One Night in Bangkok

“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster, the bars are temples but the pearls aren’t free.” – Murray Head

On New Year’s Day in 2000, I woke up alone save for my three dogs. At the time I had the pugs, Sable and Zoe, and my beloved terrier, May. Later that year, my brother, Danny, and Dad would retrieve the pugs to take them to their new home as I slowly dismantled my life in Memphis. It felt like I was breaking camp except instead of carefully packing everything away for my next trip I burned everything in the camp fire.

The world limped into that year. The Y2K hype and fizzle had exhausted everyone. By spring, the stock market tanked, shiny, once-new Dot Coms died a miserable death, and everyone dismissed the internet as an illusion that had betrayed us all. That tepid summer left a lot to be desired. I continued to travel, but I kept looking for other opportunities. A few false promises emerged only to evaporate, which only served to prolong my Memphis misery.

I had never warmed to Memphis, which initially didn’t matter because I was rarely home, but the forlorn town seemed like an anachronism shoe-horned into modern America despite its protests. Living there felt like a bad dizzy spell. Its claims to fame, Beale Street and Graceland, were markedly over-rated and disappointing. The massive FedEx operation that overwhelmed the otherwise dinky airport offered the only fascinating sight to see in that slice of western Tennessee.

By fall, my job search within FedEx heated up and I found myself vying for a position based in Los Angeles. I had always enjoyed the West Coast and imagined myself running along Huntington Beach every morning before work. It seemed idyllic, and I wanted the job in the worst possible way. What better way to start over than to move to the other side of the country. But it didn’t work out that way.

Instead, I received an offer for a similar role based in Chicago. I had never considered moving to Chicago because I had a visceral dislike for terrible winters, but given the choice between a desperate town on the Mississippi River or six months of inhospitable winter weather every year, I went with the latter. There were worse things than freezing my ass off, and I needed a fresh start. Cold be damned.

Before I made the move to Chicago, I had one last hurrah in the Audit Department, a trip to Thailand and its famous capital city. I’d never been to Bangkok despite flitting around Asia for much of my time at FedEx, and the city did not disappoint. A gleaming, relatively modern city juxtaposed among the remnants of Thailand’s past greeted me. Countless motorbikes and scooters with one, two, or more passengers buzzed through the city’s streets like angry bees darting among the cars. We had a van and a driver who took us back and forth from our hotel to the office for the whole week, while we gaped through the windows at the throngs of bikes that clogged the narrow streets.

On our last night there before a very early morning flight, one of the managers offered to take us out for Peking Duck and to see the “real” Bangkok. Most of us agreed to go since we thought it better to stay up all night before the flight out so that we could adjust back to Central Time in the U.S. more readily. He took us to a tropical-themed, wood-paneled restaurant near the bar district in Bangkok where we had a private room and feasted on duck wrapped in lettuce and drank copious amounts of alcohol. I’d never been a big fan of duck; I just didn’t like the texture or taste of the meat, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the meal and the sense of camaraderie on my last trip with my coworkers.

Feeling a little light in the step after the drinks, a few of us decided to venture into the bar district, while the others went back to the hotel for some sleep. The drinks kept rolling and the wanton Thai women kept approaching us like we were some sort of novelty. We danced with the women to pulsating Thai music and some bad renditions of American songs. We felt like rock stars, at least in our heads, which were becoming foggier by the moment.

At some point, the night dissolved into a blur. I barely remember going back to the hotel and packing my bags for the predawn shuttle to the airport. I do remember sitting in the back of that van with my head spinning and thumping as if the loud music from the bars had somehow implanted itself in my skull to follow me home. My stomach lurched with each turn toward the airport and bubbled like some witch’s cauldron. I was ill in the worst way.

