Happy Thanksgiving! 2020 has been a year nobody will forget, a year with many trials, tribulations and tests of the human spirit. Because of all the uncertainty, it humbles and amazes me even more that so many of you were able and willing to help me in my cause of raising money for kids’ cancer research through the Great Cycle Challenge. In all, $14,830,926 was raised nationwide for the cause, which took place in September (moved from June). My statistics are below my list of incredible donors, which I grouped so I could put in paragraph form. There are proud St. Albans Red Dragons that I put in other categories, some twice mentioned, and I’m hoping I didn’t overlook anyone. My most heartfelt, sincere thanks to ALL willing to contribute to this important cause! I am truly blessed with incredible friends, family, and neighbors! God Bless!
Heroes who donated and have sadly departed since September: Pat Paxton and Uncle Al Taylor, both SAHS graduates, ’78 and ’66, respectively.
My friends and spouses of my Fallen Inspirations: Carrie (Cherry) Knapp & Hollis Claypool.
Family: Ruth & Alan Spradling, Lisa (Parsons) & Bruce Lawson, Cheryl (Barnes) & Bobby McClain, Kelli (Gillispie) and Eric Smith, Aaron Johnson, David & Robin Young, and at home: Myssy, Evan, Audrey & Claire Spradling.
Lakewood Pool Family: Michael & Rachel Ervin of Coal River Coffee Company, Coach Rex & Diana Thaxton, Robin & Guy Turturice.
Shelton College Review Writers Group (and guitar, riding partner): Larry and Jenny (Andrews) Ellis.
SA Hall of Fame and Library Board Committees: Dr. Randy and Randi Robinson, Mike Eakle, Dale Withrow.
Gateway Christian Church Family: Jennifer Hall, Bette Hilbert.
Epic Athletes: Bill Posey, Steve Vorholt.
Treasured UC Golden Eagles friends: John Carroll, Sandy Manou Rohr.
Always Supportive Riverbend Neighbors: Art & Loraine Postelwaite, Leanne & Matt Holley, Barbara & Rodney Holley, Pam Billups, Bertha & T.H. Bellamy, Bud Newbrough, Tara & Craig Lane, Jim Carpenter, David & Robin Young.
SAHS Classmates and friends of my sister Kelly (’79) AND MINE: Tina Slavin Tape, Terri (Johnkoski) & Mark Phipps, Joe Armstrong, Derek & Anita Watson, Dana & Lisa Miller, Jimmy Gilmore, Dave DeCarlo, Susan (Keene) Bowling, Carrie McGrath McCormick.
Red Dragons (and SA teachers) before and after me: Doctor John Burdette, Lynn McGraw, Amy Duncan, Kim & Jason Rogers, Emma Hindman.
Parents of Classmates and Teammates: Susie Shope, Pam Billups, Richard Vincent.
Friends and fellow Red Dragons while I was in the building: Carin Miles, Jane Weiford Sneed, Karen Fulmer Cebular, Whitney & Scott Vincent.
Mighty St. Albans High Class of 1982 – Barry & Beth Thaxton, Ray & MaryBeth Epperly,Tim (Andy & Bruce) Moss, Eric & Becky Minsker, Pat & Lu Ann Austin, Stephanie “Robin” Shoemaker, Cindy Shope-Strock, Kelli (Hill) & John Kukura, Carla (Slack) VanWyck, Lisa (Sayre) Mollohan, Erica (Wilder) & John Boggess, Kelli & Eric Smith, Jennifer (Hawkins) & Daryl Smith, Diana (Lilly) & Mike Kitts.
3 anonymous donors.
Total raised: $5,319.76, 1st in West Virginia (second year running), 102nd in United States. Goal was $3,000. Matched on match day: $308.74. Miles ridden: 777.7. Goal was 750. Rides in September: 27. Longest: 38.5. Shortest 20. Rides on flat-assed Hilton Head Island: 10. Rides over 30 miles: 12. Hours in the saddle: 57. Two-year GCC totals: 1,404 miles ridden, $8,330.39 raised.
Jody Jividen and I were, on one hand, similar and likeminded: both fierce competitors who loved basketball, and on that same hand we both had a deep affinity for music. On the other we were polar opposites. He’d known what he wanted from an early age. He was born to be a sportswriter. He was passionate. As a youth, he would write about games he watched on T.V. – unfortunately he was a life-long Detroit Lions devotee. As a Dunbar High scribe, Chuck Landon took him to the Charleston Daily Mail newsroom for his indoctrination into real journalism. He knew the Marshall J-School was the place for him. There he could run cross country, attend class, and work at The Parthenon – day and night, driven, focused. He, like so many of his friends there, immersed himself into that world: running, writing, and “occasionally” drinking a beer. Nothing else mattered.
