Hank Aaron Goes Deep

This story about Hank Aaron was originally published eight years ago in a magazine that used to pay my salary. I’m waving this slightly edited version in front of your faces right now, on April 8, 2018, because it’s been 44 years since No. 44 broke the Babe’s record. 

 

Hank Aaron was baseball’s humble virtuoso. Consistent as sunrise, he set an unmatched standard of sustained excellence as a player, breezed into the Hall of Fame and into the Atlanta Braves front office, started a business empire and a philanthropic foundation, had a Major League hitting award named in his honor, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, settled gracefully into his position as an elder statesman of the game, and into the collective American mindset as one of the greatest players of all time.

Aaron, the quiet superstar radiating organic poise, never sought the spotlight, though it eventually found him. But just in case anyone was watching, he always made being Hank Aaron a full-time job.

“You have to carry your dignity a little bit further than the field, you know,” Aaron says, as if you really should know this. “Just because you’ve taken the uniform off doesn’t mean you stop being a professional. You try to live your life and play the game in such a way that others would want to emulate.”

If Aaron sounds like a Boy Scout, he comes by it honestly – he was one. And he says his scouting experience, while growing up in heavily segregated Mobile, Ala., “was the greatest thing that happened to me as a kid, and it taught me the rules and regulations of life,” while his parents – Herbert and Estella – instilled in young Henry an adherence to the golden rule.

“That’s what they expected from me, that’s the way they wanted their kids to be,” says Aaron. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Of course that never applied to pitchers, whose favorite nicknames for Aaron were “Bad Henry,” and “The Hammer.”

In athletic mannerism and grace he seemed most similar to Joe DiMaggio who, like Aaron, was an outfielder who could hit for power and average. But Aaron took his cues from Jackie Robinson, whom he considers his role model.

Aaron was a young teen when he first saw Robinson play in an exhibition game, and remembers evenings spent around the radio whenever Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers were on the air.

“Here was the first African American in the big leagues, someone the black community could really look up to,” Aaron says. “And he really set the example of what it takes to be a professional athlete – beyond hitting home runs and base hits. It wasn’t in what he said, but the way he carried himself.

“You start idolizing someone, you watch their every move. The way they walk, the way they talk, the way they carry themselves. He didn’t have to say anything to me, because I was paying attention.”

Good thing Robinson didn’t say anything, because Aaron – the man who stood up to vicious racism and death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record – says he probably would have been tongue-tied and paralyzed with fear. Robinson was to Aaron what Aaron became to legions of baby boomer ball fans – an idol.

 

RECOGNIZING ROBINSON

So when the Georgia Historical Society announced that Aaron (along with Ted Turner) would be named a Georgia Trustee this year (2010), the tribute was particularly sweet because the society was simultaneously recognizing Robinson as its Georgia Days Honoree.

“It’s difficult to put into words what this honor means to me,” Aaron says. “Not only because I grew up in the South and have spent most of my life in Georgia, but also because of what Jackie Robinson meant to me, as a baseball player and a role model. This is something I’m very proud of.”

As a player Aaron was the coolest of customers, his easy tranquility disguising an intense focus and passion to succeed. To some observers, he looked as likely to take a nap in the batter’s box as he was to commit violent abuse on a baseball, which he did with alarming regularity.

His career might best be viewed from a distance, from a vantage point of years. Aaron didn’t hit moon shots like Mickey Mantle, didn’t lose his hat running down fly balls like Willie Mays – he didn’t play in New York. He wasn’t flashy. But he was rock solid and relentless, more durable than Mantle or Mays.

He also hit for a higher average than they did, collected more base hits, was probably their equal in the field, drove in more runs than anyone who ever played, and on April 8, 1974 passed Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader when he belted No. 715 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium against the Los Angeles Dodgers and their starter, lefty Al Downing (who had been the first black pitcher in New York Yankees history).

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” said Vin Scully, voice of the Dodgers, calling the game for a national audience. “What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

He broke into baseball as a teenager with the Mobile Black Bears, a semipro barnstorming team, and moved up to the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League before being signed by the Milwaukee Braves, making his Major League debut with them in 1954. Aaron moved with the club to Atlanta in 1966, returning to the South as an established superstar. He was a Milwaukee Brewer when he hit his last home run, No. 755, in his final season, 1976.

