Friday, August 15, 2014

The Pimp Daddy Blues

The title might seem trite, but its the name that seems to best describe the deep melancholy malaise I seem to find myself in since learning my cherished friend Greg Griffin aka Pimp Daddy had passed away.  Suddenly, the air seems a little heavier and the world feels a bit darker. Outside of saying that, I have struggled with how best to speak of Greg, because he's not easy to sum up in a few words.

In a feeble attempt at this summary, I searched through the muddled but merry wealth of memories I shared with my old friend. Greg and I first met when I worked at the Levee House in Marietta many moons ago.  He didn't actually work with me there but once you're into those local hospitality worker circles, the bonding begins and Greg and I would become fast friends. We would eventually work together as servers at the Becky Thatcher restaurant. This began a few wild, riotous, twisted, laugh-filled years of joining a crew led by Greg and the equally-beloved Dean, who we lost several years ago to illness. The two of them had me frequently convulsed in tear-filled laughter with ribald tales of their wayward youth and colorful lives. While their wicked wit was always on display, their friendship was invaluable to me as a young man who had just came out.  They were like guardian angels, always dispensing witty wisdom while doing what they could to help me stumble and bumble my long, arduous journey to becoming comfortable in my own skin.  Greg and Dean were far better friends to me than I was to them, and while they always knew how much I adored them, I wished I had thanked them properly instead of posthumously.

Later still, I would become roommates with Greg and our friendship deepened. I would learn more about Greg as a human being and the more I learned, the more my admiration grew into respect for this man and his character. I would learn the fun stuff early on: his impeccable taste in music, his ability to whip up a mean egg sandwich, our mutual love for John Waters films. That love of music created an astoundingly diverse soundtrack to our time as roommates. We would dance to the Boogie Nights soundtrack and sing along to mix-tapes given to us from friends. Our conversations would sometimes get heavy and the Elton John song The Last Song would often be wafting in the background. I would come to learn how meaningful this song was to him. We soon would share tears as easily as laughter.

Tears may have flown on occasion, but were certainly not the norm for ol' Pimp Daddy. He was a tall, smiley light in the room and that's what made him such a welcome sight in the many area restaurants where he served.  A lifetime in the hospitality business can be difficult for the heartiest of souls, but he faced adversity the same way he faced everything else: with a laugh and by simply moving on. In retrospect, I realized why hospitality came so easily for him as his life was the very definition of hospitality itself.  After all, we became roommates because he opened up his home to me without a second thought.  Our neighborhood was a bit sketchy, but you would never know to enter Greg's home which was always open and bright and welcoming, just like its owner.

As I would learn more about Greg, that character I spoke of became more and more apparent.  I would become aware of his powerful health challenges and would marvel at how he handled every gutting twist and turn in his care with aplomb and grace.  Oh, don't get me wrong, Ol' Pimpy could bitch and moan with the best of them, but the ever-changing list of roadblocks and attacks to his health and well-being, not to mention the many struggles he endured in his younger years would have broken many a sturdier soul, but he stood eye-to-eye with all of it and scared it off, no matter how daunting it may have seemed.  Greg would frequently joke that his health regimen would have him outliving all of us and I absolutely believed that, which made his recent passing that much more shocking to me.

The one character trait of Greg that I was pea-green with envy over was the fact that he was utterly and completely his own man.  I was forever in awe of that.  Further, by his and others recollections, he was ALWAYS his own man, even in his younger days from Marietta to L.A. and back again.  No pretense, no cover, no falsehoods, no regrets.  He was very much out, loud, proud and didn't give a damn whether anyone else liked it or didn't.  By being that self-assured calm in my ever-growing storm in back then, he saw me safely through some of the roughest seas my life would ever know, right up to the day I left out the door with Keith to the rest of my life.  He held me together at a time when I didn't know how to hold myself together. I will be eternally grateful to him for that.

So, I have a monstrous case of the Pimp Daddy Blues.  I think Greg would appreciate the name of this mysterious malady, though, with its musical connotation.  I have many a friend who are music lovers, but only a choice few understood music as an extension of the deeper connection that we share with each other. That's why he sent me out the door with some of our favorite CDs in hand when I left, knowing nothing would evoke a treasured memory more than some of our favorite tunes. Greg helped teach me about that music connection and and moreso, how to be my own man. Thank you, Greg, my beloved Pimp Daddy, for your friendship, love and guidance.  As the passing of loved ones become more and more our norm as we get older, I choose to deal with the loss by picturing my loved ones in the Great Beyond in a way that makes me smile....

