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For Those We Love Who Should Be Here.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 15 Georgia National Championship Celebration

In memory of Carol, aka Podunkdawg, and all the others who have gone on ahead. Until our next meeting.

In our time, it is a good and holy act to write down things that are true.

This is about something that became true on January 10th in the year of our Lord 2022.

All of what I have to say is true, for the most part.

It starts with “They found him floating in the pool” and it ends with “Yes.”

There are lies, sure, but the lies are in the service of the truth.

They found him floating in the pool.

When they arrived they walked through the immaculate screened-in porch, with a painting big enough to cover the exposed brick of the house where the porch had been added, and past the 90’s era patio furniture with updated cushions that still looked gauche.

They went through the swinging screen door and down the steeper-than-you-might-think decline that led to the pool—a single-person-wide stretch of stucco deck that was hemmed in on either side by beds of lantana and those green plants with leafy tentacles that lay over like a spider’s legs.

The sun would’ve reflected off the windows of the nearby Florida room, perhaps the single most Reagan-era room I have ever set foot in—with its floral furniture, floor to ceiling windows, a brown wet-bar, and a deep green carpet that felt thick as the rough on a golf course under your feet.

They went down that path, with their keys jangling and their boots crunching on the crevices of the deck that would cut your feet after you’d been in the pool long enough for your skin to prune. They walked down and their eyes would’ve been immediately been directed out beyond the pool to the creek bottom below, the sharp drop-off behind the pool that made the pines that surrounded the fence line look even more gargantuan.

I thought those trees were a thousand years old.

Even the thunderheads that would roll in on those Georgia summer afternoons couldn’t bend them. You could lie on your back in that water and look up and, with the water filling your ears and turning everything silent, you could imagine that you were in Heaven, or what Heaven to a Central Georgian must feel like—cool water, halcyon pines, and clear skies.

It was July below the Gnat Line when they arrived, so the whole world was covered in the sheen of a plus-100 heat index. They were probably sweating through their uniforms already, even though it was early in the day.

They would’ve looked down then, focusing on why they were there, and walked carefully past the potted plants that encircled that pool, the deep green and bright yellow of the Hula Girl Hibiscus that seemed to be always in bloom because he tended them like Adam in the Garden. They would have stepped around the handrail that led down the steps that would take you into the shallow end, over to the side where my grandfather’s body—we called him Pa—had listed back and forth in the pool’s current when my grandmother and her neighbor had found him hours earlier.

They would’ve done the perfunctory check of his vitals as he lay on the deck and waited to hear the sound of the green gate swinging open, up the hill, just off the carport. They would be waiting for the sound of the stretcher clicking its way down the hill, over the Saint Augustine grass whose blades were so thick I would hesitate to step on them when I was a kid for fear they were sharp. Down the stretcher would come, the white cloth that covered the cushions already hot from the sun.

My cousins and I lived in that pool for most of our childhoods. And now, in it was the end our childhoods. The end of a matrix of possible outcomes, now irrevocably lost.

The end of a series of things hoped for.

----

They found him in a shoe box.

He was supposed to be there.

They knew he weighed barely five pounds and that the heating lamp keeping his tiny little body warm was in the proper position and that it was time for him to be fed.

As they always did, they used a dropper to administer his usual meal: three drops of formula and one drop of whiskey.

What they didn’t know is that here lay a state champion pianist, a farmer, a father of four boys (all hellraisers in their own right), and a church organist.

Here lay my grandfather—we called him PePa—after his mother had fallen in the yard triggering a pre-mature birth of the twins she was carrying. One did not survive. My grandfather did.

And here he was in a shoebox: the beginning of a series of things hoped for.

——

Most kids grow up dreaming of being a professional athlete, a rock star, a ballerina, a princess, or some other sort of famed serendipitous occupation.

I grew up dreaming of being Larry Munson.

My mother and father were in the Gator Bowl when Lindsay Scott scored that fateful touchdown and were in the Superdome when Vince and Herschel and Buck took down Notre Dame. SoI spent my childhood wearing out VHS tapes like 25 Years of Georgia Football and 1980 and, my favorite, Munson’s Greatest Calls.

I knew every call, word for word, and would for so long call them along with Larry on sick days or long afternoons or on the mornings before games.

There is one call that I have thought about far more than any sane person should.

