Encore.org was founded on the belief that the aging of America isn’t so much a problem to be solved as it is an opportunity to be seized. For 20 years, we’ve worked to change cultural expectations for the years beyond 50 and spark a movement around second acts for the greater good. In our own second act, we bring older and younger changemakers together to solve problems, bridge divides, and co-create the future.
I’m at the encore phase of life. Truth be told, I’ve been at the encore phase for years! And it can be scary. No, it is often scary.
When you’re determined to cash flow your life – and I am – it’s both scary and invigorating. Scary because like everybody else – and everything else – it’s largely unpredictable. We aim for an ideal outcome with the realization that there are going to be challenges we know nothing about. Add those to the known challenges and it’s enough to make a body want to stay in bed all day!
What’s going to happen with this economy? Interest rates are on the rise reaching new heights that an entire generation (or two) have never seen. Me? I’ve had a 14% mortgage before – and that was with an excellent credit score. But I’ve not seen anything like this – uncontrolled inflation, abundant supply of money, limited supply of products, out of control demand for almost everything. It’s an intersection of things that don’t make sense to me. Scary.
We were little boys. Stanley and me. Best friends from our beginnings.
A “Halloween” 😉 costume party. All the friends of our folks were there. Dressed in garb where hiding one’s real identity was the goal. We were gathered inside the garage, sitting in a circle with folks mingling…watching all the new arrivals. Up the driveway walking like Frankenstein was a gray robot. A red light bulb for a nose. Illuminated. There was no way to know who was underneath the garb of spray-painted cardboard boxes forming this ultra low-tech robot.
I had already identified my grandmother, Marie, dressed as Peter Pan. I recognized her immediately somehow. Walked right up to her, calling her by name (“Re” is what everybody, including me called her) asking her to pick me up. Nobody else could identify her.
Then there was this robot creature, easily the most captivating character there. Fascinating.
It was Stanley’s dad, Johnny Elmore. That’s my first memory of him. I was very young. Pre-school.
Johnny was my best friend’s dad. That was my first context for him.
There was never a time when he wasn’t in my life. His family was my second family. It’s just how it always was. Even when Stanely, his son and my best friend, passed from this life in 2013. Losing Stanley was the most devasting loss for me because we had so much history together. And because we were both older. Fifty-six to be precise.
Losing grandparents, especially “Peter Pan,” was sad, but she had been suffering badly…relegated to a nursing facility because of the constant care she required. Losing Stan was different. He was a peer. A close friend. A trusted phone call away all the time. Until he wasn’t.
Johnny Elmore and his wife, Sally, who preceded him in death were close friends with my parents. My life began in a small Oklahoma town, Ada, where Johnny was the evangelist working with the congregation where we all worshipped. They were a family of four – they’d soon become a family of 5. We were a family of four.
It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s true of close friends, too. Close family friends. We’ve been plenty stupid around each other through the years. I know I’ve contributed MORE than my share.
My heart was broken when Stanley died. I was sad for my own loss, but I was especially sad for Stanley’s folks. My imagination kicked into full swinging trying to understand what it must have felt like to bury a child – albeit a child in his 50’s.
As a dad myself I was especially sensitive to Johnny’s emotions at that time. I entered the funeral home and hugged him. He whispered something about thinking about me and Stanley jumping on the bed as little boys. Here we were, two old men now, and memories of long, long ago were at the forefront of our mind. Memories of kids acting stupid. But acting stupid together is still what I miss most since Stanley died. And it’s among the many things I’ll miss most about Johnny. All the snarkiness. All the sarcasm. All the bagging on each other. Stuff that’s been part of my existence since I was that little boy in the dark suit (and before)
Say what you want about aging, it’s still the only way to have old friends. – Robert Brault
Regularly Johnny would tell me, “Getting old isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.” Sometimes I’d say, “It beats the alternative.” And he’d quite often quickly reply, “I’m not sure about that.”
Age does that. Especially when age brings infirmities. Johnny had his. Most recently loss of balance and eyesight. The eyesight loss was especially vexing because Johnny Elmore was a reader. A study-er. A lifelong learner.
Glaucoma and a detached retina (surgery was performed to fix that). He was hoping doctors could restore his eyesight. At least enough so he could get about and read. But repeated falls contributed to cutting that opportunity short.
Months ago when I heard about his eyesight I remarked to my wife – who has also been close to the family since she was a teen – “If he can’t read, he’s done.” That’s how important learning was to him.
Mere days before his death he turned 88. The same age as my mother. My father is 96. They were close. They’d talk on the phone frequently. Old friends staying in touch, keeping the connections alive.
In the past 2 years, I’ve endured some personal challenges of my own where I relied on Johnny more heavily than ever before. And I had relied on him plenty – especially anything to do with faith. I was 11 in the summer of 1968 when I asked Johnny to baptize me for the forgiveness of my sins. He’s always been a prominent advisor for me in spiritual matters. A rock-solid Bible student I knew I could approach with any issue and he’d help me walk through it. In the last 2 years I needed him more than ever, and he was there for me. Questioning me. Advising me. Gently guiding me through the challenges.
Who you surround yourself with matters.
The older I grow the truer I know that to be. It’s largely why at this stage of my life I’m all-in on helping people leverage the power of others.
Johnny was part of my secret power of others.
He was 88. Another was 83. Another 75.
Three wise old men. All of them preachers. All of them men I’d known all my life. Johnny was the oldest. But the youngest would be the first to go – Russell Barney Owens, Jr. Barney passed back in February this year.
