Simple Life

Simple Life

Coffee with God

Faith beneath the stars

By Jim Dodson

Every day between 3:30 and 4 a.m., I take a cup of coffee outside to an old wooden chair beneath the sky where I sit, look, listen, think and pray.

If you’ll pardon the expression, it’s something I’ve done religiously for at least two decades, regardless of season and weather, bitter cold or bright summer night. Fog, rain, snow or sleet — almost nothing keeps me from my early morning rendezvous with the universe.

I call it coffee with God.

Between you and me, it’s probably the only time in my day when I can be assured, with the faith of a mustard seed, that I and the world around me are reasonably OK.

Between God and me, you see, it’s something very personal.

After sipping coffee and eyeballing the night sky for a bit (I’ve seen several shooting stars over the years, probably a few UFOs, too), I listen to an app on my smart phone called “Pray As You Go,” a daily scriptural meditation produced by the Jesuits in Britain.

That puts me in the mood to chat with God about whatever is on my heart or mind.

Sometimes it’s worries about the state of the world, which always seems to be coming apart at the seams and can clearly use as many healing prayers as it can get. The news out of Israel this year has been like watching the Old Testament come to life. It’s eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth until everyone is blind and toothless, as Mahatma Gandhi supposedly said. Dear God, I ask, will we ever learn to give peace a chance?

Sometimes it’s thoughts and worries about our far-flung children that occupy my coffee time with God. One of them is always up to something that tends to keep the old man up at night. The good news is, they’re all smart kids with very good hearts. I have faith they’ll figure it out in time. They may even learn that praying is good for the soul and usually works wonders. Some atheists even pray — just in case.

Most of my morning prayers, however, are focused on simple gratitude.

I give thanks for my amazing wife, our good-hearted kids and the possibly undeserved good fortune I’ve enjoyed in this life. I often give thanks for other things great and small, including, but not limited to, unexpected blessings, birds at the feeder, good Samaritans, golf buddies, wise book editors, phone calls from old friends, rain for my garden, our crazy young dogs, our cranky old cat, afternoon naps and people who say thank you.

Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German mystic and priest, said that if your only prayer is “thank you,” that will be enough.

I rarely ask God for stuff, except maybe a little help finishing a book or finding patience with idiots who run red lights or drive too fast through the neighborhood. The world is moving much too fast. The truth is, I probably need to slow down, too.

Critics of faith like to say there’s no such thing as a personal relationship with God.

They argue that we human beings are simply a collection of random molecules floating aimlessly through a cold and empty universe. I’ve lived long enough to know that’s simply not the case. I can’t, frankly, think of anything more personal than a relationship with a divine source whose name is different in every language but the same in loving spirit.

This probably explains why I’ve naturally felt God’s presence since I was a little kid growing up across the rural South. In the absence of playmates, I spent most of my time alone outside immersed in nature, looking at birds and bugs, taking hikes through the woods, building forts, watching clouds pass overhead, listening to the love songs of the bullfrogs and the crickets, reading adventure stories on hot summer days beneath shady trees. I never felt alone for an instant. In fact, I felt accompanied by a large and loving presence that clearly cared for me and probably kept a sharp eye on whatever funny business I was up to.

Maybe this is why Jesus was so keen to have little children come near him. As we age, we lose that sense of natural wonder.

It also may explain why, as an adult, I’ve never been terribly keen on public praying, even the lovely prayers and familiar creeds we recite at church every week. They’re written by other well-meaning people and meant, I suppose, to help us catch God’s ear.

Between us, I don’t think God has a hearing problem.

Besides, as Jesus advises in Matthew 6, when you pray, go into a dark closet, shut the door and pray in secret, for God sees you and knows your heart and will openly reward you.

With coffee in hand, I like to think of my early mornings outside beneath the stars — which are always there, even if you can’t see them (kind of like God) — as my own great, big private prayer closet. No need to even shut the door. The world at that hour is normally so dark and quiet that I can whisper to God about anything on my mind. And the strangely wonderful thing is, God whispers back.

One of the worst things that’s happened to faith and prayer across the ages is the unholy marriage of religion and politics. Both are manmade institutions that thrive on telling people what is the correct thing to believe, and what isn’t. Often, when the two get together, all hell can break loose for anyone who dares to believe differently. Near as I can tell from many years of whispering to and being whispered to by some large and loving divine source, God is probably not a member of any particular denomination, sect, tribe, religion, political party or NFL booster club.

I happen to be a follower of Jesus, but find deep inspiration and comfort from the prayers of every faith tradition, a reminder that we’re all just ordinary folks down here on an ailing planet trying to help each other find the way home.

One of my favorite books is called Heaven on Earth: Timeless Prayers of Wisdom and Love by Stephanie Dowrick. I found it a decade ago in a London bookshop and have probably purchased half a dozen copies since to give friends who regularly pray — or ought to.

It’s a marvelous collection of prayers from every spiritual tradition.

One of my favorite prayers comes from the ancient Bhagavad Gita: “Whichever God you worship, I will answer your prayer. Whatever path you take, I will welcome you.”

Funny how similar that sounds to Isaiah 41: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. From wherever you come, I will lead you home.”

Easter arrives on the last day of March this year, a month named by the Romans for the God of War. Easter’s message is one of rebirth and forgiveness.

I pray it’s time we forget war and find peace at last.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

Simple Life

Winter Dad, Summer Son

How’s the weather? Depends on who you ask

By Jim Dodson

My son, Jack, phoned the other afternoon as I was enjoying an ounce of something superbly aged and watching from my favorite wooden chair under the trees as winter birds fed. It was a clear but cold afternoon, the kind I like. This day was also special in another way as well.

“Hey, Dad,” he said. “How’s it going?”

“Pretty well,” I said. “I finished the book today.”

“Congratulations,” he said. “I know that’s a big relief. Can’t wait to read it.”

“At this point you might be the only one,” I joked, pointing out that my editor at Simon & Schuster has probably given up on the book and forgotten my name.

“Oh no,” he said. “It’ll be just fine. You always say that.”

He was right about this. I’m naturally superstitious about completing books. They’re a little like children you spend years rearing, hoping you got things right, only to send them off into the wide world with gratitude and not a little worry. This was my 18th literary child, one I’d grown unusually close to over the years. Now this special child was about to leave me.

The book, a true labor of love, is about a pilgrimage I took along the Great Wagon Road, which my Scottish, German and English ancestors took to North Carolina. Foolishly, I thought I’d travel the historic Colonial road from Philadelphia to Georgia in roughly three weeks and take a couple more years to write about the interesting people I met along with whatever I learned about America, or myself.

