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. “Yode,” 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-Winnie-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 concert 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. Yode 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.
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
In my childhood, Kim Bannister was the friend of my big sister Kelly that was frequently over on the weekend to spend the night. The friend that, with deceptively great strength, would wrestle me to the floor and pin me, laughing as she did it. The friend that made me, as a skinny 11-year-old, realize that girls existed, and that they were good.
Flash forward eight years. After freshman year of college, one of my best friends, Pat Austin and I, followed the lead of Kelly and Kim and my future brother-in-law, Chip Simmons, and migrated to the Murrells Inlet (work), Garden City (live), Myrtle Beach (play) area for the first of three summers. It was 1983. In ‘84, we had six young men making the southern trek to a house in Surfside: Pat, Paul Larkin, Joe Matheny, Joe Henderson, and Andy Carroll. A good time was had by all.
Kim, like a number of my friends, never left the beach. She became Kim Lipton. She remained pals with my sister and took the (above) picture of Kelly and her daughter, Chloe, in Charlotte, NC, in 1992. Flash forward another eight years. Kelly was tragically taken from us due to breast cancer. Kim is a breast cancer survivor. I feel a sibling-like bond with her.
My second novel, The Lost Lantern (suspense – available on Amazon.com), a book ultimately about racial harmony, also encapsulates life as we knew it in Murrells Inlet and Myrtle Beach in the late 1980s. I thanked Kim in the Acknowledgements as I did a number of friends who touched my life, including all of the boys, Paul and Carter Elliott (pictured below). Kim wrote this review about the book:
In the 80’s Everyone knew each other in the Murrells Inlet area. Not like that now. I loved the book! Andy’s description of Murrells Inlet Garden City area in the 80s with straight on. I live in this area and it was a blast working in the restaurants going out at night being young. This book brought up a lot of wonderful memories. Thank you Andy for this book it was a joy to read. Kim. July 16, 2018.
Thanks to new friend Bernie Delgado, I returned to Murrells Inlet, a couple of weekends ago and visited the Historic Downtown Murrells Inlet Block Party and out of Bernie’s shop, MISC: Everything Murrells Inlet, sold some books, met and talked with many wonderful people including Bernie’s significant-other Brian, a WVU grad and a super-nice person. The memories of being in and around Murrells Inlet were so thick I felt I could reach out and touch them: Bounding across quiet Highway 17, feeling that breeze off the Atlantic, playing the guitar and listening to others at the Tree Top Lounge after work, and before heading to the next friendly place.
I even ran into a fellow-wait staffer from The Ghost Ship – Sissy (above left). It had only been 34 years! I finished off a busy day visiting Out Back at Frank’s, in Pawleys Island, with Carter Elliott (middle), of Georgetown, SC, and Paul Larkin (right), of Surfside, SC. Great friends.
I also wanted to include this shot I took of Murrells Inlet at sunset, from the lot at The Tuna Shack.
I will definitely be back next year for the Block Party, hopefully with my third novel, A Most Beautiful Trigger, in tow.
Bernie shop, 4493 Highway 17, Murrells Inlet, is filled with the creations of art and home furnishings of over seventy local artists. Don’t forget, Christmas is just around the corner! Thanks for reading, A.S.
Author’s Note: Book business to the side, the former sportswriter needs a moment… Thanks for reading, A.S.
I’ve watched a good bit of high school basketball in the past months, both my youthful alma mater, and other local teams as well. From what I’ve seen versus what I remember, a glaring fact emerged. There is an ART to closing out a win on the basketball court.
If you’re a high school player, the biggest lesson to take from this is (I’ll put it on top rather than make you work for it): Every Possession Matters!
If you lose a game by a basket, 3 points or less, afterwards, think back or watch film about all the wasted possessions. I’m not just talking about turnovers, because some T.O.s are inevitable. BUT, SOME ARE NOT! Some come from forcing a pass that wasn’t there, rather than making two quick passes to get the ball to the same place, or from dribbling too much RATHER than passing. Or from NOT PLAYING WITHIN YOURSELF, or in other words, trying to do more than you are capable of. Know your limitations.
