryianne Williamson

“When I am ….. completely myself, entirely alone… or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how these ideas come I know not nor can I force them.”

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”

– Will Self

Here’s an example.  I’m not sharing this story to make any statement about how great or how smart or visionary I am.  It’s just an illustration of the notion that ideas have value.

I remember very specifically thinking about something back in the early 1980’s when I was working as a young Sales Engineer.  My job was to be out and traveling around Tennessee every single day, calling on industrial plants all around Middle and East TN.  I was in Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, the Tri-Cities, and all the small cities and rural areas in between.  There are very few industrial plants in this part of the state that I have not been in, walking the factory floor and seeing how their systems and processes work…meeting with their manufacturing engineers or their senior management to talk about ways to enhance productivity.   Often I had a lot of “windshield time” between sales calls.   And I also had many, many times when I would try to find some place to stop, grab a coffee or a sandwich, make some notes about the sales call I’d just made or take a moment to prepare for the one I was heading to.

Around then, I was also just getting interested in food and cooking … and in all things “coffee”.  The idea of opening a restaurant sort of appealed to me. But it was a pretty daunting fact that (at that time) the anecdotal evidence said that something like 95% of all non-franchise restaurants that open would fail within the first 3 years.   It’s a hard business to break into with any success.  That, and the fact when you open a business of that sort, you had better be damned-well prepared for it to become your life.  It’s not something you can just do and then “leave it at the office” at the end of the day. Restaurants, if they are to be successful, take a huge commitment of time and energy and passion and, well … belief… on the part of the owner.

So, there were a lot of reasons that I didn’t *actually* pursue the idea of opening a restaurant.  At least, I didn’t pursue it to the point where I had any realistic idea of making it happen.   But let me tell you about my idea and how much I *did* pursue it …

The notion I had of a restaurant was a place that opened very early each day, had a few types of good coffee available, and had some simple breakfast fare like a variety pastries or bagels or breakfast sandwiches. Then at lunch there would always be 4 or 5 different soups available, a few well-chosen deli sandwiches, and a few different types of salads. Then by the time mid- to late-afternoon rolled around, it would basically be done for the day. Not a “dinner” place at all. But here’s the thing….. the restaurant would be specifically marketed to the community to become well-known as a place where you might come in the morning for a breakfast meeting with clients or friends. Maybe a place where a small-group might meet before work for a bible-study over coffee and a sweet roll, or where moms might go to meet up after dropping the kids at school. It would be a casual spot very welcoming to a sales professional such as I was at the time who just wanted a place to sit, grab something to eat and make a phone call or two or do some paperwork.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had basically envisioned the concept for Panera Bread Company

There were essentially zero places like that back in 1983/84. But somehow I knew in my gut that there was a “need” for one…. or at least there was an opportunity to create such a place and see if one could make it a success.  I even made a few notes about what a menu might look like, and tried to investigate how much the commercial kitchen equipment and fixtures might cost. Because I can tend to be something of an obsessive nerd about stuff like this, and because I had a drafting table in our apartment, I even sketched up a floor-plan of the “front of house” part of the restaurant, with counter, “coffee bar”, booths and tables.   I even remember stopping at a couple of commercial restaurant supply houses and looking at ovens, flat-tops, and other equipment and cooking gear.  I tried to estimate how many dollars per day of food I would have to sell to break even or turn a profit.   I stopped short of creating a formal “business plan”.  But I did talk about the idea just a bit to my father-in-law.  I was interested in his take on this idea.  As a business man, and somebody who was very-well plugged in with the “restaurant scene” in Nashville at the time, how did he think such a place might succeed?  (For the record, he liked the idea.)  But “fear”, lack of “gumption”, and all the barriers to entry into such a venture kept me from giving it more than a little conceptual spin through my head and a couple of weeks of my attention.

The rest, as they say, is history. I’m still an engineer, and there are any number of places you could point to out there in the “real world” that at least “sort of” fit that model I was envisioning.

Now, I’m certainly not claiming to be any kind of a visionary. What I’m saying is just this:  Your ideas have value.   Not just potential monetary value, though certainly that *might* be true.   But well beyond that, your ideas have value in and of themselves.  Every time you think “Hey, we should be doing ……”   there is a kernel of *something* in that thought.  You may have hit on something that can change lives.  You may have hit on something that at the very least can change the trajectory of YOUR life, or the life of your family.

Right now, I am VERY excited that one of those ideas I had a while back has re-surfaced.  And by sharing it with others, in the right context, it’s starting to get some traction.    Something that I envisioned with literally an initial thought of:  “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if….”, is starting to look like it will actually come to fruition.  Nobody will get rich from this idea.  But I do believe a significant number of lives here in Middle TN and maybe even well beyond *may* be changed.   There’s still a lot of work to do to bring the idea to fruition.

But I’m in.   I’m WHOLEHEARTEDLY in.

And I have high, high hopes that the reality will be every bit as big and as cool and as important and as potentially life-changing as it was in my head when I envisioned it.

I believe it will be as awesomely amazing as it was when I originally jotted it down.   In that journal right up there at the top of this post.

Stay tuned.



March 12, 2017
by John Shouse

I’m an ear man

In the era in which I grew up, most high schools had an annual “Sadie Hawkins” day dance.  Yours too?   This was the one dance in the school year in which the GIRL asked the BOY for the date.   A recipe for mayhem and merriment all wrapped in one. These days, of course, I think anyone asks anyone else out.  All good.   Back then it was different.

The dance was named after a character and event in the comic strip Lil’ Abner, which was about a bunch of hillbillies living in a fictional town called Dogpatch.

So my Senior year in High School, and I’m sitting at home one evening and the phone rings.  The one phone (most all of us ONLY had one phone) that sat on the little built-in shelf in the hallway. So that when you stand there and talk, everyone else in the house can hear.   I picked it up, and after just a moment’s hesitation, heard a voice on the other end of the line.  A GIRL’S voice.

“Hello, is this John?”
“Hi John, this is  ——“  (her name is redacted to protect the innocent).
“I was wondering if you don’t already have a date, would you go to Sadie Hawkins with me?”
“Uh….. sure!  Sounds like fun.”

I hung up the phone and thought … “Whoa.  What just happened?”

Now…. This was not a girl I had ever thought of dating.  Not because there was anything “wrong” with her.  Truthfully, it was probably because there was something wrong with me!   I was too blind to see what a terrific person she was.   We had a number of classes together, and I knew she was smart ….. even VERY smart.  She was cute.  And although she was mighty quiet, I knew from being in a group with her and hearing her laugh that she had a great sense of humor.   So … even though I probably SHOULD have noticed her in that way, I just simply hadn’t.   I had my eye on someone else.  You know, high school.

So on the big night, we doubled with her best friend (who happened to be a very, very good friend of mine) and HER date.   The four of us, decked out in our finest overalls, ragged flannels, rope belts, bandanas, work boots, etc….  (Hillbillies, remember?).  We joined the crowd of other similarly dressed teenagers at the National Guard Armory next to the school.   The big floor at “The Armory” was the scene of the many of our dances.

There was the usual live band, playing the radio hits of the day, and together we entered the throng on the floor and jumped and swayed, writhed and wiggled our way through the songs, pretending that we knew how to “dance”.   It was all just a pretense to wait for the (too seldom played) “slow song”.    With the playing of the “slow song”, you had license to wrap your arms around each other and sway in place to the music.  Turning in circles whilst swaying was also encouraged.  You know…. “dancing”.

Part of the annual ritual of Sadie Hawkins, was the appearance of “Marryin’ Sam” (also lifted from the comics).    An itinerant preacher …. Or possibly Justice of the Peace …. Who could, (for a small donation to charity), assist any of the young couples who just HAD to seize the moment to “get hitched”.    Tbe “marriage” was entirely legal and binding ….. for the duration of the dance anyway.

When in Rome…..

So this very sweet young lady and I joined the line to have Marryin’ Sam  (aka Mr. Green….. Coach Green … one of our teachers, who EVERYONE called “Bucky”), all decked out in his finest hitching attire, perform the deed.

When it was our turn, Bucky said the obligatory words… “Do you take this woman……”   and “Do you take this man …..”

We said our “I do’s”.

Bucky said, “I now pronounce you man and wife”.

Then….. something completely unforeseen by me …… Marryin’ Sam gave a little hand-wave of a gesture that clearly meant: “You may now kiss the bride”.   Or whatever it is that you are going to do.

It was the mid 70’s.  We were kids.  This was high school.   Awkward, socially inept, clumsy while trying to look cool High School.

I’d been on dates before.  I was not a stranger to dating norms.  I knew that kissing is not a big deal.  But on the other hand, I ALSO knew that it was not an INSIGNIFICANT deal either.   A kiss means something.  At least, it did back then.  To me anyway.  And probably to her too.

There are girls who kiss on the first date.   There are girls who do NOT kiss on the first date.  Nothing wrong with either stance.  But in the moment, full of indecision and teen angst, and the desire to not be a dork, this seemed like a pivotal moment in time…… what to do?

Had I THOUGHT about it, I would have known beyond any doubt that my fabulous date was NOT a “kiss on the first date” kind of girl.  Not by any measure.

And yet here we were.

A more experienced me, a cooler, much more suave me, a “wish I knew then what I know now” me would have simply taken her and given her a warm hug … maybe a hint of peck on the cheek …. Taken her by the hand and said, “Come on Mrs. Shouse, let’s go dance!”     And who knows what might have ensued from there?   We may have become even closer friends.  Lifelong friends.

But Bucky had gestured, and there we were.

I leaned in to give her an antiseptic and relatively chaste buss on the lips.    There was a look in her eyes.  Not exactly terror, but certainly not enthusiasm.  Let’s call it her own version of WTF??   Even well over four decades later, I can see that look.  I know (now) that the same sorts of thoughts that had raced through MY mind in the last few milliseconds had likely also raced through hers.  What to do??

As I got closer to my target, she apparently decided (possibly in a panic) at the very last moment to turn her head quickly to the side.  Because such behavior ….. this “kiss”, even in this cartoon “ceremony”….. amounted to kissing on the first date, which was unacceptable.

So rather than her lips, I landed somewhere in the vicinity of her ear.

Ok …. Actually, it WAS her ear.

So I kissed her ear.

I kissed her ear.  Not exactly passionately.   But perhaps not as antiseptic and chaste as I had hoped, either.  Let’s call it a 6 on a scale of 10.   If “1” is how you would kiss your grandma because you HAD to, and if “10” is one of those life altering, foundation shaking, toe-curling, I-think-I’m-going-to-pass-out kisses that take a full minute or more to recover from ….. this was a solid 6. A warm kiss.  A slightly … um…. WET kiss.

I have to admit, I’ve been an ear man ever since.

We walked back to the dance floor in silence.  An awkward, somewhat stunned, silence.

Shortly, she excused herself to go to the bathroom with the other girl, my good friend with whom we had doubled.   I can just imagine their conversation in there.   My date, still in shock.  My friend, aghast.    “And then, OH MY GOD, and I’m not even kidding, he kissed my EAR!!”   “He WHAT???”   When they came out, I think they were both looking at me just a little funny.

The rest of the night was fun.  More dancing, punch, a couple more “grip and sway” slow dances.   But I seem to remember it ended rather quickly after the dance.  No extended hanging out, no telling stories and laughing, no going to “the Hut” for pizza, no cruising the square.   No slow drives on dark country roads with music playing and wondering if the moment was “right” for whatever.

And, well, the marriage didn’t last anyway.

Of course, she and I saw each other a lot the rest of our senior year of high school. She even went to college at Mizzou, same as me, and I saw her on campus a lot.  We probably even had some classes together there, having similar majors.   We always exchanged a pleasant word, but I always had the feeling that somewhere deep inside, she was thinking …. “There’s the guy who kissed my ear.”

Here we are in 2017, I’m going on 60 years old, and I awoke this morning thinking about that night and that date, and that awkward kiss on the ear.    Don’t know why.  It just sorta spilled into my consciousness.

In this day of social media and enhanced connectedness, I know that “Marryin’ Sam” …. Bucky….. very well might read this.  If so, Buck, I will just say, “No worries, man.  It all worked out fine.”

My short-lived “bride” might even read this.   If so, I just want to say this:   I wish I’d been a better date.  I really do.  I had fun that night, and I’m glad you asked me.  It was high school, it was a very weird time for all of us.  I wish I wasn’t so awkward.  I wish we’d been closer friends. I’m sure I missed out on a whole lot by not taking time to get to know you better.  I truly mean that.

If I see you at a future class reunion, I may give you that peck on the cheek.

But I promise to steer clear of your ear.


January 31, 2017
by John Shouse

shouting at my shoes

This story is almost entirely true.  The parts that aren’t literal are, well, close enough …..

Unless you’ve been in a Turkish prison or a hermit’s cave, you know that cigar smoking as a (primarily male)  “fad-du-jour” has come and pretty much gone once again. Like wearing a hat, donning a bow tie, or sipping a well-mixed cocktail, the practice of firing up a fine hand-rolled Corona, Churchill, or Rothschild occasionally rises up to the forefront for certain guys as an outward sign that one is not just a man, but also well-practiced in the manful arts. In fact, there was a time just a few short years ago that the “cigar boom” was king.  Much of it was fueled (at least initially) by Marvin Shanken’s very slick publication “Cigar Aficionado”.  Catering not only to all things “cigar”, but also to all things that a well-heeled gent might engage in whilst enjoying said smoke.  Fine drinks, fine clothes, fine watches, fine golf destinations, racing, gambling, …. well, if it is considered “gentlemanly”, the magazine touched on it in at least some sort of way.    Even so, that most recent popularity of placing a rolled wad of leaves in your mouth and setting fire to it seems to be going away again, to lie dormant until some new generation of manly men decides … “it’s time”.

