Saturday, December 31, 2016

Princes and Princesses

As 2016 winds down and we reflect over the past year, people around my age (I’m currently 51) are sadly cataloging the pop cultural icons from the 70’s and 80’s that we lost. We grew up listening to David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey, Prince and George Michael. My television brought Grizzly Adams (Dan Haggerty), Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) and the White Shadow (Ken Howard) into my living room on a regular basis. My imagination was sparked on the silver screen by Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher. Muhammad Ali, Pat Summitt and Arnold Palmer set high standards in their respective sports. Elie Wiesel and Harper Lee wrote words that will forever resonate with those who read them. We also lost genuine American hero John Glenn. These are just the biggest names in a long list of familiar faces that passed away in 2016.

My first thoughts about “famous” deaths are usually about how no amount of fame or fortune can keep anyone from that grave appointment with the grim reaper. Then I ponder about how odd it is for thousands of people to mourn the deaths of those they have never even met. I guess they seem like family because they have made us laugh and cry and cheer on the public stage. More than this, however, I believe losing the idols of our childhood remind us all too clearly of our own mortality. When the celebrity dies, we are reminded there is no escape for any of us and that day is looming ever closer.

Death was thrust into my life at an early age. In 1977, at the formative age of 12, I lost my 9 year old brother to leukemia. That’s the same year I first saw Princess Leia race through space with Luke and Han. Travelling to that galaxy far, far away in my mind was one of the ways I could temporarily escape the pain of this world. As my years now seem to pass with light speed, I have to face the fact I am more Kenobi than Skywalker. On this New Year's Eve, I am thankful for all the artists and icons that have made my life fuller along the way and for all the people I actually know and love that have made it worth living. 

I would wish you all luck in 2017, but as Obi-Wan says, “In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.”

Graphic by Mike LeMieux

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Mountain Memories

One of the ways I deal with things is to write. I started this the day after wildfires raged through the city of Gatlinburg and the surrounding hills as a way of giving expression to my grief over what was happening in that unique mountain town. I did not originally intend to share this, but here it is 4:00 AM and I figured some of my memories might trigger some for others.

This is not an exhaustive list, but just the first thoughts that came to my mind when I think about a lifetime of visiting Gatlinburg and the surrounding area. 

My first recollection is a youth trip to the Mountain Mall in early 80’s where I discovered for the first time something called “White Chocolate.” I remember being fascinated by the big Jesus who watched me no matter where I moved at Christus Gardens.

One of the buildings destroyed in this fire was a restaurant named The Alamo. When the structure was first built, it was called "T.G.'s North of the Border Cafe and Cantina" after its owner, country singer T.G. Shepperd. My college roommate and I went there not long after it opened and were underwhelmed with the food. A fellow stopped by our table to ask what we thought and we were both "Meh." We did not realize until later that it was T.G. himself. 

I picture my buddy David and I people-watching while sitting on a stone wall in front of the Methodist Church. I can still smell the candied apples and see all the airbrushed T-shirts. I recall the fun of the Sweet Fanny Adams show along with entertainment co-workers from Silver Dollar City.  

I still think about trying to speak words of comfort to a crowded gym at Gatlinburg-Pittman High school following the tragic death of one of the youth from my church.

My wife Becky still teases me about not dancing with her at The Social Club and getting mad when she danced with someone else. We were “just friends” at the time and years before dating.

After work one day at Silver Dollar City, my friend Hank and I took a couple of train groupies to play Hillbilly Golf and then rode the rinky-dink two-person Sky Lift up for a pretty neat view.

Gatlinburg was a welcome return to civilization for my best friend Jay and I following a nearly disastrous tubing excursion in the National Park during flood conditions. 

My wife and I had our “Reception After the Reception” with our closest friends and spent our wedding night at the Edgewater Hotel. Some time later, I would spend many evenings killing time waiting on my new bride to finish work at Humdinger’s yogurt shop.

This time of year makes me think about cruising the Winterfest lights with my girls when they were young and riding the tram (excuse me, "Aerial Tramway") to Ober Gatlinburg to ice skate with my family. We celebrated my father-in-law's retirement at Mynatt Park. 

Of course, there have been years of Holston Conference Resurrection youth events at the convention center. Going to the Space Needle and playing in the arcade at its base was a favorite pastime for many of those trips. Breakfast at the Pancake House was another annual tradition for that youth group.

Most recently, we rented a huge cabin for the whole family on Ski Mountain to celebrate our anniversary. This does not even count hikes up to the Chimney Tops where this fire originated. The last time we had a birthday party at the Chimneys picnic area, we saw a Momma Bear and two cubs.

Needless to say, the Smokies and Gatlinburg are a huge part of my life and will continue to be so. As devastating as this is, I know the people and the town will bounce back. This sounds like a eulogy, but the mountains are not dead. This is just my way of honoring what a special place it is.