I was a walking contradiction. A couple months after accepting a position at the DM, hired by the great Sam Hindman for the 5 a.m. obituaries shift, I gave up my basketball scholarship at The University of Charleston. Three knee injuries before my 19th birthday, one on each leg as a freshman, left me, in my mind, less athletic than I needed to be to continue. I wish I’d talked to Yod about it before I threw in the towel. I was frustrated, but not finished. I imagine now one of those classic scenes with him, where he’d been mostly quiet for an hour or two then suddenly a topic would strike a nerve in him and he’d begin pontificating loudly, animated, long arms flailing. Then as quickly as he started he’d stop. You’d be sitting there wide-eyed, hair blown back from his outburst. “You only have one window, one chance. Dig deeper,” he might have said. I was a Secondary Education/English major because I wanted to coach basketball. Basketball was my only passion to that point. Without it I spiraled out of control.
I’d worked at The Ghost Ship Restaurant in Murrells Inlet, S.C., the summer before being hired, and turned down an internship with the DM to go back to the beach life in ‘84. I returned to the Daily Mail by late August. In early September, after covering a Friday night high school football game, followed by obits on early Saturday, I sped back weary and bleary-eyed to Garden City for a weekend visit but the world grew eerily overcast. I was in the evacuation traffic line and then, prompted by DM Managing Editor Bob Kelly saying “Hell no don’t leave!This is the biggest story of the year,” I chased Hurricane Diana up the coast to Wilmington where she touched down the next evening. Hurricanes were apparently few and far between back then, it had been twenty years since one had hit the coast, and thirty since Hazel. The effort earned me my headshot and some front page bylines “above the fold,” and for a few days, some teeth. That wouldn’t continue. “You’re only as good as your last story,” Yod would tell me.
That fall and winter Jody and I began playing basketball together, and I started dropping by the famed-garage apartment for games on T.V., or to listen to music: any excuse to have a brew. I couldn’t guess how many dozens of times I – many of us, I’m sure – stood outside his door as the stereo blasted, waiting for the song to end so he could hear the knock. He’d be at the kitchen table punching out a story with the volume on ten, the windows and walls vibrating. Then he’d have to turn it off, and quietly, gingerly tip-toe around to send his story on one of those early model, sound-recognition modems. He’d have it, a lamp, his phone, the laptop, perched on a flimsy, metal T.V. stand. His living room had two full-sized couches, both completely covered with stacks of magazines, books, albums, running shoes – the floor equally covered. Yod would laboriously bend and move a few mounds so a game could be watched – he had to do it, there was a system. I remember at some point in those months him telling me, “When I meet someone I ask myself the question, ‘Could I take a long car trip with this person?’ “
I guess I met his criteria. As winter turned to spring, and because he was taking three weeks off and none of his college mates had that luxury at 26 years of age, 27 by trip time – I’m sure one of his weeks was saved comp time, a DM reward for killing yourself seven days a week as a beat writer during football season – we began talking about me going with him. Even for someone as blessedly-disheveled as me, you can’t just jump into the car for a three-week trip morning of. There has to be some planning. As a student doing in-school class observation that year, I helped Gary Osborne coach basketball at Hayes Junior High AND advised the St. Albans High School yearbook staff. I decided I wouldn’t go back to the beach with my friends because I’d have to quit my job soon after July 4th, which I didn’t think would fly, although it would have made raising the cash for the trip easier. Plus logistically it didn’t bode well for leaving with him. Not that my scenario mattered to him. He was going alone if necessary. He just wouldn’t have been able to do as much without a second driver – or, knowing him, he would have pushed himself beyond safe limits. So, I earned money – we figured we needed at least $500 each – off by hundreds – working small construction jobs for a cousin, Johnny Johnson. One of my former teachers, and my pastor, Ross Harrison, who also got me the yearbook gig, which continued well into June, coached me into my first major non-essential purchase. I’d bought my Alvarez six-string and my Mazda truck (which he also sold me) – both priorities. For the trip I acquired a Cannon A-E1 Program 35-mm camera, two lenses, flash, bag, 30 rolls of film, by applyingfor a Montgomery Ward credit card and charging it. It was that June that I created the oft-used double exposure pic of Jody, taken in his apartment, created in the SAHS darkroom due to my yearbook affiliation.
