The 2020 Derby already ran

You think this year’s Kentucky Derby is four months late, but I believe the 2020 Derby was run a whole year early. Think about it: The 2019 edition of the world’s greatest event was a catastrophe—a holy horsey debacle.

Derby 145 was a wet one, with rain soaking the Churchill Downs track and crowd, as well as hundreds of backyard parties like mine across the state. We had all seen damp Derbies before, but no one had ever seen an outcome like this one. The betting favorite was Improbable, a name that set the tone for the Derby itself.

Maximum Security ran his usual race and set the pace from the start. As the field converged on him at the turn for home, though, he veered sharply from his path, which was two horse widths from the rail, into the four or five path. He made contact with War of Will, who was mounting a move that made his jockey say later, “I really thought I was going to win the Derby.”   

Me, too, as I had put Will in the top spot of many exacta and trifecta bets.

Instead, the bump from Maximum Security forced a domino of jostles, with several horses losing momentum. Max forged on, though, crossing under the wire in first place.

But the pilot aboard one of the jostled horses called foul and filed an objection with the stewards. After a looooong review, the stewards, for the first time in Derby history, took down the winner because of a foul. The new winner of the Kentucky Derby, with 65-to-1 odds, was Country House. He paid $132.40 for a $2 win ticket; a $2 exacta, with runner-up Code of Honor, paid just over $3,000; and a $2 trifecta paid an unimaginable $22,950.

The 2019 Kentucky Derby—with its awful weather, controversial disqualification, and nutty payout—was over. It was also a year early.

2020 would have gladly welcomed last year’s fiasco into its cluster f*ck collection. Instead, Derby 146 will be run on a perfect day on an ideal track … to an empty infield and grandstand.

We’ll be watching from home, though. Here in 2020, things can always be worse. We’ll be watching to see if the 2019 Derby was time-warp glitch … or a portent of what’s to come.

Wind walkers

“So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”     — John Lewis, civil rights leader and congressman, written shortly before his death on July 17.

We walked with the wind today.

Not that there was an actual breeze on this steamy summer day in Midway, Kentucky, but the fifty or more participants who walked in the Honoring Black Stories in Midway March were powered by wind energy that the late John Lewis spoke of.

WindWalk street

Walkers turned onto Stephens Street to visit the site of the Black school that was ransacked in 1868.

The march, in celebration of the resiliency of Midway’s Black residents, was organized by Milan Bush and other descendants of families whose school was ransacked by a mob of White men on July 31, 1868.

Starting at City Hall, our diverse group walked to the Stephens Street site of the long-gone school that was positioned on the corner of what’s now the Midway University soccer field.

Along the way, we stopped to hear from Joyce Thomas, an octogenarian who told us that while Black Lives Matter represents a worldwide movement, it also speaks for one person at a time.

WindWalk Joyce

Longtime Midway resident Joyce Thomas (at far left in white pants, spoke to participants in the Honoring Black Stories in Midway March.

“When you think about your genes and your family in Midway, think about me, too. This about us. See us for who we are,” she said.

Ms. Thomas said she doesn’t blame today’s White residents for the 1868 incident, nor for the decades that followed, when Black citizens weren’t accorded equal opportunities. Instead she asked us to take advantage of the change that is happening in America … and in Midway.

It helped me to hear that.

My relatives have been in Midway—or on surrounding farms—for something like 200 years, and while I don’t have evidence that they supported the Confederacy or mistreated people of color, neither do I know if my forebears spoke against slavery or the subsequent mistreatment of Black men and women.

I was eager to be there today, but Ms. Thomas told us that we need to do more than walk.

“You can put up a plaque and say the right words, but also … put it in your heart,” she said.

In my 62 years, I have walked for miles on Midway’s streets and sidewalks: on Halloween nights with my family, during growing-up days with my friends, and on moonlit evenings with a sweetheart.

But today I walked with purpose in my heart. I walked in the spirit of peace—as John Lewis implored—with my sisters and brothers.

For today in Midway, we walked with the wind.

Photos: Grayson Vandegrift

True Blue in Midway

Midway won the battle for the Blue Jays.

On July 20, the Toronto Blue Jays were looking for a place to land during the COVID-shortened Major League Baseball season, due to the fact that Canada’s border is closed to U.S. travelers, including visiting teams. Their first home game was slated for July 29.

