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Hats and T-Shirts… Last Night I Lost an Idol

Needless to say, there is plenty of material for me to share with you at this moment.  On May 26, 2020, at 12:06 a.m. one of my idols passed away.  At this moment, it is overwhelming to think about just one part of this man’s life to write about and I need to write something.  As some of you may already be aware from previous posts, I like hats and t-shirts, they are a way for me to tell the story of my journey in a more focused way, in more bite-sized pieces.  T-shirts are just one of the many things my father-in-law, Greg Hume and I had in common.  When I met Greg for the first time, I was floored.  I never imagined I would have a father-in-law like Greg.  He had a ponytail and rarely shaved.  Where I come from, the men in my family shaved every day and sat for a haircut at least every month if not every two weeks.  During the first weeks and months of Kimley and my courtship, I discovered as many things as were different in the way Greg and I operated, one thing was clear… we both loved to wear tee shirts.  Though not any old tee shirt.  Greg’s tee shirts held a similar place in his modus operandi, as the threadbare collection I have built over the years.  

Those of you that are divorced and share custody of their kids will understand every other holiday can be a difficult time to live through. That is to say, the reality is, every other Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, 4th of July, or other major holidays, my daughters are with their mom, and Kimley and I are “alone.”  A healthy perspective has helped get me through these tough times.   When wifey and I had the opportunity to spend our first Thanksgiving “alone together” without our daughters, I wanted to use that time to build our foundation for life going forward.  Sharing honestly and being vulnerable are the two most powerful ways I know of to build a strong foundation with the ones I love.  Having FUN is also key to a strong foundation.  Going to Alabama for Thanksgiving with friends and the Alabama/Auburn Iron Bowl game struck me as the perfect adventure for “curing what ails us.”

Along with the ponytail and stubble filled face, Greg held a set of political and world views that I understood and accepted myself but again were totally foreign to the manner in which I was raised.  The fact of the matter was, Greg grew up in a very similar fashion to myself.  Greg was raised an East Coast WASP and I am from the Midwest.  I can tell you that the foundation of WASP culture is the same from coast to coast… always look for the similarities, not the differences. 

The day after Thanksgiving, wifey and I decided to tour Birmingham and the historic civil rights sites that pepper the city to this day.  The years that made up the decades of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s were incredibly difficult times to live through in the American South.  Alabama is still known commonly as “The Heart of Dixie.”  As sweet and syrupy as this may sound, it is a weak thread to the darker days of history the South has embraced.  From Bull Conor to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the mid-century was a time of incredible chaos for Birmingham and the Deep South overall.  Today, across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  If we were going to tour significant civil rights sites in the Magic City, it was clear that this was the place to start.  We spent several hours walking and listening to the dark stories from these days in our nation’s history.  There was not much said between wifey and me during this time.  It was clear to us the lessons we were learning demanded a higher level of reverence than say the Smithsonian in Washington… four girls were killed on the steps of the church across the street.  This fact alone created the sacred ground we were occupying at that moment.  We could feel it and it made wifey and me closer.  We shared tears for those four girls and we knew that we shared an empathic capacity unique and unfelt priorly by either of us.  I was immediately grateful for this “brick” we were laying in the foundation of our new loving relationship.  

“In 2016 one of my idols and I got to go to The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival together.”

