It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like...Star Wars

The air outside is crisp. You can see your breath and the end of your nose is red and cold. The houses that you pass have Christmas trees in the windows. There are lights arranged all over the front lawns. The stores are all lit up and twinkling. The bell ringers are sitting in front of the shops collecting your spare change for charity.

But it’s not a Christmas party that we’re going to tonight.

I’m sitting in a restaurant with my wife and my daughter. It’s not a fancy place. “It’s not the Shangri-La,” as I’ve been known to say in description of any place that doesn’t require a jacket and tie. No, this is just a hamburger joint.

We’re sitting in a booth enjoying big, fat cheeseburgers, shoestring fries, and ice cream sundaes. There is electricity in the air. There is a smile on my face. This is a special day.

At the table next to us there are two men about my age. They’re having a casual conversation about their work and if you just listened to the words you’d think they were in business attire. But both of them are wearing t-shirts that have cartoonish pictures of robots…or droids, as they prefer to be called.

The front door opens and a gust of cold air sweeps through the room as a bunch of teenage boys come inside. All of them are wearing shirts sporting more droids, x-wings, and a certain villainous character garbed all in black. One of them is wearing a fur-covered body suit with a sash across the front.

This is Star Wars day.

I turn into a little kid when it’s time for a new Star Wars movie. A lot of us do. It’s not our fault. It’s just a part of who we are. Star Wars was a very big part of my teenage years. I was late to the game watching it but once I did I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough of it.

There’s something about those movies that triggers my imagination more than a lot of the other things that I like. It’s not true science fiction like Star Trek, my other favorite fandom. It’s much more of a fantasy story than that. True, there are spaceships and aliens and all of that. But at the end of the day it’s a movie full of magic, wizards, and sword fights.

Star Wars is a fairy tale…and it’s my favorite one.

I can remember the first time that I saw each film. I remember my favorite viewing of each of the films. I remember seeing the remastered edition of the original trilogy when they re-released them in theaters. I remember lying on a sofa and watching A New Hope while my infant sister slept on my chest. I remember watching The Phantom Menace in 3D with my son. I remember seeing Rogue One with my daughter.

And last night I remember feeling that excitement again as we prepared to revisit that world again.
The previews subside…the theater grows quiet…and that famous sentence fills the screen…

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

And then the speakers explode with John Williams’ magnificent and instantly recognizable fanfare. I’m 12 years old all over again. The screen is covered in X-wings and TIE fighters. I’m hearing the same laser blasts and light-sabers bouncing off one another that I did back then. And my eyes are filled with the faces of old friends.

Look! There’s Chewie!

There’s Luke!

Ah…There’s Leia…

Princess Leia. Carrie Fisher will truly be missed.

And that’s all that I really have to say.  I saw The Last Jedi. I loved it. But I’m not going to do a full review here because my review would not be objective enough for you to really gauge the quality of the film. I’m too in love with that universe. They could drop a steaming pile of garbage in front of me and if Mark Hamill was standing on top of it with a light saber I’d give it two thumbs up.

Star Wars is a big part of my life. And judging by the amount of people that I saw last night, I’m not alone. This thing is just as huge now as ever and it won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Star Wars taught me that there is good in every person, no matter how bad they seem to be. It taught me that every person has the potential to be something great regardless of where they come from. And it taught me that no matter what you have done in your life there will always been time for you to redeem yourself.

Pretty good for a movie full of magic and laser swords.

May the Force be with you.

The Big Boy

As I was driving in work the night shift this evening I saw something that I haven’t seen in a very long time.

I had just pulled off I 20/59 where it runs through downtown Birmingham and just before it gets to the dreaded “Malfunction Junction”. Anyone from Birmingham knows what I’m talking about. I pulled down to 17th street and stopped at a red light, waiting to turn. Across the street there was a construction site and a huge crane that stretched a hundred or so feet into the sky. On top of that crane was a platform that had a couple of big, heavy duty metal containers on it…the kind that would be loaded onto a flat car for a train. He was standing on top of that.

The Big Boy.

You know who the Big Boy is. He’s the smiling mascot for a giant hamburger that has been passed around to various restaurant chains for decades. He’s probably most recognizable if you’ve seen the Austin Powers movies. Dr. Evil used him has a spaceship.