In fact, it took nearly six years to complete the project, counting the two years off the road due to COVID. Even so, I was pleased to have finished the book, though — as is almost always the case — I felt a bit sad that the experience was over. Its fate was almost out of my hands.

So, I switched to our usual topic — the weather.

“How’s the weather there?” I asked.

“Great. Hot and sunny. Just the way I like it. How about there?”

“Cold and clear. Maybe some snow on the weekend. Just the way I like it.”

Jack laughed. “I always forget that. How much you love winter.”

My only son is a journalist and documentary filmmaker living in Lima, Peru, where, as you read this, it’s late summer. Before that, he spent nearly four years living and working in Israel, enjoying the heat and people of that ancient, violently contested land. Fortunately, he left a short time before the latest unspeakably horrible war between Israel and the Hamas terrorists erupted, an event straight from the pages of the Old Testament.

I knew he was worried about friends back in Israel and Gaza and wished he was back there helping to cover the war, where more than a dozen journalists have been killed. His mother, old man and big sister, however, were grateful that he wasn’t one of them.

In a world that forever seems to be coming apart at the seams, for the moment at least, I was glad that he was in sunny and warm Peru, a place I almost cannot imagine, but must be quite beautiful. Jack is fluent in Spanish and Arabic, a true traveler of the world.

Though I speak only English and enough French to get me in trouble whenever I visit France, he and I have many things in common — with one notable exception.

Jack was born on a warm August morning in Maine. He thrives in the heat and is an authentic son of summer, a northern New Englander who digs tropical heat and desert landscapes.

I was born on a cold, snowy morning in Washington, D.C., where my dad worked for the newspaper, a true-blue son of winter who thrives in early evening darkness, bone-chilling winds and lots of snow, a Southerner who could happily reside in Lapland, wherever that is. (I just googled it. Lapland is in Northern Finland. One of its largest towns is Santa Claus Village. Count me in!)

How upside down is that?

On the other hand, perhaps we’re simply fated to be this way. The ancient Greeks claimed unborn souls choose the time and place of their birth. Jack clearly picked the hottest part of summer to make his appearance, like his mama, a mid-July baby.

My mom was born in late January, traditionally the coldest part of winter. My birthday in February follows hers by just five days. She loved winter almost as much as I do. Jack’s big sister, Maggie, was born during a January blizzard. The morning we  brought her home from the hospital, I had to slide down a steep, snowy hill with her in my arms in order to reach our cozy cottage on the coast, as the unplowed roads were all impassable due to the heavy snow. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Though she resides in Los Angeles today, I think she loves good, snowy winters almost as much as her old man.

Not surprisingly, we winter people are a relatively tiny tribe. A recent study of people in Britain determined that only 7 percent of its citizens claimed to be “winter people.” Then again, summer in Britain can sometimes feel like an endlessly cold and soggy winter day, one reason you find so many sun-burned Brits residing on the Costa de Sol and the Mediterranean at large.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author Seth Gillihan studies the effect of weather on people’s moods. In his book, A Mindful Year, he notes that there is a positive link between someone’s birth and preferred season. “People who are born in the winter, their internal clock seems to be set to the length of days in the winter,” he told Metro.co.uk.

The internal clock of so-called winter people, he adds, “is not as affected as someone who’s born in the summer, whose circadian rhythm (the body’s 24-hour ‘internal clock’) is expecting a longer light period.” Among other things, he aims to debunk popular misconceptions about the so-called “winter blues,” pointing out that seasonal affective disorder — SAD for short — affects only a small percentage of the populations, less than 3 percent in the UK.

The idea that people who live in warm, sunny places are naturally happier than folks who reside in cold climates is challenged, he adds, by data that indicates Europe’s northernmost countries with the longest winters — Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden — rank among the continent’s seven happiest countries.

In a few weeks, North Carolina winter will begin to slip away. The welcome winter snows of my childhood here seem fewer than ever. The good news is that, by February’s end, my garden will be springing back to life, heralding my second-favorite time of year.

Winter will be coming on in Peru. I’m hoping my summer-loving son will decide to come home to share its glorious return with me.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

Simple Life

A Welcome Loss

Sometimes less really is more

By Jim Dodson

At the end of 2022, I decided I was going to give myself either a new left knee or lose 30 pounds before the end of 2023.

Well, miraculously, I managed to do both. I actually dropped 50 pounds and discovered that my formerly dodgy knee works just fine, almost good as new. No replacement needed.

In the most well-fed nation on Earth, losing weight seems to be our truest national pastime. But for me, the first 25 pounds came off quickly. 

There’s no big secret to how I managed to accomplish the feat: I did it the old-fashioned way. I simply ate less of everything I thought I couldn’t live without — ice cream, real ale, double cheeseburgers, crusty French bread, pizza, jelly beans, diet soda and my talented baker-wife’s insanely delicious pies, cakes and cookies. (To my surprise, once I cut back, my craving for them diminished.) I also walked more and drank enough water each day to fill a small bathtub.

Then, in early summer, my family doctor suggested I go on a new wonder drug intended for borderline and Type 2 diabetics, a disease I inherited a few years back from my dad and sweet Southern grandma. 

The new drug is a weekly injection you take via an EpiPen-like device by poking yourself in the thigh or abdomen. By helping your pancreas produce more insulin, it lowers your blood sugar.

This drug, however, has some side effects that experts have been exploring. One report suggests that it may have positive outcomes for treating alcoholism and depression. But what has really caught the public’s attention is that it can cause significant weight loss. While visiting my daughter in Los Angeles recently, I learned that it’s in such high demand for this side effect that it’s being bought up by the caseload. Health authorities have expressed concern that this practice could result in people who really need it not being able to get it. 

I can attest to that. To date, I’ve lost another 25 pounds on it, principally because it reduces your appetite for anything, which means you eat less and enjoy what you do eat more — or at least I do. 

Could it be a new wonder drug?

At a time when the FDA and makers of modern drugs and vaccines are often under attack, it’s worth remembering that sometimes, these wonder drugs do, actually, exist. And we’ve seen them before.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the scourge of polio know how it terrorized domestic American life.  When I was a kid, it was the most feared disease in America.

To this day, I still think about a sweet girl named Laurie Jones who sat behind me in Miss Brown’s fifth grade class. She wore a crisp Girl Scout uniform every Wednesday for her after-school scout meetings. Laurie’s thin legs needed braces as a result of battling polio since the third grade, but she had the sunniest personality of any kid I knew. I sometimes walked with Laurie to her school bus to help her get safely onboard. She told me she planned to become a nurse someday. 

