I vote for people

I’ve never voted a straight party ticket. In all the years I’ve voted—and it’s been four and half decades since I turned 18—I have voted in every election. There were times that I voted for every candidate in one party, but I never once pulled the lever, blackened the bubble, or touched the screen to vote the straight party. I always clicked, bubbled, or pressed my choice one candidate at a time.

And I always will.

I owe it to the people on the ballot. The men and women running for office have put their lives on hold, their reputations at stake, and their safety at risk. I might agree with only half of the candidates in any election—at best—but I respect every person’s willingness to serve, and I respect the process.

Each name on the ballot represents a person whose current opinions and past actions I take into account. I try to research and reason through each race in the run-up to Election Day. Who do I trust? Whose opinions most closely match mine on the important issues? Who will perform the hard work of public service?

And sometimes, I don’t know those answers. There have been minor-office elections in which I didn’t properly research the candidates. That’s my fault, but I don’t compound my mistake by blindly voting party, which is what a straight party vote can be.

I might save time by voting once for the whole slate of candidates in a particular party, but hey, I can spare the extra thirty seconds. When I’ve done my research and know who I’ll pick in each race, it’s a pretty quick trip down the ballot. And because I vote for One. Actual. Person. in each race, voting is a gratifying experience. Even when my candidate loses, I know I did my part to support what they stand for.

I do my duty to vote … for a person, not a party.

Santa got stuck

FIFTY YEARS ago, bell bottoms were cool. The Flip Wilson Show was cool. George Carlin … cool. What was not quite cool, though—what had not yet grown into the trendy town it is today—was Midway, Kentucky.

While not exactly cool, Midway was still a warm and wonderful village in 1971. And the town always came alive at Christmastime, especially on Santa Saturday, when the man in red showed up to take Christmas requests from the children.

On that particular Santa Saturday, December 11th, Midway’s weather was mild with above-normal temperatures. Somehow, though, the day turned out less than normal.  

Scores of children and their parents started gathering on Railroad Street, the town’s retail and restaurant district, two hours before Santa was scheduled to appear. Back in those days, Santa didn’t arrive on a gleaming red train like he does today. No, he would typically pull up in a station wagon and hop out of the passenger seat to assume his duties inside a downtown storefront that happened to be empty that year.

But in 1971, Emma May Taygo, chair of the Santa Celebration Committee for the Midway Woman’s Club, wanted to do something special for the children of Midway.

“Midway is smack in the middle of thoroughbred country,” Emma May said at an October committee meeting. “We should have Santa arrive by a sleigh … pulled by handsome race horses!”

The committee members loved the idea, although Jenella Johnson pointed out that thoroughbreds don’t typically pull sleighs.

“Fair enough,” said Emma May. “I expect we can still find eight handsome horses of some type, though.”

But that was easier said than done. From mid-October through the first week of December, Emma May called no fewer than twenty-three horse farm owners or managers in the Midway area, and despite her appeals “for the children,” not a one would consent to loaning out a horse to populate a team of sleigh draggers.

With a week to go, Emma May’s only offer came from Elliott Mercer, the owner of Fisher’s Mill Farm, a small operation that hadn’t yet found the formula for success. Elliott said the Woman’s Club could borrow Sammy, his teaser stallion who had recently lost interest in the farm’s mares. When Emma May said she needed at least one more horse to make a team, Elliott said he could also let her borrow Pill Box, a 21-year-old long-retired hunter/jumper. Fifty dollars for both.

“Fifty dollars? But it’s for the children,” Emma May whined.

“That’s right: my children,” the horseman answered. “My children’s Christmas.”

WHEN THE big day came, Elliott was behind the Midway Fire Station, with Sammy and Pill Box. That spot was only a block away from Railroad Street, plus there happened to be some dusty collars and harnesses there, left over from the fire department’s early days, and Elliott fastened his horses to what Emma May called their “sleigh for a day.”