First Barney. Now Johnny. Two very special advisors who have helped me more times than I can count. Largely because we shared faith, but also because they’ve known me since I was a child.
Johnny Elmore had just turned 88. Ronny Wade, 83. Barney Owens, was on his way toward 76.
Three men who always understood my context. They knew me well. I knew them well. I trusted them. They cared about me. I cared about them, too.
One remains. Ronny Wade. His health is failing. For 7 years he’s been quite successfully battling blood cancer, but 2019 has not been kind to him. Johnny and Ronny were close friends. Co-workers in the Faith.
For me, trusted advisors who I’ve always known had my very best interest at heart. Truth tellers. Men who would caringly challenge me.
Some weeks ago I made a trip to spend a few days with Ronny and his wife, Alfreda. He and Johnny had been buddies since Ronny was a teenager. Ronny never expected to be preceded in death by his lifelong friend, but that 5-year-gap in their ages grew increasingly large over the last few years.
One afternoon I called Johnny while I was at Ronny’s house. After telling Johnny where I was, I handed the phone to Ronny so the two of them could talk. Ronny was relegated to an easy chair. Miles away Johnny was relegated to his bedroom unable to see clearly enough to venture too far away. As Ronny took my iPhone, he immediately said to his buddy lifelong friend,
“How ’bout we have a race to see who comes in last?”
They chuckled together.
Dr. Seuss said it better than I ever could.
Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.
Johnny died in his sleep about a week ago. Ronny was asked to preach his funeral to which he quickly agreed. However, the morning after being asked his health took a turn and doctors advised him to not travel. I felt badly for him, knowing how badly he would have liked to honor his old friend. But these are the curveballs life throws at us.
We’re all crying. And sometimes smiling.
In time I suspect the smiles will outweigh the tears. At least that’s how it often goes when I think of Stanley, my lifelong friend.
These old friends are different to me. They’re not peers. They were and are my heroes. They’ve been the adults during my teen years. The mature adults during my early adult years. The old men during my mature years.
Three men who were all just a few steps further up the trail. Age isn’t merely a number. It’s a condition. Filled with hardships and the weight that years of experience puts on a body’s bones. And heart. I’ve seen it in each of them. I see it in myself. Life takes a toll on us all.
Over the past decade, I’ve leaned more heavily on each of these men than I had before. Life’s issues grew more pressing on me. As it did on them. Simplicity gave way to complexity. More moving parts produced by more people involved in our lives as we were all growing older. More folks to consider. More to think about.
Then there’s the weight of responsibility. The burden of leadership. Not some formalized thing, but the influence one welds in becoming old enough to warrant the respect of others. The leadership of influence. The leadership of service. It can bow a body low.
“Strengthen ye the weak hands and confirm the feeble knees.” (Isaiah 35:3)
The battle was raging. As long as Moses had his hands lifted in the air, the battle would belong to him and the people. But Moses wasn’t able to do it alone.
Exodus 17:11-14 “And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And Jehovah said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.”
We all need some help to steady our hands until the going down of the sun. Moses had two men, one on each side helping him. During my lifetime I’ve had a few select, special men of great wisdom who have helped steady my hands. And help me direct my course toward greater wisdom. They’ve warned me of road hazards helping me avoid untold calamities. They’ve cheered me on encouraging me to keep the faith and continue to battle even though defeat seemed quite certain in my eyes. They’ve questioned, challenged and supported me in ways that only old men can with a younger, albeit still old, man.
In the last 5 years or so I’ve grown increasingly interested – and convinced of the high value found – in our intentional associations. Specifically, in how we leverage the power of others in our lives. It has made me more closely examine the people who have been my closest, most trusted advisors.
There’s a theme in my life, and I’d imagine there is in your life, too. Think about the people who occupy your most inner circle.
All of mine are gospel preachers. They always have been. Without exception. I’ve had other close friends, but not as close as these men. My current circle includes men as young as mid-40’s and now as old as 83. I’m having to go younger because my oldest mentors and advisors are passing away. Typically I’ve relied on men 15 to 20 years my senior. I don’t think it was strategic as much as it was conveniently generational. My father is 34 years older. Many of my inner circle “old friends” have been in my life as long as I can remember and they entered my life through my parents. So I think in my case that explains the age difference. It worked to my advantage. An enormous advantage.
Today I find myself attempting – likely without much success – to provide similar support and insight to men 15 to 20 years my junior. I’m hoping to keep the cycle of support, encouragement, and leadership alive. Time will tell if I can succeed. I figure the next 15 plus years will make or break my legacy. And that’s not unique to me. I think it’s unique to all older men and women. We enter this phase of life where our perspective is more settled. Priorities seem clearer. Ambitions, too.
As I’ve grown older my resolve has intensified. The resolve to make a bigger difference. Whatever it takes. Even if it takes a lifetime.
Jason Isbell is among my favorite singer-songwriters. In 2015 he released an album entitled, Something More Than Free. One of my favorite songs on that record is “If It Takes A Lifetime.” The final refrain is “our day will come if it takes a lifetime.”
I’m here to tell it does take a lifetime.
It takes a lifetime to have old friends.
It takes a lifetime to gain the wisdom that old friends can provide.
Lots of things take a lifetime.
Lifetimes are relative. Barney’s was 75 years. Johnny’s was 88. So far, Ronny’s is 83. Three different men. All of them precious to me and instrumental in my decisions, development, and wisdom.
