How Grand They Were!

Photo:  Martin & Opal Atherton and their firstborn, Bob.

“I didn’t know it would be so strong, waiting and wondering about you.  I didn’t know it would last so long.  Nights are forever without you.”  Nights Are Forever Without You – Recorded by:  England Dan & John Ford Coley.  Released: July 1976.  Composer:  Parker McGee.

He walked into Wolf City, Texas junior high classroom for the first time, straight from his Oklahoma stomping grounds.  Being the new kid in town, he had yet to make friends.  She looked up, locking her kind and smiling blue eyes on this ruddy, wavy, auburn-haired boy.  He had a swagger, which was alien to the other boys, and a subtle, lopsided grin from one corner of his mouth, as if he were holding secrets nobody else knew.  His dark brown eyes shifted toward the brunette beauty sitting at her desk, trying to look busy.  They were studious in that they studied one another from minute one.  Later, “Lucky” –my granddaughter’s middle name — was the nickname placed on him because of his special catch.  The name stayed with him for the next seven decades.  But that was somewhere around 1933-1934.

Fast forward to 1938.  It was a different world, another place and time.  I will say, I can’t imagine getting into a tux, or suit and tie, or wedding dress to brave the Texas July heat.  Air conditioning wasn’t around at the time.  Yet, that’s what my maternal grandparents did, 80 years ago this month, July 13th, to be exact.  They were just country kids from family stock that the salt of the earth is made.

How about a few photos?

OMA-B MRA Wedding

When I say Martin and Opal Atherton were true diamonds in the rough, I am understating the truth of this incredibly fine couple.  Anyone who knew them could write novels of their character — a character of one, not two.

11 OMA MRA Lovers

Frankly, my novel, painting their portrait, would be as thick as War and Peace, or The Tale of Two Cities.  What I will give you today is a smidgen of a peek into my favorite human beings of the past century.

19 OMA MRA Booth

One of my favorite stories concerns a common practice when they were teens dating out in the east Texas woods.  My granddad had a horse he would ride to my grandmother’s house down the dirt road in Hunt County, Texas.  When he arrived at her house, he would tell the horse to go home, I imagine with a little slap on the behind (the horse’s behind, not my grandmother’s), and the horse would go all the way home without any distractions.  The old playwright comes out in me as I envision the empty-saddled horse passing by an old gas station/general country store.  My mind’s eye sees three old men in overalls leaning back in rickety wooden chairs out front saying, “Yep, there goes Martin’s horse.  He must be at that Opal girl’s house.”

30 OMA Trigger Horse

6 OMA MRA Bonnie&Clyde

A little boy’s memories of his grandparents surround small things. Small, but powerful.  Little memories that brought wisps of joy don’t have to be much.  Something like: a cold bottle of Coke, a peanut butter cracker sandwich or a well-stocked pantry filled with Oreos and variety packs of chips.  Also, things like the toys stashed behind a french door in the corner of the living room reserved just for me.  In the far back of the living room, away from the audio of the Philco television, my grandmother would sit next to me, reading softly from the dialogue bubbles of old comic books she had saved.  I can still feel the bristles of his late-night beard stubble while he hugged and kissed me good-night.  One of my favorite times was watching, and learning, as my granddad would cook out on his grill on a Saturday afternoon.  Before that, he would have detailed my mom’s car, changing the oil and spark plugs, usually before the crack of dawn.  It all goes to small efforts of great love.

Granddad at the grill. early 1980s.

Back In 1962, when my 18 year old mom needed to divorce my biological father (I was two years old), it was for reasons of security and safety for both of us.  The abusive situation was horrid, without any hope of changing for the better.  So much so, my granddad, with his well-known John Wayne attitude and a tad of Robert Mitchum looks, forged a deal.  He made a deal where he would pay all court costs if my bio-father agreed to cut ties, never to attempt to contact us again.  Part of the deal was my bio-father would be released from child-support (yes, it was that bad). An agreement was made rather quickly.  He told the judge he would help to raise me, to take me as his own.  Indeed, he and my grandmother were young enough to be my parents.  When I was born, he was only 41, she had just turned 39.  If I could remember, that would’ve been a major benchmark of one of my first memories of them.

32 OMA Me Easter

In retrospect, I cannot recall a time when they did not support me and my endeavors.  They dropped everything to attend most all of my events, concerts, graduation, musicals, and plays.  I could always count on seeing them in the audience, cheering me on.