The best sleigh that Emma May’s committee could come up with was not an old-timey, jingle-belly sleigh, but one that Jake Capshaw built as a Christmas decoration for his front porch some twenty years before. Jake said this year his wife was using a group of plastic Christmas carolers for the focal point of their decorations, so the sleigh was strictly surplus.

It was made of plywood and two-by-fours, with a seat from Jake’s old Ford F-1 pickup. For runners, Jake had used some old water skis. The whole thing was painted red and green, and though it was a bit faded, the sleigh was still festive enough on that Santa Saturday.

Of course, the water skis wouldn’t work in town even if Midway’s streets were covered with snow, which they weren’t. The committee, then, had followed Jenella’s suggestion and rounded up four kiddie wagons—three Radio Flyers and one Western Flyer. They lashed the sleigh’s water skis to the wagons, and Janella figured out how to connect the handles of the two front wagons with a metal bar so the driver could have at least some ability to steer the contraption. The ladies used white sheets to try to hide the wagons from view, and when stuffed with crumpled newspaper, the corners of the fitted sheets looked almost like snow drifts. 

Veronza Stephens volunteered to be the driver, but only if somebody could come up with a top hat for her to wear. A committee member found one in her attic.

Veronza had also volunteered to line up a Santa Claus, assuring the committee that her brother Wayne owned an “ultra-nice” Santa suit and would be happy to serve the city of Midway and play Santa. Unfortunately, on Santa Saturday Eve, Wayne discovered he was too fat to fit into his prized suit.

“I blame the Corner Grocery for this,” he told Veronza when he called with the bad news. “They’ve been putting out whole pies right by the cash register, where you almost have to buy one.”

Veronza picked up Wayne’s suit but had no idea who else could fill it. So starting at 9:30 Friday evening, Emma May started calling friends in Versailles, Georgetown, and Lexington, looking for an experienced Santa Claus. It wasn’t until after midnight that a Felix B. Satterly called Emma May, offering to step in the next morning … for two hundred dollars.

“Two hundred dollars? But it’s for the children,” Emma May whined.

“And it’s also for three hours,” Felix B. Satterly replied. “For an actor of my repute, you’re getting a grand bargain.”

Emma May hesitated. “What have you appeared in—oh, never mind. It’s a deal. Be at the Midway Fire Station no later than 10 a.m.”

When Felix B. Satterly arrived on Saturday morning, the Woman’s Club women who were preparing the sleigh were less than impressed. Mr. Satterly looked to be the right age—60 or so—but nothing else looked right with the stand-in Santa. Rather than rotund and jolly, Mr. Satterly was skinny and sallow. He did have a bit of a pooch in the midsection—what Emma May called a bacon belly—but bony knees protruded from his polyester pants legs. 

“Here I am to ho, ho ho,” he announced in a booming stage voice.

The Woman’s Club women stared, wordless. Elliott looked up from the harnesses and gawked. TeeTee Martinez finally broke the silence.

“Welcome to Midway, Mr. Satterly. Let’s get you on the far side of the fire trucks, and you can change into this fantastic Santa suit.” As she led the unlikely Santa into the firehouse, she spoke over her shoulder to Emma May. “Gather up any leftover newspaper balls, honey. We’re gonna have to stuff this guy.”

Felix took only a few minutes to hop into Wayne’s Santa suit. As a veteran of many low-budget theater productions, he was used to handling quick costume changes on his own. TeeTee tossed newspaper balls over the fire truck to where Felix was changing, and she heard them crackle as he crammed them into the front of his pants and coat. When he emerged in the red suit made of heavy velour and trimmed with rich, white fur, Felix actually looked the part.

“It’s show time,” he said, joining Veronza at the side of the sleigh. Using a wooden box as a step, they both climbed aboard.

“Are you sure this is gonna work?” Veronza said when she perched on the stool Jake had attached to the front of the sleigh. “Why can’t I ride on the truck seat with Santa?”

“For goodness sakes, Veronza, Santa’s a celebrity, and he has to be chauffeured, don’t you know?” Emma May said with a trace of dread, knowing where the conversation was heading.