Here’s the thing. The lifetime isn’t measured in years. It’s measured in value. The value isn’t a competition. In fact, there’s no way to compare the value these three wise men provided my life. Each were different. Each contributed in a unique way. I needed what each of them brought.
Barney was the first to go, but nobody challenged me quite like him. Notorious for not ever telling me what to do, he’d pose a powerful statement followed by a question. It’s the single most popular phrasing I’d hear from him when involved in a deep, serious conversation.
“Well, you could do that. I’m not sure that it’d be right though. Are you sure?”
And by “right” he always meant scriptural. In other words, would it be in keeping with the Word of God? Would it be what God would want based on what the Bible says?
Most often the reply he’d hear would be, “Of course I’m not sure…which is why I’m talking to you.” 😉
Nobody was like Barney in my life. Nobody was like Johnny either.
Johnny didn’t challenge me the way Barney did. It was different. Done in his own style.
Ronny is still different from them all and admittedly I’m closest to him than any other old man. It has taken a lifetime. His personality is measured. His tone always tempered.
Humor. It’s a common bond. Each of them is funny in their own way. I appreciate their sense of humor and it made the connections deeper.
Barney was a man with dry, dry wit. Out of nowhere would come a quip you didn’t see coming and it would almost always lay me low with laughter.
One of my favorite stories of him – and one I’ve likely told you before – was about his childhood. Barney lived in Cincinnati. He was from Kentucky, but as a kid the family moved from the Kentucky hills to the big city. They were poor as Job’s turkey. During a breakfast meeting some years ago, which included my son, Ryan, Barney was telling stories. Ryan asked him if his family ever went back to Kentucky to visit after they made the move to the city. Without blinking an eye Barney said, “Sure. We’d take a bus back down there with a sack of sandwiches and show off.”
We erupted. The mere thought of some transplanted hillbillies returning home on a Greyhound bus with a sack of sandwiches to “show off” immediately struck us all as funny as Barney intended it to.
I think of Barney often, especially any time Brisco Darling appears on an old Andy Griffith Show rerun. Barney’s demeanor was dry like Brisco. He was sharp, smart and well-read. The man was always reading a book, usually, a book that recorded some debate over a Bible topic. The man knew the Bible as well as any man I’ve ever known. He was an accomplished preacher who could take a complex topic and make it appear simple. I miss him dearly…and the absence of his insights and viewpoint won’t likely ever be filled. But I had him inside my inner circle so I’m thankful for our years today.
Johnny’s sense of humor was without parallel in my life. I was so close to his family and we shared a snarkiness and sarcasm that made our ability to “get it” unrivaled. Like Barney, Johnny’s humor could often be subtle, but he wasn’t nearly as dry as Barney. Johnny was frequently just more matter-of-fact.
Of the three men Johnny was the man with whom I was close enough to see emotional frustrations that would often morph into something very funny. When you’ve spent a lifetime there are too many such stories that flood my memory banks.
Johnny could get a quick look of utter frustration and contempt for the situation. Since I was small I’ve found his angst funny. Stanley and I both did, until a belt may have been threatened.
We’d all gone to some inexpensive steakhouse – the kind you used to find in any size town. Think Western Sizzler. You go through the line, place your order, get your drink and are given a number or something. Then you go find your table listening for your order to be announced over the PA. Well, this particular place had a PA that was so garbled and muffled you couldn’t understand one thing coming out of the speakers. After a bit Johnny wrinked his brow, grew a stern look and expressed his frustration with the PA.
“I’ll bet you can tell what he’s saying. My lands, there’s no way to tell if he’s announcing our food or not.”
I’m not sure we were even paying attention until he said something. Immediately I got tickled because it sounded like the guy was holding his hand over his mouth and speaking into the microphone. Completely unintelligible.
There were millions of moments like this with Johnny. And I loved him for it because those little, everyday frustrations were easily pointed out by him. My family rolls very much the same way. It provides daily humor.
It takes a lifetime to fully appreciate it I suppose.
There’s nothing like old friendships. People who have known us for a long time. People who understand our context in a way that nobody else can. People who we understand well.
Intent. It’s a critical component. In every friendship. Frankly, in every relationship. One that too frequently is overlooked.
Somebody says something to us that hits us wrong. Or not quite right. Rather than think deeply about this person’s historical intentions, which are mostly good toward us, we suddenly have a knee-jerk reaction to what they said without any regard to their long-proven intent.
With these 3 men, I’ve never questioned their intentions. Especially as it related to their relationship with me. I always knew their intentions were the best. Giving them due consideration, therefore, wasn’t hard. Behaving with grace and respect toward them wasn’t either. Even if I didn’t agree with them. And I didn’t always.
There’s something else. When you’ve had 3 old men surround you your entire life…you don’t benefit from your own lifetime, but you benefit from each of theirs, too. The cumulative impact of wisdom is priceless making it all the more urgent that we keep passing it on.
Today’s show mostly features audio that was recorded here inside The Yellow Studio on the weekend of July 17, 2010. My lifelong best friend Stanley came to visit. I want you to lean more heavily into the close friendships you’ve got. Make more of them. Do it today. The moments are precious.
Heb. 11:4 “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness in respect of his gifts: and through it he being dead yet speaketh.”
The point is, our influence lives on even after we pass. Today’s episode is more literal.
Back on May 12, 2015 I published a blog post with this same title. It was the second anniversary of the death of my lifelong friend, Stanley James Elmore (April 11, 1957 – May 12, 2013). The blog post didn’t stay online all that long. I took it down fearing I had shared too much. You’d have thought I’d have learned better.