As I sat there in my car and looked up at him, smiling with a gigantic Santa cap waving in the cold wind, I smiled. He has been the subject of a lot of laughing in my family over the years.
When I was a little kid I was absolutely terrified of the Big Boy.

The story all stems from something that happened to me when I was about three or four years old. This would have been circa 1980 or 81. We were living in Columbus, Mississippi at the time. My dad was in the Air Force and my brother was a baby.

I can only remember two things about living in Columbus. One was that there was an orange replica of the Statue of Liberty in the middle of town. The other was that we went to a church where the pastor didn’t care for children very much.

At least, he didn’t care for me.

It might have had something to do with the handful of times that his services were interrupted by things that I did. Like the time I got stuck crawling through the opening in the back of a rocking chair in the nursery and the attendant had to go get my dad out of church to come free me.

That’s another story.

We had what is commonly referred to as “children’s church” on Sunday nights. This was when all the children would go down to the basement of the church and have a separate service. We would sing, play some games, hear a Bible story, and possibly get a snack. It allowed the adults to pay attention to the pastor without interruption and it kept us from being incredibly bored by “big church”.

One night the pastor announced that there would be a special guest for children’s church. The big doors in the back of the room opened and a monster walked inside.

He had feet nearly as big as my entire body. He was wearing a pair of red and white checkered overalls. And is head…

His head was not from this world.

He had hair as black as sin. His mouth was frozen in a grin that looked like he was happy about the absolute horror that was shooting like ice through my veins. His huge, round, eyes devoid of any semblance of a soul pierced my heart like a red-hot dagger.

The Big Boy was the stuff of nightmares…and he was grinning at me.

I screamed.

When I tell you that I screamed I don’t mean that I let out a little yelp and then cried like little kids tend to when they’re being shy. I mean that I let out a yell that would make a banshee get goose bumps on the back of her neck.

I made the Wray name proud that day. My ancestor, Faye, was one of the screaming greats.
The church was full of laughing, smiling children and parents looking on with joy. And there was one little boy that was screaming like someone had just set his shoelaces on fire and he was trying to put them out with a bucket of ants.

My dad picked me up as quick as he could and ran out of the sanctuary as the Big Boy led the rest of the children down to the church basement to have a party. I got a lot calmer once I was out of the room. My parents explained to me that the Big Boy was just a costume and that there was a very nice man inside. He went to our church and I saw him all the time. Wouldn’t I like to go to children’s church and have fun with all the other boys and girls?

I said that I would and they took me down stairs. I could hear all the other kids laughing and playing and singing. I felt better. This was going to be fun.

My dad opened the door to the room they were in. I saw all the other kids. I took a few steps inside and looked to my left.

The demon was staring at me.

I screamed.

This time they heard it in China.

The Big Boy came out into the hall with my parents. He reached up and grabbed hold of his own head. He decapitated himself right in front of me.

That didn’t make the screaming stop.

When he removed his head, I saw a man that I knew inside the shell of the Big Boy’s body. He was smiling. He told me it was okay. He wasn’t going to hurt me.

“Do you want to come inside?” he asked.

“Will you leave the head off?” I replied.

“No,” he said. “I can’t do that.”

“Then no,” I said. He put the head back on. I screamed. We went home.

After that day, I was teased whenever we saw a picture of the Big Boy. Then my parents told the story to my wife and kids. The teasing continues.

It’s okay. It’s a pretty funny story.

The White Thing

In the Himalayans they have the Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman. In the mid-western United States they have the Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot. Down south of the border they have El Chupacabra.  And up north there are tales of the Jersey Devil. The world is full of monsters, even though you never see them. You hear the stories of the people that say that they have. And while it’s easy to write them off as the ramblings of a crazy person there is always a part of you that believes it and is a little bit frightened by it.

All over the world there are different versions of the same tale. In the south we have a monster, too. It’s called the White Thing.

You can ask people that live in the country portions of central Alabama if they’ve ever heard of the White Thing. Most of them will tell you “yes”. It’s a story that we’ve all been told. It’s an easy way to scare children around a campfire and a villainous way to get them to go to sleep at night or to be home before dark.

