JIM DODSON: Picking Up the Pieces
Earlier this week, I stayed awake most of the night with a miserable toothache. No pain relievers touched it. Only sips of ice-cold water helped. All night I drank ice water and paid hourly homage to the porcelain.
Around 2:30 a.m., abandoning any hope of sleep, I got up and turned on the TV for some mindless companionship and found it. There were infomercials for "breathable body shapers" and "breakthrough" programs to beat love handles, get star-quality skin, and learn the secrets of making a foreclosure fortune.
I found Chuck Norris quoting Thomas Jefferson in an argument about the Constitution with Arianna Huffington. I found Pat Robertson conducting an all-night telethon for the 700 Club, raising money for his latest New Jerusalem.
I found old reruns of "Cheers," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Deal or No Deal." I watched a congressional hearing on bridge safety, followed by a Bugs Bunny cartoon, then tuned into a plea for hurricane relief from the desperate citizens of Haiti. In Hurricane Ike's wake, meanwhile, the city of Galveston, Texas, according to its mayor, "resembled a Third World nation."
I'd become a member of what a wise friend calls "The Three O'clock Club."
He used this curious phrase after I casually mentioned during a round of golf that I'd been waking up lately to answer the call of nature and been unable to go back to sleep, beset by gremlins of worries that seemed both monumental and utterly trivial.
My golf companion that day was the Rev. John Tampa, a guy who'd been a big success in the business world before he heard the calling to the cloth in midlife and gave it up to make a difference of a higher nature. He suggested something interesting about the Three O'clock Club -- how vast the membership is in America these days.
"There are lots of people you would never guess would be sitting up at that hour -- your neighbors and mine," John said. "I can tell you from my experience both in the business world and the ministry that it's not just middle-aged guys like us who wake up at 3 o'clock and can't go back to sleep because of everything weighing on our minds. Anxiety is epidemic in America."
Postcard of Hope
I couldn't help thinking about John's insight as I channel-surfed from one station to the next last Wednesday night -- or, rather, Thursday morning. This week in particular seemed like a banner week for bad news and a bad week for a toothache. I quickly realized there are millions of people in far worse pain than mine.
On one cable channel, for instance, I found a leading financial "expert," a former assistant treasury secretary, talking about how a federal bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank and tottering insurance giant AIG would probably wipe out untold millions of personal fortunes and private pensions.
He noted that the burst housing bubble had already cost Americans more than $5 trillion of value in their homes -- their primary financial asset -- and that nearly a million jobs had been lost in just the past six months. Personal debt was at an all-time high, personal savings at an all-time low. The wildly yo-yoing financial markets reflected a rising panic that the crisis of confidence would soon spread to foreign investors.
"I don't mean to sound alarmist, but we could be looking squarely into the barrel of another Great Depression unless the government steps in quickly," he said. "This could be the twilight of the American dream for millions."
On that worrying note, I flipped over to The History Channel and found a vintage home movie playing, a film about the 1939 World's Fair, sometimes called the "World of Tomorrow," where visitors learned about the wonders of emerging American technology -- kitchens where fully automated appliances and robots did most of the time-saving labor, Interstate highways where cars zipped along at 100 mph, cities made of glass and light, telephones that required no cords, wonder drugs that could cure just about anything.
The television I was watching, in fact, debuted there, too.
Wedged between the worst economic crisis in the nation's history and the looming shadow of the Second World War, the "World of Tomorrow" seemed to be a postcard of hope to the American people, a dogged bit of optimism that we would all get through this time together.
Missing My Dad
As dawn approached and my tooth throbbed on, I suddenly wished I had my dad to talk with about this week's various hurricanes.
He's been gone 11 years, though I can sometimes hear his voice as clearly as if we were still standing in the early-morning kitchen in Greensboro, talking over coffee while he made scrambled eggs or cream chipped beef on toast.
My nickname for my dad, bestowed when I was an all-knowing teenager, was "Opti the Mystic." Nothing ever seemed to get him down -- not even the cancer and diabetes he quietly battled for more than 20 years. Most close family friends never knew anything about them.
For reasons I never quite fathomed until the closing days of his life, my father was blessed, or cursed, with an uncanny optimism about life's ups and downs -- a general belief that, despite current evidence to the contrary, things just might work out fine in the end.
"Our darkest days," he liked to say, "are usually when we see the light."
I used to call him for a pep talk whenever the world seemed about to come apart at the seams.
On a cold March afternoon in 1981, I was in a rainy cab headed to LaGuardia Airport for a flight home to Atlanta when a news bulletin announced that President Reagan had been shot in an assassination attempt. The news was in Spanish. My Puerto Rican cab driver spoke poor English. "Excuse me," I said, leaning forward to ask, "did he say the president has been shot?"
The dude shook his head. "Oh, ya, man. He dead. They kill that sucker."
I found mayhem at the airport -- no planes flying, thousands stranded, hundreds of wan-faced business commuters jammed into bars staring at TV screens. I looked up at the TV just as Al Haig declared, "Everyone should know, I am now in charge."