On a cold December day, two months before his 76th birthday, he patiently guides a visitor through the maze of Atlanta Braves administrative offices at Turner Field, walking with the aching gait of a retired guy who rarely missed a day of work in 23 years of demanding, physical competition against strong, fast, often rough men.

“Things were a little different in those days,” Aaron says, smiling. “Especially the pitchers. Take a guy like Bob Gibson. He was not only dominating, he was scary. And tough. I saw him hit guys when he knew full well that he was going to bat the next inning – and that he would probably get thrown at.

“The great ones – like Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal – had a real toughness about them. When they got into the sixth or seventh inning with a one-run lead, there was no way they would leave the game. Lot of guys today, by the sixth inning they’re looking for somebody to come in to relieve them.”

Aaron relished the one-on-one confrontation with pitchers and he’s proud of his accomplishments with a bat, but only if you ask him even then, in an understated way, because he had to face some savage racial punches while rewriting the record book, and much external baggage came with his records and it left some scars.

The chase for Ruth’s record was brutal. While players and most fans, especially in Atlanta, cheered Aaron’s run at history, he received piles of hate mail from anonymous racists who did not want a black man holding baseball’s most cherished record.

“I think that home run was one of the greatest moments in baseball history, one of the great thrills of my life and a great thrill for the black community. But it was not easy,” says Aaron, mellowed by time, understating the pressure. “There were people, a lot of them, who simply were not ready for me to break that record, because of my skin color.”

In 2007, Barry Bonds, who was under investigation for using performance-enhancing drugs, passed Aaron’s home run record.

“It was bound to happen,” Aaron says. “I held it for a long time and enjoyed it. But just as I passed Babe Ruth and Bonds passed me, somebody’s gonna come along and pass him. That’s the nature of it. Records are made to be broken.”

Of all his baseball accomplishments, Aaron is most proud of the fact that he was able to play at the highest level for almost all of his 23 years in the Major Leagues.

“That’s the kind of record you achieve with the help of others,” he says. “In baseball, for me, that meant great teammates, guys like Eddie Mathews hitting in front of you or behind you in the batting order, protecting you.

“Even before I started playing, when I was still chasing my dream to play in the Majors, had it not been for other people helping, reaching out, I never would have made it, in spite of my ability. Plain and simple, anyone who has meant something to this country, who has done something great, had someone else giving them a hand along the way.”

 

DREAM FOUNDATION

And that’s what Aaron wanted to do when he retired as a player – well, that and get into business. He had a great run with his BMW dealerships and sold them just before the economic bust, still runs a thriving restaurant company and sits on numerous corporate boards, including the Atlanta Braves.

In the mid 1990s, he and his wife Billye started the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation. The foundation became fully active and heftily funded in 1999, when the Aarons threw Hank a 65th birthday bash and fundraising event. President Bill Clinton was among the dignitaries who helped raise $1 million for the foundation, which helps underprivileged children participate in activities they otherwise can’t afford, like music and sports. Major League Baseball and Boys and Girls Clubs have partnered with Aaron’s foundation to create a college scholarship fund also – they’ll give out 44 each year (Aaron wore No. 44).

Aaron, who was vice president of player development for years in the Braves organization, now has an untitled post that allows him to pursue his philanthropic passions, like helping to increase the number of African Americans in baseball by promoting the game to kids.

He counts ambassadors, presidents and CEOs as his friends – they all want to meet him. He’s comfortable with his life, modest in spite of his many awards and honors and accomplishments – he and Mays have become interchangeable in the “greatest living player” appellation. But his eye, as always, is on a bigger picture.

The foundation, his work with kids, it’s all about achieving their dreams, he says. Not his. He already chased his down.

“I love baseball, it’s given me so much, but that’s my world, and it isn’t everything,” he says. “I’d prefer people said, ‘Hank Aaron helped people,’ rather than ‘Hank Aaron hit that home run in the ninth inning’ – which is all right, too. It’s fine.

“But it means more to me when someone says, ‘Thanks to Mr. Aaron, I know how to play the harp,’ or ‘I know how to dance,’ or whatever it is they dream of doing. See, that’s what life is made of.”

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Joe and Cajun John

It’s Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. And March 25 is National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day. My son is a person with cerebral palsy. This story is about him and his best friend.