Just for some perspective though, all you recent cigar aficionados take note: I had you ALL beat by almost five decades. ……

As I pulled my bike into Larry’s yard that crisp autumn day back in the late 60’s, I saw him sitting on the steps of the side porch with one of those “cat-that-ate-the-canary” looks on his face.  I knew something must be up.   “So, what’s up with you?” I asked. Without a word he reached into his jacket pocket and produced the biggest, meanest, GREENEST cigar I had ever seen.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

I mean, I actually HAD seen them before…I’d seen them nearly every time I went to Larry’s house. Larry’s dad almost always had one of these babies, half burned down, dangling from a corner of his mouth. Reading the paper, mowing the yard, washing the cars…. now that I think about it, I actually have a hard time visualizing Larry’s dad without a cigar.

This baby was was typical of the stogies that Larry’s dad smoked.  One of those “double tapered” torpedoes that are pointed on both ends. Larry had no doubt pilfered this one out of the cigar box while his old man wasn’t looking.

“Cool.” I said. “Let’s smoke it NOW!”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this wasn’t *just* a cigar. It was a CEE-GAR, and it was GREEN.

Pearlescent Green.

Glowing green.

Other-worldly green.

If it had been a Crayola crayon, the label would have said  “Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon Green”.

Cigar wrappers have names.  From Oscuro (so dark it’s nearly black), to Maduro (a rich chocolately brown), to Colorado (a medium reddish brown) and so forth.    The official cigar term for Larry’s dad’s color of cigar wrapper is “Double Claro”, or “Candela”.

It probably came from a dirty machine in a back alley in Tampa that churned out a thousand or more an hour.  But to our young minds,  it was easy to imagine instead that a sultry, dark-skinned, raven-haired Cuban beauty in a low cut blouse in a sweaty Havana emporium had been just so, so  busy putting the finishing loving touches on this work of art after having rolled it with skilled, powerful hands.  Then she would offer it up with an inquisitive and sexy, thick accented voice to an unwary stranger, “Candela??”


In my memory, this baby was CHARTREUSE, and it looked DANGEROUS.

Now, it would have been easy to hop on our bikes and ride the half-mile to a vacant lot down by the railroad depot to fire up this prize in relative seclusion, as we had done with a pack of Pall Malls or Lucky Strikes or Camels from time to time.

However…. and I can’t even begin to explain it now … there is a logic that is an innate part of being a young boy who is up to no good. And that logic, on that day, with the prospect of smoking that cigar, led us to down into Larry’s basement, and straight to his mom’s closet-sized laundry room to accomplish the dirty deed.

Go figure.

Larry produced a box of wooden matches and began to slather up this chartreuse torpedo with saliva the way he’d seen his dad do it a hundred times before.  He pulled out a match to light the other end…  I stopped him.

“WHOA!!! Wait a minute,” I said, “I’m not sticking that thing in MY mouth after you’ve slobbered all over it!”

Ever being the resourceful one, and with that same flawless 12-year old logic, Larry produced a pocket knife with a sharp blade, and proceeded to surgically bisect the stogie into relatively equal parts.

“There. One for you, one for me” he said.

“Cool”, I said.

So we each slathered our individual green pointed half-stogie, lit up,  and began to puff away there in the confined space of the laundry room.

An hour or so later, …… (ok, so maybe it was more like 5 minutes) ….. we were both standing there in a fog so dense we could barely see one another.kid_smoking_cigar

“Larry, I’m not feeling all that great” I said.

“It’s OK, it’ll be fine,” he said bravely, “don’t worry. Just smoke.”

Nevertheless, through the smoke and my own tears, I could see that Larry’s own eyes were beginning to look a bit watery too. I wasn’t completely sure, but he may have been swaying back and forth a bit, like a willow in the wind.  Not at all steady on his feet.

As for me, my world was beginning to spin like a circus merry-go-round, and the painted pony … the CHARTREUSE pony … obviously had no intention of stopping to let me off. I was only vaguely aware of it just then, but there was something reminiscent of a volcano starting to gurgle and bubble down in my little tummy.

Just then, Larry’s mom, an unusually chipper and joy-filled woman, came strolling down the stairs with a load of laundry.  She may have been singing, “On the sunny side of the street! … ”   But at the bottom of the stairs as she turned and took in the scene….  the soon to be TRAGIC scene….. she stopped short.  No singing. No chipper. No joy.

There was nothing at all we could do. We were caught red-handed. CHARTREUESE –handed. With a look of utter shock and horror on her face she peered through the dense clouds and yelled “What in the HELL is going on down here?” Almost simultaneously with her (obviously rhetorical) question, and perhaps BECAUSE of it, the volcano in my stomach reached a Vesuvius-like point of no return. I felt the lava beginning to rise … ERUPTION!!!!

I puked all over a basket load of freshly washed sheets and towels sitting on the floor beside me.

Did I say “all over it”?   Splattering on it, around it, dripping off of it, off the walls, slicking the floor and I can’t be certain but *maybe* even the exposed beam ceiling …..   THAT kind of “all over it”.

Projectile hurling. The folks of Pompeii could not have been more surprised in their own moment of horror than I was, than Larry’s mom was, and as you will soon see… as Larry himself was.

Now, I’m sure that Larry would have LIKED to respond to his mom’s question with a reasonable VERBAL explanation.

Responded with maybe something out of the Official Eddie Haskell playbook.

Something such as “Well, hello there mother! Young John and I, well we’re just down here trying to see what all the fuss about this *smoking* thing is.   Guess what mom?  Funny thing is, as it turns out, (and Mom, I think you’ll enjoy this realization on our part), you’ve got nothing to worry about mom!  Because…well … mom, this smoking…. we’ve decided it’s just not for us!!!”

That soliloquy didn’t happen.

Instead, the sight (and perhaps the sound and smell) of me puking ….. combined with his own inexperience with cee-gars …. was just too much for the lad.

So, in a remarkable show of solidarity which sealed the bonds of our manful friendship forever, HE puked right on his own new sneakers. The ones on his feet.

And, not coincidentally… he puked on mine too.   Not just ON them, but somehow INTO them.  He puked INTO my shoes.  With my feet still in them.   Ruined a perfectly good pair of socks.

If you don’t want to call it “puke” or “vomit”, try one of the alternative and more colorful names or phrases for the very normal biological process known in medical texts as “reverse peristalsis”.  For example, “blow your cookies”, “stomach overflow error”, “looking for Ralph”, “sell the Buick”, or my personal favorite and the one that actually seems to fit best here … to “shout at your shoes”.

I had not known this before, but Larry’s mom, bless her soul, was a very, very wise woman.

She made the two of us clean up the mess, air out the space with fans and air-freshener, and re-wash the whole load of soiled laundry. We scrubbed floors and walls with a very fresh-smelling green cleaner.  A cleaner that only marginally masked the terrible smells.

But here’s the thing.  Bless her heart, she never told my mom.   I was sure when I got home, I’d get a lecture.  Or worse.  But it never came.

When I finally told my mom about the incident, over 30 years later, sitting around after dinner one night with coffee and pie,  I thought she was going to bust a seam she laughed so hard.

Motherly love is an amazing thing to see in action, you know.

Now, I’ll admit that these days I’ve been known to indulge in a fine, dark chocolate-brown Maduro cigar from time to time.  In fact, being a manly man myself, I was a charter subscriber to the aforementioned Cigar Aficionado magazine.   But on those relatively rare occasions when I light one up,  no, it’s not in a downstairs closet,  but rather out in the wide open spaces of the golf-course, or kicked back while fishing, or out on the back porch just gazing at the glory of the firmament.

Still, that early experience with the green torpedo, and the wisdom of Larry’s mom in making two adolescent boys clean up that horrific bio-hazard of a mess means that even today, all I have to do is LOOK at green cigar, and my stomach starts to churn anew….

later …  gotta run.   The tobacconist is closing in a bit.

April 21, 2016
by John Shouse

fried fish, Frank, and Frank’s mom

Seen and overheard at lunch.

I went to that “Fish Place” the other day. That’s what we call it at our house. That fast-food fried-fish chain that gets a bad rap for being a little overly greasy sometimes.  I went because I was in a hurry. I’m not usually a fan of their food, but it’s close to my office, and it’s fast and I actually like the “Nashville Hot Fish” they have on the menu now. I do wonder why the “Captain” doesn’t have a real last name. Only an initial. Oh well. hotfish

Right after I ordered, a young-fellow who was maybe in his late 60’s or early 70’s came in, accompanying an elderly gent who was (I’d later learn) 91 years old. The elderly fellow was using a well-traveled walker (beat-up, dented, paint chipped). He was wearing dress slacks, and a long-loved light blue polyester sport-coat, and a jazzy plaid necktie (nicely matching the coat, with some light-blue in it) that had likely also seen decades of wear. I don’t know for sure, but I think rather than a son, the younger fellow may have just been a church friend. Either way, despite the fact that he was dressed more like a farmer, temperamentally compared to the old guy he was a chip off the old block. So I’ll call him Chip. They placed their order and took a table just in front of mine, both sitting on the same side. (I think this was so the older guy could hear better).   I learned here that the older fellow was named Frank, when Chip asked “Frank, do you want to sit there on your walker, or one of these chairs?”   Frank chose the seat on the walker, so Chip moved the chair out away from the table.

When their food was ready, the manager brought it out and put the tray on their table, and headed back to the front of the store.   The two of them arranged their plates a bit and Chip said to Frank, “I’ll return thanks.”  He reached out, took the old man’s hand, and they bowed their heads in close.  Chip’s words were a little on the loud side so that Frank could hear, but not so loud as to create a spectacle in the restaurant.

It was an endearing and sweet sight, the way Chip leaned over close to Frank’s ear when praying so that Frank could easily hear the prayer.  So could I.  It was a nice, relatively short, garden-variety saying of “grace”.   You know, “Thank you for this food, and the chance to spend some time together over a meal,” Etc.     As Chip ended his prayer and started to let Frank’s hand go, Frank clutched Chip’s hand a little tighter, pulled Chip in a little, almost imperceptibly, and continued praying….. silently letting Chip know that he wasn’t done just yet with talking to “the man upstairs”.    “Thank you for a long life.  Thank you for blessing us more than we deserve.  Thank you for family and friends.  Thank you for our country and bless our leaders. Thank you for Jesus.”

They made small talk as they dug in to their food and I wasn’t really paying any particular attention to the conversation.  But I did hear Chip ask Frank, “How’s your fish?”   “Pretty good, pretty good” he answered.

But when the manager came up a couple minutes later to check on them and asked the same question, Frank looked at him with a bit of a mischievous look in his eye and said, “Well, it’s not as good as my momma used to make!”     The manager grinned and said, “Really?  Not as good as your momma’s?   Well, I guess that’s OK.  We wouldn’t want to outdo your momma!”.   Frank went on and asked the manager, “How old do you think I am?”  The manager said, “I don’t know… hard to say. You look like a young fella to me.”    Frank said, “I’m 91.  But I still remember my momma’s cooking.  Nobody ever cooked better than her.  Nobody could fry fish as good as her. And she always sang when she cooked.”  At this point Frank wasn’t really talking to the manager anymore.  “Not a day goes by when I don’t miss her.” he said, to nobody in particular.

I got a lump in my throat.

I’m with Frank.   I hope the day never comes when I’m too old or too jaded by this world to miss my mom.    Not just her fried fish and other delectable delights, but definitely that.

So here I am, just as I am so many times, missing mom and her pretty smile and her stories.  And yes, her singing as she went about her housework.   Thanks Frank.


December 17, 2015
by John Shouse

not your usual Christmas memories

In my hometown of Mexico, Missouri, the large tree of lights is up again at the old AP Green brick plant.  I think they’ve done it again for several years now, even though AP Green company is long-gone from the old town.  There was no tree for many of those years after “the plant” shut down.

The fact that it’s back up again just makes me happy, and I smile from the inside out thinking about it.  It brings back so many personal memories. AP Green Tree of LightsIt is comforting to know that some traditions can come back, especially when they occupy a place in the collective memory of a town. The photo here (by Amy Munford) is from this year’s version of the tree, but it’s just the way I remember it from almost fifty years ago.  The star at the top is mounted on top of the very tall flagpole, and the lights all cascade from there.  It’s a striking sight for drivers on Green Boulevard, and for many of us who grew up there, it’s just not Christmas without it.  I can remember exactly what it looked like and felt like and sounded like to be UNDER that tree, laying flat on my back on the cold ground, bundled up in a warm coat to cut the chill in the air, and looking up at the lights.  What it felt like to stand on the steps of the “Main Office” and throw the switch to illuminate it.

You see, as I have previously written elsewhere, my dad was supervisor of the “Electric Shop” at AP Green when the tree was first erected, and his department was responsible for putting up that tree every year, right out in front of the big main-office building.  Once it was up and lit,  I would  go “down to the plant” at night with him often during Christmas Season to check on the tree and the music that played through the PA speakers they’d mounted on the top of the columns on the front entrance to the main office building.  Many times, he’d let me flip the switch to light the tree.  I even got to do it once during the “official lighting” ceremony…  quite the thrill for a youngster.    I also well remember making the trip downtown with dad to Peck’s, our local “record store” to buy that Christmas music.  Elvis, the Mitch Miller Singers, Eddie Arnold, Bing, Perry Como, Patty Page, The New Christy Minstrels, Andy Williams, and so on … we picked out quite the selection.  The lights were on an automatic timer, as was the music, so it didn’t continue to play into the wee hours.

The “tree” was always such a great part of Christmas for many of us who grew up there in Mexico.