Veronza, wearing her prom dress from 1955 for the occasion, puffed herself and her ruffly front up. “Well, I’m somewhat of a celebrity, too, you know,” she said.

Almost in unison, the women tending to the sleigh—and Elliott, too—rolled their eyes. They knew what was coming. Janella even turned aside and mouthed along with Veronza as she spoke.

“After all, I’m a descendant of the famed Mister Stephens, the most important director on the board of the L&O Railroad Company, which founded the town of Midway and named the most prominent street after him.”

“Is that Railroad Street?” Elliott asked with a perfectly straight face.

No!” Veronza answered icily. “Stephens Street.”

No one in Midway could verify Veronza’s lineage. Nor could anybody say why she didn’t know the first name of her often-heralded forefather. Then again, nobody could guess why she was wearing a daffodil prom dress with a top hat for her role in Santa Saturday.

Finally, Santa himself spoke.

“I think, for the entire time that Santa is being transported, the driver is the most important part of the operation,” Felix B. Satterly said. “Santa Claus is a mere passenger, and a seat at the front of the sleigh pays well-deserved tribute to the skilled reinsman … or in this case, reinswoman.”

The blush of Veronza’s cheek was made more vivid by the bright yellow in the high neck of her prom dress. “Why, Mr. Satterly, you do have a way with words,” she purred, all traces of ice melted from her voice. “But you are the man of the hour.”

AT THREE minutes before 11 a.m., the appointed hour for Santa’s arrival, Railroad Street was loud. Christmas tunes were pumping through a big speaker placed in front of Midway Drug, and most of the children in attendance were shouting above Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to ask their parents the same question: “When’s Santa coming?”

Parents were shouting back in near unison, “Any minute now.”

And they weren’t lying. At one minute till 11, Veronza Stephens and Felix B. Satterly took their seats in Jake Capshaw’s ramshackle sleigh. Elliott led his two sleepy steeds, Sammy and Pill Box, in a right turn onto Winter Street at the post office. From there, he was confident the horses could lead the sleigh one block to Railroad Street, where stumbly little kids along with doubtful ten-year-olds would all be craning their necks to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.

“Ho, ho, ho!” Felix practiced with a most theatrical flair.

The old horses really wouldn’t have to do much pulling, as it was all downhill to the railroad. Elliott figured that even Veronza could negotiate one simple turn at Railroad Street, so he let loose of his hold on Pill Box’s halter and gave the old mare a soft pat on the rump to send her on her way.

As Elliott, Emma May, and the other women walked on the sidewalk toward Railroad Street, staying even with the sleigh, Veronza jiggled the reins a bit. She glanced nervously at her friends on the sidewalk, and just as the horses reached the point where Winter Street starts its decline, Veronza felt a surge of confidence.

“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer!” she yelled, looking over again at the girls with a grin and giving the reins a quick snap.

Something also snapped in the brains of Pill Box and Sammy. The old horses came alive under the slap of leather, and they quickened their step.

“On, Comet! On, Cupid!” Veronza hollered with a laugh, and she snapped the reins again. This time, Sammy and Pill Box really responded. They call it horsepower for a reason, and the two nags broke into a trot just when all the wagon wheels under the sleigh were heading downhill.

Felix, though his face was partly covered by an abundance of fake white hair and beard, didn’t want to break character, but he did want to slow down. He mumbled a muffled, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”

Veronza stopped smiling and gripped the reins tighter, and Elliot stepped off the sidewalk to try to catch up with the horses. But it was too late. The horses were at a half gallop, and with the sleigh wagons picking up momentum, Sammy and Pill Box had to quicken their gait to stay ahead of the rolling lawn decoration as it hurtled down the hill.

Elliott and Emma May and were motoring as fast as they could, but they couldn’t keep up with the sleigh.

“Whoa, whoa, whoooooooa!” Santa/Felix shouted.

“Stop runninnnnng!” Veronza commanded.

But the team plowed on.