Luckily, the airline bumped us up to first class on the 747 heading to Tokyo, which meant I had a seat in the upper level of the plane that lowered into a flat bed. I’d never been so thankful for first class. I sat in my seat with a headache so tremendous that I could barely keep my eyes open. As the plane rumbled down the runway, I dreaded the six-hour flight ahead of me. I didn’t think I could make it. Once we were up to cruising altitude, I became so agitated that I went to the restroom and threw up the contents of my stomach into the big silver bowl. I felt some measure of relief, at least to the point that I could sleep. I ambled back to my seat seething with the burn of vomit in my throat. I never wanted to see or smell Peking Duck again.

By the time I landed in Tokyo, I started to feel marginally better, but the remainder of my flights back to Memphis were a blur of fitful naps and tentative sips of water. When I landed in Memphis in the bright fall sunshine, I covered my eyes with my sunglasses and grunted and nodded goodbyes to my coworkers before I headed home for the last two weeks I’d ever spend in that vast empty house on the east side of Memphis.

1999

In June of 1999, Dad retired after working 31 years at the Ford plant (they gave him service credit for the four years he had been laid off). I returned to Atlanta to join my mom and brother for his retirement ceremony at the plant. All those years of fruitless battles, struggles with supervisors and the hapless union, and the long commutes to work were finally coming to an end for Dad. The light at the end of the long tunnel had arrived, but Dad had mixed feelings about it all. On the one hand, he was glad to be done with the back-breaking work that he could no longer do, but he dreaded the days ahead when there’d be nothing to occupy his time, no friends to joke with every day.

We parked in the vast lot near the plant, one that looked like an over-sized Ford car lot itself, and made the long trek to the mouth of the yawning plant. Airplanes from nearby Hartsfield roared overhead (the plant lived in the shadows of the airport’s runways), hushing any words that we might have said. Instead, we walked in silence with Dad leading the way in that slow, slightly hunched walk he had acquired through years of arduous labor on the humming assembly lines inside.

I had only been to the Ford plant once or twice when I was a child. I didn’t remember much of it, but it seemed familiar when we walked through the sun-blanched doors into the glare of the overbearing fluorescent lights. A tall escalator, one that had broken down many years ago and injured almost a hundred people, greeted us and took us to the offices where Dad would say his final goodbyes to his career.

The cleanliness and orderliness of the plant impressed me. It was nothing like I had imagined from the stories Dad had told me. In my mind, it was dirty and ramshackle, a grinding relic from the early industrial era. Instead, the aisles were wide, garnished with gleaming robots on either side of a line that slithered along the floor. Men in overalls worked diligently alongside cars in various stages of construction as the mechanical snake hissed and jerked its way through the plant.

Above the production floor in a bland lounge with an array of sloganeering posters and government labor notices, we waited for the ceremony to begin with Dad fidgeting nervously as he often did when he became the center of attention. I had imagined that there would be more people there to celebrate the retirement for someone who had given 31 years of his life to the cause of American manufacturing might, but instead, it was just us and another man with his similarly-small family.

The plant manager and a supervisor walked in and greeted us. We all nodded our heads and gave the perfunctory greetings, and the ceremony started much like a business meeting starts – let’s get down to our purpose today. With a few words, the manager and supervisor thanked Dad and the other man and presented them with dinky, gold-colored watches and flimsy certificates. They shook hands and exchanged superficial thank yous before the managers disappeared leaving us to congratulate Dad. The whole thing lasted ten minutes, if that. Dad’s life of 31 years had boiled down to ten rather inglorious minutes. While I was proud of Dad for all he had done, I felt sad, too. Was this all there was to life? Cradle to grave.

Dad didn’t like to waste time being sentimental or introspective, at least not in front of other people. He gathered his things, and we all left. He walked out of the plant that day saying goodbye in the only way that resonated with him. “I’m glad I don’t have to drive down here anymore.” He had always hated that commute from North Georgia to south of Atlanta, a trek of over 50 miles one way. And that’s how it ended – one final commute back through the bloated guts of the city into the over-developed beehive to the north.