However, another of my favorite holiday memories from growing up were the downtown Christmas lights, and once again those have a very special personal connection for me. Dad’s guys at AP Green also put up all the downtown Mexico Christmas lights for many years.  Johnny_firetruckFor some reason, (probably because dad found it convenient to do so), ALL of the lights, tinsel stringers, decorations, etc. were stored in our basement.  This included big plastic bells and stars that hung on the light poles and around the courthouse. We lived in a big older house on South Clark Street, next to the Cities Service gas station, which would later become the “Chat ‘n Chu”.  That old house had a very large basement; including a big storage area that I think originally HAD been a coal storage area when the house was heated that way. That “coal bin” area was large enough to hold the many boxes that were used for storing those lights, Santa Claus heads, Bells, etc.

So, each year on the day AFTER Thanksgiving (my how times have changed!), dad’s crew would come over to the house, and begin the job of hauling out all those tinsel stringers of lights, Santa Claus heads, Stars, Candles, Bells, etc.   Bill Parks, Dick Henage, Elwood Crum, Jim Doyle, Walter Wright, Ed Dubbert, so many others. They’d string them all up to test out the bulbs, replace any dead ones, and repair any frayed wiring, etc.  Right there in OUR back yard.   So along about dark on that Friday after turkey day, my entire back yard would light up with the entire town’s Christmas lights and decorations, all jammed into one spot.   I’m sure that planes flying overhead could see it from miles and miles away… this one little blip of silver tinsel illuminated by thousands of red and blue and green lights.  Kids would come from all over the surrounding neighborhood to see what all the fuss was about.   (Maybe some of you reading this were there?).   Memories are triggered by so many things, and one of the most powerful triggers is the sense of smell. I find that even today, when I smell electrical tape, hot transformers, and warm light bulbs, I think of Christmas.

After getting everything operational, they’d pack up the stuff on trucks, and the next morning his crews would be downtown, stringing the lights one more time all over downtown.
Of course, once everything was up, there was the night of the big Christmas parade downtown. I loved watching that parade and hearing the bands play. The MMA Band, the 9th Grade MHS Band under Bob Murta, and of course the Marching Dixie Grey Band under the direction of John Willer. In later years, like so many others, I got to march and play with the last two of those bands. And then, as culmination to the parade, there was the appearance of Santa Claus. I think at least a couple of years, he would show up by descending a firetruck’s ladder from the roof of the courthouse.Santa_House Usually though, he just rode on a float in the parade, ending up at his little “Santa House” down on the courthouse square. All us kids would line up, go in one at a time, tell Santa our fondest desires, and get a candy cane, then exit the other side of the house.

The controls for the Christmas lights on the court house itself were in the basement there. One year (when I was still a little fella) I was down in that basement with my dad ahead of the big event, to make sure that all was ready to go.  I had to use the bathroom, so I went into the one down there in the courthouse basement. As I walked in, what do I see? …..    Some DUDE in “Long Johns” getting dressed in a SANTA suit!!!   He hurriedly turned around away from me and said, “Ho, Ho, Ho. Hey there little guy! Can you give old Santa a few minutes please?”  Ha!

Well….   you might think I would be bewildered and shocked and disillusioned forever. Scarred for life? Oh no. See, I knew already THAT guy was just a “poser” hired by the REAL Santa.  All us kids knew that.  Our “Santa” was hired by the REAL Santa as sort of a messenger/ambassador, just like he did over in Fulton, in Centralia and Moberly, etc. Not in Auxvasse though. Never in Auxvasse.  Auxvasse kids had to come to Mexico if they wanted to see Santa.

So no, I wasn’t upset at all. As we kids ALL knew, the REAL Santa appeared on “Showtime” every afternoon on Channel 13, straight from his workshop at the North Pole, reading our letters!

 “Here’s a letter from Little Johnny Shouse in Mexico.   Johnny writes,  Dear Santa, this year for Christmas, I’d like a Duffy’s Daredevil set, a Matchbox Garage, and a Disney filmstrip projector, and anything else you’d like to bring me.  I’ll be listening for you Santa, and you try to stay warm, and be sure to look for the cookies and milk I’ll be leaving for you by the tree, and some carrots for the reindeer.  And Santa, when you fly over our town, be sure and look for the giant Christmas Tree of Lights at the AP Green brick plant, my dad’s guys put that up!!   And all those lights downtown?  Don’t worry Santa, after Christmas we’ll pack them away in boxes, move them to my basement, and take good care of them so they’ll be ready for you NEXT year.”   

I know it’s been said many times, many ways, but I wouldn’t trade the time and place in which I grew up for anything in the world.

Peace & Love and Warm Christmas Memories,

August 21, 2015
by John Shouse

the half dollar

I grew up in Mexico, Missouri. Mexico is a small town just a bit northeast of the center of the state. The two houses that I called “home” for my first 18 years were near to the campus of a former college for women, called “Hardin College and Conservatory of Music”. HardinHardin, as a college for young women, was open from 1873 to 1931. The campus from 1858 to 1873 was the location of the Audrain County Female Seminary. In fact, the street onto which my family moved when I was 10 was called “Seminary”.  In the 1870’s, with a substantial donation from Charles Henry Hardin, a State Senator from Mexico and who would shortly be governor of Missouri, Hardin College and Conservatory of Music was founded.  The Hardin campus was located on South Jefferson street, perpendicular to Seminary.

Jefferson Street had been paved in vitrified brick in the early 1900’s, was largely tree-lined, and included broad sidewalks. It was the location of many of the finest old homes from the early years of the town. Jefferson ran north from the college campus to the railroad depot area, and then right into the downtown central business district, or “the square” as we all knew it.

The Hardin campus and Jefferson Street were central to many of the adventures I remember as a boy. Those who grew up in Mexico when I did remember the Hardin campus as consisting primarily of three buildings, Presser Hall … still in use today as a performing arts center for the community; Richardson Hall which had been converted to classrooms for the Junior High School there in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s; and the old gymnasium building. This is the campus where I went to Junior High, or what the kids today call “Middle School”. There was a large grand expanse of lawn and ball fields out in front of Richardson and the gym. But in the early years of Hardin College, there were other buildings out in front of Richardson Hall and the gymnasium. These buildings were classrooms, the main administration building and dormitories.

Some time around 1970, my parents got a metal detector. This was when we lived on Seminary. They had this idea that since they knew of many, many places in Callaway and Boone counties where they’d each lived growing up where there were old abandoned farm houses or country stores, that it might be fun to “prospect” around there for buried stuff…. I would sometimes take the metal detector over to a grassy area on the Hardin campus, or one of the baseball fields there (which would have included part of the “front lawn” of the college, and the area where some of the long-gone buildings had been) to try to see what I could find. I think I found a few coins from recent years. Probably lunch money dropped by some student as they reached in their pocket while cutting across the lawn.

But the prize, by far, was finding a pristine “Walking Liberty” half dollar from 1923. 1923-S_Walker_MergedIt’s not rare enough to be worth a tremendous amount of money, but it’s gorgeous. The walking liberty half-dollar is truly one of the prettiest coins ever minted in the United States. Lady Liberty, draped in the Stars and Stripes, walking towards the rising sun. Because of the delicate features of its design, the Walking Liberty halves found in circulation are often quite worn. This one however, as mentioned was found in rather pristine condition.

And I decided long ago that I would never, ever part with it.

Here’s why.

I always imagined that some father gave his pretty little girl who was headed off to college that half-dollar. Perhaps he was a respected physician with a well-trimmed beard, someone who passionately believed in the power of public education. Or perhaps he was a simple laborer who had scrimped and saved his whole life to be able send his daughter to college where she might learn the skills necessary to build a life for herself better than the one he himself had. In any case, she was born to be a part of the unfolding “American Dream” of the new century, when the pace of progress was staggering, and the world was changing in ways that could scarcely have been imagined even a couple of decades before. I imagine that father as he winked and handed the shiny coin to her and told her to “get something nice” for herself.

But instead, while crossing the Hardin campus to the administration building, she dropped it unnoticed, and it got scuffed underfoot and eventually sank into the soil until I found it decades later.

Upon realizing her loss, and not having enough spending money, she wasn’t able to walk with her classmates up Jefferson Street to the square to enjoy a phosphate or an egg-creme at the fountain counter in the drugstore. By missing that trip, she also missed the opportunity to meet a dapper young man from Mexico with a bow tie, suspenders, seersucker suit and a stiff boater, who just happened to be in town looking for the girl of his dreams. Seeing her stylish tresses and beautiful laughing eyes, he would have approached her, and with nothing more than that winning smile of his, he would have made an awkward introduction because he’s not particularly good at small-talk. Soon though, with her heart beating nervously, she would have impressed HIM with her boldness in unexpectedly offering to use the half-dollar to treat him to a fountain drink. 20140721-eddies-egg-cream-thumb-625xauto-407853He would have insisted it wasn’t necessary for her to pay, and she would have produced the half-dollar, smiled, and said “Don’t worry, it’s not really mine, this one’s on my daddy.” He would have given her a quizzical look, but she would have only given him a coy sideways glance, and offered no further explanation. In the ensuing conversation whilst they sipped their sodas, they would have come to realize that the hopes and dreams they each had for their own lives were truly parallel, and they would have begun to fall for each other, even before the rattling sound made by the straw at the bottom of an empty phosphate glass reached their ears.

Love at first sight? Some are skeptical. Some may even choose to deny such a thing exists. But those who are truly in the know can assure you it happens, and when it does, it is once and for all time.

Marrying shortly after her graduation from her beloved Hardin College, they would have left Mexico to seek fame and fortune in some large city with bright lights, wide streets and efficient public transportation. Bolstered daily by her beauty and her sparkling personality, and nightly by the selfless love they lavished upon one another, he would have quickly risen through the ranks of commerce, to become a wealthy industrialist. In later years, inspired by her kindness and generous spirit, together they would have used their amassed fortune in the service of others, to help end world hunger and eradicate horrid diseases.

Alas, ‘twas not to be.

Instead, she dropped the half-dollar coin on campus that day, and never made that trip downtown. The young man ended up marrying Gertrude, one of her classmates. Gertrude, who though nice enough, was not his soul-mate. He and Gertrude lost their meager savings in the Great Depression, moved west looking for work, and were never heard from again.

As for the young woman with the milky skin, sweet smile and no half-dollar, she never married, and spent her final years living on a meager fixed-income in public housing in a distant city … noisy, dark, and dank. Her music degree from Hardin was useful for her bored pastime of writing beautiful songs of longing, songs of hope and unrealized love. Songs which she played on a tinny sounding out-of-tune piano, heard by only her own ears and those of her three cats.  Also by the cockroaches and rats which inhabited her dismal days.

She played those songs in loneliness each afternoon, right up to the point where the drunken Romanian immigrant upstairs would pound on the floor with his cane and yell for her to “SHUT THE HELL UP!!!”, after which she’d take her chair, sit by the window and look out on the grime and grit of the city with wistful eyes, and random thoughts of happy people.

Happy people who lived ….. elsewhere.


As for the Walking Liberty half, I found it some forty years later…. and to this day it languishes in my curio box, a testament to lost opportunities and the randomness of life.

When I see it, it speaks to me. No, it doesn’t speak to me in such a way so as to suggest a need for my institutionalization. But rather, it whispers to me of everything lost, and it makes me wonder about possibilities, and about second chances.

If I could, I would travel back to that day on the lawn of Hardin College and Conservatory of Music, wearing a stiff boater hat of my own, and a bow tie on a clean white shirt with a freshly starched collar, and my best seersucker suit and I would be there, nearby, at precisely the moment the coin slipped unnoticed from the grasp of her delicate and milky white fingers.

Acting quickly, I would step in and reach down to pick it up. I’d say “Oh, Miss!!… I believe you have dropped this coin.” And then I’d gently press it into her oh so soft palm, and in so doing would hold her hand a scant moment too long.  As she blushed pink at her own carelessness, I would see the beginning of a smile at the corners of her mouth.  She would thank me, and I’d say…. “That’s quite alright…. just take it now and go downtown. Go downtown with your friends. But first, will you promise me you’ll be open to possibilities?”

She would give me a curious look. I’d say, “This may seem bold, but if a nice looking young man in a stiff boater and a bow tie … similar to these that I’m wearing … should smile at you, and if that smile makes your heart jump in your chest, as surely it must … just consider for a moment that what you see in his eyes is real. And know that boldness has rewards of its own. You just never know whether what you might dare to do in a bold moment without hesitation may reap rewards you can scarcely imagine. Someday. Miss, will you promise me you’ll believe in “someday”?  Please?”

Because you just never know.


August 20, 2015
by John Shouse
1 Comment

on the porch, with peaches

Jon held the door for the old man as he stepped out onto the back porch. Carl carried a couple of glasses of sweet tea and Jon followed with a small plate with sliced fresh peaches. He had stopped at a roadside produce stand sitting just off the blacktop on his way down earlier in the day. Spur of the moment. Something about it reminded him of his childhood, with the shelves and bins piled with tomatoes, corn, and melons. Fresh produce of all kinds. His mother loved the abundance of these stands on the back roads near their Pennsylvania home, and Jon had fond memories of stopping with her many times, though it had been too long now since he’d been to one. It wasn’t like him, but he made the unplanned stop. Jon was beginning to learn, these last few months, that unplanned stops are often the best kinds of stops when out on the road. He had bought a jar of honey, the kind with a section of the honey-comb packed right in the jar. He also found a small brown paper bag and put a couple of peaches in it for himself, and a cold drink for the road. Then, sort of as an afterthought, he figured Carl would enjoy some peaches as well. So he put the two from the bag back on the shelf, and instead bought a basket of the peaches for the old man.

At Carl’s request, Jon had peeled and sliced a couple of the ripe freestones in the kitchen while the old man poured up the ice tea, and as they made small talk about Jon’s trip down from Easton. How early did he get on the road? Where did he stop for lunch? … that sort of thing. Out on the porch Jon noticed once more, as he did almost every time he visited Carl, how well the old man got around given that he had just turned 87. Carl sat in the rocking chair by the rail, and Jon took a seat on the porch swing with a few weathered and tattered cushions, and sipped his tea.