I invited them to consider playing in Midway, Kentucky. Their answer was a polite no.Rouse hat trio2

Although the Jays won’t play their home games in my old Kentucky hometown, I don’t consider my invitation for them to occupy the new ball field at Midway University to be a failed effort.

If you missed the news that week, I should fill you in.

It’s important to know that I was a Blue Jay before the Toronto team was hatched. I grew up in Midway, a Central Kentucky town with a population of 1,800, and I attended elementary school in a beautiful old building that had, through 1964, been Midway High School. The school’s claim to fame was winning the Kentucky boys basketball championship in 1937.

While I wore the Blue Jays jersey with pride on the basketball court (but without talent—even for a writer, I was a pretty bad athlete), there was always something a little apologetic about being a Blue Jay. In my mind, having a bird as a school mascot—in the midst of lions and tigers and bears—was not exactly a ferocious statement.

But in 1977, along came the expansion MLB team in Toronto that took the field as the Blue Jays. They legitimized the name. Blue Jays were heroic after all!

Ever since, I’ve been a fan. I follow the team every year, and I watch them on TV whenever I’m in Canada or when they make a rare appearance on U.S. television. I have always owned a Blue Jays ball cap (though my original hat is long gone), and during the three zillion baseball games I went to as my two boys progressed through youth, high school, and—one of them—college ball, I often wore a Toronto topper. When questioned, I would always bore the asker with my Blue Jays background.

But then things got exciting this summer. When I read that the Toronto club was looking for a place to play home games in the nutso year of 2020, I emailed several of the Jays’ front-office staff with a simple proposal: Come to my Kentucky hometown and play ball.

It was a lark, of course. Midway has fantastic restaurants and is surrounded by gorgeousMidway -- Railroad Street horse farms and aromatic bourbon distilleries … but we have no hotels. The new ball field on the university’s campus doesn’t have a clubhouse that’s up to major league standards—and by that I mean there’s no clubhouse at all.

I was honest about all of these things when I stepped to the plate and sent my email. Among the additional (and ridiculous) pros and cons I supplied was a strong pro: I promised that my wife would make a big batch of blondies for the team and its execs.

I expected to receive a short email in response, a hardy-har-har note to appease the village idiot. But I got more than that. A few hours after my email took flight, the team’s director of fan services, Christine Robertson, called to tell me that my far-fetched suggestion was a welcome diversion during a stressful time.

I had made it to first base.

Christine said the offer of blondies was especially appealing (although a team VP later blondiesexpressed an interest in checking out the distilleries). She asked if she could share my email with a reporter from Sportsnet (Canada’s ESPN, I guess), and Shi Davidi called the next day to interview me. His story was picked up by a number of Canadian news outlets, plus a few here in Kentucky, and it led to a live appearance on CTV, Canada’s most-watched TV news network, and another live interview on a Toronto-area radio station.

I felt like I had stretched a single into a triple.

By week’s end, though, the Blue Jays landed in Buffalo, its Triple-A minor league affiliate, and my tongue-in-cheek dance with the team was over.

I didn’t succeed in bringing the Blue Jays to Midway, but I did shine a much-deserved spotlight on my hometown. Thousands of people—heck, maybe millions—saw, read, or heard my open invitation to come to Midway, Kentucky. If only a fraction of them remember that we have outstanding restaurants to dine in, and marvelous distilleries and horse farms to tour, then my late-July folly will produce visitors to Midway and Woodford County.

If travelers add a trip to Midway when they come to the Kentucky Derby—or to Lexington or Cincinnati or Nashville—I’m confident that my neighbors will open their arms (and their cash registers) to the curious visitors.

And when that happens, Midway will have won the battle for the Blue Jays … in a game-ending home run.

Take it away

“We cannot escape history,” Abraham Lincoln said.

Even though it gets clouded in memory and mystique, history is forever examined and reexamined. We look at past people and events from all angles, seeking clarity and certainty. To discover history—and to expand our understanding of humanity—we examine books, films, speeches, interviews, and observations. But not statues.

Statues serve a different purpose. They are erectStatuesed to honor, elevate, and celebrate not only a person, but also the ideals that the individual represents. A statue that stands in public reflects the values of the people who surround it. But if the people’s values change, so do their role models. So, also, should their statues.