It is from the 1984 Clemson game when Kevin Butler kicks a ball “60 yards *plus a foot and a half*” to win and sends the stadium into a fit that Larry would describe as “worse than bonkers.” But before that happened, Georgia had to fail seemingly at getting Butler into field goal range. Larry was so good as expressing the tension of a ticking clock.

“The stadium rocks and swings and the Dawgs are on Clemson’s 45 and its 23-23!—64, 63, 62 seconds!”

And then on 2nd down he says it almost as an aside.

“Georgia up to the line on the 45! Trying to make something happen, 2nd and 9, look at the Clock saying ‘No, No, No!’ 33, 32, 31 seconds

He goes on to describe Butler kicking one “a hundred thousand miles,” obviously but it is that little aside that stuck with me over so many years of Georgia heartbreak.

Look at the Clock saying “No.”

“No.”

“No.”

I felt it in 2008 when Bama beat us to death at Blackout II, in a Nashville bar in 2012 when Chris Conley caught that tipped pass from Murray and time expired, in 2015 when the Mark Richt era came to a wet and squelching demise against Lane Kiffin, in 2017 on 2nd and 26, and so many other times less memorable but no less gut-wrenching.

On January 10th I was uncharacteristically zen. I felt certain we were going to lose not because we were significantly worse than Bama but because the mismatches at QB and WR would simply be too much to overcome, regardless of our defense. So I just wanted a respectable loss and for quite a while it looked like we would get just that. But the problem was that as time ticked down I began to hope. And right around the time I began to hope Alabama recovered what I thought would be a game-winning fumble by accident, buoyed to a near certain victory by an uncannily aggressive call on the field that no reply official could ever overturn.

And then like Captain Hook as the crocodile nears, I heard that dreaded sound in my heart,

Tick, tick, tick

No, No, No

And I felt guilty because I knew despair was on its way, over a game I knew we’d lose anyway.

But I couldn’t let it go. How had they done that? How? How can this be happening again?

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick

----

My Pa was a student at Emory in the 50’s. He and my grandmother would graduate and return to our hometown of McRae, GA some time that decade.

His father-in-law became a very important man politically, both in McRae as a part of the good ole boys regime that ruled the place for a time and beyond McRae as the right-hand man of the governor. So around then he told my grandfather to buy a backhoe. The idea being that my grandfather could take that backhoe, bring it back to McRae, and with a few phone calls my grandfather would never lack for contracting work. All of this is hearsay and family legend.

My grandfather bought the backhoe and moved back to McRae. Then the next election cycle came around and every member of the good-ole boys, including my great-grandfather lost. There were no well-placed phone calls coming.

Instead, my grandfather took his backhoe around town and did basically whatever work he could find. McRae has a railroad that cuts through its center and so there were quite literally a right and wrong side of the tracks. My grandfather worked on either side of the tracks and, again this is all hearsay, but that was apparently pretty uncommon back then.

He went on to become mayor of McRae and they eventually named a highway after him.

After he was done being Mayor, he drove an old white car that belonged to the city that no one ever thought to get him to return. He would drive that car throughout the neighborhood picking up all the family dogs—our dogs, my Aunt’s dogs down the street, and the dogs of a few family friends—and then he would drive the car full of dogs around town. He had a habit of also drinking a Budweiser on crushed ice during some of these trips. Legend has it that when the joyride was over, he would drive back into the neighborhood, car still filled to the brim with barking dogs, and stop at, say, my house. He would then open the door and from within the teeming mass of fur only the two dogs who belonged to that house would get out of the car. He would swing the door shut and rev his way on down to the next house and repeat the process with the sound of a pack of barking dogs echoing as he disappeared from view.

Eventually the cancer diagnosis came down and he began treatment. It was in his eyes, which meant that the radiation would affect his cognitive abilities. He was hardly ever the same during my teenage years. He required my grandmother’s or someone else’s near constant attention for several years.

There were better days though and, for a while, we all wondered if he might be able to turn a corner and become his old self again.

But then on a hot day, July 24th, 2004, a Thursday, a day I had a blind date of all things, he decided that he wanted to go for a swim to soothe his aching legs.

----

Larry kept producing incredible calls in the years after Butler’s kick, but by the time I got to school in 2005 he had become hit or miss.