Jody was a national park buff, I learned, and seeing as many as possible was his goal. He had the major stopping points picked out. Others we ad-libbed. As always, with him, I usually learned something. I really didn’t know that there were so many giant redwood trees out west – trees you could drive a car through – or that there was a Mount Whitney in California, and that it had “The highest elevation – 14,000 feet – of the lower 48 states,” as he pointed out to me. I’d been on six AAU trips west, the farthest to Oklahoma. But like so many young men who came to the newsroom before and after me, I gobbled up his words as gospel, soaked them in like a sponge. He was a mentor, through and through, willing to the share pearls of wisdom he acquired through astute professionalism. As the date approached, July 20, with a scheduled return date of August 10 – seven days before my sister was to be married (August 17, 1985, Happy 35th Anniversary) – we were all set. First leg, no agenda, a sprint to and through Texas and New Mexico to the Petrified Forest and Painted Dessert, Arizona, approximately 1,776 miles. Quite patriotic-sounding, I believe, to begin our tour of America. After our symbolic “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” stop, we headed northwest to the Grand Canyon, to hike the seven miles in to observe the cause, the mighty Colorado River.
Maybe it was naivety, maybe it was his belief in our strength, but from the South Rim we headed down the switchbacks in the July sun armed ONLY WITH A CAN OF COKE EACH. Yod was a Coke man. No food. Not a Slim Jim or a bag of peanuts. So excited to get there, we hadn’t planned. So eager to start, we couldn’t drive back out for supplies – the guest amenities were not as sophisticated as they are now. Thankfully there was a water fountain down at the bottom, five miles in, a little oasis of hope with some greenery, and a stretch oftrees, around it. Proof something could grow in the desert with enough water. Unlike running down an asphalt hill, descending the dirt trail was easy. Which probably gave me false confidence – me and my low top Chuck Taylors, probably no socks, shorts, T-shirt and a North Carolina Tar Heels hat.
The only other souls down there were two French-speaking young men who we avoided. They weren’t going the additional two miles to the rim, as we were, anyway. And it was awe inspiring. Truly breathtaking. However, with the late-afternoon sun beating down on us, the switchbacks became grisly. I tried to ration the can of water I carried but I soon realized I was drier than the dirt we were dredging through. Completely dehydrated. I stepped off the trail behind a rock to attempt to vomit some bile. Did my pointless retching echo through the canyon? No. But in my mind, I imagined how embarrassing and humiliating it would be if they had to pick me up – dead, or near it – and haul me out, slung over a donkey’s back. And THEN I began to lose it. Five miles, switchbacks, uphill all the way. Finally, the sun began to wane, and as the temperature thankfully dropped into the 90s, I was able to catch my second wind and make it back to the top. Yod was stoic. His long strides unfailing. He was a runner, tucking pain away like a sweaty bandana. Somewhere on the last few switchbacks a park ranger stood. He saw me, shook his head, and began to laugh.
Author’s note: In July and August, 35 years ago, I tagged along with Jody Jividen, a great friend, on a three-week tour of the western United States. We packed in as much living as we could in those 21 days. But it wasn’t the beginning, or the end, of our history. This is the first of several installments of our story. Thanks for reading, A.S.
It was 2:35 a.m., a spark of adrenaline – maybe from the Eagles’ Desperado album in the tape deck, an acoustic whirling dervish – I’m seeing the Tasmanian Devil – juxtaposed by its slower-paced, soulful lyrics – was giving me a much-needed rush. I was pushing Jody Jividen’s Toyota Corolla to the limit, teasing time with my miles per hour – a MINIMUM of 150 miles every two hours – from rural Montana into South Dakota. On that leg it was probably more like 190 miles – or 85 mph. Open road. I was “21 and strong as I could be.” We were invincible. Bulletproof.
I was just digging for my next tape, maybe CCR’s Greatest Hits, maybe Jimmy Buffett’s One Particular Harbor, when word came over the radio that the two-day Major League Baseball strike was over. “Yod,” short for Yoda, and I were nearing the completion of what would be a 21-day, 8,500-mile circle-the-country jaunt. I woke my long-legged, slumbering friend with the news.
“The strike is over.”
He squinted, then swallowed as the news sank in.
“Kansas City here we come!” was his response. Followed by, in his drawn, Eeyore-of-Whinnie-The-Pooh-voice, after getting his bearings from the road signs whizzing by, “Damn. You’ve covered some ground.”
I was broke, we were exhausted, and probably beginning to tire of each other’s company, but we plotted a course to the border of Kansas-Missouri through Nebraska for the onset of the 1985 MLB season. The Royals were hosting the Detroit Tigers. It was Thursday, August 8, 1985.
Significant to this was that on July 28, we watched the St. Louis Cardinals defeat the Padres in San Diego, 4-2. Despite Steve Garvey going 3-for-4 at the plate, effortlessly flicking two doubles with his “Popeye” forearms and wrists, and Tony Gwynn quietly getting two hits, the Cardinals used their speed and their slap-bunting ability to leg out hits and keep the bases occupied for the winning margin. Centerfielder Willie McGee (three hits, two runs, a stolen base), catcher Darrell Porter (home run, three RBI), Lonnie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Ozzie Smith provided the highlights of the day. Vince Coleman was unusually quiet at leadoff (0-5). John Tudor earned the win to improve to 12-8 on the season. The game was played on grass and dirt, on a perfect southern California Sunday afternoon.
