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Count Us In, Chuck

Chuck-Leavell

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Chuck Leavell, Charlie Watts

As long-suffering readers of this blog know well, I’ve had a long love affair with the Rolling Stones. I’ve seen them nine times in five different cities over the last 35 years, from the first time as a 17-year-old senior in high school to the last as a 50-year-old in the summer of 2015.

So imagine how Fan-Boy crazy I went when the Stones’ legendary keyboardist, Chuck Leavell, attended the Georgia Historical Society’s Trustees Gala in February in Savannah and yours truly got to sit with him at dinner. To say that I busted his chops would be an understatement. Turns out, he’s a huge fan of public television and was familiar with my own work on “Today in Georgia History.”

I first met Chuck for a few minutes when he gave the inaugural Mark Finlay Memorial Lecture  ChuckLeavell.columnon environmental history at Armstrong State University in the spring of 2015. As you may know, Chuck and his wife Rose Lane turned her family’s plantation into a model tree farm outside Macon, and to say they’ve been good at it would be an understatement. They were jointly named National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year in 1999, and Chuck is the only two-time recipient of the Georgia Tree Farmer of the Year Award. The dedicated conservationist is the co-founder, with Joel Babbit, of the Mother Nature Network. In 2012 Chuck received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his work with the Allman Brothers Band as well as an Honorary Ranger award from the US Forest Service. Who else has done that? Take that Bob Dylan, with your Nobel Prize.

The husband, father, and grandfather is also an accomplished author of four books: Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest; the autobiographical Between Rock and a Home PlaceThe Tree Farmer (a children’s book); and Growing A Better America.

Besides his work with the Allman Brothers, Chuck’s recorded with Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, Train, John Mayer, and many others, in addition to his own accomplished solo projects. The Alabama native attended the Georgia Historical Society’s Gala to honor Pete Correll, the longtime chief of Georgia Pacific and board member of the Mother Nature Network, who was appointed by Governor Deal and GHS as a Georgia Trustee this year.

As in our first encounter, Chuck couldn’t have been more gracious. He is, in the words of Keith Richards, a gentleman through and through and as modest as they come. You’d never know he was at the heart of the Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band in the World, their keyboardist, erstwhile musical director, and the man who counts them in to nearly every song. Having been a Stones fan long before he became their keyboardist, Chuck in many ways is Mr. Everyman, standing in for all of us who love the band and their music dearly while spending the better part of a lifetime getting a nightly rear view—as Charlie Watts once indelicately put it—”of Mick’s bum wigglin’ about.”

And how’s this for coincidence: he made his debut with the Stones at their Atlanta concert in the Fox Theater on October 26, 1981—the first Stones concert I ever attended. Through the magic that is the internet, you can hear the soundboard recording of that magical night here.

Without letting Chuck eat his dinner, I quizzed him about all things Stones, from how they stay so amazingly able to perform at such an advanced age (Mick exercises his body and voice relentlessly and rigorously watches his diet; Keith smokes and drinks), to Ronnie Wood’s newborn twins (for whom he’s given up smoking), to how long it’s all going to last.  How do they first contact him to invite him to go on tour–does he look down at his cell and see Mick calling? (Sometimes, perhaps, but first the Stones’ manager Joyce Smyth sends out an email.) And so it went, on and on through every course. He answered my questions from the mundane to the sublime with unwavering politeness and an empty stomach.

Many of my questions had to do with what they will and will not play live in concert, and why. As the group’s official “musical director” Chuck sets every show’s set list with Mr. Jagger and fights hard for songs that get rehearsed but rarely played live, like “Get off My Cloud” (hear Mick ask Chuck to count them in), “Lady Jane” and “Play with Fire.”

When I asked him why they don’t play early 60s standards like “Mercy, Mercy,” or “Walkin’ the Dog” live, he just laughed. He replied that people pay a lot of money to see them (don’t I know it!), and Mick and company feel they have to strike a delicate balance between playing familiar tunes like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that casual fans expect to hear, leaving little room for rarely played gems such as “She’s a Rainbow” and “Monkey Man” (both, incidentally, containing some of Chuck’s best work) for hard-core nuts like me.