I spend more time than is healthy wondering about whether or not my son Joe is lonely, and what that feels like for him. For me, like a lot of people, loneliness can feel shitty. But everything is relative. Right? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and so forth.

So I wonder about Joe. He doesn’t have friends who visit him, friends who are inclined to just hang out with him and do the things he enjoys, like go for a long walk-n-roll, maybe sit quietly and take in a movie or music, or let loose a sudden series of vocalized notes, and fling them joyfully into the room for no particular reason at all, or because it was time (his timing, and his pitch, are usually right on).

But I’m not sure if he’s lonely, per se. I have a sense, based on my observations of him and the feedback that he can muster, that Joe is well-adjusted to his social situation, and is comfortable in his skin.

He’s got a winning smile and when he can open his hands, a firm handshake — qualities that might get him elected to something if he tossed his hat into the ring. The problem is, he’s more of a listener than a talker, and he’s 100 percent honest, so he’d probably be a terrible politician.

This is a quiet young man with a magnetic personality. People are drawn to him, like he’s some kind of beacon, and it’s made him some interesting friends. Take Cajun John.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about Joe called “My Son Is.” Later on, Atlanta magazine picked up the essay and ran it in their pages as a kind of glorified caption to some spectacular photography by Matt Moyer. That’s the version that Cajun John saw. The photos (and I’d like to think, the words) touched John’s heart and inspired him to reach out.

What followed has been an ongoing letter exchange between Joe and John. We’ve sent John some of Joe’s artwork, and John sends us heartfelt, handwritten letters from the Florida prison where he is incarcerated.

In his most recent letter to Joe, Cajun John explains that he’s been researching Joe’s “situation” (cerebral palsy), so he could, “understand better what you deal with daily. What I found out is what a strong person you are. I see some men that have less issues with weaker minds. You are my super hero Joe. I am so glad I saw your article. Man, it changed my life in so many ways.”

When he gets a letter from our house, Cajun John shares it with his fellow prisoners. He writes, “all the guys want to know who wrote me. Then they ask what’s up. Man, when I show them the photo they see why I’m so lucky.”

John is 50 years old, a Christian who found religion in prison, where he works in the chapel, making sure church services are ready to run on time. He speaks at orientation, when anxious new arrivals enter the facility, and he helps guide them toward, “programs we offer here, so they can get involved with positive people. I really do enjoy people and seeing people accomplish goals.” He wants to help others, like the therapists and other professionals in Joe’s life. “It’s a daily work to do all I can,” he writes.

John prays for Joe and our family and wonders in print, “who knows what God will allow you to accomplish,” then closes with, “Your Best Friend, Cajun John.”

And here I was, trying to convince myself that I was Joe’s best friend (thanks a lot, Harry Nilsson). I’ll gratefully settle for being his dad. And it’s that guy, Joe’s dad, who is happier than a three-tailed puppy that these two friends – these treasures – managed to somehow find each other.

 

 

Fickle Football Fans

So, I was sitting at a bar on Sunday, watching a few minutes of the Saints-Packers game, actually paying more attention to my beer than the television, when an old guy sitting at a table behind me yells, rhetorically, “what the hell is that on the TV?”

He had a tiny ponytail, his thin white hair pulled back so tightly that the eyes bulged as if his thyroid was raging.

“Football game,” I said, startled for a second by his Marty Feldman eyes. “Saints-Packers.”

“I know what it is,” he said. “Why the hell is it on?”

I looked around the bar. The only people there were me and him and the bartender. “Because people like watching football,” I said, not entirely convinced.

Then he cursed the players, echoing his president, “sons of bitches. Too good to stand for the National Anthem. Turn that shit off.”

No one did.

He was really pissed off at the National Football League over the take-a-knee protest by players during the National Anthem. So he’s boycotting the NFL, like so many other folks, many of whom are still involved in fantasy football leagues, which utilize the stats of NFL players, proving that the righteously angry can have it both ways.

The air in the barroom turned an ugly, stressful shade of red, as the the old guy fussed and fumed over, “those goddamn prima donnas,” and their disrespect of God and country and the soldiers and the policemen, etc., etc., etc.

While this was going on around me I wondered if this guy and his fellow disgruntled fans or their chickenhawk president or any other football consumer got this irate over the NFL’s feeble response to the spate of domestic violence carried out by players. Of course they didn’t. That’s because in the land of the free, taking a political stand – or knee, in this case – is way more offensive than beating the shit out of a woman.