He was sick and deeply tired, I presume, and so traveling with a college football team across the Southeast and screaming into a microphone for four hours probably didn’t suit him all that well. During this time, he had very few gems, as his health went slowly slowly downhill. His eyes began to fade, he had to waitlonger and longer on his spotter to figure out who caught a major touchdown pass or who recovered a fumble on the far side of the field.

For those of us who listened to him religiously it felt like a very long goodbye.

Munson’s last best call was in November of 2006 when Georgia Tech came to Sanford Stadium.

You can tell we were having a helluva time moving the ball at all just by how excited Larry gets with each completed pass. He notes, rightly, that the only way we had even managed to put any points on the board was off of a freak scoop and score by Tony Taylor in the Third Quarter.

After Stafford completes a couple of passes though, Munson says something that I’ve thought about nearly as much as the quote about the Clock: “Look at us, trying to pretend we’re not tired.”

It is not necessarily out of character for Larry to talk about exhaustion in the 4th quarter. This certainly wasn’t the first time he brought it up. In some of his greatest calls—think “Sugar Falling Out of the Sky”—the theme is often of holding on despite being exhausted.

But you wonder at this point in his career if he felt his own exhaustion creeping in, and if even he had to find a way to hunker down and bring this thing home, one more time.

I wonder that because by the time we get down to the 4 yard-line you would think we had been in a knife fight.

“We have staggered bleeding and bloodied and bandaged all the way to the their four yard-line!”

Then later, “We can’t block. We’re dog-tired. We’ve got two plays left....”

“...And then we’ll be gone.”

Then, at long last, we let Matthew Stafford throw the ball again and Mohammed Massquoi finds a little pocket of space and sends Larry into delirium.

“TOUCHDOWN MY GOD A TOUCHDOWN”

We go for two and get it, and then a moment happens that probably sums up UGA fandom about as well as anything ever has: Larry sees us complete a miracle of a drive but then says, “Now you got 105 seconds to hang on. Don’t celebrate now for God’s sake! 15-12! 15-12 we lead. We gotta hang on 105 seconds BUT WE’RE TOO TIRED TO HANG ON.”

Still, the 105 seconds elapsed and we won the game.

Larry held on after that call for a few more years and then died in 2011, too tired to hang on any longer.

My wife and her best friend “Dawn” were pregnant with their first child at just about the same time.

She played French horn and she made cocktails with gin and fresh basil from her garden and she played dungeons & dragons. She also worked in education like my wife. I taught for a year and it was the worst experience of my life so during times when I just couldn’t bring myself to relive some of my brief experiences of hopelessness as a teacher, my wife would call Dawn and commiserate. They had monthly outings where they would go and dance since I and Dawn’s husband were not dancers of any kind.

But when Dawn was pregnant with their second child she contracted a very aggressive form of cancer.

She had her second child but then, some months after, the cancer came back worse and she never recovered.

We took our daughter Amelia back to Nashville for the funeral. I left her in the nursery to play with a bunch of kids while the rest of the adults sat in the sanctuary and cried our entire guts out. We tried to say hi to each other and talk after but it was all blurred by a wall of tears and the all the awful things we were feeling that none of us could really say.

When we came back home, I took our daughter to Church because she loves her Sunday School teacher like an Aunt, while my wife stayed at home to rest and grieve.

It was a sparsely attended service even for our small chapel, which was built in the 1800’s and only holds something like 100 people.

That Sunday was the Feast of St. Constance, a nun who died in Memphis during an outbreak of Yellow Fever while she tried to ease the suffering of the dying. She had known the dangers of going, but upon hearing that Yellow Jack was marching up the Mississippi River towards Memphis her and her friends willingly traveled to the center of the outbreak to care for as many as they could. They got there and did what they could but then they died anyway.

The First Reading for that commemoration day was, fittingly, from the book of Job:

If I speak, my pain is not assuaged

and if I forbear, how much of it leaves me?

Surely now God has worn me out;

he has made desolate all my company.

And he has shrivelled me up,

which is a witness against me;

my leanness has risen up against me,

and it testifies to my face.

He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me;

he has gnashed his teeth at me;

my adversary sharpens his eyes against me.”

At the end of the reading the reader said, “The Word of the Lord,” and when it came time for us all to say that thing that we are supposed to say I found myself wanting to say:

“Are You done yet?