Here’s what Chuck won’t tell you, though if you’ve followed the Stones during his tenure, youMJS superbowl.jpg know it’s true: he’s made them a much better live band than they were before his arrival. They’re more professional, the songs are crisp and tight, giving their shows an energy and quality they lacked when everything was noticeably more ragged. In my opinion he’s a huge reason the band still plays to sold out audiences around the world well into their seventies.

Chuck and Rose Lane have recently purchased a home in Savannah (not far from my office) and will be spending time here, so we’ll be neighbors for a few weeks each year.

The next sunny afternoon you stroll around Forsyth Park, you may see an unassuming white-haired, tree-farmer-looking gent walking beside you. If you pay him no mind and look the other way, you will miss the man who has been an integral part of musical history for the last third of a century and a well-respected member of rock royalty.

Take it from me: he won’t mind if you walk up and say, in Mick’s immortal words, “Please allow me to introduce myself….”

Tell him Stan said hello. And for all the pleasure—dare I say Satisfaction–you’ve given us through the years, Chuck, a heartfelt and sincere thank you. I like it, like it, yes I do.

Guilty as Charged

A lot of people in Atlanta took umbrage at Dan Shaughnessy’s column in the Boston Globe aboutrise up how disappointed the New England Patriots must be in having to play the Falcons in the Super Bowl. He didn’t really say anything bad about the Falcons or Atlantans, oddly enough. The gist of his argument is that Atlantans aren’t die-hard professional sports fans (and thus aren’t worthy of a spot in the NFL’s big game), but are instead crazy about college football.

Guilty.

Don’t get me wrong, I love and support all of Atlanta’s professional sports team, and have all of my life, as numerous of these tedious blog posts will attest. I stand second to none in my fanaticism for the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks. Heck, I even loved the long-defunct Atlanta Flames and still support them in Calgary. I know that they currently own the 8th and last playoff spot in the NHL’s Western Conference right at this red-hot second. Find three other people south of the Mason-Dixon line who care about that, I dare you.

But yes, college football is king here. And news flash: we aren’t alone.

The Northeast is the only place where the love of pro football wins out over the college game because, with the exception of Boston College (for whom our beloved Matty Ice played), there is no college football north of Philadelphia worthy of the name. Rutgers doesn’t count, despite playing—if you can call Rutger’s performance last year “playing”—in the Big Ten.

Combine that with the fact that the Patriots are really, really good—as are the other Boston teams usually—and it’s understandable why professional sports fans there are legion.

Our fanaticism here is not because of the dearth of professional championships in Atlanta sports.

It’s because college football is more exciting and more fun to watch, in my humble and uninformed opinion.

The rivalries are much more intense, and the game-day atmosphere at big-time college football games is unmatched in any other sport. Any. Shaughnessy referenced lack of excitement in Atlanta last April about a Celtics-Hawks playoff matchup (which the Hawks won, by the way). Is he kidding? Seriously? The NBA?

For game-day excitement, try the Big House in Ann Arbor when Michigan plays Ohio State (ask Michigan alum Tom Brady about it). Or the Horseshoe in Columbus when it’s played there. Or in Oklahoma during Bedlam. Utah during the Holy War or Oregon’s Civil War. Also try finding cool names like these for NFL rivalries. You won’t.

The NFL has nothing—nothing—to compare to the Iron Bowl. Or the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal. Texas and Texas A&M (though temporarily suspended). Catholics vs. Convicts.

I’m not saying there aren’t great rivalries in the NFL—the Redskins and Cowboys, Patriots and Jets, and Packers and Bears all come to mind. Heck, the Falcons and Saints don’t like each other. And the best rivalries in baseball are the Yankees and Red Sox and Cubbies vs. Cards.