When we study history, we should consider all sides. But not so with statues of history’s figures that we choose to honor in public. We don’t both-sides our heroes. Where you find a statue of Abraham Lincoln, you won’t see a bronze figure of James Wilkes Booth beside him.

But when we enter the Kentucky state capitol and view the likeness of Abraham Lincoln, we also see Lincoln’s adversary, Jefferson Davis, in the same space. By elevating both men, we have said that we revere them equally. As we admire the man who preserved the union and freed enslaved people, we’re saying we also venerate a man who tried to dissolve the United States of America and fought to perpetuate slavery.

Take Jefferson Davis’ away.

That’s not to say that statues of every flawed individual should come down. Here in Kentucky, we look up to Henry Clay as an accomplished statesman who promoted economic stability and peaceful compromise. Yet he owned slaves. Lincoln himself suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War; he jailed editors.

By the same token, Jefferson Davis undoubtedly had redeeming qualities. While still serving the United States, he was said to be a brave soldier and an innovative administrator. But we measure people from the head down. Heroes are honored for crowning achievements, and scoundrels are disowned for their depravity. A hero’s boots may be muddy, and a traitor’s boots might shine, but if the good a person accomplishes is so grand as to outweigh the flaws, we award them with hero status. Yet if a person’s dreadful actions overpower their attributes, we kick them to the curb.

In Kentucky, history didn’t change. It’s inescapable, right? But our attitudes and values, for the most part and for the most people, have changed. To remove Jefferson Davis’ statue from a place of honor is to step away from the cruelty and treason he stands for.

Take it away. Kick him to the curb.

There is no new normal

What do you mean, new normal?

This two-word phrase seems to come up in every TV report, all opinion pieces, and most conversations. You’ll also see and hear variations, like “new abnormal” and even “abnormal new normal.”

After months of this COVID mess, I’d say the new has definitely worn off.

Researching the phrase “new normal,” I found several claims to its origination: after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, during a 2003 financial boom/bust cycle, and following the 2008 recession. The earliest citation, though, was from an article in December 1918, in the aftermath of World War I.

There’s lots of newness, but not much normality. “Normal,” you know, is what’s typical … routine … expected.

During the shutdown, I’ve been working from home. My team and I have created two issues of our magazine without laying eyes on each other except through computer screens. That’s been new for us, but I don’t call it a new normal. We’ll be back in the office in a month or two, and what became routine this spring might be a “remember when” story next year.

Also at home, my family started a small garden. We eat in every night. I wash a lot of dishes. I dig dandelions as soon as they reveal themselves. It’s new, but it doesn’t seem normal. And it’s not what I expected of 2020.

I didn’t read the 1918 article, but any new normal the world settled into back then didn’t last. It can’t. Technologies emerge, inventions appear, attitudes evolve, and disasters strike.

“Normal” is a rolling standard, an ever-changing acceptance of patterns, activities, and beliefs. It’s only natural that we seek firm ground—and take comfort in a predictable future—but it’s an ongoing search. Firm ground is natural, but then earthquakes happen. Pandemics hit. Jobs and livelihoods go away.

So what’s normal now? How do we regain our footing with work and friends and routines when the ground hasn’t settled?

How? We roll with it. We make do with less money and more stress. We cry or rant or zombie out, and we think about better days ahead, because that’s just our normal for now.

But those better days are coming. We’ll stop counting deaths and start moving forward, recalibrating our lives and, maybe, ourselves.

There will be new days, but there won’t be a new normal because normal never lasts for long. As soon as we get used to life, it changes.

So what’s normal is change. And life … is always new.

SunriseBryce

Each sunrise is new, but not normal. This daybreak at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah was unique, with a never-before-seen interplay of clouds and colors shining light on a day of novel events and interactions.

Stoppable

When I first learned to drive—and for the next, oh, forty years—I was a bit impatient. And while I still get frustrated by slow vehicles in front of me, there’s one place I’ve become a more responsible driver: at the stop sign.Cloudy sign

In particular, I’d get antsy while sitting at an intersection and waiting for a clear spot in traffic so I could make my turn and get where I was going. I mean, after you sit patiently for thirty seconds … a minute … maybe two, it’s only reasonable that you should be able to merge. It’s basically your daggone turn. Am I right?