Afterwards, when we took him to lunch, Dad avoided talk about what he would actually do now that retirement was a reality rather than some imaginary, hopeful point in the future. I suggested that he visit me in Memphis or that he and Mom go somewhere to get away and actually enjoy life for a moment. He nodded and smiled, and I knew he’d never do such things. He said his back hurt too much or that Mom still had to work her job. As long as I’d known him, Dad had been a connoisseur of excuses. I could almost recite the responses verbatim before he said them. Had I still been the petulant teenager I once was, I would have rolled my eyes and given him the sigh to end all sighs, but I was pretending to be an adult.

On the four-hour drive back to Memphis, accompanied by the static of fading radio stations and the monotony of a few CDs, I was struck by how much I was exactly like my Dad. He had entered the Ford plant in his youth and exited a hobbled old man after years of grinding work with not much to show for it beyond the scars of wear and tear. I was on the same path. I had never taken a real vacation. I had difficulty stepping away from work. I made excuses for not taking time off. Did I really want to exit my career many years later with nothing to show for it?

It seems melodramatic, but the sadness that tinged my dad’s retirement put it in sharp relief at that moment. I resolved to make changes. I’d find another job, one that didn’t require much travel. I’d cut loose all of the anchors that hung around my neck at that time. Relationships that had lasted way past their expiration date would be severed. I’d rip off the band-aid in one swift motion. Most importantly, I’d take a real vacation, not a day trip wedged into the crevice of another harried business trip. My career exit, still a few decades into the future, would not be one of despair and finality. It’d be grand and enlightening, at least within the realm of my small reality.

Working

I sacrificed my twenties at the altar of the career gods. I had no intention of slowing down once I survived college. I had invested too much blood, sweat, and tears to sit back and ride my degree before the ink had fully dried, so I dug in and began seeking the experiences that I needed to build a career.

I landed at Georgia-Pacific as a Cost Accountant. It had been my chosen path, but after a year in the role, I realized that maybe I had been mistaken. GP was an old-school, industrial company besotted by a unimaginative hierarchical structure that moved people from cradle to grave efficiently. I had simply traded Dad’s death by assembly line for a less-physical death by rote process. The indigestion of dissatisfaction rolled up my chest as the familiar itch for change gnawed at my gut.

Not all was lost in that first job. I met one of the best group of people with whom I had ever had the pleasure of working. The core group of us guys became fast friends. We worked out together in the company gym and went out together during lunch and after work. We turned the dreariness of a Dilbert-esque landscape into a fun experience. I missed the hell out of those guys when I moved on after a year and a half in the role (I still miss them), but I needed something more satisfying, more meaningful.

The next step led to the most transformative era of my career. I took a role as an auditor at G-P (and later at FedEx) and began a multi-year trek around the globe. Audit itself has its pluses and minuses like all jobs, but getting the opportunity to travel the world and see the guts of a business at its most intimate level gave me decades of experience compacted into a much shorter time frame. I got to see parts of the world and meet people I would have never had the opportunity to meet had I not been in these roles. Most importantly, Audit helped me discover what I’m truly good at – making sense of the chaos. I’ve always been a plan-and-organize and analytical type, and it turns out those skills are useful beyond organizing my room and making snarky commentary.

I’d never been out of the Southeast until I took that first trip to Binghampton, New York to audit a distribution center. Binghampton, a prototypical worn-out, industrial town that sits on the southern state border near Pennsylvania, was nothing like what I imagined when I thought of New York (who knew there’s more to the state than New York City). The wide streets were lined with well-kept row houses from another era. A lone bar with glaring neon lights broke up the monotony of the sulfur-tinged street lights. The chill of that October promised a miserable winter to come. There had to be better places to see in the world.

There were better places, but I’d see none of them with G-P. Most of its facilities lingered in struggling, out-of-the-way towns that no one had ever heard of or sat in the middle of distant locales befitting of the setting for Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. For better or worse, I’d had my fill of isolated, rural areas. To this day, I still find such places suffocating and unnerving. I’d much rather be in the thick of a pulsating urban center with its crushing foot traffic, intriguing diversity, and endless array of things to explore.