How many times have you seen a great defensive steal followed by a mindless turnover, trying to force a fast break basket that isn’t there – trying to make that night’s highlight reel? You won the battle, back it out and relax, run your offense. When you gain an advantage, keep it.
Next, forcing a ridiculous, needless, ill-advised or just plain bad shot does not show up in the statistics as a turnover, BUT IT SHOULD!! There is not a shot clock in high school basketball. Take good shots! No defender can run as fast as you can pass it. If you are winning a game in the waning minutes and you force a (include above adjectives) 3-point shot – any shot – your opposition should shake your hand or kiss your cheek as they go the other way to win the game. YOU GAVE THEM THE GREATEST GIFT THEY COULD ASK FOR!
Conversely, NEVER reward the opposition’s offense by fouling a shooter putting up a desperation, low-percentage shot, or any 3-point shot. They are trying to turn the ball over to you – let them. Don’t give them a chance to correct their mistake at the charity stripe.
On both offensive and defensive fast breaks keep sprinting to the basket until there is a result. As I’ve told the biddy teams I’ve coached, if we have a fast break there’s a good chance we’ll miss the layup, just like the opposition. Keep going to the basket. When a second or third shot is made on a fast break by a second or third player, it’s because the defensive team got OUT-HUSTLED, hanging back and watching. You see it all the time after the first shot gets blocked. THIS MIGHT BE THE ONE POSSESSION THAT CAUSES YOU TO LOSE THE GAME!
Lastly, if you want to win basketball games, PRACTICE YOUR FOUL SHOOTING. If you can’t hit your foul shots down the stretch of a tight game, chances are you’re going to lose. This is partially your coach’s fault. If you’re not shooting 50 to 100 foul shots every day in practice – some of them while your winded – you’re being set up to lose. Shooting them in street clothes at lunch doesn’t count. YOU’VE GOT TO CARE ABOUT IT. Find your shot, work out your routine, do it exactly the same way every time, learn to concentrate, making them amid distraction. Until you AND your teammates do, you’re going to drop the close ones. If you’re one who hoists 3’s with reckless abandon, you shouldn’t be shooting less than 75 % from the line. AGAIN, CONCENTRATION IS THE KEY! The teams I played on shot just under 70 % from the line and won over 80 % of their games (combined).
When I played in the early 1980s our style was pretty boring I suppose. We passed it until we had an open shot. In fact, we passed up good shots for great shots. We could also nurture a win down the stretch. I watched two different teams recently lose late leads, and then, the contest. I asked myself is Coach Tex Williams’ “Victory” offense obsolete? If the man-to-man “D” gets too aggressive, you go to the line. If they overplay, you cut backdoor or back it out or take it to the other side. And, you can score out of it if need be.
Author’s note: Fellow author Lance Carney’s 5-star review of The Lost Lanternon both Amazon.com and Goodreads.com came at just the right time. Less than 10 weeks after its release, reinforcing commentary goes a long way towards continuing momentum and spreading the good word.
This was “Lantern’s” 11th review (4.7-rating thus far). Thanks again to Lance and to those who took me from five to 10: Pat Paxton, Sandra Rohr, Sissy Offutt, Robert (unknown), and Carla VanWyck. I appreciate you all! Back to the Beach for a Story of Racism, Greed, Betrayal, Bribery and Murder
It’s “back to the beach” but not for a fun romp in the sand. This return to Sun Fun City and the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is a blend of racism, greed, betrayal, bribery and murder, including a connected, unsolved murder from years before. John Gates doesn’t see that in his future—he is just trying for a new start on life and to reunite with three friends, all who traveled there six years earlier to work the restaurants of Murrells Inlet during college summers. Along the way, John bumps into William McMillian, an African American he worked with at Captain Dan’s for a couple of summers. William has always wanted to start his own restaurant, The Lost Lantern, and thinks his boss, Danny Rivers and his brothers are helping him when they take his down payment on a property with a rundown restaurant. John Gates and his friends pull out all the stops to try and help William realize his dream while the Rivers’ brothers on the other side will stop at nothing to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The Lost Lantern takes readers back to the 1980s when Myrtle Beach was coming of age with second and third generation tourists. It’s also a sampling of the author’s personal experiences working the seafood hot spots of Murrells Inlet. As in his excellent first book, The Long Shadow of Hope, Andy Spradling once again serves up what he knows best. As a former restaurant owner, his insight into the restaurant business adds authenticity to the story. The restaurants, bars and businesses of Myrtle Beach at the time also lend a nostalgic backdrop to the tale (one scene takes place at the popular watering hole, The Afterdeck, long before it became a strip club). The characters are vivid, complex and flawed, even the good guys, so you can’t help but fall into the story, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you turning the pages. I highly recommend it!
