This is the seventh in a guest series by Phil Cate. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on ‘Phil Cate’ under the Categories heading in the right panel. Watch for new installments every Friday.
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The First Hero Shows Up
My grandparents (Dad’s folks) came to celebrate Christmas with us and had to be horrified at what they walked into.
The last time they had been with us as a family, there had been a very different vibe with laughter in the air and affection between us. Not this time. It was cold and silent and cold and angry and cold. I was a totally non-functional rebel wreck, with absolutely nothing healthy going on. Lori had graduated and left for college at Cornell University and was not doing too well herself.
Granddad immediately saw that something had to give, and now. He offered to take me back to Gastonia, North Carolina, a nice southern town outside of Charlotte where he and Grandmother had retired. He came and talked to me privately and said, “Son, I don’t think you should stay here anymore. I can tell you and your dad are just not going to make it. Let’s go back to North Carolina and get your life moving in a good direction.”
I didn’t know what to do, but I did know it wasn’t going anywhere good at home. I was seventeen and going nowhere; my parents were clearly in a tailspin; my sister was out of the house and struggling herself. The only thing that could have kept me in Maryland was my skyrocketing academic career … so I started packing.
I had no idea what to expect when I hit North Carolina, but the weather was certainly warmer, and so were the people. I sensed a bit of what I had seen in Alabama; there was a feeling of community. As soon as I arrived, people in my grandparents’ neighborhood took an interest in me. I had lawns to mow to make money; people spent time with us getting to know me; I was invited over to shoot hoops with some of the neighborhood guys. We went to church the first Sunday I was there, and immediately I was introduced to some of the guys and gals my age. Soon after arriving, I went on a skiing trip with the church kids, and we had a really good time.
My grandfather and I met with counselors at the school and together talked about my options. That was a change, in and of itself. I wasn’t used to options being presented me.
One possibility presented was my taking a GED exam to see if I could just go ahead and graduate. The counselor had my records from Maryland sent down to see what I had amassed in high school credits. You guessed it. I had the one — and only one — elective half credit in creative foods. I think I pulled out a D-minus. It was my crowning achievement academically in high school. In two years I had pulled one half credit. Yikes.
That GED thing started to look pretty good to all of us. Otherwise, at my current rate of progress, I’d be looking at a fifteen-year high school endeavor — and that depended on finding a really good tutor.
We opted for the GED route, and I was asked to attend classes to prepare for it. The counselors told us no one could pass the exam without that preparation; I especially, given my total absenteeism throughout high school.
I asked, “Can I just take it now?” They said, “Feel free, but it’s in several phases and you really should study. You’ll never pass all the phases, and you’ll have to do remedial training which will cost money and will take longer if you fail.”
I asserted again I wanted to take the exam immediately. They relented. I took it right away without any preparation and passed with flying colors. Go figure ….
I was really benefiting from being around my granddad. He introduced me to so many things. He took me squirrel hunting; we worked on the cars together; we worked on the house or in the shed he had converted to a tiny wood shop. He believed in me and said so often, though I didn’t believe him completely. I still thought of myself as the kid destined to be entertaining and worthless, and I was quite good at both.
Granddad had a ton of friends at the church and around town. He had been living there only a short while; yet while they were first shaking my hand, everyone told me what a good man he was. (By the way, one of them happened to be a retired chief in the Navy and that would come into play later.)
It took me years to realize just how good my granddad really was. I came from such an achievement-driven environment, and Granddad didn’t have a lot of achievements. He was “just” a simple, blue-collar, retired auto worker with a good heart. That’s the way I looked at him this go around, but later I’d see much more.
Then there was Rhonda. There are pretty girls everywhere, but somewhere in North Carolina there must be a gorgeous-girl tree that drops an over-abundant number of pretty girls. There was this strawberry blonde named Rhonda. Rhonda was so southern that my name, Phil, suddenly had two syllables.
I met her on a hill, right down the street in our neighborhood; she was out sledding with her brothers after an ice storm. I ended up being friends with all of the boys and goofy in love with Rhonda. She had an infectious smile and would call me Pheeol, and it just melted my heart. I was crazy about her.
They say you never get over that first love. “Never” may be a bit extreme; but in my case, it took fourteen years. Until I met my wife, I never had stronger feelings for a woman than I had for Rhonda.
But we were both such a mess. She and the boys had been adopted by a couple in the neighborhood, and they all had some emotional scars of their own. I think God spared Rhonda and I in not letting us get married; I think it would’ve been a catastrophe. I had enough catastrophes waiting for me in my life, and if this one had been added to the list it might have been too much.
My grandmother has been my chief advocate most of my life, and I so much appreciate that. Yet relationally, she had struggles far worse than even my father did. Living with her proved to be very difficult over time. I swallowed hard and took it for a while, but it got tough.
For some reason, she turned on my dating Rhonda, and things got really ugly. I totally defied any authority and did as I pleased, even though I was living under my grandparents’ roof. Neither my grandmother nor I handled this well at all, and my poor granddad was caught in the middle. He had been there before, as I would very graphically find out later.
I did what I did best; I went to the airport and flew unannounced back to Maryland. I flew standby with Piedmont, paid with my own money this time. I think a standby hopscotch rate was only twenty-eight bucks, but you had to stop at least once. It is funny how I became a much better price shopper when I didn’t have my Dad’s American Express number handy. Stopping in Raleigh was no big deal, but they didn’t have those cool greasy cheeseburgers in Raleigh. As for the great-looking stewardesses, yep, plenty of those around. Not that I was looking; Mom raised me in church.
Dad was not thrilled to see me. This is not a shot against him; I just think he was afraid the return of the genetic defect (me) might bring back the north wind and even float an iceberg or two through his bedroom. No guy likes ice in the bed.
It only took about four days for us to have another brawl. And can you believe he left his wallet out again? Some people just never learn. Off to Chattanooga, an Atlanta greasy cheeseburger on the way, and did I mention they had quite a number of nice-looking stewardesses in Atlanta? No skunks this time in Chattanooga, though. I flew during normal hours. I’ll bet that cost for first class; but hey, money was no object since the airlines still took American Express. Don’t leave home without it, and don’t shower without it in sight.
Now Melissa is about to come on the scene big time. Melissa was my dad’s little sister, and would you believe they had a little relational friction? Melissa married my uncle Jack, and Jack was the one anointed to go and fetch the young rebel. Thank goodness. Another ride on Trailways might’ve done me in.
Jack took me to their home in Adairsville, Georgia (pull out your map and bifocals and best of luck). He had apparently been fully briefed by the crisis committee and started immediately asking probative questions about my Dad and I. At the time, I had no idea how much he knew about my Dad’s “issues”. I had a lot to learn.
Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901
Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.