Because I had recorded a podcast episode on May 9, 2013 just days before Stanley died. I took my digital recorder with me to the gym that day. I never went inside the gym. Instead, I sat outside in my car. It was rainy and you could hear the rain hitting the roof of my car as I poured out my heart. It was the most intensely personal podcast I’d ever recorded and admittedly, it was selfish. It was self-therapy. I took the episode down after a bit because I just didn’t think I was being fair to you, the listener.
Two things prompt today’s show. One, lately I’ve had a few dreams about Stanley. Nothing extraordinary, just dreams where he and I are doing what we often did – talking and cutting up. Laughing. Being snarky. Two, within recent months a few people have asked about that episode I recorded in my car. Evidently they listened to it and remembered it.
Okay, I’ve got a third reason. The memory of somebody I loved very much. It never goes away. My heart isn’t as heavy as when I first lost him, but I have many days where I look at my phone and stare at his contact info…wishing he were just a click away.
Okay, there’s a fourth reason, too. And this one involves YOU. As I keep pressing along with Project #CravingEncouragement I want to leverage the story of my friendship with Stanley to encourage you to take advantage of today to reach out to somebody who is important to you. I know there are many reasons why friendships lose their zest. And there are often valid reasons why people grow apart. I’m not going to be presumptuous to urge you to repair those. If you want to, do it. If it’s possible. But instead, I’m encouraging you to lean more heavily into those relationships that ARE important, but perhaps some things haven’t been said that ought to be said. Or they haven’t been said in a long time. Make today the day you say them. Be brave. Be bold. Be courageous. You’ll be glad you did.
Now for some context. There are lots of podcasts with friends talking and while I appreciate the endeavor, as a listener I rarely find value. I respect the fact that the audio is recorded and those people will be thankful they did a show together. That doesn’t mean I get it. So frequently there are these inside jokes that only friends can understand. There’s the context of our friendship that few others can appreciate or understand. I know it was that way for me and Stanley.
But I want to provide you some context and along the way I’m going to share some recorded conversations that took place right here inside The Yellow Studio in July 2010. All I want you to listen for is the lifelong connection between two guys who were in their early 50’s at the time. Two guys who had known each other since birth. I just want you to hear the connection and love — not to think about US, but to think about yourself and whoever is that for you. I want you to be very selfish. I want you to think about yourself, your best friend or that somebody who can finish your sentences. That person who can communicate with you by merely sharing glances, or making some facial expression. Those are remarkable relationships that not everybody finds. Stanely and I didn’t go looking for it. It just happened. We got lucky right out of the gate. And we got lucky that it lasted 56 years. I thought our run would go longer. So did he.
For the longest time, he and I talked about producing a podcast. We even had the title, Two Friends Talking. I even registered the domain name. But, as with so many things in life, we never followed through. In one of these audio segments of our recorded conversation, Stanely talks about wanting to remedy his Internet connection to make it easier for us to have reliable Skype calls for the podcast. His Internet provider had sketchy service and unreliable speeds. We talked often on the cell phone, but we never sat down to record another conversation after July 2010. The podcast we planned went the way of my learning the guitar – it just never happened.
Here are some important points of context that I hope help you get value from today’s show.
My parents and Stanely parents were close friends. His dad was (and still is) a preacher. His father performed our wedding. His father also baptized both me and Rhonda (at different times; we didn’t even know one another then). His folks were very important people in my life. After Stanely passed, his mom passed. His dad is still living and doing well at 87.
Stanley and I shared faith. Church was the priority. We frequently talked about spiritual matters and the work we were doing. He lived near Joplin, Missouri and I was here in DFW when he passed. Both of us had lived in a variety of places, but we always kept in touch and saw each other as frequently as possible. It was one of those friendships where we picked up right where we left off. There was never any windup needed for our talks. We just hit the ground running as though we’d been talking together continuously without interruption.
Our early life began in Ada, Oklahoma. Stanely lived on one side of the big city park. I lived on the other side. We frequently dreamed of building something that would connect our houses. Like a tunnel. Childhood imaginations at work.
We couldn’t have been more different in some ways. And we couldn’t have been alike in others. Sense of humor was THE tie that bound us as kids. That continued to be a strong tie.
When Pee-Wee Herman’s Saturday kid show was on (Pee Wee’s Playhouse), we’d talk weekly and interject Pee Wee’s “secret word of the day” into our conversations, followed by school girl like laughter.
When we were kids he’d get mad as a wet hen whenever we played board games — if he lost or if he had to go last. Joni can tell you of how frequently he seemed to roll the dice making it where he’d have to go last in a game of SORRY or some other board game. Katy bar the door ’cause he was gonna pitch a fit. Funny.
We’d have sleepovers and they almost always wound up with us getting in trouble. Mostly, being told, “Boys, go to sleep.” Fat chance. Flashlights, crude boy humor and lots of laughter dragged well into the night. Being quiet and discreet was almost impossible ’cause those aren’t components of fun – quiet and discreet. And whenever we were together FUN wasn’t our middle name. It was our first name!
Pillow fights when we were very young always wound up with Stanley wheezing due to being allergic to almost everything, including feathers. Foam pillows helped with the wheezing, but not keeping us out of trouble.
One summer – in our pre-teen years – we practically memorized the entire contents of two volumes of Mad Magazine’s Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions. It was right up our alley because sarcasm was natural and easy for both of us.
