My father didn't realize that Barry White music and flirty words might one day begat me -- a grown man desperately trying to navigate family, career, and spiritual issues.
Few things give me pleasure like watching students’ faces contort as their teen-aged brains work to process my response to their birthday proclamations.
"Uhh…Mr. Huff. It’s not my anniversary…it’s my birthday."
"True…but it’s also the anniversary of you hurting your mother for the first time."
"I’ve never hurt my Momma…ohh," their voices always trail off when they get the jest of my statement.
"Yep," I continue on as if I hadn’t heard them, "You hurt your momma so bad, in fact, it took her about two months to heal."
"You, on the other hand, simply showed up wet, hungry, and expecting your every whimper to be satisfied."
"I never thought of it that way…," they usually whisper.
Cocking my eyebrow, I ask “So considering that this anniversary is basically Mothers’ Day, what gift have you given your momma?”
"I gave her a hug/kiss," they usually respond cheerfully.
"What are you expecting from her?"
They usually rattle off a list of things that would make Santa Claus sigh.
Interrupting the child, I quickly say, “You lived rent-free in one of the safest, most nutrient-rich environments in the universe for nine months, and you thank your mother by holding her bank account hostage? Go sit down!”
So before you wish me a happy birthday, consider wishing me a “Happy Anniversary” instead. Because after witnessing my wife deliver our babies, I realize the only thing happy about labor and delivery is being the partner in a relationship without a birthing canal!
Happy Anniversary, Momma!
My “Spidey Senses” began to tingle as my 12yr old rumbled over to me during my third Christmas Dinner helping of collard greens, ham, macaroni, dressing, homemade rolls, and sweet potatoes.
Unwilling to rush food down my throat, I pensively cocked my eyebrow at the boy and mumbled, "Wuhph foo oo ant, En? (Translation: What do you want, Ben?)"
"Wanna come see the tent I made?"
I shuddered for I knew what his next question would be.
"Daddy, can you sleep in it with me and Tim?"
Impulsively, I reached for my lower back remembering the last time I slept in one of Ben’s homemade tents.
Quickly, I ran a mental list of options:
Option 1. Tell the boy that I don’t want to sleep in a collection of blankets, bungee cords, and pecan tree branches when I own a perfectly good bed and a wife willing to help me make a child who won’t ask me to sleep in a fake tent.
Result: Put a down payment on the special hell created for apathetic fathers.
Option 2. Start coughing wildly, grab my throat as if I’m choking, run to the bathroom (with my plate-load of food still in hand), finish eating over the sink in silence.
Result: Did I already mention the “Special Hell?”
Option 3. Send out my reconnaissance team.
"Man, I’m eating," I said to the boy. I look over at my smiling 14 yr old daughter. Her toothy grin is not for my predicament. Instead, it’s for the hundredth cat/kitten video or Facebook post she’s viewed today on MY iPod Touch I bought with MY money.
"Girl, go take that iPod and get some pictures of that tent outside (I had to repeat myself because one of the cat/kitten posts she was watching was apparently deafeningly adorable).”
Upon her return, I reviewed the pictures of Benji’s construction project, deemed the structure sound, and proclaimed, "Man, that looks great. I’ll sleep in it tomorrow."
Tomorrow. Please let that red-afroed, freckled-faced, singing ball of energy be wrong about “the sun coming out tomorrow.” I needed lightning bolts, hail, snow storms, 100 mph gusts of wind…anything to save my back from the hard ground, and my ribs and face (and other tender regions) from my sons’ flying knees and elbow as they toss and turn during the night.
One night after the celebration of the Miracle Birth, no miraculous weather-event was provided to me. Just a light rain that tap-tapped on the tarp Benji placed strategically on top of all the blankets of his tent.
My back is sore, but somehow the rogue drops of water that have pooled on my side of the tent soothed my pain. Ben’s bear-like snores rattle my ears and pry my eyes open every few minutes.
