Friday, June 10, 2016

Uncle Gene

On June 6th, I posted this photo of my great Uncle Gene, not only to commemorate D-Day but because it was also his 93rd birthday.  The youngest of 11 children (my "Memaw" was the oldest) he played the role of eternal bachelor. I always wondered if that was because there were all girls in the family until the birth of the last two: Joe and Gene.  The only one to move away from his native North Carolina, he live in S. Miami, where his country sisters worried that some bathing beauty would turn his head and steal his money.  Truth was, he'd been engaged, she broke it off and his new hometown became his haven.  With a sense of humor somewhere between witty and wicked....those of us who share it refer to it as the "Uncle Gene gene".
Yesterday, June 9th, he flew into the great beyond.  Okay, in my head, I envisioned his passing as Uncle Gene jumping into this plane and roaring into the wild blue yonder.  That's the way the Uncle Gene gene works.  

All my life we lived a state or two apart.  I probably only saw him once or twice as a child because he didn't relish returning to North Carolina and his sisters didn't want to visit his residential Sin City.   Every time we went to visit Memaw in N.C., anywhere from 2-3 of her sisters would drop by.  When I was 16 and answering their obligatory questions about school, I mentioned my foray into Spanish 101.  One of the sisters brightened and said, "Gene is taking Spanish too!  After all these years living in that place.  You should write to him.  Maybe you could practice together."

Little did I know I was about to enter a carnival ride that wouldn't end until he did.

Armed with his address, I wrote (yes children, back then we used paper, pen and cursive writing), explaining which of the myriad of grand nieces and nephews I was by referring to my Mom as his point of reference.  He wrote back, claiming to be delighted and set down the ground rules: the first paragraph of each letter HAD to be in Spanish, no matter how hard or how many times we had to use a dictionary.  I agreed.  About three letters in, I asked why he was just now learning a language which had been swirling around his ears for years.  He replied that a lovely Cuban woman had moved into the apartment next door and she didn't speak English.

A month later I received a letter which began, "Stop Spanish.  Woman wasn't worth it."

But that didn't mean we stopped corresponding.  In fact, the most recent note I sent him was last week, just before his birthday.  (I never could persuade him to switch to a computer).  Uncle Gene was a Charlie Brown fan (Peanuts cartoon character for you non U.S. folks).  He'd sign his letters, "Love Charlie Brown and Gene T.".  I would address his letters to "Mr. Charles Brown, c/o Gene Davis."  When I graduated from high school, he sent me $50, which sensible me spent on every day stainless steel silverware.  Yes, Hubby wouldn't propose for another 3 years but I had a hope chest...and hope.  We used that silverware until 2 years ago. 

As life progressed so did the addresses on the envelopes.  When Hubby worked at a donut place, I'd get letters to "Mrs. X. and the Donut King".  When he became manager of a pest control outfit, I got "Mrs. X. and Bug Man".  Oh, did I mention that Uncle Gene wrote my address in brightly colored magic marker? Sometimes a different color per line?  I'm sure both of our mailmen thought we were crazy.

But it was good crazy. Well, if you asked his nieces and nephews: his sisters believed him somewhere between eccentric and plain nuts. My favorite "embarrass the sisters" moment came during a visit to see Memaw.  It was customary to go out to lunch and one of the sisters came with us.  So there we sat: Memaw, her son, one of the sisters, my Mom, and myself in a N.C. Cracker Barrel.  I name the restaurant because it fits with the country theme.  A very young waitress came to get our order.  Uncle Gene, who to me often sounded like Garrison Keillor, asked very cordially,"Is the possum fresh?"

As the waitress looked perplexed, in my head I thought, "And we're off!"

Uncle Gene repeated his request with a warm smile as those of us who have the Gene gene bit our lips and tried not to laugh.  The waitress said she was unsure and scampered away.

Head held high, she came back to inform him that they did not.  To which Uncle Gene replied, "Surely someone scrapped one off the road on the way in this morning.  They're everywhere."

The flustered waitress scampered away and Uncle Gene was admonished by his sisters to behave.  He acted surprised that they would think he was being otherwise.  Out the corner of my eye I saw movement.  Through the kitchen door, the waitress was talking to the cook and pointing in our direction.  The cook had a gleam in his eye.  The waitress returned and firmly stated, "I'm sorry we're out.  But the cook says it tastes just like chicken and we have plenty of that."