Legend says that deep in the woods of Jefferson and Shelby Counties, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, there is a creature that is at least seven feet tall. It is covered with thick,  white fur. It can walk on its back legs like a man or move like lightening when it gets on all fours. The noise that it makes when it screeches sounds like a woman’s scream. Most people say that they can hear it screaming at night and that it sounds a lot like a panther.

The White Thing can run like a cheetah, jump ten feet in the air from a flat-footed stance, and rub its belly and pat its head at the same time.

Everybody and their brother has a story to tell about it. Some people just claim that they hear it all the time. Some will tell you that they’ve seen it running like a blur through the woods. Others will say that they saw it take their dog or their cat. Then the stories get a little more elaborate.

One woman says that the White Thing chased her as she was walking home from a relative’s house. She took a shortcut through the woods and it started to follow her. She ran and it ran, too. She started taking off clothes to throw at the beast in an effort to slow him down. By the time she made in into her house she was almost naked and she heard a body slam against the door behind her.
Let me just go on record as saying that I don’t believe that particular one.

Then there is the story of George Norris who went out in to the town graveyard and sat down next to a tree. He fell asleep. When he woke up the White Thing was lying on the ground next to him. He said that it looked like a cross between a dog and a lion and that it just looked at him and never attempted to hurt him.

Old George was probably one to take a drink every now and then.

Then there is the story of my own brush with the White Thing. It was when I was still living at home over on good old McBrayer Drive in Vincent. My cousin, Mike and my friend, Tommy were spending the night at my house. We had decided to go for a walk late one evening and it started to get dark before we got home. We cut through the woods to get to my house. The whole time we were walking we kept hearing something walking quickly behind us. When we stopped it would stop. Then it would start again when we did. This got us moving quicker and we finally got back in one piece.
Then, Mike and Tommy had the brilliant idea to go back in and see what they could find out. I told them that they shouldn’t. They told me I was being a baby. I stayed behind while they went on an adventure. They came back thirty minutes later. They looked like they had seen a ghost.
…Or a White Thing.

They had seen it. It was everything that we had heard about. It was huge…like ten feet tall! It had white fur covering every inch of its body. It’s face was concealed in the dark. They watched it walk over to Mrs. Harlow’s back fence and jump over it like it was jumping over a tiny hurdle. They heard the Harlows’ dog barking away and then heard that bark cut off suddenly.

It was true! All of it! And it had been following us through the woods? It was right on our tail? It could have gotten us?

We were all lucky to be alive…

And then I figured out that Mike had made the whole thing up and the thing following us in the woods was my dog.

Good times.

Cocktails anyone?

Let me tell you about the first time that I ever got drunk.

The first time that I got drunk is also the only time that I’ve ever been drunk. People that know me well know that I don’t drink. I’ve been known to have beer on occasion but I never drink more than one. Hard alcohol is not something that I generally partake in either.

This isn’t because of some moral thing. I have no feelings at all about people that drink. There is nothing wrong with it if you don’t let it control you. I’ve just never developed much of a taste for alcohol. Usually in social gatherings I’m the guy that’s drinking a Diet Coke.

But I have been intoxicated at least one time in my life and it was the most terrifying experience of my childhood.

Yes…I said childhood. I was eight years old.

I was sick one evening. I was running a small fever and I was coughing a good bit. So, my parents decided that to make sure I got a good night’s sleep they would give me an adult dose of Nyquil. I don’t know what that green liquid has in it these days…but in the 80s it was almost pure alcohol. That was the way the stuff got you to sleep. It gave you a buzz. You could get the same effect by pouring yourself a finger of Jim Beam.

So, my dad poured me a shot. I didn’t have a lime wedge or anything to chase it with, but he and my mom were confident that it would do the trick.

There are two kinds of drunks in this world. There are those that can drink a little bit and get a warm, calm feeling that wraps around them and relaxes them into a nice long sleep. Then there are those people that become screaming maniacs. Apparently, I belong in that second category.

I climbed the ladder to my bunk and pulled the covers up to get some sleep. My cough had eased so some part of that medication was taking hold. It was the other part that took a bit longer.
Young boys have peculiar thoughts as they lay in bed at night. As the rest of my family drifted off to sleep, I stared at the ceiling. Images of my future swam through my head. I had a long, bright road ahead of me as I worked toward my dream of being a bestselling author, highly-paid actor, and part-time astronaut.