One day, Laurie Jones didn’t come to school. Miss Brown tearfully informed us that she had passed away. The entire classroom sat in stunned silence.

A short time later, the entire school lined up in the auditorium to take a sugar cube dosed with the latest Salk vaccine. It was the week before school let out for Christmas. They played music and gave us cupcakes and little hand-clickers — perhaps the original fidgets — labeled “K-O Polio.” Funnily enough, my dad was on the advertising team that came up with the plan to promote the new vaccine in public schools across North Carolina. Those hand-clickers drove parents and teachers across the state nuts for months. 

But, according to the CDC, just since 1988, more than 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented with the vaccine.

So maybe that’s why I’m so ready to believe in this new wonder drug. Thanks to modern science and my own desire to have less of me to love, I’m off blood pressure medicine and my sugar count is perfectly normal. I haven’t physically felt this good since I was driving my own mother nuts with the K-O Polio clickers. 

I really have only one silly problem now: none of my old clothes fit. Losing four pant sizes makes me look like Charlie Chaplin minus the top hat and cane.

Until several pairs of new jeans and khaki trousers arrive, I shall uncomplainingly do as T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock did as he walked through the evening dusk of a town filled with memories: I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

At unexpected moments, I still think about sweet Laurie Jones, who lost her life before the Wonder Drug saved her, wishing I could have said goodbye.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

Simple Life

Let It Snow

Remembrance of a small Christmas miracle

By Jim Dodson

It’s December and, without fail, I’m thinking about snow.

Thanks to Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin’s Oscar-winning song from the 1942 musical film Holiday Inn, the idea of a “White Christmas” is deeply ingrained in the psyche of anyone who loves the holidays.

I’m no different. I dig everything about Christmas from the ancient story of a savior’s birth to the faux snow of sappy Hallmark holiday movies.

But my love affair with the white stuff goes much deeper than that.

My first taste of snow came in South Carolina in 1959, where my dad worked for a year at a small-town newspaper after he’d lost his own weekly newspaper in Mississippi. Shortly before Christmas, a freak snowstorm shut down the entire town for a couple days. 

My mother, who grew up in the Allegheny Mountains of western Maryland, where it snowed heavily every winter, allowed my brother and me to take a large antique serving tray to the nearby golf course, where we would slide down the hill, along with every kid in town. All through town, snowballs flew through the air and snow angels spread their wings. The snow barely lasted a day, but it was nothing short of magical to this wide-eyed kid of 6.

Better yet, we spent that New Year (and many thereafter) in snowy Cumberland, among my mother’s people, a wintry clan of  big, blond, German aunts and uncles who seemed to celebrate the snowy season with roaring fires and lively gatherings. I remember going outside during a rowdy family New Year’s Eve party just to stand in the knee-deep snow outside my Aunt Fanny’s house, marveling at the beauty and still silence of the falling snow.

Not long after we moved to Greensboro in January 1960, it snowed there, too. My dad took me to Western Auto and bought me a Flexible Flyer sled. Our hilly neighborhood street got blocked off and briefly turned into a miniature Olympic bobsled run.

In those days, long before global warming was a concern, it seemed to snow at least two or three times every winter across North Carolina’s Piedmont. This fact was confirmed at my recent 50th high school reunion, where the shared memory of several deep snows during the 1960s and ’70s seemed to be a popular topic of discussion. “I remember how exciting it was to go to bed when a snowstorm was predicted,” remembered my friend, Cindy. “Waking up to find it had snowed and school was cancelled was like Christmas morning all over again.”

It was during those years that I made a silent vow to someday live in snow country. This idea was probably put into my head by my English teacher, Miss Elizabeth Smith, who gave me the Collected Poems of Robert Frost for winning the city’s O.Henry Award for short-story writing. The poet’s very name said winter and whispered to me like a siren call from Homer. Whose woods these are I think I know / His house is in the village though / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Someday, I told myself, that fellow will be me.

After six years in Atlanta covering crime, politics and social mayhem for the oldest Sunday magazine in the nation, I turned down a job as a reporter in Washington, D.C., that for years I yearned for and took a job as the first senior writer for Yankee Magazine, moving to a bend of the Green River outside of Brattleboro, Vermont. The snow was already falling when I got there in late November 1983, taking possession of a tidy two-room cabin heated only by a wood stove. I promptly got myself a retriever pup from the Windham County Humane Society and spent a glorious winter reading every poem, philosopher and piece of literature I could lay hands on. Walking with my dog in the blue dusk of an arctic evening, I came to love the brilliance of the winter stars and finally got to see the Northern lights.

It was the most solitary and wonderful winter of my life.

No surprise, I suppose, that my first wife and I eventually built a post-and-beam house on a forested hilltop near the coast of Maine, where we raised our babies to be outdoor adventurers, especially in winter when the deep snows came. My daughter, Maggie, was born at dawn after an overnight blizzard. I remember driving home to feed the dogs at our cottage on Bailey Island as the sun came out, illuminating a world made pure and peaceful by blankets of snow. I’d never been happier.

On particularly clear and frigid nights, I would put on my red wool Elmer Fudd jacket and tote a large bag of sorghum pellets though the knee-deep snow to the edge of the forest, where a family of whitetail deer and other forest creatures could often be seen feeding in the moonlight. That became the source of many bedtime stories I made up for my young adventurers. They still mention those silly winter tales to this day.

One year, however, there was no snow on the ground right up to Christmas Eve. Our Episcopal church decided to hold its evening service in the Settlemeyer family’s barn. Maggie and her brother Jack played a sheep and a cow, respectively, in the annual Christmas Pageant and I was asked to bring along my guitar and play “Silent Night” to conclude the service.

A large crowd in parkas and snowsuits turned out to fill the barn, shivering among the sheep pens as the ancient story of a savior’s birth was retold. At one point Maggie asked with a whisper if I thought it might snow that night. I assured her it probably would because Santa needed snow for his sleigh.

The candles were lit and I played the beloved Christmas hymn, first performed in Austria on Christmas Eve 1818, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Since that time, the hymn has been translated into 300 languages.

That night, as we all huddled together with the barn door firmly shut against a sharp northern wind, a Christmas miracle of sorts took place outside.

When the doors were opened and we all filed out, pausing to exchange hugs and wish each other “Merry Christmas,” someone suddenly cried with a voice of pure childlike wonder: “Oh, look . . . it’s snowing!”

Indeed it was — big, dreamy flakes floating down as if on cue from either Bing Crosby or Heaven itself, like an answered prayer.