Two hundred yards ahead, Eugene Murphy was standing by the railroad track. A Midway fellow who worked at a local horse farm, he and some friends had come downtown to grab a beer and get some kettle corn from their favorite street vendor, 2 Ladies and a Kettle. His friends were Anderson County boys that nobody in Midway really knew. Most folks simply referred to them as a group: Gene ’n’ ’em.

A fake sleigh atop a collection of kiddie wagons isn’t exactly a recipe for speed, yet the downhill grade was steep enough to get the little wheels spinning. The contraption probably wasn’t traveling any faster than a kid on a bike would coast down the hill, but to the two passengers; it felt like the sleigh was about to break the sound barrier. And they sounded off.

Whoooooooa!” Santa/Felix howled.

“Turn riiiiiiiiiiiiight!” Veronza shrieked.

Gene ’n’ ’em heard the racket, saw the horses’ wide eyes, and did what horse people do: The fanned out and spread their arms, signaling the horses to stop. And it worked— except that as Sammy and Pill Box slowed, the sleigh kept coming, nipping at their heels. The horses needed to sidestep the oncoming sleigh, and fortunately, they both angled to the right. If either had ever run on a North American racetrack, they might have defaulted to a left turn. But neither nag had ever come close to a track.

Just when the horses were veering to the right, Veronza was, too. She remembered she could guide the front wheels of the front wagons, so she pushed the steering bar hard to the right.

It was a turn they couldn’t make.

Gene ’n’ ’em realized the sleigh was moving too fast, and they quickly stepped aside. Veronza was successful in turning the wheels, but the speed was too great, so like a muscle car in an action movie, the sleigh and the horses went into a mighty skid. The whole outfit turned completely sideways, pointing east toward the crowd on Railroad Street … while skittering north toward the railroad tracks. 

If you’ve ever been through downtown Midway, you understand that a bump will forever be part of crossing the railroad tracks. Winter Street has a downhill angle, but the two tracks are set to keep the trains flat level. So there’s a bump. And the sleigh hit it in a sideways spin.

The screeching wheels and the screaming passengers generated a lot of noise. So nearly everyone in the crowd at the middle of Railroad Street stopped talking and turned to see what was happening. If they were lucky, they got to see Santa Claus like nobody had ever seen him. Many said later that the scene seemed to play in slow motion.

When the wheels of the wagons crossed the rails of the track, they had skidded around enough so that they rolled over—rather than getting caught in—the grooves beside the rails. By that point, the sleigh had passed the horses, and the bump was like a ramp, sending the sleigh and, briefly, the horses, too, into the cool December air.

For years, everyone who was there debated just how much the horses and sleigh helicoptered in midair. Back then of course, there were no smartphones to record the event, so it was up to each person’s recollection.

Elliott Mercer said the contraption did a 180-degree turn.

Jenella Johnson said it was a full 360.

Felix B. Satterly swore it was at least a 720—two full spins— claiming he saw the Corner Grocery flash before his eyes twice.

Veronza said it felt like at least four revolutions, but she admits she had closed her eyes to brace for a crash.

But they didn’t crash. The two horses and the two occupants of the sleigh all landed hard on the other side of the tracks, but not hard enough to cause injury. Sammy and Pill Box both stood back up, and Veronza, who had been jostled off her stool, quickly located her top hat, perched it upon her head, and climbed back aboard. Santa, somehow, remained on the bench seat of the sleigh. He had slammed against the side of the seat, but the balls of newspaper had protected him.

The crowd went wild, applauding and cheering. Those who had witnessed the sleigh and animals whirling over the railroad tracks were impressed. The kids, many of whom were too short to see the spectacle over the towering adults, were just happy that Santa had arrived.

“ARE WE ALL intact?” Felix B. Satterly asked, sitting all the way to the left side of the F-1 truck seat. “The show must go on.”

By that time, Elliott had rushed to the landing site and once again had a firm grip on Pill Box’s halter. “I think we can make it over to the kids,” he said.

“Let’s do this thing,” said Veronza, with a steely glint in her eye. She now was ready for anything, including 152 children now at a fever pitch, excited to see Saint Nick.