Uncle Gene sighed and deadpanned,  "I was born here.  And on my visit I was looking forward to some home cooking.  I don't suppose you have any rattlesnake?"   Before the poor girl could RUN back to the kitchen, one of the sisters snapped, "Gene!" in that maternal tone which leaves no doubt that trouble is about to rear it's head.  "Fine," Uncle Gene had replied.  "It tastes like chicken too.  Guess I'll have the chicken."  The waitress disappeared and an older waitress appeared at our table.  She took one look at Uncle Gene, recognized our family, then admonished, "Behave yourself.  Today is that poor girl's first day!"

If nothing else, Uncle Gene was compassionate.  He left her a large tip.

As I worked on the family tree (still am) he'd send any nuggets of information he found.  We shared a genetic need-to-know about life and reading was how we discovered.  He answered my questions, offered a few stories I'd never heard and busted a family myth...his sisters proudly declared for years he was once a writer for "LIFE" magazine.  He laughed and said he'd once written a Letter to the Editor to LIFE, but that was the extent of his literary career with them.  He always teased me with, "One day, I'll let you in on my secret project.  I've been working on it for years.  It's not ready to see the light of day yet, but when it is, I'll let you know."   I heard that speech for years.  The family rumors and theories about what that might be were amusing, hysterical and sometimes fearful...I think his sisters feared he'd write a book calling them country bumpkins.

Nope, he never came clean about his project.  But I finally figured it out.  His secret was that every day was an adventure.  You just kept going...even if it meant moving on to a higher plane for the next adventure. 

 So lift a glass 
(as Uncle Gene, pictured on his 91st birthday, did daily)
and help me celebrate the gift of the Uncle Gene gene, 
which lives on in me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

I was wrong. Sorta

I previously mentioned that my employer was probably unaware that I was hitting the 29 year mark of employment.   Yesterday I found a letter from the Human Resources office which had been sent while I was on vacation.  It began,

You have been identified as an employee who is eligible 
for retirement on or before July 1, 2016."

O-kay.  Should I feel good (hey, they know I work for them!) or worried? (Here's your hat, what's your hurry).    After all, I was officially eligible for retirement last year.  The next paragraph "reassures" me that the decision to retire is a personal one.  (Translation: Even though we're an "at will" state and can fire you whenever we please, we'd rather not push you out the door and have you run to an attorney). 

I'm then fed the standard governmental we're-here-to-help-you line which offers me the option of attending a workshop provided by our State Retirement System to aid in planning my retirement.  But it is MANDATORY I reply by June 17th in order to retire by July 1st.  And the date of the workshop?  

JULY 18th.  After work, of course.   Except technically, that's also after retirement.  I wonder if they suspect trouble?  The workshop is being held at the Sheriff's Department Training facility which....wait for it...use to be the old jail.  

No wonder people don't embrace government or public service as a career choice any more. 

For the record,  I politely declined.  Just think how much more comical this could get if I stick around a little while longer.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Who, What, When, Where but most of all WHY?

If you write, or have even taken a decent high school English class,  one of the first things you're taught is your responsibility to the reader.  We were given the rule that the basis of a complete story began by answering the above questions, "Who, What, When Where, Why (and sometimes How).  The answer to all five should appear in the first paragraph of an article.  It was then your job, as the the writer/reporter, to expand upon each of those in the following paragraphs for a full description of events.

A task simple enough for a high school kid to follow.  Unfortunately, it's a concept that much of today's media is not familiar.

I know.  Political years bring out more stupid than sane ideas.  And while it's hard to fight that on a national level, you'd think local media would try harder to fairly represent stories about their businesses, neighbors, or family.  It's your community.  There needs to be a shared trust and willingness to help each other.  Sadly I've just witnessed something on the local level that has me both shaking my head and angry.

On May 24th a cell phone video was given to a local television station.  I'm not sure how the "concerned citizen" choose from the 4 stations in our state.  But it appears no one at the chosen station is familiar with fact checking.  A local paper ran a brief, one paragraph report of the incident which probably raised more questions than it answered.  But I got the feeling it was a token, "There.  We heard your 'concern'.  Here's our report.  We're done".

In a nutshell, here's what the grainy video shows.  An older fireman is berating an apparently younger fireman, using language which your mama wouldn't approve.  Ironically, the younger man's face is blurred, while the older man's is not.  At the end, the older one slaps the younger one's face.  Not a knock-you-out-of-your-seat move, but stronger than a love tap.  The young man says, very calmly, "Don't do that."  The older man, clearly agitated, does so again, telling the young man to get out of his seat and go do his job. 