Whichever it was, by the time we reached our wooded hilltop, the world was pure white and the night was very silent indeed. We woke to two feet of fresh snow the next morning.

No Christmas since has come without remembering that magical Christmas Eve.

And that’s why I still hold out hope for snow every December.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

Simple Life

A Cure for the Summer Blues

And a homecoming for a flat-coated retriever

By Jim Dodson

As I write this, I’ve just returned from East Hampton, New York, where I sat on the porch of a beautiful old house that belongs to my friends, Rees Jones, the famous golf architect, and his wife, Susan. The sun had just come up and the first birds were chirping. Susan’s gardens were lush from recent rains. It was the day after Labor Day and the summer crowds were finally winding their way home.

I’d be lying if I said I was sad to see this particular summer go. It was a real doozy back home in Carolina, the hottest and driest summer I can recall, which explains why I spent many days watering my wilted gardens, which seemed prepared to give up the ghost.

But I’m already in a November state of mind.

November, you see, is one of my two favorite months, when I pause to take inventory of the year, count my blessings and thank the Lord for unexpected gifts.

This year I’m starting early with a dog named Blue. He was the one great thing about summer’s end — besides summer’s end.

Up till the moment my wife, Wendy, found him, I was feeling intense lingering grief over the loss of my beloved dog Mulligan at the end of August last year.

Mully, as I called her, was 17 and had been my faithful traveling pal since the October day in 2005 when I found her running wild and free on the shoulder of a busy highway near the South Carolina line, a filthy, joyful, black pup that raced into my arms as if she knew I was there to save her — though I’m convinced it was the other way around. Whichever it was, we found each other and shared an uncommonly powerful bond to the very end.

One of the saddest moments of my life was watching her soulful brown eyes close for the last time as she lay at my feet in the garden she helped me build. Or it felt like it at the time.

Grief is such untidy business. It squeezes your heart at unexpected moments. Every time I saw a dog that looked like Mully — a flat-coated retriever and border collie mix — I found myself almost aching with returning sadness.

Even our aging and sweet old pit bull, Gracie, whom I call Piggie for the way she snorts when eating and sleeping, seemed to keenly feel Mully’s absence, despite the fact that pits are not known for displaying much emotion. 

One day last fall, I happened to open an app to Red Dog Rescue and there was a black-and-white female puppy looking for a forever home. I was sure Mully was sending her to us. So, on a lark, I filled out the paperwork and supplied proper references. A week or so later, we drove to a farm down in Asheboro to pick her up.

We named her Winnie — either after Winnie-the-Pooh or my late friend Winnie Palmer, Arnold’s wonderful wife — I’m still not sure which.

It wasn’t long before I started calling her Wild Winnie. She is an exceptionally smart and insanely joyful mix of Labrador retriever, English springer spaniel plus something her DNA results termed as “Super Mutt.” She is every bit that and more.

In truth, however, I wasn’t sure life in an old suburban city neighborhood would be sufficient for our beautiful Super Mutt’s needs.

But I was wrong. Winnie quickly attached herself to Gracie the Bull and my wife, Wendy, who took her to training classes and soon had her performing an impressive repertoire of obedient commands. Wendy also began taking Winnie to Country Park’s BarkPark, where she fell in with a band of rough-and-tumble regulars named Roger, Jack and Ellie, who run, wrestle and chase each other until they drop from exhaustion.

Winnie, in short, has been a joy. Without fail, she jumps into my lap every morning to give me a soppy lick of gratitude for finding her.

But she’s clearly one of the girls. Wendy is her sun and moon. I’m just Wild Winnie’s fun playmate.

I was OK with that until the end of August, when the first anniversary of losing Mully approached.

My intuitive wife seemed to divine that my normal “summer blues” were worse than ever this year. One afternoon as we shared a cool drink beneath the shade trees, she handed me her iPhone and said, smiling, “So what do you think?”

It was a photo of a beautiful black flat-coated retriever that looked exactly like Mully.

“He’s over in Tennessee, a rescued young male who belonged to a lady who had to give him up. They say he’s sweet as can be, loves other dogs and even cats. They’re taking a load of rescued dogs to New England and will be passing through western Virginia this Friday evening. If you’re interested. I’ve already cleared our references.”

For several seconds I said nothing, just stared at the photo.

“You need your dog,” my wise wife quietly said.

So we drove to western Virginia and picked him up. On the two-hour drive home, he climbed up front placed his head in my lap and fell asleep.

We named him Blue, my forever cure for the summer blues. After a bath, he was so black he was blue. My daughter, Maggie, suggested the name.

Blue follows me everywhere, lies at my feet and already answers to his name. Piggie and Winnie adore him. Ditto Boo Radley, the cat.

On the evening I arrived home from New York, Blue was the first one to greet me at the door, hopping up to give me a lick on the chin.

It was good to be home.

For both of us.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

Simple Life

Farewell to Golf

But With Apologies to Sam Snead, Not Just Yet

By Jim Dodson

It began with a few simple questions on a beautiful October evening last year as my best friend — and oldest golf rival — and I were walking up the ninth fairway of the club where we grew up playing and still belong. As usual of late, Patrick Robert McDaid and I were all square in our friendly nine-hole match.

As we approached our tee shots in the fairway, he suddenly said: “Can you believe we both turn 70 next year?”

I laughed. “If I forget, my aching left knee reminds me every morning.”

Pat also laughed. “Isn’t that the truth.”

I could tell, however, that something else was on his mind, the benefit of more than 58 years of close friendship. We began playing golf with — and against — each other the year we turned 12.

“Do you think we’ll take one of those trips again?” he asked.

We both knew what he meant.

Over the 40 years I worked as a columnist and contributing editor for several major golf publications, my oldest pal and I had roamed the Holy Land of Golf, as we call it — Scotland, England and Ireland — more than half-a-dozen times in each other’s company, often on the spur of the moment with few, if any, arrangements made in advance, armed only with our golf clubs and hall passes from our wives.

Before I could reply, he chuckled and added, “Remember that time in Scotland when you locked the keys in our rental car and we had to stay another night at that guest house near Southerness?”

“How could I forget it? You’ve never let me live it down.”

“The owners invited their crazy neighbors over just to hear your golf stories.”

“Actually, it was your crazy fly-fishing stories they wanted to hear. You were more fun than a drunken bagpiper.”

“Good whisky helped.”

We hit our approach shots onto the green. I lagged my 20-footer to the edge of the cup and tapped in. As he stood over his 10-footer for birdie, he reflected, “I loved those trips. All those great old courses and golf on the fly.”