Eugene Murphy grabbed Sammy’s halter, and the two men led the horses as they pulled Santa’s sleigh along Railroad Street. The entire team was glad to be on a perfectly flat street.

As the crowd parted, the sleigh arrived at “Santa’s Castle.” It was the building formerly known as Thoroughbred Tavern, which had been closed for two years.

The old bar looked snowy and jolly that day, though. Two fully decorated Christmas trees, frosted with fake snow, were at the entrance, and another five trees were inside. The Santa Celebration Committee had set up a spot in the rear of the building, where Santa was to perch on a huge chair and listen to the Christmas wishes of kids from all over Central Kentucky. The committee had decorated the barstools and connected them with garland, forming a back-and-forth path for families to line up, like at an amusement park. 

The perfect scene was set … if only Santa Claus could join it.

When the sleigh pulled up in front of the newly bedazzled tavern, Veronza was only too happy to climb off. Her nerves were jingle-jangly from the near disaster, and she also was excited by the throng of children. Somebody produced a Rubbermaid stool, and Veronza carefully stepped onto it, with one hand on the side of the sleigh and the other making sure her hat didn’t fall off.

Now embracing her role as reinswoman, she stood at attention, waiting to help Santa dismount. Only he didn’t.

He didn’t step down onto the Rubbermaid stool.

He didn’t even stand up from the pickup truck seat.

Instead, Santa was reaching around to his rear end, fiddling with his fine, velour Santa pants.

Felix spoke just loud enough for Veronza to hear him. “It appears that, against all probability, I am … stuck.

“Whaddya mean, stuck?” Veronza asked out of the side of her mouth between smiles at the waiting children.

Felix tried to slide over slightly to get a better look at his predicament, but he couldn’t budge an inch. “I am somehow affixed to the seat,” he said in a stage whisper. “I feel something metal grasping the pocket of my pants.”

Veronza now turned to face Santa. She stepped onto the Rubbermaid stool and reached behind him to try and help unhook his pants from whatever piece of the old truck seat had latched on to them.

“You must’ve got caught on something when we were bouncing around on the railroad tracks,” Veronza whispered. “You’re stuck tight.”

“Hey whaddya doin’ to Santa’s rear end?” a man in the crowd yelled at Veronza. “I brought my kid to see Santa. We don’t want no hanky-panky.”

“Ho, ho, ho!” Felix bellowed in his best Santa voice. “I assure you Santa wants to talk with your child. It’s just that … at the moment … Santa is a bit stuck.”

The news rippled through the crowd, and Emma May, who was inside Santa’s Castle, could tell something was up. She rushed outside to the sleigh.

“What’s going on?” she h. “Vee, get your hand out of Santa’s behind!”

“I’m trying to jiggle him loose. He’s caught on a piece of metal—it’s like a loop with no opening,” Veronza said with exasperation.

Emma May edged closer to them. “Look. We gotta get Santa inside before this crowd riots. Cut him out of there if necessary.”

Heavens, no! We can’t do that!” Veronza hissed. “Wayne would kill me if I messed up his Santa suit.”

Emma May thought for a second, then said, “Felix, if we found you a big red blanket, you could ease yourself out of the Santa pants and wrap up with the blanket to make your way inside Santa’s Castle.”

Felix narrowed his eyes at Emma May, then realized that all the kids were watching him. “Ho, ho, ho!” he laughed for their benefit. Then he leaned closer to Emma May and Veronza. “I will not disrobe in front of these children. My performance contracts always say ‘No nudity.’”

Now it was Emma May who was exasperated. “We don’t have a contract, Felix. And you’ll be covered up with a blanket. Besides, you’ve got your skivvies on.”

Felix B. Satterly drew a deep breath. “Madam, I removed my undergarments when I saw at the fire station that they clashed with the red suit,” he said with all the dignity he could muster. “I’m not wearing any ‘skivvies,’ as you say.”

Emma May blushed.

Pill Box gave a quick snort.

Veronza whispered in amazement, “Commando Santa.”

