[1972 - Burlington, North Carolina]
It’s an early morning in June and the sun is already shining, so the great outdoors beckons to my eight-year-old brother Greg and me with an array of options. We are living in my Grandmama’s tiny two bedrooms—one bath house located on a busy road and surrounded by a junkyard, a creek and an alcoholic neighbor with a working beat down wife and three children...again. Every so often, when the stress of simultaneously gambling in the stock market; trading in the riskier options, while raising a family of four with a fairly uninvolved wife gets to be too stressful for my dad, we pack up our paltry belongings and move in with my dad’s widowed mother, our Grandmama.
This particular weekend morning, like many, my brother and I are bored and too crowded in the tiny house. We pass through the heavily furnished living area where Grandmama, always with a pinch of Tube Rose Snuff tucked under her bottom lip, is sitting on a plush floral sofa that doubles as her bed every night, having given up both bedrooms to the six of us when we invaded her household. She is spitting brown snuff into a label-less can while watching Mannix on her tiny rabbit-ear-antenna TV. We inform her of our destination as in an attempt to be quiet, we creep by; but then blow it by letting the screen door slam behind us.
We decide to go see what the twelve-year-old neighboring twins, about a year older than I am, are up to and then will likely go down to play at the creek. This Burlington, North Carolina creek is mostly avoided by supervised children, since there is a manufacturing plant of some type located on its banks with a drainpipe routed from a windowless building, straight down to the water. The factory doesn’t even attempt to hide the fact that there is a steady stream of sludge trickling constantly into the shallow water. We think it is cool though because the minnows and turtles look weird; the sighting of a two-headed turtle part of local legend, and all of the rocks located around the brackish sludge-water have changed from their natural whites, browns, tans and grays to fluorescent turquoises, greens and pinks and have a smooth texture reminiscent of centuries-old river rocks. We collect them and swim with them, completely unaware of the danger of the chemicals in this creek. Still, they are very shiny and radiant, and I am quite sure some of them emit an eerie greenish glow at night.
We knock on the neighbors’ door for a while and getting no response, move on. Since it appears to be just the two of us this morning, we choose to lob the smooth and colorful rocks, gathered from the shallow creek bed, at each other. We have grown weary of lighting fires in puddles of gasoline, taking turns pretending to drive a rusty car housing a nest full of bumblebees, and climbing trees to precarious heights in the poison ivy laden woods behind the twin's house.
All of our activities seem to be dangerous. The type that only completely unsupervised kids participate in, which mainly includes my three younger siblings, me, and the alcoholic neighbor’s three kids, the oldest daughter not giving us the time of day, while the twin boys engage us in death-defying activities on a daily basis.
A rock fight is the obvious and least dangerous choice for us today. We had already been disciplined the previous day for spitting down on our six-year-old sister Julie, because she couldn’t climb the tree we were perched in. The two of us take a quick vote and the verdict is unanimous…rock fight it is!
We continue our trek through woods, avoiding poison ivy, oak and sumac. I had just gotten over a scathing case of poison ivy on my legs and didn’t really want a repeat of the double-takes I received from strangers as I walked by with oozy scabs slathered in pink Calamine lotion. I felt like a walking plague, folks scattering in my wake. They didn’t want my legs brushing up against them and I didn’t blame them.
We finally reach the creek and I wade across to the far side, my usual battle spot, and scramble up the bank. I turn and look downhill at Greg far below on the opposite side, looking like a duck...a sitting duck. I snicker and start building an arsenal of artillery consisting of smallish rocks with just one large no-holds-barred-last-ditch-effort boulder. I probably won’t use it, I think, but still place it to the side of the neat pyramid of glowing-rock-ammo I have constructed. As a courtesy, I call across the creek to my brother. “Are you ready?” I don’t want to start throwing radioactive rocks at him until he knows they are coming.
“Almost,” he yells back as a rock whistles by, awfully close to my ear. That dirty rat, I think and picking up a smaller rock from the top of the pile, I launch it downward, aiming for his arm, now raised holding a second missile. He releases it just seconds before my tiny rock finds purchase on his wrist. “Didn’t even hurt,” he smirks.
I grab a fistful of pea-gravel-filled dirt and toss it high in the air. It rains down on him like a dusty meteorite shower and he does a little chicken dance trying to dodge the bigger pebbles. We are both laughing, and he tries launching his own handful of gravel at me, but it doesn’t have the same effect traveling uphill. I watch as a hailstorm of rocks rain down just shy of my higher launch-pad area.
“Missed me,” I tease, and this sets off a fury in Greg as he begins to lob a non-stop chain of pebbles at me. One after the other, rocks are whipping around, some hitting me but most flying harmlessly by. That kid has been stockpiling rocks for weeks, I think because they just keep coming. No end in sight. I am ducking and dancing around getting my share of throws in as my brother’s barrage begins to slow down and then stops. I stand in a low crouch, peeking over weeds to see him bent over maniacally scooping rocks out of the water to quickly form a new ammo pile.
He ran out of rocks. This is my big opportunity. My one chance to launch my big no-holds-barred-last-ditch-effort boulder. He is still low to the ground as I bend down grasping, rising then releasing in one fluid motion. To my horror, Greg begins to straighten up just as my hand opens and the rock is propelled in his direction...too late to take it back. Time seems to slow down, and events unfold in slow motion as he is slowly turning his face upward to watch the pending doom and I am mouthing the warning words, “Waaatch oouuut fooorrrr theeee roooock…” Too late. I hear a thud and the force of the blow sends him reeling backward. His hand instantly flies up to his forehead.
I am running and sliding down the bank and leap up and over the creek before his body fully hits the ground. I plow through a clump of weeds and emerge wearing a sticky pile of beggars’ lice from the waist down. I finally reach the scene of the crime just as my brother is carefully sitting up, his palm still clamped against his forehead.
“Let me see. Let me see,” I anxiously plead. I notice a little trickle of blood already beginning to seep out from under his clenched hand and cautiously peel it back to reveal an open gaping wound on the right side of his forehead, extending up well past his hairline and disappearing somewhere in his thick brown hair. I feel woozy at the sight of the bright red blood beginning to stream down the right side of his face.
Panic sets in as I think about the kind of trouble I will be in for inflicting this horrific injury on my little brother. We have been told time and time again about the dangers of “putting an eye out" while launching various missiles at each other, but as usual, we never listen, and the punishments are often harsh.
I help my brother stand up and he seems a little wobbly but remains upright. I take that as a good sign and begin to formulate a plan. We can’t tell our parents that we were having a rock fight again after being warned against this multiple times; especially, since they were at the end of their rope after yesterday's “spitting” episode. I am being selfish now. We won’t make the trek back to Grandmama’s house until we rehearse the scenario over and over getting it right. There can’t be loopholes in our story and most importantly, we can NEVER tell anyone else what really happened. No one can know it was a rock fight causing this massive destruction to my brother’s forehead; otherwise, I can’t even begin to fathom the punishment awaiting me if the truth were to get out.
It was just an accident but, in my mind, my parents will see it as a direct challenge to their authority not to mention a huge medical expense will be incurred. In my eleven-year-old rationale, I think it must cost millions of dollars to go to the hospital, money we don’t have. My dad, a confirmed cheapskate, and a gambler, is never a fan of spending money at all unless it is on some random money-making scheme and he will not want to waste money on a medical bill that could have been avoided if I had only “listened" and obeyed his instructions.
I am looking around at our surroundings while my mind works overtime trying to visualize a plausible scenario. My brother, always a trooper, is even throwing out a few suggestions. His hand is still clamped over the right half of his face and he looks up at me through bloodied fingers. “We can say I fell out of a tree,” he offers up as a suggestion. I picture a tree and the height necessary to cause a wound of this magnitude. It is more likely that broken arms and legs would be the result of such a fall; plus, just yesterday, we were banned for life from climbing trees. That would be even worse than “the truth" at this point so I vote “no" to that option. I am wracking my brain while pivoting slowly. I spy the rusted-out junk car a few feet away. Nope. We aren’t allowed to play in that. The danger of tetanus is a concern as well as being swarmed and stung by the bumblebees that have made this hunk of metal their home.
Time is ticking and my brother is looking a little pale and clammy, the blood starting to coagulate on his face and hand. I am resigned to the fact that I must confess to the crime and take my punishment, so we begin the journey back to Grandmama’s. Up the creek bank and through the twins’ backyard and around the clothesline pole, I stop dead in my tracks. The clothesline pole!
A plot formulates in my mind. I run it by Greg as we continue the hike forward to my pending doom and his trip to the emergency room. There are stitches in his future, and I know he is wracked with nerves as he thinks about shots and a needle pulling a thread through this gaping wound. We practice the story on our walk and have it down pat as we reach and open the screen door.
As rehearsed, Greg works up a couple of tears and I work up a moderate level of panic. “Daddy! We were playing next door and Greg hurt his head. He is bleeding,” my voice rising in pseudo-hysteria.
Mom and Dad rush to his side and lift his hand from the wound that is covered in blood that looks crusty and dry. We spent longer than we thought to form the plan. I hear Grandmama lightly crying in the background and telling my little sister Julie, and two-year-old baby brother Jeffrey, to stand back.