But in the end, I knew I would have earned the right to be grumpy the following day. And maybe, just maybe, my grumpiness would be enough of a force-field that would allow me to eat my Christmas Day Leftovers in peace.
She gracefully pivoted out of her room while abruptly closing her door (a stern warning to younger brothers naïve enough to storm her fortress).
Down the hall, I sat on the edge of the same bed she used to quietly scale like a mountain-climber seeking to roost in Mt. Everest’s peaks. Back then, her erratic internal toddler-feeding clock coupled with our “new parent open-door policy” proved to be an effectively frustrating form of birth-control.
From my room, the tight quarters of our home give me, in essence, a front row seat as the kids hustled like stirred up fire ants repairing a damaged mound as they put the finishing touches on their Sunday morning ensembles.
"Five minutes!" I bellow.
Thirty minutes ago, the oven-clock had been set as a countdown timer. When it beeped, it’s time to go…or Daddy (with Mommy’s disapproval) will leave with or without you.
No one in the house understood this better than our youngest. For three snot and tear-filled minutes, he frantically chased the minivan out of Pletz County Park long after I had already called everyone to the van after three warnings. When we got home that evening, and the two oldest laughingly retold the story to my wife, the icy stares I received nearly pierced a hole through my eyes. But it didn’t matter, the point was made: listen to Daddy.
The youngest scrambled into his clothes quickly and found the laptop.
The middle boy wisely chose to stay at Grandma’s house the previous night. There she lovingly produced a breakfast spread fit for a king. No timers. No Mommy and Daddy hawking his clothes. Just be ready when they came to pick him up.
But for now, “Grandma…where’s the orange juice?”
"Oh!" she exclaimeds as her eyes darted past the juicy portions of sausage, golden brown biscuits, scrambled eggs with sautéed onions and diced tomatoes, organic jelly, and meticulously sliced bananas, "I’ll be right back. You eat."
As she disappeared into the kitchen, he folded his hands behind his head, leaned back into his seat, and exhaled a deep, satisfying, relaxing, hotel-with-room service sigh.
Back at the house, the oldest walked into bedroom mission control with four remaining minutes ticking away relentlessly on the clock. My eyes dropped to her feet — feet that used to wildly jackhammer the ground when she was learning to walk; feet that always managed to crush my fingers if I choose to lay on the carpet to watch t.v.
My view shifted to the legs that used to be thick, stumpy, and muscular covered with skin that resembled caramel-coated bacon. ”Those are track-running thighs, if I’ve ever seen ‘em”, I used to proudly announce as if I was a stockshow auctioneer about to start a bidding war. Now, as a 14 year old, her lean and suddenly long legs fit a bit too snuggly in her jeans. But I let it slide…today.
Her top reminded me of a kelly-green jelly-fish, because of its layered, light-weight, seer-sucker fabric. Her delicate arms and a PART of her shoulders are bare…her arms and shoulders are bare…her arms and shoulders are bare…
I visibly shake my head in an effort to remove my Daddy-obsessive tendencies. She bought this shirt with Mommy I remind herself. Mommy is conservative. Mommy dresses well. Mommy okayed this shirt. Get over yourself, Barry.
The back of her hair no longer resembles a nest of unruly sea urchins as it did when Mommy first relinquished her daily beauty shop wrestling match drama. It’s now a fun, tangle, of natural, teenage chaos.
Simply said: she’s lovely.
The long-rusty, pre-children internal machinery in charge of forming smiles in my mouth began to crank-up once again, before I saw it.
As she walked, her stylish jeans betrayed a two-inch wide oval hole framing a slice of her skin. A slice of her skin those in the medical community refer to as the “Daisy Duke Region”. With each step toward me, the hole would open and close as if it were chewing her leg.
"Nuh-uh," I said pointing at the hole.
"What a minute…didn’t I say something about those same damn pants before?"
Her head drops, and she says lowly, “Yes.”
"You better find some other jeans!"
She turns, sighs, and walks back into her bedroom fortress.