Author’s note: Finally, the new novel. Thanks for all the support and for reading the short offerings put forth. A.S.
Lost soul John Gates returns to Myrtle Beach, SC, after six years and rejoins his three lifelong friends, all of whom worked the Murrells Inlet restaurants in the summers of their college years before moving on to other professions. Gates plans to put his past life of decadence and womanizing, for which he has a guilty secret, behind him. He seeks out William McMillian, a black friend and former co-worker and learns William hopes to follow his dream of purchasing his own restaurant. Gates vows to help William in any way he can. Their racist former boss, Danny Rivers, and his brothers have another idea – to extort William’s life savings to expand their own empire. What unfolds is an epic, two-generational saga that breaks down barriers and stereotypes as family greed and inhumanity clash with friendship, love, and the indomitable human spirit in the late 1980s.
Paperback, ebook, KDP Select, all available on Amazon.com at:
Author’s Note: The three-part (and so marked below), non-fiction piece, in its entirety.Many people came to me throughout my life, telling me that they spent their youth at the race track at the Dunbar Fairgrounds, watching Owen Spradling, my grandfather, battle for victories. As you will read, that was before my time. The persona though that made him tough to beat continued to grow throughout his life. A few additional stories, quotes and photos have been added. Thanks, A.S.
The dirt race track lay to the west, visible from the interstate, nestled in front of the rolling West Virginia hills. Immediately I pictured Owen, my grandfather. “I’d rather wreck then lose,” he used to tell me, about his own racing days, matter-of-factly without a hint bravado. I smiled. That quote was the sum of his many parts.
The three boys in my car were chatting at such a rate that when we passed it, I chose not to break the momentum of their conversation. They noticed and mentioned the track, but immediately went back to what 15-year-old boys talk about after a baseball game: food, girls, and homework – in that order – with the modern additions of Instagram and SnapChat. We were over an hour from home, and they were starving.
After an outing that lacked highlights for my son, I felt it would be bragging for his benefit to tell the boys that his great-grandfather once owned the track. Or maybe I didn’t want to wade into the nostalgia of my own childhood with two boys who were less than close, who might trivialize my memories, or worse yet, disrespect them. I kept quiet and continued my high-speed search for fast food, but I made a mental note to mention it to my son later. Nearly a month went by before I did, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Memories that were in danger of fading to the gray abyss now seemed touchable. And each one spoken aloud, brought back another, and an emotion to go with it.
The world that I was brought into was dominated by a man who had been a local legend in the mid-to-late 1950s. At a time when entertainment had to be sought, not sat down for, the raceway at the Dunbar Fairgrounds at Institute was a Kanawha Valley staple. Crowds flocked there. My grandfather, Owen Spradling, was king, or at least co-king, with top-rival Tommy Ringstaff.
Those two dominated the field, and the battles were epic. Stock cars on a dirt track, the precursor to NASCAR. The stories and quotes remain sixty years later. Owen once banked his car on the rail to overtake the leader, sliding upside down across the finish line for the checkered flag. Of course, he would then spend his nights in the two-story garage he’d built with his own hands, readying his number 12, 1934 Ford with its ’56 Mercury V-8 engine for the next weekend’s race, sleep an afterthought.
Owen won 100 majors, and had the hardware to prove it, tucked away in the finished attic where we grandchildren and our cousins often played. There was always a camera around capturing the action, or the winner’s circle trophy ceremony. He was the series champion a number of years.
There was plenty of confrontation – and fighting. Owen grew up on the streets of the West Side of Charleston, and he boxed in the Army. He told us he was in MP lockup when his superiors were seeking him out to give him a good conduct metal. He never backed down from a fight. He and his brothers once fought their way out of Huntington after a win, my father, a young teen, in tow. Later, in the middle of the night, they were awakened by policemen surrounding their house, guns pulled. Charges had been filed.