“What happened?” my dad immediately questions and I make eye contact with my brother and then dive into an Oscar-worthy performance.
Wildly gesturing and pantomiming, I act out a person running into an invisible object and his head spurting blood, I begin to explain how my brother and I were playing a “gentle” and “harmless” game of tag in the neighbors’ back yard and how I was it, and chasing my brother, both of us running as fast as we could.
“I was getting close and he turned his head to look back at me. The clothesline pole was right in front of him. I yelled ‘Greg, look out for that clothesline pole!’ but he smashed into it.” I finish up and once again look my brother in the eyes to see if he is going to crack and spill the beans. He gives me a little nod then winces. His head is really throbbing now. Our parents look puzzled, my dad looking at the jagged gash high on my brother’s forehead one more time before shrugging and saying how it seems strange that a pole could create such a wound.
They grab car keys on their way through the tiny kitchen, the emergency room at a nearby hospital their destination. I whisper a tentative “I love you” to my brother as the side door makes a little click and they are gone.
Greg ended up with a dozen or more stitches and a life-long scar, more evident as he reaches middle age and his hairline begins to recede. “You got your bangs cut,” is our running joke.
While waiting for a flight to arrive at the airport, I once overheard this comment from a woman who had been at the gate waiting for her brother to deplane. He was obviously balding—his hairline well above his forehead. She gave him a hug, and lightly touching his head said, "I see you got your bangs cut." They both laughed and I smiled, realizing that I would be stealing that joke to use on Greg in the near future.
Now 53 years old, he enters the side door in the Texas home where I currently reside with my husband, daughter, and three rescue dogs. My son lives in Boston and was not able to make it home this year for our 4th of July celebration. Greg's wife and four of his five children are in tow; his oldest son left behind to deal with the many activities and commitments a new high school graduate always seems to have. As they get close, I hold the door open to allow entrance...all arms are laden with food and luggage...and I spy my brother’s scar.
True to his word, my brother never cracked even under intense questioning by the ER doctor. It just never made sense that a rounded pole could cause such a large cut and the doctor was highly suspicious of the circumstances. Our parents, even though the facts didn’t add up, let it go and only found out the true story a year later when I confessed to my dad one day after being blackmailed for a couple of months by my older cousin.
“Go get me a Coke,” my cousin would demand.
“Get your own Coke,” I would retort.
“I’m going to tay-yell,” he would threaten, always drawing out the “tell" to multiple syllables for maximum irritation.
So, I did the only logical thing. Yelled at my brother for accidentally telling our cousin the truth about the jagged forehead scar, sealing my fate as slave-for-life to this heartless prankster; and then walked to the refrigerator, just two steps away from my cousin’s seat at the kitchen table, and got him a Coke.
After a couple of months of being at my cousin’s beck and call, I told my dad the whole story when we were alone in our ancient Volkswagen Beetle, on errands. I will always remember the moment of my confession came precisely as we were driving past the giant flying Pegasus on top of the high-rise Mobil Oil building located in downtown Dallas. (We lived here temporarily—just passing through—my dad on the way to a new job with Honeywell.) He looked to his right at me fidgeting in the passenger seat when I had finished speaking, then looked back at the highway and it was silent for an eternity.
“You should have told us before now. It is unhealthy to have something like that on your conscience for a year,” and just like that, it was over. A mental “whew" and I thought about how satisfying it would be to tell my cousin to make his own damn sandwich next time he tried to blackmail me.
I look at my brother more closely. He looks tired from the five-and-a-half-hour drive, tiny bags under both eyes. He leads a busy life with five children, a full-time job, and a highly successful side business. He is an entrepreneur and I smile, as I think to myself, how that rock must've knocked some sense into his head.
The scar somehow seems even lower on his head this year. I look him square in the eyes and deadpan, “You got your bangs cut.”
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events. (1972 in Burlington, North Carolina)
[1972 - Burlington, North Carolina]
Sixth grade. That was a tough year for me. I was awkward with my full adult-size white teeth, the front two slightly overlapping, and probably the first thing everyone would notice about me since I always smiled. It was usually not a happy smile so much as one of resignation; Me...resigned to the fact that I was the weird kid. The one that was bullied by being ignored. Ignored by my teacher and ignored by my classmates.
This was the year that we were living at my Grandmama’s tiny house in a new school district, not really built to accommodate four kids, a Mama, a Daddy, and a Grandmama. Throw into the mix that I didn’t have the cool clothing that was required to be worth noticing and was still working on overcoming the lisp that fifth grade speech therapy had nearly eradicated. I avoided words that contained “esses” like the plague, my mind working overtime to substitute “ess-less” words...on the spot...in every conversation. It was unfortunate for me that my name had an “ess” making every introduction, in which I had to state my name (Litha) painful. I concentrated really hard on getting it right on my first day of sixth grade when we went around the room with initial introductions.
Miss McCain said, “Tell us your name and one fun thing you did this summer.” I willed my tongue to cooperate by pushing it hard against the back of my upper teeth when it was my turn. Dread consumed me as I stood. My mind went blank for a second; what was my name? Think. Think. You’ve got this, I encouraged myself. My heart raced as I whispered, “My name is Lisa and this summer I moved in with my Grandmama.” Four “esses” and I nailed it! I was proud but still heard snickers around me. Not “ess” related...more related to my first-day-of-school outfit. “Look what she is wearing,” wafted from somewhere in the back of the room. “Moved in with her Grandmama?” from somewhere near the front. “Shhh,” from Miss McCain.
Smock tops were all the rage in the early seventies. Little cute flared shirts, typically with a smocking or embroidery detail on the front, just touching the waist of little cute flared jeans. I had neither of those so rummaged through the closet—shared by my mama, my two brothers, my sister, and me—pulling out one shirt that looked smock-top-ish. It just happened to be one of my mom’s maternity tops, not yet retired to the give-away-basket since my mom was still carrying some baby weight even though my youngest brother Jeffrey, had just turned three. As for the jeans, I found a pair of my mom's pre-pregnancy jeans (they would be jeggings these days) in a dark blue denim-like material. The problem with those (other than the obvious fact that...they were mom jeans) was they zipped in the back and the zipper kept slipping down, leaving me in constant fear of my pants dropping down around my ankles. What an unfortunate choice. Clothes for the children was never a priority in our house. I heard the comment, quickly sat down face red with embarrassment, and plastered the ever-present smile back on my face.
As the year continued, at a painfully slow pace, I dreaded it when we had to buddy up with a partner for an activity, always running a quick mental count to ensure there was an even number of kids present that day. I didn’t want to be the odd-kid-out but I was smart and, with false bravado, did my best work alone.
Picking teams for kickball at P.E. was equally stressful. The best I could do was hope that Jane Ann had tinkled in her pants that day. That was even more off-putting than everything about me. It would come down to Jane Ann and me, the last two standing. I watched both team captains mentally assessing the situation...tinkle-pants or weird kid with the lisp and mom jeans...two sets of eyes assessing the wetness factor of Jane Ann's pants as their eyes shifted back and forth between the two of us. Finally, the decision was made, “I pick Lisa.” I smiled at not being the last kid standing.
I had the last laugh though, the following year as whispers of, “Have you seen Lisa? She got HOT over the summer,” began to circulate. We all grow into our teeth at some point. I smile a happy smile this time. Now, if only a box of hand-me-down clothes from my wealthy cousin would arrive in the mail before 7th grade, I would have it made.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events. (1972 Burlington, NC)
Bullying is no joke.
[1975 - Pensacola, Florida]
I survey the world from my lofty perch. On one side, the back of a strip mall containing dumpsters, neatly stacked pallets, and a forgotten Rose’s Five-and-Dime Store shopping cart missing a wheel and flipped over on its side. Nothing but woods on the remaining sides with a chain-link fence in the distance marking the backyard of the dilapidated motel we currently call home. It is quiet, almost too quiet, except for the light panting I hear coming from the ground far below me. I cautiously lean down, spotting the tuft of wavy brown hair atop my brother’s head and watch him struggle to jump and grab while kicking upward, his hands not quite reaching the tree's lowest branch.
“Hurry up! I see a hobo heading your way,” I tease. This is not a completely impossible scenario, as homeless men seem to congregate in this isolated wooded area to cook over campfires. We are not sure if canned food is the only thing they are cooking on those fires and don’t really want to find out, so my brother redoubles his efforts and hangs on the limb with both hands now, his feet several inches above the ground, he starts a slow swing. Back and forth—back and forth, legs are pumping to get the momentum he needs and then KICK, his left leg is over the limb as his body scrambles up in its wake. He quickly draws his legs up high and looks down searching for the phantom hobo heading his way. I laugh, “I knew ‘hobo-terror’ could help you do it,” I say as I squint down at him, seemingly miles below me.
Even though Greg is four years younger than me for one month each year (January) and three years younger eleven months following his Groundhog’s Day birthday, he is tough and always a great tree-climbing companion. This has been one of our favorite pastimes over the years, and most times the only place to comfortably sit since our homes are always sparsely furnished. Our current home, the cramped manager’s quarters of the Royal House Motel is no exception, furnishings only included one king bed with nightstands in the master bedroom, a total of four twin beds—two in each of the other two bedrooms with a nightstand between each set—and one dining table in the cockroach-infested kitchen with six chairs that tightly accommodate the six of us.