I see Greg reunited with Dean, hoisting a cocktail to us still here, wickedly laughing at the rest of us stumbling our way through our Earthen lives. As it should be. Thank you both and I miss you every day.

I love you, Pimp Daddy.  Rest in peace.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Random Summertime Bites

Its crystal clear at this juncture that I have failed in my goal of writing every day, and I've made a grudging peace with that. Too much of what I posted this year were shares of internet minutiae that caught my interest, but hardly kept me writing as was the goal, so in truth, I fell short some time ago. It is what it is.

The posts I wrote encompassing my time in my hometown were largely emotional and since, I've admittedly struggled with writing. Is this writer's block, mental exhaustion or have I been bit by a summertime bug that has drained all cognitive thought from my sad little brain? Work has been tough since my return and my mind has felt drained and unfocused. It's been a satisfying summer, though, with much to be grateful for...

Clambake on the Grill - The photo at top is of a clambake-on-the-grill recipe we gleaned from Chef Michael Symon on The Chew.  It looked delectable and indeed it was despite some nervousness over the first attempt.  As we were also making this for our beloved former BN coworkers, this just wasn't any crowd to cook for either.  I loved how it turned out, with the clam juice infiltrating the summer corn and andouille sausage and making for one heady brew of deliciousness.

It was a later-then-typical kickoff for our deck, but such is this ever-busier life. Jane brought her cherished deviled eggs, Linda a perfect peach-cream pie for dessert and we brought the Posse's feta dip to introduce to a new crew. Peaches were a recurring theme as Ronnie's peach cocktail kicked us off in wicked fashion. We relished all of it, especially the increasingly-rare company.

 Linda and I made our first trip to City Market the following morning, where I sipped on chicory coffee and nibbled on a savory Bourgeois Pig (with cheddar,caramelized onions and hickory and applewood bacon) from Beignet while further indulging in the always intriguing people-watching. I further caffeinated with a tasty iced Sister Hazelnut latte from Opera House KC before roaming the myriad market stalls. Astoundingly, I only went home with a loaf of multi-grain bread from Bloom Bakery.

Water Babies United - The watery kickoff for the summer was the blessedly familiar setting of the lake with the family. Aromas of Lime-A-Rita chicken on the grill, BLTs with fresh garden lettuce and tomatoes with crispy bacon and avocado slices, swimming with the kids and jet-skiing with Keith and watching Tanner learn to ski were among the highlights. We finished off the weekend with a four-mile-run on the Katy Trail in Sedalia and this finished off a sun-drenched weekend.

The truly significant aspect to this Summer season has been the ongoing running journey we have been on. I will write more about the journey itself in the next post, but this whole-wheat pasta with a teriyaki cream sauce, as well as Flaming Cheese Saganaki (Greek Kefalotiri Cheese set aflame by brandy) and a Greek salad at A&G Restaurant made for a nifty night-before meal when we ran our first 10k in Maryville.....

Ah, summer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Full Circle

And so, the trip back to the hometown ended where it began, at the idyllic setting known as Abicht's Landing. Surrounded by friends and family while noshing on fabulous food and taking in one last look at the shimmering lake under a crystalline blue sky. Despite a week that was shaded in grief and tearfulness, light can always be found the bright flavors of smoked prime rib with some requested curry dip (many thanks, M.K.), flavorful grilled vegetables and bread; the gales of laughter and deep hugs with loved ones...

 and from Nature itself, proudly displaying God's bounty in the rolling hills, whispering trees and playful wildlife that abounds at Abicht's Landing.