I was wrong.

What took me several decades to learn was that my desire to move forward doesn’t diminish an oncoming car’s ability to crush me. That’s simple physics, and I can’t really argue with science.

Even when my intentions are good and I’ve been waiting for “quite some time, now,” the only time it’s safe to turn is when the coast is clear. I don’t mean clear all the way to the next county, but clear enough that I won’t get T-boned on my way to dinner.

And that’s how I look at this coronavirus mess. I am really eager for everything to open back up so I can enjoy the fruits of our economy: restaurants, stores, movies, haircuts … the works. And Lord knows we all need to get back to work. We’ve waited long enough; it’s time, right?

Maybe.

While it’s possible that I can go back to work and earn money to spend at local restaurants and stores and barbershops without catching or spreading the coronavirus, it’s also possible that I will catch it. Spread it. Get killed by it. Kill others with it.

The trick, I guess, is knowing when the coast is clear. I don’t mean waiting until there’s no trace of the virus, but clear enough that I won’t get T-boned by a disease with no cure … one that’s still getting spread by people breathing.

I’ve gotta wait on the science.

I wish like anything we could end the quarantine, go back to work, and get back to living! But not when that damn virus is still unstoppable. Like waiting to turn into traffic, my desire to move forward right now doesn’t diminish the virus’ ability to crush me.

Until I can be reasonably sure that damn virus can be slowed down or stopped, I’m OK to wait just a little while longer.

 

photo: Bob Rouse

Looking at liriope

I’m looking at the liriope [lih-RYE-oh-pee] we planted a couple of years ago, and I don’t know what will happen.

Also called monkey grass, these clumps of leafy plants make good border vegetation, and the plants are pretty hardy.

For two winters, I have cut back the leaves that died in the cold, and I did it with the loving care of a weed eater—just whacked all the clumps down to the nub. And then in spring, little green leaves just shoot up and grow.

The liriope was greening up nicely this spring, but then we had a couple of hard freezes,LiriopeBig when temps dove into the low 20s. There’s warmth and sunlight now, but those cold nights took a toll on the liriope. Big sections of rich and verdant growth are now quite pale, even white.

So now what, I wonder. Will the pale leaves linger? Die off, even? And will new, green ones grow in their place? Or maybe the entire plant will spiral down to die. Some plants are doing better than others, so maybe some will recover and others won’t.

You probably guessed where this is going. There are other worries on my mind.

In the same way I’m looking at my liriope, I’m wondering about my country, my state, my neighbors, and my family. Will the virus that put our economy in the deep freeze ruin our way of life forever? Or can we recover and resume where we left off? Or maybe new jobs and opportunities will replace the ones that didn’t survive the COVID crisis. And, worse, will the dreaded virus strike a loved one?

I flat-out don’t know.

To learn the liriope’s fate, I could ask a botanist or a horticulturist—or probably even the lady at the lawn and garden shop. They would know, as they’ve seen that situation before.

But diagnosing a nation’s recovery from the coronavirus crisis is not as simple. While there’s no shortage of experts in economics, virology, and public health, there are no sure-fire answers. Unlike a mid-April freeze that cripples plants, a pandemic like this one has never before been faced in the modern world. Those experts can build models and make predictions, but their projections are just educated guesses. And many educated experts have already guessed wrong.

It’s also easier to look at liriope because I don’t have to suffer a stream of uneducated guesses—other than my own—like we’re all enduring through this COVID lockdown. The fear and distrust and hatred that spawn all sorts of corona-crap don’t really play into plant life.

Of course, while doctors and economists can’t forecast with certainty what will happen in six months, they can deliver solid expectations of what can happen in six days to people who don’t heed warnings about catching or spreading the coronavirus. (Hint: They’ll catch it or spread it.) But it’s the sixth months and more that worry me.

Time, I guess, will tell … both for my clumps of monkey grass and for the global economy. There’s a lot more riding on the outcome of the latter, but pondering all the upshots and outcomes of the coronavirus disaster—week after week—can weigh a man down.

I don’t want to close my eyes to further threats, but I can’t think about the whole world just now.

Today I’m going to look a little longer at my liriope. Maybe I’ll see some signs of life.

LiriopeSmall

Let it be

What’s your quarantine theme song? As all Facebook and Twitter devotees know, it’s the title of the single that was the No. 1 song on your twelfth birthday.