Either way, the attention span of the average irate sports fan is kind of like the old man’s pony tail – short and insubstantial.

And when the players get tired of protesting (probably before then), those same morally outraged fans will be back in record numbers to support “those goddamn prima donnas,” filling up stadiums and watching their big screens, many of them doing what they typically do during the National Anthem, which is, drink beer, binge-eat, scratch their asses, and thank God for football … while standing, of course. You can’t scratch your ass very well if you’re sitting.

More Bang for your Butt

Here’s a health care story that isn’t getting enough coverage.

I know what you’re thinking. “Great. What kind of ardent hyperbole is Captain Comedown going to try and trick us into reading this time? More fanatical garbage about conservative halfwit politicians trying to bully his son into submission, I’ll warrant …”

And most of the time, you’d be right. But not this time, my enthusiastically dispassionate friend, not this time. If you’re more interested in trolling for silly GIFs and mocking the unfortunate with picture memes than in actually giving a shit, this one is in your wheel house.

It begins with a question: What would you be willing to risk to have a bigger, perkier ass?

This topic has bugged me for a long time, which is to say, about 11 minutes, since I read the emailed pitch from a public relations drone before deleting it. The missive asserts that “we’ve all seen the many news stories” of women getting botched buns, “or even worse, dying, following Brazilian Butt Lift surgeries.”

So I googled “Brazilian Butt Lift surgeries,” and discovered a few startling things.

First, it turns out, “Brazilian Butt Lift” doesn’t need to be capitalized, except for the “Brazilian” part. Also, it wasn’t invented in Brazil. It got that name because the first such surgery (in which fat is transplanted from the torso to the tush) was performed (in the U.S.) on a woman from Brazil.

Turns out it’s a fairly common if extensive cosmetic procedure – more than 18,000 of them were performed in the U.S. last year. The great majority of these were performed on women, but apparently there also are plenty of men who want low gravity moons (more than 6 percent of butt-lift patients are dudes, all of them ass-men, one would have to assume).

Anyway, it’s also a potentially dangerous and deadly procedure. The complications that may occur include blood clots, hematoma, bruising, excessive blood loss, complications of anesthesia or liposuction, oil cyst and fat embolism. In the space of 10 months, two women died following this procedure at the same Miami clinic.

The press release continues, “… we’ve also seen women who come off of the operating table looking lumpy and deformed.” Ugly, maybe, but a sight better than dead, I’d say.

The reason for all of this butt lift trouble, according to the press release, is due to unqualified doctors performing back-alley surgeries. And yes, the PR agency really did use “back-alley” in reference to rear-end surgery.

Naturally, the flack-meisters have a solution, and it’s right there in the third paragraph of the release: “A local Atlanta plastic surgeon who specializes in body contouring created the BRAND NEW procedure exclusive to his office called the Georgia Peach Lift … to keep up with the demand of ‘bigger backsides’ while at the same time, he’s giving women professional care and a great result.”

I don’t want to waste too much time on the miserable construction of that third paragraph, but … what would be the demands of a bigger backside, besides bigger pants? I assume the writer intended to write “for” instead of “of” … but I’m quibbling as I digress.

Suffice to say, this Atlanta-based descendent of Hippocrates is giving his patients the kind of fart box they’ve only previously dreamt of, and now they’re sitting on it.

The Georgia Peach Lift promises a more natural looking caboose AND takes fat from places you don’t want it, which got me to thinking: I’m wondering if I should have the fat removed from my head, because then I can pull my ass out of my head for a change.

 

 

Stand or Get Out of the Way

Every day she does it. My wife Jane hits the phone, the squeaky wheel, keeping her rising temper in check, and patiently repeating different versions of the same story to the faceless, often feckless drones supported by my hard-earned money – Congressional aides and other lackeys who serve as a protective barrier between elected politicians and the people these politicians supposedly represent. Me and you, my wife and children. Us.

She tells them, pleads with them. Please don’t lump all Medicaid recipients in the same bundle. Families living with disability come from different backgrounds, have different needs, experiences, income levels, values, voting records, and intentions. Why punish everybody the same way? Why punish anyone who doesn’t deserve it? Why punish?