One battle down, countless more to go.
I always wanted to play football for my two youngest uncles.
At high school football games, their passion for the game would overflow with every snap, each tackle made, and ,God-forbid, every penalty “erroneously” called on the team they rooted for. In 1983, I found myself standing right next to them in the stands of San Antonio’s Alamo Stadium praying for Judson Rocket running back Chris Pryor to be energized by our yells each time he touched the ball versus Houston Yates.
Although Houston Yates went in at halftime winning 19 to zero, Pryor’s thickly-muscled, wrecking-ball legs, heard my prayers as he exploded through would-be tacklers early and often in the second half.
Judson 29, Houston Yates 19.
I wanted to hit like my Uncle Paul’s favorite player — Dick Butkus (it wasn’t until college did I realize how funny this name sounded). Butkus was known for his playing field mercilessness. The NFL slow-motion archives are filled with him clubbing his massive, padded forearms into the necks of opposing ball-carriers who dared to step on the same football field as him.
I wanted to be Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver Lynn Swann gracefully soaring through the air gripping every ball Uncle Jon threw my way in Gramma’s backyard.
But I never wanted this…
Jacques was the most confident, the most heavily-muscled 8th grader I had ever seen. He was so confident, that even the most embarrassing daily event middle school can afford a room of teen-aged boys (dressing in front of other teen-aged boys), he rose above it with movie star grace.
As the rest of us changed clothes at light-speed, (our ever-vigilant eyes darted around the room fearful of unwelcomed looks and stinging wet-towel pops), balancing and bouncing on one leg as we pulled up tight-fitting 1980s jeans, Jacques, oblivious to anyone in the room, fearlessly showered in the open, curtain-less stalls that appeared to be vaguely designed after communal prison showers.
While he washed off the grind of Coach Jackson’s P.E. class, the rest of us sat in school clothes drenched with sweat, grit, and the shame of childish, gangly bodies.
So as much as I wanted to play football for my uncles, I sure didn’t want to be staring down Jacques’ hard-charging jersey one day.
The drill is known by many names in football circles. Possibly its most famous name is the “Oklahoma Drill.”
Two lines of fully padded football players stand across from each other about five yards apart. At one end of the alley of boys, one player lays on his back, both hands gripping his facemask.
At the other end of the alley, a few yards away, two other players have been instructed to run through or over the player laying on his back once coach’s whistle has been blown — one player in front blocking, the second player gripping a football.
Also, once the coach’s whistle signaled, the player on the ground had to roll over, get past the blocker, and then tackle the second player.
The entire event, which only lasted a few seconds, had two results:
- Either the tackler makes a miraculous, heroic, Greek-Warrior tackle as he is cooed with “Oooh’s” from his teammates, OR
- The would-be tackler gets knocked back on his ass, steamrolled by two kids, as cackling laughter rains down upon him.
"Next group!" the gravel-baritone of Coach Jackson commanded.
Whenever he spoke, all within earshot could generally assume that an old-fashioned switch-whooping was in store for anyone who chose to disobey his orders.
I was next in line, so I hustled to my position on the ground…but not before noticing Jacques’ gladiator majesty lining up across from me.
Also, I noticed his more than capable escort: Abel.
In the Bible, in the book of Genesis, Abel was smote (killed) by his jealous brother Cain. At Salado Middle School, this current incarnation of Abel was a bull of man known to smite anything keeping Jacques from scoring touchdowns.
I was a 120 pound seventh-grader who had last played organized football four years ago.
Shi…"FWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" chirped Coach Jackson’s whistle.
Quickly, rolling to my knees, fingers digging into the dry, dusty clay field, I see the top of Abel’s helmet bearing down on me. His eyes were wide — possibly anticipating the crack of his massive pads against my own.