As they settled in, Carl reached over, took a peach slice from the plate basket-of-peacheson the table beside him and bit into it, motioning for Jon to take a slice as well. “These are good. Gonna be even better in a few days. Ain’t much in this world as tasty as a Georgia peach in peak season.”

Carl looked a Jon and asked, “So how you doing, son?”

Jon loved how he called him “son”. He called him “son” in a way that Jon had never heard his own father say that word. In a way full of respect and love and admiration. It was just a word, but it meant so much to him. He started to say, “I’m doing okay”, but then he stopped.

Jon looked at the old man, sitting there on the porch in the sideways light of the North Carolina summer evening. Even though they’d really only been together a handful of times, Carl was easy to talk to, and they had gotten close very quickly.

Still, Jon surprised himself when he heard the words come out of his own mouth. “Carl, I’m lost and lonely and afraid.”

Immediately Jon wondered why he had said it. He hadn’t planned for this visit to be a confessional. But Carl sat there, waiting. Jon didn’t know what to say next. How do you follow something like that anyway? But the words came from somewhere.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m ok. … but not really all THAT ok. Oh hell, I don’t know. I guess I’m smart enough to know that everybody probably feels this way from time to time. To deny that would be a lie, right? And yet, we go on pretending to everyone around us that everything is okay.”

Carl was still looking at him, but didn’t speak. So Jon continued, “I don’t know. It’s like, I stopped for coffee when I got on the road first thing this morning, and the girl at the counter asks, “How are you this morning?” I said “Fine”, but she’s not really listening. Or, I go into work most days and people say, ‘Hey Jon! How’s it going?’ I say “fine” and then, “How ‘bout you?” and we nod and smile and talk for a few minutes about nothing at all, and then we each go on our merry way.” Jon was getting wound up now. “I’ll come home most evenings and Ellen says, “Hey, how was your day?” I say “fine” and she never even looks at me. But it’s okay, because I’m not looking at her either and I’m not sure I care anymore. I don’t have the guts to ever say to people, I’m damn-well NOT “fine”. MOST days I’m not “fine.” Carl, I can’t even put my finger on exactly what it is …. But things aren’t ok.”

Carl sat there rocking, thinking. Jon was quiet now. He could hear the creaking of his porch swing swaying back and forth, the breeze in the trees, and the sound of some young kids playing somewhere in the distance. It was a full minute before either spoke. Carl broke the silence. “How long have you felt this way, Jon?”

“A long time.” Jon took a breath. “And it’s getting worse. I mean, it’s not like I’m on the verge of a breakdown or anything. I don’t know. Like I said, I know everybody has times where the world just seems to close in. The problem comes when those days start to pile up, one on top of the other. Trust me when I say that is no way to live.” A moment’s hesitation and then, “No damn way to live.” Jon wasn’t looking at Carl, so he couldn’t see the loving care in the old man’s eyes.

“Nope.” Carl said as he leaned back his head and looked up at the ceiling fan slowly circulating the evening air on the porch. “No way to live, that’s for sure.” When he looked back at Jon, Carl was surprised to see that the young man was close to tears.

Carl stopped rocking and leaned forward a bit. He spoke again. His voice was full of love, and very, very quiet. “Here’s the thing, son. Being lost doesn’t mean you’ll never find your way. And being lonely doesn’t mean you’ll always be alone. And there is no reason to fear being afraid.”

Jon listened. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he remembered his grandma telling him one time when he was a kid how important it was to sometimes just shut up and listen. Of course, she said it nicer than that. Something about how being a good listener is a gift you give to others.

Carl asked, “Jon, where’s all this coming from? Did something happen? Something with you and Ellen? Or the kids?”

“No,” Jon said. “Things are just always so out of whack. There’s no balance in my life. At work it’s rush, rush, rush on this project then that one. At home I feel like a stranger in my own house. I’m losing perspective on what it all means. I don’t like my job. I’m irritable. I snap at the kids. I’m short and sarcastic with Ellen. Even when they’re not doing anything wrong. That’s not me. I’m not ‘that’ guy. I’m not.” Jon sipped his tea. “I mean, I love my wife… or I think I do…. And I know I have people who love me, and yet I don’t feel loved. I just want to live a peaceful life.” As an afterthought, Jon made a vague motion with his hand and added, “Peaceful like this right here, right now on your porch.” He forced a smile.

Carl sat his iced tea glass down on the table beside the rocker, and touched the tips of his fingers together in thought. When he spoke, there was something in his voice that Jon had never heard before. Not authority exactly. Maybe certainty? Yes, that was it. A certainty that only comes with age and experience. And not always even then.

“Jon, listen to me. Finding balance, order, and peace is possible. It is. There is no shame in being vulnerable enough to admit you can’t always find them easily. Son, we’ve talked enough these last few months for me to know you’re a very intelligent and passionate young man.” Carl smiled to himself as if he’d just thought of something. Then, “You’re your grandma’s boy for sure Jon. You’re clever and quick and bright as they come. Grace was like that. Always was. But intelligence and passion aren’t always enough to see you through. The problem with being clever, is you fool yourself into believing that you should always be able to think your way through your troubles. Not gonna happen, son. Sometimes, the troubles we face are caused by how hard it is for us to simply BE present right here in the present moment. Nothing else. Just to BE here right now, wherever you are. And to know that you have it in your power ….each of us does …. to elevate the quality of THIS moment by practicing gratitude, love, and compassion. Not much else matters” Carl stopped and looked out across the yard. “Your grandma knew that, and she lived her life that way every day.”

Jon had never heard Carl talk like this. Carl hesitated a bit, and then looked back at Jon, “Or at least, she lived her life like that every day that I knew her. Hell, Grace was the one that taught me to believe it. Believe me when I say that she put up with more crap than any person I’ve ever known.”

Carl looked away for a moment, but not before Jon could see that the old man’s eyes were at that place where they haven’t yet started to water…. but almost. Then he said even more quietly still, as if he wasn’t really talking to anyone in particular, “and I don’t know anybody less deserving of that crap. She was the most peaceful and gracious and kind person I ever knew.” Jon could tell Carl was trying to will his emotions back into control. Not entirely successfully.

“Jon, Grace told me something once, and I’ve never forgotten the words. It was just after I joined the army. But before I shipped out. She said, Carl the choices you make in THIS moment (and every moment) lead you closer to peace … or, further away from it. Choose peace, she said.” Carl was looking lovingly at Jon now. “I was never as good at it as I should have been. Never as good at it as she was. But son, you’ve got enough of her in you that I’m sure you can do that. The only way you’ll get rid of the fear and the uncertainty and the loneliness is by living as fully as you can … one day, one moment at a time. Choose peace, son.” Carl reached over and put his hand on Jon’s shoulder. His eyes were beyond moist now. “Choose love. When you’ve got the chance …. And you’ve always got the chance……choose love.”

Carl’s hand was still on Jon’s shoulder. He gave a little squeeze, then leaned back and ate another slice of peach.

They sat there in silence, listening to the tree frogs in the fading light. Several minutes passed and Jon could tell that Carl’s mind was far away.

This time it was Jon’s turn to break the silence. “We’ve only got a little bit of daylight left and it’s a nice night. Would you go with me out to the cemetery to see grandma’s grave? I think I have a few things I want to tell her.”

Carl smiled. “Sure, son. Let’s go. Bring the peaches.  Grace always loved peaches.”

April 1, 2015
by John Shouse

one kind of gravy

When I was a kid, I’d often travel with my folks through Kingdom City, Missouri. It was just 17 miles down the road from my hometown.   There really was no “city” at the junction of US Hwy 54 and old Hwy 40, later Interstate 70.   And no “Kingdom” either, though the name does harken back to the days of “the Kingdom of Callaway”.  That’s another story.

So there was no real city, but there was a bus stop, several gas stations, and a souvenir shop or two (Ozarkland!).  The busiest and probably best restaurant/truck stop at that junction for many years was Gasper’s. Not the “new” Gasper’s with the giant Shell station, and a cookie-cutter restaurant, but the “Old” Gasper’s.  The “Old” Gasper’s was really top-notch restaurant/diner/truck-stop.  They had the counter up front, with the stools where truck drivers sat and sipped coffee and ate a hot meal. They had the main restaurant with booths, bright lights, tile floor, and a lot of hubbub, hustle & bustle. But if you wanted something a bit more upscale (though there was no such word as “upscale” in the 50’s and 60’s), they had the “back room”…  or as I thought of it, the “fancy” dining room. Tables, no booths. And with tablecloths! Lower lighting. Limited seating.  Just a little bit quieter.  Curtains on the windows, not the blinds like out front. Carpet. Wood paneling. This was a place where on Sundays you’d see families still in their church clothes.

One trucker, writing about Gasper’s said this:

“Old school” was Gasper’s Truck Stop in Kingdom City, MO. The driver’s section was just what the name implied, drivers only. There could be a line out the door waiting to be served. People would point to an empty table and Mrs. Gasper would say, “One of MY drivers will be here shortly needing a place to eat.”

Many years ago I fueled at Gasper’s, parked and went inside. Enjoyed a great supper – those carrots cooked in cherry juice – superartabumfistical. Filled old Stanley, paid for my meal and hit the road. I got way into Illinois and realized I didn’t pay my fuel bill. Could not find a phone fast enough – no cell phones in those days. Called Gasper’s and told them what happened. “Not to worry” was the reply. “Your ticket is on the board; we’ll see you next week.” Try that today.

So as a kid, yes, I went through Kingdom City with my folks a lot. And I mean a LOT. There was a time when it seemed like we stopped at Gasper’s once a week. Whether going to “Jeff” (Jefferson City, our state capitol), or Fulton or Columbia, or to visit my Aunt and Uncle, or my Pa Pa Shouse, the road South (and back home again) took us through Kingdom City.

It got to be a ritual that if we were close to Kingdom City ANYWHERE close to meal time, my mom and dad would look at each other, and one of them would ask, “Gasper’s?” And more often than not, the answer was an enthusiastic “Sure!”

If we ate out front (which was seldom), I’d get a burger and fries, or a bowl of chili.  However, we often ate in the back, in the “fancy” dining room.  In there,  nothing would do but to turn to the “grown-up” section of the menu where you could choose your entree, and three “vegetables” from a long list. I put “vegetables” in quotes, because there was a LOT of stuff on that list that didn’t really qualify as vegetable. Jello salad. Mac ‘n Cheese. Fruit Cocktail. Banana Pudding. You know… “vegetables”.

And on each table was one of these baskets.  cracker-basketA woven wire basket, black and gold, filled to overflowing with individually wrapped cellophane packages of crackers. I’d dig in that basket, right past the “ordinary” saltines and club crackers, and make my way to three delicacies…. Melba Toasts, Euphrates Sesame Crackers, or Bread Sticks.  Melba was easily my favorite.   mmmmmmm.

As we sat waiting to order or for our food, many times somebody that my parents knew, either from Mexico or from Callaway County or even Boone would stop by the table to have a little chat.  At some point they would look at me, as if surprised by my sudden appearance, and ask, “Now who’s THIS young man? My goodness he’s grown!” The adults would all chuckle.  Yep, that’s me, the amazing growing Shouse boy.

Perusing the menu as a formality, when the waitress came around, I always… ALWAYS … chose the same thing. Breaded & Fried Pork Tenderloin with mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, and cottage cheese. Cottage cheese!  Another of the non-vegetable vegetables. The waitress wold always ask, not looking up from her pad where she was jotting down the orders in her own special shorthand, “Gravy on your Tenderloin?” “Yes please, brown gravy, same as on the potatoes.” I had learned to be very specific, because of that one trip where the brought it out and I found brown gravy on my potatoes, but WHITE gravy on my tenderloin. HELLO???? Who the hell worked back there in the kitchen that day?  Where the travesty of TWO kinds of gravy on one plate seemed like a good idea? Ack.   ONE kind of gravy at a time, please.

Then, in addition to that usual order I’d ALSO order a side salad with no dressing. Hearing my order, the waitress would look up from her pad for the first time …. just to make sure she’d heard me right.  She’d look a bit surprised and ask “no dressing?”.  I’d say, “That’s right, no dressing.”

After a bit of a wait, she would bring out my salad, and usually one for my mom too.  Dad was not much of a salad guy.  It was mostly just lettuce, but with some purple cabbage, maybe a radish slice or two, and a tomato wedge as garnish.  But I wouldn’t touch it. Except for the tomato. I always ate the tomato first. But I saved the rest.

When the rest of the food came, first order of business was to take my little bowl of cottage cheese (vegetable) and dump it in with my salad. Then I’d proceed to eat that mixture, alongside the rest of the meal, with my beloved Melba Toast! mmmmm. I’m not sure why, but somehow this made me feel pretty Cosmopolitan.   At those rare places today that have fully-stocked salad bars, I actually STILL make a pretty simple salad, no dressing, and put a healthy scoop or two of cottage cheese on top.

After the meal was over, the waitress would come around and ask, sort of as a formality, “Anybody up for dessert?” My folks would often decline, although dad would sometimes  order a piece of pie or cobbler.  They would all look at me though, and I’d say, “Yes please.  Coconut Cream Pie”.    When I ordered a piece of Coconut Cream Pie, it was the secret code signal for my dad to say, “And next time you’re coming back this way, how about warming up my coffee?”.   Not,  “I’ll have more coffee.”   but “How about warming up my coffee.”  I guess it must have stuck with me.  I still ask waitresses in diners and breakfast places to “warm up my coffee.”    Back at Gasper’s …. if by chance it was one of those rare occasions they were OUT of Coconut Cream Pie, I’d just say…”In that case, I won’t have any dessert, thank you.”.

Yes, I was a peculiar boy. I think I may have grown out of it though.  The peculiarities.   You know, I am (after all) the amazing growing Shouse boy.