My wife knows that this is political showmanship and gamesmanship intertwined, and the real outcome of the Republican “health care” plan is unknown. We know what they’ve proposed or said or written, and we know that almost all of it was done in secret. But we don’t really know anything beyond the GOP’s misguided and rather dark intentions.

We have fears, we have concerns, we have expectations. But the bizarre scenario that Trump and his henchmen are shoving down the collective American throat will remain mostly a mystery until it comes out the other end. And then, all we’ll have to do is follow the stench and check for texture.

Here’s what we do know right now.

We know the impact that Medicaid waivers have on our son, Joe, and people like him and their families. We know that simply amputating waivers from Medicaid would not only take away services and goods that support people like Joe, but would also negatively impact people who provide those services and goods. Physicians, physical therapists, fiscal agents, technicians.

We know that all of the in-kind services Jane and I provide our son at home are saving the health care system a ton of money. Our friend Rebecca is a professional caregiver who comes to our house to take care of Joe, so Jane and I can go to work and pay bills and contribute to the economy and support our community.

And we know that my son’s pediatrician treats a clientele comprised of 60 percent Medicaid recipients. You think he’s happy with the shenanigans of these bullies who are minding the store?

The spare change Joe draws from Medicaid (which is secondary coverage – we also work to pay for our health insurance) also goes a long way toward giving him a decent quality of life. He can go to concerts and we can pay recreation league fees, and take him to movies, and buy gas for our gas-guzzling wheelchair-accessible van, and so on and so on. And those weekly visits we get from the UPS guy with boxes of feeding tubes or diapers or other equipment must have an economic multiplier effect.

Now, do I believe for a minute that the cruel bastards in office will put physicians out of business, or that they even want to? Honestly, I don’t think most of them have even considered the ripple effects of their kneejerk legislation. They are way more concerned with the insidious billionaires supporting their temporary fascist surge (perpetually unhappy and insatiably wealthy folks like the Mercers and Kochs).

I keep asking no one in particular, “why do these scavengers want to hamper my family’s ability to thrive?” And, “what do they have against people like my son?” But here’s the one that keeps puzzling me: “Why did so many people who rely on government-supported services like Medicaid vote for Trump?”

There are several possible answers to the last one, of course. Some of these folks have been rubes their entire life, eternal marks in the long con, the kind that fat-cat grifters like Trump can spot a mile off. Some probably have suicidal tendencies. Some are just plain angry and hate Hillary Clinton (and have no real reason why as they mumble, ‘Benghazi’ or ‘Email,’ lacking the ability to find one on a map, or use the other one to communicate). And a few are just dumber than a bag of hair and, bless ‘em, can’t read or comprehend words bigger or deeper than “ketchup.” These folks might have been told by their pastor to vote for St. Donald. It takes all kinds.

But, what really concerns me is the ability, or inability, of people with a conscience to keep up the fight. I read something on social media recently from a friend suggesting we just let it all go to hell – let the GOP’s proposed suicidal health care plan happen and stop fighting for the dumbasses mentioned above, the willfully uninformed who supported (or still support) Trump. The message, basically: Why waste time fighting for people who could care less?

Oh, how I wish that I could afford such a luxury!

I’m still idiotically and naively waiting for the day when the civil rights of people with disabilities is considered interesting enough or sexy enough or otherwise gratifying enough to become a cause celebre for many of my progressive-minded friends. If only I knew the secret to leveraging the collective white liberal guilt just in my own little world! Hey, I’m not minimizing the conversation and consternation over race in this country, or excusing myself from it. But still, you know, a brother’s gotta wonder. Especially today of all days – June 22 is the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Olmstead v. LC, which declared that people with disabilities have a civil right under the American with Disabilities Act to live and participate in their communities.

My family is incredibly lucky to be in the community we have chosen to live in. We are deeply grateful to the friends and strangers and friendly strangers who make up a community that has always had our back. If I could clone Sautee Nacoochee, I would (but you wouldn’t like it … inside joke).

The point is, we’re just one family that has been lucky, but we exist, nonetheless, on the edge of a cliff – and there are thousands of others in Georgia, millions across the country, who would be negatively impacted by the GOP health care plan, as it stands now (something so offensive, in my opinion, as to be unfit for a bathroom wall).