"I can't believe it," swore a guy next to me. "There's been a military coup."
I went straight to a phone booth and called my dad at his office in Greensboro. For the moment at least, public pay phones still worked.
"Dad," I said with a sigh, "I just want to tell you and mom how much I love you -- in case I don't see you anytime soon. The world is falling apart at LaGuardia Airport." I told him I couldn't believe America had just had a military coup.
He actually laughed. "Relax, Bo," he said. "It's not a coup. The president will be OK. Here's my advice. Take a deep breath. Go buy yourself a bourbon and read a good book."
"Trust me. We'll all get through this time together."
Lesson in Optimism
We laughed about this episode over expensive bourbon many years later during a final golf trip we took together to England and Scotland in September 1995. It was during this trip that I first learned about several devastating events in his life -- and indirectly mine -- that explained a lot about his dogged optimism.
He was 14 years old when the stock market crashed in 1929, plunging the nation into the Great Depression. I was surprised to learn that he actually dropped out of high school his senior year to work three different jobs to help his parents -- a farm couple with four younger children to feed -- pay the bills.
"By today's standards, we were poor," he used to say, "though I don't ever recall feeling poor. We had each other."
He got accepted at UNC based on entrance exams but could study there only a year before he felt obliged to enlist in the Army Air Corps. During World War II, he was placed in charge of parachute packing and running the base newspaper at the largest U.S. Army Air Corps base on England's Lancashire coast.
One rainy morning shortly before D-Day, a B-17 on a maintenance run crashed and killed scores of villagers a short way from where he'd just stretched out in his bunk writing a letter to my mom. He was one of the first rescuers to reach the crash site, one of the worst civilian disasters of the war . Among the dead were 36 preschool children he'd photographed often for the base newspaper. He knew many of them on a first-name basis.
"After that, " he admitted quietly to me over a full English breakfast in Lytham and St. Annes in September 1995, sitting less than a mile from where the tragedy took place, "I decided that, no matter what life threw at me, I vowed never to have a bad day again."
In the fall of 1958, though, by anyone else's definition perhaps but his own, he had a really bad day -- a week, in fact, you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
After career stops at large daily newspapers in Washington, Dallas and New Orleans, he owned a weekly newspaper in Gulfport, Miss., called The Gulfport Breeze. The Breeze was his little piece of the Great American Dream. Everything he had was invested in that paper. He and his financial partner, a popular state senator who hoped to run for governor, planned to take their paper to three days a week and perhaps eventually go daily.
One afternoon just before Christmas, he returned home from buying a new printing press in Memphis to discover that his partner had cleaned out the company bank accounts and fled for parts unknown. His newspaper had no operating funds. He paid his 12 employees a final paycheck from his meager personal savings and locked the front door of The Breeze forever.
One Step at a Time
My brother was 6 years old. I was 4. I retain only a vague memory of the Breeze's friendly receptionist and the beach where we lived just outside town. I never saw or felt the hurricane that hit us.
The next afternoon, my mom had a miscarriage and lost her baby. That evening came word that my dad's kid sister Irene had been killed on an icy road outside Washington, D.C.
"My God," I asked my dad almost 40 years later over breakfast in Lytham, "how on earth did you get through all of that?"
Opti smiled at me.
"One step at a time," he said. "It was terrifying. I won't kid you. We basically lost everything. But I learned something valuable about myself."
"What was that?" I asked him.
"That I could solve problems. We had to start over. But people do this every minute in America. We come back one step at a time -- and it's often a better place than before "
The day after he lost his newspaper dream in Mississippi to a different kind of Gulf Coast hurricane, my old man phoned a friend at The Washington Post and found a job at the newspaper in Wilmington, North Carolina. The world, indeed, soon became a better place for my family.
"That job brought us home to North Carolina," Opti reminded me. "If that hadn't happened, you would never have grown up here."
A Better World
I was still thinking of many things I'd learned from my doggedly optimistic father the afternoon after my worrying visit to the Three O'clock Club last Wednesday night.
I could hear his voice in my head as clearly as if he were sitting across the breakfast table from me. In fact, I was sitting in Jim Musselwhite's chair at Pinehurst Endodonics having an emergency root canal.
"Are you OK?" asked his cheerful dental assistant.
I grunted affirmatively, nicely numbed and feeling no pain for the first time in days. The infection that had kept me awake for days would soon be history.
As I drove back to the office with my repaired tooth, still feeling the effects of a sleepless night of worry, I was relieved to hear on the radio that the federal government was planning a comprehensive attempt to head off a deepening financial crisis by taking on tens of billions of dollars worth of failing mortgages -- hoping to clean up the historic wreckage brought on by greedy Wall Street banks in a way the government failed to in the fall of 1929.
Maybe things will be OK, I chose to think -- the way my dad surely would have.
Maybe, like the people in Galveston, who were reportedly picking up their lives and starting over, we will recreate a better "World of Tomorrow" one step at a time.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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