So here I am, wishing for one of those black and gold wire-woven baskets to dig through. For Melba Toast, and cottage cheese in my salad. Tenderloin and potatoes with ONE kind of gravy. And a big slice of Coconut Cream Pie.

Mostly though, I’m wishing I had one more chance to have my mom and dad look at each other and ask, “Gasper’s?”. Mom_and_DadAnd for the blissful hour spent with them at one of the best truck stops ever.

In the FANCY dining room.


December 23, 2014
by John Shouse

Decoration Day

It is not lost on me that Memorial Day is all about honoring our veterans, and especially those who lost their lives while serving our country.  But for many folks during the time I was growing up, Memorial Day …. or “Decoration Day”…. as some of the old-folks called it, was for remembering and honoring ALL those family members, friends, and neighbors who had gone beyond the veil.  What follows does not talk much about our veterans.  Rather, it is a collection of some of my own memories of Decoration Days gone by. – J 

Fried chicken at a picnic table beside the highway on the last weekend in May, same table as last year and the year before.  Cold Cucumber salad with onion and vinegar.  Peeled and sliced tomatoes, slaw, yeast rolls, homemade of course. A plate with sliced country ham and biscuits.  Another with fried chicken.  Decoration Days are always just this way.

Dad’s sister, my aunt, fussing over getting each dish set out on the table as mom spreads the well-worn red and white checked tablecloth, making sure things don’t blow away in the wind. The weight of the syrupy sweet iced tea poured into the tall, blue and pink and green colored Tupperware cups helps hold that cloth down too.

My dad and his dad, along with my uncle, all staying out of the way, standing off to the side, talking the way grown-ups do.  So much on and on and on about nothing in particular. Conversation that didn’t need a reason beyond the fact that they were all together. Conversation that didn’t accomplish much as far as I could tell.

My cousin, one year older, and always one step ahead. One step ahead in everything.  My cousin, who I looked up to so much.  My cousin who invented elaborate games, with complex rules.  Whatever he tells me, I believe. If he had told me the picnic area on the side of the road where we were now eating had once been a major stop on the Pony Express, and there had been a famous Indian massacre there in the 1872 where those young riders had been slaughtered, I’d have believed him unconditionally. Unconditionally, and together we would have cursed the damn Indians. But not within earshot of his mom or mine.  Not within their earshot, so as not to draw their wrath for using language as salty as the country ham from my grandfather’s smokehouse. Country ham that was just then being served up on the biscuits his mom had made from scratch that morning.

Millersburg Baptist Church

Millersburg Baptist Church

They were Baptists, my Aunt’s family.  We were Methodists.  Neither group condoned that kind of language. Especially the Baptists. Not even when it was about condemning heathen Indians scalping innocent white boys delivering the mail on horseback.

One thing was certain. My cousin and I would find time to talk about lizards. We always talked about lizards on Decoration Day. He knew all there was to know about lizards. What they ate (flies and wilted lettuce …. though I would come to doubt the lettuce part), where they lived (cool dry places, but where they could easily get plenty of sun whenever they wanted).

He knew how to tell by their color and skin patterns which lizards it was okay to touch, and which ones would secrete a sticky goo onto your skin that might leave painful boils or red welts.

I’d never had a lizard-produced boil or red welt, but my cousin told me it might happen and that he’d read it in a book, and I believed him unconditionally.

After lunch, trash and chicken bones and scraps went in the barrel. Then, all of us back in the cars and on down the highway until we pull off onto a blacktop. Motoring past farms and fields, with anticipation growing. Many houses we pass elicit comments from the grown-ups about who lived there and what their latest ailment was, or who their kids married or even sometimes what they had recently died from.

“There’s old Eli Carter’s house. Is he still alive?”

“Yep, he and the missus still live there. Probably just sitting in there on the couch with the TV on.”

“He’s gotta be eighty-something”

“We should stop on the way back and say hello”.

“Maybe we’ll stop and say hello. But we won’t stay long.”

That was always the plan.  Stop and say hello, but don’t stay long.

I think to myself that if the grown-ups DO decide to stop, I just hope it’s not close enough to meal time that they’ll feel too awkward to refuse the inevitable invitation to “dinner”.   If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when we get stuck unable to refuse an invitation to dinner in a stranger’s house.

I’m quite sure these old people eat icky food, maybe even pickled okra or creamed corn that they grew in their own gardens or God forbid Jello with STUFF in it.  Some of these folks make Jello and put carrots in it.  Who DOES that?  I mean seriously.  Vegetables in Jello?

I’m pretty sure that old people with liver spots have kitchens that aren’t very clean at all, because the old lady’s eyesight is failing and anyway she shops in dirty unfamiliar stores and keeps stuff like all of that on hand just for torturing the kids of barely-known old friends and acquaintances who might perchance stop by with the intention to say hello but not stay.  People who don’t really intend to stay, but who then decide to stay anyway.  Because they’ve been asked to stay, and they’re afraid that to leave now would be rude.

What’s worse, having stopped at plenty of these old folks places through the years, I also know that their houses will smell funny and their black and white TV’s will only get snowy reception on weird programs, and they won’t have Pepsi to offer us so we’ll have to either drink cloudy, possibly dangerous tea or water from a well.  Water that tastes very peculiar.  Not like my good “city water”.

I also know that my mom and dad love some of these people like family, but I surely don’t know why.

Then, after several miles of blacktop, just as the road forks and changes from asphalt to gravel, there are five or six buildings all together, the most we’ve seen in one place in miles. Dad says on cue, but yet almost as a casual aside, just as he says every year: “This is the town where I was born”.  My Pa Pa says, “Yep”, and points and says,  “Right over there”, but I can’t tell exactly where he’s pointed.   Me, snapping to attention, looking around, and wondering why dad used the word “town” when clearly there was no town there and it didn’t look like there ever had been a town there.

Englewood Store as it is 1/2/2015

Englewood Store as it is 1/2/2015

There was one building that might have been a store at one time, judging by the wide porch and windows and an old gas sign even though there aren’t any pumps anymore and probably haven’t been any pumps in decades.  Still, he says it’s a town, so I look at the house that I suppose he was born in though I don’t know why I think that’s the exact one, since Pa Pa had only pointed in the general direction. I marvel that babies were born in houses like that and not in big shiny hospitals with bright lights and mysterious rooms that smell all hospitally. My aunt, two years older than dad, never says anything about where she was born, and I wonder why.

After passing through this place, the land gets a bit more rolling, and the hills a bit higher and closer together.   Soon we turn left onto a road that is smaller yet, and far more bumpy.

After a short while, we make a sharp turn to the right past a very smelly hog lot with ramshackle barn.  A few hundred yards more, with woods closing in on both sides of the road we make a sharp turn left, and then within a quarter mile or so we pull up to the clearing with the cemetery.  The cemetery with the old fence and the newly painted gate.   Johnson_Cemetery_gate The gate that has a wrought iron setting sun.

Only back then I never thought of it as a setting sun, but a rising one, and it gave me some comfort that this might somehow be not such an unhappy or dreary place for the souls of those who were buried there.

I’m not sure exactly when in my mind the shift in perception happened that changed the gate from having rising sun to a setting one, but I’d like to know. I’d like to know, because I think maybe that shift is important in some way that I almost understand but not quite.  Like one of those optical illusions that when you first look at it is a young woman in a fancy hat, but the longer you look at, you suddenly see that it’s ALSO an old lady in a shawl.  Or maybe you saw the old woman first, and had to concentrate and squint your eyes to see the young one   But once seen, can never be unseen.

Maybe that point where the gate with the rising sun became also that gate with a setting sun is the precise moment at which I no longer was the innocent kid who dreamed of being an astronaut, and suddenly became the adolescent who realized he really was going to grow up someday into a complicated world and that life has a lot of setting suns.

Or maybe I’m just over-thinking it.

In any case, pulling up to that cemetery each year is something of a magical moment in my memory, regardless of which way I saw the gate.

We get out, and stand there for a minute beside our cars, suddenly stunned by the silence after the noisy rumbling of the car wheels on the gravel road.  Hard to say if the silence is more reverent or eerie.  Probably a little of both.  Either way, the silence is a sharp contrast, and it’s probably the reason nobody yet has ventured in through the gate and into the area with all the headstones.

Perhaps even the grown-ups feel, as I do, that maybe just maybe we’re intruders here and the slumbering souls beyond the gate could have gotten along just as well without us.  I can hear birds chirping.

Nobody is saying much until one of the adults will make a remark about how nice they’ve got the place looking, grass cut and weeds trimmed. We venture forward, and dad swings that Sunrise/Sunset gate open.  All of us walking through as one, we maintain our relative silence. Whatever comments are made are made in hushed tones.

“There’s George Anderson over there.” Somebody nods to a stone with a small flag planted by it.

I realize anew, as I do each year, that there were several of these similarly flag-marked stones scattered around the grounds.

“He passed in France in the war, didn’t he?”

“Yes.  His mama never got over it. He was her only boy. She died of a broken heart shortly after the war”

And, “There’s Miss Botts” “Didn’t she die of the consumption?”

“Mmm hmmm, poor thing … so young.”

There were a few newer stones, but only a very few.  This was an old cemetery, 1840.

There were civil war dead buried there, and folks whose names time had forgotten and the elements had erased from view on their headstones.  I’d sometimes stand for a while in front of a worn down stone with absolutely no identifiable markings, just a small, mostly irregularly-shaped marker worn by years of rains and ice and snow and elements, and wonder if maybe there was somebody still living that knew who was buried there, had fond remembrances of them, and would come at a different hour to pay their respects.  And if so, why had they let the gravestone deteriorate so badly?  Maybe they simply couldn’t afford a new marker.

But then I’d think that no, probably nobody knows or remembers who is there, and whatever the person beneath my feet did in life is now gone forever.  I remember thinking this, and feeling sad.

Still, I liked how the adults talked about those people buried there as if they weren’t necessarily dead, but maybe had just stepped out of our field of view for a bit.  As if they might be coming back at any minute with stories to tell and their families would laugh and clap them on the shoulder and give them a hug all would be well.  I liked the idea that even though untold years had passed, these people buried here had been friends and neighbors and had breathed deep of the air in these hills, and felt the warmth of the sun and heard the birds the way I did.

We made our way through the stones, and our destination was clear. A couple of small headstones in pretty much the center of the cemetery. Not the big flashy kind that stand up tall, and include a bit of scripture or some bright encouragement about rejoicing in the land beyond the skies. No, these were the kind that were low to the ground, and had names and dates.

Those names were OUR names.  But the people were people I’d never known.

Minnie Teel Shouse, August 25, 1892 – October 1, 1921.   My grandmother.

I was good enough at arithmetic to see that she was just 29 years old when she died. My dad, who was born in 1918 was just three when his mom died, and realizing that, each year all over again always made me a little sad. I wondered if he remembered her at all. I looked at my mom and told myself I’d never ever in a million years forget her pretty face and her smile.

Next to my grandmother’s stone was an identical one that said Ora Elwood Shouse, March 15, 1921 – April 12, 1932.   My dad and my aunt’s little brother.

It wasn’t until many, many years later that I realized the second date was actually 1932. Somehow in my memory it was 1923, a bit of dyslexic confusion.   I had assumed for years that dad’s little brother had died just after his second birthday. But I was wrong, and it was for that reason that I never once asked my dad what his little brother was like.

Dad wasn’t five when Elwood died. Instead, he would have been fourteen when they lost him. I wish I’d known that back then on those Decoration Days, and had taken time to ask dad about Elwood.

In Missouri, the state has now filed electronic copies of death certificates online, and Elwood’s certificate confirms the 1932 date, and lists the cause of death as “Aortic Insufficiency”.  A leaky heart valve. Something that today would be easily treated relatively easily either medically or with routine surgery.  But in 1932, it killed the 11 year-old boy who might have grown to become my uncle.  Or maybe he would have fought and possibly died in WWII.

I wonder what thoughts went through my Pa-Pa’s mind as he stood there and looked down on the graves of his young wife and son. He had never remarried, but had raised two kids on his own, supporting them with his trade as a blacksmith and by doing some small amount of subsistence farming.

It never occurred to me then that in a few short years, there would be a third identical stone to join those other two.  It would have Pa Pa’s name on it and his birth date of November 28, 1888 and a second date after the dash.  I never gave a thought to when that second date might come.  I wonder if he did?

I didn’t know then, and had no reason to even suspect, that within the next ten years or so, I would have literally dozens of unofficial “Decoration Days” where I drove those same roads by myself.  Days when I would drive south from where I lived in Columbia in my college years, and would stand in silence at the stone of the man I knew.  The man whose body had been placed there beneath the ground next to his young bride and their son, almost fifty years after she had died.

Back on that particular day though, my mom and my aunt are bending down pulling what few weeds there are around the graves and the two markers, and they’re placing the flowers brought fresh from my aunt’s garden ….. this is the “Decoration” part of Decoration Day.  Were they trying to make it cheery for the dead?  Or to brighten it all for the few moments we would be there that day?   The men start to drift around the cemetery looking at the other headstones scattered there, and still occasionally making a random comment now and then about the folks buried just under their feet.

The stones are not laid out in orderly rows like the other cemetery we’d visit later, where  my mom’s parents and my dad’s grandfather and grandmother were buried.  Instead, they seemed to me to be laid out with no sort of rhyme or reason for the placement.

Whether the adults were looking at the stones in the front that were somewhat newer and out in the open under the springtime sunshine, or the stones in the back under the tall cedars, they’d still occasionally stop for a second in silence.  Those in the back were mostly far older and more worn down making them hard  or even impossible to read.

There was one that I recall, and though I don’t know the dates or the name, I wonder if maybe she was somebody else’s young wife or maybe a daughter. The verse on it was faded, but you could just make it out.

It said “The sun shone brighter because she was here.”