Oh, the stories. He’d encouraged my grandmother, Betty, to drive in women’s races, a novelty event. “It’s not hard. You just have to keep turning left,” he’d say. She tried it once and won, but despite being more than physically able – she used to dive from the top of the cliff at Rock Lake Pool – at least 50 feet – it was not her cup of tea.
I was born in ’64, and being a young boy around a man’s man like Owen was no picnic. It certainly wasn’t for my father, who had to endure Owen as a young roughneck. Once, when I was a small boy, playing at his feet and annoying or irritating him, Owen blew cigar smoke in my face. I retaliated by spitting at him, and hitting him in the face. My Grandma Betty protected me, defending my defensive reaction. But I’m sure he wanted to light me up in a serious way. Our relationship cooled.
Progress had shut down the local racetrack before I was born, thus Owen’s racing career had ended, the land becoming part of a county-owned golf course. It was around ’67 that he quit his job and opened Owen Spradling’s Custom Welding. It was an instant success. Five and a half days of labor, closing at noon on Saturdays, an assorted cast of characters to help with the work and others – customers and friends alike – hanging about the office in the huge metal building. He even opened a school that certified young men for the pipefitter’s local, where my father had gone to work years before. Owen, as a jab at my father, outspokenly equated union welding to laziness. Dad only worked with Owen when he was “between” jobs, and I could tell it was the hardest work he endured.
Throughout my childhood, when I was around their home I was taught to hit the heavy bag, “Keep your left up to protect yourself.” Chin-ups and push-ups were highly regarded. Grandma showed us how to do the chin-ups. The only fat he would tolerate was his wallet stuffed with cash. Exhibitions of speed and daring were encouraged. I spent many hours on numerous visits attempting to ride a unicycle. I was tall and awkward for my age, my coordination not developing as fast as my as my skinny legs grew. It was about the time that I was given a Rupp mini-bike, around my seventh birthday – a gift I’m sure he had a hand in – that Owen bought the race track at Mineral Wells, just south of Parkersburg.
All I remember about the first time I saw it was dry, cracked earth on a hot, summer day – a high-walled, dirt bowl. I sat with my dad on the top and rolled flat rocks down the embankment on their uneven edges, their dull thuds the only sound I heard. But when the race track became operational, it took on a life of its own. The details I hadn’t noticed or couldn’t imagine the first day became significant: the lush grass of the infield, the grandstand, the protective netting, the lights, the speakers crackling with race talk, the appeal of the cool of the evening, drivers and their precious cars destined for dents and dings, enthusiastic fans to cheer for them, the banked turns of the track, all watered to beat down the dust.
Mutual family friends were recruited along with my parents to work the concession stand, and for a while – maybe the first hour – the children helped as well. The place had the best batter-dipped, deep-fried corn dogs in Wood County, crisp and golden-brown. A couple of lines of mustard made it memorable, just like the percussion of the machine that spewed buttered popcorn, or the belch of the CO2 soda fountain. Some 45 years later, I can still see the hurt on the face of a boy about my age because we didn’t have something he wanted, maybe a hamburger. He walked away disappointed without ordering anything. It’s odd how certain memories stick with you, a flash image in the recall loop. When the work became too tedious for pre-ten-year-olds, or because we were no longer wanted underfoot, we candied-up boys were set free to roam the place. The field at the far end became a battleground for war, and the gruffly-breathing cars lining up to race became German Panzer tanks. Sweetarts became hurled grenades, and all our victim could do – trapped behind his steering wheel – was shake his fist and curse the victorious Americans. We would duck, laugh, and run for cover.
The races were powerful, noisy events, but the victories and defeats were lost on my sensibilities. Despite what I’m sure was a long list of pre-race prep items, the Rupp would usually be transported “up the road” with the rest of us. And though it didn’t always work out that way, I was allowed to take an unsteady lap around the track at the end, the surface now uneven and muddy from the cars churning their way through. It was more difficult than it was fun, and a reminder to me that my attempts at anything usually ended as awkward disappointments.