The firefighter is named, then the audience is advised the incident was shared with the Fire Chief, who passed it to the County Administrator. The Administrator responded with the usual "personnel matter", noting the suspension/training was already completed.  The older man was suspended for 3 days without pay and ordered to attend an Anger Management training. Then, to make sure the audience is still there, it's revealed that the young firefighter is actually ...gasp!...the older man's son, who is not named. The newscast ended with the fact charges could be pending from the local Chief of Police, and that no replies had been received from the reporter's e-mails to the police chief and firefighter.

So, sounds fair right?  Bad fireman yelled his way into a suspension, loss of pay, and possible criminal assault charges because a concerned citizen stepped forward to share physical evidence.

But what if I told you the actual event occurred over a year ago?

That's right.  There's a lot which was omitted.  Sadly, too many reporters are, quite frankly, lazy.  Reporters once used their feet, not the internet, to interview subjects.  Rather than face to face conversations, it's apparently now assumed any unanswered reporter e-mail inquiries makes the other party automatically guilty.  And yet amazingly, journalism "sources" are still protected.  Don't you wonder why it took the "concerned citizen",  never mentioned by name, so long to come forward with the video?  If he was so concerned, why allow such an irate firefighter to keep doing a job paid for by tax dollars?  

Viewers join this video "conversation" shortly after it's begun. Mr. Concerned Citizen appears to have a ringside seat, yet says nothing.   The only voice you hear is  the Firefighter's profanity laced speech.  If you can get past that, you hear something else: agitation, tinged with frustration.  What's lost on John Q. Public is the lesson he was trying to impart.  A lesson?  Screaming and slapping is a lesson, you ask? 

The difference is, I know the Firefighter and his son.  I also did some research of my own.  Yes, I like knowing both sides of the story.  Even the less sensational, worn down, parental side.

I've known this Firefighter for over 20 years.  I've known the son since he was a toddler.  Even as an adult, this kid still acts like a spoiled brat from time to time.  Let's just say God himself would have a hard time restraining himself from corporal punishment when it comes to Junior.  For the record, Dad wasn't just some volunteer fireman who suddenly decided to do so full time.  Recently retired after 20 years as a Game Warden, he also assisted local law enforcement hunt down drug dealers and other law breakers. In his "spare" time he bikes with a group of law enforcement guys who raise money to aid others.

Here's what the reporter didn't tell you.  Junior had been bragging that if he came to a house fire with gun fire involved, he'd kick in the door and fight the fire without waiting for back up.  Dad had told him that wasn't procedure and it was dangerous.  Evidently Junior then called Dad an impolite term for a cat.  What the aired portion of the video shows is Dad's frustration boiling over.  I'm not sure what Junior said, because his face was blurred, by there's a moment of hesitation before Dad's slap occurs.  This is a kid who doesn't know when to stop, doesn't acknowledge when "enough is enough" and enjoys provoking just to get a reaction.  Anyone who knows him, knows that.  Yet, all human's have their breaking point.  There is a taunt in Junior's eerily calm reply of, "Don't do that", just before Dad slaps him again and orders him to go do his job.

And so, what should've been, at best, a teaching moment in private, becomes a childish taunt causing a parent to snap while someone they probably work with sits idly by and records the whole thing.  Then sits on it.  For a year.

Why a year?  I have my own theory.  Dad is helping a local candidate run for Sheriff against a two term Sheriff he'd aided in years past to collar bad guys.  To be honest, it is time for a change in that office.  Yet one of the few things in the south which never seems to change is political grudges.  

As for that television station, I have lots of WHYS.  Why didn't your reporter do her homework and discover this incident happened a year ago?  Why didn't you look beyond the "concern" of an anonymous citizen for an additional motive because he'd kept quiet for so long?  Why send an e-mail when you could've at least picked up the phone to hear the other side?  Why would you drag a public servant through the mud, humiliating him and his family, without sharing that Junior now works at another station several counties away?  Why did you suddenly delete comments on your website when members of the community pointed out the true age of this story?

HOW can you sleep at night, knowing you only told half the story?

UPDATE:  And the plot thickens.  

It appears the video has been sitting for a year at...the Sheriff's Department.  In addition, I've learned the whole incident was set Junior.  He told his friend (Mr. Videographer) to get out his phone and get ready: he was going to make his father so angry that he'd lose it and slap his son. So what started off as a sick prank took a horrible turn.  Probably politically motivated at this point.  But the media won't report that...because it would entail looking for the truth.