Thank you, Kaki and JB....while you had much on your own plate, you always made sure mine was filled to overflowing with the hospitality you are ever known for.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Mama Bird's Memories

I've written much about my recent hometown visit and of course, the primary reason for every visit is to see my beloved Mom. My Mom's name is Alberta, but truth be told, I don't think she was ever very content with that name. Her older brother was Albert; the brother she just lost, and as much as she loved Albert, to her, the name just seemed like an afterthought. The name she truly adored was the nickname her siblings gave her: "Bird" or "Birdy".  This name was, thankfully, adopted by her nieces and nephews as they frequently call her "Aunt Birdy" to this day. In fact, when not calling her Mom, I often call her Birdy or "Mama Bird"...I'm actually going to start referring to her as such in future posts. Mom has also long relished having full bird-feeders at the ready, in order to watch birds of all colors flit about her window and I'm not sure if this is coincidence or an actual by-product of this lifelong nickname. 

There are many blessedly familiar aspects to the most recent visits with Mama Bird...that brilliant silvery mane of hers is as vibrant as ever; her head still throws back with laughter and that beautiful, inherited laugh can go on for days; with utter abandon...that these details are intact is like tonic to my soul. Mama Bird's mind continues to fail her, but not quite at the unforgiving rate one would expect of a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer's and I am grateful for that as well, largely because she still knows who I am. That said, her short-term memory is mostly gone and this is particularly difficult in times of loss. In three years, she has lost Dad and all of her surviving siblings, and each loss seems to take with it another chunk of her memories. With the recent tragic loss of her brother Albert and his son Al Jr., I spent a fair portion of the week reminding Mom of their passing and re-telling her how they passed away. I didn't mind doing it for her sake, but its wrenching to have to repeatedly place that stricken, shocked look on her face. Some questioned why I even bothered repeating it to her so much and why I wouldn't just let such painful news fade from her mind. I would answer that its because she needs to know and that she would go on to question why she hadn't heard from Albert in so long otherwise. Albert actually called Mom the day before he died, but she already had forgotten that. When a glimmer of realization hit her that she kept forgetting that Albert died, Mama Bird asked me if I could write it down for her. I did so; writing about when Albert and his son died, when we attended the funeral, who I was and when I was there.

On the last visit of my week, I asked her if she remembered the notes I wrote her and Mom replied that she had and thanked me. I opened her ice cream for her and reminded her that it was there and she needed to eat it before it melted, as it often does, according to the nurses. I ended our visit as I do every visit before I leave.......ever in fear that it will either be the last time I see her or that she will forget who I telling her she was the best Mom in the world and that I learned so much from her and Dad and that if I could be half the human being they were, then I had succeeded in life and that if I indeed was a success, then it was all due to them. And when I leave on that final day, I always pray to God as I'm walking to the parking lot that if nothing else is retained by her fading memories, please let my words to her linger for as long as possible.

And then I crumble, in tears, in my car. Every time. And then I leave. Again.

I love you, Mama Bird.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Shadow's Smile

There was a time that I was unsure if a dog was truly smiling or if that was just what it looked like when their mouths were open due to the shape of said mouths. That mild quandary was solved after I had met Shadow Pup, the ebony wonder-dog that belonged to my friends Kak and JB. Shadow had a smile that was unmistakable and wielded it often. 

As much as I relished my recent hometown trip, the week was tinged with sadness as well. Aside from the family funeral we attended, I also knew coming in that there would be another troublesome situation: Shadow Pup was ill.  I was staying with Kak and JB for the week and despite having just driven over 13 hours; I arrived with palpable dread of this situation, fearing that Shadow would appear frail and sickly. Imagine my delight and surprise when he came bounding out the front door to greet me, just like always. He had Kak and JB by his side, watching him carefully, and he was favoring his bad leg, but he was as joyful and excited as I'd ever seen him.

That greeting is classic Shadow Pup. Shadow is a dog that I would describe as pure joy. He was happy and playful and had a fierce love for his "people".  He ran and danced excitedly when any car would pull up the driveway and would always run out to greet them. No one, but no one, though, would get as enthusiastic a greeting as would Shadow's beloved "Grampa", Maw Reckard.  It was not hard to figure out why: Maw would always provide treats, then get down on the floor and just love all over him. Shadow loved his Grampa. 

Shadow also loved his beef. Grilling havens that Abicht's Landing and The Greenhouse were, steaks was frequently on the menu and Shadow was in Red Meat Nirvana every time. Oh sure, Shadow had his bowl of traditional dog food, but you think he was going to settle for dry nuggets when those enticing aromas were rising form the grill?  And let's face it, we were all soft touches where Shadow was involved: one look at that cocked jaw and grin and those searching eyes and we were all handing him morsels under the table. In the end, he ate better than most of us did.

