20 Years

The U.S. Embassy in Prague after the 9/11 attacks. Photo by Ehud Amir. Creative Commons License via Wikipedia Commons.

It was just after six o’clock in Prague when one of my roommates, Barton, a tall, laconic Texan who had been a basketball star in his youth, entered our flat in Vinohrady and said with characteristic stoicism, “Someone blew up the Twin Towers.” He might as well have been talking about the Laundromat changing its weekend hours, judging by his tone.

It was a Tuesday (as you know), and Barton was returning from his afternoon duties teaching business English to a crew of budding capitalists somewhere downtown. I had been home for a few hours after wrapping up my own classes in Malá Strana, at a private language school next to the American Embassy and just a stone’s throw from Prague Castle. My other roommate, Clay, a Texan and a childhood friend of Barton’s, had spent the day at the flat, smoking European cigarettes, debating man’s place in the universe, and devising plans to publish an expatriate newspaper called The Village Idiot (which, sadly, never came to pass).

Barton, having just learned of the attacks via text, was scant on information. There was no television in the flat and no Internet service. Anxious, we fired off a volley of frantic texts and arranged to meet our friend Tom at a pub in Žižkov, where he said a TV could be found.

The pub (I forget its name) was one of those nondescript watering holes in Žižkov that bore all the hallmarks of midwinter Soviet charm: decades-old red tablecloth, bad lighting, old bartender with a grizzled beard. Žižkov, where I lived months later, has always been a working-class stronghold and even carried the sobriquet “Red Žižkov” prior to the Velvet Revolution.  It was easy to see why.

Tom was sitting alone at a long table not far from the television when we arrived. We all hugged, took a seat, and for the next few hours, over pint after pint of Gambrinus, watched the scenes of carnage unfold on the screen as a Prague newscaster delivered the rundown in Czech, a language that fell on deaf ears and only added to our sense of disorientation.

The next morning, as I made my way to class, I saw a crowd gathered in front of the American Embassy. Flowers and various condolences were strewn over the ancient cobblestones. Many of my Czech friends extended sympathies that week, but it wasn’t long before you caught a whiff of “America had it coming” by the odd expatriate at the bar, a sentiment that was hard to hear at the time.

Published in the Prague Daily Monitor.

Jake Peavy’s Second Act

Photo by Matthew Coughlin

The pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium can feel like the loneliest place in the world. It’s a feeling Jake Peavy knows in his bones. A Mobile native and one of the most decorated professional athletes to ever come out of the Azalea City, Peavy wasn’t immune to the slings and arrows that come with being a big-league hurler, despite his many accolades. It’s midsummer, and we’re talking with the former pitcher in the mixing room at Dauphin Street Sound, the state-of-the-art studio in downtown Mobile that he and a team of local talent opened back in 2016.

Peavy is waxing about his days in the big leagues and what got him hooked on music in the first place. After winning titles with the Giants and Red Sox, the two-time World Series Champion retired from the game in 2016 after a 15-year professional career, but in his jeans and T-shirt, he still appears to be in fighting shape.  

“So here’s a picture of me going to Yankee Stadium and getting my butt kicked by the Yankees,” he continues with some animation. Peavy is a passionate storyteller; in fact, it’s clear after spending more than 10 minutes with him that he’s passionate about most anything he does. And while baseball may be a team sport, pitching is a solo act, and music became a way for him to unwind after three hours of hyper-focused intensity that, in the moment, felt like a matter of life and death. “It’s lonely on the mound, and it’s lonely with the press afterwards. It sucks leaving the stadium, getting on the bus, and then getting off the bus. And the last thing you’re going to do when you get to your hotel room is flip on the television and watch the sports channels and highlights.”

When Peavy first got called up in 2002, most of his teammates were 10, 15, 20 years older than him. He couldn’t go out to bars with the team, so he ended up spending a lot of time in his room by himself. It was in this scenario that the St. Paul’s alumnus found a creative outlet through music. Padres third-base coach Tim Flannery liked to pick country tunes in the hotel stairwell after games, and it was Flannery who gave Peavy his first six-string. “I could sit in there, play that guitar and not think about how I got my ass kicked,” he laughs.

Read the full story at Mobile Bay Magazine here.

After A One-Year Hiatus, The Grandman Triathlon Returns And Lives Up To Its Name

After hitting pause last year due to Covid-19, the Grandman Triathlon returned Saturday to idyllic Fairhope, Alabama, as many racers competed for the first time since the early days of the pandemic.