Later at FedEx, I finally had the opportunity to see much more of the world. Early on, I visited Seattle for the first time and fell in love with the city, an affair that laid the groundwork for the future. I traveled the globe, literally. I once flew Memphis-Amsterdam-Dubai-Hong Kong-Memphis over a ten-day stretch moving east until I returned home. I explored the ramshackle Olongapo City outside Subic Bay in the Philippines, where I learned what abject poverty really is. I had dinner with Middle Easterners on a carpet in the desert outside Dubai and learned how similar we all are despite what we see on the news. I toured the famed temples of Japan, ate cow tongue at a Korean BBQ joint, and took a crazy car ride up the pointed mountain leading to the Cristo Corcovado outside Rio de Janeiro.

I felt like a living version of Where’s Waldo. I remembered world events through the lens of the hotel I happened to be at when they happened. I watched the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing from a lodge bar in Philips, Wisconsin. I saw the aftermath of the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta from a Best Western in Tacoma, Washington. News of the terrible Kobe, Japan earthquake reached me at a quaint hotel in Bemidji, Minnesota under the shadow of the giant Paul Bunyan statue in the middle of a blizzard.

I had moved to Memphis to work at FedEx, but I was rarely there. I joined a wonderful group of folks in the Audit Department, many of whom remain my friends to this day. We had countless great times together and shared many of the adventures that subtly altered the courses of our lives. We couldn’t help but be changed by what we saw in our travels. We were learning and developing in our careers, but we were more than casual, purposeful observers of the world.

As glamorous as all the travel sounded, it took a significant toll on me. I had continued to run, but late nights and endless restaurant meals left me feeling lethargic and plump. My personal life had all but been abandoned. By the time I roared into the late 1990s, I knew it was time for a pivot, a full-blown reset of my life. When everyone else was worrying over the impending Year 2000 issue and enjoying the seemingly boundless fruits of the tech bubble, I started looking for my next career move. I had to get off the travel merry-go-round. It was fun while it lasted, but the price of playing became too high. In the seminal final year of that highly-charged decade, the dominoes started to fall.

Run Around

Other than my brief run as a chubby toddler, I was rail thin for much of my childhood. Genetics assured me that I’d never grow tall thus removing the threat of low-hanging tree branches and munchkin-sized houses. I exited high school similarly thin and untouched by a diet that routinely included less-than-healthy fare. I felt impervious to whatever garbage that I shoveled into my mouth, but things changed once I got to college.

I had been athletically-inclined for much of my school career in spite of my limited physical talents playing basketball early on and transitioning to tennis once I reached the inevitable limits of my height. That activity along with the famed teenage metabolism kept me thin.

Once I landed at Oglethorpe, I tried out for the tennis team primarily to remain active, but my attempt was very short-lived. During the tryouts, the Coach put me on the court against a fellow student who hailed from Sweden, a country that seems to produce an inordinate amount of elite tennis players. The Swede promptly used my pride to wipe the court clean, and I limped away to the Coach’s suggestion that I play on the B-team. Discouraged, I opted to quit tennis entirely. My heart simply wasn’t in it, and I had more pressing concerns than whether or not I could fit tennis practice into my schedule.

What followed was two and a half years of working, studying, and eating like the typical college student with virtually no physical activity beyond traversing that conveyor belt at UPS for a few hours every weekday morning. When my pants didn’t fit, I bought ones that had elastic waist bands. When I got winded going up the steps to my next class, I told myself I was tired from work. The mirror in my bathroom became a liar.

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I flipped on the TV on the morning of July 4th and saw coverage of the famed Peachtree Road Race as it winded its way into Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta. The Peachtree, as it is often called, is an iconic 10K road race that began with just a few runners at the beginning of the running boom in the 1970s. As I watched the elite runners glide through the finish line, I felt a tinge of jealousy. I could never run that far that fast. I flipped the TV off and forgot about it.