I am no stranger to social media silliness. I rarely pass up the chance to complete a Facebook survey—but only if it sets up my signature smartassery. And I always respond to copied-and-pasted posts that beseech friends to answer—with one word—“how we first met.” I invariably reply “prison.”

The process of determining your quarantine theme song, though, isn’t the type of Facebook game I usually play. That’s because it offers no room for creativity; you simply report the fact. I do like music, though, especially—and I make no apologies—Top 40 tunes, so I Googled April 16, 1970.

I was lucky. “Let It Be,” the beautiful Beatles song, checks all the boxes for this exercise. The phrase sets an appropriate attitude for these weird and daunting days. And the song has enduring appeal and popularity. Two years ago, Paul McCartney explained the originCarpool of the song to James Corden during an emotional episode of Carpool Karaoke. The former Beatle had written the song following a dream in which his deceased mother came to him and said everything was going to be OK. “Just let it be.”

Plus, like the millions of music-lovers who made it No. 1, I really like the song.

But to truly earn the role of my personal quarantine theme song, the tune has to do more. So on a day leading up to my sixty-second birthday (a frickin’ half-century after I turned 12), I looked to the lyrics to see how “Let It Be” measures up as a leitmotif for a time when we huddle at home to diminish the spread of Covid-19.

“For though they may be parted …”   This viral scourge has wrecked our world. People have had to say goodbye to loved ones, to their jobs, to the milestones of life, and so much more. And to make it worse, parting words can only be said through windows or on Zoom and other electronic connecting points. Some of what we’ve collectively lost can be regained, but so many lives and events are gone forever.

“Speaking words of wisdom …”   If we have learned nothing else during the pandemic, we should all take home the lesson that scientists offer solutions. Some politicians—and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear is a shining example—have heeded the words of epidemiologists and public health professionals and insisted that their constituents take safe and sane precautions, But other officials have delayed such measures or have taken political posturing to absurd lows.

“I wake up to the sound of music …”   I’m forever seeking solace and inspiration in music: I constantly listen to songs from the decades of my life; ideas and phrases frequently come to my mind in rhythm and rhyme; and I often do a deep dive on particular songs, artists, or musical experiences. Just this week, I have zeroed in on the early music of Chicago (watching a concert video) and on the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (viewing a modern-day version of the musical on YouTube). Notably, both the concert video and the original Superstar were created in 1970.

“And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me.”   I’m afraid of catching Covid-19; my asthmatic lungs might not fare well against the virus. I fear the loss of my job and for the livelihoods of millions of Americans and scores of neighbors, as I also grieve for those who have already lost their jobs. I’m angry that our leaders won’t learn from this catastrophe and create a more affordable health care system—or that foolish citizens will again be fooled by con artists in power. There is much about this crisis that makes me think we won’t emerge from our dark days with any semblance of a functioning, decent society. And yet I believe we will. I’m not a religious man, but I believe in the light.

“Let it be.”   Perhaps the only phrase of this song that doesn’t ring totally true with me is the title itself. Paul McCartney interpreted his mother’s words in that dream to mean “don’t worry about it.” And it’s true that much of the damage done by the novel coronavirus is out of our control. But what happens next—in our lives, our communities, and in our nation—is up to us. We can show compassion, we can offer help, and we can vote. Believe what you will about a scripted future, but do what you can to make it better.

I want to listen to words of wisdom. I want to believe there will come an answer. And I want that light to shine on until tomorrow.

So yes … Let It Be.

The View from Pew Three

Oh, holy night indeed.

The Christmas Eve midnight service at Midway Community Church was the best possible night for a date. Lighted with candles set on the sill of each stained-glass window, the sanctuary was full of people, yet remarkably silent.

And those candles didn’t merely glow, for the towering windows didn’t seal completely, and each wisp of cold December air that snuck inside invited the flames of the candles to dance. And they accepted. The light, then, was alive. And its flickers made the night even more magical.

For thirty delicious minutes, a guy could sit with his girl in close quarters on a wooden pew smoothed by generations of worshippers. Decades of derrieres. Thighs comfortably conjoined. Hands perfectly positioned to be inched … over … and clasped.

This service on the holiest of Christian nights was not meant to be romantic, but Lord, a guy might pray every day not for salvation, but for these thirty … delicious … minutes. With her.