We all watched Shadow warily during the week I was in. He struggled with the diseased leg, but while it slowed him down, it rarely stopped him altogether. He limped his way to all of his favorite spots in the house and in the yard. He lingered under the weeping cherry tree, relishing the branches that swayed around him.  He seemed to enjoy it so much, that I crawled under the tree and hung out with him for a bit. I got what the allure was; it was a peaceful little place in busy surroundings...Shadow's secret hideout.

On Saturday night of Alumni weekend, I typically would be helping out the Greenhouse Gang with whatever event they were hosting. This time, I volunteered to hang with Shadow as he was not left alone during these challenging days. We sat outside and I watched him intently. He settled into the grass, but frequently moved around the yard. He moved until he got the best view of everything including The Greenhouse. Shadow would raise his jaw and close his eyes a bit as breezes would blow across him. We watched two ninja rabbits leap over each other and square off like it was some sort of tournament. We watched deer run across the hillside.  Shadow peered at birds as they flitted above his head. Shadow seemed to just want to take it all in.  It was a couple of hours of quiet wonder for both of us and I treasured it. 

Nothing, but nothing eases the agony of losing our fur babies, does it? It is a singular pain like no other. That pain is the price that is paid for every one of them we choose to love, and I have struggled with this personally as I'm not sure I can bear up to that cost; at least as far as being a dog owner. It is clear to me from my dog-loving friends though, that the cost is more than worth it, as the friendship from Man's Best Friend is one so pure and loving, that it is impossible to deny. Look at the friendship Shadow Pup provided to so many. I will miss him greatly.

So as I told Kak on the phone when she called to break the news...I just keep the image of That Ever-Growing Celebration in The Sky so clear and pristine at this point, that it is my shield against the sadness.  Almost instantaneously upon hearing the news of Shadow's passing, I held the image of Shadow and his "sister" Sophie...who was lost to us first some time ago...running and playing in a field. Its an image still crystalline to me at this moment and one I will think of for some time. 

That image also includes that smile...Shadow's unmistakable smile as he runs, without a care in the world, with Sophie.  And now I'm smiling. Run on, Shadow Pup.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Thriving in Marietta

A new eatery opened up in hometown hang Marietta, Ohio, but it was going to have to be something unique to get me to take a break from our beloved Cham's in Parkersburg and its stellar Lebanese cuisine.  I don't get in town as often as I would like, and yes I know, there are many options out there in the Parkersburg/Marietta area and have blogged about many of them; both classic and newer.  But when time is limited, I go with what I know I'll dig, unless I hear about something new and reportedly was the case with Thrive Cafe. One look at the online menu and I was sold: Thrive Café was a must-try.

Thrive Café opened in its cozy downtown locale just recently and the raves going up about it rang all the way to me out here in KC. I loved everything I was reading not only from the various thumbs up but what I was reading from their website itself...the downtown charm of Thrive's location, the culinary background of their owners/creators and their dedication to organic, locally sourced food and of course, the description of the menu items themselves. I could not wait to check it out, and upon this last visit, visit it we did.

I took my sister down to meet friends Kristy and Joe and upon entering, was instantly taken by the stylish and colorful décor. The walls were decorated by what I would consider my favorite restaurant décor: works by local artists. The place was bustling and after a bit of time perusing the menu we ordered at the front counter. The wait was not long as my cohorts and I had much to catch up on and it helped that the stylish mix of college students and locals made for great people watching. I sipped on a Thrive tea while waiting and as I am not typically a tea fiend, I wasn't sure if I'd dig it, but indeed, the mix of Chai and green tea was very satisfying. Our food soon arrived, and soon those raves I'd heard previously were all echoing around our table. My sister thoroughly enjoyed her Thrive Harvest Salad with baby greens and artichoke hearts, goat cheese, strawberries, and toasted cashews and had a particular fondness for the roasted strawberry balsamic vinaigrette that accompanied it.  Joe dug his roasted turkey and Swiss sandwich and Kristy loved her salmon BLT with Alaskan keta seared salmon fillet with turkey bacon and herbed yogurt.