Pushing of the ground, I twist my shoulders, and slide underneath Abel’s reaching arm. Proud of my maneuver, I turn my heard towards J….*
Slowly my eyes focus to see the punishing, white sun. The field’s stickers bit into arms, and I start to spit out loose grass that has suddenly taking up residence in my mouth. Coach Jackson’s silhouette suddenly appears, eclipsing the sun.
"Welcome to football, Huff!" he growled, "Now get up!"
"So does your son play football?" someone always asks when they see my oldest son.
I look over at 11 year-old Benjamin. His shoulders are big and broad. His wide, barrel-chest are holsters for two massive, tree-trunk arms. His hands are big and strong like a grown man.
He is built for football.
"Nope," I respond, "I’m not ready yet."
"Not ready yet? C’mon, man! Look at him!"
So I look at him again.
I see hands powerful enough to punish the piano-keys into sweet melodies.
I see his intense eyes and skilled fingers that turn blank paper into detailed landscapes.
I see strong arms that provide soft, comforting hugs.
Ultimately, I see my boy, my baby…my Benji.
"Yeah I see him," I say with a sigh, "I’m still not ready yet."
Everywhere my teen-aged eyes looked, reanimated corpses taunted me.
Not long before, Momma had warned me that the nerdiest game on earth, Dungeons and Dragons, would lead me down a path of devil-worshipping damnation.
If drawing, rolling dice to decide character movements, reading inventory catalogues, and hanging on every word of imaginative stories told to me by other virgins welcomed an eternity of Hellfire into my life, then Dusty King’s room was surely Satan’s throne.
Taut-skinned skeletons, faces framed by beautiful manes of flowing hair, beamed sinister, toothy grins me at me from the posters that covered the walls. Band names like "Iron Maiden", "Megadeth" and "Metallica" pounded my over-churched sensibilities like the shrieking I always imagined during the “End Time” prophesy sermons that boomed from visiting pastors at tent-church revivals.
Years of negative television reports had painted the East-side of San Antonio as a crime-infested, decaying cesspool of filth. And it was there, deep into the night, on unlit lots, church-goers emptied the hurts of their lives in song, screamed and cried their prayers to the Lord, and received the scariest preaching God’s all-consuming mercy would allow.
"I call this," one sweaty, suit-clad preacher bellowed into his hissing microphone one night, "The Devil behind the Church Door!"
Behind him a screen filled an image from the slideshow projector. An animated, grinning man (looking eerily like “Ming the Merciless” from the movie “Flash Gordon”), dressed in a red suit, peeked from behind an open door as a line of people waited to walk into what looked like a church.
Wait a minute…it looked exactly MY church!
I snuggled into my momma’s armpit, as the pastor wiped away sheets of sweat generated by the chemicals that angrily burned his nappy hair into big, loopy, wet curls.
"…You may think the Holy Ghost is in your church," he continued with a blues-song sounding rhythm, "But Satan could be the ruler over your church pews!"
The bodies filling the hard, metal seats under the tent murmured knowingly in response. But all I knew was once I got home that night, I would check behind every opened door to ensure Satan knew he wasn’t welcomed in my house.
Yet, even though every demon I could imagine hiding in the shadows, now appeared openly in this room, I did not run.
I didn’t sing a hymn I had memorized to drown out the frantic beating of my terrified heart.
Even as my eyes darted from abomination to abomination, I didn’t even pray to my personal Lord and Savior for protection.
I simply sat and waited for Dusty King bring back a cold Big Red and plans to wreck the peace of our little street.
Come to think of it, I could have sworn he had mentioned to my little brother about climbing up on his house and jumping down off the roof.
"How do you feel about shimmying up on the roof, hanging upside down by your legs, replacing some siding?" my pastor joked as three of us grown-men looked up at the high roof of the church gym.
"Really?" I asked excitedly not immediately catching the joke.
"No," my pastor answered. He then went on to explain how recent high winds had damaged the building.
"Oh…," I replied thinking back to Dusty pointing and laughing at me when we finished jumping off of his roof.
"You looked like Kermit the Frog as you fell!" he said breathlessly as he wiped away tears, "Do it again!"