By the time I finished final exams in mid-December half way through my junior year, the perennial sinus infection had reared its ugly head again. I ambled through December that year cursing my ailment and my general disdain with my health. By then, I weighed 40 pounds above what I had weighed when I graduated high school. Somehow, the freshman 15 had made like a bunny and multiplied. For someone of my height, the 40 pounds really mattered and not in a way that was flattering or healthy.

As the New Year approached, I decided I had to make some changes. I made a New Year’s resolution that I would become a runner and that I’d run the Peachtree Road Race. Running and I had never been intimate friends. In fact, we’d been frenemies during my brief time as a student athlete. Previously, I had only run to be in shape for whatever sport I was playing. Now, I would just run for running’s sake. Crazier things had happened.

On January 1, 1992, staying true to my resolve, I dressed in shorts (with an elastic waist band, of course), a ratty cotton t-shirt, and some clunky old tennis shoes that were probably a holdover from my days on the high school tennis court and went for my first-ever run. The brisk January air burned my lungs. My legs screamed, and my ears hurt from the cold exposure. I hated it. Nothing had changed from my time doing running drills in school. I stopped a quarter mile into it to catch my breath, bending over and levering my arms against my knees on the sidewalk next to the road that snaked through my neighborhood. I wanted to quit.

I cursed my ill-informed resolution. I cursed my body for being ill-prepared despite the fact that I had arrived at this point through my own neglect. I looked back at the sidewalk leading to my apartment and the comely siren of surrender sang to me in her most beautiful voice, but at that moment, I ignored her, shut out her song and took the most tentative step in the other direction. One step led to another, and before I knew it I was at the half way point of my planned two-mile run. When I ran down the last hill to my apartment at the end of that run, I was hooked. The adrenaline and endorphins pulsed through my veins. I became that which I had scorned – a runner.

After that first run, I kept going. I registered for road races including my first Peachtree. Ultimately, I’d run 14 consecutive Peachtrees before time and geography made it impossible. Running became as important to me as breathing. It provided a release from the stress of everyday life. In all the years that followed, when work made my schedule almost impossible, I still ran. No matter where I was, I strapped on my running shoes and went for a run. I wasn’t always diligent, but I never stopped. Running had saved me from myself. It wouldn’t be the last time that would happen.

Freedom

From a very early age, my mom had pounded into my head the idea that I had to go to college. When you hear something day in and day out, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a do-or-die proposition, but the truth is that I didn’t need my mom telling me this because, by the time I had reached nine years old, I had figured it out by myself. All I had to do was look around me.

Dad trudged through his life like a drone set on auto-pilot working a physically-demanding job that barely kept him ahead. When he returned to his job after the four-year layoff, he still bore the look of a man trapped in a dreary, no-win situation. He never said it to me directly, but I believe he hated his job. I could see it on his face, in his demeanor, and in the way he self-medicated. To his credit, he kept going, however reluctantly, until he was able to retire after 31 years on the job. As much as I loved my dad, I didn’t want to be like him. There had to be more to life.

When I entered high school, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d go to college. My sole focus was on getting good grades and getting into a good school. My grades were good, but my SAT scores were underwhelming. I’d never been good at taking timed tests throughout my school career. It wasn’t until after high school that I really learned the strategy behind them, which helped me immensely on the other tests I had yet to take.

While I took the steps in the right direction for college, I was pretty clueless on how to choose an actual school. I limited my choices to schools close to home with one school, The University of Miami, chosen simply because I still had a hangover from the heyday of Miami Vice and fantasized about living in Miami (I had shed my pseudo-Don Johnson suits by then, thankfully).

In the end, my choice came down to money, as did everything else in my life at that time. Neither my parents nor I had any substantial savings to pay for college, so I had to go with the school that offered the biggest scholarship. Luckily, Oglethorpe University, a private, underrated college in Atlanta provided a financial package that essentially paid for three of the four years (a student loan filled in the gap for the one year).