Before and between those two dates we’d made a lifetime of memories, some of which I will return to: Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park, a corner in Winslow, Arizona, the Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, and Death Valley. We hiked seven miles into – and seven miles out of – the Grand Canyon; climbed to 12,000 feet of Mount Whitney, California, visited Sequoias National Park, Giant Redwood National Park, San Diego Zoo, crashed a Jimmy Buffett at San Diego State, visited Charleston, West Virginia native and Los Angeles Rams All-Pro lineman Denny Harrah’s bar in Long Beach, and gravitated to UCLA’s on-campus Basketball Museum. We swam in the Pacific Ocean, hiked to the Falls of Yosemite National Park, traveled the Pacific Coast Highway, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, posed with a John Steinbeck Cannery Row road sign in Monterey, knocked some brews back at Clint Eastwood’s original Hog’s Breath Inn at Carmel. Yod ran Pre’s (Steve Prefontaine) Trail in Eugene, Oregon, we drove into Washington State for our United States top-left-corner-turn, then on an eastern trek Yellowstone and Old Faithful, Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custard’s Last Stand.
That’s a tough paragraph just to write. Imagine doing it all in three weeks.
As we rolled into Kansas City, bought our tickets (I did have my parents’ credit card for emergencies) and watched batting practice – we didn’t know, how could we know? – that we were seeing our second World Series team of that year – the participants of the 1985 I-70 Series.
I first met Jody in December of 1980. in the minutes following my third high school basketball game, the opening round of the Capitol City Classic, a Christmas Tournament. I’d come off the bench to drop in 10 points in a low-scoring affair, helping to seal a 54-51 victory over rival South Charleston. I did it with some deft, long-range shooting (4-for-5 from the floor). He was covering the game as a Charleston Daily Mail sportswriter (article at bottom).
Everything about Jody was memorable. His long legs, the lumbering, giraffe-like gait, his thick-plastic, teardrop glasses, his black hair, his tenacity, his humor, his ability, on that evening, to get a 16-year-old to open up, and the next day, upon reading his story, his incredible writing talent. Not that I was a proper judge. I was a junior and had sat out the previous season with a serious knee injury. He capitalized on the obvious angle, and also somehow opened me up – had me speaking in similes.
Three years later I would be working with him as an hourly employee in the Daily Mail newsroom, obituaries, and then on to sports. Our cubicles weren’t ten feet from each other. But my world took many turns. I didn’t finish college until I was 31. But after sixteen years of trials, in 1996, he was the sports editor – the Boss – of the DM sports department. I was hired as one of his beat writers, covering his alma mater, The Marshall University Thundering Herd, at the most pivotal point of their history since the ’70 plane crash. So much water had gone under our bridge by then, our friendship continuing to grow. We had much history already, but there would be plenty more.
Looking back, it was a situation comedy writers would struggle to dream up, wrought with “No Luck” humor and tragic undertones. But, from it, I made a more-than-memorable acquaintance.
Myssy and I were invited to spend four or five days in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, at the oceanfront home of my brother-in-law’s new wife’s father. Let that sink in: my brother-in-law’s new wife’s father. We lost my sister, Kelly, in 2000. She and Chip have two kids, Chloe and Logan, who were nine and six when she passed. A couple of years later, Chip was remarried to Marcy. At the time of the invitation, we had three small children: Evan, Audrey, and Claire. Chip and Marcy had a new boy, Brooks, and another on the way.
We love Marcy. We attended their intimate wedding on Daufuskie Island, and tried to keep the kids familiar and seeing each other as much as possible, though we lived four hours apart before they moved to Texas. Still, crashing the beach house was bringing the relationship to a new, potentially-uncomfortable level.
We arrived around noon on Saturday, meeting out for a casual seafood lunch. “Cappy” Cox, Marcy’s father, was spending the weekend on one of his boats up-coast, we learned. That evening I manned the grill, and we team-fed our large group – one of Chip’s sisters, Cindy, and her two daughters were there as well – a fun, relaxing dinner. I consumed a couple of beers, nothing to speak of for me.
Except that after we all went to bed – they’d given us Cappy’s master bedroom and bath – I became violently ill. Repeatedly ill, throughout the entire night. What was going on? I wasn’t food-poisoned – no one else was sick. Dawn came and I was empty but in excruciating discomfort. I couldn’t move without pain. I was given Phenergan to relieve my nausea symptoms, which were long passed, though it did help me get some rest. But by noon or so, yes, Mys touched my abdomen, vaulting me off the bed in pain. “Get your flops on” was her response.
