A Boy Named Butthead

I got a call from Butthead the other day.  He saw my mom in the old home town and asked for my cell number.  Thirty-five years have passed since we last spoke, the time when we crossed the stage as Sylacauga High School graduates.  Diplomas in hand, we had been duly processed and certified “ready to take on the world” by the City Board of Education.

If you have some mileage on you, the name “Butthead” probably evokes the image of a cartoon character from the 80’s who had an equally stupid friend named Beavis.  My friend’s real name was Ronnie, even though he went through all of junior high and high school with the nickname.  I can never remember him referred to as  anything else.  I’m pretty sure the teachers even called him Butthead.

The moniker stuck so completely that when he telephoned after all those years he said “Hey, this is Ronnie, a.k.a. Butthead.”

How does a kid end-up with such a lousy nickname?

I’m glad you asked.

It all started back in the seventh grade at East Highland Middle School.  Like most junior high schools, E.H.M.S. was a transition between the innocence of elementary school and the challenges of high school.  A more unstable mix of kids at different levels of mental and physical development could not have existed.  Tender-hearted children who still got tucked into bed at night walked the same halls as half-grown men who had failed a grade or two and were counting the days until their 16th birthday so they could drop-out.

You learned important things in 7th grade, some of which set the tone and tenor of your outlook on life.  Most of the hard lessons were in gym class.  Taking a public shower for the first time in a big open room with 30 other naked boys was the first challenge.  From that you learned that in spite of what had been taught in civics class, all men were not created equal.

If a kid could sort of fly under the radar and make it through East Highland without the need for therapy in adulthood, it was a remarkable thing.

Butthead wasn’t so lucky.

It happened in the aforementioned gym class.  We sometimes had “health studies” on rare occasions when the weather was too bad to go outside.  Most of the time it was nothing more than forced indoor confinement, but eventually the appointed day came for “the talk.”

You know which talk.  That talk.  The one best delivered by your parents.  The one you should never get from a frustrated former tennis-pro-turned-gym-teacher in a room full of adolescent boys.

Gym teacher had diagrams to accompany the lecture.  Not being much of a teacher or disciplinarian, the presentation was met with hoots and catcalls, along with an ample supply of crudeness.

Unfortunately, poor Ronnie asked a legitimate question about anatomy.

Gym teacher tenderly responded with “Ronnie, if you’d take your head out of your butt for a minute and pay attention, I think you’d see what I’m talking about.”

The room exploded with juvenile laughter, and somebody in the peanut gallery said “Ah ha ha ha!  Ronnie’s a butt-head.”

And from that point on he simply was.  It stuck to him like white on rice.

Now don’t think this story is tragic.  A boy named Sue got mean over his misfortune, but Butthead was always a smiling, happy-go-lucky-guy.  In fact he was a triple threat:  a good student,  fullback on the football team, and a gifted artist.  By the time we reached graduation he was voted by classmates as “Most Artistic” in our Senior Class.

Some people go through life angry and bitter about things from their childhood.  Others shrug it off and move forward.

I enjoyed a few telephone minutes with my old friend.  He’s a grandfather now, like me, and we both see the years slipping away with the same sense of urgency.  We ended the conversation with a promise to get together soon to reminisce about the old days and catch-up on all the years that have passed since.

All I could say was “I’m really looking forward to it Ronnie.”

And I meant it.

 

 

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Stopping by the Store

old country store

I noticed this week that the little country store in Five Points was closed and boarded-up.

Now when I when I mention “Five Points” I am quite sure that some of you may think “Oh no, which store?” (at least if you live in Alabama) because more than one community is called Five Points.  I can think of four or five without much effort.  The same could be said for “Pine Level,” “Midway,” and “Oak Grove.”  But I am not writing about those places.  This Five Points is between White Plains and Stroud.  The store I mention was the only one there.

I grieve the passing of the country store like an ornithologist grieves for the Ivory-billed woodpecker.  To me it is the passing of a fixture in a distinct culture that is going…going…gone, and it has happened in my lifetime.  A few are hanging on like a tick on a redbone hound’s ear (see Delta), but these are mostly reliquaries.

The old country store has been well-documented in Southern writing and literature, so I won’t harrow a field that Bragg, Grimsley Johnson, or a host of others writers who are much better than I have already plowed.  I’m sure you know that these were the go to places for county folk before Walmart and Dollar General took the South like Grant took Richmond  — a single stop shop where you could buy RC Colas and moon pies, where fan belts for Chevy small-block 350’s could be found next to the big glass counter that showcased country ham or baloney and cheese by the slice.  It’s true that if you lived out from a town and you needed it, the store likely had it, although it may have been there awaiting that need for months or even years.

