Copyright © 2018 Jim Sizemore
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.
“I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, share-croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill-workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy
Harper Collins, New York, 2016
I left the Potomoc River home of my still-sleeping hosts before seven in the morning and drove all the way through Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to the Food Lion on the other side of town. They were open but had only Sunday Washington Posts, stacks of them; no Sunday New York Times. Still searching for the Times, I stopped at the Sheetz gas station on the way back to the river house. Same deal, not a N.Y.T. logo in sight. Continuing on German Street, back toward Rt. 230 and my hosts’ home, I noticed a clean well-lighted place, the only business open on the town’s main drag. It was a restaurant called Betty’s, a down-home old-style main street-type diner; extreme chintz and hand-lettered everything. (Click attached picture to enlarge.) Inside, there was a sign up front that said “Please Wait to be Seated.” Two older men and a single woman about the same age were seated all the way in back, each in individual booths.
The waitress, a very pleasant young woman, on the chubby side, called out to me “You can sit anyplace, sir.” I took a booth just in front of the other three residents—so close I could overhear the conservation between the two men and the waitress. They were discussing their various health issues, weight, high blood pressure, and their mutual love of chocolate. Two more men in our collective age group came in and selected individual booths just in front of me. The waitress greeted each one by name. I said, smiling up at the waitress, “Gee, I wish I was a regular!” “You can be one,” she said, laughing, “I’ll treat you right.” She took my order—two eggs over medium with sausage gravy and one biscuit. As she walked away, I noticed a newspaper rack up front and went to check it out. Bingo—a huge stack of Sunday New York Times off to one side!
As I settled back in my booth with my treasured newspaper, several more male customers came in and they, too, took individual booths. Again, the waitress greeted them by their first names and brought them coffee without waiting to be told to do so. Then she placed a cup of steaming black coffee exactly halfway down the empty counter and left it there. A minute or two later another older man came in, picked up a local paper from one of the racks and sat down at the coffee cup waiting for him on the counter. He and the waitress exchanged greetings and a bit of banter.
Shortly after that, she topped-off the coffee cup of the man in the booth directly in front of me, then scratched his back. Then she topped-off my cup and said, “Plus one for you, too,” and scratched my back. I laughed and said, “Now I really do feel at home!”
So, of course, on the way out, as I paid the waitress for my breakfast, I told her, “I will be back,” and gave her a very generous tip. She said, “Now you do that, hon—and soon, too, OK? You’re my new best buddy.”
“Mutual,” I said. “Very, very mutual.”
My oldest brother, on the right in this picture, died in his sleep on Friday, April 29, 2016. He was 84. It was a peaceful passing. (My brother Lee is on the left in the photo.) After escaping our violent birth-family as a teenager, Doug was free to create a good life for himself, and he certainly made the best of that opportunity. Ironically, though, along with his three brothers—me included—his initial ticket to a “safer” and happier existence turned out to be a career in the military.
After his service in the army, Doug made a happy marriage that lasted for well over 50 years. His four children, two girls, two boys, turned out well. Doug was a happy man and had a great sense of humor. He was healthy right up to the end. And he was a lucky man, too, in other ways—lucky to be loved by his extended family and a wide range of friends, many of whom dated from his Korean War days in the 1950’s.
It’s not surprising that in many ways, with the exception of marriage, Brother Doug was a roll-model for me. He still is. Doug left this life the way I’d like to go—in bed, asleep, oblivious. A few days after I got the news of Doug’s death, this thought popped into my head: Except for the dreams we have nightly, I believe that deep and contented sleep is the ideal practice for a good death.