It is also located in an area zoned as a commercial property on Mobile Highway; so there are not any neighborhoods with kids our age to hang out with or kid-friendly options for entertainment, so my brother and I have made this tree our home away from home unless we are at school, sleeping, or eating.
I turn away and scoot outward on my stomach reminiscent of an inchworm. Outward I inch, toward the leafy tip of the sturdy branch that is our favorite perch, making room for my brother to join me. My back to him, I hear a little high-pitched gasp and “Aaaahhhh,” emanating from underneath me and sit up and turn a little too quickly, grabbing at a small offshoot of leaves and limbs to steady myself. I am scared now as I spy the rusted hunk of jagged metal that is the remains of a burnt-out car-frame directly below, and my brother’s flailing body falling and landing just inches away from the sharp wreckage.
Adrenaline takes over as I leap from my branch, the ground a precarious distance beneath me, landing cat-like on my feet; my hands graze the concrete curb, also inches from Greg’s body. He is lying still on his back; both arms sprawled out to the side. Palms up, his hands look strange, the angle of his wrists overextended. He is conscious but his breathing sounds raspy.
I brush his hair out of his eyes and accidentally touch the long scar on his forehead, an injury that was the result of a rock fight we’d had a couple of years earlier. Lobbing rocks across a creek at each other seemed like a fun game at the time but didn’t work out so well and he ended up with a slew of stitches and a battle scar. His face is clammy and damp with sweat and I see the fear in his eyes.
He is lucid and not even crying, so I say, “I’ll be right back with Mama. Don’t move!” and set off at an Olympic-worthy sprint toward the distant chain-link fence marking the motel where our mom is simultaneously manning the switchboard, checking guests in and out of rooms, and loosely supervising the whereabouts of my little sister, Julie, and baby brother Jeffrey, who are almost...but not quite...old enough yet to wander around unsupervised in hobo-laden backwoods.
I come upon the low chain-link fast and hurdle, my front leg clearing with room to spare as my back thigh drags low on the wire and I hear a “ripppppp” as the seat of my favorite 1970-ish knock-off Jordache Jean’s snag and then tear, leaving a little denim flag flying to mark my passing.
Thoughts of my pale and clammy brother lying, most likely in shock and maybe dead by now, cross my mind as I burst through the side door of the dingy motel lobby scaring my mom up and out of her switchboard chair.
“Greg fell out of a tree and he is hurt really bad,” and I turn to run, trusting that Mama will follow me. Twisting my head to glance over my shoulder just once, I see her slowly jogging in the distance, doing her best to keep up with my partially naked backside—a square of missing denim exposing the skin just below my underwear and the actual pink underwear—urging her forward.
I arrive just seconds ahead of her to see Greg still laying in the same spot on the ground, equidistant are two certain death traps—the rusted car frame, shards of metal pointing skyward, and the concrete curb bordering the back-alley narrow road behind the strip mall.
Two preteen boys are hovering above Greg and one of the boys kneels and places two fingertips on my brother’s forearm, just above the mangled wrist. Is he dead? I wonder...my breath catching in my throat...just as Mama stops beside me leaning over and sucking oxygen like she’s just run a marathon. Tentatively moving forward and dreading the sight of my brother’s lifeless body I fear is awaiting me; I peer over the back of the kneeling boy to see my brother’s eyes open and alert, his face now looking my way. He turns his attention to the current pulse-taking preteen boy and clears his throat.
“Ahem. I am still alive,” he whispers, startling the would-be young medics as they straighten up with eyes widening. Both boys take a step back as we hear the sound of a siren now apparent in the distance. I breathe out, realizing I had been holding my breath, then Mama and I move in closer to my brother and squat down. I feel air wisp across my hamstring and quickly cover the bare spot with my hand, remembering the swatch of fabric left in the chain-link fence seemingly hours ago.
The time which seemed to stand still just long enough for me to get help, has returned to normal speed as the mysterious ambulance pulls up and two EMTs jump out. They check Greg's vitals and then gently lift two broken wrists to swaddle them in some sort of inflated protective devices for stabilization. A backboard is then slipped under his body and he is raised into the air to be placed into the back of the waiting ambulance...an ambulance that appeared out of nowhere…a miracle, as we still have no idea who called them and how they knew where to find us.
The EMTs are turning the backboard to align my brother’s blanketed body for placement, in through the open double-doors, as my mom readies herself to get in behind him for the short ride to the hospital. Greg's wrists were broken all the way through but otherwise miraculously unscathed after his horrendous fall. He clears his dry throat again and with a voice just above a whisper says, “I can see your underwear.” He laughs then winces.
I feel my spirits rise and feel at peace now. I smile. He is going to be okay. Alone now as the ambulance pulls away from the curb, I quickly make my way back to the motel lobby only stopping to pluck the flap of denim from the fence on my way by. I enter the lobby, just as my dad drives up after a long day of classes and studying at Bible College, becoming a church pastor his most recent aspiration.
He spies the empty lobby and the blue swatch of tattered fabric in my hand, as my other hand quickly moves to cover my exposed backside.
“Where is your mother and WHAT happened to your pants?” he asks.
I begin to recount the frightening, mysterious, and miraculous details of the day as his eyes grow incredulous and he turns to jump back into the battered ancient 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, our only family car—now on its last legs—for the drive to the emergency room. I head inside to keep an eye on Julie and Jeffrey until my parents get back from the emergency room. I feel a little tug on the hem of my sweat laden t-shirt and look down at Julie who has a grin on her face.
“What happened to your pants?” she asks. I laugh and shrug as I begin a long and fruitless search for a needle and thread.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events - 1975 in Pensacola, Florida
[1980 - Somewhere in Alabama]
I am heading south through Alabama on US Highway 231 pushing 90 miles per hour, traveling from Tulsa Oklahoma to Largo Florida. It would be nice to think that I was driving my own fairly newish Econoline Van complete with luxury carpet and a premium sound system, but this would be me living the dream. The truth is, after checking a student bulletin board, I have found another Floridian heading home for Christmas break who needs money for gas and will also be passing right by Largo on his way. It is a win-win situation for both of us.
Benny from Hollywood Florida is sleeping somewhere way in the back of this monstrosity. He told me early in the drive how he came to be the proud owner of such a huge van. His father...a used car salesman and apparently rather good at it...would often park a car with one side against a fence with the car’s “good side” facing out toward the sales lot. The “fence side” of the car might have a scratch or two or sometimes even a dent but with a lot of confidence and some fast talk, his dad could sell that car to just about anybody. The van was one of the good ones, purchased at an auction, that he decided to pass on to Benny as a “going off to college” gift. About 11 hours into this 19-hour trip and running out of things to talk about, his eyes are finally weary of watching the road. I hesitated briefly before agreeing to take the wheel. My driver's license had just expired, and I had plans to renew it when I got home. I decided not to let him in on this small fact and so now here we are…midnight with me speeding along jittery on caffeine and him snoring from somewhere behind.
The tunes are loud, and I am singing along, and we are passing through Alabama when I spy flashing lights coming up fast in my rear-view mirror. Dread fills me as I remember the expired license and poor Benny snoozing without a care in the world. I slow down and ease to the shoulder as flashing lights follow close behind.
I see a rumpled head of hair and squinty-eyed Benny spring up in the back seat, looking around with a puzzled expression.
“Uhmm…I might have been speeding and my license might be expired,” I mumble. He is instantly alert and crouches forward to plop into the front passenger seat and he looks pretty mad.
I watch as a beer-bellied Alabama State Trooper swaggers to my window and notice his hand resting on his firearm. My hands grip the steering wheel and I do a double-take when I see that he is wearing mirrored sunglasses...at midnight. I feel like I am in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit”. I look to my right hoping to see Burt Reynolds in the passenger seat, but it is still angry Benny.
I hand over my license. He begins a slow head shake and his eyebrows lift as he drawls, “This is not uh valid liiicense. Doo yooou have uh valid liiicense?”
“No sir,” I respond, and I am asked to step out of the van. I was apparently going to be driven down to the “station” to be detained and the details were unclear as I could only hear the sound of my rapid heartbeat pulsing in my ears. I had never been in trouble in my life and this was not a good time to start. Christmas. Just a little babysitting money in my wallet. Benny, a boy I barely knew, and would he just leave me stranded?
I was ushered into the back seat of the police cruiser and Benny was ordered to follow. A big hand rested on my head as I ducked down and slid into the back seat. I noticed another man in plainclothes already seated in the front passenger seat. He briefly glanced back at me and I looked down in shame.
We started the journey as Smokey, still in sunglasses, spoke into his handheld mic alerting the “station” that he was bringing in a...I wasn't sure but thought he said…prisoner. I looked back and good old Benny was still close behind.
Smokey asked me where I was going in such a hurry and I told him that Benny and I were students at ORU (Oral Roberts University). We were going home for the holidays, so I had planned to renew my license while there. He chuckled and looked over at his friend and they both looked back my way as he asked if I liked gospel music since I was a student at a Christian university. I told him that I did indeed like gospel music and used to attend all-night “Gospel Sings” in North Carolina with my Aunt Joyce and Uncle WT as a young girl.