But he wasn’t with her. Glenn was seated in close quarters, but not with the prettiest girl in high school—the girl of his dreams … the girls of his prayers—but with the guys he’d grown up with.

The two pews down front were the domain of the church’s youth group. Required to attend Sunday services in order to take part in bowling or a movie or whatever the group did Sunday evenings, the teen-agers showed up, and they sat with each other in the second and third pews.

Throughout the year, the front pew was left empty for two reasons. One, it was where the deacons sat temporarily when they gathered at the altar to divvy up the offering plates. But also, anybody sitting on the front pew would be completely exposed, so that choir members—and Preacher Ted—would be able to see any note-passing or knee-poking.

But on Christmas Eve, even the very front pews were filled. Family members from out of town blended with backsliders, who came to church just once a year, to increase attendance tenfold. And for the most part, the out-of-town crowd was not given to knee-poking.

Yet for Glenn, surrounded by hundreds of worshippers, it was a crowd of two: himself and her. She was in the second pew, and he was in the third. And it was driving him mad.

It’s the curl of her hair, he decided.

Seated directly behind her, Glenn had a fantastic view of her hair. Brown and lush—lush hairclipwas a good word for it, he thought—it cascaded in front of him …  almost for him. She had pulled wide strands from near her face and gathered them in the back with a silver clip.

He tried to remember the word for the clip. He didn’t think it was a barrette, but a clip had more of a squeezy action, and he couldn’t tell if the silver thing was squeezed to open and gather up her hair. It wasn’t a pin; he was sure. Maybe it was a clip.

But the effect was marvelous. The two strands that Kasey pulled away from her face were a little bit lighter brown than the hair it joined in the back—the hair that cascaded in front of him. And those strands, as well as the rest of her lush brown hair, had soft, perfect curls.

Her hair completely hid the back of her neck, it was so thick. And it was long enough that it flowed past her shoulder blades and over the back of the pew in which she sat. Technically, Glenn decided, her hair was in his row, in his pew. He wasn’t sitting with her, but kind of, he was sitting with her hair.

Glenn had hoped for a different seating arrangement, especially tonight. For most of the fall, when both of them began their junior year at Midway High, Glenn had worked the angles.

  • He followed her into Algebra II on the first day so he could sit in the desk beside hers.
  • He always timed his departure from Chemistry third hour so their arrival at the lunch room might coincide. (He knew he wouldn’t sit at her table—that was for cheerleaders and boyfriends only—but he might be able to fall into the lunch line behind her.)
  • He never missed a Sunday night youth group meeting, knowing she’d probably be there and hoping he could possibly sit near her—even next to her—in the van, at the movie, or at the pizza place.

He played all the angles and, for the most part, was successful. He spent quality time near her. And several times that fall, they had talked. Sometimes just a greeting, but often—well, at least five times—they had exchanged full sentences: opinions about a TV show or agreements about homework being hard.

One time in early November, Glenn almost mustered the courage to ask her out, like, on a real date to a restaurant in Lexington … or to a movie—just the two of them.

But it wasn’t just the two of them. Kasey was with Abner, and he was with the gods. Ab was muscular and handsome, athletic and artistic, intelligent and authentic. Ab was friendly, popular, and talented. He was adored as much by teachers as he was by his classmates—even the stoners loved Ab. He was perfect.

And Glenn was not.

At least he could sing, though. And when the congregation stood and joined their voices—without the organ—to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Glenn unleashed his brilliant bass, sweetly singing (as it were) o’er the plain voices of his buddies beside him. And when he belted the bass line of the chorus—the extended “Gloria” prior to “in excelsis Deo”—it flowed like a counter melody … a solo performance of sorts.

And she turned and smiled. And raised her eyebrows a bit. At him.

The look and the lift lasted only a second. Literally, one second. But it was glorious. It was frickin’ in excelsis.

And it was Christmas Eve and it was his church and his night. And it was his girlfriend … or … his friend who was a girl.

It was completely Christmas Eve.

Oh, holy night. Indeed.

Young Jim Parrish

Jim Parrish hed

James Ware Parrish III

“Everybody loved young Jim Parrish,” it said in the Blue Grass Clipper on August 11, 1932. Everybody might have loved an old Jim Parrish, too, but we’ll never know. James Ware Parrish III drowned while swimming in Elkhorn Creek near Midway, Kentucky. He was 27.