I have been a serious quinoa convert of late and I absolutely relished Thrive's quinoa bowl: hearty quinoa with black beans, roasted red peppers, caramelized onion, poblano peppers, cilantro and citrus. So, so good especially with some of that Alaskan keta salmon added to the mix.  We were a table of very happy and content customers after this meal.

Thrive is a thriving catering operation as well as café and also do box lunches to go. They also work with customers with special dietary needs in regards to gluten-free and/or food allergies. Freshness is clearly their goal and it shows in the careful preparation of their food.  How refreshing is that?  Check them out!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Baking Your Day Indeed

I finally got to check out my friend Tim's awesome bakery in Baking Your Day is a new favorite place of mine. My only disappointment was not having enough time to try hometown of St. Marys, WV and its safe to say that its a new favorite hometown hang.  If only I'd had more time to taste more of those goodies.

I took my sister to lunch there while I was home and there was a young artist painting a logo on the wall at the time. We perused the bake-case laden with sugary and doughy goodness while deciding what to have for lunch. After Tim made some suggestions from the posted lunch menu, I went for the tomato, mozzarella and pesto sandwich on croissant and sis Shirley went for the chicken salad croissant. We both loved the sandwiches; the tomato, mozzarella and pesto is packed with flavor on that flaky croissant and the chicken salad was exactly how I like it: tasty and no-frills. In fact, I came to discover Tim and I are of like mind when it comes to chicken salad: leave it alone; no nuts and/or fruit invited, thank you very much. Baking Your Day runs daily lunch specials including Taco Salads and Philly Cheesesteaks and has a delicious-looking menu of lunch offerings, including soups and salads. I hear the lobster bisque they've featured is way good.

It is one seriously difficult endeavor trying to select which baked good to try out after lunch. I went with one of Tim's personal favorites; the apple fritter. It was sweet, sugary, citrusy goodness and pretty much to die for. Next time I might go for the dark chocolate doughnut or the pecan roll. Alumni weekend was a banner weekend for Baking your Day as they took advantage of the large crowds and showcased some of their highlights. I, unfortunately, didn't make it back in, but Tim told me they were making their version of (red-hot in the baked-good scene) cronuts as well as a very decadent-sounding Apple Fritter French Toast. Either of which you could get a la mode with a scoop of ice cream or caramel or chocolate sauce. Mouth-watering photo of the French toast courtesy of Baking Your Day's Facebook page.....

......Sweet Lord have mercy.  And did I mention Alumni weekend was also the kickoff for their gourmet pizzas which has also been earning raves?  And that they are also serving hand-packed ice cream with flavors like butter pecan and banana split? A one-week visit was just not enough to take in all of their temptations. 

Go see Tim and Co. at Baking Your Day today.  Then go post what you got on your...or their...Facebook page and make me pea-green with envy.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Reception Reminiscing

One of the Alumni happenings I attended was the Alumnus of the Year reception for Mike Webb.  Mike was vice-principal when I was in school and his two kids Joe and Sara are former classmates and longtime friends of mine. Post-crowded parade, it made for a relaxing afternoon shared with many faces and personalities that I hadn't seen in quite some time. 

Kristy accompanied me down and just driving out the Grape Island roadway had the memories hazily humming in my head. There was a fair crowd already when we arrived.  The picnic tables were laden with food and the aromas of smoky meat were wafting from around the corner where Joe was grilling up a storm. I reconnected with many old friends like Dianna and Todd and Don and Julie and then soon realized I had inadvertently ignored some of my former teachers when I walked past them after congratulating Mike.  It was great fun catching up with my former homeroom teacher Mae Lewis and freshman English teacher Janis Yoho. Both of them looked and seemed great and both of them complimented my blog....there is some high praise indeed, my friends. In fact, the reception was certainly an opportunity to enjoy the company of many great ladies, including getting another "prom photo" with the Divine Ms. Dotte White.