Why, in all the days of my life – and they multiply out quickly – why this one day for an incident of this magnitude to occur? It couldn’t have been a more disruptive, un-fortuitous time.
Forty-five minutes after entering the doors of Carteret Medical Center, my appendix was being extracted. It was described as “gangrenous and ready to burst” by the doctor who removed it, a near-miss that could have led to weeks in a hospital bed. I felt so much better afterwards I would have kissed the man, given the opportunity. Chip and the kids came to visit me. Sitting by my bed, he was giddy with relief, the shared affection sort of forgotten territory for us both. He and Kelly were high school sweethearts, and he was like a big brother to me.
But, I was forty-four years old. Why, in all the days of my life – and they multiply out quickly – why this one day for an incident of this magnitude to occur? It couldn’t have been a more disruptive, un-fortuitous time. I pondered the trip down. My back was twinging with a little pain, but nothing more. I wrote it off as driving fatigue. No signs of what was about to happen.
I was released on Tuesday and had to gingerly keep myself dry for the rest of our stay. Sitting poolside with my legs in the water was my only plunge. Cappy, a quick-witted, lover of good times, had returned and ultimately found great humor in my condition. We toasted future health. I was able to join him and the group on a bumpy boat ride for lunch the following day, observing the majestic wild horses of the Outer Banks on the way.
As we packed to leave, Cappy assured me I was welcome to return, as long as I had a thorough physical examination before I came. Chip, Marcy and the kids ran out and had the above T-shirt made for me, “I left my appendix in Atlantic Beach.”
Cappy was his grandfather’s tag, for being the larger-than-life captain of his boats. It fit his personality well. I saw him a few more times through the years. He was always quick to smile, and to make others laugh. He lit up the room. He loved his daughters and all his grandkids immensely. On this day, he is being memorialized in his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, gone at 71. Richard “Cappy” Cox, you were one of a kind, and you will be greatly missed.
With the current racial issues dominating the headlines following George Floyd’s murder and funeral, and now the weekend shooting of Rayshard Brooks, I’m reminded of a scene from my second novel, The Lost Lantern, a book ultimately about racial harmony.
The novel takes place partially in the 1960s, but mostly in mid-1980s Myrtle Beach and Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina. In the scene, William McMillian, a black man, takes his white friend John Gates to a coastal point on government-owned wetlands for an important discussion. William has often come to the spot throughout his life to contemplate issues and consider important decisions. There is a single tree along the shoreline, its branches all growing to the west, the result of a perpetual ocean wind. William has just received the most devastating news of his life, the aftermath of racial injustice.
Here’s the excerpt:
“I’ve done a lot of thinking here, John. I know I’m not a great philosopher, but I’ve had some good moments at this spot. Times when I just had to get away from our neighborhood, or get away from Danny’s (restaurant), from cleanin’ it and keeping the kitchen running right. I’ve been here late at night, with a full moon out there over the water… so beautiful, stars so clear and bright. And all I could think about was how great God is, and how wonderful this world could be.
I’ve thought about those branches. The branches of that tree… as black people. And the wind is white people. Whenever a branch starts to grow into the wind, or fight back, the wind picks up stronger, or shifts, until over time, the branch can’t do nothin’ but turn and join the other branches… defeated. If it doesn’t turn, eventually it’ll break. And it will fall and die.” – William McMillian, The Lost Lantern.
When I wrote this I believed that the prevailing racial winds had changed since 1987. And I still do. Opportunity – and oppression – are becoming colorblind. In my opinion there is a small percentage of whites living in the past, unfortunately with the ability and position to exercise incredible ignorance and stupidity. I still believe we live in the greatest country in the world, that we will continue to grow and get through all of this – together. We need faith, hope, kindness, and love. Maybe that’s naïve and not hard-hitting. But it’s fundamental. With fundamentals, you need repetition.
Last June I was humbled by the generosity of a great number of friends and family members who supported me financially and with continued encouragement in The Great Cycle Challenge. Nationally over $8 million was raised by some 15,000 riders for children’s cancer research, and personally, after riding a bicycle 603 miles for the month, we raised just over $3,000 – No. 1 in the state of West Virginia and in the top 230 in the nation!
Those totals came after more modest goals – 500 miles and $1,000 – were originally proposed. Because, after returning to work in March, I rode a total of only 62 miles in March, April and May in (lack of) preparation – no base from which to build upon. Ol’ friend Matt Mandeville shamed me into upping my mileage goal (putting his money where his mouth is), even though I was essentially starting from scratch and having to ride little chippy 14 to 20 milers initially while I got my legs, lungs and big arse in better shape. In truth, I had no idea what to expect concerning donations. My brother Barry Thaxton got it started – maybe the donations rolled in more heavily when it appeared I could actually exceed half my goal. LOL.