But it’s not the same as the blood feuds in college football, where many of these rivalries go back 130 years. The NFL has been around since the 1920s, but most franchises—including the Patriots—barely predate the 1960s. And rivalries are divisional (Cowboys-Redskins) not geographical, like Florida and Florida State, and don’t have nearly the emotional intensity of a life and death college football grudge match.

Boston’s a great sports town, make no mistake, and I can understand how the mighty Patriots might have wanted to play a different team, with a greater championship legacy. It’s like Montreal playing Phoenix in the Stanley Cup—hockey in Arizona?

But here’s a fact: when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2002, they had played previously in two Super Bowls (1986 & 1997), exactly one more than the Falcons (1998) at that time. And they had lost both of those games, to the more storied NFL franchises, the Bears and the Packers.

Yes, they’ve won four since, but we all have to start somewhere, including the Patriots. Pittsburgh had won 4 Super Bowl titles before the Patriots ever even appeared in the big game for the first time in 1986.

In sports as in life, all glory is fleeting. One should be wary of acting too smug about how supreme your team is over time. The Dallas Cowboys have wandered in the playoff and championship wilderness for 20 years now after Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith retired, and perhaps that fate awaits the Pats once Brady and Belichick are gone—which they will be one day.

Brady is a once-in-a-lifetime QB, and Belichick a once-in-a century coach. Their impact on that team is not unlike Michael Jordan’s and Coach Phil Jackson’s for the Chicago Bulls in the NBA. How many titles have the Bulls won without them? Zero.

Like Cowboys fans now, one can easily imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when Pats fans might be thrilled to play in the Super Bowl again after a long, long dry spell that nobody ever foresees when the champagne is flowing. They might one day even be thrilled to be playing against the Atlanta Falcons.

Rise up.

The First

0664_001Six months ago in this space I lamented the end of the baseball season. Now, with the arrival of April and the return of Spring and the national pastime, it’s only fitting that we remember the Georgia native who made history in 1947 by being The First.

For most of us, being first is something we long for. Americans like being first in everything—first means gold medals, it means winning, it means recognition, it means an association with being the best, with something good. First in line; first-come, first-served. The first in our class. First edition. The first to climb Mount Everest. First in the polls. First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen. The first sign of spring. The first time ever I saw your face. The first kiss, the first dance, the first date, the first to walk on the moon. The first day of the year. The first. Number one.

But what if being first means having people hate your guts? What if going to work every day meant you were open to taunts, threats, and physical violence? And what about volunteering to be the first at something you know is going to be the hardest road you’ve ever walked down in your life? Why would you do it? Would you do it? Honestly, most of us would say, let this cup pass from me. We are reminded of William Shakespeare’s great lines: Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them.

After World War II, Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey was looking for a way to put more fannies in the seats at Dodger games and to make his team better. Every team president wanted to do that. But the other thing Rickey had in mind seemed downright radical and, some thought, un-American. He wanted to break baseball’s color barrier and put a black baseball player on the Brooklyn Dodgers. A dangerous piece of social engineering, to be sure. To give you some perspective, that same year, 1947, the Memphis Censorship Board banned the movie Curley because it showed black and white children playing together. If you thought opposition to health care reform was intense, what Rickey wanted to do seemed unimaginable. There had been an unofficial “gentlemen’s agreement” against such a thing since the nineteenth century. But Branch Rickey, a man born in the late nineteenth century in Ohio, thought it was a good idea.

Who would he sign? It would take a rare individual; it had to be someone with a relentless personality and a determined drive to succeed. Someone who could take the most vile abuse imaginable and turn the other cheek. Someone who could psychologically endure loneliness and extreme public persecution while simultaneously being a very good baseball player. History had summoned Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

historical markerRobinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. Abandoned by her husband, his mother Mallie moved the family to Pasadena, California, in 1920, and Robinson attended John Muir Technical High School and Pasadena Community College before transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles. At UCLA he was an outstanding athlete, lettering in four sports—baseball, football, basketball, and track—and he excelled in swimming and tennis as well. Jackie Robinson was used to competing at the highest level of competition, and he was no shrinking violet. Scott Simon called him “a hard-nosed, hard-assed, brass-balled, fire-breathing athlete.”