As I watched, he rolled his birdie putt dead into the cup, sealing my fate with a 1-up victory. It was an annoying trend of late. His short game had gotten markedly better from years of regular practice, while mine had declined from benign neglect. I sometimes joked that moving to Pinehurst — the Home of American Golf, as it’s rightly known —  was the worst thing I could have done to an aging golf game because I had no regular buddies to play with. I arrived there in 2005 a 2.5 index player and left a decade later a limping 10.5. All work and little play had left Jimmy one step closer to dufferdom.   

“I’m thinking we should do it one last time before the boneyard summons,” Pat declared.

“You’re probably saying it because, for the first time in half-a-century, you’re regularly beating me.”

“That’s true,” he admitted as we walked off for me to buy the beer. “But it would be even sweeter to finally beat you in some of the classic courses you love best.”

Pat is a persuasive fellow, probably the reason he’s such a successful industrial go-to guy for one of the nation’s leading home improvement chains. To begin with, he’s blessed to the marrow with “the craic,” a delightful Irish slang word derived from Old English that denotes a natural ability to charm and engage almost anyone in friendly conversation. I’d witnessed my old friend work his Celtic magic too many times to deny its validity. Some years back while chasing the ball around Ireland, a mutual friend with a wicked sense of humor bestowed Pat the perfect nickname of “The Irish Antichrist,” owing to his supernatural ability to disarm and coerce a smile from almost everyone we met. More than once, I must concede, we drank for free for the evening.   

Over his latest victory beer, I told Pat something Sam Snead said to me almost 30 years ago as we were playing the Greenbrier’s famous Old White course on a similar autumn afternoon. I was there to write about him for my “Departures” golf column. Sam liked me, in part because I was good friends with his best friend, Bill Campbell, the legendary amateur. Snead was almost an honorary son of Greensboro where he won the Greater Greensboro Open a record eight times, including six times at Starmount Forest, where Pat and I were soon sitting at the bar with our beers.

“How old are you now, son?” Slammin Sam asked me that faraway afternoon.

“Just turned 40, Mr. Snead.”

“What a great age. That’s the prime of life — makin’ good money, got a wife and kids, probably playin’ your best golf ever. I wrote a book about that called Golf Begins at Forty. You should read it.”

I promised to lay hands on a copy — when I got old.

“But here’s the thing,” he went ahead. “Someday you’ll blink your eyes and be 70 or 80 years old. It’ll happen that fast, you’ll hardly believe it. You’ll suddenly be saying farewell to golf. That’s when you better grab hold of as many golf memories as you possibly can. That’s the beauty of golf. If you keep after it, you can play till your last breath. No other game on Earth let’s a fella do that.”

I watched him tee up his ball. “Just so you know,” he added over his shoulder, “I got plans to play at least to 100.”

And with that, 81-year-old Samuel Jackson Snead striped a splendid drive to the heart of the 17th fairway.

“So, who won the match?” demanded the Irish Antichrist.

“That’s not the point,” I said as we sat at the bar. “Sam was just sharing a little golf wisdom about enjoying the game as one ages.”

“Good for him. I guess this means we’re off to the Holy Land next year. By the way, I get at least four strokes a side.”

“No way. Three for 18,” I said firmly, pointing out the three-stroke difference in our official handicap indexes. This was nothing new. Over five plus decades, we’d argued about everything from the prettiest Bond girl to the absurdity of orange golf balls.

A good friend, it’s said, knows all your best stories, but a best friend has lived them with you.

Over 10 days near summer’s end, in the 58th year of our friendship, we played eight classic British golf courses during the heaviest rains in England’s recorded history. It was a slog, almost impossible at times as gale force winds blew our handicaps to pieces. Between us, we easily lost a dozen golf balls.

But we had the time of our lives.

Somehow, unforgettably, we ended up in a tie.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

Simple Life

Squirrelly Business

A seedy family of rodents drives an old dude nuts

By Jim Dodson

Another summer is ending.

And once again, the squirrels have won.

Last year about this time, you see, I made a promise to myself — not to mention the many wild birds that regularly visit our four hanging feeders — to find a way to outfox the large crime family of gray squirrels that inhabits Old George, the handsome maple tree that anchors our front yard.

The problem began rather innocently six years ago when we moved back to the heavily forested neighborhood where I grew up and rescued George from death by English ivy. The old tree flourished and, one afternoon, I noticed a couple gray squirrels had taken up residence in a hollow nook halfway up the tree. They seemed to be a respectable couple, perhaps elderly pensioners looking for a nice place to tuck in for their quiet retirement years. Our property is also home to several towering oaks, so come autumn there would be a plentiful acorn supply.

I hung a couple bird feeders by wires from George’s upper branches. Soon the wild birds were all over them. What a peaceable kingdom it seemed.

The next spring, however, there were four squirrels residing on Old George. Clearly, they were no elderly pensioners, for within months, two baby squirrels appeared and I found a juvenile delinquent regularly helping himself to premium birdseed, scattering it on the ground below the feeder, having somehow slid down the 10-foot wire like a paid assassin from a Bond flick.

He soon returned with two bushy-tailed pals from across the street. Word was out. Party at the Dodson house, all-you-can eat birdseed buffet, pay no attention to the old dude waving his arms and shouting obscenities.

By the next year there were at least seven or eight tree squirrels residing on Old George, a budding Corleone family of furry rodents regularly raiding the feeders, costing me a bundle just to keep them filled up. I bought expensive “squirrel-free” feeders and fancy bird feeder poles equipped with “baffles” guaranteed to keep the gymnastic raiders on the ground. These sure-fire remedies, alas, only baffled me because they posed only a minor challenge to the squirrels. So I made a deal with the big fat squirrel that seemed to be the head of the family. Whatever they found on the ground at the feet of Old George was theirs to keep. Thanks to the jays, the sloppiest eaters in the bird kingdom, there was plenty of seed for them to gorge on. For a while, this protection racket seemed to work until one afternoon as I was filling up “their” feeder, I heard a pop and turned to find the big fat crime boss squirrel dead on the ground. He’d been pushed off a high limb where two younger squirrels were looking down with innocent beady-eyed stares. Just like in the movies, a younger more ambitious crime boss was in charge.

I considered giving up and moving to northern Scotland. Instead, I asked my neighbor, Miriam, a crack gardener and bird fancier, how she handled pesky squirrels. By “crack gardener,” I don’t mean to suggest that sweet elderly Miriam was growing crack cocaine, merely that if anyone could tell me how to stem the tide of ravenous tree squirrels it was Miriam. She’d lived in the neighborhood for 40 years. She is my turn-to garden and bird guru.