If I felt like a fish out of water in high school, I was definitely out of my league at Oglethorpe. I had never met a group of people with which I had so little in common in my entire life. It was like I was at a party to which I hadn’t been invited. My fellow students were simply living in a universe unrecognizable to me. To put things in perspective, one of the freshman students drove a DeLorean to school, and he parked it among the Mercedes and BMWs that dotted the parking lot, right next to my beat-up, sometimes-it-may-not-crank Ford Escort.

While I was worried about how I was going to pay for housing for the second semester, one of the guys I met was worried about how he was going to do laundry since he had never done it on his own. He ended up taking his laundry home each weekend so that his mother could do it. When I was frantically searching for a job before my meager savings ran out, many of my fellow students were worried about pledging for a fraternity or sorority and if they’d be forced to settle for something less than their dream social affiliation.

Being ignored by the creme de la creme of the social hierarchy can certainly leave one dejected, but I had more down-to-earth worries. I did manage to find a job in the fall of my freshman year working for a company that cold-called people and asked them to complete surveys. The pay was surprisingly good, but the job only lasted a few weeks as the company went out of business not long after I started. I scrambled to find another job that would fit into my school schedule so that I could pay for housing. My tuition and books were covered for the most part, but on-campus housing was not, and it was expensive. I could have moved back home and commuted the 50-plus miles to school everyday in the dreadful and inefficient Atlanta traffic, but I would have rather lived in my car than do that, which was something I seriously considered.

Even then, I had a persistent feeling of being late to the party, but sometimes, luck strikes at the most opportune moment. The first of two very lucky instances came in the fall and spring of my freshman year. First, I managed to find a job doing accounting clerical work for a small company just a few train stops from my school. That job was only 15-20 hours a week, but it provided the flexibility and income I needed to keep going. The second stroke of luck came when I managed to land an early morning job at UPS, which added another 20 hours of work to my week. The UPS job paid very well and included health insurance. These two jobs sustained me throughout my entire college career and kept my head above water. I no longer had to worry about how to pay for my housing and felt confident that I might actually make it for the entire four years.

While I was fortunate to have enough income to sustain myself, my schedule reduced my college experience to yet another endurance race. I’d get up at 3:15 AM every morning during the week to work my shift at UPS, and come home in time for my morning classes. On the three days a week when I worked the accounting job, I’d spend my afternoons in midtown Atlanta and my evenings doing homework. I never worked weekends, thankfully, but the grinding monotony was not without its moments.

On some of those early mornings, when my alarm blared into the hollow darkness of my tiny, off-campus apartment, I questioned my own motivations. I doubted my ability to continue. I wanted to quit the whole damn thing and just walk away. It wasn’t the freedom I had envisioned when I had escaped my parents’ house. Four years isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, but in the thick of misery, it seems like an endless lifetime.

It was during those moments that my mom’s insipid mantras about not quitting would bounce back into my conscience. I couldn’t imagine moving back home and admitting defeat. I couldn’t fathom actually giving up. I just had to hold on, however tenuously, and make it to graduation. At least there was a light at the end of the tunnel even if the oncoming train threatened to grind me into the tracks.

Four years later, when I walked across that stage on the main lawn at Oglethorpe University on that rather warm May morning and accepted my college diploma from the Dean, I almost cried. I felt like crying, not because my wonderful college years were coming to an end (they weren’t so wonderful) and I’d be forced to be an adult, but because I had made it. I had survived. All those early morning doubts were washed away when I heard the Dean call my name. By then, I had accepted a real job and quit that thankless job at UPS. I had a three-week break before I started my first real job, and for the first time I experienced that elusive freedom I had sought four years earlier. Or so I thought.

Ricochet

In order to escape the pull of the earth, an object must achieve a speed of 25,000 miles per hour. Escaping high school requires significantly less speed but no less intellectual effort. Surviving the morass of group think and excessive hormonal discharge without loss of one’s individuality feels like an exercise in fatalism. The humdrum nature of my experience provided few exceptions, but those few made the journey worthwhile.