I saw his eyebrows arch up above the top rim of his sunglasses, registering surprise as he asked who my favorite gospel group was. I thought back to my childhood and of the electricity in the air as group-after-group of old-time gospel singers and bands would perform...each selling original cassette tapes in the back of the auditorium once they finished their set. There was no doubt in my mind who my favorite group was. They were the reason I loved attending these marathon events that ended in the wee hours of the morning.
“I always loved a group called The Florida Boys,” I said. Looks of surprise were directed my way from the officer and his under-cover passenger.
“Why were they your favorite?” the trooper asked.
“They had this great piano player. His fingers would fly over the keys and he would turn his back to the piano and could play with his arms behind him and it sounded perfect. He was a real showman but the things I most remember were his big mustache and the red socks he always wore. He always got teased about them but would just laugh it off.”
A smile passed between the trooper and his friend as he asked, “Do you recognize this man?”
I began to look at the passenger in earnest now. He had a mustache and a little gray in his hair and maybe looked a little familiar. The man lifted his leg and crossed it onto his knee and pointed at his ankle. He was wearing red socks with a pair of scuffed black leather dress shoes.
I was baffled but my curiosity was peaked. “Are you a fan of the Florida Boys too?” I inquired.
He laughed and said, “I like their music a little bit. Not too sure about that showboat piano player though.”
The trooper piped up and said, “He IS the piano player from The Florida Boys.”
I looked at him even closer now adding about ten years to my mental image. It was true. This was the piano player from my favorite group, The Florida Boys. He was on a ride-along with his friend, the Alabama State Trooper and I was let off with a warning and an autograph from my childhood idol that said, “Slow down! Derrell Stewart”.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events - 1980 Somewhere in Alabama headed to Pensacola, Florida
[1982 - Norman, Oklahoma]
I don’t need a fancy car. But I do need one that will give some credibility that I am not a hobo. A therapist would chalk it up to the cars I endured in childhood, one a tiny Volkswagen Beetle inappropriately transporting six people...the other a fungus-laden charity mobile. More recently, my very first car, purchased in 1982, the summer before my junior year of college, may also be a factor. How I’ve survived this long without one is not a mystery to me, walking or bumming rides being the family norm. It was a 1971 Plymouth Satellite and advertised as a steal at only $300 in a local shoppers’ guide. My dad, usually only a fan of the free car, doesn't seem to balk at the price but only because I will use some of my three-summer-jobs college savings to pay for it.
He volunteers to take me so we gingerly lower ourselves into the faded and aging station wagon, one of several “charity" cars my dad has relieved people of over the years. Pointing at the passenger side floorboard, my dad reminds me, “Watch out for the hole.” Looking down, I balk but enter in a quasi-straddle, placing a foot on either side. As we pull onto the highway headed toward the seller’s listed address, I feel a breeze hit my ankles. Glancing down, my feet still straddling the hole, I spy the undercarriage, rods, and metal exposed, and highway asphalt flying by. I put my seat-belt on and pull it tight mumbling The Lord’s Prayer under my breath.
Exiting the highway, we turn into a cul-de-sac and are greeted by the car pictured in the ad, just now realizing that it is not grayish as indicated by the black and white photo but somewhere between pea and Kermit the Frog green. I didn’t care though as long as it was safe and drivable and my own. Dad and I turn into the driveway, proudly displaying the car, and park. We make our way to the front door, the door opening just as my dad’s fist is raised to knock.
“You the ones that called about the car?” greets us as my dad and I nod simultaneously. The sales process is short and sweet. The man cranks the key and the engine roars to life. Good enough, I guess, as I hand over $300 cash in wrinkled ones, fives, and tens. No paperwork is exchanged but hands are shaken sealing the deal. I jump behind the wheel ready to follow my dad to the Tulsa apartment we currently call home. My dad motions me to go first so he can tail me in case a tire or muffler flies off en-route. We are making good time moving along in the light traffic when out of the blue, an elderly couple crosses over suddenly into my lane clipping the front bumper of my “brand new to me” car. The couple swerves off the road onto the narrow shoulder, me parking right behind them and my dad parking right behind me.
I immediately begin apologizing as we convene in the space between my front bumper and the older couple’s rear bumper. Not surprisingly, my tank-like car has no damage—at least not any new damage. Just the usual dings and scratches an 11-year-old car with unknown mileage—the odometer hasn’t seemed to roll over at all in my short ownership, might have. The other car, newer and expensive, has a tiny rusted scratch—its location on the bumper suspect. My dad rubs the bald spot at the back of his head usually hidden by his comb-over…an eight-inch strand of hairs, currently blowing sideways in the breeze…causing me to double-take, “Looks like an old scratch in the wrong place,” he mutters. Because of the lack of any real damage, we decide to just exchange phone numbers and continue on our ways, my dad once again tailing me.
A few days later, the opportunistic driver calls, and I happen to be the one to answer. He spouts a verbal barrage of numbers and figures at me, all the while explaining why his mechanic insists they need a brand-new bumper. My face goes pale at the thought of all of my hard-earned summer savings (less the spent $300) going to replace that bumper. Extending the phone toward my dad, “It's for you,” I wince.
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” I hear, my dad earnestly nodding. “You don’t say,” he continues. Silence for a while as he listens, his face clouding with anger. “Meeerrrccccy me,” he drawls, his voice pitch rising. “I don’t know who you think you’re dealing with, buddy,” volume now rising, “DON’T EVER CALL HERE AGAIN,” slamming the phone into the receiver. Turning toward me, red-faced in frustration, he states, “Never apologize at the scene of an accident. It makes you seem at fault.” Lesson learned.
It wasn’t until two days later that I began to suspect that I may have gotten the raw end of the deal with that car, now named Dino after The Flintstones’ pet dinosaur, in the family tradition of naming our vehicles. I loaded Dino the car front and back with my scant worldly possessions to head south, a 120-mile drive, the University of Oklahoma my destination. I have a job and a roommate lined up and will not be coming back home. Just as a visitor now, freedom so close, I can almost touch it.
I meet up with a friend in the “Git-N-Go" parking lot, both our cars full of preppy but off-brand clothing, the bane of the financially strapped student. No real Ralph Lauren Polo shirts for me or Harold's little kitten-heal pumps, all the rage at this Greek-culture-oriented university. I had a funny feeling that I might own the only 1971 Plymouth Satellite in Norman as well, original but not desirable for one wanting to fit in.
We hit the open road. First, the Turner Turnpike then I-35 moving along with me in the lead of our two-car convoy, still a little anxious about possibly losing a tire or muffler. On the last stretch of highway, our Norman exit just insight, and without warning, Dino just shuts off. No chug, chug, chug to give me a heads up. Just dead silence from the engine. Seriously?
I take minimal necessities, roll up the windows, and lock the door—or did I?—before baling to continue the drive with my convoy buddy. Bumming a ride, the next morning, I arrive only to find Dino unlocked and all windows rolled down but, not surprisingly, none of my stuff has been taken...the safety net of owning generic everything. I am still scratching my head on that one.
With fingers crossed, but without much hope, I turn the key and that son of a gun cranks right up like nothing ever happened—not even a morning-after apology.
My car woes only go downhill from this point on. After this first stall out, I notice a pattern over the next year or so. Dino roars to life when started but when he heats up, BAM!, engine shutdown...no warning...and to make matters worse; I can’t put the car in park once this happens. It is not uncommon in Norman to see me sitting with my foot on the brake either in the middle of or on the side of the road.
This is the typical scenario:
A good Samaritan walks up: “Um, do you know you are blocking traffic?”
Me: “Yes,” sweating profusely, leg shaking - exhausted from holding down the brake pedal.
Samaritan, seeing the panic on my face: "Do you need any help?”
Me, plenty of experience with this by now: “If you could just give me a little push backward, I can coast into the woods...oh and can you shove a rock behind the tire. I’ve had my eye on a big one by that deer-blind.”
I am beginning to become a traffic nuisance, that weird girl with the junk car, in this tiny college town.
Just before summer, a small miracle occurs that greatly improves my mobility. Craving ice cream, my roommate drives us to Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors for a cone, her car equally as embarrassing as Dino. We are both pretty used to the routine of a car that won’t start or in my case that starts like a champ then leaves me stranded. Broken down, stranded, and humiliated.
We are standing and staring at the “31 flavors” they are famous for, discussing options.
“That banana walnut would be good or maybe the buttered pecan. Oh. Maybe both, in a cake...no…a sugar cone. Something with nuts,” I say, my salivary glands working overtime and a little drool snaking out of the corner of my mouth.
"I think vanilla,” she shoots back at me, “in a cup.”
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I think. Really? 31 flavors and vanilla in a cup is what you choose?
We are checking out, my treat today since she drove, when the cashier pipes up, “Don’t forget to fill out a card for the drawing. It is next week, and you don’t have to be present to win.”
“What’s the prize?” my roomie and I ask at the exact same time.