Are You done yet you insufferable son of a bitch?

Have You not gotten your fill yet? Have You not sunk enough children in the banks of a thousand rivers? Taken enough mothers and fathers like a thief in the night? Choked enough of us from the inside with a noose made of our own body?

Has all of this not yet been enough?

They say You are coming again.

What in the hell are You waiting for?”

But I did not say any of that.

Instead, I leaned forward and said, along with everyone else,

“Thanks be to God.”

That was October of 2019.

I had no idea what was coming.

---

The damnable thing about a plague is that it weaponizes the things that make and keep us human.

Being near one another, laughing together, sharing a meal, having a good long talk—all of these things are now potentially life-threatening behaviors.

Rites of passage in our life are now also delayed or canceled or modified beyond all recognition and so something once thought to be every person’s birthright is now denied them. This is the only thing we could have done early on, but even so, missing baptisms and brises, weddings and funerals, quiceañeras and kindergarten graduations, brings with it a gnawing wound of things that cannot be put back.

In April of 2020, barely a month after the NBA had cancelled its season and the whole world eventually came to a stop, my mother called me early in the morning to tell me that PePa had died. It wasn’t COVID, just a series of medical problems that had finally caught up with him.

When Pa died years earlier I walked my grandmother into the Church and rode along to the graveside in a funeral procession where several trucks had dawgs in the back as an unknowing tribute to the man. We sat together at that cemetery near the tracks and laid him to rest.

When PePa died I never got to say goodbye to him or see the place they buried him. I never got to hug my Dad after his Dad’sfuneral because I was not there. I had a pregnant wife and there were no vaccines for anyone, let alone my daughter, and no one knew much of anything about what was or was not safe. So I was not there.

As Spencer put it so simply and so beautifully, this time has been a spacewalk, a desperate attempt by us all to hermetically seal ourselves off from the rest of the world, but this is like trying to squeegee away a rising tide.

There are people we love who should be here, but that cannot be put back.

----

There have been Smiths in Telfair County for more than a hundred years by my calculation.

Before he farmed, my grandfather ran the funeral home in McRae. He would transition to farming part-time, then full-time, then the farm went belly-up when they switched from hogs to chickens.

There is very little funny in that story, but the funny thing about a small town is the odd little ways that you fill needs.

At the time, so my dad tells me, there was a hospital in McRae but no ambulance. Ambulances were for bigger municipalities and despite being the county seat McRae did not really meet that standard. So when the people of McRae needed a vehicle that could fit a human-body-sized stretcher into the back of it, well….

The stadium at Telfair County High School has been the same, mostly, for quite some time. There is a new set of bleachers on the home side now, but before that both sides were that big ole set of long concrete stairs, for lack of a better description, that everyone just sat on for the night.

One night at a football game in the 70’s, my dad tells me that a kid was standing at the very top of those gargantuan concrete stairs, leaning on the safety railing. And somehow, the teenagerwent over the rail and fell to the ground below.

The kid was seriously injured and so the cops on the scene called in the emergency services.

The stadium at Telfair is off the high school near the woods, so all of the surrounding environs on game night are shrouded in darkness.

So out of the darkness first appeared a single red siren light on a vehicle fast approaching, and then out of the dark came, I kid you not, the damn HEARSE from the funeral home, to pick up this definitely not dead teenager and ferry him to the hospital.

The strangest things keep us alive.

----

The other night I had a dream about Sanford Stadium.

I dreamt I was standing on the bridge looking into the stadium while rain fell, hard like the sky had burst and some above the ground sea was emptying itself onto the earth. The whole world had gone gray and there was a quiet unlike anything I had ever heard before. There was a timelessness about the path of the day and no way to tell if the sun was rising or setting.

I turned and looked down into the stadium and saw there was moss hanging from the upper deck. The bowl below it, where thousands once stood and cheered and hugged, had long been underwater. The water was green from a thousand years of steeping the hummus of Tanyard Branch into a tide that would never stop rising.

I leaned over the edge of the bridge and saw the shadow of a beast gliding through the dark green breakers. It swam under the bridge and through the field and out the other side of the stands where the bowels of the stadium had long given way to the current of the flood.