Emma May stepped back and gathered her thoughts. She walked to the front of the sleigh and conferred with Elliott. Then she stood on the Rubbermaid stool and addressed the crowd.

“Hello, all you Santa lovers!” A cheer arose from kids and adults. “We have a slight change of plan. Because it’s such a nice morning, we’re all going to stay outside in the fresh air.”

Emma May listened for any complaints. Hearing none, she continued. “Let’s form a line here at the step to the sleigh, and you can sit with Santa or sit on, um, Santa’s lap—and tell him what you want for Christmas!”

A cheer arose again from the crowd, and Emma May stepped down from the sleigh. Still smiling to families nearby, she grabbed Veronza by the front of her prom dress and pulled her close.

“I don’t care where you get it, but get a big pillow for Santa’s lap. Right. Now!

IT WAS a good thing Felix hadn’t loaded up on coffee before coming to Midway. And it was good that Emma May thought to restrict Santa from drinking any fluids while he chatted with children. A trip to the bathroom would have been impossible, and she sure didn’t want to consider any alternatives.

After three hours of Santa time, the line of children ended, and Elliott drove his pickup truck to the front of the sleigh. He had already taken Pill Box and Sammy back to Fisher’s Mill Farm after everyone agreed it would be better for the horses to get away from the crowd. Plus, the humans wanted to avoid any mishaps on the trip back to the firehouse.

Most of the crowd had gone home or were shopping in Railroad Street stores when Santa waved goodbye and was hauled away—slowly—in the sleigh behind Elliott’s truck. Veronza resumed her role of reinswoman, helping to steer the wagons around the two right turns, first onto Gratz Street and then onto Bruen Street and the firehouse.

It was there, with Emma May and Veronza averting their eyes, that Felix slipped out of the Santa pants under the cover of a clean horse blanket that Elliott provided. Then, holding the blanket at his waist like a towel, Felix retreated into the firehouse to get dressed.

Without Felix and the balls of newspaper inside the Santa pants, they were unhooked from the troublesome piece of metal fairly quickly by Emma May. And when Felix emerged minutes later in his street clothes, he handed Veronza the Santa jacket, hat, wig, beard, and gloves.

Emma May just had to ask, “Felix, what color skivvies did you wear today that clashed bad enough for you to go commando?”

The actor shrugged. “It was a stupid mistake, really. For some reason, I chose Halloween-themed underwear this morning,” he explained. “The bright orange was hideous next to the red Santa suit, and I simply could not have pulled off this performance knowing I was so horribly mismatched.”

“You are a true artist, Felix,” Emma May said as she handed him a check. “Thank you for stepping in at the last minute.”

Then she turned to the owner of Sammy and Pill Box. “And thank you, Elliott. You and your horses were truly our majestic heroes today.”

Elliott accepted the check from Emma May, looked at the amount—double what they had agreed to—and was about to protest, but Emma May cut him off.

“It’s well deserved, Elliott. For you and your children’s Christmas.”

It was a touching moment for the survivors of Santa Saturday … until Veronza broke the spell.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Next year, we should have Santa and the sleigh again, but we could expand it into a whole parade, see, with floats and bands and maybe even balloons. And you already know what street the parade should be held on.”

With a perfectly straight face, Elliott ventured a guess. “Stephens Street?”

“Exactly,” Veronza said, tugging at the sleeve of her prom dress.

Emma May touched Veronza’s arm. “I think Mr. Stephens would be so proud.”

THE END

Bob Rouse lives, writes, and waxes poetic at his home just outside of Midway, Kentucky.

Nolan McDonald (cover art), is a 14-year-old student and artist in Burleson, Texas.

©2021

That Day in December

I have never been arrested … never jailed nor interrogated. I don’t break the law—other than driving over the speed limit a little—so I’ve never had any reason to fear, avoid, or even interact much with law enforcement officials.

Except for a day in December.