“A ten-speed bike.” Now that could be a game-changer. We are both thinking it, grabbing up cards to fill out. We fold them up tight and I say a few magic words and wave an invisible wand over mine before dropping it into the fishbowl.
One week later, the phone rings. I pounce on it, “Hello?” I ask a little breathlessly.
“Congratulations. Is this Lisa?”
“Yes,” my anticipation mounting.
“You are the lucky winner of the drawing over here at Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors. You have won the ten-speed bike. Just stop by to claim your prize within the next few days,” an authoritative voice explains.
“Be right there,” I exclaimed, running to get my roommate to give me a lift. I bribe her with vanilla ice cream while excitedly explaining my good fortune. She sulks at my news, the realization that she did not win beginning to set in.
“OK, but I want What-A-Burger,” she says her lower lip pushed out in a pout. I agree and off we go.
With burgers, fries, and Tab diet sodas under our belts, I am dropped at Baskin-Robbins to pedal my sweet new ride the short distance to the modest three bedrooms, one bath home I share with two roommates. Even though the carpet is balding, and the interior temperatures range from extreme colds to sweltering heats, it is hands-down the nicest place I have ever lived, having inherited the lease from two seniors who graduated the previous year.
I step out of the car and proudly head inside to the extra-chilly air-conditioned comfort inside. It is an ice cream shop, after all. No one likes a squishy dripping ice cream cone. This is the first time I have ever won anything, and the timing could not be better as I have just listed Dino for sale in the local newspaper. I approach the counter telling them who I am, and the manager escorts me over to the billboard on wheels that is soon to be my only method of transportation. It is a ten-speed alright and is exactly the three-shade color scheme of Neapolitan ice cream—strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla. It also has “Baskin-Robbins" decals in multiple areas easily visible as I am riding toward or away from potential ice cream cravers. Once again, reminiscent of when I purchased Dino the dinosaur, I didn’t care as long as it was safe and rideable and my own.
There was a little mini-congratulations ceremony of five: me, the store manager, the ice cream server person and a mother with her child waiting for a cone—the mother looking puzzled at her unfortunate timing. This is holding up her ice cream purchase and her kid is whining.
“Thank you aaaalll…” I trail off, as I shakily pedal away, not really confident of my muscle memory as far as bike riding goes. It has been at least a decade since my last bike ride and that hand-me-down bike had a banana seat, chopper-style handlebars and a playing card clipped on the spoke for the cool sound effect.
Riding instead of walking to class the next morning, my bike drew a slew of what I interpreted to be envious glances. I am fairly sure I also heard a few, “You know what would be great? Ice cream!” conversations in passing. You're welcome, Baskin-Robbins.
Receiving exactly one phone call regarding my classified ad, I drive to the prospective buyer's tiny rental house since they are without transportation. I am greeted by a joyful Latino family, the children all touching and smiling and petting Dino, the father speaking to me in broken English. I open the hood and try with large arm gestures and loudly spoken English to explain the shut-down situation while pointing at the offending engine. The father, mother, and possibly a grandmother all nod and shoving the $250 into my gesturing fist climb aboard.
I tell them his name is Dino in a mixture of limited Spanish, loud English, and grand hand gestures as the dad cranks the key. True to form, Dino roars to life, the entire family tumbling in and patting the cherished shotgun position, a place of honor for me to sit as they drive me home. A little tear tries to work its way out of the side of my eye. Slapping it away, my voice loudly cracks, “Allergies,” while pantomiming sneezing and nose blowing. Even though he was kind of a bastard, I am really going to miss Dino the car.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events -1982 Norman, Oklahoma
[1992 - Louisville, Kentucky]
I need a short break from the reality of my busy life which basically consists of taking care of everyone’s needs except my own. Shuttling our two exceptionally athletic kids to and from school and to various sporting events while simultaneously running the small-time horse ranch and fruit tree operation on our 12-acre homestead, keeps me running in circles. This sounds like a lot but when you factor in my full-time flight attendant job, requiring me to be out of town three days a week for work; it is insurmountable and is taking its toll on me emotionally as well as physically. My husband steps up his game a bit when I am traveling for work and is glad to allow his exhausted wife some “me" time.
The obvious choice for a spur-of-the-moment rehabilitation, is a quick flight to Louisville to visit my sister, Julie, using one of my unlimited non-revenue passes, a perk of being employed by a major airline. Julie is thrilled with this pop-up-mini-vacay and picks me up at the airport with a glass of ice water...just for me...in one of the two cup holders in her sedan.
We are both weird about certain things—a result of our traumatic upbringing—always on the move and at the mercy of our dad’s most recent money-making venture. My particular quirk is that I must have water or some thirst-quenching liquid available to drink at all times; or else, I feel like I am parched with a throat as dry as the Sierra, which sends me into a coughing fit and panic mode. This stems from being left on beaches, while living in Florida, for hours without money, food, beverages, or sunscreen as a young teen. The ocean was our day-care on many occasions and while fun, the conditions were always hot and thirsty and unforgiving. Being a thoughtful sister, she always remembers this and has my water waiting for me.
I can't help but notice the little box of tissues in her console—this being one of her quirky traits—brought on by the trauma of being relegated to scrunch up in the “itchy wool" luggage compartment, located just behind the back seat of the family car—a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle—on family outings for over a decade. This car was too small to accommodate the six of us and someone was always banished to the tiny scratchy compartment really meant for a briefcase or a small piece of luggage. It was usually my sister Julie, the second to the smallest and most physically flexible of the four of us kids. Jeffrey, the baby of the family (even now at 50-years-old) was just too young for that kind of abusive treatment (since he was Mama's favorite) and our other brother Greg and I, too big. Julie was mostly a good sport but usually emerged with a runny nose and hives, thus the tissue obsession.
We arrive at her house only to find that her husband, as per usual, has planned out a non-stop itinerary of things to do and see in his hometown. A huge fan of the University of Louisville—also affectionately referred to as “U of L”—and lifelong resident of Kentucky, he just wants to show off his city and packs in the activities. My sister and I look at the list and burst out laughing. Nope. We are not “planned itinerary” or “tour guide activity" people, our visits always dictated by spur of the moment ideas; so, we shut him down fast. He is miffed by our seeming lack of interest in historic facts, landmarks, and famous local philanthropic celebrities, but we don't care. We have our own agenda...flying by the seat of our pants daily. This usually includes a day at the local shopping mall, stocking up at Sephora (we try out all the tester products) on all the beauty products we don’t really need, followed by a movie or maybe a nap. People-watching and laughing with Julie...our sense of humor: weird, tasteless, and skewed...is an event in itself and we keep in mind that the point of my visit is to have fun and relax. No schedules to dictate our days in the short time we have together.
The next day, after a morning in the mall followed by a quick food-court lunch, my sister inquires, “What do you want to do now?” I am busy giving the lower half of my face a massage. My jaws actually hurt from too much laughter. My spirits have risen, and I feel peaceful, proving that laughter, especially with your sister, is truly the best medicine.
“Let’s go to the Dollar Movie Theater,” I answer. “That movie Basic Instinct with Sharon Stone is playing and I heard it is really great.” She agrees and we head to the little run-down theater that charges just one dollar per ticket to watch movies that are no longer in the major theaters but have not yet been released on VHS tapes, in a last-ditch effort to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
We reach the box office out front and there is just a short line to purchase tickets for this early afternoon showing.
“I’ll buy the tickets and you buy the snacks,” I say as we are approaching our turn at the little window. This is our running joke since everyone knows that movie snacks for two can easily be the equivalent of a car payment. I hold up my end of the deal and pull out $2.00, handing it over and am rewarded with two tickets. The ticket sales lady went ahead and tore off the theater’s half of the ticket handing me back the two stubs. “There are only a couple of us working today,” she explains.
“Okay. That sounds like a really good deal for me,” Julie agrees, rolling her eyes as I hand over the ticket. We spy the second worker rapidly scooping and selling bucket after bucket of popcorn, but we bypass the concessions on our way to get seats. We have both emptied out our purses in the car—keeping only the $2.00 for tickets—and filled them with an assortment of candy and bottled soft drinks purchased at the local Kroger Grocery Store. This has been the norm since we were kids and our mom dropped us off unsupervised at the small downtown Graham North Carolina movie theater every “Bottle-Cap Tuesday” during the summer months when she couldn’t take any more of our rowdy and annoying shenanigans and needed some “alone" time.
The price of admission was seven bottle caps per person to watch classics like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken or The Love Bug, a story about a Volkswagen Beetle just like ours, except without a kid sitting in the “itchy wool” luggage area. We would bring a brown paper lunch-bag laden with seemingly hundreds of bottle caps, collected at Burlington City Park early-on in the summer, which was the city’s brilliant way of keeping the park clean, without having to hire a hobo to do it. Underneath the caps, hidden way down deep in the sack, was our stash of penny candy and if we got thirsty, there was always a water fountain in the lobby area spurting little cascades of germy, lukewarm water. Good enough!
