After my early childhood conversion experience the memories that I have, at least until around age fourteen, are mostly of baseball, friends, church, school and family. No surprises there. My family was a two-parent home (then the norm and today, sadly, not so normal). I had an older brother, Tom. Tom and I were never bitter rivals but I suffered my share of teasing and modest sibling conflict even though I would say now we were always pretty good together. (When Tom went away to college to Baylor University I missed him and we soon became even better friends!) I was, of course, the “little brother.” This meant that at times I was a little pest. Tom loved me and still does. He claims to have attempted to evangelize me when I was four but I rejected my first gospel presentation. He tells me I had a bad heart! Tom had a very different temperament from my own but I had no idea what this meant in childhood. I was proud of him as my big brother and sometimes felt I could never live up to his standards, which I saw as very high. When he encountered a minor moment of teenage trouble I was stunned, being too much of a “goodie” little brother. I recall my mother experiencing some moments of challenge with Tom but my challenges to her would come much later, generally in college and beyond. Until I finished high school I was, with rare exception, the steady “good boy” in church, school and home. I don’t think my parents lost much sleep about my behavior.
Between the ages of 7 and 14 I attended two schools, one public and one private. The public school was a traditional, small-town 1950s elementary school. The teachers were all women and the classes were structured around learning basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic. There were two classes of 30+ children in each grade, K-6. I had several excellent teachers who stand out in my mind to this day. These were the teachers who demanded the most of me and yet saw me as an individual. They fostered my spirit and encouraged me personally. They knew I was talkative, which occasionally produced a classroom challenge, but they also saw this as a skill that could be used in leadership. The most important memory I have of grammar school is in the third and fourth grade. I began to read. I devoured books of all kinds. I loved reading. My teachers saw this and encouraged it. My grades and verbal skills were noticed and I got a lot of support. There can be no doubt that this profoundly shaped me.
I was always a “wannabe athlete” with no single skill to perform well at any sport. I loved baseball and played pitch and catch as much as possible. My dad was a very busy dentist but always had time to play a little ball with me when he got home from work. I was never picked first, or last, in any school ground sport; softball, kickball, dodgeball, etc. I was competitive but not aggressive. I “dreamed” of being a star but at some point I knew this was just not going to happen. I stuck to writing and verbal skills. I was not what we call a “nerd” today (though I hated having to wear glasses for severe nearsightedness in second grade) but I was clearly gifted enough to excel beyond most of my peers. The key would be if I worked and applied myself, which was sometimes a great challenge since I could be lazy boy.
I had several close friends during my formative school years. One was the son of the local sheriff. Sadly, his dad was shot and killed when he answered a call to resolve a domestic dispute. In our small town this was a huge event. I still remember this as if it was yesterday. My friend’s mom then became our church secretary. She was a wonderful woman and her son was one of my three best buddies growing up. He was later involved in a tragic car accident and suffered some permanent injuries that ended his productive working life. Sadly, I’ve lost track of him. My old “original” neighbor, Richard Hosier on West Spring Street, remained my good friend even though we moved three blocks away to a larger, newer home on Westwood Drive when I was in first grade. My third friend, Pierce Dodson, lived a few blocks further away but my bicycle allowed us to become closer as the years past. Both Pierce and Richard were a year ahead of me in school but this difference did not matter. Pierce eventually became a teacher and ordained minister. He pastors a church in middle Tennessee to this day. Two years ago I visited my old town and had lunch with both of these friends. It was an amazing experience to “catch up” after decades had passed. (We had seen one another a few times but never were all three of us together at a meal until I was past 60 in age!) All three of these friends also went to First Baptist Church so we were together a lot. I have great memories of each of them. Pierce and I created a wiffle ball diamond in my backyard and played regularly. We kept records, imitated big league players and competed with great joy. When we were young teens my mom took us both on our first major league road trip. We went to Cincinnati, because it was the closest major league city to Lebanon in the early 1960s (the Braves came to Atlanta in 1966). I’ll never forget this weekend. We saw the Milwaukee Braves play the Cincinnati Reds at old Crosley Field. We stayed in the Netherlands Hilton Hotel downtown and mingled among the Milwaukee players, a time which allowed me to meet and talk to my heroes’ Warren Spahn, Eddie Matthews, Henry Aaron, Lew Burdette, Joe Adcock, etc. There was no press and no groups of autography chasers so it was leisurely and fun. I’ll always be grateful that my mom gave us this trip of a lifetime. Does this help you understand why I love baseball to this day, especially the Braves? I became a Braves fan at age eight. In 1956 I became a fan and in October of 1957 they played the Yankees in the World Series. I did not like the Yankees at all. I was just getting into baseball thus the Braves became “my” favorite team. Nothing has changed for 55 years. If I am one thing it is loyal to my teams and my friends, though friends are admittedly more complicated since they can turn on you. Your team can just break your heart! But then in 1995 they made my “baseball life” rise from the ashes when they won the World Series again, something I had dreamed about over all those years since 1957. (I was in a hotel in Michigan and I watched in my room and wept when Marquis Grissom caught the last out!) Baseball has this pull on a boy’s (man’s) heart if he falls in love with the game as a lad. My friends and both my dad and mom had a great influence on me in this regard. I carry my parents love for baseball with great joy.
When I had completed grade six at McClain School in Lebanon (a school that no longer exists) I wanted to go to Castle Heights Military Academy, a private boarding school about a mile from our home. Castle Heights was an honor military academy and most of the students were residents on campus in dorms, which made me a “day student” only. It was also an all-boys school until long after my years there (1961-67). While I walked to school most days on cold days my mom drove me. I had to wear a military uniform and live in a military type daily structure. My junior high years at Castle Heights were transformative. I had several outstanding teachers and the school headmaster was exceptional. It was here that I began to flourish as a leader and student. I needed the daily discipline and the pressure to perform pushed me wonderfully. Castle Heights also offered me the opportunity to develop leadership skills that would serve me well throughout my lifetime. When I finished eighth grade I knew I would enter high school at Castle Heights. I was following my big brother’s steps and there was no question that this was where I should go to school. What I did not fully realize is that my parents had to sacrifice quite a bit for me to go to Castle Heights. I’ll say more about that later but they desired the very best for their two sons and spared no expense on our behalf. My junior high years were fairly uneventful though now I was in a place where excellence was noticed and rewarded and this felt really good. I set goals, accomplished many of them and felt like I could do just about anything that I wanted to do, except of course be a big league baseball player which I discovered (finally) in freshman baseball. What else could a happy fourteen year old want in life? My world was secure, except for the occasional fear of nuclear attack from the Russians. My life was well-ordered and my family was extremely loving. I had it made, or so I thought.