The banter – this banter recorded in these audio snippets – is something I don’t suppose I’ll ever experience again. It’s impossible to explain to people who have never had a friendship that involves knowing what somebody is thinking just by looking at them. We both had it, with each other. We didn’t always need words. Sometimes just a look. A raised eyebrow. A smirk.
Stan and I used to talk on the phone re-living Dave Letterman’s stunts back in the early NBC days of his show. We’d watch it nearly every night and weekly chuckle about some of the bits.
We were pleased when Dave published some books of his famous Top Ten Lists. We spent many hours laughing ’til we cried. For instance:
Top 10 Least Popular Candy Bars
9. Turkish Prison Taffy
8. Hardened Toothpaste Mint Patties
7. Sunoco Resin Chews
6. Rev. Al’s Marshmallow Medallions
5. Mexican Monkey Brittle
4. Good `n’ Linty
3. Two Musketeers & a Guy with a Hacking Cough
2. Mookie Way
1. Roger Ebert’s Mystery Log
I was sad to see Dave retire even though I hadn’t been a regular viewer since he left NBC. Just another reminder that things end.
So many little things comprised our friendship and our conversations. When Stan arrived at my house that July weekend in 2010 we had a lengthy, laughable conversation about how many toiletries he brought with him. Thirteen different bathroom items. Three were medications so we didn’t count those, but he remarked at how much he was “like a girl” what with all the items on the bathroom counter. It was a long conversation with lots of chuckles along the way.
Like a Seinfeld episode. Talk could be about nothing, but we knew how to laugh together regardless of the topic. The conversations would almost always be fun, and funny. I captured a handful of hours of recorded conversation that weekend. Thankfully, I was able to share those recordings with his parents before his mom passed.
I miss him terribly. April and May continue to be some of the toughest months of the year for me since he passed. No death has impacted me as much. I’ve not loved anybody outside my immediate family more. But thankfully, I’ve got a head full of memories, photographs and a few digital files to keep him alive in my heart until we can see each other again on the other side.
I’ve had a strange love affair with the guitar for as long as I can remember. Which is odd since I never learned to play one. But I’ve always owned one, including some Martins along the way. Stan was always musical and when we were young he learned to play the bass guitar. When he came to stay with me for a few days in July 2010 he brought his Taylor guitar but found my Zager guitar pretty inviting. He played it the entire weekend he was here.
Reach out to your closest friend right now. Seize the day. Take advantage of your time together. It’ll end someday, leaving you with the memories you’ll cherish always.
P.S. Project #CravingEncouragement – I’d like you to participate by sending me your stories of a time when you were encouraged in a meaningful way. Go here to find out how you can participate. Thanks!
The other day I was listening to some guys on the radio (yep, I still listen quite a lot to the radio, but that’s because we’ve got a great one here in Dallas – The Ticket). Go to TheTicket.com and download their app so you can stream it free.
They were talking about the sweet spot of being on the planet. Artificial intelligence prompted the conversation which had started because of an article that talked about an AI-driven robot defeating 6 players at Texas Hold ‘Em poker. The machine had played trillions of hands and learned how to win through deception, which is a big component of winning poker (so I’m told).
Then this past week that face app was all the rage with people taking selfies that could project, with alarming realism, what they may look like when they’re old. With my face, I don’t need no stinkin’ app! I’ve got the real thing.
The phrase “deepfake” is now in our consciousness. The question being debated by the morning radio guys was, “How are we gonna ever know if what we’re seeing is true or not?” Technology is allowing us to manipulate reality with convincing evidence.
Some think the robots – armed with AI capabilities beyond what we may be able to currently imagine – will destroy us. That prompted the notion that being a Baby Boomer is likely the ideal. Those of us born to the World War II vets between 1946 and 1964 fit that bill.
I’m one of them, born in 1957 in Ada, Oklahoma – a town not known for much of anything really until Blake Shelton hit big. He even released an album featuring the town water tower in 2014 entitled, “Bringing Back The Sunshine.”
My family left Ada when I was in the 3rd grade moving to Louisiana. But I’ve lived in Texas far longer than any other state. I’m still an Okie. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll try. And along the way let’s see if I can bring you some value as you figure out who you are because that’s really the subject. Self-awareness. Self-identity. And the realization that somewhere, deep inside, we’re still the little kids we once were. Roots run deep for most of us. And it’s not just place that follows us the rest of our lives, but it’s also time. The time when we grew up. And how.
So feel free to think about your childhood. Consider the days of your youth. Reminisce. I hope your memories are mostly good, but whatever they are – I hope you find a way to leverage them to make your future better.
Willis Alan Ramsey is a local DFW guy who grew up in the grand privilege of Highland Park, the wealthiest section of Dallas. He released one brilliant album in 1972. On it was a song about another Okie, Woody Guthrie…”Boy From Oklahoma.”
The chorus goes like this…
Just a boy from Oklahoma
On an endless one-night stand
Wan’drin’ and a-ramblin’
Driftin’ with the midnights and
He played the blues and the ballads
And all that came between
His heart was in the Union
And his soul was reachin’ out
For the servant’s dream
I really grew up in Louisiana and I have a special fondness for the culture, music, and food of southern Louisiana, but I have always felt more connected to Oklahoma.
Sooner football was important early. I recall playing in the leaves in our yard in Ada tossing a football to myself, pretending to be a star athlete wearing the crimson and cream.
Sooner state born people were always on the radar. Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench (even though I was not a baseball fan), Tony Randall, Dale Robertson, James Garner, Ron Howard (hey, Opie) and of course, Will Rogers, the state’s favorite son. These were the Okies of my youth.