The food was seriously yummy and it was a kick to sample some homemade wares from the Webb siblings. Joe smoked some killer wings and some spicy sausage wrapped in pancetta. Sara made some flavorful barbecue beans to accompany the meats and the I loved the hint of apple cider vinegar that came out in them. Sara also whipped up two amazing homemade pies: blackberry and rhubarb and both won raves from everyone. What the what, Webbs...Joe's not only one of my favorite writers with a Blog O' Awesomeness all his own found here but apparently a whiz with the smoker as well and Sara essentially aced both running AND cooking this weekend.  Dang...

  This familiar setting had me thinking about Joe and Sara's Mom Judy, who sadly is no longer with us. When I later got the opportunity to steal a couple of looks in their childhood home where I had plenty of my own memories, the images of those long-ago days just flooded my mind and I could hear Judy's voice in my head so clearly:

...a M*A*S*H finale party where I had to bury my face in a pillow so no one knew what I was doing...

Judy's voice: You sure fooled us with that pillow, Greg.

....a party when we were watching scary movies and our friend Sarah Jane got spooked outside and ran for the patio door only to find it closed....face-first.  I laughed so hard I think I pulled a rib out of place....

Judy's voice: Well, thank goodness Sarah Jane didn't get a concussion, you all really would have thought that hilarious.

...Judy putting out the usual vast and plentiful spread of delicious food and as I was putting a herculean effort into contemplating whether to try something new...rye and/or pumpernickel bread....
Judy's voice: Greg. Just try it. Live a little.

Yes indeed, Judy's voice.  Echoing through my head as I walked around the property. A fantastic wit that woman wielded and it was always backed up by her huge heart. I will never forget when I cajoled my parents into letting me go skiing with my 4-H group, but the trip itself was all we could afford and I didn't own ski clothes, so Judy without being asked, made sure I took Joe's ski suit. Judy was one of those Moms...and there were several...that looked out for all of us whether we were their kids or not. 

Watching Joe and Sara play excellent hosts for their Dad's reception and continue to just be excellent people in general, particularly here in the childhood home that evokes so many memories for all of us, was a gratifying thing indeed. I kept thinking of  Judy watching over them and how she has to be so completely proud of what amazing human beings they have become and from the looks of it, what amazing kids they are raising as well.

And just so you know....rye bread is my favorite bread.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Home Running

This recent trip back to the hometown yielded many an opportunity to run AND walk 'round St. Marys, including an unplanned Alumni 5k.....unplanned for by me, that is. The weather was pretty darn spectacular for the most part, so I took advantage and plotted out some in-town runs to see what the week would yield.

The first run's starting point was inspired by Maw Reckard who encouraged me to visit the St. Marys Marina and check out some of the upgrades there.  I ran around the marina and up through Second Street; back through downtown and then a short bit on Ingram's island. Not my best mindset, not enough water beforehand and surprise, surprise, not my best run by a longshot. Inspiration came later that night with some encouraging messages from my longtime friend and classmate Sara who was cajoling me toward running the approaching Alumni 5k. Inspiring my friend is, but its funny how no matter how one might love his hometown; long-nurtured self-doubt born during childhood and fully ripened during middle school can seep right back into my now older and more addled brain. Well, good to know something can still seep back in the old cerebellum at least; Lord knows enough keeps seeping out...

No matter what stinking thinking may be floating around the brain matter, I didn't outright turn Sara's suggestion down either. Newly challenged, I went for a longer, better run the next day. I ran the streets of Belmont and checked out the changes at the middle school. I ran by houses and yards I remembered well.....there's the Hendrickson's house...the Doty's house...the Fitzpatrick's house...oh, the flood of memories that accompanied each fleeting pass. Before I knew it, I had run my 3+ miles at a fair pace. That night, I agreed to the 5k.

The Friday before, bestie Kristy and I did our traditional power walk through the steep hills of Pleasants County Park. It was not our best effort, thanks to me and my latest struggle with this particularly wretched allergy season. A certain concentration of boxwood can apparently close my throat right up and for the third time in my life, that occurred on this walk just south of Gobbler's Knob. We have walked this route many times and it goes to show this allergy season is just killer, because it kicked my ass right back down the hill. All said and done, we still got a great workout and the hills were good training for the next day...