"Pastor, maybe I could try…"
"No, Barry. We’ll figure something out."
Each of our feet planted safely on the ground, we laughed thinking about how ridiculous it would be for us to risk our lives to save four-hundred bucks for the church.
Taking a deep sigh, I bend over and rub my well-worn, perpetually aching knees. Thankfully, Dusty wasn’t around to provide his “Big Red” confidence-boost.
The palm of my hand covered my eyes like a tight mask. Easing my hand down over my pursed lips, I tried to focus on the casket resting at the front of the church. However, obscuring my vision was the kaleidoscope of tears hanging stubbornly on my eyelashes.
"Man, if I gotta die," I would tell my friends with a laugh, during empty, nonsense, silence-breaking conversations of my early-twenties life (as if silence and reflection was something to be avoided), “I just don’t want to be eaten to death.”
Age was the animal that ate my grampa.
Strike that — it DEVOURED my grampa slowly and cruely. It greedily slurped every fiber of his mind; ripped away his smokey, confident, baritone of a voice; and smashed the throne of grace and power built especially for his lean frame.
"…I remember Thomas…"
Thomas. It was a word foreign to my ears—only Gramma was brave enough to use it as she ordered Grampa to shut up when tersely worded "Nigguhs" flowed too freely from his lips.
On every other occasion, his name was “Dah” to my momma, her sister and her four brothers. ”Grampa” to the rest of us.
"…He was so patient and quiet…"
The man I knew was not so patient. After an overly-enthusiastic, suit-clad, member of the Nation of Islam shoved a “black-power” newspaper into the open window of his car, my grampa growled, “Nigg-uh, get that got-dehm paper outta my car!”
At that point of the service, perhaps, touched by that memory specifically, my brother leaned over to my ear and whispered gently, "Who in the hell is he talking about?"
I dug the tips of my fingers into cheeks attempting to catch any laughter that raced up from my chest and toward the exit of my mouth. However, it was my shoulders, which convulsed like twin jackhammers, who betrayed me.
Closing my eyes, I re-lived the truth the preacher didn’t know: slicing switch-whoopings; his stiff swaying in which he would shut his eyes tight, hold his clenched fists at his waist, and feel the blues that popped and crackled from his ancient “Please Come Home for Christmas” album; his teasing “Aw…El-say” (Elsie) that would rumble from his throat when he was tired of listening to Gramma; and whispered prayers over Sunday lunches.
My laughter also reminded me that the hollowed-out mummy chilling in the casket parked in front of the church was not an empty canvas on which to re-create a life already lived.
"Where’s Ben?" I ask 15 years later noticing my 8-year and 13-year olds standing in the hallway outside of my door. The same door that, up to that point, been shut tight signaling to the rest of the house to leave Daddy alone.
"He’s in his room," the 13-year old sang out, “He wants to be alone…just like you.”
Truly good parenting and good marriages happen behind closed doors away from corpse-like, posed pictures, and empty, over-the-top public displays of affection. And behind the closed doors of my home, the living canvas of my life was on full display via the door of our master bedroom.
“Well…,” I choked out uncomfortably, "It’s sometimes good to be alone."
"No it isn’t!" the 8-year old countered, "It’s just boring!"
"Good point, Timmy," I reply sadly trying to catch a glimpse of the painting of my life in his eyes.
"Cheater!" accused the 8 year-old.
"No-o-o!" howled the 11 year-old in protest as he held tight to the “un-birthday” gift the 8 year-old received on Jesus’ Birthday.
The gift was eighty sections of cleverly-designed, intertwining mazes, waiting to be explored by a single, unsteady, wobbly, drunken ball-bearing, steered by any willing challenger as they carefully tilted, flipped, and spun the transparent, plastic globe which encased the game.
