Copyright © 2018 Jim Sizemore.
In his final days my younger brother Ernie did not—as Dylan Thomas wrote in his classic poem—”rage, rage, against the dimming of the light.” During his extended hospice care the only time he expressed anger about anything, least of all his dire situation, was when the Virginia traffic authorities tried to revoke his driving permit for backing into a handicapped sign in a parking lot. Ernie said that constituted a crime against his “God-given” right as an American citizen, and he wasn’t joking. But at least that story turned out well. After extensive eye, health and driving tests, his permit and tags were reinstated. And he kept driving for several months.
Ernie joked a lot. Sharp mind, witty mouth. And he was an excellent armature cartoonist. While he was in hospice care, he even suggested an idea for a gag cartoon and collaborated with me on it via our cellphones. Before sending it off to my distributor, cartoonstock.com, I also posted the finished product on this blog. If you check out his slightly dark gag you may understand how a person in Ernie’s circumstances—assuming a great sense of humor, might come up with such an idea.
When I visited Ernie very near the end of his life he took me on an “exiting” drive up the crazy windy roads from my home town of Covington, Virginia, to the Homestead Resort in Warm Springs. Even then, hunched down in his seat, his driving technique was mostly smooth and professional. Except, that is, the time he answered a call with the car in motion. I took a long beat and gently suggested that I’d appreciate it if he didn’t do it again. He didn’t, even though his phone signaled several times. He also drove back down the mountain with a short pullover at Falling Springs, Va., very near where our mother was born, so I could walk the short distance to view the beautiful 200-foot cascade. Ernie remained sitting in the car next to his mobile oxygen tank. Unlike in years past, the few steps to the view he loved were too many for him.
Ernie and I had been a creative team for a long time. That included a dish washing stint that began around ages six and eight. A year or two after the above picture was snapped, our mother began to stand us on kitchen chairs at the sink each day—sometimes twice a day—for our domestic chore; I’d wash and he’d dry.
No more chores with Ernie. I’ll never again talk with him on the phone once or twice a day, chat about this and that—family, baseball, and many other subjects. My younger brother (by 15 months), Ernest Berkley Sizemore, died one week before Thanksgiving on November 16, 2017.
Dylan Thomas, 1914 – 1953
By Jim Sizemore
It’s the early1960s. I’m driving home west to east on Northern Parkway from my GS-2 clerical job at SSA Headquarters in Woodlawn. We live in a small apartment in a new duplex on a street of old homes in Hamilton. That “we’ includes my wife and toddler son, but I’m also talking about “The Big Guy” who lives downstairs. That’s my nickname for him. He and his wife moved in after we did. My wife and I have a one-bedroom and she’s pregnant with our second son. Once home, my little family and I will sit down to a pleasant dinner. But, as usual, I’m really looking forward to later in the evening when my son is in bed, my wife relaxing and watching TV. That’s when The Big Guy usually calls me down to his apartment for several games of darts. He has his own dartboard and we play almost every night.
The Big Guy, who is 6’ 4’’and 230 pounds, is super-competitive. Me, I’m 5’ 8” and 150 pounds on a good day, but I can be pretty competitive myself—depending on the game. And I love darts. I get the idea that the Big Guy has too much time on his hands—which in his case translates into to plenty of time to practice darts. That’s because he’s sort of out of work—recovering from an injury to his shoulder. (Not the shoulder of his dart-throwing arm, thank goodness.) I guess being home with very limited physical or social activity all day, he’s ready for company—sort of lonely, you might say. So he asks often and I often agree. After many months, “competitive” or not, he still hasn’t managed to beat me at darts.
My darts friend is Jackie Burkett, a Baltimore Colt rookie. You may have heard of him. His wife, a very attractive “Southern Belle” is also a Jackie. They’re from Alabama. They met as kids in high school and both graduated from Auburn University. He was a star in all kinds of college sports, especially football—big-time famous at that. He was drafted by the Baltimore Colts as a linebacker, but was injured in a pre-season game. Jackie had surgery on his shoulder at Union Memorial Hospital on 33rd Street. My wife and I visited him there. We are all about the same age, so young, so very married, and we are pretty close. In fact, my wife’s parents are godparents for one of their kids. So what is he doing in my neighborhood at all? Well, rookie footballers don’t make a lot of money, so they tend to live in modest local areas with the rest of we civilians. Which is kind of nice.
Tonight’s dart game begins as usual; Jackie is full of fun and fire, joking around. It always starts this way. I’m thinking he’s over-confident as usual, despite or because of all of his lengthy practice sessions. I have no reason not to think that it will end as usual, too—after three or four games, me the big winner. But tonight the first game is very close—too close for comfort—and I only pull it out at the very end. The second game I also win. Game three? There is no game three tonight. Jackie has lost interest. This has not been his evening, and it’s even worse than usual. His stance is off, lower arm not level, his release point inconsistent, his follow-through nonexistent. So of course he loses again. After only two games, Jackie seems to somehow shrink in size. Not really sink, of course, but his shoulders slump when he loses. And with me he always loses at darts.
The next night Jackie suggests another activity altogether. He loves golf almost as much as football, and is really, really good at it—as I come to find out. Out of the blue, Jackie asks me to go along with him to a local driving range to, as he says, “slam a bucket” of balls. I have never hit a golf ball in my life, but with my natural physical ability/agility—darts, of course, and military marching moves: Right Face, Left Face, About Face, etc.—I figure I’ll be right at home. At least I’ll not make a fool of myself with the golf challenge. Long story short, I make a fool of myself. Jackie’s golf balls, even the weak drives, travel 200+ yards. He slams some in a straight line 300+ yards. All of mine, if I manage to make contact at all, trickle off the tee.