...which came at the "crack of crazy", as my friend Michelle calls it.  I met Sara at the Alumni 5k Classic at Dewey Avenue Church of Christ bright and early and caught up with her and several other longtime friends like Julie and Kelly whom I hadn't seen in many a moon. We got chipped and numbered and soon were on our way. Mind you, I was trying to get under 34 minutes in my 5k time.  My younger compatriots were striving to get under 30 minutes, so I thought I that the inspiration I would glean from them would help me to keep up with them. This little pipe dream lasted about half a mile, by the way. Dang, soon it seemed that not just my friends, but everyone was passing me up. Down Route 2 we went, up Stadium Drive, down the long length of 6th street and the rest of the group just looked smaller and smaller in the distance...ahead of me. At this point, I watched as a soldier in full fatigues carrying an imposing load passed me up. Talk about inspiration. I would learn later this is a regular sighting in races and is part of the Wounded Warrior project. I'd never been so honored to be passed up in my life.

On we trudged, sweat rolling, back up Morgan Ave, when I noticed everyone ahead of me was turning right. Aw hell no, are we going up to the park? First panicked moment came out of fear I'd have an allergy attack because I wasn't sure where in the park we might be going. Sure enough, we ran past the cemetery and up that first steep hill. As the pain hit my legs, I saw where someone wrote "dig deeper" in chalk on the roadway we were running up. I heard myself grumbling...aloud..."why would I think a 5k in my hometown...St. Marys, West Virginia....TAYLOR country...would be an easy one?"  I think my muttering old man routine just might have inspired those few running directly ahead of me to step up their own get away from me.

Yes, there is a family with the last name of Taylor in my hometown who are absolute local running legends. Their names are etched in years of races and meets and competitions and one of the most noted was Steve, who graduated with me. Thanks in large part to the Taylors and decades of other superior runners, St. Marys, West Virginia has an utterly legendary status when it comes to running.  Running these hills in a race actually feels like I'm running on hallowed ground.

Eventually, uphill goes downhill, no allergies attacked and I was propelled through Cherry St.and eventually back to Dewey Avenue where I finally reached the finish line. I was so convinced at this point that I was in last place, that I didn't even notice my time. It took a quick walk around to Sara's car for some killer healthy cookies...

               (I scored the recipe)
 ....before she reassured me not only was I not in last place but I beat the 34 minutes I was looking to beat....32:21 to be exact and it was the first time I had finished a 5k in the 10-minute mile range (10:26). And there were park hills involved!  Well, whaddya know...yes Sara, I will have another cookie. Speaking of Sara, I might also add that she kicked serious booty in this race and got a medal to boot.

This hometown visit was special on many levels.  Not least of which is rediscovering it as a running destination.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Heart Of A Rinehart

My mother's maiden name is Rinehart.  I grew up the youngest Rinehart cousin of a plethora of Rinehart cousins when considering my Mom was one of seven brothers and sisters. Of the brothers and sisters, three settled in my hometown of St. Marys, West Virginia: my Uncle Albert, my Aunt Bonnie and of course, my mother. I was also the youngest by a stretch; the closest to me in age were my cousin LJ (Bonnie's youngest) and Julie (Albert's youngest).  Many of my cousins had moved away while I was growing up, to locations including Florida and Illinois. My sisters, who were older than me by more than a decade, were closest to the older siblings in Uncle Albert's family as they were similar in age and therefore classmates as well. 

Growing up, it was Uncle Albert's family who largely moved to Florida over the years. I vaguely remember being at their Belmont, West Virginia home when I was young, before they moved away.  Despite my fuzzy memories of those youthful days, even then there was something about this branch of the extended Rinehart clan that seemed almost...mythic. Uncle Albert and his boys Albert Wayne, Jerry, Joe and Tom seemed larger than life with personalities to match, while Aunt Carrie was like a goddess with her beautiful blonde hair (as was her daughter Julie) that stood out like sunlight amongst the more brunette shades of the Rinehart women. Already seemingly sun-kissed and super-powered, it was no wonder that many of this Rinehart clan would head to the Sunshine State, where their existence seemed to almost make more sense in a backdrop of brilliant sunsets and crashing ocean waves. This is certainly not to imply that this family was too good for their beloved hometown, though...they were proud of their Mountain State heritage, to be sure.