I remember reading that verse every year.  I was always surprised that it made me smile and want to cry all at the same time. I wonder if Pa-Pa felt that way about his young wife Minnie. I hoped so then, and I still hope so now.

Before long my cousin and I would tire of wandering among the gravestones. After all, even including our grandmother Minnie, and young uncle Elwood, there was nobody buried there we had actually known when they were alive. So we turned our attention to the grave-digger’s shed.

I suspect the man, whoever he was, would have preferred to be known as the caretaker of the cemetery, but the shed WAS full of shovels and picks, after all. So to us, he was the gravedigger.

Gravediggers Shack & Outhouse

Gravediggers Shack & Outhouse

The shed was a very rustic little structure made out of VERY weather-worn lumber, with a single door, a couple of windows, and a dirt floor. Immediately adjacent to the shed was an outhouse.  From the smells wafting about as you got near the outhouse, and the presence of a new supply of Sears Roebuck catalogs, and the copious amount of flies buzzing about, it was indeed occasionally used.

Our attention however was on the shed. Somewhere, either on the inside walls of the shed or lounging around on the outside sunning themselves, we could be certain of finding a number of lizards. That shed was lizard-central. A veritable lizard Mecca in the heart of Mid-Missouri.

With enough stealth and no sudden movements, and by slowly moving a hand up low behind them, my cousin and I would capture a lizard or two apiece. Year-in and year-out, the last weekend in May was when I looked forward to replenishing my stock of lizards. Of course, I’d bring the lizard (or lizards) home, often over mom’s protests, and they’d invariably escape or die. Escape was NOT okay with mom.

She didn’t seem to care if they died. How somebody so sweet in every other aspect of her life could be so callous when it came to lizards is a mystery that I never understood. Sometimes their tails would fall off from my over-exuberance in playing with them in toy cars or trains. My cousin had told me that if that happened, not to worry, because the tails would grow back. He told me, and I of course believed him. But I never had a lizard long enough to actually have one grow a tail, so I never really knew how long that took.   Maybe I’ll find out next year.

Maybe I’ll find out, come Decoration Day.

If I could only ride along one more time on one of those trips.  To eat the fried chicken and country ham and cucumber salad at the table beside the highway, to marvel at the tales my cousin made up to tell me, see the town where dad was born and be able to ask him all the questions I wish I could ask him.  To see my PaPa’s face as he gazed on the graves of his beloved bride and young son.  To give him a moment to himself, but then to put my arm around him and ask him to tell me about her, and about him.  To see the old stones in that old graveyard and hear the stories about the people buried there from the ones who actually knew some of them.

To catch myself a lizard.  And maybe even to let it go (with or without a tail)  in some old person’s home.  In a strange-smelling house after we stop to say hello, without planning to stay.  I might even eat the orange Jello with shaved carrots.

On Decoration Day.

Yes.   I’d love me some of that.



Postscript 1/4/2015 –

“Time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like ordinary life.”

I took a short trip back to Missouri from my home in Tennessee on New Year’s weekend.    My son Brendan, who is now 19 accompanied me.  On Friday, Jan 2,  it occurred to me while in Missouri that it would be good to drive those roads with him, to visit the cemetery one more time, and to have the chance to talk about some long-gone members of his family and tell him what I recollect about the places and people from the days I wrote about in this piece.   Brendan_lizard central

I also took some pictures, which I’ve inserted here and into the story above.

One of the things we did many times on those Decoration Day trips years ago was to visit a nearby area known as “The Devil’s Backbone”.   The main feature of the Backbone was a narrow ridge of limestone running straight down into a broad valley with a winding creek.  Years and years before my memory, there had been a road down that ridge and into the valley.  The remnants of the road were still there back when I was a kid, but it was not drivable, meaning the only access down into the valley was on foot.

When I was in college, that area became a refuge for me.  There were countless times when in search of solitude, or some place to find my balance, my center, I would travel those roads out to the cemetery, and then to the Backbone.

Parking at the top, sometimes I’d simply sit on a bluff up there overlooking the valley below and just enjoy the sunshine and relative isolation from the hubbub of daily life back on campus.   Other times I’d hike down the ridge to walk the valley, wade the creek.  Often down there,  would find a sunny spot on a rock to sit and make sense of the world.  In those days, the only sound of civilization was likely to be a jet overhead, or possibly the far-off sound of a farmer’s tractor.  But more often, the only sounds at all were the wind, the rippling water in the shallows, and the birds.

It was, and remains, a very special place in my memory.

The old bridge at the bottom of the Backbone ridge was not, in my memory, ever passable by car. Devils Backbone bridge - 2015-01-02Back then, there were a few rotten  boards present, but it had been many years since they had even been suitable for crossing the bridge on foot. I do remember being brave enough to walk part way out on the bridge, barely over the water, but that was as far as one could go.

In this trip with my son this past weekend, the rusty frame of the old bridge was still there, but not a single sign of anything resembling a board.

Hiking down the ridge to the bottom this weekend with him, the sensory experience it triggered in my mind and in my heart was identical to what I remember from those trips back then.  This is, for me, a reverential place.  A place of wonder and silence and retreat.

It was and is a kind of unexpected wild-place, the kind that has become increasingly difficult to find these days.  I told my Brendan much about those trips I’d make down into that valley, and I encouraged him to try tofind a place for himself that fills that role in his life.  I think that is important.  His school up on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee should be close enough to a lot of places that might work perfectly.

Devil's Backbone

Devil’s Backbone

This was a magical trip to a very special place.

In years to come, there will certainly be many things I will forget.

This trip with Brendan is not one of them.


July 12, 2014
by John Shouse

gradually and then suddenly

note:  this is not a happy story. if you’ve read and liked other things I’ve written, let me just say this is unlike the other items I’ve written and posted here before.

One of my best friends committed suicide almost eighteen months ago, and I don’t know why. After all this time, one of the hardest things is the certainty that I will never know all the reasons why.

I miss him.

It happened again yesterday. I was sifting through some old stuff in a forgotten outback of my computer hard drive, looking for a lost document, and I found something he’d scanned and sent to me. It was an “over-the-top” mail appeal from an organization in the disability community in which he and I were both active. At the moment he sent it, he was in a mild outrage at the arrogance and misrepresentation of the truth that he perceived in the mail piece.   And seeing it again yesterday, I had to chuckle inside, imagining the reaction he must have had to the piece, and I can just see him thinking, “I’ll scan it and send it to John. It’s sure to get him ticked-off too.”  (For the record, back then it did exactly that).   But yesterday, at the reminder of seeing it with his handwriting on it, the old familiar pangs of my pain at his death … and his absence … ran through my heart and my mind again.   I’ve come to realize that there are ten thousand reminders out there, some tangible like that scanned document or an old email, some only existing as hidden memories. All of them lying barely concealed beneath the surface, as in a minefield ready to snap me violently and unexpectedly back to the reality of his absence.

I need to say right here at the outset that what follows is not his story. It is mine. Or rather, it is a story about how I have come to understand (or maybe more accurately, failed to come to understand) his death. I don’t know all the reasons why he made the decision to end his life, and even if I did, I would surely make a very deliberate choice to NOT share those reasons publicly here.

There has hardly been a day gone by since his death that I haven’t thought about him, either spontaneously, or due to some triggering factor as mentioned above. It is for that reason, that I do*think* I want to write about the difficulties I had in processing it all. Difficulties that time has made less constant, but no less real.  I’ll admit that I wrote the initial version of this some time ago. Then I set it aside.  I’ve waffled on whether to post it or not. Like I said, I think of him nearly every day, and I miss him terribly. It may seem odd to write about this after this much time has passed, and it may seem even odder to post it here. But at this moment, right now, writing about it feels like a true step. That’s important to me.

I need that sense of having the feeling that any piece I write and post here is in some way “a true step”. In fact, as I’ve written here before, that is sort of my main test for whether to post anything here to my blog or not. That means that a lot of what I write doesn’t “pass the test” for being made public here in this place. But sometimes it does. In this case, I’m less certain … but deciding to post anyway.

Many of my friends who read this will know immediately who I am writing about. But I have chosen not to use his name, or to give any directly identifying information.   Again, that may seem odd… but that is also a deliberate choice I have made for the writing, and it feels right. I don’t want to dredge up awful memories for those of us who loved him. Yet, I do wonder if others in what was our mutual friend group think of him as much as I do?   I wonder if they also have their little reminders, and if they also share the same ongoing ….. grief …. that I do.   Grief.   Yeah, I guess even after a year-and-a-half, that’s the right word.

My friend lived in another state, and though we only saw each other face to face a few times per year, at conferences and meetings, we spoke on the phone regularly… at least every other week or so (sometimes a lot more often than that), and we had done so for a number of years. I’d call him, and seeing my name on his Caller ID, he always answered the phone the same way. “Hello, John! How are things with you?” I can hear his voice now. Writing those words, his voice is in my head. It’s kind of chilling actually. I’d say, “Well, you know. All good. I can’t complain.” Then I’d proceed to vent about the problems du jour.

Through the years, he’d worked for or with me on a few committees and work-initiatives. We had presented together at conferences several times. Together we were part of a small group of “usual suspects” working to bring empowerment, knowledge, support, and a sense of community to the broader grass-roots community of advocates that we all loved to serve.

After my friend’s death, as the horrible news spread, many mutual friends reached out first to me for answers … and also to comfort me… as they knew and were aware of our ongoing and very close friendship.

I had no answers for them.

Over the next few weeks, I was often amused and found myself smiling very frequently at the number of pictures, some of which were quite silly, that surfaced of the two of us together at events.   And then I’d look at each picture, look at his face, and realize in sadness that I’d never again be able to pick up the phone and give him a call, laugh together, bounce ideas around together, or bitch and moan together about something frustrating both of us. I’d realize we would never again be at one of those conferences where we would be the first two to get up and meet for breakfast, AND the last two to tell everyone else goodnight at the bar and wearily head off to our own hotel rooms.

In the last few days before he took his life, I believe that I may have been one of the last people to have a conversation with him about his depression and the things that were bothering him. Maybe the very last. One of the last to try to bolster his spirits about coping with a number of difficulties. Possibly the very last one with whom he confided his growing despairs.

Since his death, part of my ongoing grief has been the idea that my words, my expressions of love and support, my “advice” to him … that NONE of that was sufficient to stay his hand at the critical moment as he contemplated his options. It’s a hard realization. Intellectually, I know his decision was his alone… and that absolutely no one saw it coming. And yet, in private moments, I sometimes still weep at what I see, in the “perfect light of retrospect”, as my failure to reach him. And then I feel guilty in the knowledge that my tears are less for the tragedy of his death, and the idea of his family’s loss of a father, his wife’s loss of a spouse … than they are selfish tears for me. Selfish tears, for the loss of a friend and confidant. And they are tears of guilt as I second guess myself …. should I have seen this coming, even when nobody else did? Were there clues he may have revealed to me in his words that he was nearing the point of taking his own life? Were there clues that what was going on with him was anything more than what we all go through from time-to-time as we try to cope with the difficulties “life” throws at us?

I confess I just don’t know.

When I spoke with him on a Friday early last year, we talked about some significant difficulties that he was dealing with in several arenas in his life… both personal and professional. I offered him support and love and some practical and concrete suggestions about how to handle some of his personal decisions … and some ideas on things he could do to “get out of his own head” and gain some big-picture perspective and focus on all the good things he had going on. A suggestion to approach some of his looming big choices in the optimism of the certainty of better days to come.

We also had talked about plans we had to get together with another dear friend in a couple of months for a “guys weekend”, as we’d done before. We talked about how that would be good for all three of us.   As my friend and I were getting off the phone that afternoon, I told him how much he meant to me (he already knew this, we had talked about the depth of our friendship through the years from time-to-time).

I asked him to please check in with me “sometime next week” and let me know how a difficult personal conversation he was anticipating had gone.   The last thing I told him was to remember that he could call on me any time of the day or night, don’t worry about the hour. I told him, “I’m serious. Any time at all.” And I told him that while I may not have any particular answers, “I will always be here for you.”    I believe those may have been our last words.

“I will always be here for you.”     Only now I can’t make good on that promise.

The awful news came early the next week.

I drove to his town, a solo road trip that gave me a lot of time to think about things, including the night in the hotel before his service the next morning. I went to his memorial service in a daze, and barely spoke to anyone. When I got back in my car I drove a few blocks and suddenly pulled over to the curb. I sat there in my car and started to cry.  Cry hard.  I pounded the steering wheel and I screamed and cursed. Then I wiped my tears and drove back to Tennessee.

I was surprised in the ensuing days and weeks to occasionally find myself angry at him for robbing me of the ability to “Be here for you”. Angry at him for not calling me when he was really in deep despair and pain. Angry for his cheating me out of what I expected to be our life-long friendship. I know enough about what have been called “the stages of grief” to recognize that the anger is merely one of the phases.

As a parent of a child with a disability, I have lived many of those stages in another context, and even spoken numerous times to parent groups about those stages… about how they are “normal” and how we “must” let ourselves go through them and process them before we can see light on the other side. And yet, when I could feel myself going through those stages of grief with regard to the death of my friend, they truly surprised me and completely caught me off guard.

I felt almost like an outside observer of my own state of mind as I worked to come to terms with his death. And in that process, I’ve seen every single one of those stages wash over and through me. In no particular order: Shock & Disbelief. Denial. Profound Sadness. Guilt, Bargaining. Anger. Etc.

“I will always be here for you.”

And in the aftermath of my friend’s death, all I could feel was a giant hole in my soul and in my heart.   Not only could I not “be here” for him, but he would never ever be here for me. “What the HELL were you thinking??”   I caught myself actually saying that out loud a few weeks after I got home from his memorial service. “How DARE you write yourself so completely out of my life?”   And the thoughts born of that selfish anger led to guilt all over again. As I write and think about those words I’ve just written, it seems incredibly petty and selfish of me to have felt that way.