I dearly loved Jim Parrish’s sisters: my grandmother Honeywood and my great-aunt Katherine (Nat). Both of them lived their lives, from start to finish, in Midway. Honey and Nat were educated women, fascinating and fun, and they treasured their family. It killed a part of them when their brother died. And it killed the family line, too: Jim was the last Parrish male.

Jim’s drowning began as a Friday afternoon swim with Honeywood, her friend Clara MacLemore, Whitsitt Wallace, and Clara’s nephew John Stone. The party had driven the mile and a half from the Parrish home (now Holly Hill Inn) to Moore’s Mill, which sat beside Elkhorn Creek. Below a dam that powered the mill was a pool that was a popular spot for swimming. Although the Clipper article doesn’t mention them, two children—Ike Rouse (my dad) and Clara’s daughter, Lily May—were among the swimmers, but they were whisked away before details of the drowning were recorded.

It’s confounding that Jim would drown. He was not just a strong swimmer, but a heroic

MooresMill swimming

Elkhorn Creek at Moores Mill dam

one, too. In an editorial in the same issue of the Clipper that carried the page-one news of Jim’s death, J.W. Reigner described an episode from four years before, when Jim and a cousin were driving across the bridge at Moore’s Mill and heard the cries of a woman: “My God … save my children!” Reigner wrote that Jim and his cousin leapt from their car and sprinted to the creek—undressing as they ran—jumped in and rescued two young girls “who were drowning when they had come up for the last time.”

And describing yet another amazing coincidence, Reigner went on to say that on the day before Jim drowned, “near the very spot where he lost his life,” he rescued “little Benny Roach … from a watery grave.”

Jim was an accomplished athlete in the water, then, and also on land. He played baseball and football at Midway High School and, later, at Centre College. During warm months, Midway boys played ball in the Parrish’s side yard, which was a perpetual baseball diamond. The gang also gathered indoors.

“Daddy had a pool table set up in the downstairs front hall, and all of Jim’s friends were welcome at any time,” Honeywood wrote in her journal, years later.

By all accounts, Jim was as pleasant a guy as you’d ever want to know.

“He was nice and friendly—not loud—and popular with the girls,” Lily May recalled recently. “Fairly tall with auburn hair.”

A Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity brother wrote this about Jim in the 1927 Centre College yearbook, his senior year: “Jim will not soon be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have known him. Always cool, apparently taking his time about everything, he has made a success in the classroom, on the diamond and wherever else he happened to be.”

Jim was the manager of the Centre football team and accompanied the team on road trips, including one to New York City in 1925. The ’27 yearbook contains a line about his role. “Jim Parrish did himself proud. He watched the college’s money as he would guard his life, and not a stray dollar eluded his watchful eyes.”

What Jim did not see that day at Moore’s Mill was a chunk of wood—or perhaps a stone—that swept over the dam and struck him on the side of his head, opening a hole in his skull and knocking him unconscious.

When the other swimmers noticed that Jim was not among them, they assumed he was behind the waterfall, hidden from view on a ledge of the dam. Not finding her brother there, Honeywood and the others frantically looked along the creek banks and swam around in the creek, which was swollen from recent rains.

Whitsitt drove to town and ran inside the general store owned by his brother, Top. “Ropes!” he shouted. “We need ropes to drag the creek at Moore’s Mill.”

News spread quickly in the small town, and dozens of people sped to the scene. “Everybody in Midway who had an automobile rushed there,” said the Clipper.

Jim’s father, Ike, was there, along with James Ware Parrish II, who was Jim’s uncle (after whom he was named). No fewer than four Midway doctors were there, too: Anderson, Risque and Voigt, as well Dr. B.F. Parrish, also Ike’s brother, who had retired from practice.

A half-hour after the search had begun, John Stone, standing in shoulder-high water some 15 feet from the dam, felt a body bump against him underwater. With help from Whitsitt, the visitor from Ohio dragged Jim to the shore; Mr. Ike met them there.

A rescue unit from the Lexington Fire Department arrived on the scene eight minutes after being summoned, and for more than an hour the firemen used a Pulmoter to force air into Jim’s lungs. Despite their heroic efforts, and despite the assistance of the four hometown physicians, Jim Parrish never drew another breath.