The event was as much a celebration of community as it was a competition. Racers, volunteers, and spectators appeared in high spirits throughout the morning, excited to be back at what’s become one of the most beloved triathlon events along the Gulf Coast.

“Everyone’s had a tough year in a lot of ways, and this is one of those good feelings that you get that we’re headed in the right direction,” said Cade Kistler, acting interim director and baykeeper for Mobile Baykeeper, the environmental organization that puts on the Grandman.

The Grandman is a short-distanced “sprint” which features a one-third mile swim in Mobile Bay, an 18.6-mile bike through the rolling countryside of Fairhope, and a 3.1 mile run that does not skimp on hills. The event, whose proceeds benefit the work of Mobile Baykeeper, is open to individual racers and teams. Mobile Baykeeper also hosted the Publix Virtual Triathlon, which extends through June 5, for racers who weren’t ready to compete in person.

Caleb Earhart, a 29-year-old triathlete from Slidell, Louisiana, placed first overall in the individual category on Saturday with a time of 1:15:17 (6:41 pace).

“The course is beautiful. The run’s a little tough, but it’s so pretty with all the trees going over the road,” said Earhart, who’s raced the Grandman before with Chain Tri Team but had never won until Saturday. “I’m from Louisiana and everything’s flat over there, so it’s a little more hilly.”

Julie Martin, a 42-year-old triathlete who also hails from Slidell, won the overall female division with a time of 126:16 (7:14 pace).

Every year, the Grandman attracts racers of all talents and ages, with many first-timers competing alongside elite performers like Earhart. 

Representing the young guns this year was Noah Coulon, a twelve-year-old from Pass Christian, Mississippi, who won the 14-and-under division with a time of 1:49:12, beating his dad, Koby, by nearly six minutes. Johnnie Lucassen was the race’s oldest competitor at age 83.

One of the event’s most inspiring figures was 34-year-old Walter Beckman, a Pensacola triathlete who lost his vision nearly ten years ago due to an unknown birth defect. Finishing the Grandman with a time of 1:35:37, Beckman competed alongside his race partner, Dom Risola, a training coach at Tri Possibilites in Pensacola. “I always say if you lose me once that’s on you, if you lose me again, that’s on you,” Beckman told Mobile Baykeeper before the race. (Watch Walter compete in the video above.)

Read more here.

The Legend of Black Dog

 

I wonder if anyone in Richmond has considered erecting a statue in memory of Black Dog. This near-mythical, dread-locked stray canine roamed the streets of Richmond’s West End neighborhood for nearly fifteen years, some say, eluding animal control the entire time. A woman once claimed he saved her from a mugging, such was his legend. Some Richmonders built dog houses and left food out for him, hoping to adopt and domesticate him (he never let humans get too close), but that is not how outlaws roll.

In the two years I lived in Richmond I saw him three or four times. He would sometimes come out of hiding and walk the perimeter of the park near Mary Munford Elementary in the mid-afternoon, when the kids were being let out of school. I looked for him every day for a year before first clapping eyes on him. When I did finally catch a glimpse, it was as if I had just seen Bigfoot. One afternoon, my toy poodle at the time got loose on a walk and, to my horror, approached him, as if to say, “Hey buddy, wanna play?” He declined the offer, but was cool about it.

His longevity was such that some speculated it was “Son of Black Dog” they were seeing in those later years. But they underestimated the indomitable old lion.

Mark Holmberg, a celebrated Richmond journalist who penned several columns about the stray, said it best when he wrote: “It’s important to remember how much Black Dog reminds us it’s okay to be independent, to be free, to be scruffy, and to be hungry every once and a while.”

Black Dog has been gone for nearly a decade. It’s high time the city of Richmond commemorates his legend.

ACTs of the Apostles

For the past month, I’ve worked as a part-time tutor in south Alabama, helping high-schoolers prepare for the verbal portion of the ACT, the standardized college admissions exam generally preferred by the universities down in Dixie.

As part of the interview process, I was required to take the English section of the test and notch a certain score.

I felt a pang of terror upon hearing the news. It had been 24 years since I walked into Murphy High School one fine spring morning and filled in those tiny ovals with a pair of sharpened No. 2s. I had worked as a writer and editor since 2004, but, under the gun, was I really the prince of punctuation I fancied myself to be?

It was too late to take a practice test, so I decided to “get in the zone.” I sought to achieve this through a form of method-acting, by which I’d recreate a day in the life of my 17-year-old self. That afternoon I ran wind-sprints in cleats and washed my hair afterward with a green, toxic slime known as Pert Plus. I ate ham-steak for dinner with baked potato and washed it down with a Carnation Instant Breakfast while watching an episode of “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.”