Many years have passed since we lived in Hamilton. My toddler and his brother are now grown men with their own families. I have Grandchildren and even a couple of great-grandchildren. My wife and I split up after a too-short marriage and I’ve lived many places and worn a number of hats in the interim. Jackie Burkett, well, he went on to play for the New Orleans Saints and the Dallas Cowboys. He co-owned a restaurant in New Orleans and was the marketing executive for an engineering firm. In politics, he became the Fort Walton County Commissioner. And his marriage remained intact throughout his life, his children and grandchildren close. Anyway you look at it, Jackie proved to be a winner.
As for me, it’s still all about the darts.
Thanks to Florence Newman who helped me shape this essay—suggesting changes and additions to greatly improve it. She understood what I was trying to do and helped me do it. Flo is another big winner in my life.
Postscript: It saddens me to report that Jackie Burkett died from leukemia, September 1, 2017, age 80.
Much of the credit for the proclamation should go to a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale. A prominent writer and editor, Hale had written the children’s poem “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in 1830, and helped found the American Ladies Magazine, which she used as a platform to promote women’s issues. In addition to her publishing work, Hale was a committed advocate for women’s education (including the creation of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York).
She had grown up regularly celebrating an annual Thanksgiving holiday, and in 1827 published a novel, “Northwood: A Tale of New England,” that included an entire chapter about the fall tradition, already popular in parts of the nation. Hale often wrote editorials and articles about the holiday and she lobbied state and federal officials to pass legislation creating a fixed, national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November—a unifying measure, she believed that could help ease growing tensions between North and South. Her efforts paid off: By 1854, more than 30 states and U.S. territories had a Thanksgiving celebration.
She continued to write editorials on the subject, urging Americans to “put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and rally around the unifying cause of Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln himself called for a day of thanks in April 1862, following Union victories at Fort Donelson, Fort Henry and at Shiloh, and again in the summer of 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg.
Shortly after Lincoln’s summer proclamation, Hale wrote to both the president and Secretary of State William Seward, urging them to declare a national Thanksgiving, stating that only the chief executive had the power to make the holiday, “permanently, an American custom and institution.” Within a week, Seward had drafted Lincoln’s official proclamation fixing the national observation of Thanksgiving on the final Thursday in November, a move the two men hoped would help “heal the wounds of the nation.”
After more than three decades of lobbying, Sarah Josepha Hale (and the United States) had a new national holiday.
Footnote: In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt briefly moved Thanksgiving up a week, in an effort to extend the already important shopping period before Christmas and spur economic activity during the Great Depression. Several states followed FDR’s lead, others balked, with 16 states refusing to honor the calendar shift. Just two years later, in the fall of 1941, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution returning the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.
By Florence Newman
One Halloween night, when my friend Ellie and I were about eight or nine, we went trick-or-treating door to door around our neighborhood. This was in those dangerous days before parents hovered protectively behind their costumed children to make sure that they didn’t get snatched by predators posing as genial homeowners or receive apples lanced with razor blades. Back then, we two girls were alone as we approached a stranger’s house where a glowing porch light beckoned. I recall the house being set back among some trees, with a long, serpentine brick walk leading to an old-fashioned gabled portico, but such “memories” are no doubt later embellishments conjured up to match the eeriness of what happened there.
Ellie rang the doorbell. We were dressed as society ladies in our mothers’ long gloves and pearl necklaces (we loved playing dress-up), or maybe I was Peter Pan and Ellie was Wendy, as we were one year for a class play called “Midnight in the Library,” in which characters escaped from their books and frolicked on the stage. The light from the doorway must have fallen over a charming picture of childish expectation as we stood there with our innocent, upturned faces and outstretched paper bags. “Trick or treat!” But the woman who had opened the door didn’t offer us candy. Was she short and silver-haired or young, willowy, and brunette? I guess I’ve forgotten. Or else it was hard to make out the details of her figure, back lit in the frame of the door. Certainly we were dazzled when she leaned over and told us, conspiratorially, that she was a witch.
“And I have a gift for each of you. Hold out your hand.”
Of course we did. Into my palm she pressed two copper pennies, then two more into Ellie’s.
“These are magic pennies. Promise you won’t lose them.”
We nodded solemnly, conscious of the awesome power with which we were being entrusted. As we left, Ellie and I looked at each other: she was grinning and her eyes had a mischievous twinkle. Did we believe the pennies were really magic? I, at least, believed they might be. After all, we had read about magic in the Narnia stories and in The Hobbit and The Time Garden and The Enchanted Castle. And before those, there had been fairy tales, like Jack and the Beanstalk, which taught us that the world was filled with magic that one could stumble across at any time and that only grown-ups foolishly rejected. Now here was a grown-up who not only believed in magic but was herself a witch, proving what every child secretly wishes to be true.
I never put the pennies to the test: what if they failed, shattering my fragile faith, already under assault by life’s steady barrage of the banal and ordinary? But neither did I lose them. Every now and then, 55-odd years on, when I’m looking for something else, I come across a battered leather box in a bureau drawer and discover inside it an ornate, antique key, badly tarnished; several unmatched buttons; and a square plastic container, about one inch by one inch, through whose top I can see two copper pennies. All thoughts of my original purpose are crowded out by recollections of that night, my friend Ellie (does she still have her pennies?), and the remarkable woman who claimed to be a witch. I am old enough now to be such a witch—a short, silver-haired one—though, as I mentioned, it’s hard to catch children alone on Halloween anymore. Witches were probably scarce even in those long-ago days. Still, I can aspire to be the rare woman who passes along that truly magical gift.
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.