Mr. Ike “was taken away from the scene,” according to the Clipper’s account. “The father went all to pieces to see his only son lying there, cold in death.”

Ike’s brother, the elder James Parrish, was also overcome with grief. “It was more than he could stand. He broke down and had to be led to his automobile by Dr. Voigt.”

Those men were not the only family members and friends who suffered.

“Giving up Jim by drowning in the summer of ’32 was such a blow to us; it looked as if Mama couldn’t accept it. And Nat really never did. Jim was only 27 years old,” Honeywood wrote in her journal. She went on to explain that the Parrish name ended with the early deaths of not only her brother

Parrish fam

The Parrish family: Jim (front) with Ike (father), Honeywood (sister) and Desdemona (mother)

but also a cousin, who had died at college more than a decade before Jim drowned.

“Uncle Ben lost his only son, Tom, at Princeton. He was 19 years old,” she wrote. “Two old brothers losing only sons.”

On the day of Jim’s funeral, the communal grief was profound. A brief funeral was conducted at the Parrish home, where Jim’s body laid in a gray casket, which was covered with flowers. The body was then taken to the Lexington Cemetery and followed by a long line of cars. Jim’s Midway friends and Centre College fraternity brothers served as pallbearers. His mother was so overcome with grief, she was unable to go to the cemetery. And according to the Clipper, even the funeral officiants struggled, including R.S. Wilson, the former minister of Midway Christian Church who had baptized Jim.

“Rev. Wilson was to commit the body to the grave, but he broke down and had to be led away,” the newspaper account said.

On that Monday morning, the people of Midway buried a young man with a bright future. At the time of his death, Jim was an agent for the American Tobacco Company. Prior to that, he had served for a time as principal of the Midway school.

“He was, in every way, a noble and splendid young man,” Reigner wrote in his editorial, titled “The Tragic Death of James Ware Parrish.”

“Of attractive personality, of marked ability, of affable disposition, of polished manners and of sturdy and stalwart manhood, it is so sad that he had to die before his work had hardly begun.”

With time, the people of Midway recovered, and the town went on to mourn the deaths and celebrate the lives of other friends and relatives.

But Jim’s family—his mom and dad and Honeywood and Nat—were never quite whole again. On that hot, heart-breaking day in August, their lives were robbed of a shining light, a kind soul.

Decades later, my sister Amy and I were helping our mom move furniture out of the old Parrish home, and Amy discovered a small box in the back of a drawer. It was packed with curly auburn hair. When Amy revealed the contents, Mom said, “Don’t let Honeywood see this.”

The sight of her brother’s hair, probably from his first haircut, would have been too painful—nearly 50 years after he drowned.

What would Jim have done with his life? What people would have been affected by his actions and words? What difference would he have made?

I live with my family on Moores Mill Road, and every day on my drive to work, I cross the same bridge Jim was crossing when he abandoned his car to save two drowning children. Beneath it runs the Elkhorn Creek, where the old mill dam used to stand … and where Midway kids used to swim.

Born a quarter of a century after Jim died, I never knew my great-uncle nor the children—my cousins—he never had. I would have spent time at his house; my family would have shared holiday meals with his. I would have learned things from him and, perhaps, followed his example.

On the face of it, I suffer the loss of Jim Parrish, too. It’s possible I would be a different, better person for having known Jim and benefitted from his strength of character.

But maybe I have. Maybe many of us have.

That boy Jim rescued, “little Benny,” grew up to be Dr. Ben Roach, described as a “medical legend in Kentucky” by a University of Kentucky president. Ben Roach co-founded the UK Markey Cancer Center, he established the Family Practice department at UK, and he founded the nursing program at what is now Midway University. Dr. Ben maintained a family practice in Midway for 55 years, and he treated and delivered countless residents, including me.

By all accounts, Jim was a kind and capable guy who made friends easily, and it’s fair to assume he was a significant influence on his companions in Midway and at Centre College. It’s certain that Jim made an immeasurable impact on his sisters, Honeywood and Nat, and they, in turn, encouraged, amused and inspired me. I never met the man, but I have to think he’s part of me … part of Midway.

“Everybody loved young Jim Parrish,” you know. And I would have loved an old one.