My young mom was a highly independent woman, doing all she could to “make it” as a single mom in the ’60s & ’70s.  She was my Mary Richards from the Mary Tyler-Moore Show.  She can still turn the world on with a smile and turn a nothing day into one that seems worthwhile.  She would not take funds from my grandparents, even when we lived in poverty.  So, it was a norm for my granddad, without saying a word, to covertly slip me a few bills whenever he shook my hand, while she was looking the other way.  Later, especially at his funeral 10 years ago, I found out he made that under-the-table-hand-off to multiple people, from the needy next door, co-workers, to their pastor’s kids.  He truly gave of himself.

41 OMA MRA Curly Porch

Giving wasn’t always monetary for the Athertons.  Texas thunderstorms are notorious for rolling in like a bulldozer, with 60 mph straight winds up front, followed by torrential rains.  Flash flooding is not uncommon.  If you live along a lake, creek or river, stay on guard.  Sometime in the early 1950s, laying in bed late one night, out in their country ranch home, a forceful squall came busting through the clouds.  Unforeseen night-time storms are the best times to snuggle up, close the shutters and hope for the best.  While doing just that, they heard cries of panic and whimpering in the distance outside.  The sound was painful to hear.  My grandparents couldn’t help themselves.  They jumped out of bed, with a flashlight in hand, and followed the bellowing into the pitch black night, with the driving wind and rain pushing them back.  They ran to a gully, a dry creek bed.  The flashlight spotlighted the reality of what the stormy dark night was hiding.  A flash flood was raging, carrying whatever was not tied down into its swift current.  Along the bank was a frightened litter of puppies and their mom.  The mom was doing all she could to get each pup in her mouth in efforts to move to higher ground.  There was no time to hesitate.  She would surely lose the majority of her children if someone didn’t intervene.  That’s exactly what my grandparents did.  Still in their night clothes, they fought through the raging, rising flood, reached the mom and her pups, rescuing them all from certain death.  Not one was lost.  THAT was the heart of Martin and Opal Atherton.

47 OMA Tulo dog

18 OMA Wolfgang 1999

During WWII, my granddad struggled with the fact that his wounded older brother was in the thick of fighting the Nazis in France in a tank division, while he remained here raising his three kids and making a living.  At some point, regardless of his responsibilities at home, and with a newborn baby daughter (my mom), grit and patriotism kicked in.  He joined the navy and off he went to the newly liberated Philippines to keep the Japanese from returning.  It was the toughest separation for Martin and Opal.  They were so much in love.  Anyone who knew them could tell they were of one heart.  After the war was won, he came home on a Greyhound bus with his duffel bag on his shoulder.  As the bus arrived in the old square of downtown Greenville, Texas, my grandmother was anxiously waiting for him to step out of the folding doors.  I would give anything to have been a fly on the wall, just for a minute or two, to witness their loving reunion.  It has been said, right then and there, they promised one another they would never go anywhere apart from each other ever again.  They held to that promise, unless it was for a short men’s or women’s Bible class at their church, or a day of mechanical upgrade classes from General Motors.  God’s music score has its own arrangements.  He passed away about five weeks shy of their 70th anniversary.  She joined him eight years later after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.  I would’ve loved to have been a fly on Heaven’s gate to witness their second loving reunion.

Grands at NF mid 90s

My mom still lives in their house.  It was a house always remembered as a refuge from the harsh world.  My memories of that house are caressed with warm feelings of safety, security and love.  The home inside that house was without harsh judgments, cursing and violence.  A few months after his death in 2008, a Google search of the address was quite the surprise to us all.  To this day, I think of this as a sweet gift from above.  Even after he had left us, the Google photo of the house showed my granddad looking away while standing on the front porch.  Although rare he would be on the front porch, it was oh, so natural.

Granddad on porch in Google map pic. He had been dead for a long time.

Whether it was stranded puppies, a toddler doomed for harm and hopelessness, countless missionaries around the globe doing righteous work, to an elderly poor African-American man down the street, they were there for whomever needed a friendly helping hand and a kind smile.  I dare say, without any reservations whatsoever, this writer would have been dead long ago, or in prison somewhere, if not for my grandparents who unconditionally loved me as if I were their son.

This was the last photo together and last kiss.  He passed away about a week later.

Grands last pic. May 25, 2008. He died the following week.

There’s so much more to share of the life of Martin and Opal Atherton.  Let it be known, they preached their funerals every day of their lives, always filling themselves with fuel for the race.