Robinson showed early that he was not afraid to stand up to bigotry. He was drafted in 1942 and served on military bases in Kansas and Texas. With help from boxer Joe Louis, he succeeded in opening an Officer Candidate School for black soldiers. Soon after, Robinson became a second lieutenant. Late one evening at Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson got on a bus and spotted a fellow officer’s light-skinned wife who could easily be mistaken for white; he sat down next to her. The bus driver stopped the bus and yelled out, “Hey boy! Get to the back of the bus!” Robinson refused and faced a court martial. When a private at MP headquarters later that evening asked Robinson if he was “the nigger lieutenant” who had gotten in trouble, Jackie told him, “If you ever call me a nigger again, I’ll break you in two.” In the end, the order was ruled a violation of Army regulations, and he was exonerated. Shortly after leaving the Army in 1944, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs, a leading team in the Negro Leagues.

Robinson-RickeyWhen Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson and finally brought him up to the big leagues in the spring of 1947, baseball’s “Great Experiment,” as it was called, electrified America. Probably the only rookie given a day in his honor, Robinson trailed only Bing Crosby in a year-end national popularity poll. Virtually the entire black population of America became Dodger fans. At the end of the season, Robinson had been named the league’s Rookie of the Year (an award that now bears his name), gaining respect throughout the baseball world and beyond. Three years later he won the batting title, hitting .346, was named Most Valuable Player, and led the Dodgers to the World Series. Over a ten-year career he hit .311, and played in six all-star games and six World Series. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

It sounds like he won American Idol, doesn’t it? But this is to sum up a year and a career, and we don’t live our lives like that. We live out each minute and each hour, sometimes in excruciating pain. For Jackie Robinson, 1947 was an entirely different experience, a hell on earth.

The kind of public torture that Jackie Robinson faced few of us, thank goodness, will ever know. We all remember the public humiliation we felt and the laughter we faced from our peers when our mothers made us wear raincoats to school or take an umbrella on days when it rained, or when she made you wear a tie to school on picture day. And while few things in life equal the scorn of tormenting 13-year-olds whose approval you would desperately like to have, for most of us that’s as bad as it will ever get. But the rites of passage we all knew in our adolescence are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the special level of hell reserved for those first black students who walked up the steps that morning at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. For the first former slave who walked to a polling place and told a white man that he was there to vote after the Civil War. For the first women who attended law schools. This is the kind of first that Jackie Robinson volunteered for.

In a now-legendary meeting, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey confronted Robinson with the wide range of abuse he knew Robinson would face. Robinson listened to Rickey talk, growing visibly angry, and finally blew up. “Do you want a player afraid to fight back?” he shouted. Rickey replied no, that he wanted someone even tougher than that, someone, he said, “with the guts not to fight back.” Restraint would be the measure of his courage. Rickey told him, “Jackie, we’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owner, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid that many fans may be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I am doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, and a fine gentleman. You cannot fight back.” He told Robinson, “I need someone who can carry this load.” Robinson agreed that for three years, he wouldn’t fight back. He wouldn’t speak up. He wouldn’t argue. He would simply take it, and all the while he would try to perform at the highest level. Failure wasn’t an option.

Many thought Rickey would pick the great Satchel Paige, and when he wasn’t chosen reporters sought him out. Was he bitter or disappointed? No, Paige said with enormous class, “They didn’t make a mistake by signing Robinson,” he told them. “They couldn’t have picked a better man.” In Scott Simon’s words, Rickey had anointed a knight to ride out first.

But being first means being a target, and it began with members of his own team. In spring training, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher had to squelch plans for a players’ petition against Robinson in a midnight meeting. But when some Dodgers actively protested against Robinson, Durocher stood up to them: “Listen, I don’t care if this guy is white, black, green or has stripes like a f’ing zebra. If I say he plays, he plays. He can put an awful lot of f’ing money in our pockets. Take your petition and shove it up your ass. This guy can take us to the World Series, and so far we haven’t won spit.”