Whether it was logistics, the success of his business, or just the failure to recapture the magic of the Institute raceway, Owen managed to get out from under the racetrack after a season. Within a year or so, Owen, with my father’s blessing, offered me a Yamaha Mini Enduro, the hottest ride going, and a lot of bike for even a teenager. I hesitated. It sat a foot higher than the Rupp, and I knew it could fly. I had seen the signature orange tank with gold trim many times. I knew a couple of older boys that had them. I thought of the long line of kids that waited turns to ride the Rupp, and I knew the new bike would be off limits to them. And, where would I ride it? Would it be a burden to my parents? I looked up at Owen, the heavy bag hanging behind him. The bike was as daunting as he was. I was flat-out intimidated, so I turned it down. I didn’t try to explain, nor did either man consider it from my perspective. I was as tall as boys three years older than me, but not even close to their maturity. Maybe that rejection was a slight to Owen, disrespectful, an act of cowardice, certainly a lack of toughness. Our relationship again cooled.
I took it upon myself, by myself, to overcome my physical awkwardness by playing basketball, nearly every waking hour. Owen thought that was a waste of time. He had demanded my father quit a baseball team he’d made at a pivotal time in an athletic career he wasn’t allowed to have. He couldn’t stop me though, Dad was my elementary-school coach, and though I was an oversized humiliation to begin with, through my hard work, I came to excel. My goal at 10 and 11-years-old was to be allowed to play in the Sunday afternoon games my father and his friends met for. I worked non-stop on my fundamentals, my weak hand, my shot, my rebounding, my passing, challenging anyone I could through the week to be better-equipped for Sundays. By the time I was 12 and 13, not only was I a part of the Sunday games – and not quarantined from the rough, physical play – the men began taking me with them to play in corporate challenges. I started playing AAU ball in the spring and summer with the best of my regional peers. I was one of the standouts of my age group as I advanced through school. Owen never saw me play one game, or for all I knew, approve or even feel one ounce of pride when he read my name – his name – or saw my picture in the local newspapers. When I entered his home, we barely spoke. We did our best to ignore each other.
Owen found ways to remain bigger than life. He had been commissioned to create some iron gates for the Governor’s Mansion. The sitting West Virginia governor was none other than millionaire Jay Rockefeller. In March of ’78, after numerous attempts to collect payment, Owen repossessed the gates. After being splashed on the front page of the Charleston Daily Mail, the story made national news. Walter Cronkite re-told the story, as did colorful Paul Harvey on his daily radio show. It didn’t hurt that Rockefeller was a Democrat and Owen a staunch Republican. Later, Owen twice ran for the office of Kanawha County Sherriff, falling short each time. But the gate story would always resurface, and Rockefeller opponents would encourage Owen to run for that reason. He hung one of the gates high on the wall at the welding shop, with a Rockefeller poster behind it, making Jay appear jailed.
I had accepted a full basketball scholarship to the University of Charleston at the end of high school, which placed me just eight or 10 miles upriver from my grandparent’s home. In early fall, my father ask if I could come down one evening to Owen’s to help split firewood for the winter. Owen had traded labor for a huge load of cut tree trunks, and had a hydraulic splitter there to do the most difficult of the work… almost. Upon my arrival, jobs were quickly assigned. Owen worked the lever of the splitter, my father picked up the cut pieces, loaded, and stacked them, while I manhandled the full slices, or big rounds, of the tree. All Owen said to me was “lift with your legs,” and he handed me a pair of gloves. Because of our cool relationship, my blood boiled with resentment. I attacked the job like I would my hoops opponents. It took only a few of his cuts for me to realize what size he wanted and where natural seams were, helping the splitter do its job, as the wood groaned and popped as if in pain. I placed the large chunks under the splitter’s blade with precision. His doubts and my anger dissipated.
A shrewd trader, Owen had become an appreciator and collector of diamonds. He wore on his right hand a ring he’d had made for himself that appraised for twenty-thousand dollars. As I loaded, then turned the wood for each cut, I watched my sweat drops hit those sparkling diamonds over and over as his hand rested on the splitter’s lever handle. Inside I laughed. I hoped it irritated him. When we finished, exhausted, my jeans and T-shirt completely soaked with sweat, I said my goodbyes and drove back to UC’s Cobb Hall in my roommate’s orange Ford Pinto.