Back then, I could not conceive of a depression so utterly gripping that it would drive someone to end their life. I still can’t. And yet, I have struggled through the years with depression myself, and I know that it is insidious. And I know that it is a liar. I know how through the lens of depression, it can seem like “things” will NEVER get better. I have written frankly about my own depression before, and spoken about it in public as I’ve led workshops. It’s not something to be taken lightly. I have had my share of “dark nights of the soul”, and sought help.   I have allowed myself to be vulnerable enough with others ( I hope), and honest enough with myself (I think) to get to the root of the things that were creating the cognitive impairments I was suffering. I know first-hand that depression can undermine your ability to function normally. Your ability to even to get out of bed in the morning. I know it can make you wonder if the world would be better off without you. In my own case, I was lucky enough and diligently self-aware enough to find the way through.

But despite my own experience, in my friend’s greatest hour of need, is it possible that I did I not see or feel the clues to his despair powerfully enough to intervene?  Was that his failure or mine?   Was it even a failure at all? I don’t know.

At the risk of over-generalizing and simplifying something that is really in all likelihood very complicated, when someone contemplates and then carries through with suicide, I just do not want to believe that in most cases it is a totally impulsive act. Surely one builds to that decision over time, right? So in the case of my friend, the question I have asked myself is, when I talked to him a few days before he did this, was he already coming to the conclusion that he was going to take his own life? Had he already made plans?   If so, how did I not hear this in his voice?   Was I too smug in assuming that our talk that night, and my promise that “I will always be here for you” would help him put things in proper perspective? Were those just empty words? Or is all of that questioning on my part merely an attempt at rationalizing something which can NEVER be rationalized?   Maybe there WAS nothing to hear in his voice.

I don’t know. No matter how much I attempt to replay that last conversation my head, I just don’t know.

Or, alternately, maybe sometimes really bad shit happens and it’s nobody’s fault and there is absolutely nothing that would have changed it.

However, that’s not an explanation. And almost a year and a half later, there is nothing about his death that has worked in my own mind and heart to invite any true clarity. Not really. He lived, he was one of the most honorable and ethical men I’ve ever known, we made each other laugh, we trusted each other with our honesty, and he was as good a friend as I’ve ever had. And he died tragically by his own hand.

In “The Sun Also Rises”, one of Hemingway’s characters is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies, “Gradually, and then suddenly.”   I think for my friend, he must have concluded “gradually and then suddenly” that he could not go on living.   And there is no more to say about it. In my own attempt to understand it, I’ve lived with the” gradual” part for over a year.   I’m still waiting on the “suddenly” to happen.

As I have said, I will never and can never know the depths of despair he must have been in to have done this.   But I DO know that each of us at times has low points.  Even VERY low points when the world seems to be caving in on us. That’s just part of living life head-on, as so many of us do.

The work that I and so many of my friends do in the disability arena, whether for the greater good of the community, or only for the health and well-being of our own families and loved ones, is something that can take a toll.   It takes a toll when we see our efforts for change hitting a brick wall. Sometimes, hitting the same brick wall again and again and again.

Those efforts often take huge amounts of passion, energy, and time. It’s not that “The work” isn’t rewarding.

It is.

But it can also be depleting in so many ways. Staying healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally isn’t always easy.

So, regarding my friend, I still have no answers.

But I do know that there is this one thing I can say, and I can say it sincerely from the depths of my soul with every ounce of authenticity I can manage.

If you found your way here to this blog post, and have hung in there and read this far, the chances are pretty good that you are someone I care about. Maybe someone I care very, very deeply about.

I want you to know that “I am always here for you.”

If you will let me, “I am always here for you”.

If you need to get another person’s perspective on something, if you need to decompress, to cry, to vent, to curse the bastards, or just to howl at the moon, never EVER hesitate to reach out. Reach out. If not to me, find someone else who you love and trust, and reach out for help.

As for me, I can only promise that to the best of my ability, I will always hold you dear, and never forsake or abandon your friendship, even if we haven’t been in touch or close in some time.   And even if there are no immediate solutions to whatever problem or problems you are facing or think you are facing, you need to know that there are people who love you and need you and are willing to get down in the mud with you and stay there until it gets better.

And it can and will get better.

I only wish my friend had believed it. I wish I could have made him believe it.

I miss him.

“We are not here to see through each other.  We’re here to see each other through.”    






November 23, 2013
by John Shouse

one of the ponied few

“Hey Johnny, your parents are looking for you!”  My friend’s mother leaned over the railing, calling to me from her front porch, as a group of us were playing out on the sidewalk in front of her house.  I didn’t think much about what they might be wanting me for, as I said goodbye to my buddies and started to run home, cutting through their side yard, and the back yard of the house that was next-door to mine.  As I came around the neighbor’s big garage, I noticed an unfamiliar pick-up truck in my driveway, parked back behind our house.  There was a trailer attached to the truck, and my parents were standing there.  I think I probably slowed down a little.

It was the summer of 1965, between my third and fourth grade years at Eugene Field School, and I was 8 or 9 years old.   I say “8 or 9”, because my birthday is on August 2nd, and I really don’t recall if this was before or after my birthday.

What I do know for sure is there sat that truck and trailer.  Not just any trailer, but a horse trailer.

As I walked up to where my parents were standing, dad gave a nod towards the trailer and said, “Go on, take a look”.

Climbing up, standing on the running board of the horse trailer, I peered in.  Not surprisingly, there was a horse inside.

Only I WAS surprised.  Why was there a horse in our driveway?

Okay, to those in-the-know, it wasn’t a “horse” in the strictest sense of the word.  It was a pony.  A Shetland pony.  An American Shetland to be precise, with a dark brown coat and a much lighter mane.

“What do you think?” dad asked.  He paused just a few wordless seconds, and then said, “He’s yours”.

And just like that, I was in the club.  One of the few.

The ponied few.

“What?” I remember clearly that I was both confused and surprised by this revelation.  Dad said, “He’s yours.  What do you think?”

“He’s really nice!”  (Even then, I had a way with words)

There were probably a million questions that should have crossed my mind, though none of them did.  Questions like, “Where did he come from?” “Where’s he going to stay?”    “What’s he going to eat?” “Am I supposed to RIDE him?” (duh)  “Does he have a saddle?” And perhaps most importantly, “Why?”

Now, looking back on all of this through the lens of over four decades, I don’t think I’d ever told my parents I wanted a pony.  I’m pretty sure I hadn’t ever expressed much of an interest in ponies.  I’d never really been around horses or ponies that much.  Despite the fact that my hometown, Mexico, Missouri was known (quite proudly, by school kids all over town, and for generations) as “The Saddle-Horse Capital of the World.”, I’d never really had much to do with horses.  Oh, like everyone else I watched the finely-bred horses at the county fair each summer.  And when we’d visit my Pa-Pa Shouse on the farm, I sometimes rode old “Blaze”, his aged, sway-back work horse.    But did I have even a hint of a desire to become a horseman myself?  Nah, not really.  Not so much.

So, in hindsight, I can answer at least some of those questions I might have posed that day, though for some of them I still can’t.

  • Where did he come from?   I have no idea. Not a clue. For all I know, dad may have won him in a crap game.  The pony may have been ill-gotten booty.  (Not as far-fetched as you might think!)
  • Where was he going to stay?   At my brother-in-law Ron’s farm. I presume that may have been worked out in advance?  I’d hate to think he was as much of a surprise to Ron as he was to me!
  • What’s he going to eat?   The occasional bucket of oats, and lots of grazing on high-quality fescue.
  • Am I supposed to RIDE him?   Duh. (Though as we shall see, that proved to be more difficult than one might imagine).
  • Does he have a saddle?   No.  But there were some people who lived down the road from my brother-in-law who had a VERY snappy saddle (as you can see from the picture), and parents bought THAT for me too.
  • Most importantly, “Why?”

So yes …. WHY was I gifted a pony?   I’m not really sure.  That’s something I still wonder about from time-to-time. Sometimes I wonder about it a lot. Well, to be honest, it doesn’t keep me up nights, but I do wonder.  IF there’s an answer to that question, I AM pretty sure, “it’s complicated.”

I need to deal with this right here.  I was NOT a “spoiled” child.   I did not get everything I wanted.  I didn’t.   My siblings might disagree.   I am the “baby” in the family by a good margin.  When I was born, my siblings were 12, 14, and 16 years older than me.  So by my pony years, they were grown and for the most part out of the house, so at times it almost SEEMED like I was an only child.  But I was not that sort of a whiny spoiled brat that jumps to mind when you think of the kind of kid that gets a surprise pony.   If anything, I was really pretty much a “low-maintenance” kid.   Give me a Woolworths to browse in for a Matchbox car (or later a bookstore for the latest sci-fi paperback or Mad Magazine) and I was a happy camper of a kid.

So we headed out to Janet and Ron’s farm halfway between Mexico, MO and Paris, MO to unload the pony and get down to the business of being a horseman.  But first, that saddle.  I remember we stopped at a farm somewhere on the way out to Janet and Ron’s place, went to the barn with the man who lived there, and my folks bought a really snazzy saddle for my pony.  I remember how it looked, how it smelled, and how excited I was beginning to feel about the prospect of sitting in that saddle, high astride my steed as he thundered across the prairie.   (Do Shetlands thunder?  Does a fallow field beside the house count as “prairie?”)     We also got the rest of the tack… bridle, reins, etc.   And the various combs, brushes and grooming tools that one needs to keep your noble steed in tip-top shape.

Johnny_CowboyWe arrived at the farm, and got the pony out of the trailer. Dad and Ron went about showing me how to put on the saddle and tack, and it was time to ride.  As I put my foot in the stirrup, and mounted up, I did indeed feel like a cowboy.  Yes I did.  Sitting up there, looking down on the world around me, I could have been Roy Rogers on Trigger.  Or, Matt Dillon on his big bay horse.  Or, Woody on Bullseye, though I wouldn’t know that for another forty years. I was a cowboy.  I was a cowboy right up to the time that I nudged the pony in the flanks with my heels and said “Giddyup!” …. Startled, he bolted like he’d been shocked with a cattle prod and took off at whatever his top speed was.  It was fast enough.  Though I held on best I could, it was just a matter of seconds until THUD, I found myself lying on my back, staring up at the clouds.  Dad and Ron came running, but I was ok.  Just had the wind knocked out of me.  I tried again and again that day, but somehow that little pony just did NOT like to be ridden.

There was nothing to do, but to give up and try another day.  A day or so later, back out at the farm, we saddled him up, and I got up on the pony.  Same result.   Dad and Ron had the idea that one of THEM would ride the pony … you know … to “break” it so to speak. (snickering, chortling, or even a guffaw or two is OK here.)  I don’t know if they flipped a coin or what, but dad climbed on the Wild stallion of the Cimarron ….er, pony… and ZOOOM… it took off across the field.    Now, dad ALWAYS had on a white dress shirt with a necktie.  In his shirt pocket, there was always a pocket protector with a slide-rule, various pens, mechanical pencils, magnifying glasses, small screwdrivers (flat AND Philips), engineering reference books, used toothpicks, etc.  You know … regular “dad” stuff.  Sort of like I carry now.  Dressed thusly, astride and all-too-small Shetland Pony, he was quite a vision.

Somewhere mid-field the pocket protector decided it had enough of this wild ride and vacated dad’s pocket.  Not long after that, dad performed an “emergency high-speed dismount” himself.  I took no comfort in the fact that he didn’t seem to land any more gracefully than I had.

Eventually, we found most of the stuff from dad’s pocket protector, including ALL the important toothpicks.  But we NEVER found his prized, personalized, engraved Sheaffer pen, despite hours of looking. (As an aside, Janet just recently sold the farm, and I must admit there was a little bit of me that wanted to give that damn field ONE more scouring looking for that 47 year-old pen).

And that was basically the end of my cowboy days.  I tried a few more times, but the pony never caught on to how the game was played.   It was clearly the pony’s fault.

I never gave my pony a name.  Several years later, a movie came out called “The Culpepper Cattle Company”.   It was a pretty unremarkable film, a “coming of age” tale about a kid who wanted to be a cowboy, and who ends up on a cattle drive with a bunch of crusty old cow-hands.  There’s a wonderful line from the movie where the kid says to one of the cowboys, “Sure is a nice horse.  What’s his name?”  To which the cowboy replies, “Kid you don’t put a name on something you might have to eat.”   I’m pretty certain I never expected to have to eat my pony.  Still, I never gave it a name.   I had a dog with a name.  “Jumbo.”   He was a Chihuahua.    He got run over in traffic. Before long I got another Chihuahua, and gave him a perfectly logical name:  “Jumbo.”   I was nothing if not creative.   Unlike the singer in the band America, I never rode through the desert.  But just like him, my horse had no name.

Gifts given by fathers to their sons can be a tricky and complicated thing.   Sometimes it’s as much about dad and HIS hopes and dreams and private motives as it is about the sons and their desires and needs.  As a dad, I know this.   I’m self-aware enough to know that when I think about a gift for one of my boys, especially the random and spontaneous gifts, there’s a fair amount of “dad’s needs” in the mix.

So I have to wonder, did the gift pony meet some unspoken need for my dad?  Did he feel like he had wronged me in some way that a large unexpected gift would make up for?  (I sure hope not).  Did he just feel particularly generous?  Did some guy at “the plant” happen to offer, “Hey Shouse! I’ve got a pony for sale.  Bet that kid of yours would really like it”, and then dad thought “What the heck, why not?”   Or maybe (and this seems likely) we’d just been to the county fair, and perhaps he saw something in my eye as I gazed at the assembled stallions and mares and thought about cowboys.

But here’s the thing.   Given that the pony was not particularly enamored of being ridden, and that I did not have the patience or temperament to master the skills anyway, and given that he was 15 miles out of town and took a special effort to get to ride anyway, I soon lost interest in being part of the ponied crowd.