It was Friday afternoon, a week before Christmas 2020, and I was in downtown Midway. That in itself was a little unusual, as a healthy respect for the coronavirus had kept me pretty much confined to home. But I needed to pick up some presents at the Historic Midway Gift Store, and I also wanted to take a few photos of a Christmasy Railroad Street to make a Facebook post that promoted shopping in my hometown.

That’s what I told the police officer, the one who followed me in his cruiser as I walked in the Darlin’ Jeans parking lot. I was heading toward the red caboose that blares MIDWAY in bold, white letters; it would make a good addition to my FB photo montage. I kept waiting for the vehicle behind me to pass on by, but I saw red and blue lights come on and heard the short blast of a siren. I was being pulled over while walking around Midway.

The officer said he stopped me because a shop owner had reported that a man “who met my description” had been strangely harassing a customer, getting up in that person’s face as if to “start a staring contest.” I laughed and told the officer it certainly wasn’t me; I didn’t even know such a store existed in downtown Midway (which, due to the retail district’s tiny footprint, is saying something).

The policeman didn’t join me in laughing. He asked what exactly was I doing in Midway? I told him about my quest for gifts and photos, and he continued to look me over with serious suspicion. I went on to say that I’m a Midway native, and I told him my name … like “Bob Rouse” would matter. He was not believing I was innocent. He repeated the details of the complaint and said I fit the description of an elderly male in a green coat.

I didn’t quibble with his definition of “elderly,” nor did I point out that, even in the afternoon light of late-late fall, my coat was decidedly brown. I again denied having ever entered that store and assured him that I certainly did not—I do not—harass anybody. He asked me where my car was. I pointed over his shoulder to where I was parked. He didn’t turn around to look.

So there we stood. There was nothing more I could say to convince him I was not the man he was looking for. He was likely deciding what to do with me—arrest me or let me go. Silence … and then subsiding. He was just doing his job and following up, he said. I don’t blame him a bit, I said, except for the elderly part. I laughed again. He didn’t again.

An hour later, after I told this tale to my wife, she asked why I didn’t simply suggest that we go to the store and let me present myself to the person who had called in the complaint. I said I didn’t know, but when I thought about it later, I did know. Being interrogated like that for something I didn’t do was a scene in bizarro world, and I honestly feared that that in the next scene, the shop owner would say, “That’s the guy.”

I delayed my shop-Midway post on Facebook for a few days. Instead, my post that afternoon was about my experience with the police officer. I did it to poke fun at myself, and my friends commented with astonishment or jokes. More than one wrote, “Only you, Bob.”

I thought then that, in reality, that kind of thing didn’t happen only to me. I thought about people of color—Black men and boys, in particular—and how it happens to them. Throughout that year of Black Lives Matter, I had heard or read again and again that seemingly every Black man in America has had a moment of truth with an officer. In their stories, they described how they were stopped and questioned. That they fit the description. That the police officer regarded them with serious suspicion.

Those police officers didn’t laugh, either.

That evening, I drove to town again, this time for a curbside pickup of supper. As I left my driveway, I felt a pang of apprehension. What if I saw that policeman again? Would he think I was returning to the scene of the crime? Would he stop me? Question me again?

I shrugged it off. This is my hometown, I reasoned. That officer didn’t know me, didn’t know better. I’m friends with the mayor, the county judge executive, and the local magistrate. I don’t break the law. Yet I was happy that I had picked up my food and returned home without seeing a police cruiser.

I had that same apprehension for the next two weeks or so: just a tiny bit fearful that I would be seen by that cop, and maybe he’d pull me over again. I wouldn’t say I was constantly looking over my shoulder, but I was definitely checking for police presence whenever I drove or walked in town.

I’m a white man in a red state, and I experienced what it must be like to be Black. For sure, it’s only a tenth—or a hundredth or a millionth—of what Black guys actually go through. I wasn’t arrested, and the officer never laid a hand on me. Much less a knee … to my neck. And two months later, I hardly ever think of that afternoon, unlike the constant anxiety that people of color must have.

But I think about it a little. And I should, because my perspective became broader. I don’t want to ever forget that day in December.

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