During my sophomore year, I met Marshall, an outgoing and talented guy who was a year ahead of me. What first drew me to Marshall other than his super-friendly and unique personality was the fact that he always seemed to have a throng of girls hanging around him, and nothing gets the attention of a teenage boy more than a throng of teenage girls.

Marshall and I became fast friends. I loved his attitude on life and the way he expressed himself in the histrionic way that only a talented actor and singer could. Marshall’s talents were always underrated. He could belt out a tune from Culture Club or Erasure and hit all the notes back in those days. His turn in Lil’ Abner remains one of the best high school productions I’ve ever seen primarily because of his spot-on acting. In a sea of drab, emotionally-stunted sameness, he sparkled like a nugget of gold just below the surface of a murky river.

After the fiasco with Rachel, I had returned to my normal orbit around Leah, but by the end of my junior year, I realized that it would never work for reasons that were larger than either of us. Some things can be reconciled, but the foundation of a person’s philosophy on life cannot be compromised. That fundamental understanding forced me to move on. Finally.

By that point, Marshall’s release date from high school had been set, and he wanted to celebrate in a big way. He planned a trip to Florida and invited me along. I had never gone much of anywhere other than the few trips I had taken as a kid, so the prospect of hanging out with friends in Florida sans any adult supervision proved enticing, as is the case for most teenagers on the cusp of adulthood.

After Marshall’s graduation, we drove down to Orlando and spent a couple of days at Disney World and then headed over to Daytona for a few days on the beach. Being on my own gave me a taste of the freedom that was to come, but it also introduced me to the underbelly of reality as if I needed further clarification that things weren’t always cheery in the adult camp.

On the streets in Daytona, a drug dealer approached us and asked us if we wanted to buy some coke. He looked like he had completed a few deals before (hey, I watched Miami Vice), but he had no idea that he had encountered two naive bumpkins from the furthest reaches of North Georgia. Being the smart ass that I was (and still am), I said the first thing that popped into my head, “No thanks, I prefer Pepsi.” Marshall didn’t appreciate my flippant comment, and we scurried away hoping that we wouldn’t get shot. To this day, Marshall still muses over my careless comment whenever this story comes up. Either that or he cannot believe I was stupid enough to say the first thing that came to mind in front of a strung-out thug.

Later during our time in Daytona, we met two college girls at a restaurant. They had sat down in the booth next to ours and Marshall struck up a conversation with them. Marshall, always outgoing and interesting, had that way about him. He could engage anyone and pull them into his circle like they were life-long friends. Before I knew it, the girls were sitting in our booth and we were talking about getting beer and hanging out at our hotel. Neither Marshall nor I were old enough to buy beer, but the girls were.

I admit that I was skeptical of their intentions. I thought they would take our money and disappear once they walked through the doors of the liquor store, but when they walked out a few minutes later with beer in hand and followed us to our hotel, I was surprised. We ended up getting drunk off Coors light and playing quarters well into the night. It was my first experience of the prototypical college life, which ironically, didn’t happen once I actually got to college. The night ended with a few drunken goodbyes and nothing else, a true testament to our lack of experience in such things.

We returned to Georgia a few days later. The long drive up from Daytona felt depressing, like we had lost a good friend. We had the summer break ahead of us, but both of us had to work, and when fall arrived, Marshall would go to college and I’d go back to high school. It felt like an ending in many ways, and to some extent it was. Marshall and I spent that summer together, but we slowly drifted apart by the time school started back. He had a new life in college, and I returned to the drudgery of high school minus one of the shining lights that had made it somewhat bearable.

That summer, with its remarkable beginning, also had one other pivot point that had lasting repercussions for me. Marshall introduced me to one of his many girlfriends, and we struck up a relationship, one that would continue for several years and ultimately go down in flames after limping along well past its expiration date. Once again, I chose to learn lessons the hard way rather than stop and think and extract myself from an unnecessary situation. Some things never change, but experience begets an understanding that lays the foundation for much better things to come.