Some of these families give a damn, and some don’t, but we’re all circling the same drain. My family is not willing to slide down without a fight, regardless of whose company we’re keeping on the way. Stand (or sit) with us, or against us. If you can’t decide, then kindly get the hell out of the way and let the tired people fight our fight.

P.S. But we’d prefer you stand with us.

 

Goodbye, my friend

I wrote this a day after Col. Bruce Hampton died, for Atlanta magazine. I was still numb, working my way through tears and confusion over the loss of this man, who had become my friend over the last eight or nine years. He had many friends. Bruce collected people. He could guess your birthday the first time he met you, but that barely scratches the surface of his magic. The story below is slightly edited from the Atlanta magazine version, because this is my blog and I can say things here that I couldn’t or wouldn’t say there. 

 

I heard Col. Bruce Hampton say on several occasions that he’d probably die on stage, eventually—that he’d prefer to die there, actually. I didn’t really take him seriously. Shit, he didn’t want to be taken seriously. But then, “eventually” arrived.

Even when Bruce collapsed on stage during the encore of his 70th birthday all-star jam, Monday just before midnight at the Fox Theatre, most of us — the 4,500 friends and fans in attendance, including the musicians around him, figured this was another one of the stunts he’d become famous for in his 50-plus years of performing. In other words, we’d all seen him fall on stage before.

“The guys that have played in bands with him for years said he’d pulled some shtick like this,” said John Bell, lead singer for Widespread Panic, part of the evening’s star-studded lineup and one of the 27 musicians performing during the encore performance of “Turn on Your Love Light.”

It’s important to note here that Bruce, often referred to as the patriarch of the jam band scene, preferred the brass-infused original R&B recording of “Love Light” by Bobby “Blue” Bland over the Grateful Dead rendering, adding his own version of the Bland signature growl to Monday night’s performance.

“I sound like everyone I’ve stolen from,” Hampton told me several years ago, when I started gathering material for a book about him. At the time, it seemed like a straight-forward proposition. How little I knew.

“Another guy tried to write a book about me, but it was insane—filled with space ships and spies and things that made no sense,” Hampton said, adding later that this was his 165th trip to the Planet Earth, “the only planet in the solar system with aluminum.”

Then he correctly guessed my birthday, and I correctly answered his baseball trivia questions, and he invited me to his Tuesday lunches, and our extended, wide-ranging bullshit sessions lasted until Monday night and will someday yield a book that now has a different and somewhat sadder ending than the one I’d intended.

Anyway, that Bobby Bland growl was the last thing Bruce (who actually turned 70 on April 30) performed, with intent, on stage. Then, his back to the audience at stage right, he motioned to 14-year-old guitar wunderkind, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, to step up and take a solo. As the young star of Broadway’s “School of Rock: The Musical” began shredding, Bruce lowered himself to his knees, arms in front as if paying homage to the guitarist — another one of the musicians Bruce has fostered over the years, helping to find success and stardom.

A fine athlete for most of his life (and he would have been the first one to tell you), Bruce could throw a tight spiral, or make a hook shot from half court, or pull off a pratfall without injuring himself. At least, he could in his younger days. This wasn’t that. But even as he collapsed, he had the presence of mind (or a physical sixth sense) to brace himself, cradling a speaker with his left arm before lying, face down, on the stage, like he was playing dead.

He lay there, and the band played, and no one in the Fox, except perhaps Bruce had a clue. How could we? He’d always been the great trickster, a free range artist who wrote music and poetry and drew pictures and acted and could also speak fluent hyperbole, the kind you wanted to believe.

“Eighty-eight percent of my stories are true and the rest are embellished,” he warned me once. “Mythocracy is where I live. I’d rather have somebody laugh at something I say than learn the weight of an onion in Idaho.”

After the ambulance came and carried Hampton away to Emory University Midtown Hospital, a small group huddled on Ponce de Leon Avenue near banjo picker Jeff Mosier, a longtime Hampton collaborator, who said, “We’ve all seen him do this kind of thing so many times—some of us were going to get down on the stage, too.”

Everyone thought he was joking. The Atlanta music legend who cried wolf.

“Pretty quickly,” Bell observed, “it all turned very real.”

On a typical Monday night, Bruce would have been playing team trivia at the Local 7, a tavern in Tucker, instead of playing the last gig of his life, which may have also have been one of the best gigs of his life.