Merl Haggard wrote and sang “Okie From Muskogee” but he was from Oildale. A city in California. But both his parents were Okies who migrated like tons of others during The Great Depression. I wonder what California would be like today if it weren’t for The Gold Rush and The Great Depression. Anything with “the” in front of it is a big deal.
Well, all these Okies stars of my youth would be joined by country music stars Reba McEntire, Vince Gill and Garth Brooks. And then came Blake Shelton from Ada, Oklahoma circa June 18, 1976. Nobody more famous ever came from Ada. We’re not gonna claim Oral Roberts. 😉
Ada is the noted location of John Grissom’s only non-fiction book, “The Innocent Man.”
Other than that, it’s just your typical rural county seat kind of town. Main Street literally was the drag where the kids drove up and down ogling one another in an endless loop parade of teenage hormone-filled angst.
Store windows bore shoe-polish painted signs supporting the Ada High School Cougars football team.
Main Street was riddled with Christmas decorations and a parade at Christmas time.
Down at the end of Main Street was a tree. One lone tree on the north side of the street with benches around it where old men would spit and whittle. We just called it “spit and whittle.” That’s likely where I’d be if I still lived in Ada.
Across the street from spit and whittle was Shaw Brothers’ Barbershop where my dad and I always got our haircut.
And next door was my favorite store of all time. A five and dime store where candy was embedded in the counter. Other than TG&Y’s toy department, it was my favorite store.
My least favorite? Any place that sold fabric. Because my mother was sure to spend what felt like hours there pouring over bolts of fabric and scads of patterns.
Any clothing store other than Anthony’s because we knew a lady who worked there. But mostly because they had those cool contraptions that would convey paperwork from one part of the store to the other. It was a system of metal tubes, pulleys and cables sending money and paperwork across the store. I loved to watch it. Anthony’s was the only store in town with it. And the floors were wooden. It almost makes me wish I could open a store that looked just like it. I’d sell stereo equipment and records. We’d have to close within 90 days because nobody would buy our stuff, but it’d be a cool place to hang. Maybe Starbucks would lease some space inside making it close to a break-even proposition.
The Dixie Drive-In had the very best cherry-vanilla-milk-Dr. Peppers with one green olive put inside. And they had good crushed ice, to boot. That’s a vital ingredient for a CVMDP.
Huddle was a drive-in combo eat-it-here place with great hickory sauce burgers. Two pickles on top of the beef. My grandmother loved them. So did I. And root beer in a frosted mug was the way to go to help the burger go down.
My lifelong best friend lived in Ada. That likely had a big impact on me. No, not likely. It did. His name was Stanley James Elmore and there’s never been a day in my life when I didn’t know him. He died in May, 2013. I chronicled more than maybe I should have in an episode recorded in July. Nothing wrecked me like losing him. Oh, but life has multiple wrecks in store for us all and I’d learn more were heading my way. And so it goes. (insert my favorite Billy Joel song here – truth is, it’s my ONLY Billy Joel song)
Hayes Elementary is where I spent my first crucial early years educationally. Mrs. Arnold in first grade. Mrs. Fenton in the second grade. Mrs. Goddard in the third. I loved them all. Mrs. Arnold more than the others though. It was in her class where we got the news in the winter of 1963 that our President had been killed in Dallas.
Mrs. Goddard was reading aloud to the class, The Boxcar Children. And I loved it. When we moved I was mostly sad that I wouldn’t be able to hear Mrs. Goddard finish the book. I doubted I’d ever find out what happened to Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny.
Moving to Louisiana didn’t change my notion of being “just a boy from Oklahoma.”
My grandparents – both sets of them – still lived in Ada. They all died there, too. And are buried there.
That culture of my youth.
The smell of tires in my grandfather’s tire store, Menasco Tire. Visits to his ranch land where cow roamed and hay was stacked in barns.
The smell of the pipe of my other grandfather. Seeing him in his easy chair. Always.
The smells and sight of my grandmother cooking in a flour-dusted kitchen.
The sight of the same grandmother reading her New Testament then napping on a sofa at the back of a long den. Never understood why she’d never go lay on the bed, but folks didn’t do that. And naps never involved getting under the covers. Another weirdness to napping habits of the past. If I’m laying down to sleep, I’m getting IN bed although I confess I’ve napped on top of the bed before.
School recess. When playground equipment was dangerous, but nobody thought so. It was fun. You can Google and see pictures of how fun it truly was.
And nobody wore a helmet to ride a bike. You only wore a helmet to play football.
And seatbelts weren’t yet invented. Which meant car seats for infants weren’t either. Mom’s lap was the car seat. Kids sat wherever and however our parents would allow us. Me? I mostly rode in the back of my grandfather’s pickup truck. Yep, sometimes I’d stand up with my arms resting on the top of the cab. While going down the highway.
It was a very different time.
Jeans were pressed and cuffed.
P.F. Flyers were the Nike of our era.
Shirts were collared and ironed.
Teachers were respected and supported by our parents.
Sir and ma’am, please and thank you were required.
Playtime mostly consisted of figuring out what to do and deploying your imagination to do it. Hence, I played football alone quite often. The game was mostly in my head, made real by the fall air and the smell of the leather football I’d toss to myself. As an imaginary OU Sooner.
Saturday mornings meant Warner Brother’s cartoons. Bugs and all those terrific characters made alive by Mel Blanc, who I still think was the greatest actor of all time. I’m happy Boomerang channel has them back on. I feared the Political Correctness Police would ensure we never saw them again. What with all the violence and other objectional material that might destroy our society. Yeah, like all this gender-bending hullabaloo won’t! We were all quite corrupted by Looney Tunes.