Miriam thought for a moment before coming out with a chilling laugh. “They’re impossible to stop.” She pointed to her Jack Russells. “That’s why I have Jake and Spencer. They do a pretty decent job on the squirrels and chipmunks.” She admitted that she always wondered whether squirrels are the smartest or dumbest of God’s creatures. “How can squirrels be so smart they can get into any kind of bird feeder — but always stop suicidally in the middle of the street whenever a car is coming?”

It was a good question I had no time to ponder.

Our other neighbors down the block, Miriam explained, had taken to humanely trapping their squirrels and releasing them in the countryside. “But I read somewhere that if you don’t take them more than 10 miles out of town, they’ll come straight back.”

That was all I needed — country cousins joining the feast.

Next, remembering my former neighbor, Max, I actually gave thought to arming myself with a Daisy BB gun. It’s right there in the second amendment, after all — the right to bear arms against unreasonable threats from hostile elements, both domestic and foreign. True, the Constitution doesn’t mention thieving gray tree squirrels per se, but one doesn’t have to be a strict constitutional originalist to interpret the broad meaning of those historic words.

Max was my neighbor down in Southern Pines, a fabulous gardener famous for his giant tomatoes, succulent sweet corn and luscious collards. To protect his bounty from the herds of deer that roam the Sandhills, Max essentially erected a Russian-style penal colony around his veggie garden, complete with electrical voltage and 24-hour monitoring system.

The first evening I dined with Max and his beautiful wife, Myrtis, as the salt and pepper came my way on the lazy Susan, I noticed a large jar of Taster’s Choice — circa 1976 — festooned with several sheets of notepaper attached by rubber bands. The sheets were covered with dozens of dates written in tiny, neat handwriting.

“What are these dates?” I asked. “The last time you tried really old instant coffee?”

Myrtis laughed. “Oh, no. Those are dates of Max’s squirrel kills. He shoots them.”

Max just smiled. “Haven’t had a squirrel problem in years. It’s either them or my vegetables.”

I was in the presence of evil genius, a terminator of problem squirrels.

Call me a tree-hugging man of peace — Rocky and Bullwinkle were my favorite childhood cartoon characters — but I decided to forgo the gun and simply rely on Miss Miriam’s way to put the fear into the furry crime family that inhabits Old George.

Nowadays I wait until I see them climbing up poles, dangling upside down to feed or diving insanely from tree limbs onto our feeders, whereupon I strategically release our 75-pound Staffordshire pit bull and fleet-footed border collie-spaniel puppy and watch the merry chase begin. There’s been more than one narrow escape and parts of furry tails have been brought back to master of the hounds.

True, it’s not a permanent solution to the problem. But for now, Gracie and Winnie enjoy the exercise and I am sending an unmistakable message to the squirrelly Corleones.

They’d best stay out of the middle of the road when this old dude is at the wheel.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

Simple Life

Let There Be Darkness

In defense of the dark side

By Jim Dodson

During a business trip to a remote part of New Zealand last winter, I was reminded of the staggering beauty of the night. Stepping out of my bungalow just after midnight, the stars of the Southern Hemisphere took my breath away. There were untold millions of them arching overhead, blazing like white diamonds on black velvet.

Because it was summer down under, there were also vivid sounds of calling night birds and insects murmuring in the fields and forests around me. I sat down on a wooden rocking chair and just listened for the better part of an hour, a perfect bedtime lullaby that reminded me of my daily wake-up routine back home in North Carolina.

Well before sunrise most days, I take my coffee outside to sit beneath a grove of old trees and wait for the first songbird to herald the breaking day. Save for an occasional passing train or distant siren that briefly mars the silence, it’s the stillest part of any day, the perfect moment to think, meditate, pray or just be.

I’ve captured the first birdsong many times on my handy Cornell Lab Merlin Bird app. In my neck of the suburban woods, it’s usually a Carolina wren or eastern towhee that breaks the serenity of pre-dawn. Sometimes it’s the northern cardinal or melodious song sparrow who takes lead solo. Every now and then, a great horned owl or brown thrasher cues the chorus. Whichever one starts, as sure as night is dark, a chorus of a dozen or more birds soon joins the songfest, including gray catbirds, mourning doves and American crows.

I never tire of this avian awakening, finding a sense of true gratitude for my tiny spot on Earth as a new day begins.

And yet, I worry.

Last year, a report from National Audubon on the state of birds reported that the U.S. and Canada have lost 3 billion birds over the past half-century. The same report notes that half of America’s bird populations are in decline, prompting more than one expert to warn that we are already in the early throes of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction.

Global warming, loss of natural habitat, various forms of pollution and the fact that the night is no longer as dark as it used to be are cited as primary contributing factors to the decline of thousands of species of birds, insects, reptiles and mammals, roughly half of which hunt, mate, feed and travel by night. Disappearing forests accelerate this decline.

Historian Jill Lapore echoes similar concerns in a recent New Yorker essay titled “What We Owe Our Trees:”

“Even if you haven’t been to the woods lately, you probably know that the forest is disappearing. In the past 10,000 years, the Earth has lost about a third of its forests, which wouldn’t be so worrying if it weren’t for the fact that almost all that loss has happened in the past 300 years or so. As much forest has been lost in the past hundred years as in the 9,000 before. With the forest go the worlds within those woods, each habitat and dwelling place, a universe within each rotting log, a galaxy within a pinecone. And, unlike earlier losses of forests, owing to ice and fire, volcanoes, comets, and earthquakes — actuarially acts of God — nearly all the destruction in the past three centuries has been done deliberately, by people actuarially at fault: cutting down trees to harvest wood, plant crops and graze animals.”

So what is an ordinary, suburban nature-lover and bird nut to do? That depends, I suppose, partly, at least, how you grew up.

I sometimes joke that I grew up in darkness.

I had the privilege to grow up in a succession of sleepy Southern towns, following my dad’s itinerant newspaper career. From the coast of Mississippi to the Carolinas, Yeats’ proverbial “The Stolen Child,” with an imagination fired by nature, I explored woods and creeks, bringing home frogs and injured birds. The rule was, I had to be home by “full” darkness. Many an evening, I lingered in the twilight just to watch the fireflies come out and listen for the sounds of crickets, bullfrogs and night birds. In those days, the streetlights in these quiet rural towns were few.