When the team went on the road in spring training, Robinson had to stay in different hotels, separate from the rest of the team, and eat in different dining rooms. And always he was alone. The famous Dodgertown complex later erected was in part a response to the problems that Robinson and other blacks faced with spring-training racism. His teammates kept their distance in the dugout and on the field. One sportswriter said that Jackie Robinson looked to him, sitting in the dugout all by himself, away from his teammates, like the loneliest man in the world. He knew that nearly everyone wanted to see him fall flat on his face, to make a fool of himself, and of Branch Rickey, who was accused of being a communist and a socialist. After the start of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals were rumored to be planning a strike in protest of Robinson. Vile insults and black cats were thrown at him from the stands in St. Louis. Some of the worst abuse came from players on opposing teams.

The Phillies were managed by Ben Chapman from Alabama, and he told his players that when Robinson came to bat, to open up with both barrels, to taunt and bait Robinson with all they had, “to see if he can take it.” Hitting a major league curveball is considered one of the most difficult of all athletic achievements. Imagine trying to do it while hearing things like this coming from the opposing dugout:

“Hey nigger! That ball ain’t no watermelon boy!”

“You can’t play with white boys, you know that! Get back to the jungle, nigger boy!”

“Hey nigger, why don’t you go back to the cotton field where you belong?”

“Hey, snowflake, which one of those white boys’ wives are you dating tonight?”

“We don’t want you here, nigger!”

We can wonder now how anyone could have been so ignorant. Or how he could have endured it. There were references to thick lips, thick skulls, and syphilis sores. The stands rained down with tomatoes, rocks, watermelon slices, Sambo dolls, and the most vile things you could ever say to another human.

jackie robinson pee wee reeseIt did something even to his own teammates, who for the most part had left him alone, had kept their distance. Dodger Eddie Stanky—also from Alabama—had enough. He stood up on the dugout steps and called Chapman a coward and told him to pick on someone who could fight back. In Cincinnati, Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese,a native of Louisville, Kentucky, put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder to show his support for his teammate. A small thing, really, but a hugely symbolic moment that was lost on no one and meant the world to Robinson.

There were other moments, with other teams. In Pittsburgh, Robinson and the great Hank Greenberg, who was Jewish and had been called vile names himself, collided on a violent play at first and Robinson was called safe. It was a tense moment. They each got up, dusted themselves off, and as Robinson took his lead off first base, he heard Greenberg say behind him, “Stick in there. You’re doing fine. Keep your chin up.” After the game, Robinson told a reporter, “Class sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”

As Branch Rickey later remembered, racists like Chapman actually brought the Dodgers together as nothing else could. “He solidified and unified thirty men, not one of whom was willing to sit by and see someone kick a man who had his hands tied behind his back.” Incidentally, Jackie Robinson scored the only run that day. The Dodgers beat Chapman’s Phillies 1-0. God does have a sense of humor.

He said later that that day almost broke him. For one moment, he remembered, he thought, “to hell with this.” “I was, after all, a human being. What was I doing here turning the other cheek as though I weren’t a man?” Robinson said he wanted to “stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches, and smash his teeth with my despised black fist.”

That Jackie Robinson had to go through something like that just to play a game is shameful, but it gives us some insight into the character of the man that he endured it, bore it with grace and dignity, and thrived in spite of it. He stood there and took it, and he did it, he said later, for his mother who had kept his family together after being abandoned by his father, for his brothers who never got this kind of chance, for Branch Rickey who displayed enormous courage himself, and for all the ones who would come after him. It was for good reason that much later his daughter Sharon wrote a children’s book about him entitled Testing the Ice, which he did both literally and metaphorically. This was a man whose life provided a foundation upon which so many others would build. Willie Mays said later that every time he looked at his house he thanked God for Jackie Robinson.