While we were walking and absorbing all there was to offer at the moment, we also talked about how much Greg would enjoy the experience of visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  We laughed at the dark humor surrounding the fact that we were at the BCRI on “Black Friday.”  Having realized this, we decided that it was only appropriate to do some Christmas shopping in addition to the other activities we planned for the day.  When we got to the gift shop, I knew right away Greg was going to love it if we bought him a tee-shirt from the Institute.  When we made it to the checkout counter, I proclaimed to the clerk “… now, this is what I call “Black Friday” shopping.”  I tell this part of the story because it was also a moment of learning about each other for wifey and myself.  At that moment I remember vividly how wifey’s energy became momentarily uncomfortable until the clerk gave his laugh as an approving signal he was ok with our “off-color” joke… see, there it is again, I can’t help it!  Knowing what I know now about how we both grew up, this feeling of uncomfortableness for Kimley was nothing new.  Greg and his dad, Stephen, had peppered Kimley’s past life with countless uncomfortable moments with waiters, airport gate agents, and other service providers, very similar to my grandfather, father and now I was pulling the same shit.  Hey, a lifetime of exposure to these kinds of actions will breed another generation of entitlement.  I am trying to break that sense of entitlement in my own family.  Hey, I will never have a level of humility that is satisfactory for myself and really isn’t that the only thing I need to be worried about, my own actions.  As we walked out, I recognized Kimley’s emotional shift and we laughed about the times our own fathers and grandfathers would say horrible things that made everyone around them uncomfortable.  We also discussed that gratitude we had for having an open mind enough to see things differently and at the same time not have judgment or resentment for those that raised us.  We all truly do the best we can and are a product of our times.  It is becoming clear to me that my daughters have a much different view of what freedom means than what it means to wifey or myself.  I can only imagine what horrible things Bull Connor’s father and grandfather said around him about being black and what that meant… not that long ago, I warn you.

When we gave Greg the tee-shirt, he was excited to get such a unique gift, a gift that would broadcast to passersby what kind of things Greg did with his mind and time, what was important to him.  It broadcast, “these are my principles.”  This was a very comforting moment for me.  I was receiving a gift as well. I can see this now with the proper perspective.  My own dad was not willing to see things with an open mind most of the time.  All I am going to say in this essay, is about Greg,  is that I loved my dad more than words can express and he helped make me the beautiful man I am today.  Candidly, I struggle with how to present my dad in a proper light.  That is many times the case with dad’s that have “big engines.”  There will be more about my own dad in future essays for sure, how could there not be?  What I was receiving at that moment was the gift of being able to share and learn from a man in the older generation of my own family about the things that mattered to my soul.  With my dad and grandfather, I was always trying to convince them my beliefs were valid. Ninety percent of the time, I was brushed aside and told “you will see things differently when you’re older, kid.”  I now was able to look forward to Sunday visits with my in-laws instead of dreading the volatility that would manifest as a result of dad and I disagreeing on any number of subject matters.  Add a bunch of booze consumed by both of us and it was no surprise my twenties were a period of struggle for my dad and me.

This t-shirt gift to Greg meant the world to me.  It is possible it has meant more to me over the years than it ever meant to Greg, who knows?  I know he liked the gift and I saw him wear it many times over the years.  To me, however, when I saw him wearing this now holey garment, it made me think about not only our first Thanksgiving “alone together,” but also how Greg and I were able to bond in ways nobody else would understand.  Greg and I shared some of these secrets with each other and others we kept to ourselves, only to be shared through close observation by someone with the same kind of family foundation.

“Greg loved nothing more than silly time with his grandkids.”

Over the years my dad shared with me his thoughts on lots of stuff, that’s what dads do.  As their progeny, we should have the freedom to take what we want and leave the rest.  My dad also helped bless me with an amazing sense of humor.  Whenever dad encountered a Ph.D., he would make some wisecrack about how they all want you to know they are a DOCTOR but actually it is just a sign that what they do indeed know was just “Piled Higher and Deeper… like bullshit on a full feed lot.” I liked to tease Greg he was one of these types… he wasn’t.  So now that Greg has moved on to the next phase of his cosmic journey, I am left with the memories we shared together as two men trying to protect our families and souls from a world that wants to tear them apart.  Neither Greg nor myself put much value on material possessions.  Now that his stuff is up for grabs amongst the family, I am only laying claim to only two items.  His Ph.D. graduation certificate from Illinois Institute of Technology and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute t-shirt wifey and I gave him for Christmas 11 years ago. That should do it.