Not long after, my basketball season shot to hell by a dislocated knee cap, surgery, and cast – my second-such injury in three years – I ran into a family friend and co-worker of both my father and Owen, Duck Smith. Duck mentioned to me that Owen had told him what a hard worker I was, and that he’d gone on and on about it. The very idea of it struck me as odd. I was no stranger to hard work. I’d made my spending money cutting lawns since before I was a teen. I don’t know if he even knew that. But my basketball work wasn’t labor that he could quantify, thus, it made no sense to him.
A few weeks later at Christmas, Owen, who was never one to get involved in traditional gift-giving since the minibike days, presented me with a full set of golf clubs and bag. They weren’t new, but they were nice. He and my father were both excellent golfers, and though he was a member and had helped build Kanawha Country Club, he only allowed himself to play early Sunday mornings, never slipping off for a round on a weekday, though it was less than a five-minute drive from his shop.
The spots on those Sunday morning outings were coveted by people wanting to be close to Owen, but I was asked to come along a few times though I couldn’t – and never will – come close to matching the level of their games. He walked the hilly course though motorized carts – carts that he kept operational – were available. He used a homemade pull-cart instead. He barely stopped to line up a shot before he hit it. His club would be returned to his bag and he’d be off again, in what seemed to be one, singularly-smooth motion. Their golf mantra to me was “It’s ok to play bad if you play fast.” He knew the greens so well. I saw him make the most incredible putt, from at least 40 feet, the ball traveling around the hole on the high, curved edge of the green, then slowly dropping down and in from the other side. Owen shot a 70 there when he was 70, and that was no small feat. But it wasn’t surprising. He could still do one-handed pushups as well.
Later in life he decided he wanted to play the banjo. He picked up a nice one and took lessons from Joe Dobbs at Fret-n-Fiddle. He would get up before work and practice his rolls, my grandma finding solace in his 5 a.m. noise. He hardly slept anyway, suffering wild, kicking dreams. He’d played the guitar some earlier in life, but the banjo never completely opened up for him, though he wasn’t bad.
He’d also purchased a prized guitar along the way: a 1976 Gibson Hummingbird. He bought it from a man dying of cancer, whose lone bucket-list item was to own and drive a Corvette before he passed. Owen gave him 400 dollars for the Gibson. There is no telling how many times he bought and sold such items, but he helped so many people, and loaned out thousands of dollars-worth of tools that were never returned. The original owner of John’s Cyclery wrote him a letter when he heard that Owen had sold his business – optimistically owner-financing it at 80-years-old – thanking Owen for the many times he’d gone out of his way to complete his unique requests for him. The man, John Turner, was confined to a wheel-chair, and the list of Owen’s contributions was detailed and extensive. Owen was a problem-solver, and irreplaceable to his customers. I later read the letter at his funeral.
Before that though, I would get the Gibson out and play some for him when he was resigned mostly to his chair. He wanted me to learn “Wildwood Flower.” Owen later insisted I take that guitar home with me. It will stay in the family. He’d finally mellowed in his old age, doting on my small children, and initiating playful, familiar banter with my wife. He came to appreciate the train graffiti that he could see from his front porch and window as it rushed by the house they’d lived in for some sixty years. “Those kids are really great artists,” he told me.
The Gibson was the last item Owen personally gave me, but it was not his parting gift. Nobody is perfect. Successful men – entrepreneurs – walk hard and step deliberately, and sometimes leave the less-aggressive drowning in their wake. He had failures, but he took risks. Risks like Mineral Wells or attempting to raise a sunken barge in the Kanawha River. He told me, “When you see a barge on the river, there’s a millionaire somewhere who owns it.” He bought tracts of land in Alaska and Florida that did nothing, but he bought up much commercial property locally and made it profitable. His business was worth much more than he sold it for, though he taught me that items are only actually worth what someone is willing to pay. “Everything I own is for sale,” he’d say, “except for Betty.” He helped people and he was generous. If the opposite, there was likely a reason. He helped me get into business with a signature, and he helped me in other ways. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but we respected each other. And in the end, he found the Lord. That lesson might be his greatest gift of all.