This is one of the first letters I wrote, back in January. It ended up being far longer than I thought it would be, and I wasn't able to make myself let it go until almost 4 months later. It was an exercise in vulnerability, and I wasn't sure how well someone I hadn't spoken to in nearly 20 years would handle it. His response made me very glad I sent it. We're communicating again, and it looks like we might even get together in person after all these years. How cool is that?!
Another cool thing happened today. I don't get many comments left on this blog site, which is fine, but one very special note was left today on the page that will eventually have more information about my book. It was in response to this letter.
In tracking down the link for that one, I realized how buried older posts seem once several more are made. I may work on adding a list of names to the right-hand margin on the homepage that will make certain letters easier to find with one click.
Finally, I will be making a concerted push to finish getting the last several of the first 26 letters in the mail by the end of May. This should put me ahead of schedule by a month, and give me the whole of June to try and get my novel formatted for the press. Wish me luck!
May 6, 2018
You were one of my best friends in high school. And I say “one of” just to save face in case your best friend wasn’t me, but you were probably my best friend. And there I go saying “probably” but that’s just pride talking, so there you have it. You were mine, even if it was a one-sided sentiment. I’d settle for 2nd or 3rd place. Before I explain why I’m thankful for you, let me give you some backstory to my high school years that you probably don’t know about.
I started 9th grade at Paul Pewitt after spending 7th and 8th at Thomas Jefferson Academy in St. Louis Missouri. A boarding school that my parents took me to visit when I was fresh out of 6th grade in Marietta. I wore a suit and tie to 5 classes that were 30 minutes long and over by noon. The typical format of the half-hour blitz was a short test, followed by a short lecture, and then a large load of assignments to fill in the daylight hours after the classes were over.
I passed the entry exam and said “yes” when my folks asked me if I wanted to attend. I didn’t say “yes” because I was interested in a top-notch education, but because there was a pool table in the basement of the main building (an old mansion that looked a lot like Hogwarts) adjacent to the washers and dryers where boarding students did their own laundry. The fact that Christmas and Spring break were both a month long also helped sway me.
After steeping in small-town-in-a-dry-county Southern Baptist culture throughout elementary school, it was like entering an alternate universe when the overnight Amtrak train from Texarkana dropped me off 600 miles from home. I had a Buddhist roommate from Thailand, an Indian classmate with a picture of a six-armed blue woman on the wall in his room, and anyone else who thought Jesus was remotely cool was Catholic. So there I was, the only person at T.J. that was going to a golden city in the sky instead of frying like a cracklin’ forever if run over by a car.
I tried reading my Bible every day for a while. My parents would mail me recordings on cassette tape of sermons from Oakridge Baptist. I could listen to maybe two and a half sides before the AA batteries began to peter out and the sermon played in slow motion, sounding more like a dying cow than a pontificating grandfather. Some teachers at the school offered to let me go to mass with them, but they were Catholic, and that was heresy. Eventually I decided my battery power was better spent playing the music of Ray Stevens. I amassed quite a collection of his tapes.
I had plenty of academic guidance, but my moral compass eventually succumbed to the church of Beavis and Butthead, and MTV in general. We would sneak out of our dorm rooms after curfew (a practice dubbed "nightcrawling”) and call on friends in other buildings, or climb onto the rooftop of the gymnasium and attempt to pinpoint the advisor on duty as they “made the rounds.” I think the advisors on-patrol sometimes got as much of a rush from playing cat and mouse in the dark after curfew as we did trying to evade them. If only we had cell phones back then . . . .
If a student’s grades and disciplinary record were up to snuff, they could get dropped off on a Friday night or Saturday pretty much anywhere and get picked up later by a shuttle driver. The Crestwood Mall or the Galleria were some of the most popular destinations for students with nothing better to do on the weekends. I spend hours collecting abandoned prize tickets at the arcade in Crestwood my 7th grade year—so many that I used them to buy Christmas gifts for multiple family members.