Dominos, card games and board games seemed to be the social activities of our parents. Gathering with other families, the kids going off to play while the adults sat around kitchen or card tables playing games. And engaging in banter along the way.
I envision such a scene today where four adults – two couples – sit at a card table, each with an iPhone in hand. Texting one another perhaps. Or, more likely, each just scrolling and swiping in their own little digital world. Oblivious that three other humans are sitting mere inches away.
I don’t say that to harken back to “good ‘ol days.” Mostly because that’s not my viewpoint really. I point it out to reveal why those talk radio guys thought my generation was hitting the sweet spot of existence. We got to experience that world. The pre-Internet world when life and society were so different than the present age. The diversity of that experience may have rewards. I’m not sure. But it certainly gives my generation perspective.
My great grandmother traveled in covered wagons. She also dipped snuff. A wiry woman who would have never imagined life in anything other than a simple, frame house with screen doors to let the breeze through. I never remember her house having an air conditioner (which were all window units when I was a kid).
Post World War II America was prosperous, but nobody was fancy. Not in Ada, Oklahoma. Not that I knew anyway. The Buxtons had a pool. My grandmother would call and invite herself to bring us to swim in it sometimes. My grandparents didn’t have a pool. But they did have a big cement storm cellar. With a metal door which we’d slide down until the summer sun made it too hot. By the way, that dangerous playground gear we so loved included metal slides. Bottles were glass. Slides were metal. Those were the “good ‘ol days.” 😀
Radios were AM only. Our parents were kids and young adults in the days of radio. TV was the new thing for them. My generation were the first wired generation. We grew up watching TV. But avoided sitting too close because it would do something harmful to us.
TV remote controls were the kids. “Hey, Randy, turn that up a little.”
“Hey, Randy, turn that to ABC.” (you only had 2 or 3 channels)
Rabbit ear antennas was about as hi-tech as any home was. And everybody had balls of tin foil on the ends.
Phones were all rotary dial and everybody’s number started with letters. Like FE was our prefix in Ada. My current cell begins with area code 214, but nobody used the area code. You dialed a 7 digit number. And phones had bells built-in. They rang loudly. Phone calls were a big deal. Just like getting the mail.
Newspapers and magazines were regular reading material. My grandparents subscribed to the TV Guide. Lots of people did. Mostly for the schedule of what was on, and when. “When are our shows on,” was a common question. “Our shows” were the ones folks wanted to make sure they didn’t miss. ‘Cause if you missed it…you missed it. It’d be 10-15 years before the VCR would be invented.
We watched Bonanza. Chevy sponsored it. Andy Griffith, F Troop, McHale’s Navy, I Dream Of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heros, Gilligan’s Island. But the shows I most wanted to see were forbidden. Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. Now, THOSE would corrupt us forever and we’d never be the same. So my mom said, “NO!” to both. Youthful rebellion opportunities were limited because the shows aired at a time when you couldn’t even sneak around to see them.
Which meant rebellion existed to looking at the ladies underwear section of the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Or the summer catalog with swimwear. 😉
I was in first grade when Scott Fenton showed me a Playboy magazine. His mom would become our second-grade teacher. He was worldly, obviously. I was not.
I told my parents about it. Shows you have naive and stupid I was. I ratted Scott out. So my dad drove me over to the Fenton’s house to inform Scott’s dad. It was clearly his dad’s magazine. I think Scott even told me so. The results weren’t fruitful. I don’t know what my dad hoped to accomplish really ’cause Scott’s dad – based on his facial expressions visible to me while I sat in the car – indicated he couldn’t care less. No matter. I had seen a naked lady. So there was that!
Corrupted at 6. Changed forever. Damaged beyond repair. Thanks a lot, Scott.
My family was religious. Many people used to be religious. My grandfather and father had helped build the church building where I grew up. Nightly Bible reading and prayers were just a way of life. Stanley’s dad, Johnny, was (still is) a preacher. He was working with the congregation where I was a little boy.
Stanley and I sat on the front row. Directly in front of my folks. My grandparents sat on the same row as my folks, at the other end. At least that’s how I think it was because whenever I’d misbehave my mom would thump my ear with a crisp, painful flick of her middle finger. How appropriate, huh?
Stanley was the only reason for my misbehavior. I blame him. Mostly because he was to be blamed.
He was restless. Much more so than me. Had the attention span of a gnat. Men got on their knees during prayer at church. So did we. That was “showtime” for Stanley. Fingers pulling on eyes and stretching cheeks while sticking out a tongue – a favorite public prayer maneuver for Stanely because he knew – with precise certainty – that it would make me laugh. Then my ear would be thumped. That seemed to be the objective.
But the Bible, faith, prayer, congregational Accapella singing and preaching were a major part of life. Still are. My life has been defined by Faith. And in all the best ways. In spite of how others view Christianity or religion, in general. I was fortunate and blessed to have been taught the Scriptures since I was a boy. It’s an enormous gift. That’s my point of view. It will always be my point of view.
Largely because through the years I’ve seen people wrestle with questions about why and purpose. Those questions never existed for me. Not as a boy. Or as a man.