Why did I do it? One, WE ARE BLESSED! How can I not do something? Two, eradicating all cancer is the true goal – my sister and three of my closest friends have been taken from us – but a child suffering and losing that battle is especially heart-wrenching and incomprehensible. We’ve seen that the fear and uncertainty involved in a child being diagnosed is beyond devastating. I pray this can help end that. We need hope! Three, I was gifted a worthy bike by a special person – Rich Harper, proprietor of John’s Cyclery. I feel I must continue to do what I can to pay his generosity forward. If you care to read that story, please click on: https://andrewspradling.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/immeasurable-kindness/
This spring, I was able to ride 476 miles in March, April, and May – the last six on Hilton Head Island yesterday – and am prepared to attempt 188 miles a week to reach 750 for the month (800 would feel REALLY good). Optimistically, I set my fundraising goal where we left off last year – $3,000. To put the mileage in perspective, I flirted with these numbers 28 years ago (at 28-years-old), when Derek Watson got me hooked and we rode nearly every day – and were occasionally joined by fitness legends Rick Robinson and Dave Walker.
Unfortunately, like everything else, due to Covid-19, The Great Cycle Challenge has been postponed until September. This creates a degree of uncertainty for my participation at that level. Myssy suggested better lights and 4:30 a.m. starts – not the worst idea safety-wise. I will keep you posted and with the help of health-purist Larry Ellis, keep pedaling over hill and dale with lofty goals, songs, and suspenseful tales in mind. Have a great summer!
When I reminisce about my junior high school days, so joyous at the time, a handful of educators stand out above the others. Some because of what they taught and how passionately they did it. Others, for who they were – for what they were.
Sam Owens was my Spanish teacher for three years. More importantly, he was a pillar of integrity, professionalism, and kindness in a place that, it turned out years later, had a despicably-dark underbelly of the worst kind.
Though he was a tremendous teacher, I was not a student of Spanish. I saw it as credits I needed to get through high school. I did what I could – sang songs with vigor, participated as much as possible, to offset my inept conjugating of verbs. He took pity on me. Once, when the coaches I most wanted to please – and for whom I became a two-time all-conference player – were subtly bullying me for playing another sport, Mr. Owens was the person this 13-year-old went to crushed, confused, and emotional. He didn’t console me, he resolved the issue. It was something he probably wouldn’t even remember. For me, it was an illogical, few-day hiccup in an otherwise blissful stay – including with those coaches – over forty years ago. But, that I went to him, speaks volumes to me now.
That Sam Owens, an author himself, read my second novel, The Lost Lantern, and took time to write a favorable review, also means the world to me.
The Secret of the Lost Lantern May 1, 2020 5-stars
The story of a shocking murder lingers beneath the myriad of events detailed throughout novel. Waiting to be exposed to the reader, the facts relating to this horrendous crime remain concealed among the intense compassions of human nature, the evil racism lurking within the local culture, and the diverse concerns of sophomoric teens. The surprising solution to the disappearance of a beloved resident of Myrtle Beach is at last revealed in the secrets of The Lost Lantern, the extraordinary title of this novel. A worthy read for anyone, but especially for those beach-loving natives of Appalachia, whose people and home play an intriguing role in this sun–drenched community.
The Lost Lantern, and The Long Shadow of Hope, are available on Amazon.com
While it’s currently corona-stalled and banished to on-line only, I have been in a new arena the past eight months – the classroom. I once, beginning 38 years ago, intended to teach English and coach basketball. The whirling dervish called life took me in some different directions, and now I’ve landed back where I began. I’m teaching Creative Writing to sixth graders, and I assisted a lifelong coach with the same middle school’s boys’ team and coached the junior varsity, two reasons blog posts have been flowing like mud in the same time frame.
The classroom work has been interesting and I have varying levels of writing talent among the 180 students – some quite accomplished. To teach the value of reading to writers, to be able to point out some excellent author technique, and for a break from the growing mountain of papers to be graded, I thought it would be fun to read a book with them. I chose The Cay, by Theodore Taylor.
If you’re not familiar, The Cay is set in Dutch-held Curacao during World War II. A Caribbean Island just north of Venezuela, at the top of South America, the area is a target for German submarines because neighboring Isle Aruba’s oil refinery has begun producing and shipping aviation fuel for use by the Allied Forces. Taylor’s lead sets the tone for the book aptly: LIKE SILENT, HUNGRY SHARKS that swim in the darkness of sea, the German submarines arrived in the middle of the night.
Young Phillip Enright, 11-year-old son of an American petroleum engineer, has to leave the island with his foolishly-squeamish mother, who longs for the safety of eastern Virginia. Of course, their ship is torpedoed and Phillip ends up on a raft with Timothy, an old, black man (portrayed by James Earl Jones in the TV movie), and the ship’s cook’s pet, Stew Cat. Making matters worse, Phillip is hit in the head by a timber during the ship’s demise, and after a couple of days on the raft he goes blind.