The next morning, I was ready to go.

I finished the English section of the test with a minute to spare, and completed Reading Comp at the buzzer. I think the ACT gods were smiling on me. The Prose Fiction section of Reading Comp was written by a not-so-well-known Vermont novelist named David Huddle, whose daughter taught me poetry writing at UVa. The Natural Sciences section sported a passage by Oliver Sacks, whom I’d been reading that very week.

After finishing the test, I sat nervously in a small cubicle awaiting the results. I soon found out I’d aced the Reading and missed a few on English. I was ecstatic. I imagined at that moment I had the world by the balls. I had made it. I could go to any college of my choosing. Then I could land any job in the world and marry any girl I wanted.  I walked out of the tutoring center like a man on fire. I got in my car and blasted “Rain King” by Counting Crows, fishtailing out of the parking lot as my car shape-shifted into a burgundy-and-cream ’89 Ford Bronco.

Eye For An Eye

 

Charlie Craddock stood on his wharf and looked out over Barnacle Bay with two clear eyes. It was the morning of his seventieth birthday. The day was bright and he could see schools of mullet in the water. He threw his casting net toward the shore and caught several but decided to release them back in the bay. Honor thy fish, he thought. His wife Tammy never had a taste for mullet anyway (“a trash fish,” she snobbishly would say) and he sure as hell wasn’t grilling on his birthday. Today was a day for fishing.

Read the rest at Little Old Lady Comedy here.

Queen of the Double

 

“Queen Of the Double”
A Short Story by Caine O’Rear

Will Wise inhaled his tenth Budweiser in three swallows, paid his tab, lumbered to the bathroom and pissed, and then walked out to his truck parked in the dirt lot, a Ford 150 from the ’90s, cranking it up and pulling slowly onto Highway 100, the sun burning like a fireball at the bottom of the western sky, an old tune from Sammy Kershaw beaming on the dash, his thoughts running to the night before when he and April fought about a girl she thought Will liked who worked at the body shop, some chick named Camille who was barely 20 and dressed like the county girls did these days, all Daisy Dukes and skimpy pullovers, showing no respect for decorum or decency, April said, an observation Will couldn’t argue with, especially since his dalliance with a girl in their church group last year, a girl April called a fucking slut and one to whom she was distantly related and who she claimed invited the transgression Will had yet to live down, an episode the memory of which sent pangs of horror through his wet brain, then fading in a quicksilver flash with the chorus of the Kershaw tune kicking in, the imagery of the polyester curtains and redwood deck making him grin, the truck humming along at eighty miles an hour past the expanses of cotton on both sides of the highway, blankets of white at their peak before the November picking, the truck now floating across the center line from time to time, a paltry concern for a county boy on a county highway cruising along in his truck on a Friday night, not unlike most Friday nights since he was sixteen, pounding beers in some field or down by the creek or later at his uncle’s place just over in Lillian, where he met April at a party while being totally smashed on Jaeger, smashed enough to take her by the arm and whisk her down to the boathouse where he managed to take her bra off despite having one arm in a cast because he broke it that week in football practice, playing bull in the ring and going hard as all get out, and going hard that night in the boathouse, and falling in love with April, or so he told himself, a girl who had been with him since that night almost ten years ago, and then April getting pregnant at eighteen, walking the floor of the gym in cap and gown with a bump in her belly, more a hiccup than a world class disaster in their little zip code, and seeing in the rearview as he cruised along the carseat for their second child in the back of his cab, a reminder in the flash of the moment that maybe he should ease up on the throttle a bit, the last years of his life moving at a speed beyond his means to control them, and thinking of Camille at the body shop, and not even being tempted to go there but still enjoying the sight of that ass behind the desk up front when he walked in hungover at 10 every morning, a brief titillation before the monotony of fixing timing belts and spark plugs set in, a trade he learned from his father who passed away two years ago, dropping dead of a heart attack while hunting deer in Conecuh County, while only in his late 40s, a loss that Will still hadn’t reckoned with but one he thought about every time he lit up a smoke, his dad a heavy smoker all his life, a fact that surely exacerbated the heart disease that clipped his wings, and with these thoughts Will firing up a smoke, thinking what are you gonna do, the Kershaw song still playing, and Will turning up the music, louder, louder, still louder, and thinking if he ever found April with some Charlie Daniels with a torque wrench, he’d kill the motherfucker.