I’m not speaking, mind you, of the metaphorical darkness showcased by everything from the Bible’s rich imagery of light and darkness (good and evil) to modern cable TV’s endless news loops of crime and disaster. There’s a perfectly good reason why depression is rightly called a “dark night of the soul.” Anyone who has experienced it might be forgiven for believing that the world is coming apart at the seams.

Thirty years ago, in an effort to give our children the benefits of a quieter, natural world, my wife and I built our house on a coastal Maine hilltop surrounded by a dense forest of beech and hemlock, where the nights were deep and woods teemed with animal life.

The first thing I did when we moved back to my hometown neighborhood seven years ago was plant 20 trees around the property. Today in summer, our house sits in a grove of beautiful trees. The neighborhood is called Starmount Forest, after all, and most residents appreciate the giant oaks, maples and poplar trees that still arch like druid elders throughout. Living up to the name, these trees provide home to a rich variety of birds and insects. They also give us welcome shade in summer and showcase the stars on winter nights.

Turning down the lights at night strikes me as one small but sensible act of kindness to nature, encouraging the living world around us to rest, so moths and other nighttime creatures can pollinate plants, fertilizing the start of the world’s food chain.

In her lovely spiritual memoir Learning to Walk in the Dark, theologian Barbara Brown Taylor points out that most of the monsters we fear in the dark are simply phantoms we create in our anxious, sleep-deprived minds.

“I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light,” she writes. “Things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

I was reminded of this fact one morning at summer’s beginning while awaiting my woodland wake-up call. Savoring the pre-dawn stillness beneath the trees, I suddenly realized that the fireflies had returned, magical messengers of hope that would be nowhere without the night.

As August passes over us and the days grow shorter, the darkness grows.

I say, bring it on, dear neighbors, and sleep well.  OH

Jim Dodson can be reached at jwdauthor@gmail.com.

simple life

Simple Life

The Wish Book’s Final Chapter

Saying a fond farewell to Sears’ last remaining North Carolina store

By Jim Dodson

I learned that the last Sears department store in North Carolina honest-to-goodness brick and mortar store — was closing. Out of simple curiosity, and a dose of nostalgia, I went to pay my respects.

Truthfully, I hadn’t set foot in our local shopping center’s Sears since purchasing a new Craftsman lawnmower there more than five years ago. Happy to report, it’s been a fine mower.

Before that, my last visit to Sears was probably as a kid in the mid-1960s when, fueled by the firm’s famous “Wish Book” Christmas catalog, every kid I knew haunted the toy department at the downtown Sears retail store during the run-up weeks to the holiday. My first bicycle came from Sears, and was later parked outside the store the year my buddy Brad and I innocently drifted from the toy department into the adjacent lingerie department to stare in wonder at the display mannequins in all their undergarmented glory. As she escorted us to the exit doors, the unamused clerk with the pointy-blue eyeglasses refused to believe we were simply looking for presents for our moms.

That iconic downtown store, in any case, is now a giant hole in the ground, awaiting construction of a swanky office building as time, life and commerce march resolutely on.

Let’s pause and have a moment of fond reflection for — as Smithsonian recently described it — “The retail giant that taught America how to shop.”

Sears began modestly in 1887 when a former railway lumber salesman named Richard Sears moved to Chicago to partner with an Indiana watchmaker named Alvah Roebuck to launch a catalog selling jewelry and watches. Both men were still in their 20s. Six years later, they incorporated as Sears, Roebuck and Company, putting out a 500-page catalog that sold everything an American farmer or thrift-conscious housewife could ask for at a “fair price,” shipped directly to the customer.

In a nation where most Americans still resided on farms or in small towns, this marketing model exploded like a prairie fire, fueling the growth of urban factories. Even Henry Ford was said to have studied the Sears marketing model for making and selling his cars. The company’s first stock certificates were sold in 1906. “If you picked up a big enough chunk of stock when the company went public,” writes Investopedia, “you’d never have to work again.”

The first Sears retail store opened in Chicago in 1925. Four years later, on the eve of the Great Depression, the company was operating 300 stores around the country. By the mid-1950s, the number topped 700. By then, the corporation’s reliable Kenmore appliances, lifetime-guaranteed Craftsman tools, DieHard auto batteries and Allstate Insurance were beloved household names in America’s ballooning mass consumer culture. The stores followed the consumer’s migration from Main Street to shopping centers and, eventually, suburban malls.

Perhaps the company’s most enduring product line was introduced in 1908 when a Sears executive named Frank Kushel came up with the idea of kit houses sold through a specialty catalog called “The Book of Modern Homes and Building Plans,” offering 44 styles of mail-order homes ranging in price from $360 to $2,890. Generally shipped by rail, house packages provided everything down to screws and nails, including pre-cut and numbered framing lumber, flooring, doorknobs, wiring and plumbing.

Between 1908 and 1947,  an estimated 75,000 Sears kit houses — from Bungalow to English Cottage, Craftsman to Queen Anne — were shipped to Americans. Old House Journal notes that unknown Frank Kushel’s Modern Home Program wielded as much impact on the development of American architecture as famous contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sears boasted that its houses were built to last, explaining why thousands of them remain highly prized, lovingly restored jewels in older neighborhoods across America, relics of a bygone golden consumer age.

By the 1970s,  the firm owned the tallest skyscraper in the world in Chicago, was among the first to introduce home internet services, and jumped into the real estate, credit card and financial services businesses.

Perhaps it was too much for the gods of commerce to tolerate. Critics pointed to the company’s legal affrays over sex and race discrimination and a business model fueled by corporate hubris. 

In 1993, just shy of its 100th anniversary, Sears discontinued its famous catalog. Walmart was now the nation’s leading retailer, and Americans were suddenly buying things “online.” One year later, a former hedge fund guru named Jeff Bezos started up an online book service called Amazon, pretty much putting the finishing nail in the coffin of the historic brand. After 75 years on Wall Street, Home Depot took Sears’ place on the Dow Industrials. As the company’s sales steadily spiraled downward, a forced marriage with K-Mart in 2004 failed to stem the hemorrhage.

In January 2017, shortly before I purchased my Craftsman mower, the iconic tool brand was sold off to Stanley Black & Decker.

Less than a year later, in October 2018, Sears filed for bankruptcy.

Last December, the company emerged from bankruptcy but announced the liquidation and closing of all its remaining stores. According to reports, less than a dozen made it to this spring. Only one in North Carolina.

Which is why, out of some strange, old fashioned sense of brand loyalty or happy memories of lawn mowers and provocative lingerie mannequins, I felt a final farewell trip was in order.