“Blessings are on the head of the righteous…” – Solomon – Proverbs 10:6a (KJV)

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”  Hebrews 12:1 (NASB)




Haven’t We Been Here Before?

July 1987 (Photo credit Express News.)

“Rescue me.  Take me in your arms.  Rescue me.  I want your tender charm…I need you, and your love too.  Come on and rescue me.” -Recorded by:  Fontella Bass (1965)    Composers:  Carl Smith and Raynard Miner.

Wow!  It’s my first anniversary as a blogger!  Shocking really.  The year has flown by us.  Having lots to say, lots to type, my fingers are sore.  I find it therapeutic.  Allow me to show my gratitude for the new friends I’ve made through the lines posted.  If you are one of those, thank you, dear friend.  My life is sweetened because we share our words.

My first posting, from one year ago, was concerning something horrific I lived through while on the job behind the mic at KOJO-94FM in Dallas/Ft Worth.  (See the cover picture above.)  The surviving stranded teens, coming home from summer camp that July morning of 1987, will never forget the scene.  Neither will I.  Certainly, you are invited to my archives to July 19, 2017 and read the story, “Lost In Comfort”.  To say that today’s article is ironic would be an understatement.  It seems we’ve been here before.

Earlier this month the world was held tightly in an unexpected anticipation as we hoped and prayed for a young boy’s soccer team in Thailand.

Cave Boys Happy AFP Getty Images

Photo:  AFP/Getty Images

The “Wild Boars” soccer team, ages 11-16, along with their 25 year old coach, often went out for a bite to eat followed by some off-the-field-activity after practice on Saturdays.  One Saturday in June, they had lunch and elected to explore the well-known Tham Luang Cave.  During their impromptu excursion deep inside the sprawling cavern, the monsoon rains began to pound the area.  You know the story.  The waters began to rise trapping the team of 12 lads, and their coach, inside the far belly of the cavern.  For much of the 18 day ordeal, they had no food, only the water dripping from the stalactites from the ceiling of the section in which they were confined.  The boys did all they could to try to dig their way out in efforts to seek another exit, but there were none to be had.  Hopelessness and helplessness began to sweep over the group while at the same time trying to inspire one another.

Over 2,000 people from many nations were involved in the search and rescue attempts.  From local citizens to Navy SEALs, construction workers and engineers, they all came together for one goal.  At some point, great minds had to defeat the cloud of despair around them to focus more on a plan of action only supreme bravery could tackle.

As the flood waters continued to rise, as well as global prayers, a brilliant thought-out proposal was hatched. Part of the blueprint had to do with reaching the captured team, teaching them how to use oxygen tanks and swimming under cold water for at least half of a mile, often in tight bottleneck areas.  Everyone knew it was an operation of high risk.  One courageous soul volunteered to dive down to place oxygen tanks strategically along the lengthy swimming route for the rescue divers and the boys inside.  He was 38 year old former Taiwanese Navy SEAL, Petty Officer Samarn Kunan.  Diving into the frigid subterranean rising waters, Officer Kunan carefully deposited several air tanks along the cave route so others could sustain life during the rescue.  He never swam back out.  Later a rescuer found Officer Kunan floating in the flooded tunnel beneath.  He was unconscious from lack of oxygen, the very same element he was placing for others coming behind him.

The project worked.  The boys were freed one by one without serious injuries.  After some time in the hospital for observation and needed attention, the team gave a news conference.  They were all so grateful and praised the passion, compassion and life-giving efforts of their fallen hero, Samarn Kunan.  Some gave a heartbreaking thought that they felt it was their fault he lost his life.  The medical attention also included much needed counselling.

Cave Boys Reuters

Photo: Reuters

When asked what they had learned from this harrowing experience, the answers came loud and clear.  One mentioned, always tell your parents what your plans are before you go anywhere.  (As a dad, I concur.)  Many others expressed how they felt a strange urge to live life more carefully.  Others humbly stated that Samarn Kunan’s gift of bringing them hope and life gives more meaning to life from now on.  One can only hope so.

Valeepoan Kunan, the widow of Samarn Kunan, sent out photos of the “life-sustainer” hero from their personal family moments.  In her grief, she said something I actually felt inside my own heart.  She said of, and to, him, “You are my very heart.”