I inform Julie that I need to take a quick bathroom break before the movie begins, but since we are running a little bit late, I want to find our seats first. We push the door open a crack, surprised to see that the previews are already running, and it is pitch black. Trying to let our eyes adjust to the darkness, we slither in through the small space, letting in minimal light. We automatically assume that there will be limited seating, imagining a crowd of early birds bursting with excitement to see this movie just released today to the dollar theater. Moving tentatively, Julie leads us forward, lightly touching the aisle armrests for guidance. She randomly picks a center row and we scoot in easily, crouching and now using the backs of seats to gauge our location. Just shy of the middle seat, my sister starts to sit down. She springs upright like a jack-in-the-box as we hear a throat clearing, “Ahem!” followed by a low voice mumbling, "Erm...someone is sitting here.”
I quickly backpedal, trying to suppress the laughter bubbling up. The surprised expression on Julie’s face was priceless and her little “Oops. Sorry.” made it even funnier. We leave two seats between the invisible viewer and ourselves, trying to be considerate of other late arrivals.
Previews are still playing so after making a mental note of where we are sitting, I run to the restroom. I make it there and back in record time stopping at the large door that is tightly sealing light out of the cave-like theater. I pull it back a bit and creep in, surprised to see that the movie has already started. I feel my way down five rows. This is us. I ease my way past the empty seats and sit down next to Julie, already eating her Milk Duds and sipping her Diet Coke.
“Did I miss anything?” I ask.
“Not really,” she replies so I hunker down spreading out a buffet of Sweet Tarts, Raisinettes, and Now-Or-Laters in my lap and begin to watch the movie.
Basic Instinct is kind of a sexy and risque movie and we immediately begin to hear little, “Ooooh baby's” and “Mmmm, yeah’s" coming from our invisible neighbor.
My eyes start to finally adjust to the darkness and I look around at our surroundings expecting to see a full house, watching this intriguing movie with us. Instead, I see a creepy guy wearing what appears to be a trench-coat two seats away from my sister, and just one other person way down toward the front. All the seats in this theater empty…except two…and we pick seats in the row with the weird guy.
Being raised in the south and taught not to hurt feelings or create a confrontation, we continue to sit by “trench coat” in what is now the “sketchy” theater section, listening to him “Ooh” and “Aah” over Sharon Stone’s every move. Gross. What a pervert, bless his heart...
The movie ends and the final credits roll, and we can’t get away from this creep fast enough. We double-time it out to Julie’s car, not making eye contact as the creeper waves a goodbye directed at us. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that he has a smirk on his face.
Even though "trench-coat" was a bit distracting, I loved the movie. It was a brilliant thriller filled with many twists and turns and sexy moments—clearly enjoyed by our seatmate—but I felt a little lost throughout the movie. I am always ahead of the game in this kind of thriller, usually guessing who the “killer" is way before the end. I ask my sister one more time, “Did I miss anything at the beginning?” “Not really,” is her answer again and I chalk it up to being “off my game”, distracted by the weirdo’s remarks and the giggles we shared every time we heard his low, “Ooooh...baby’s."
I returned to Texas three days later revived and ready to get back into “Super Mom" mode. I relayed the pervy creeper story to my husband, and we had a good laugh over that one.
“How was the movie?” he inquires. “Great but a little confusing,” my reply. He shrugs and we move on with our lives.
A few years later, I noticed Basic Instinct is on HBO and my husband and I sat down to watch it. The opening music soars and the first scene is a brutal murder. A murder that is the basis for the entire movie—the method in which this poor sap is killed—vital to the story-line. Now I understand the story-line and am just baffled that Julie didn’t tell me that I missed the most crucial scene of the entire movie with my untimely trip to the bathroom. Watching it this time around, the plot makes perfect sense and even though I have seen it before, I am on the edge of my seat.
We watch, as the iconic scene of Sharon Stone being interviewed by a team of detectives while wearing an extremely fitted white dress, unfolds. She tantalizes the detectives by un-crossing and then re-crossing her shapely tan legs, revealing a flitting glimpse of bare skin beneath her dress.
I hear a little moan and then a low, “Oooooo, baby,” close by and whip my head around to see my husband smirking at me. I expected him to be wearing a trench-coat. Yuck.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events - 1992 in Louisville, Kentucky
[2001 - Cincinnati, Ohio]
I am sitting in one of several black vinyl recliner chairs, not really reclining; more like I am sitting upright and leaning forward staring at my large cellular telephone. I pull out the antenna and my finger hovers over the power button. I need to make a call but hesitate thinking it over first. The battery is almost dead. I picture my phone charger closed up tight in the top drawer of my nightstand at home. This phone is just for emergencies. I hardly ever use it, making my nightly calls home to check on my family from hotel phones. My layovers on this three-day trip have been extremely short. Barely enough time to get enough sleep before turning around and doing it all over again the next morning. I packed light. Clean uniform shirts and underwear for each day of the trip, pajamas, and one scruffy pair of shorts with a tank top and flip flops just in case I decide to venture out of my room in the middle of the night.
Since my Sprint plan is bare-bones only allowing me 30 minutes a month of calls, a typical “emergency plan” in 2001, it is a rarity for me to dial-up a number without a good reason. This entire morning qualifies as an emergency so I feel around one more time, down deep in my shoulder bag, hoping the charger might be hidden underneath my flight attendant safety demo gear or the bright red “Emergency Manual” we are required to have with us at all times, in case of an emergency. My hand snakes around the bottom of the bag feeling loose change, a pen, a rogue stick of gum, and snags on what feels like a cord. I get excited but then am let down as my hand emerges with the ornate gold locket necklace that I thought was lost.
I came across it at an antique shop in 1984, while on a layover in Portland, Maine. I was drawn to the beauty of it and paid the asking price ($25.00) even though I really couldn’t afford it. Being single at that time, I cut out a tiny picture of Tom Cruise during his Risky Business days and placed it inside the locket. I always loved seeing the looks of surprise on various coworkers’ faces when I told them I had a picture of my “boyfriend” in the locket and they opened it to see a tiny Tom Cruise smiling up at them with his beautiful pearly whites. The thought brings a smile to my face but then I think back to events of this morning and my mood becomes somber.
After a short night, 9 hours and 40 minutes to be exact, in Lexington, Kentucky, our crew worked a quick hop to Cincinnati, Ohio. We landed a little before 0955 ahead of schedule. Still, a long way to go until we reach our home base, scheduled to land at DFW airport at 18:46 after what was to be another tiring day. This would be the end of what seemed like a never-ending and thoroughly exhausting trip. The passenger load was extremely light that morning so all of us, passengers, and crew members, were standing around in first-class waiting for the gate agent to open the door so we could deplane. One of the first-class businessmen was having an animated cell phone conversation, rare in those days, and after hanging upturned to the captain to explain that his friend informed him of what appeared to be a small airplane crashing into one of the World Trade Center Towers just moments before we took off in Lexington.
I looked around at the somber faces reflecting what I felt. We stood in silence for a moment and then suddenly the door was whisked open by an apologetic gate agent and we all jumped to action picking up bags and heading out the door. I heard a voice saying, “That is weird,” as we all went our separate ways.
My two flight attendant coworkers and I immediately began to walk toward the flight attendant lounge. Still unaware of the events that had unfolded during our 45-minute flight to Cincinnati, we thought we had a couple of hours to kill before the continuation of our three-day trip. DFW airport still seemed like a light at the distant end of a tunnel so we contemplated grabbing some breakfast “to go” and taking it downstairs to eat in privacy without the gawking stares of passengers. Sometimes we just needed a moment to regroup before plastering ever-present smiles on our faces.
We spoke of the aircraft that had crashed in New York City, all of us still under the assumption that it was a small private plane with perhaps a disoriented pilot. We had never heard of anything like this happening before. Passing by an airport sports bar, open and serving Bloody Marys at this early hour, we noticed a large screen TV airing a panoramic view of the Twin Towers. One of the towers had smoke pouring out of its side so we drew closer, entering the bar and surrounding the TV to hear what the newscaster was saying. We collectively gasped as events, recently recorded and being aired for the first time, unfolded before our very eyes. The second tower became the camera’s focal point and we watched as what appeared to be another small plane crashed straight into the side of the building.
The bar was eerily quiet until a sob started somewhere in the back and tears streamed down our faces as we came to the realization that we were under attack. Until this point, we didn’t really understand terrorism and the hate that some groups had toward Americans and our freedoms. Our world just changed in a way that we couldn’t even comprehend at that moment.
As a group, the three of us made our way down the endless flight of stairs into the silent lounge. Flight attendants were sitting around in the black recliners with the shell-shocked look of war victims. The news had come out by this time that it was not small planes that crashed into the towers, but full-size passenger-laden jets. Jets carrying innocent families and business travelers and crew members, the horror they must have experienced unimaginable to us.
My thoughts come back to the present and I press the power button on that inexplicably huge cell phone with the retractable antenna and make the call.
“It’s good to hear your voice. I knew you weren’t scheduled to be in New York today and were headed home, but you just never know…” his voice trails off.
My phone begins to beep, an indication that the battery is on its last legs. I will talk to my husband until the line goes dead. “I am scared. I don’t know what this means for all of us. I love you and please let the kids know that I am okay and will get home to you as soon as I can,” my voice breaks and I hear one last beep as my phone dies.