Underdog

My dad often said that if it weren’t for bad luck he’d never have any luck at all, and many times, that felt so true. Just when he thought he’d claw himself ahead, something would happen to knock him down. Sometimes the stumble was self-inflicted, but to his credit, he got back up and lived to fight another day even if he felt over-matched.

Early on, I sensed and understood the “me against the world” mentality that pervaded my dad’s approach to life. He felt powerless, a victim of circumstance, rather than the sum total of his own decisions. In many ways, my own life philosophy is a direct and opposite response to my dad’s. As much as I loved him, I couldn’t fathom adopting his defeatist view of the world.

I wanted Dad to succeed in spite of the odds stacked against him. I pulled for him in ways that can only be described as desperation, but I’ve never lost my affinity for the underdog because of him. The American zeitgeist favors the underdog. It’s rooted in the language of our sports and prevails in our favorite books and movies, but I lean more heavily toward the least-favored in most situations because life has taught me that everyone needs hope. My dad certainly did.

In 1979, when he was laid off from the only good job he would ever have, the threat Dad felt from the world around him became very real. A four-year journey in hell proved it, but he survived. If life were a boxing match, Dad would have been Rocky Balboa, only without the sequels or the roaring successes and comebacks.

In one of the few fortuitous events in his life, Ford re-hired him after a four-year layoff, but once he returned to the plant, the old battles resumed. He hated his bosses and the grueling assembly line work. By the late 1980s, his body started to betray him, and he could no longer keep up with the line eight hours a day. He’d call in sick, get into arguments with his supervisor, and rail against his union rep because he didn’t get another less-taxing job at the plant. The never-ending battles roiled the whole family because he brought all of it home and laid it at my mom’s feet while he went to bed. A nap was the only form of escapism he could afford.

We walked on egg shells during those years, but we did manage to move out of the Red House to the house at the end of the road. For the first time in their lives, my parents owned their own home. We moved from a dilapidated, old house with concave floors, creaky plumbing, and porous walls to a new house with different problems.

In the rural South back then, anyone could throw up two-by-fours on a concrete pad and call themselves a home builder. Housing codes were a joke. Anyone could pass an inspection based simply on who they knew rather than the merit of their actual work. Such was the case for with the house at the end of the road. The sketchy builder had left endless complaints in his wake, but my parents were desperate to move out of the Red House and lacked any leverage to find better. Even when Dad won, he lost.

Not long after we moved in, the problems started. A leaky basement proved ruinous for the mounds of stuff my mom hoarded. A poorly dug well left us without running water during the occasional summer drought. Pipes seeped, water pressure spat listlessly from the shower heads, and cabinets came unbound from the walls. When it did rain, the famed gully-washers of Southern lore, the untamed yard turned into a labyrinth of small lakes connected by rushing torrents flattening the hill that rolled down from the house and threatening to undermine the foundation. The issues overwhelmed us leaving us dispirited about the notion of having our own place. The house at the end of the road became just a newer version of the Red House.

That’s not entirely true. The new house had central heat from which glorious warm air flowed on those cold winter nights. I don’t remember ever seeing frost form on the interior walls at the new house, but as the years passed, the things that did work slowly refused to do so. The furnace cut out years later after I had moved away for college. Shingles frittered, the well pump died, and the poorly-designed deck collapsed one plank at a time. By the time my dad retired, the house looked worn and beaten, much like he did. All of that effort he poured into getting and keeping that house seemed for naught. He did manage to replace and repair some things over the years, but he could never quite keep up with everything that went wrong.

Dad fought many other battles over the years that followed. Raising three boys is a test of anyone’s patience and sanity. We certainly didn’t make it easy. Dad used to tell us that we’d pay for our raising when we had our own kids, and I often wondered what the hell he had done when he was a kid because he was paying three-fold.

Despite all of the challenges, the battles lost, and blood, sweat, and tears shed, one thing never, ever changed. Dad loved us. He may not have won the battles that most hold dear, but he won the one that mattered. That I never doubted and never will. He may have been an underdog in life, but he was always a champion in our hearts.