When that shot of Fireball kicked in it did so with the force of a roundhouse kick from Chuck Norris.
We lived in a mobile home. Southerners usually refer to them as “trailers”. My bedroom wall was made of panels of fake wood that had a pattern printed on it that was meant to look like that grain of a piece of cut lumber. As I looked at the wall that night all those patterns began to move. They turned into squiggly lines that swam along every wall in the room. The entire area was moving and I felt as if I was caught in a tornado.

I closed my eyes tightly and pressed my hands to my face. Instead of darkness I saw nothing but red and the images that I had seen on my wall filled my vision. I pulled my hands away and looked at them. To my amazement I saw that I was spinning some sort of thread between them. A string was connecting my hands together and forming an intricate web between my fingers.

But all that pales in comparison to the visitor that I received that night. My entire room filled with light and a ball of fire shot down out of my ceiling and landed loudly on my bedroom floor. It took the form of a man made completely out of flames. He just stood there and looked at me for a few seconds. I was paralyzed with fear. My brother was sleeping soundly below me, oblivious to the danger that I was perceiving.

The man vanished and my over taxed brain finally had all it could take and I passed out from a combination of exhaustion and having a snoot full.

The next morning, I told my mom and dad the story of the things that I had seen the night before. My mom took my temperature and determined that it was normal and that there was no reason to not go to school.

Of course, I was never given Nyquil again. I’m not sure if that’s why the fire monster never paid me another visit…

A Good Girl

Let me tell you about a good girl.

The year was 2003 and it was Christmas Eve. I was doing something that I had never done before and as far as I can remember I haven’t done since. I was putting on a red and white suit, a big ol’ floppy red hat, and a fake white beard. I was about to go into the living room and pretend to be Santa for my kids. Santa was going to show up, laugh a little, give the kids a hug, and give them a very special gift.
I was looking at that gift as I put the hat on my head. A little brown Labrador retriever that was only about two months old was looking back at me with her head cocked to one side with a question in her eyes.

“Why are you putting that on your face?” she seemed to be thinking.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked. She just looked at me. Of course I was the one talking to a puppy like she was going to reply so there is that.

I picked her up and put her in a box that had already been gift wrapped. I patted her on the head and told her not to be scared. She’d only be in there for a minute. A few seconds later Santa had delivered the present and the lid was removed. Suddenly this little pup was receiving more love than she had ever known in her short life. Certainly more that she had received in the pound that my wife and I had rescued her from. That kennel had been a loud and cold place where she had caught a cold so bad that she probably would not have survived if we had not came along and adopted her.

I nursed her back to health in secret. It was amazing that we had that dog for at least two weeks without the kids finding out. I gave her some medicine every day, made sure she was warm and well fed, and fell in love with her just a little myself.

But I didn’t name her. I left that job to my kids. They named her Reese because she was the color of peanut butter. And for those of you that don’t know, in the south its pronounced Reese-ee. Don’t get it wrong.

We had Reese for a long time. She grew up with the kids. She loved to run. If we turned her loose she would run laps around the yard until she collapsed. And she was so smart. She had a different temperament for each kid. With my son she would run and jump on him, nibble on him like she was ferociously attacking him, and then run away. My daughter was much smaller so she would chase her and when she caught up with her she would just run in circles around her until she got petted.

She was a good girl.

As the kids grew they became more invested in their own interests and didn’t have as much interest in playing in the yard with a dog. So, Reese became my dog. I came home from work and I petted her and scratched her belly. I made sure she was fed every day and that she had water. I treated her wounds after she wondered into the woods and got into a fight with god knows what.
She loved me. And I loved her very much.

I loved her even when she started getting old and fat. She had enough energy to make a round through the neighborhood and beg for scraps even though she was getting more than enough food at home. I tried to make her lose weight but she was getting the food from somewhere and I didn’t have the heart to chain her up. She was a country dog. Country dogs roam.

So she got fat and she got lazy. Her joints started to hurt and we had to put her on medicine for arthritis. The cold air was hard on her so she started sleeping inside when it got too cold out.
She had friends and she lost friends. My in-laws had a dog named Laney for several years. Laney and Reese hated each other but also loved each other very much. They competed over the attention of my kids and fought over food all the time. But they were also inseparable. Then Laney died and Reese grieved.