I know exactly why I’m here and why we’re all here. To honor and glorify God. And I believe the Bible is God’s Word instructing us how to do that so God is happy. I never grew up thinking it strange or odd or crazy because faith was never blind. My parents never asked me to believe something simply because they did. We had the Bible as our guide and proof. If the Bible taught something, we followed it. If it didn’t, and the thing didn’t violate any principles taught in the Bible, then okay. Figuring it out for oneself based on using the Bible as our guide and authority was all I knew. It’s still all I know.
Knowing who God was as a little boy wasn’t some fable. Without the Bible how would one know anything about God? Especially how to serve God? I grew up not wanting to be lost, but wanting to go to Heaven.
Stanley and I would be baptized at the same time, by his father, in the summer of 1967. But that’s another story.
Faith was the prevailing thing in life. Church and God entered into every decision. And I’m sure that’s why my father made a big deal out of Scott Fenton showing me that Playboy magazine when I was in first grade.
Those days – and all the associated memories of them – make me who I am today. I’ve always felt it, but I’m not sure I’ve always known it.
Through the years I’ve been approached with career opportunities on one coast, then another, and even some just a state or two north of Oklahoma. I rejected them all. Because I’m just a boy from Oklahoma and I never felt comfortable being too far away. Fact is, the only difference between Oklahoma and Texas is the dividing line, The Red River. Otherwise, you’d never know the difference.
I’m comfortable here. Always have been. It’s what I know. It’s what I grew up knowing. And loving.
When it comes to time and place I suspect we are who we are. Largely the product of that time and place. Free to bend it, go beyond it or do whatever we’d like. But I choose to stick around this part of the country because I know deep down, it’s who I am. And I refuse to try to be somebody different.
My son and I were talking the other day about how we’re wired. We share quite a lot as you’d imagine, but we also have distinct differences. Many that I’m envious of because in some areas where I’m weak, he’s strong. I’m thankful for those differences. And likely more thankful that he’s got those attributes over me.
For some reason, we were talking about bullies and I remarked, “I never got bullied. I’d talk my way out of things.”
“Me, too,” he replied.
I remember being among kids – whether on the playground or in the neighborhood – and being the peacemaker. I always stepped in to negotiate peace so kids wouldn’t fight. Or so none of us would get in trouble.
And if somebody wanted to fight me for some reason, which didn’t happen much because I knew how to navigate socially pretty well, I’d back them down with words. I’ve boxed quite a lot with kids (gloves on), but I’ve never been in a fight!
All these little details add up. You’re thinking of where you were born. I hope. And where you grew up. The names and faces of the kids in your class. Or on your street.
Terry Hart was a friend at Haye’s Elementary School in Ada. He lived right across the street from the school. He could run fast. I was never fast, but I always envied speed. Terry was the first speedster in my life.
I never did dream much about flying, but I did dream of being able to run fast. Only in my dreams.
You’re thinking of friends you had who may have had a talent you lacked. Ability to do things you wished you could do.
It all adds up.
To make us who and what we are.
My uncle Pete died awhile back. He was my dad’s youngest brother. I went back to Ada for the funeral. It’s the first time in years. It’s changed.
Haye’s Elementary School doesn’t even look the same. It was a tall 3-story red brick building when I attended. It’s your typical flat, spread out affair today. Not the same. The room and the window I looked out of in first and second grade are gone. The flag pole isn’t even the same today. It doesn’t matter. It’s still very vividly alive for me. In my mind.
My grandmother’s house, featuring two grand elements – a big hedge down the entire driveway (she once hit the paperboy riding his bike down the sidewalk because she backed out so quickly and couldn’t see him because of it)…and a big willow tree on one side, didn’t look the same at all. The hedges are gone. So is the willow tree. But they’re as grand as ever in my mind.
The old bike I had at that same house, stored in the garage without a door – it was more like an enclosed carport – is long gone. It was blue and carried me all over that neighborhood. Down the block to my great grandmother’s house. Jumping over big cracks in the sidewalk.
Where are YOU from?
What has made you who you are?
How has it impacted your today?
The world has changed. Culture in America has changed. Dramatically. Not all for the worst. Not all for the best.
You can’t go back. Except in your mind. But that’s what matters anyway. What we think.
Because what we think determines how we feel and how we feel drives our behavior.
I’m thankful. Thankful to be from Ada, Oklahoma. Thankful to have been born to Jeff and Becky Cantrell. He oil field trash (his words) from the other side of the tracks as her. His dad, my grandfather, a wildcattter willing to risk it all for some bigger payday. Her, from a successful businessman in town, determined she’d be among the highly regarded in town. An unlikely pair in many respects. Two people who just like you and just like me are their own people born in their own place and time. With their own childhood memories which have served to largely forge them into who and what they are today. Yes, they’re both still living. My father will turn 96 in September, Lord willing. He never figured to outlive all his siblings, but sadly he’s had to bury them all. He’s the last man standing. My mom? Well, she’s younger. She’d tell you “much younger.” But time marches on and we’re all going to leave this time and this place one day. They each know they’re getting closer, but so are we all. They’re here in Texas, but they’re both just kids from Oklahoma, too. The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree, huh?
The strange thing about it all is how deeply we’re impacted by it. How it influences us all of our lives. More so than perhaps we realize.
I do a podcast with a guy named Leo. He’s from Boston. He hasn’t lived there in some time, but in some shows, we recorded during the Stanley Cup Finals, his Boston Bruins were celebrated by him in the wearing of his Boston Bruins cap. Now he’s wearing his Boston Red Sox cap. He’s a Boston boy still. Living in San Diego, but still just a boy from Boston.
Me? I’ve never even been to Boston. Shoot, I’m just a boy from Oklahoma.