Sometimes when you work for the Lord you have to go very fast.

Sometimes When You Work for the Lord …

My first trip to Russia–or as we said, then, into the former Soviet Union–introduced me to Pastor Nikolai. I learned many lessons from him; stories for another time, perhaps.

In those years immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, the only cars you saw on Russian roads were these ugly, earth-toned, power-deprived, squared-off, clown-car-sized Russian vehicles called Ladas. Nikolai drove a sleek, starburst-blue, Mitsubishi sports car outfitted with chrome wheels, raised-white-lettered tires, with a fin on the back.

I asked why he didn’t drive a Lada like everyone else.

“Sometimes Darin, when you work for the Lord, you have to go very fast.”

True that.

Did'ya blow?

First, Last & Lasting

Q: My first encounter with death?

A: “Did you hear Shooter’s dad blew his brains out?”

Christmas break from school. I was playing in the backyard, listening to a Captain & Tennille cassette tape on my tape recorder—both Christmas gifts from Santa, the year Santa dropped the ball. Mom called me in. I can’t recall exactly what she said, I just remember the news: Matthew’s dad died. He hadn’t come home from work. They found him at his office. She said something about how I should act the next time I saw Matthew.

But I saw Greg Griffin first. “Did you hear Shooter’s dad blew his brains out?”

At 8-years-old, neither of us caught any irony in that sentence. Matthew was Shooter because his last name rhymed with marble, and his size … well, Matthew was a big marble. Like a shooter. And if you’ve never played marbles and have no idea what I’m talking about … What the hell kind of childhood did you have?

“Found him dead in his car underneath the CNA building,” he continued. All us kids knew the CNA building—a downtown landmark we’d all seen out the car window from the highway. 

I can see why Mom disliked Greg. I’m sure this wasn’t the time or occasion Mom had envisioned to have to speak to her child about grown-up topics like depression and suicide. Again, I don’t recall the specifics—he was very sad; no one knew; sometimes when people are this sad they aren’t thinking clearly, and …

Mom told me, years later, her real fear was not having to explain it to me, but Matthew learning the circumstances of his father’s death like I did—Matthew’s mother hadn’t told the kids. Mom called her. 

It was a while before he came back to school. And it felt really strange. Kids were staring at him. I was staring at him—this was the first time anyone I knew, lost someone; the first suicide I’d ever heard about. First thing that wasn’t stable in my world. Things went from bad to worse; with Greg, they often did—

“Your dad is in hell, now, you know.” The certainty with which he said it … Shooter punched Greg in the mouth. No exaggeration, the kid’s lip ballooned before the he hit the floor. And the SMACK! Ms. Eames heard it and came running.

Word got around the neighborhood parents. Of course, I was forbidden from seeing Greg. This time did feel a little different—like he’d really stepped in it. Usually a few days would pass and Mom would relax the restriction. Had the feeling this one wouldn’t blow over any time soon. Now she had to have a talk with her 8-year-old son about hell. She assured me: Greg is wrong! Bad people go to hell; Matthew’s dad wasn’t bad; he was sad. 

Matthew moved away not long after that. Not far. I remember at least one play-date Mom arranged. They had a condo with a community pool. We swam. Drank lemonade. Didn’t talk at all about his dad. That was the last time I ever saw Matthew.

But to this day, every time I drive through Orlando, I glance over where the old CNA building used to stand.

I'm so happy to be here!

The Prophet Peter

“I’ll grow into my overbite. You won’t outgrow stupid.” 

It was something! I reckoned, once, that Peter could fit his entire fist into his overbite. I didn’t say it, of course. I felt bad for him. Kids say things, you know? Harsh things. 

And it got much worse the day Peter became a walking dark-age orthodontic experiment.  

He walked into Mrs. Eames’ second grade class wearing this medieval-torture looking device. No kidding, like something Jigsaw might have employed in Saw. Bands, belts and bolts, it was a stream-of-drool-inducing, lightening-strike-inviting, leather and metallic contraption, affixed to his skull. I do mean affixed; with screws or something. He tried to explain it to us. He was hard to understand. (Pinch your tongue with your fingers and try to talk—that’s sort of what he sounded like … but a lot wetter.) 

Something about the top part was pulling his face back, and the lower half was moving his chin forward. I’m no engineer, but that was definitely the direction things needed to go. 

He had to wear this thing 24/7 for the first few weeks. Then, good news! He’d only have to wear it during the day after that … or in other words, when he was around all the other kidswho say mean things. And they did. Greg, worst of all.

Greg took it as a challenge to come up with new cut-down monikers every day. They spread through our elementary school like a runny nose. Kids who didn’t even know his real name called Peter Tin-grin, Zipper-lips, Train-tracks, and Cheese-grater. During the holiday season—Christmas for us, but not for Peter because Santa didn’t like Jews—Tinsel Teeth was wildly popular.

What Peter lacked in jowl-alignment was more than compensated in his thick-skin and quick-wit. He’d laugh himself, and fire back disarming humor. And never with an ounce of malice; never a hint that any of this teasing nicked him—

Until the day the apparatus was gone. I don’t remember what Greg said, something like, ‘Doesn’t look like it worked’ … because, well, it didn’t. This jest cut, I could tell. Peter turned to face Greg, looked him in the eye, and said, “I’ll grow into my overbite. You won’t outgrow stupid.” 

