April 16, 2019

Vrrrrrooooom! This 13-year-old is off to the races

            First impressions stick.
            I remember the first time he stepped out of his daddy’s pickup truck. The pre-teen stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Tanner.” As he gripped my hand, he looked me in the eyes. He punctuated our first conversation with “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.”
That was a few years ago. Now he’s taller and 13. His good manners have only improved. Good parenting is hard to hide, but I was slow to learn about his hobby. I’ll tell you about that in a minute.
What I knew was that Tanner comes from a farming heritage. Between our farm and the county seat, both sides of the roads are sprinkled with relatives of his. These folks are serious about the soil and the outdoors. When they host their annual opening-day dove shoot and barbecue, you better get there early or you’ll stand at the end of a long line.
It’s only natural that Tanner, as an eighth-grader, is active in the Future Farmers of America and 4-H. He’s avid about hunting and fishing. He likes to shoot hoops in the backyard, and he once played Little League baseball. But today, Tanner’s recreational passion is “slinging dirt.”
That’s right.
In two years, Tanner Nation will be old enough to get his learner’s permit so that he can drive with an adult in the car. But on Saturday nights this spring, the Oglethorpe County Middle schooler is driving—solo—70 mph on Hartwell Speedway’s red-clay oval.
So far in 2019, Tanner has claimed the checkered flag in three of his five races. The last two victories were nose-to-nose finishes with Tanner’s Number 111 winning by inches. Last Saturday night’s draw put Tanner at the back of the pack, but he muscled his way to be first at the finish line. His daddy, Adam, told me, “Man, I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
And then I learned more.
None of Tanner’s pit crew can drive—legally by themselves—on the streets either. Three are 15, and the youngest is his 8-year-old-sister, Charlie. She’s the family jester who ribs her big brother, “You better do right, or I’ll be driving that car.”
These youngsters know how to turn wrenches. They work on the engine. And when a new body for the Ford Mustang arrived, the crew bolted it on the chassis. On Friday nights—when others their ages are hanging out with friends or playing video games—Tanner’s team is hanging out in his garage, getting ready for the next race.
            Since we have grandsons near Tanner’s age, I tried to imagine any of them behind the wheel and roaring around a dirt track. Well, I couldn’t. They might have ink in their veins, but not motor oil, as Tanner does.
            He’s a fourth-generation dirt-track racer, going back to his great-great-uncle, his granddaddy and his daddy. The Nation family is famous for slinging Northeast Georgia red clay and stacking trophies on the shelf. Even though he’s just 13, Tanner is looking way down the road. He hopes he can inspire a fifth generation to zoom around the track one day.
            I asked, “Tanner, do you ever get nervous?”
            “No, sir,” he said. And then he corrected himself, “Yes, sir. I do get nervous when I see the white flag.” That’s the traditional warning that you’ve got one last lap to win. Nervous or not, that’s all Tanner has needed. 
            Yes, sir.
First impressions do stick.
I knew Tanner was a winner from the start.  



April 9, 2019

Knock ‘em out, Guy

(Note: This is an excerpt from the upcoming book, The Last Man to Let You Down, My Daddy the Undertaker, which goes to press this month. It is expected to be available by mid-summer.)
The fact that there wasn’t a funeral did not mean you had time to goof off. Big Dink believed: “If you had time to lean, you had time to clean.”  When you worked for him, you worked.
“The Last Man to Let You Down, My Daddy the Undertaker” didn’t have an idling gear in his drive train. He expected everything in his operation to be spit-shined—your shoes, the hearse and the heart-pine floors in the parlor.
When you left a church after a funeral, he wanted the place in better shape than before the service. If flower petals were on the floor, you got them up. If a vacuum cleaner wasn’t handy, he said, “Pick ’em up … just like a chicken eating corn.” And that’s what we did. We “pecked” until the carpet or tile was spotless.

My dad had a first-thing-in-the-morning rule: The front porch and sidewalk were swept before the doors were opened. He wanted the heart-pine floors gleaming. Many times, I saw Guy Fussell and James Gordon—wearing starched shirts and ties—on their knees rubbing in Johnson’s Paste Wax. And when I got to the Army, a sergeant didn’t have to teach me to spit-shine shoes or the latrine.
Big Dink called the vehicles rolling stock. Dust didn’t linger on the hearses or ambulances. We washed them before they got dirty. He had the same philosophy about the grass. You didn’t wait until the grass looked as though it needed cutting. Heaven forbid if leaves cluttered the lawn.
You never knew when 427-3721 would ring with a death call or there was a wreck on U.S. 301 South. That’s why all this yard work was done in dress clothes. I’ll never forget an autumn morning in 1962, when I walked onto the front porch of 111 West Orange Street. 
Guy Fussell had hung his suit coat on a rocking chair, and he had tucked his tie into his white shirt. For a few moments, I stood there and watched him working up a sweat.
When I asked what he was doing, he didn’t answer right away. He was too busy waving a cane pole and banging it against the limbs of the dogwood and redbud trees on the front lawn.
After about a dozen more whacks, he said, “Your … whack … whack … daddy … whack … makes me … whack … whack … rake these yards … whack … and  I’m … whack … sick and tired … whack … of doing this … whack … every morning!”
With two more whacks, the last leaf fell. Laying down the fishing pole, he picked up the rake. Turning to me, he said, “I mean it.”  Then he paused to wipe his forehead. “This is the last %@#$ time I am going to rake these leaves this year!”