“It makes no sense to dislike an entire race of people.” – Timothy, of The Cay
Adding to the tension between the two characters is Phillip’s ignorance and attitude about blacks, purely a mirror of his mother’s beliefs, which he doesn’t actually understand. The book is narrated by Phillip. He thinks of Timothy initially as a “big, ugly Negro.” Timothy is a West Indie native, and calls Phillip “Young Boss” in his native accent. When they land on their cay, a small island that is part of the unnavigable-by-ship Devil’s Mouth, Timothy sets about making plans for their rescue and keeping them alive in his pleasant way. Phillip refuses to help with chores he is able to do, thus tension eventually comes to a head until Timothy smacks Phillip for a particularly disrespectful outburst. After that the two become fast friends. Timothy teaches Phillip how to be self-sufficient: to catch rainwater, to fish, to bare-hand lobster, and to climb trees for coconuts, in case his stay on the isle outdistances 70-plus-year-old Timothy’s life. They even talk about race. Timothy tells Phillip it makes no sense to dislike an entire race of people, and that people of all colors are the same on the inside. Ultimately, Phillip respects and loves Timothy, and as he matures he realizes everything Timothy did to save his life… both before he dies protecting Phillip during a hurricane and after.
The theme of my second novel, The Lost Lantern, is also racial harmony. More so than The Cay, to achieve my goal, harsh examples of racism, and racists, had to be depicted. It grates on the soul and sensibility… but it was realistic. It is certainly authentic to South Carolina in the ’60s and ’80s, where and when The Lost Lantern takes place. The Lost Lantern is more closely related to Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound than Taylor’s young adult effort (released in 1969) as Lantern’s black and white friends team together to overcome tall racial odds.
When asked by students about reading my books, I have told them that they must be 17, that the books would be “R or NC-17 rated,” if there were such distinctions for novels. Less than ten percent of my students are black, but many, white and black, initially found The Cay to be racist. One young man (privately) found the term Negro offensive to the point of tears. In his mind it was the N-word, not the commonly-used, proper term of the World War II era. Still, I was sensitive to his point. He said he didn’t like the way the kids “were looking at him.” Like the protagonist Phillip Enright, most of the students are just beginning to reach maturity. If they were looking, they were watching for his reactions.
I believe that had my junior high English class read The Cay in the late ’70s instead of Romeo and Juliet, it would have been uncomfortable. Race then could still be volatile. In today’s world, I never felt the students looked at each other as black, yellow, mixed, white, brown. The friendships I’ve observed seem colorblind. Ultimately, nearly all of the students enjoyed the book because it was about friendship, love, respect and loss. Time marches on, worldwide problems obviously change, but for some, hopefully a small minority, maybe race relations stay the same.
Sure, it’s a play on one of my favorite reoccurring sports series by ESPN. Hard hitting, unvarnished truth. It’s a reminder of why sports-related novels are few and far between – sports truths are dramatic enough presented as non-fiction.
In this case, 29 represents the reviews written about my college football-based sports novel, The Long Shadow of Hope, AND, after a little over two years, the match – 29 reviews reflecting opinions about my second novel, The Lost Lantern, a Myrtle Beach-Murrells Inlet-based tale of racial harmony and good over evil in the form of racial bigotry.
Hard-hitting, faced-paced plots are the goal for my novels. They haven’t been Michael Johnson out of the blocks, but as I put the finishing touches on my third, I feel The Lost Lantern picked up momentum over the summer in sales and perception, with a 4.9 average out of five stars. Here are some of the opinions rendered:
MRE4 – I didn’t want the story to end… August 21, 2019
The setting of this story made it the perfect book to read while vacationing in the Myrtle Beach area. The character development was so good that I found myself feeling angry and deeply rooting for the “underdog.” By the time I got to the last third of the book I couldn’t put it down because I was so engrossed in the storyline that I needed to know what was going to happen with the characters I had grown to love. I finished the final 100 pages on the road trip home. Really great read. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy.
A page turner from beginning to end! August 8, 2019
I loved the characters and the settings. From West Virginia to the low country of South Carolina. My favorite character was William and the story of the Lost Lantern.
Bandit – Fantastic surprises await! July 19, 2019
Spradling’s masterfully crafted characters in the accurately depicted Myrtle Beach of the 1980’s are intricately woven into a web I could not put down. I literally shouted expletives out loud at one point, then was amused at how attached I was to the people and the storyline. It really delivers as a great read of many facets: a love story, crime, murder mystery, and more! This is one you’ll suggest to your friends!
W.McCallister – Very addictive story. July 7, 2019
Very interesting and detailed story. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
I love the way all of the characters are so entwined.