"Daddy!” yelled the jubilant 11 year-old from the backseat…or at least it sounded as if he yelled. Because thanks to some brilliant Toyota Sienna engineer, the interior of the minivan magnified every whine, each meaningless “stay-off-of-my-side-of-the-car-argument”, every avalanche of french fries dropped on the floor, and each awful fart/burp/urine joke uttered.
I didn’t answer him right away. Instead, I gazed at the endless highway ahead of me.
I open the sun-visor and use the embedded mirror to practice wrinkling my eyebrows in anger.
Since she’s driving, my wife has immunity from answering the headache-inducing whine. Glancing over at me, she silently encouraged me to handle my business.
I sighed, and re-checked my “angry” eyebrows in the mirror.
There was a time when my clenched and furrowed brows could silence a Huffling “whining-fit” ten yards away. Of course, back then I towered over them like Godzilla over Tokyo. Now, puberty has made Godzilla’s children impervious to such subtlety.
Rubbing my eyebrows, I tried to erase the effects of 14 years of my Daddy-gig had unleashed on my forehead — skin that looked like wrinkled aluminum foil coated in thick chocolate icing.
"What?" I roar as I snapped my head back in the direction of the last row of seats.
"Uhh…can I use your camera to take a picture of the game I won?"
"You cheated, cheated, cheated!" the 8 year-old sang.
"Yes you did, Cheater!"
I turned back around; sank into my seat; and looked around for the James Bond ejection seat I promised myself after watching the 1980s movie “Cannonball Run” as a kid.
Upon finding no such device installed, I clenched my teeth; silently acknowledged that I will NEVER win any form of a “Father-of-the-Year” award; stared at the ceiling of the minivan; and screamed at the top of my lungs, "For the next five minutes, I want to hear anymore whining or arguing crap!"
"Yes, Daddy," they softly sang together in unison.
"What did you say?"
"Yes, Daddy," they grunt with more volume.
I smiled to myself — problem solved…briefly.
With a cocked eyebrow, my wife and glanced at me a second time as if to say, “N-word, don’t fool yourself; you didn’t solve a thing.”
Quickly clenching my eyes shut, I tried to force myself to sleep before the arguing moratorium expires.
East Central High School (San Antonio, TX) versus New Braunfels High School (New Braunfels, TX)
"C’mere!" Mr. Inman, my principal, ordered loudly at me as I walked to Pre-Calculus my senior year in high school.
Several well-deserved butt-warming, “attitude adjustments” in elementary school taught me that principals meant business. I hustled to him.
His intense, dark eyes looked small and isolated as they floated behind the fist-sized lenses of his 1980s glasses.
"What’s that?" he said nodding toward my head.
On cue, my fingers probe my face blindly searching for whatever caught his attention.
"Let me help you," he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a disposable razor, and placed it my hand.
It had taken all 18 years of my life to finally grow 12 long, scraggly hairs which huddled together on the tip of my chin. Each morning, I proudly stroked those 12 hairs in hopes of eventually coaxing a full beard out of my baby-ish face.
I stared at the razor unsure of what to do. Although I had never shaved before, I was almost certain there had to be some water, shaving cream, a sink, and some privacy in the face-cutting formula. But here I stood between buildings on East Central High School’s open-air campus, watching portions of its 1200 students ease by me and Mr. Inman.
I sigh, look down at the razor, and lightly jab at my chin with the razor.
Mr. Imnan winced at my naivete.
"Start just below your bottom lip and ease the razor down," he said pretending to shave his own face with an invisible razor, "Like painting a fence."
Using his pantomime as a mirror, I finally, painfully, dry-shave my face. I hand the razor back to Mr. Inman, and walk slowly to a class feeling a bit exposed and sad.
Twenty years later, an angry gang of white whiskers tag the left side of my face announcing my daily shaving ritual. I smooth the white Barbasol cream over my entire face— pausing to laugh at the black Santa Claus staring back at me in the mirror.
I work the razor quickly to remove age’s graffiti. And after a few minutes, I inspect my face and realize it’s going to take more than shaving to hide growing old.