The thing most memorable to me is the silent sky. Void of airplanes and jets, the birds seem to have even stopped flying for days following the tragedy. I will never forget the events of 9/11 and the way our world changed in an instant.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by the true events of September 11, 2001
The recent death of Neo, our 14-year-old boxer mix has sent our other two dogs reeling, so trying to keep their lives to the normal routine, we decide not to cancel their previously scheduled grooming appointment. “You want to help me take Buddy and Dingo to PetSmart?” I plead. “Not really,” my husband frowns, “But I will.”
We get leashes off the wall hook which immediately starts a cacophony of barking, Dingo's aging vocal cords sounding like a sea lion.“Who wants to go in the car?” I ask as wagging tails beat a happy rhythm on my calves.
Buddy, our large terrier-mix typically saturated with dust and stickers, has his annual spring haircut and Dingo needs a bath. This is the first time Dingo, our German shepherd mix, is going to PetSmart and I have high hopes that it goes smoothly. We never know when he is going to act quirky since, as a puppy, he was dumped on the street and has a few trauma-related issues. My husband says that if Dingo was a human at a party, he would be the weird guy in the corner.
We get the dogs situated on their canvas seat-cover—Buddy looking out the window smiling; ears forward, tongue lolling while Dingo hunkers down, in the floorboard, instincts telling him a bath is coming.
A late arrival sends my husband scurrying ahead with Buddy while I am still working with Dingo on exiting the car. Finally coaxing him from his floorboard cocoon, we double-time it through the wide automatic doors, and stepping onto a Welcome Mat the size of Texas; I glimpse Buddy just rounding a distant corner.
Stepping off the mat and feeling dead-weight at the end of the leash, I turn to see Dingo, back feet still on the rug, splayed out while front toenails dig for purchase on the floor…the slippery floor.
“Who wants bacon?” falls on deaf ears as I struggle to get him up and moving while a semi-circle of shoppers gawk. “What’s the matter with your dog?” a loud voice surges from somewhere in the growing crowd.
“He is afraid of slippery floors,” I answer, stretching for a just-out-of-reach shopping cart.
Planting my feet with both hands on the leash now, I gently tug bringing Dingo upright and hear a smattering of applause from our audience. Increasing the pressure, his body moves forward, off the mat and his toenails scrape the floor, a piercing “nails on a chalkboard" sound emanating.
Finally able to grip the cart, I drag it closer, spin and lift my 60-pound trembling bundle of fear, lowering him only to have legs and toenails latch on to the sides as the cart begins to roll away. An elderly woman, the only watcher without a cell phone recording, steps up to assist, holding the cart stable as I unhinge paws from the cart’s top edge and situate my big baby in the center of the basket. A bead of sweat drips off my forehead and we start to roll, now very late for his appointment.
Two preteen girls inject “Isn't he a little big for the cart?” as we pass, Dingo and I not even dignifying that with a response.
We arrive at the grooming area of the store, seemingly miles from the entrance, to find my husband seated comfortably on a bench. Expression puzzled at the sight of Dingo panting in the back of a shopping cart and sweat glistening on my forehead, he inquired “What took you so long?”
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events.
Published in the Stephenville Empire-Tribune and Glen Rose Reporter - [May, 2019]
Posted on https://www.beneaththesurfacenews.com/post/what-took-you-so-long-a-dog-story
(Click to Read Part 2)
“Let’s go pet puppies,” I whisper, rousing my husband from his Saturday morning slumber. Rolling over with one eye slightly open, “We know how that always turns out,” he mumbles closing the eye and feigning sleep. “This time I won’t bring one home,” I say with fingers crossed under the blanket.
We had recently lost our boxer mix at the ripe old age of 14; white muzzle, bleary eyes, and a little drag in a hind leg. Step, step, step, drag, as our evening walks became shorter and shorter. Our other two dogs—both rescues—were inconsolable without him, hiding under the bed and ignoring their food bowls. These two 60-pound mutts needed a new leader and I aimed to find them one…fingers still crossed under the covers.
Coffee mugs in hand, we head to the local animal shelter, my anticipation building. As we enter the parking lot, I can barely contain my excitement and wrap my fingers around the door handle ready to exit while the car is still rolling.
“Calm down,” my exasperated husband says as he turns into a space and puts the car in park.
A chorus of barking greets us as we enter the first of two long buildings laden with dog runs and...puppies. By puppies, I mean dogs of all breeds, sizes, and ages; some big and slobbery, some tiny and frail but all lovable in unique ways.
We make our way slowly down the center aisle, stopping to give ear rubs and nose tickles through the chain-link barrier that makes up the interior wall of each run. All the while dogs are performing to get our attention. Each so desperate to get love, their barking reaches an ear-piercing crescendo.
My husband is several paces ahead of me as we exit and move on to the second low slung building. I catch sight of him just disappearing inside as the door swings shut. Something catches my eye in the outside portion of one of the large dog runs. Did a ferret, opossum or wiry cat accidentally get in with the dogs? A little creature is pushing his rumpled face hard into the exterior area of the chain-link in an attempt to get closer to me. One little wonky cherry eye is looking up; the other crusted and closed.
My heart melts but my mind sees an elderly dog...easy to get attached only to have him cross the rainbow bridge too soon. I pull myself away, walking around to meet my husband on the inside. As we walk hand in hand down the aisle, I freeze in my tracks. That little critter is now in the interior section of his oversized dog run with his head squished into the chain-link again but this time making a little grunting sound. He is still looking at me with that one “good” eye. I sigh, reaching down to unlatch the door and squeeze my hand through the crack in order to stroke his knobby little head. He wiggles into my hand, wanting to be picked up. Lifting up his nearly weightless body, I feel a rash of little scabs covering his back and head but his curled tail is wagging furiously. I open his tiny mouth expecting to see an aged dental disaster only to discover puppy teeth. This little disaster is a baby and has not been treated well.
He needs me. He needs us. My husband, my daughter, my son—who is only home for Christmas these days—and two 60-pound dogs looking for a leader.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events - 4/28/2018
Published in the Stephenville Empire Tribune and Glen Rose Reporter - [October 2019]
(Click to Read Part 3)
I am at the local animal shelter holding this little shivering creature in my arms. He is looking up at me with the one eye that will open, the other crusted shut and swollen.
“I have to adopt this little dog,” I say to my husband. I had promised him earlier that we were only going to pet puppies, but my fingers were crossed so that promise didn’t really count.
“Let’s take some time to think about it. Out of all of the dogs here, this is the last one I would pick,” not being a fan of the lapdog or the sick dog, it is a justified response by him.
“Okay,” I say and gently return this weightless puppy to the huge kennel they have temporarily placed him in, terrifying for one so small. Dogs are more comfortable in cozy places, especially when they want a place to lick their wounds to recover or even die. My heart breaks having to turn and leave him, his little face pushed into the chain-link gate once again, a low whine begging me to reconsider.
My husband looks at me suspiciously; “Okay, then,” and we turn to leave. He instinctively knows that I don’t give up this easily. The next morning, my husband is going out of town on a business trip and I am counting on this for my plan to work.
“Do you want to go pet puppies?” I casually ask my daughter the next morning only moments after my husband vacates the house.
“Yes!” she exclaims without hesitation. So, we go, and we walk around inside the two buildings housing the dogs, a chorus of barks welcoming us every step along the way. It briefly enters my mind that my dog may not be there anymore, but I push that thought aside.
We are giving out a pet here and an ear scratch there and as we near the kennel (my ultimate target) I hold my breath then see that he is still there. (Yes!) “This is the little dog I saw yesterday,” feigning indifference. I want an honest response from her. We are looking for the right dog to take over as alpha since our beloved boxer mix passed away and I wonder if this little 10-pound critter will be up for the challenge. He will have to lead a pack of two quirky rescues, both over 60 pounds and unable to cope without a boss. They have spent most of their time crouched under my bed recently.
The name tag on his pen says Scruffy, an accurate description. “He is so cute,” my daughter says as she cracks the door to rub his face. I am hopeful. He is not cute now; but my daughter, like me, sees past his scruffiness, scabs, and cherry-eye to the dog he can be. I reach down and lift him out as his curled tail beats a frantic wag and hand him over. It is instant love, the little guy pressing his face into my daughter’s neck and snuffling.
“Let’s take him home,” we simultaneously say followed by “Pinch, poke. You owe me a coke,” a tradition when we say the same thing at the same time. I take this as a good sign.
We carry him out of the building housing roughly half of the homeless dogs, and up to the adoption desk located in another building. The process is easy since we are repeat customers, having adopted Buddy from them previously. We decide to stop by our vet on the way home to have him checked out and after a thorough exam and shots, we are sent on our way with antibiotics and congratulations on the new addition to our family.
“Scruffy” also leaves the clinic with his new forever name. While we are in the waiting area, a lady at the checkout counter mentions that she once had a dog named Fred that looked a little like our new dog. He was a miniature schnauzer. My daughter and I looking at Scruffy detect schnauzer-like features and also a little of something else. Pug? He had an under-bite and curled tail. Chihuahua? Bulging eyes. Yorkie? The right color schemes. Probably a combination of all, a designer dog gone horribly wrong...or brilliantly right in our opinions. Made just for our family.