Several unexpected twists were very creative.
A.F. – Great summer read! June 12, 2019
Great summer read. Good story with many sub plots that come together nicely. Really good character building. Enjoyed the twists and turns that kept me engaged in the story. Definitely recommend and looking forward to reading more from this author!
I want to offer a sincere “Thank you” to all who have given me a chance and taken the time to read my novels. I truly appreciate you! Thanks for reading, A.S.
It was when I observed my son’s recent high school graduation pictures that I saw it, realized it, and the emotions began to rip through my soul like raging flood waters. The jacket I wore. I hadn’t considered it or given it any thought at the time. Throw it on and go.
We have an emotional ritual that we endure every summer. His birthday celebration on July 26. Her anniversary on August 6. This Tuesday marked the nineteenth year since her passing. The year 2000 was the ultimate “Best of times, Worst of times” in our immediate family history, exceeding the premature passing of our grandfather thirty-three years earlier as his three daughters – one, our mother – were birthing the eight grandchildren he would briefly enjoy, spoil, love, and depart from. He would have been 110 Saturday.
Here’s the tale of two cities. My wife and I were preparing for the arrival of our first child. She, nearly three hundred miles away, was fighting for her life. We’d always come together as frequently as possible. We love and adore their children, and hoped to model our child rearing after hers. While we were choosing colors, painting, attending Lamaze classes and baby showers, she was battling the cancer that had begun in one breast, and had, after removal “success,” come back with the fury of a conquering army.
She told me a couple of months before our due date, at an annual family vacation, her goal was to see our child born. I replied, “Well, you need a new goal. You’re doing great.” I was naïve about death. She, a 39-year-old nurse who had last worked in drug research, was not. She was thin and frail from chemo and the disease eating at her bones and organs, always in hat to cover her scalp. She realized her own mortality as she and her husband held their household together and raised their nine and seven-year-old. It was a confusing time.
Not long after, due to protein levels, it was quickly determined we needed to induce the following morning. She was there – from over four hours away. She had to be wheeled into the waiting room. I was crushed when I saw her physical state. But I was so wound up for the coming of our child – I had to let it go. Again following her lead, we chose not to learn our baby’s gender. “There are so few surprises in life,” she used to say.
She was to go into delivery with us to witness our miracle, but the epidural my wife was given halted the expansion of her cervix, and at 10 p.m. after a 5:30 a.m. start it was determined a cesarean would be performed. My big sister, due to medical bureaucracy and insurance concerns, would have to miss the birth. But she would not miss the welcoming of our son, named Evan Kelly, Kelly after her. I can still see her long, thin fingers holding him, speaking baby talk to him, and immediately loving him. She had a way with babies and children. She embraced the “precious present” and had an unquantifiable love of life.
Earlier, in the fall of 1999, upon learning that her cancer had returned, she and her husband hosted a party to make the announcement. Her friends formed such a strong support group she never had to cook another dinner. A couple of months later, in December, they held another party for the upcoming holidays. We traveled to attend. They had been high school sweethearts. He was like a brother to me. That was the night we told them we were pregnant. And though we said let’s keep it between us, she couldn’t hold it in. Their friends were our friends, and good news was welcomed. A quicker eight months you could not imagine. Phone calls to her – with talks of her children’s advances, of hopes, fears, expectations, pains, worries – were frequent, and yet now I wish that I’d spoken with her twice daily.
Because eleven days after Evan’s arrival, with her children, her husband, our mother and father, her closest friends, and me by her side, she peacefully let go and moved on.
With the services for both there and here planned, I returned home and realized that, having become a more mature man, I needed a new black suit. The picture with Evan was before her memorial service here, where, due to love, his health, a crutch, a barrier, a conversational buffer, pure selfishness, a bit of contempt – I could not let him go or put him down. I must have held him for three hours straight.
The next picture (above) is nearly nineteen years later – graduation night. Our family. Our growth, our progression, our happiness. Same jacket. She would laugh at that. I think daily about how she would love our children, and how they would be enriched by knowing her – the same as her own kids, who have become successful adults, each with their own niche in other regions of the country.
After a tumultuous start due mostly to my immaturity, we became the closest of friends. I wrote a poem in college about a cherished neighbor who had passed away. In it I mention a Cincinnati Reds game we attended in our youth. “I like that image, heavy binoculars,” she told me. Words. I was a sportswriter when she left us, not always fluff, constantly striving to improve. I became a novelist, which I had but an inkling of early on. If she had disapproved of a thought, any notion, in one of my books, she would have called me out on it. But if she believed in it, she’d have been my trumpet section. She always protected me. She literally fought for that which she believed, and she’d pump me with courage to make me stand tall, move forward. That was our history. That was our thread.