There were a few classmates known to collect and finish half-smoked cigarettes from ashtrays around the parameter of the mall, but I couldn’t stomach that practice. Unfortunately, by mid-way through my 2nd year, shoplifting was a popular sport among the friends I ran with. One girl I knew would go into a dressing room in the mall with several pair of men’s boxers wrapped in another garment, layer them on her person, put her own pants back on over them, and just walk out.
I joined the fray, and even lifted Christmas presents, like earrings for my mom. Guilt quickly began rotting me from the inside out, but being in the company of others doing the same things and worse made the haunting manageable. That is, until one night after some successful looting at the mall with my friend Jeff, we felt bold enough to try swiping some snacks from the grocery store across the street. I walked out of the store to hear an officer yell “Drop the bags! Turn around and put your hands on the wall!”
I wore ripped cutoffs and sported a Mohawk— carried a lighter and a lock blade pocketknife with no practical application for either. I doubt anyone from my hometown would have recognized me at that point. My life flashed before my eyes as we were hauled to a back room and questioned by the police. Our pockets and bags were unloaded onto a table. They asked us, item by item, whether we paid for the goods in our possession. We lied about some things and admitted to others.
Shoveled into a patrol car, it was off to the station, where Jeff’s parents and my advisor were called to come pick us up. The first thing Mr. Colston had me do when we got back to the campus was call my parents. And the first thing I did? I lied again. I told them that I was only guilty by association and hadn’t done anything wrong— it was all Jeff.
Another thick layer of guilt fell on my heart like a ton of bricks and settled in over the next few days. I reached the breaking point, and decided that that living under the weight of lies and shame was no way to exist. In the early days of Email, I sat down at the only PC in the school’s tiny library and typed out a letter to my parents. It was a 100% honest confession— a full account of what I had done, along with an apology, and plea for forgiveness.
I likely benefitted from my confessional more than the rest of the family did. The school ultimately decided not to expel me, but there was probationary hell to pay. The school disciplinary system was based on demerits—essentially points that count against you. One might get a few for being late to a class and more for nightcrawling. If you accumulated more than 21 over the course of a week you were “in the doghouse” and grounded to the campus for the weekend. You had to get up early on Saturday morning and spend half of the day working, usually cleaning, raking leaves, crushing aluminum cans, or some other kind of custodial work. I got instant doghouse duties for multiple weeks, and was confined to the campus for a couple of months.
No one ever bothered to tell me that charges weren’t going to be pressed, so I lived under an irrational level of fear and anxiety for months, thinking that I could be called to court and go to juvi at the drop of a hat. I remember shaking like a leaf and procrastinating for weeks over opening some official looking mail that I received from an alleged “court of law.” After sweating blood for a week or two I opened it to find that it was some sort of sham sweepstakes junk mail. I was into submitting my address online to get free samples of anything offered on the world wide web, so I guess my address was brokered.
When they finally let me off the property again, I actually went back to the mall to make what amends I could. At the jewelry store where I lifted my mom’s Christmas present, I bought another pair of those earrings, hung them back up on the rack, and walked out of the store. I don’t think I ever told her that those were initially stolen property.
As the end of the school year approached, my parents let me decide whether or not to attend T.J. the following year, or start 9th grade at Paul Pewitt. As you know, I chose the latter. I learned some valuable lessons, but still felt that I still needed the kind of accountability that I could only get from the collective that raised me. By the end of 8th grade I didn’t quite know who I was yet, but I knew what I would never be again— a liar or a thief. I guess that was the conclusion of my Rumspringa.
Then came 9th grade. The unluckiest day of my life, without question, was my first day as a freshman. It was so bad that I wrote it out as a short story years ago, and I’ll post it on my blog along with this letter if I can find it, rather than boring you with the details here. The following couple of weeks were better, but pretty lonely. I’ve never been a social butterfly. My circles still tend to be small and closely knit. I recognized some of the kids I knew from elementary school in Marietta, but I wasn’t in touch with any of them for the past two years, and their cliques were already formed. I ate my lunch alone for a while, near groups of friendly, conversing people. I was lonely and longing to belong, but just horrible at initiating contact, and unsure if I would be welcome.