I don’t know how much longer I had that pony.  Not long.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances of how we came to rid ourselves of it.  One day we went to the farm to go fishing or something, and the pony was gone.  Just like that.  Now that I think about it, I don’t really want to know.

So now that I’m a dad myself, I can wonder this and understand the implications a bit of the sudden and unexpected gift of the pony, even if I don’t really know my dad’s exact motives.  Did the fact that I never really made it as a horseman disappoint my father?  Did he somehow see this all as a failure of mine?  Or of his?   Gosh I hope not.

In a fourth or fifth grade English Class, I was assigned to write a creative essay.  My mother kept that essay and laughed about it from time-to-time right up until she passed away.  It was entitled, “The Meanest Pony that Ever Lived”.   I don’t know what happened to it, but I sure wish I had a copy of that essay now.  Even though mom always laughed at my essay, (and about dad being thrown and losing his fancy Sheaffer pen), I don’t remember HIM laughing all that much.

However, I’ve said this before, and I have to say it again here.  He was the kindest, most generous and loving father a kid could hope for.  He had an amazingly quick wit, a sharp sense of the silly and sublime, and could always tell you a story to make you laugh.  He was so amazingly attentive to both mom and to me.   He always, always, always made time for me to make me feel special.

In Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages”, the two modes of giving and receiving love that resonate most deeply with me are Quality Time, and Words of Affirmation.  When I think about my father, I guess I’m kind of amazed at how deeply he knew this about me, and that he was very intentional and intuitive about how he showed that love every day.  So, I can forgive him if sometimes on the spur of the moment, he ventured over into the “Gifts Given” realm.  And maybe I can forgive myself if I wasn’t as appreciative of the rather surprising gift of a pony as I might have been.

Still, there’s a little boy somewhere down deep inside struggling to channel my inner cowboy for the entire world to see.  Every time that little boy gets a hankerin’ to put on his chaps, the geeks that live a little higher up the food chain of my psyche are right there to give him a good beat-down.  Can’t help but think a pony might help.

 Ride like the wind, Bullseye!



August 5, 2013
by John Shouse

monkey lust at the county fair

The boy just stood there transfixed, watching.  The little monkey danced up and down, moving gracefully back and forth along the smooth wooden railing.  The monkey gave a little hop, then sort of a pirouette.  Then he skipped back to the far edge of the counter from where he had started.  The boy followed his every move.  The monkey spun around, paused for a second to look at the boy, and he jumped and seemed to cock his head a little to one side. Then he started the whole choreographed routine all over again. With his tiny red vest, green and white striped pants and tasseled fez he seemed like he might actually start chattering in conversation with the boy at any moment.

“Come on kid, take me home” the monkey said, “You know you want to”.   The boy was mesmerized by the monkey’s gaze,  looking RIGHT at him.  Only the monkey’s words weren’t meant as friendly conversation. They were taunting, a challenge to the boy’s willpower.  “Take me home.  Bet you can’t!  Just TRY to take me home.  Bet you can’t!  I could dance for you at home!   Take me home, if you can!”

The monkey wasn’t REALLY saying anything of course.  He wasn’t even actually looking at the boy. He wasn’t looking at anything.  I know that for a fact.

I know it because it wasn’t even a real monkey.

And I know it because the boy was me.

It was just a small stuffed toy monkey with a plastic face.  About eight inches tall.  A toy monkey with an elastic string holding him to a thin bamboo stick about two and a half feet long.

A monkey on a stick.

And I wanted it.  Bad.

The bamboo stick was in the hand of the carnival midway ring-toss barker.  He’d twitch and flick that bamboo, masterfully making the toy monkey dance like it really was alive.

“Come on folks, step right up!  Ring the bottle and win a prize!”

The barker’s words, combined with the monkey’s imagined taunts were getting to me. I did want to take him home.  I was beginning to want to take him home more than I’d ever wanted anything before.    I was probably about 8 or 9 years old.  It was the Audrain County Fair in Mexico, Missouri, and my home town.   Family, friends, and pretty much everyone in town simply referred to it as “The Fair”.

As I write these words, it’s a hot, sticky, and humid August night in 2013, decades removed from my experiences at “The Fair”, but a night so similar to what those nights were like back then.  The poster for the 1954 fair states that it was the 65th Audrain County Fair.  Presumably they’d been holding the fair since the late 1880’s.    But times change, and the Audrain County Fair is no more.  The old fairgrounds of my youth are long gone.  I have to admit the fact that the fairgrounds and grandstand, and “The Fair” itself  are gone, makes me a bit sad now as I look back on those memories.   But back then, the Audrain County Fair was an annual late-summer ritual, and very few people in our town didn’t attend at least one night of the fair.   A last hurrah in August, before the kids all headed back to school a few weeks later.

Audrain County Fair poster - 1954

Audrain County Fair poster – 1954

It was a big deal.  A very, very big deal indeed.  It was always such a great bunch of fun, and though my memory may be wrong, it seemed like it went on for a whole week.  It was several consecutive nights anyway.  I got to go every single night, because my dad was always there helping with the lights, sound, and all the electric service to the whole fairgrounds.  Because Mexico Missouri was known as “The Saddle Horse Capitol of the World”, the horse shows and harness races were always a central part of what we watched from the grandstand. And what a grand old place too, the grandstand. To a child like me, it seemed absolutely huge, like it must have held thousands upon thousands of fair-goers. In reality this was unlikely, as the whole town’s population was about eleven thousand, give or take a little.  The old grandstand was partially made up of box seats which sat under the night sky, and partially comprised of bleachers that extended back and up under a broad, high roof.

Even though the horse events were central to the whole fair experience, my favorite of the main events were the nights that Aut Swensen’s Thrillcade of stunt drivers and roaring new Ford cars would come to the fair.  Up they’d go, on two wheels, or jumping ramps, or skidding to a sliding sideways stop right in front of the crowd.  DANG!  All the while, my heart was pounding; mind racing wondering if there was going to be an unexpected rollover.  All leading up to the big finale, when the grandstand lights would dim a bit, and an old car with all windows busted out would speed around the track at a breakneck speed with engine roaring loud, as the announcer asked people to PLEASE REMAIN SILENT for the sake of the driver … (but actually just for dramatic effect of course), and eventually that old car would hit the ramp and sail into the night, passing through a hoop of fire as the whole grandstand would rise as one to their feet, as the old car would “T-Bone” into a pile of other old cars they’d lined up some hundred yards away.  Ok, so it was probably more like 50 feet, but it SEEMED like a hundred yards. Then moments after the old car crashed, all the other Swensen support staff would come racing out to the crash site to see if the driver was ok. There would be a moment’s hesitation …. The announcer would ask, “Is he OK boys?  Is he ok???  Everyone please remain where you are!”  and you thought maybe, just maybe TONIGHT it had all gone horribly wrong and the driver was seriously hurt… maybe even dead!   But then, he’d come sliding out of the car’s side window, leap up with arms raised to a thunderous ovation.  DANG!  It was all as much showmanship as skilled precision driving, but I loved the stunt show most of all. And I would replay that final T-Bone jump thousands of times in the days immediately after the fair with my matchbox cars, with my imaginary driver ALWAYS escaping unharmed.   What I wouldn’t give to be there again, smelling the gasoline and oil, the burning rubber, the cigarette smoke in the grandstands, and hearing the roar of the engines AND the crowd, watching those amazing ramp jumps, and wondering if the driver was safe.

But the fair was much more than just the main grandstand headline events. There were the arts & crafts under the grandstand, quilts and paintings and of course the homemade jams, jellies, and preserves.  Then there was a full array of concessions with the sno-cones, the sodas, the corn-dogs, cotton candy, the peanuts in the shell, popcorn… etc.  Cotton Candy was always a sticky disappointment. Peanuts in the shell … eh, so what?  Not a big fan of the sno-cones, they always ended up melting and dripping all over me.  I might get a little daring and sample a few of those things, but mostly I was a corn-dog man. Still am.   (Ok, side note.  True Mexicoans know that the corn-dog at the fair was only a sad, sad imitation of the Kwiki from the Dairy Pride.  This is a post for another day, but here just let me point out that to say a Kwiki is just a Corn Dog is to say the Sistine Chapel ceiling is just a “mural”)

At the east end of the grandstand, there was a beer concession.  I think it was run by the Lion’s Club.  I loved hanging out around there where the older guys would stand around and drink beer in longneck bottles, shooting the breeze with one another, laughing loud at the latest story or dirty joke that someone had to tell.  And that SMELL….the smell of beer soaked wet sawdust on the ground.   I can remember exactly what it smelled like even today, almost five decades later.

Even though I was a “townie”, and was never in 4-H or any agriculture activities, I had friends and relatives who were farmers, so it was always a big deal to go back behind the grandstand to the livestock tents and pens to see the prize cows, hogs, sheep, etc…    There was a smell there too, mostly manure and urine-soaked straw, but believe it or not, I remember that smell fondly as well.

Then there was the Carnival.  Of course it had the usual rides:  the Octopus (which I had regular nightmares about along with the evil teacher that made us ride it to our deaths, but that’s also story for another day), the Tilt-A-Whirl, the Merry-go-round with music blaring, the Ferris wheel.  My favorite, though, was always the Scrambler.  And I could ride that one until I myself was quite scrambled. There were the sideshows with “Freda the Frog Girl” and so many more.  Of course there was the “fun house” with its mild frights, crooked floors, wavy mirrors and flashing lights.  And finally, the games of “skill”…  heavy bottles you could try to knock over with baseballs, dart-throw to pop balloons, the shooting gallery, the cranes with which you would turn a hand crank to attempt to snag “fabulous prizes”, and the floating ducks to grab that had numbers printed on the bottom which corresponded to some unnecessary and highly disposable plastic prize.   And then, rounding it all out, complete with that taunting monkey on a stick, there was ring toss.

RingTossHere’s the deal.  There were Coke bottles with brightly painted necks on a tiered platform in the center of the tent, which was open to the public (except for that railing) on three sides.  The worker behind the rail would give you your small plastic rings, 3 for a quarter, 7 for fifty cents, or 15 for a dollar.  All you had to do was throw a ring over the neck of the bottle, and you were a winner.  Sounds easy.  The ring *did* fit over the bottle neck, but only just.

Along the back wall was an array of prizes you could choose from, based on the color of the bottle you’d ringed, ranging from trinkets (small prize) up to transistor radios (large prize!).   Somewhere in the middle of the “spectrum” of potential prizes was my monkey on a stick.

And I wanted one.  Bad.

At that age, my money came from dad just handing me over a few bucks to spend that night on rides, food, and the games.

I don’t know how many bucks I spent to win that monkey, but it might have involved additional trips back to dad to scrounge another buck or so.  It might have involved multiple nights of attempting to ring the right bottle.  Multiple nights, which just caused my Monkey Lust to grow even stronger and more all-consuming.

Eventually I won the monkey.  I rushed to find my parents back in the grandstand to make the big revelation of my heroics, but for some reason they weren’t nearly as impressed as I thought they should be.  “Mom, dad!  I won the monkey!!”  Mom probably smiled, and Dad probably said something like, “Hey, that’s keen!”  But I knew they were just patronizing me. Still, I was undaunted.  I knew this was no small accomplishment.  So I sat there beside them for the rest of the night, bouncing that monkey up and down on its elastic string while they watched the night’s horse events.  In my hands, the monkey didn’t actually “dance” so much as just spring up and down.  Not as lifelike as it had seemed while taunting me earlier in the evening.  Even after I took it home and tried to make it dance over the next few days, it still never really looked life-like at all.  And it had completely given up on taunting me.  Instead, pretty quickly it began to look like exactly what it was.  A stupid plastic-faced  monkey on a stupid elastic string stapled to a stupid bamboo stick.

Somehow it never occurred to me that the carnival barker had been bouncing that monkey up and down on that string every night of each summer in towns all throughout the Midwest.  Maybe for years. He had undoubtedly logged hundreds, maybe THOUSANDS of hours of Monkey Bouncing.  No wonder he’d made it seem so easy.

He was an expert monkey-bouncer, and I wasn’t ever going to be as good at it as he was.

Pretty soon the elastic string broke.  The monkey got relegated to the bottom of the toy-box and mostly just forgotten.    I took the bamboo stick outside, and used it to whack plastic army men off their feet during “explosions” in the heat of battle against an unseen enemy.   Before long, the bamboo stick splintered, and it got thrown away.

That was almost fifty years ago.

But I’ve had lots of monkeys taunt me the through the years.

I find that despite my best intentions, and all my “grown-up” wisdom and the sage advice I’m capable of imparting to my kids, I still occasionally find myself lusting after some new monkey on stick.  Through the years, those monkeys on sticks take the form of maybe a faster more powerful computer.  Or a new iPad.  Or a mountain bike.  Or a new set of golf-clubs, or a new guitar or ….. well, you know.   Despite how all that might read,  I’m not really a particularly materialistic person.  Really, I’m not.    However, sometimes that little boy in me raises his head and starts to look around when he starts to hear the sounds of some new monkey dancing.  (A Tesla!!  Hey!!  I need a new Tesla!!)   I know in my head that  just like that first monkey on a stick, the having never equals the wanting.    But the heart is not the head.

Some kids never learn.

But here’s the thing.  I can close my eyes and before you know it, I’m back at the fair.  The Audrain County Fair.  The sounds, the smells, the tastes, the flashing lights, the ramp-jumping cars, the feel of the wooden seats in the Grandstand, worn-down smooth by years and years of crowds watching the Saddle-Horse events.  The dancing monkeys.   I’m nine years old again, and there’s no place else that I’d rather be on this hot and sticky August night.


I knew if I had my chance
I could make that monkey dance

And maybe I’d be happy for a while.
But not really.
(with apologies to Don McLean)