Then we had a cat named Keegan. This was the strangest animal story I’ve heard because from the time that Keegan came to live with us he absolutely hated Reese. Every time she would come into the room Keegan would hiss and spit and arch his back. Reese got clawed a few times before we realized that they were going to have to be kept separate at all times. Then one night in the dead of winter as Reese lay beside the fireplace Keegan walked over and nudged her a few times with a curious paw. Reese gave him a look that dared him to claw her one more gall darned time. Keegan didn’t. That night Keegan curled up beside her and went to sleep using her as a pillow.

A few months later Keegan got sick and had to be taken away…and Reese grieved.

A lot of jokes are made about people who say that their pets are a part of their family. Those jokes are usually told by people that don’t get it. And having a pet is not enough to know what that means. There are a lot of people who have dogs and cats for the wrong reasons. There are those that get a cat just to catch mice. There are those that get a dog just to stand watch or, God forbid, to fight in a ring. Those people don’t get it. They never will. Because you don’t just pick an animal. You have to pick an animal that also picks you.

Reese picked us.

One night I came home from work to find Reese laying in the floor of the living room and my family in tears. She had been gone for a day or so but we had figured she was off having one of her adventures that she tended to go on every now and then. My kids had found her a small distance from the house. She had hurt herself and she wasn’t moving on her own. They carried her to the house.
Bandit was a dog that we had gotten as a puppy only a year or so before. He was stiffing Reese and nudging her with his head. Dogs tend to know when something is truly wrong and they’ll let you know. Bandit was letting me know then.

I picked her up and took her to the car. I drove to the vet with my kids asking me if she was going to be okay and not knowing how to tell them that I didn’t know. A short time later a man in a white coat told me that she would never be okay again.

Reese went home with us that night...and we buried her when we got home.

I don’t live in that little trailer any more. It’s still there and in the back yard there is a wooden cross marking where she is buried. In my den I have a shelf covered in books, DVDs, toys, and pictures. On the corner of that shelf there is a small piece of clay. It is molded into the shape of a heart and has a paw print pressed into it. Above that print is one word…”Reese”.

It is one of the most valuable things that I own.

Merry Christmas, Reese.

Tales From The Bookstore

Books are in my blood.

I have read them. I have tried to write them. I love to collect them. The smell of a dusty old library is a scent that I wish I could bottle and take home with me. If they made a scented candle that made my house smell like books I would buy a lifetime supply.

I love to be around books. And even though I don’t read as much these days as I did in my youth, I still love the feel and the weight of a good book. I like to talk about them. I love to compare them to the movies they spawn. So, it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise when I graduated high school and I decided to get a job in a book store to help me work my way through college.

My idea of a bookstore when I was a kid was a lot different than what I ended up experiencing. When I was a child the closest thing that I had to a bookstore in my small town was the city library. So, on the rare occasion that I actually got to visit a real one at the mall was a special treat. They had so many more books than the library did. Not only that, they had a rack of magazines about any subject that you could think of. But, the bookstore was extremely small, tucked away in a back corner of the mall where it was missed by most of the shoppers that were there to visit GAP or Sears.

But in the 90s a store popped up in Birmingham called Books-A-Million…and it pretty well lived up to its name. I was in high school and driving by that point so I made many trips to that store. A lot of times I only went in to look around. I had a gaming habit at the time. I was playing Magic: The Gathering a lot so I loved that there was a place in driving distance where I could pick up new cards. I would find myself wandering around in that store for hours. I’d sit in the coffee shop that was called Chaucer’s Cup and read a magazine or I’d just marvel at how many novels based on Star Trek and Star Wars that there were to look at.

When I got a job there it became a dream come true for me. I spent all day around books. I helped people find the ones they were looking for. I stocked them. I ran them across the cash register. I really loved working in that store. And it had its perks. Of course I got an employee discount. I could also borrow books to read for myself. I could talk to coffee shop employees into giving me free cookies. It was great.

One of the biggest perks was meeting celebrities.