Cave Boys Navy SEAL

Photo: CBC.Ca

It all reminded me of the WWII movie, “Saving Private Ryan.”  There’s something of inexplainable valor concerning the act of giving one’s life away so that others might live.  Tom Hanks’ character did just that in a final battle while saving Private Ryan’s life in order for the young soldier to leave the front lines and see home again.  His character had been given dangerous orders to take a team deep into enemy territory to extract the young soldier and bring him back to the states.  (SPOILER ALERT)  At one point, toward the end of the movie, Hanks’ character is gravely wounded while shielding the life of Private Ryan during a fierce firefight just as they reach a bridge of freedom and safety.  As his body is propped up in a sitting position, he continues to fire his weapon toward the Nazi advancement, he challenges Ryan in his final breaths.  He charges Ryan to boldly go home and make his life count.  The scene fades, seguing into modern times where the now elderly Private Ryan is kneeling and sobbing at the cross headstone of Hanks’ character in the military cemetery in Normandy, France.  At an extremely touching moment, with his children and grandchildren surrounding him, Mr. Ryan rises to his feet, turns to his wife standing there and makes an astonishing, heart-wrenching request.  Needing confirmation if his life has mattered from the woman who knew him best, he said, “Tell me I have led a good life.  Tell me I am a good man.”  It was as if to say, “Has my life been worthy of this man’s sacrifice?”

Saving Private Ryan

“Saving Private Ryan” – Amblin Entertainment, Mutual Film Company, DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Pictures

Hear me out on this.  Flat out, let me just say, even in a far greater way, Jesus Christ did this for me.  His purpose, His mission was clear, stating it several times.  He came to rescue lives, our lives that live on after physical death.

We, all of us, are law-breakers in various forms.  Who hasn’t lied, cheated, lusted, coveted, ran from God’s heart, etc?  Some worse than others, but we can’t measure up.  We all are unable to truthfully say we have kept God’s design, His commandments for us.  From the Torah onward, law-breaking has its consequences.  Blood was shed to cover over the sins of the average Joe to the Charlie Mansons of mankind.  It was a price-tag God placed in the beginning to keep righteous wrath in its scabbard.  This is why historically, and even some today in multiple cultures, practiced the sacrificing of animals for spiritual appeasement.  It’s truly no longer needed.  Jesus, the sacrificial lamb from God, was sent to be that atoning sacrifice for the fallen souls of humanity, across cultures, nations and schools of thought.  Love made the difference.  Like Samarn Kunan’s story, He literally took our place when He took the cross upon Himself.  A monumental price was paid for wrong-doing.  Just like the soccer team digging for escape only to find it impossible to rescue themselves.  So too, we are unable to dig-out of our dark spiritual cavern.  I know, it’s our self-programming to attempt to do it ourselves, or call on a crystal for relief, but at the end of the day, we hit the sack still in sin-sickness in our DNA.  This is why Jesus said, and unpopular then, so it is today, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 paraphrased.)  Even our very best behaviors are void.  Taking it — His sacrifice for us that we can live beyond this life — to heart is not only a covering for law-breaking, but also an ongoing renewal cleansing in a deeply spiritual process only the Life-Giver can bring.  Think of it as a life-sustaining oxygen tank you did not own, you did not bring or create.

Jesus' Invitation (pinterest)

Photo:  Pinterest

After a year of insights, there’s even more room in the tank for fuel for the race.

“This is my blood, and with it God makes his agreement with you.  It will be poured out, so that many people will have their sins forgiven.” – Jesus – Matthew 26:28  (Contemporary English Version)

Dooley’s Unexpected Adventure

“I know what it means to hide your heart, from a long time ago.  Oh, darlin’.  It keeps you runnin’, yeah it keeps you runnin’…” Recorded by: Doobie Brothers (1976).  Composed by:  Michael McDonald.

You’ve heard it said, “Fight or flight.”  My step-grand-dog, Dooley, knows all too well.  His owner is my step-son.

Dooley, is a black German Shepherd/Border Collie mix.  He is about two years old, all 79 pounds of him.  The boy is always “ON”.  Never still, always full of energy, and often calamity ensues.  Certainly lovable, but be careful, he can injure you with his rocket-pup enthusiasm.

Fireworks in Lone Oak

July 4th was an experience for us all.  My wife and I headed out to east Texas, just outside of a tiny place called Lone Oak.  My brother-in-law, and his large family, invited the extended family, including Dooley, out to their wooded country home for food, frolic and fireworks.  The fun, family and fellowship was at its height from the very start.  The roasted Texas brisket was tender, the kids were loud and the hot evening air had a welcoming relieving breeze.  Dooley was loving the spacious property with his signature exuberance along with the expected drool.