Peter was a prophet. 

I'm so happy to be here!

We Had Your Grandpa’s Back

I was nineteen. Youngest member of our church softball team. Since I’m writing the story, I’ll just get this out of the way: I was a great ball player. (Do know that anyone who remembers that differently today is of a very advanced age, so …)

Our church team became a healing ministry. We were a battered congregation. Our pastor, our pitcher (and the man who would go on to become your Grandpa H), was going through a very difficult season in his life. A particularly pious little fellow named James had undertaken a campaign to have him removed from ministry. 

Your Grandma Shaw was an elder in the church at that time, doing exactly what you’d imagine Grandma Shaw doing as an elder—planning parties! 

I was in another part of the house one day when I heard her shout, “THAT LITTLE SHIT!” I won’t lie, I took a quick inventory—What the heck did I do?

I found at the kitchen table, letter in hand. Shaking. She was furious. 

Let me break her outburst down: 

THAT—this dude, James, just earned himself a definite article; a specific designation in Grandma’s eyes. Whatever he’d done, he’d really stepped in it.

LITTLE—James was vertically challenged. Significantly. With an acute case of Napoleon Complex

SHIT—Grandma didn’t often use words like shit. Your Grandpa Shaw, on the other hand, he was doubly gifted … in profanity and sagacity. He had a deep well of shit-infused smarts to pull from; things like, “You can paint a pile of shit any color you want, it’s still gonna stink!” See what I mean? Profanity and wisdom. When Grandma got really angry, she’d channel him.

THAT LITTLE SHIT (hereafter TLS) was Grandma’s take on James … and his letter.

The specifics are water under the bridge all these years later. But know that Grandma Shaw took this letter as her heart’s call to stand strongly with Grandpa H. As an elder in the church, she did just that. 

A side note: Recently, we came across letters, cards and notes from this period of time, including Grandma’s handwritten Bible study notes on how Jesus called us to love, and not judge others. There is also a handwritten card from Grandpa H. to Grandma Shaw, thanking her for her support. What a treasure trove!

Recognizing that many were hurting, she focused on healing—Phyllis’ way. Hoe-Downs, Oktoberfests, Variety Shows, Bazaars— Hell yes! You wanted to go to the church where your Grandma was an elder! 

Back to our softball team and its healing ministry—

TLS/James led an exodus that included a handful of families. Friday nights offered those who remained a little respite of family fun; men on the field, wives and kids in the stands, laughter and church family fun. 

Then came news that TLS was pitching for another church-league team … and we were scheduled to meet them on the field. Hehe.

We took the field; Grandpa H took the mound. Sarcasm and snarky comments streamed out of their dugout. I was way out in right field, and I could hear it. 

Dave was our second-baseman. An undercover drug enforcement agent, a day at the office for him meant cozying up to killers, infiltrating drug trafficking rings. Every day was life-or-death. He was bat-shit crazy. 

I knew something was gonna break loose. TLS was running his mouth. Dave was glaring into their dugout. Grandpa H, for his part, went on as if he wasn’t hearing a thing. Pitch. Pitch. Pitch. 

TLS stepped up to the plate. First pitch, he lined the ball through the hole and into left field. He rounded first, stumps-a-grinding, determined to stretch it into a double. Eyes on the ball in play, he never saw it coming— 

Dave threw a leg out and cleaned TLS’s feet right out from under him. What a sight! Ass-over-tea-kettle, your Grandpa Shaw would’ve said. A colossal belly flop, a mushroom cloud of dust, and a magnificent divot 10 feet short of second base—both dugouts emptied, like a real big-league rhubarb! 

TLS popped up … mouth first. His life flashed before my eyes. The umpire got in the middle of the scrum and called off the game, declaring it a forfeit … for both teams. 

The ritual after our games was to assemble at a local sports pub for … fellowship. Good Presbyterians, that meant platters of wings and buckets of beer! We’d just settled in when someone said TLS and his team pulled in. A voice of reason reasoned, “Let’s be calm. They are our brothers in Christ.” Dave hollered back as he headed for the door, “Yeah, I’m just gonna go lay hands on my brothers.”

I was nineteen, young and dumb. Let’s rumble! I mean … we had Dave.

We spilled out the door as TLS and his teammates were just getting out of their cars. Words were exchanged. Enough talk, Dave stepped off the curb, pulled off his t-shirt, and shouted something along the lines of ‘Who’s first?’ Car doors. Headlights. Taillights. GONE.

We went back to our beer. With our pastor, our pitcher … and your Grandpa.  

Jump up, Bub!


Generational gap between my generation and my kids’ generation summed up in one word: Napoleon.

My generation hears Napoleon, we think Bonaparte. Theirs thinks Dynamite. 

My generation hears the term Napoleon Complex, we start singing the old Randy Newman song, “Short people, got no reason …” Their generation pictures someone who is obsessed with ligers. 

If you’re of my generation, you just said, “What the hell is a liger?”

Many of my generation have no idea who Napoleon Dynamite is. What’s really sad? Many of my kids’ generation have no idea who Napoleon Bonaparte is.

I am a good dad. All four of my kids know both Napoleons.