By Ernie McCray
I sat around last night trying to think of something to write and decided to click onto a page of prompts which gave me a choice of numbers between one and three-hundred-forty-six.
Sometimes just closing my eyes and moving the little arrow around on my Mac Os X and clicking randomly does the trick but I went, this time, with selecting number fifty-six.
Fifty-six is kind of a big number in my life. I had just turned 56 when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. A Highway 56 is named after Ted Williams, one of my favorite baseball players. I was in the Tucson High Class of ’56 and my life changed massively that year, in the time it takes to flip a light switch.
So I clicked and I was prompted to “Write about a good thing gone bad.” And I thought “Which of the many good things gone bad in my personal history do I choose?”
The time when I thought it would be fun to ride an inner tube down the Santa Cruz after a rainstorm and ended up feeling pretty sure that I was going to drown? Seemed, at the time, in my young mind, like such a great fun thing to do.
The time when I jumped on a car on a freight train at the crossing on 9th Avenue to get a ride close to Bootsie’s house and, too scared to jump off, ended up frightened and trembling in Marana, forced to hop another train back to Tucson? I sure thought I was indulging in a good thing at the start.
The time when a lab-mate of mine and I mixed some things together in Chemistry that we were told very clearly not to combine and the whole world turned green and blue and smelled like the day after the Apocalypse? At some point it seemed like a great idea.
But those would be such quick writes. So with my high school alma mater fresh on my mind and because that was such an exciting and upifting time in my life, my thoughts lingered on those days long ago.
Days when I was captain of the basketball team, All-Everything, wearing a letterman’s sweater featuring a big red T.
Days when I couldn’t wait for the choir hour so I could just kickback and sing.
Days when my grades were good enough to get me through.
Days when I had, what today would be called, a pretty “boo” and a “crew” who were true blue.
Days when I got to do a few things on stage that got laughs, like when I was Nogi in “Desert Song,” yelling out lines like “Quiet dogs of Spain, the mighty one approaches!” and taking out an actress, one night, in my exuberance, like Junior Seau sacking an unsuspecting quarterback. So sorry, Ramona. Love you still.
Days of drive-in movies on weekends; a prom a year; sock hops; partying in Sabino Canyon.
Days of rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Days so soothing to my soul.
Then one day in the month of May I heard my pretty boo say: “I’m in a family way.” And all I could say was “Que? Hijole!” Try breaking that down to your mother on any day, ese. In those moments all I had was a lot of no good that went very very bad.
My feeble excuse was and still is: Buying condoms wasn’t as easy back then as it is today. Like I remember asking for a little protection one day just as one of my mother’s good friends walked into Cut-Rates Drug Store just as the clerk was asking me like he was a living megaphone: “What’s that young man? Speak up, son!”
“Rubbers” I repeated sheepishly. “Oh, PROPHYLACTICS! Why didn’t you say so? Trojans? Ready-wets? Ribbed? Take your Pick!”
“Sir, I’ve got to go” I say as Mrs. Jenkins, so ashamed of me, shakes her head with a “Unh, unh, unh. Lawd, have mercy.” Talk about a good thing gone bad.
Life was serving me lemons and I had a lot of lemonade to make and I, calling on I don’t know what, my upbringing I guess, manned up. I was determined to be the best dad anyone ever had, no matter that I was only eighteen years old with no more than a deadly jumpshot and a nice hook and a couple of pennies and mostly shallow life experiences to my name.
With the help of a basketball scholarship and the willingness to sweep and mop and dust and buffer and mow and rake and clip and deliver and sort and serve and park and lifesave and walk greyhounds around a track and collect their pee, I was able to feed my family.
The daughter born was as precious as a human being can be. And what I’ve learned over the years as my 77th New Year approaches is:
Life can be good, turn bad, and return to good again. It’s our call. We have to strive to do smart things.