After three years, Robinson pushed back. He argued with umpires, he protested second-class accommodations, and no one ever taunted him to his face. But having to internalize all of it killed him, quite literally. He was dead by 53. It is his name we remember today, and not those of the small men who taunted him.

jackie quoteThis is what makes history so fascinating to me: you can read all day about how depraved humans as a species have been, but then you come across someone who inspires you by simple acts of courage and dignity. Jackie Robinson was not a great military hero or politician; he never took a city by force, never won an election, never conquered an army, never explored unknown lands, never founded a colony. He never started a war or ended one. Nor was he a saint. No man is. He was just a baseball player, albeit a great one; but he was so much more than that. As someone once said, it didn’t take a great baseball player to break down that barrier. It took a great man.

Even if she never likes baseball—and she will—I want my daughter to know about Jackie Robinson. I want her to learn that many things she might take for granted were achieved only with great sacrifice and at a very high cost, and that she will have opportunities in her life—to vote, to go to college, perhaps attend law school, become a doctor, a CEO, a writer, a soldier, a teacher, a baseball player—because someone else opened a door that was closed and carried the weight of being first upon their shoulders. And should she herself ever be called upon one day to step forward and be the first in some field or endeavor, she could have no better example of how to walk a difficult and lonely yet dignified path than the life of Jackie Robinson.

rounding thirdRobinson was a brave and courageous man, one of those rare souls who, when the great question is asked, “who will go first?” didn’t avert his eyes, put his head down, or walk away. He stepped forward and said, “I will.” When he took the field on April 15, 1947, and kept taking it, day after day, he didn’t just make the Dodgers better. He made the human race better. “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me,” he said, “all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

Play ball.

Historic Selfies and Presidential Poo Poo: History in the News

bost_gazette_1758nov06nameplateIn case you missed them, here’s a roundup of some interesting stories related to history that have been in the news recently. The freshest advices, foreign and domestic. Enjoy.  

Selfies before Selfies: Here’s a story about a cache of photographs that were founds-deaton of a manMysteryManInteriorHighRes who took almost 450 pictures of himself in a photo booth over a number of years. Who is he, and why did he take these pictures? Was he documenting his appearance over time? Was he, as some have suggested, a photo-booth repairman who was simply testing the equipment? Or was he simply taking selfies before the invention of cellphone cameras? This is an exhibit worth seeing.

You Never Write Anymore: An interesting story about a recently-translated letter written by a Greek soldier to his family, complaining that he’s written six letters home with no response. Have they forgotten about him? The letter was written nearly 2,000 years ago.

Tippecanoe Poo: Historians have long thought that President William Henry Harrison literally talked himself to death. He died a month after his 1841 inauguration, where he talked for over an hour in the wet and cold and caught pneumonia. New research shows that perhaps something else got him: Washington’s bad sewage that flowed too close to the White House.

Quiet on the Set: Mickey Rooney celebrated his 93rd birthday mickey_rooney_1927_-_h_-_2014.jpglast September and film buffs now have another reason to celebrate: A copy of the silent film that featured his very first starring role, 1927’s Mickey’s Circus, was recently discovered in the Netherlands, along with dozens of other long-lost silent films, and they are all now slated for restoration. Film fans rejoice.

I Got You, Babe: Recently discovered footage of Babe Ruth standing in the New York Yankees dugout was shot on an historic day: June 1, 1925, the day that Lou Gehrig began his streak of 2,130 consecutive games. Baseball fans rejoice, and not just because the season started this week.

Not so fast, my friend: The Brits halted the sale and export of two manuscripts that they Rosetta Stonedeemed irreplaceable cultural treasures, and they’re now housed at the British Museum. It doesn’t say who the buyer was, but probably some wealthy American. Good for them. That’s how they lost the papers of James Boswell (the great biographer of Samuel Johnson) nearly a century ago that are now housed at Yale. But isn’t it ironic that the Brits have had the Rosetta Stone, an Egyptian cultural treasure, safely housed at the British Museum since 1802, and have resisted all calls by the Egyptians to return the stone to them?