I understand economics and demographics and the simple fact that things change.  I also understand that nostalgia is a symptom of old age.  But these facts don’t change my view that when some things are gone we are made less by their absence.

We had not one but two country stores between home and town when I was growing up:  Sprewell’s and Culver’s.  We usually stopped at Sprewell’s, because Culver also fixed and traded cars and his front lot was always so crowded with vehicles that you could hardly get off the highway to park and go inside.

I learned a couple of life lessons at Sprewell’s.

One was that in those olden days there was a rite of passage that required every young southern boy to go into the store and buy a box of Kotex while his mom fidgeted in the car.  And even though that boy was not clear about the intended use of Kotex, he knew intuitively in his heart of hearts that it was something he was deeply embarrassed to search for and then place upon the counter.  To make matters worse he was not facing some semi-anonymous bar-code swiper*, he was buying from old man Sprewell.  He saw the man nearly every day, and the smirk on his face surely didn’t ease the embarrassment.

The other thing I learned was equally uncomfortable but far more important.  I learned the difference between cash and credit.

For a time when I was in first or second grade, my dad drove me and my older neighbor to school every morning.  Our routine included a stop at the store so my dad could put five dollars worth of gas in his pickup** while me and neighbor boy went inside.

Now I should note here that neighbor boy‘s daddy was a successful business owner in town, and therefore he seemed to get just about anything and everything he wanted, anytime he wanted it.

For about the first six months, I watched as he swaggered through the store, picking out an arm load of chips, snack cakes, candy and a coke.  He’d lay all that loot on the counter for old man Sprewell to tally and say “put it on my tab.”

I viewed this with about as much understanding as the need to buy Kotex, but it looked like a magical thing.

One day I decided to give it a try — not to that grand extent, mind you, but with a single bag of Fritos corn chips.  Fritos was doing some heavy-duty child-targeted advertising at the time, and I really wanted a Frito Bandito pencil eraser that just might be included as a prize in the bag.***

I got my chips and walked by the counter and said “put it on my tab” — just as my dad came through the door.

“We don’t buy on credit,” he said.  “You can have the chips, but put them on the counter and I’ll pay for them.”

Later in private, my daddy explained the situation completely:  we don’t buy things we don’t need, we don’t get everything we want, and if we do buy something we should have the money to pay for it in hand.****

I reckon the country store is not the only thing that has all but vanished from Southern culture.  Country wisdom is mighty scarce too.

 

* Semi-anonymous because she will likely have a badge on her uniform that states “LaShondra, Associate for Two Years.”

** I can never recall my dad buying more than five dollars of gas, even in those days when gas was considerably cheaper.  A full tank of gas was another mysterious concept in my youth.

*** Imagine the politically correct outrage today if a company’s mascot was a stereotypical caricature of a Mexican bandit.

****I wish I would have always remembered that one.  Life would have been so much better.

Spring Cleaning in the Dead of Winter

Another year has rolled around, and though I’ve made no formal resolutions I find myself restless and uneasy.  If nothing else, the calendar change reminds me that  time is passing.  My time here is limited, so I better spend more of what I have left on things that matter to me.

Writing is one of those things.  And whether it be good, bad, interesting or otherwise, it’s something that feels important (at least for me) to do.

So come around here every now and then if you like.  Remember that I’m really writing this stuff just for me, although I hope you may find some of it interesting enough to occupy a few minutes of your precious time.  After all, your life is ending one minute at a time too, so you have choices to make as well as I.  You decide your level of involvement.*

If you’ve been here before you’ll notice I’ve knocked down a few cobwebs and applied a fresh coat of paint.  I liked the old digs (which is called the “Minimalist” template in WordPress) but I’ve been told that the presentation is sometimes a little hard to read.  I’ve decided to redecorate with one called “Hemingway,” because it is still fairly clean and simplistic, and the print seems larger and a little easier on older eyes.**

I have some words that need to travel from my brain to electronic paper —  stories that need to be told to keep me at least partially sane.  Some are true, some are only partially true, and some are complete fiction.  As the reader you will have to decide for yourself which are which.

As as always, if you are reading this you have my thanks.  I’m honored that you chose to stop by and spend a few minutes with me.

 

*Words borrowed from “Fight Club,” one of my favorite books/movies that is perhaps the world’s longest metaphor disguised as a novel.

**A side benefit is that if anyone ever asks me to describe my writing style I can now say “Well, it’s a lot like Hemingway” without telling a complete lie.