Bright yellow “Going Out of Business” banners festooned the building. I wandered through looking at the remaining stock items. Fifty-percent bargains were everywhere. I looked at Kenmore refrigerators, top-line Samsung dishwashers and GE Elite ovens, all half-price.

I decided on a lightweight Craftsman toolbox to remember the place by, a steal at $27.

On my way out, I paused to chat with a clerk, Janice, who has worked for Sears for more than two decades. “It makes me really sad to think that Sears is going away for good,” she said. “Like millions of Americans, everything in my house as a young married woman came from Sears. I guess nothing lasts forever, does it?”

She surprised me with a sudden, feisty grin. “You know, I think if we’d only stuck with catalogs, by golly, we’d have beaten Amazon and still be going strong!”

I loved her company spirit. I wished her well.

Then I went home to mow my lawn.

Whenever the math of this world doesn’t quite add up — when the sad subtractions outnumber the hopeful additions, or vice versa — I find temporary comfort by mowing my lawn. Crazy, I know. But it briefly puts things in perspective.

Besides, my Craftsman mower never lets me down.  OH

Jim Dodson can be reached at jwdauthor@gmail.com.

Simple Life

Simple Life

Return of Jimmy the Lawn King

Fresh-cut grass stirs up memories

By Jim Dodson

It started with a simple phone call from our neighbor across the street. Mildred Horseman had seen me mowing my family’s yard and wondered if I might be willing to mow her lawn. Her husband, Gene, was just home from the hospital and under strict doctor’s orders to rest for a month. She even offered to pay.

It was early summer, 1968, and I was 15. We were new to the old neighborhood where everybody had lush green lawns. I’d been mowing lawns since age 12, trusted not to destroy anything or chop off my own toes.

“I’ll send Jimmy right over,” said my mom. “No need to pay him. He loves mowing the grass.”

That was partly true. I liked mowing grass. I also liked money, which I needed to buy the beautiful classical guitar I had my eye on at Moore Music Company. It was $95, a whopping $800 in today’s dollars.

So off I went with our crotchety old Sears & Roebuck power mower, which normally took forever and required a number of impolite muttered oaths to start. Mr. Horseman sat on his screened porch watching me unsuccessfully crank until I had to rest my arm. He finally got up and stepped outside.

“Jimmy,” he said. “Come with me. I’ve got just what you need.”

In his garage sat a bright green Lawn-Boy power mower, one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.

“She’s got a few years of age on her, but will almost always start on the first pull. I keep her tuned up.”

He was right. One pull and she started. Gene Horseman went back to his club chair on the porch and I got busy on his lawn, marveling at the way his Lawn-Boy cut grass. When I finished and put his mower back in the garage, he waved me onto the porch. Mrs. Horseman had brought out lemonade.

“So what do you think?”

“Great,” I said. “Wish my dad would get one of those.”

“They’re pretty reliable,” he said. “One of the oldest brands in America, invented by a guy who built the first outboard motors for boats.”

As I drank my lemonade, I learned Gene Horseman was a retired business professor from Michigan. The Lawn-Boy mower, he explained, was created before WWII by a Wisconsin man who built Evinrude outboard engines. “I knew him when I was young. He became quite the successful businessman.”

Gene Horseman handed me a ten dollar bill. Sadly, I was compelled to explain that I was unable to take his money due to a mother who didn’t care a fig if I became a successful businessman.

“In that case,” he said, “how about we do a deal. You mow my lawn this summer and you can use the Lawn-Boy to mow lawns along the street. Sound good? I’ll even buy the gas.”

It did sound good, a potential gold mine at ten bucks a clip. But I didn’t know any of the neighbors yet.

“Print up some fliers,” he said. “Or, better yet, I’ll have Mildred get on the phone. You’ll have a job or two in no time.”

Within a week, I had two paying jobs, half a dozen regulars by the middle of summer. At ten bucks a pop, I was the richest kid on the block. By July, the Yamaha classical was mine. My mom took to calling me “Jimmy the Yard King.”

It was my first real job.

I also had my first real crush that summer on a cute girl from Luther League named Ginny Silkworth. Ginny had a great laugh and a solid right hook. When I asked her to go to the movies, she laughed and punched me sharply on the arm. We went to see Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at the Cinema on Tate Street near UNCG, an evening somewhat diminished by the fact that my father had to drive us to the theater and never stopped chatting with my date.

That summer was long and hot for America, one of the most tumultuous in the nation’s history. Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Bobby Kennedy were both gunned down by assassins that spring, and an unpopular war in Vietnam took an even ghastlier turn. Race riots erupted in Cleveland, Miami and Chicago.

But it was also the summer that Ginny Silkworth and I went to see The Graduate, the Beatles released “Hey Jude,” and I snagged a second job teaching guitar to kids and senior citizens at Mr. Weinstein’s music store. Between mowing and teaching, my pockets overflowed. I started saving money to buy my first car.

Something about the orderliness and smell of fresh-cut grass and the satisfaction of a job well done permeated my teenage brain and grounded me in a way that made my narrow world seem oddly immune from all the bad news on TV.

It was the first and last great year of Jimmy the Yard King, though its impact was lasting.

Perhaps this explains why, when my wife and I built a post-and-beam house on a high forested hill near the coast of Maine — my first home ever — I created a large garden that featured more than half an acre of beautiful Kentucky bluegrass and fescues.

By then I’d graduated to a serious deluxe John Deere lawn tractor that gave me more than a decade of mowing bliss. A sad parting came, however, when we packed up to move home to North Carolina and discovered there was no room in the moving van for my dear old John Deere.

I seriously considered driving my Deere all the way to Carolina, but finally gave up and sold it to our snowplowing guy for a song. I still have dreams about it.

Today, back in the old neighborhood where I started, I own a modest suburban patch of grass I can mow with my Honda self-propelled mower in less than 18 minutes.

It’s a fine mower, but nothing compared to Gene Horseman’s marvelous Lawn-Boy. Professional lawn crews now roam our streets like packs of Mad Max mowers, offering to relieve me of my turf obligations for 75 bucks a pop, roughly what it once took me a full week to earn cutting grass. They seem offended by an old guy who loves to mow his own yard.

Sometimes, when I’m cutting grass, I think about that faraway summer and Ginny Silkworth, my laughing first date. We stayed in touch for four decades. Ginny became a beloved teacher in Philadelphia and passed away a few years ago. I miss her laugh, if not her punch.

Maybe the smell of fresh-cut summer grass does that. Whatever it is, if only for 18 minutes once a week, Jimmy The Yard King is back in business.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.