When you have a big box bookstore like Books-A-Million or Barnes and Noble you are able to get a lot of authors to come have a book signing. They usually go on tour and visit stores around the country where they meet fans and sign their books. These can be really small signings with local authors who may only have a handful of visitors the whole time they’re there. Or they could be huge celebrities that write a book and have book signings so big that you have to give out tickets a few days ahead of time to keep the crowd from getting out of hand.

It was because of these book signings that I got to briefly have interactions with people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Brett Butler, Joan Collins, Charleton Heston and a few others. But the most memorable book signing that I was ever involved with was on the day that Dan Quayle visited our store.
Dan Quayle served the United States as our vice president during the original Bush administration in the late 80s to early 90s. He gained a huge reputation as not being a very smart man which I personally feel was not a fair assessment of him. If you have ever heard him in an interview you’ll know that he was and is a very smart man. He just had a few missteps in front of the cameras along the way and was attacked for it by the late night comedians of the day. When you’re in politics you deal with that from the opposite party that you belong to a lot. I know I’ve made enough Trump jokes to attest to that. But I met Mr. Quayle that day and he seemed very nice for the two seconds that I spoke to him.

One of the things that Quayle did while he was in office is infamous. He was moderating a spelling bee for an elementary school class. One of the children was given the word “Potato”. The child wrote the correct spelling on the chalkboard and Quayle said “I think you left a little something off the end”. The child, not wanting to correct the Vice President, went back to the board and added an “e” at the end.

How many of us have written a word like “Potato” and questioned whether we should end it with an “e”? Can you imagine if you made a mistake like that while the world was watching?

So, fast forward to Books-A-Million in Hoover, Alabama circa 1996. Dan Quayle is signing copies of a book about family values that he had written. There is a line that stretches from the front door of the mega-store to the rear wall where he is seated at a table in front of a banner with his picture on it that has been draped in front of the magazine racks. There are photographers snapping pictures for the newspaper. A reporter for the local TV station has just stepped up to ask him a few questions for her report. Employees are trying to keep the line moving as best as they can. There are secret service agents stationed at various points in the store as well as in the stock room. Hoover and Birmingham have some of their finest police officers on site to assist if they are needed.

And then there was that kid.

That kid is what I call him now since I never really knew his name. He was in the store every afternoon. His mom worked until around 5 pm ever day and I guess she didn’t trust him to stay at home alone. So, after school every day he would walk over to our store, buy a snack at the coffee shop, and then wonder aimlessly for two hours until him mom came to pick him up. He had never caused a problem so management didn’t really worry about the fact that they were becoming unpaid babysitters for this lady.

I do remember that I didn’t particularly like the guy. He just had this arrogant nature about him that I didn’t care for. He had a smirk on his face all the time that said “I’m better than you”. The look that I returned usually said “I have a job and your mommy won’t let you be alone”.

On the day of the signing, this kid was hanging out in the science fiction section of the store. That particular aisle was only separated from the signing area by one shelf. He was over there, pretending to look at books, but really giving Mr. Quayle a look and a weird smile. We all had our eyes on him. I didn’t think he was going to try to hurt anyone but even if he had there were so many secret service guys and policemen in the building that he wouldn’t have.

He wasn’t trying to hurt Dan Quayle. He wanted to embarrass him. Over the sound of the crowd and the clicking cameras came one teenage voice.

“So…How do you spell potato?’

You could hear a pin drop.

The kid high-tailed it for the front door. Secret service was right behind him and had a hand on his shoulder before he could get outside. I saw Mr. Quayle give a nod to a police officer and he took off in that direction as well. That kid was grabbed and sprawled over the hood of a police car. He was searched, handcuffed, and placed in the back of the car.

I can’t imagine the call his mom got that day at work.

Officer: “May I speak with (kid’s mom)?”

Kid’s Mom: “This is she.”

Officer: “I’m calling on behalf of the United States of America. You’re son is under arrest for being a huge jerk to the former Vice-President.”

Kid’s Mom: “Oh my god!”

Officer: “Yes, ma’am. He’s going to be put in a corner and made to think about what he’s done.”
I never saw that kid after that. I’m pretty sure that he was banned from ever coming in the store again.

There is a lesson here…don’t be a jerk.

Why You Should Get A Flu Shot

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