The stellar lineup included Chuck LeavellDerek TrucksSusan TedeschiJohn PopperTinsley Ellis, most of Widespread Panic, John Fishman from Phish, former Cy Young Award winner (and a decent guitar player) Jake Peavy, Oliver Wood, and piano player Johnny Knapp, among others—“artists that Bruce has fostered in some way,” said Leavell, who added, “he’s certainly been one of the most influential and inspirational human beings I’ve ever known.”

After hanging backstage for most of the evening, Bruce came out to play for the last hour or so, with a set list that included the prescient “Fixin’ to Die” and his most well-known song, the ironically-titled “Basically Frightened.”

“The truth is, Bruce was fearless, and one of the things he instilled in all of us as musicians and artists was to be fearless, and never let boundaries get in the way of expressing yourself,” Leavell said.

The oldest person on stage was the 88-year-old Johnny Knapp, a former jazzman who started gigging with Bruce about five years ago and became the centerpiece at the Tuesday lunches Bruce organized. Johnny, who left the stage before the encore, was sitting in the wings in his wheelchair near Bruce, who was waiting to go back on.

“I told him, ‘Well, you’ve got five minutes, then it’s all over.’ And he said, ‘Johnny, I’ll be glad when it’s all over,’” Knapp said. “I thought we were talking about the concert. Maybe we weren’t.”

When it was all over, and word came to Johnny and to everyone else who waited downtown into the wee hours of Tuesday that the Colonel had died, the arc of Hampton’s remarkable story landed right where he predicted, or hoped, it would—one last show, one last note, then out.

“It hurts to say this, but there’s something sadly poetic about the way things happened,” Leavell said. “As if Bruce had already written the last sentence on the last page of the last chapter of his story.”

Piece of Mind

I should be working on that book, but I’ve got to focus on my job because, let’s face it, that’s what pays the bills. But then, if I want to remain relevant and employable as a writer, I’ve got to pitch some more ideas and be ready to turn them around quickly, and of course, there are the plays I’d like to finish, none of which takes any of the load off of my wife, or addresses her questions about the future …

… or helps my son’s hip subluxation and frequent discomfort, which only serve to limit his ability to move freely, which is due to his high tone, which isn’t going away and makes lifting and maneuvering him increasingly difficult as he grows, a condition that doesn’t help the problem with the headrest on his wheelchair, because my son hasn’t found a piece of equipment he can’t push to the limit.

Now, though, it’s a fever and he’s home from school, which means one of us, his mother or I, must stay tethered to home, because he can’t care for himself, that’s our gig, no matter how old he is or gets, our gig and we’re the bottom line; we are where the buck stops; we’re the first string and the back-up plan.

But in spite of everything, he has the most shining smile — not a dim-witted smile, nor a heroic smile, but a knowing smile, his inner-awareness of a bigger picture, a big joke, THE big joke, the reason we live, toil, and breathe; the reason we laugh and cry, all of the big reason or reasons. It is a contented smile, his grasp of the universe, of the joy umbrella, a smile that you work for, that he give freely, a winning smile, in spite of his challenges, including the hip issue, the high tone, the pain, the hurdles placed in his way by cold and distant elected people in expensive suits.

And if I was any kind of father, I would have invented a solution for all of the bad stuff and leveraged all of the good stuff, devoting more time and undivided attention to his needs and my wife’s needs and my daughter’s needs, and catching up on all of that sleep I’ve lost, or misplaced.

I would have written that wealth-generating bestseller, or invested wisely, or gotten into a different line of work, or played and won the lottery, instead of sitting here stewing over the book that I should be working on and the job I need to do and the anxiety I feel over my own fading ambitions and relevance as a storyteller.

If it feels like one foot is attached to the ground and the other is moving me in circles, it’s only because I don’t have more feet to get tangled up in all of the directions my thoughts are taking me in. But that’s just a feeling, a moment’s reflection, a piece of mind, and not the three-dimensional reality.

The reality is forward. Forward, with and/or without a plan, because the plan usually changes anyway and plans often are interchangeable when your choices are limited. Forward, through the hills and around the bends, because there always are hills and bends, which we may welcome or curse in the same exhalation. Forward, to see what happens next, or to make what happens next, and to be the happening.