Read it and Weep: The National September 11 Memorial Museum opens next month in Manhattan, and some folks are questioning the use of a line from Virgil’s Aeneid that will be onSept 11 prominent display at the Memorial: “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.” But who, exactly, is the “you” referring to in this quote? Read the article to find out. No matter where you stand on this issue, I’m in favor of seeing classical authors like Virgil in the news. If this controversy prompts one person to actually read the Aeneid, that’s a good thing.

Dumb, dumb, dumb: Finally, there’s this little gem, which just confirms that dodo birds are not, in fact, extinct. StealingMy mother taught me that if you take something that doesn’t belong to you, it’s stealing. When you spend the $31,000 the bank erroneously deposits into your account,  you better hope you look good in orange.

Have a nice day.

The Long Walk Home

photo 4Poet Pam Brown wrote that the difference between “coming home to an empty house” and “coming home” is one small cat. You wouldn’t think that an 8-pound ball of fur that mainly played, ate, and slept could do that to your heart. But she did. And it didn’t take long.

I first met the cat who became Bunny on a Sunday afternoon, October 7, 1990, when I was 25 years old. I had been enrolled in the history Ph.D. program at the University of Florida for a little over a month, and my wife and I were back home in Atlanta visiting her parents. That Sunday afternoon we went to Perimeter Mall, and as we were leaving we stopped in the mall’s pet store.

We had talked about getting a cat in the year that we’d been married but hadn’t to that point. What made us do so on that day I cannot remember, but we found a small black kitty that was really friendly and I wanted it.

My wife pointed out another cat—a small black and white tuxedo—that was realbunny 4ly shy and timid. I wasn’t particularly interested in her but we made the impulse decision right then and there to get two kittens, thinking they’d be good company for each other when we weren’t home.

The one I picked out, Twinkletoes, lived about 6 weeks, dead from feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). We had to put her to sleep and it nearly killed me. The other one—the black and white tuxedo—would live almost 24 years, and entwined herself into our lives and around our hearts in a way I would not have thought possible.

bunny 2She became “Bunny” in a round-about way. She had a way of sitting that looked as if she’d squeezed herself into a bun, a tight little kitty doorstop, and we jokingly referred to her as the Kitty Bun. That eventually morphed into a host of other nicknames, but she was usually referred to as either Bun Bun or just The Bunny, as in “Where’s the Bunny?”

Being in grad school with a working wife meant that I spent countless hours at home alone, studying, reading, and writing. The Bunny, meowing, playing, crawling all over me, seeking my attention, sleeping in my lap, was a constant companion. Plus I was the one who fed her, and cats are fast learners. In no time, though I hadn’t chosen her at the pet store, she became my cat. And in essence she became our first child.

photo 3She possessed the sweetest, most gentle disposition I’ve ever known in an animal. When she was home alone, she slept in a prominent place in a basket in a front window in the sunshine. When you came home, she greeted you at the door, was always glad to see you, and couldn’t wait for you to sit down so she could get in your lap. When I wrote at my desk, she laid on the desk. When I read a book or a newspaper, she tried to lay on the book or the newspaper, and most of the time I let her and just did something else. When I watched TV, she stretched out in my lap. If I was home, she was with me or very nearby. She always wanted my attention and she usually got it. I would let her eat food off my plate and even sit on the dining room table. (She loved grilled chicken above all else.) As long as she didn’t actually try to sit on my plate, I was okay with it.

The amount of attention and love I showered upon Bunny was ridiculous. It was for good reason that my friend April once said that she wanted to be reincarnated as my cat. “Spoiled” doesn’t adequately describe it.

Bunny lived through the 8 years that we lived in Gainesville, Florida, through classes, qualifying exams, and the grind and gruel of dissertation research and writing. She then made the move to Savannah with us and took possession of the first house we bought, kindly agreeing to let us live there with her for the next 15 years.

bunny 9In 2000 she passed the 10-year mark, and as I built my career at the Georgia Historical Society, she took up residence in the customary front window at home, where people could see her every day sleeping on a red blanket. We bought a Persian rug once and when the salesman asked where we lived, he said, “I know that house. You have a black and white cat that sleeps in the window.”