My daughter and I say it at the exact same time…“Let’s name him Fred! Pinch, poke. You owe me a coke!” “Fred” it is. Now to break the news to my husband.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events
(Click to read Part 4)
“Hi, Fred,” my daughter tries out our adopted dog’s new name as we are leaving the vet’s office. He was in such rough shape physically that we dropped in to have him checked out before heading home. Dr. B prodded and poked and opened his tiny mouth affirming what I already suspected. Even though Fred looked like an ancient dog with his wispy fur and spindly legs on a too-long body, he was a young dog with adolescent teeth. Probably a year or so old but seriously neglected. We wait on pins and needles for Dr. B to come back into the examination room, my daughter holding this quivering mass of puppy.
“Heartworm test negative!” he exclaims handing me a fresh bottle of antibiotics and a tube of ointment. “Two a day until they are gone and plenty of high-calorie dog food and freshwater and he should be good as new.” He then instructs me to hold pressure on the small cherry-like protrusion highly visible in the inside corner of Fred’s right eye. “Put ointment on it a couple of times a day and hold pressure on it when you can. This should keep it from getting worse, kind of pushing it back under the lid. We can surgically repair it if it gets bothersome.” Surgery will be the last resort option...which is good news.
We thank Dr. B profusely, proceeding to check out and then, once again, load up in the car—my daughter holding Fred tight, and drive the remaining mile home. We have high hopes that Dingo, always a little quirky, and Buddy, always rumpled, dusty, and lovable, will accept him as their new leader or at least a new friend.
Pushing the garage door opener starts a cacophony of joyous barking from inside the house. I walk ahead and crack the door that opens into the kitchen. “Who wants a new puppy?” I ask as we walk in with a now growling and shaking Fred. Blank stares emanate from Buddy and Dingo as we sit on the couch, Fred in my lap, for introductions. Dingo feigns disinterest after a quick sniff directed toward Fred but Buddy begins to get excited.
“Welcome, Fred!” he barks as he proceeds to show Fred all of the cool things a dog can do at our house. Buddy runs back and forth itching his sides on the leather sofa; all the while casting glances at Fred to be sure he is watching. He brings a toy over, laying it on the couch in front of the still growling Fred. “This is the water bowl!” as he, still looking sideways at Fred, runs over and begins to take largely exaggerated laps of water from the newly filled water dish. He prances back over to us, mouth still dripping and face in a wide smile. “Wanna play?” Fred’s growling ceases as he tentatively begins to chew on the gift in front of him, Buddy’s favorite toy. Dingo glances over, feigned disinterest disappearing as his tail starts to beat a slow rhythm on the hardwood floor. “I guess you’re okay, Fred,” he begrudgingly whines. Fred creeps off of the couch and curls up in the little makeshift blanket-bed my daughter has placed on the floor between Buddy and Dingo, the spot usually occupied by Neo until his recent passing. The stars are realigned and order is restored. Two 60-pound beasts have found a new 10-pound but fearless leader.
Now the hard part...placing that phone call to my husband, still out of town. He said he didn’t want that little sick dog when we first spotted him at the shelter. Not a fan of lapdogs. Little does he know how his life and this household is about to be transformed by taking a chance on this doomed little guy. Welcome home, Fred.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events
(Click to read Part 5)
My daughter snaps a quick close up pic with her iPhone—“Smile, Fred!”—and opening her text messages enters the nine-digit phone number of her dad. “Look what we got,” in the text line, accompanies the photo of a grumpy little wiry face.
We wait on pins and needles for a response. We snuck off to our local animal shelter, on the sly, only minutes after my husband left for a business trip. Our mission...to adopt this little critter in much need of medical attention and a loving home. He has already ingrained himself as leader of this pack of two large quirky rescue dogs. Fred is the ten-pound leader, dictating the food bowls so we had to spread them apart to opposite ends of the house. Otherwise, Buddy and Dingo wouldn't be allowed to eat. His skinny legs make it hard to guard both bowls, so he stands guard—in the middle—casting a growly face, first left, then right, warning two 60-pound dogs away. They are happy to abide by his new rules having been lost and distraught when Neo, their 14-year-old leader passed away just a month earlier leaving them aimless and shaken. They will happily eat when Fred says it is okay.
A “ding" indicates a notification has arrived on my daughter’s phone. We look at each other, tense, as she clicks the message to open. “You got THAT dog?” my husband’s exasperated response pops up and is shortly followed by several emojis, angry, sweaty, bug-eyed, and resigned. We smile at the resigned little cartoon face and say, “YES!” My husband has recently discovered emojis and uses them in series now instead of words. Easier than the slow process of typing with “sausage fingers".
I quickly pick Fred up for a hug and am rewarded by a startled nip to my cheek. We have to remember that this guy suffered some serious abuse and he will need time to overcome his fears. “No face bites,” I scold him, and he pensively licks my reddening cheek.
My husband finally parks in the driveway, making it home after an overnight work-laden trip. We have bathed, brushed, and given Fred a little full-body Mohawk in anticipation of their first official meeting. We are not sure how this meeting will go, given the still unknown list of Fred’s fears, already realizing he is terrified of children, quaking and panting and baring teeth earlier in the vet’s office as a sweet little girl approached, “Pet doggie?" her mission. A child must have tortured this sad little dog. It is our hope that he tolerates being around a man without the same heart-wrenching panic.
The side door opens and my husband walks in, a little squeak emanating from a wonky wheel on the duffel bag he rolls behind him. I look at my daughter, she looks at me, we look at Fred and we all look at my husband. A little whine emanates from low in Fred’s throat. “My new Daddy!” he jumps from the couch and tail wagging, prances and dances and spins a happy bark resounding. We are relieved as my husband lifts Fred up into his arms and is assaulted, his face slathered with kisses.
“You never listen to me,” my husband scolds. “Thank you,”...long pause, the wheels in motion behind his eyelids as he comes up with the punch line…"for NOTHING!” and he laughs but I notice his hand. It is still massaging Fred’s little head.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events
(Click to read Part 6)
Have you ever wrestled a bear? Well, that is exactly what I did...or felt like I did...the other night.
It all started when I noticed Buddy, one of our three rescue dogs, licking his fur and biting at several random areas on his stomach and legs. I was concerned about fleas but since we have used a flea and tick product on our dogs for many years, I knew that was likely not the problem.
Buddy, always covered in a light film of dust and stickers, needed a bath. I thought he might also need an Epsom salt soak since he was having some sort of skin irritation; so instead of filling the little plastic baby pool in the back yard with tepid "hose water", a soothing bath in our master bathroom garden-tub seemed to be the remedy.
I was stealthy as I began to quietly run the bath for this 60-pound gentle terrier mix. I didn't really anticipate problems with him because he hated to get in trouble. A stern look his way was all it took for him to crumple and stop the behavior that had caused the stern look.
Dingo and Buddy had witnessed Fred's baths on many occasions since I tended to leave the bathroom door cracked to prevent the buildup of humidity. Mid-bath, I would glance over to see two muzzles with four soft brown eyes watching through the door sliver. Buddy always looked anxious and commiserated with Fred's situation by giving him a quick sniff and a lick afterward; as if to say, “We’re glad that’s over.”
Fred hid as he heard water running in the tub, while Dingo and Buddy relaxed on the floor close to the bathroom door, ready for the show to begin. I pretended to walk past but swiveled at the last second to take hold of Buddy’s collar. Panic had not yet set in and he cooperated by walking into the bathroom without resistance; but when I wheeled and shut the bathroom door leaving it cracked a bit, Buddy began to pace.
"Who's a good boy? Buddy's a good boy," I coaxed as I lifted his heavy body off the tile floor and that is when all hell broke loose. I pivoted to lower him into the large tub but his paws…as four legs splayed out “spread-eagle” style…gripped both sides of the tub. Bath bombs, skeletal soap shards, and shampoo bottles were launched into the air and splashed down, like tiny missiles, into the rising water.
At one point, his toenails hooked into the wispy, white, sheer curtains covering the window and they began to peel off of the curtain rod wrapping and entangling his flailing body—reminiscent of a mummy. My arms were weakening, and I had to compress his legs together while simultaneously lowering and unwrapping him. This seemed to work but when his feet touched the tub-bottom, he slipped and scrambled trying to barrel his way past me. I had to make myself wide to fully block his escape.
I clutched his collar with one hand; lathering while scrubbing and performing a general "sticker-removal" procedure all over his body with the other hand. It was becoming obvious that this was the source of his itch. A little coconut conditioner while holding him down, then the final rinse and we were finished. He no longer smelled like dirt and old socks.
Getting him out of the tub was easy as he just launched himself high over the edge and began to shake an excessive amount of water out of his clean fur. I was sweaty and saturated but glad this ordeal was over.
When I reached to open the door, I noticed Fred's eye—the bulgy one with the prolapsed tear gland (AKA cherry-eye)—was pressed hard against the door crack, peering sympathetically at Buddy's dripping body. As we exited, Fred gave him the conciliatory sniff and lick. But I could imagine him thinking, "Better you than me, Buddy."
Meanwhile, the only evidence of Dingo, was his brown bushy black-tipped tail sticking out from under my bed as it beat a slow rhythm on the bedroom floor.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events