Dooley at boneyard

Those close to Dooley know very well if he decides to run over you, you will bite the dust.  If he makes the decision to get to a certain spot on the ground, the leash will drag you.

As dusk crept upon us, the anticipation of family firework launching was almost tangible.  Dooley looked inquisitive, to say the least.  Wherever the kids were gathered, he pushed his way into the middle of it all.  So, when the box and sacks of various fireworks were presented out by the driveway to the side of the front yard, the kids were foaming at the mouth, so was Dooley.

A series of popping Black Cats were lit.  Dooley was about six feet from the string of explosives.  As soon as they began to ignite with an echoing slap-back of ear-popping bangs, Dooley shot off in the opposite direction like a race-pony.  It was dark, with only Tiki-torches to give some holiday glow.  Someone said he ran to the back of the house.  My step-son was able to wrangle him like an Abilene cowboy in a rodeo.  The fireworks continued.  My brother-in-law escalated the flames of fun with some good sized bottle rockets.  I worried about our thunder-dog of the night as the spectacle lit up the sky above.  Dooley had been tethered to a cork-screw stake in the dry Texas sod after his first speedy escape, but it didn’t take long until super-dog yanked himself free.  One of the kids yelled out that Dooley ran out into the woods and vanished.

The fireworks gathering turned into a search party.  I feared for him, knowing that local ranchers and farmers might see him in the darkness and mistake him for a black wolf.  I don’t have to tell you how that would end.

Thankfully, after a 20 minute search, Dooley was found up against a barbed-wire fence at the far back border of the property.  Once they brought the poor guy back to the house, it was clear he had tried to negotiate with the fence to get to the other side.  He is a city dog, uneducated in the ways of country-living.  That type of fence was alien to him.  He had a deep gash on his head, scratches along his lengthy legs as well as his side.  Since there are deadly wild razorback boars roaming free in the woods, he could have easily been attacked if he had stayed on the lam too long with the his smell of blood in the air.  He was tended to with peroxide and cleaned up nicely.  I doubt Dooley will be back next year for the family Ka-Boom fest.  I’m sure he couldn’t wait to get back to his quiet apartment with his comfy-couch in suburban north Dallas.

Dooley at rest

On the way home, I recognized myself in the adventure chapter of Dooley’s July 4th.  How many times have we been blindsided by something dangerous or harmful and ran away as quickly as we came?  Maybe I should’ve written “seemingly dangerous or harmful”.

One of my dearest friends from my high school years has been through some fireworks in life which ignited a prairie fire.  He has had to walk through some flames with family, his kids, wife, divorce and property losses.  A little over a year ago, his best friend (a cousin) passed away from a fast moving cancer.  A few months later, his honored uncle, (the father of the one who had died) also passed away.  He grieves heavily like I have never seen before.  This past December, he was there when his beloved father died after three horrific heart surgeries.  I recall him saying he didn’t want to be there and yet he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.  This week, his widowed mother, who lives alone some 200 miles away in east Texas, began to show terrible signs of dementia.  She is having hallucinations, unwarranted fears and warnings of a nervous breakdown.  He needs to move out there with her, but he is about two years away from retirement with full benefits, including pension.  He text me saying, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”  It worries me.  He’s at the barbed-wire fence.

Have you been to the bared-wire before?  Are you there now?   Have you run so hard, so fast that you run into more potent danger, a more severe flame?  Did a fear or circumstance cause you to flee out of sheer reflex?  I know I have.  I call it, as Dooley would if he could speak English, a defensive mechanism.  Frankly, it’s human nature to run away from pain and fear.

Running of the bulls.

Personally, I think of my past martial arts training.  Chuck Norris, the Babe Ruth of Karate Championships, once wrote (paraphrased) “When entering the ring to face my opponent, I never once considered not winning.”  To put fear aside, to stand and rely on your conditioning in training, and face the giant across from you is the goal.

Greek 1980ish

My beloved trainer, Demetrius “Greek” Havanas (1950-1981) 

I think of first responders and the military who train themselves to run into the inflamed building, or run toward the piercing bullets.

Fight or flight can be solved within us.  It all depends upon the firm foundation beneath the feet.  It all depends upon the condition of the mind and heart.  It all depends upon the shield you select to carry.  Otherwise, the next unexpected “it” will keep you runnin’.

Yet, there’s something to say about being grounded in times of struggle with fuel for the race.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9 (NKJV)