Then I caught the interest of a girl. The super skinny one with the giant glasses and the stringy dark hair who always ate lunch with apparently her only girlfriend, up against the windows near the doorway on the landing at the top of the ramp. I don’t remember her name now, but was in her vocal range then, and so relieved to not be invisible anymore that when she invited me to join the misfits, I did. And then so flattered when she asked if I would be her boyfriend a few lunch periods later, that I shrugged and said “ok” because it was easier than “no” and then lunching alone again. It wasn’t a week before she mentioned kissing and said she would wear a bikini just for me “this summer.” That was uncomfortable to visualize. I didn’t find her attractive— I just needed someone to talk to.
That’s when you rescued me. I remember sitting right next to my lunch period “girlfriend,” wondering if loneliness would be preferable to that awkwardness, when you invited me to come on over and join you on the ramp. I ghosted my association of desperation on the spot. That concrete hillside where I sat down was the spot where you, Stew, Chewy, and I would play countless raucous rounds of Spades over the following four years. Your invitation that day brought me into the fold that defined the rest of my high school years.
Our FFA exploits followed. With your dad being the head of the Ag, I wonder if that had to be sort of like being a preacher’s kid. I can relate to a degree after having my mom as a teacher in the 5th and 6th grades in Marietta. Your pop was a great teacher and mentor. I say that despite the glares he gave me when I slammed the passenger-side door of his dually (it didn’t take much— I think he oiled the latches twice a day.) Also unforgettable— that sole lick administered via his giant wooden paddle that I opted for in lieu of detention after George Lindsey accidentally cracked my head open with a brick. The fact that I was bleeding wasn’t punishment enough, since I admitted that I, also, engaged in rock-throwing target practice outside the shop. The justice delivered via that single swift swat improved my posture for three days and still makes me stand straight as that board itself when I think about it.
Some of my favorite memories from high school are from the Fort Worth and Houston Stock Shows. That runt of a sheep named Moses that Mr. Cook procured for me was worth all of the feed and time I put into it, just for the fun we had on the road. I remember us making the most of “all-you-can-eat” at Waffle House until the cooks turned us down, and bouncing on the rear bumper of that truck while it its tires spun in the middle of an icy intersection in Ft. Worth. Rodeos, Billy Bob’s, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. #NeverForget
And then there was the Brenham Pig Sift. I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted to do it, but you and I were volunteered to wrestle tons of bacon— one running, kicking, squealing unit at a time from the holding pen into the chutes for the weigh-in. The students who showed them passed by closely in a chute of their own to keep an eye on their prized swine. It was the perfect setup. Young ladies in their snug Rocky jeans and ropers often sported those prized belt buckles won in previous competitions . . . with their names emblazoned on them. It was all the introduction I needed.
“Hey Lindsey!” I’d say with a grin.
They’d usually reflect a bright smile, and sometimes play right along, assuming they just forgot who I was. Or I’d get, “ahhhhh . . . do I know you?” That would be met with, “No, but you wanna?” and my introduction. My routine went well until I tried to pull it twice on the same young lady as she brought through her second pig. That look she gave me burned a little.
And then there was Brandi. She’s still one of my most prized big-fish stories. The one that got away. I remember her pigtails, that beautiful smile, baby blues, and a sweet disposition. And the best part was, she was actually interested in me, too. She told me where her group was set up so I could find her when we were done. I recall you hurrying down there with me when we were finally finished that day, but her convoy had already packed up and shipped out. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d actually caught that tiger by the tail . . . I was so nervous on our way down that I nearly had a heart attack.
I regret that we never had a chance to do much together that wasn’t school-related. The epileptic seizures that I dealt with on a monthly basis from second grade until my Junior year of college barred me from a driver’s license in High School. Living as far away as Marietta without wheels made it hard to do much with anyone that a school bus didn’t facilitate.
You were on my initial list of 52 people for Project Gratitude, but I never thought my letter to you would end up this long. I hope I didn’t bore you too much with the extensive background story. In a nutshell, this is to say thank you for being my best friend in high school, for the priceless memories. Most of all, thank you for initiating contact with an introverted fellow freshman and saving me from what could have been much more forgettable four years.