Milestones came and went and Bunny was always there. Every night when I went to bed she found her way to my side and stayed there till morning. When I started getting up bunny 6before dawn to read, she got up with me and sat in my lap as I turned the pages, becoming a part of every book I’ve read for the last dozen years. When my family purchased a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2003, she went there with us and loved it like a second home. When we visited family in Atlanta for Christmas, she always came with us.

In 200January5 she turned 15, still with nary a physical ailment. We had her for almost 16 years before our daughter Ellie was born in 2006, and we thought Bunny wouldn’t be around long enough for Ellie to really ever get to know her. We were wrong of course. After an initial “getting to know you” period, they bonded together too. Bunny turned 20 in 2010 with hardly any sign of slowing down.

By that time she had become legendary at the vet. They marveled over how healthy she was, how good she looked, and always raved at her overall condition. With each birthday, she reached uncharted territory.

Aging came slowly, but it eventually came, as it does to all of us. First, her hearing went, whichbunny mtns actually made her less jumpy and more mellow—and consequently a better traveler. Her aim, shall we say, at the litter box, got worse and so we had to spread out towels around it. But otherwise she still got around great, still jumped on our bed at night, still had the same loving, sweet personality she’d always had. I began to think she’d just go on forever.

Then in the fall of 2012, at age 22, we noticed one day that her back legs didn’t work exactly as they once had. She had had a stroke. The day before Thanksgiving that fall she began having seizures. Medication could control them but not eliminate the cause, and her doctor said it would be a miracle if she lived another 6 months. She lived those 6 months and kept on going, celebrating her 23rd birthday in July 2013. Walking was difficult, and she seemed confused, but when Christmas arrived, she was there too. It was our 24th Christmas together.

bunny 8Her body, finally and inevitably, just gave out, though her indomitable and loving spirit never did. In a matter of a few days, she stopped eating and grew weak, and though we had always hoped she would go on her own, she didn’t. We had to make the painful but necessary decision to have her put to sleep on Tuesday, February 18, 2014, and she died with her head in my hands. In human years she was 114 years old.

Coming home that day two weeks ago to an empty house, in which we had hardly spent a day without her, was the hardest of all.

Bunny lived a long and unusually healthy life almost up to the end. There is no cause for complaint here; who can ever expect that a 12-week-old kitten that you pick up in a pet store on an autumn Sunday afternoon would live for nearly a quarter of a century? I was 25 when I got her and now stand on the threshold of 50. I know that there will be many more losses to come. Her death marks the end of an era that stretches back almost half of my life, a passing of time and youth and something else that is irreplaceable. I know that there will never be another quite like her.

Many people have said to me how blessed we were to have had such a loving pet for so long,bunny 5 which is of course true. But it’s a blessing and a curse. You want them to live a long time, but after nearly a quarter of a century, they aren’t just your pet anymore. You’ve lived with them every day, woke up to their touch, fed them, nursed them when they grew old. They have been through many sad and happy days with you, been there almost as no one else has, and remained loving and loyal as others came into and went out of your life. They become your friend, your source of love and affection, your companion in ways you could not ever believe when you first get them. They are more a part of your family than some family members are. The loss when they die is real and it is painful, and their passing leaves a void that cannot be filled. As Jean Cocteau wrote, cats become the visible soul of the home.

Only those who have walked this dark and lonely path themselves understand the depth of grief that comes with losing something so dear. My friend Pamela, who lives in Alaska, has known deep loss herself, and she sent me a note after Bunny’s death. I can do no better than to quote her:

bunny 3“Losing someone who has been a close companion for 23 years would be indescribably difficult. She clearly was incredibly attached to you to have stayed this long. You did her a kindness, a ‘severe mercy.’ But I personally believe in my heart of hearts that she’s running free right now, beyond age and wear, keeping an eye out for you so that when that time comes, she’ll be there to walk you home too.”