Throughout my life, I was regaled with stories about the Rinehart boys. Tales included athletic excellence in high school and college as well as some gasp-inducing recounts of some of their wilder days. I would get lost in the riveting retelling of storied careers involving everything from NASA at the time we put a man on the moon to dangerous missions in foreign lands. Tragedy claimed one of the Rinehart boys far too young when Joe was wounded in Vietnam in 1967 and became the first in our county to be a casualty of that war.  He died on Memorial Day, while the fatalities of previous wars were being honored. 

Joe's tragic loss and the further adventures and exploits of his brothers seemed to elevate them all to a legendary status. I grew up reading comic books about superheroes, but there was a clan of them right in my own family.  I talked about them all with an almost hushed reverence; all puffed up with pride that I was even related to these guys.  At the same time, when I was around them, I was typically a combination of awe and terror. The fact that I was nervous around them, though, was all on me. Uncle Albert and his boys may have been tough guys, but they were always awesome to me, my sisters and my folks. They also always had that signature Rinehart sense of humor that we all share and we all know can range from the ornery to the deranged, but damn, can it light up a room when its present. 

As I had mentioned in previous posts, my cousin Albert Wayne, Uncle Albert's oldest, recently passed away, and three weeks later, Uncle Albert himself died. It was an absolute bracing tragedy for my Aunt Carrie to lose both her beloved husband and her son, but the family surrounded  her as expected, and they weathered this as they have everything else: together. There were services for father and son in Florida and this past weekend there was an internment service for Albert Wayne in St. Marys that my sister Shirley and I attended.

My sister and I had a treasured few moments on a bench with our cousin Jerry (pictured above in the parade) and his amazing wife Marylou by the lake at the Greenhouse on the Saturday before the service. As Jerry and Marylou recounted the last days of both men, tears welled up and we caught our breaths at times, but true to Rinehart form, even this grave, meaningful conversation didn't come without a laugh...especially when a certain revelation about my Dad and my Aunt Carrie came to light.

The service for Albert Wayne became a bit of a family reunion as cousins I hadn't seen for many years came in to attend. The photo at top is from the program for the service, which was blessedly like I would expect a Rinehart service to be: touching and irreverent and full of stories.  Many centered on Albert Wayne's astounding football career and John Tice's descriptions of those days on the football field even solidified that mythic image so many of us had of the Rinehart boys....John remembered the first time he saw Al Jr. in his football gear and told of how he looked like a gladiator. Sure enough, some of the tales involved some classic Rinehart craziness, including a story that involved Albert Wayne's retaliation for his brother Tommy's practical joke of smashing an egg on his head.  Let's just say the revenge involved a Hammett's Dairy Bar hot dog and a really long earthworm and we'll leave the rest to the imagination.  After the service was a quiet burial on a pristinely clear day and then a reception that was fittingly held at the Fireside restaurant. Noshing on the Fireside's signature broaster chicken and seeing Sandy and Michelle there; I was reminded of those last Fireside meals with Dad before he died and how so many family memories echoed from within those walls.

Throughout the day and into the evening, I realized what else really set this Rinehart clan apart. We all love our families, but the toughness inherent within Uncle Albert and Aunt Carrie's clan was also apparent in their utterly fierce devotion to each other. I had always admired the lifelong love affair that Uncle Albert and Aunt Carrie enjoyed and I was fortunate to often bear witness to how much Jerry and Marylou continue to cherish each other as they approach a half-century together.  This was the first time, though, I really got to see much of the extended family interact and their intense devotion to each other is evident in every generation. I watched as Jerry, who has been in countless death-defying situations during his own career, failed to stop the tears that overcame him as he introduced Al's children and grandchildren at the service. I caught glimpses of their interaction at the burial and the reception and their familial bonds are just inspiring to see. So, tough and bigger than life the Rineharts were, but I think I have figured out their secret weapon: their hearts, which were also bigger than life. Even when, in some cases, those hearts threatened to physically fail them, they seemed to always beat strong and fast for each other. The love and devotion of this family for each other has carried them through so much and it will continue to heal the hurt left in the wake of each loss. 

I have written much about that Rinehart reunion growing in the stars and I continue to take solace from the thoughts of how its evolving with each loss we suffer here.  Oh, what a grand reunion that one will be....

RIP Uncle Albert and Al, Jr.