I heard a sound to my right and turned and saw someone standing on the road to Ag Hill. At first glance, I thought they were covered in mud but then, as I looked closer, it was almost as if they were made of soil. Like they had traded parts of their body for the clay and dirt and rock of Piedmont ground. Vines wrapped around his arms and legs and small sprouts of grass and wildflower rose from his chest. And through the muck I could see the face of a man that I thought I recognized.

As I started to move up the street towards him another one appeared next to him of a similar grimy character. She seemed younger in a way that I can’t quite explain. I want to stress that the impression of seeing them was not of someone dirty but of some kind of off-putting dignity. Like they had chosen this form.

I heard a strange sound on the wind like music and thought, strangely, that the sound had a face.

Then the man up ahead extended his hand towards me. As he opened his hand shrubby green leaves seemed to boil out of his palm and out of the green rose a single stalk that bloomed immediately into a yellow flower.

I was still far off, but I could tell that it was a Hula Girl. And then I knew who the man was.

Then the man drew in a deep breath and he hollered,

“COME AND SEE.”

And I wanted to run to him but I felt the bridge give way beneath me and I fell, and just before I hit the water I woke up.

----

One night while my wife was still pregnant with our second, she and I were reading bedtime stories for our daughter in bed.

After we finished it was time to sing her songs and tuck her into bed. But without our prompting she sat up and leaned in towards her mom’s belly and began to sing,

Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are…” And when she was done she put her face to her mom’s belly and whispered, “I love you.”

We tucked her in and I stepped out into the hall to cry. And I felt myself saying,

“Please don’t be done yet.

Please, oh God, please.

Not yet.”

Our son was born in May of 2020 in a time of plague. We met him in masks surrounded by our own breath and the breath of nurses and doctors, with none of us knowing if our breath contained in it the death of another.

But still he arrived, a sticky and screaming cathedral of possibility.

The beginning of a series of things hoped for.

When Kelee didn’t go down and the whole world came apart, I leapt and let out a massive scream and then ran into the nearest bedroom to yell into a pillow so I wouldn’t wake my kids.

I never saw him score and had no idea we were up two scores until I got back into the living room.

And then when I saw the score and the time left and I saw the sea of red and black rocking and swinging in an embrace, as if a long war had finally come to an end, and when I looked at my wife who had stood next to me in Sanford for so many gamesway back when, I fell to the floor and sobbed.

I think a lot of us did.

I don’t want to speak for everyone but I can tell you why I cried.

I didn’t cry because what was happening was particularly important. Georgia finally winning it all doesn’t change much about the woes of the world.

I didn’t cry because our title drought was finally over.

I didn’t cry because the story of this team was particularly inspiring, even though it sure as hell is.

I cried because I felt the overwhelming joy and guilt that I was alive and had lived to see it.

I cried because out of the whole matrix of possible outcomes, the entire series of things hoped for, this one, finally, not by means of fate or force or providence but just by sheer unbending contingency, came good.

I felt the whole weight of that and for a moment I just lay on the floor and broke into pieces.

It happened. It really happened.

I often wonder what I would say to the ones I love who should be here if I had the chance to see them again.

I think I would talk about my kids first. I would tell them about my daughter’s unstoppable energy and her kindness that has absolutely no limit.

I would tell them about my son and his power mullet that we refuse to have cut and the way he thinks all four-legged creatures that aren’t sheep must be cows and yells “MOOOO” any time he sees one in a book.

I would tell them about the world and how stupid it is and how much I wished they were here to tell me how to handle it.

I would empty my guts about the woes of my career, the exhaustion of parenting, the evils of technology, the intractable structures of this land born of hate and greed, and on and on and on.

I would tell them how desperately I and the others who remain miss and need them.

And when I was finally done, because they know me now in a way that I do not even know myself, they would tell me that I left something out.

That there is one more thing to tell, and I would try to stop them and say no, because it is such a small and silly thing when seen in light of everything else.

But they would insist that I say it because they know me and because it is true.

And in our time it is a good and holy act to write down things that are true, no matter how small or trivial or absurd.

And it is, after all, the strangest things that keep us alive.

And so I will tell it to all of you now.

You who have kept me alive, who held on these long years, pretending you were not tired as best you could. You who come from the mountains or from the coast or from the swamp or from the sprawl. You with hearts bleeding and bloodied and bandaged.

I have wanted to say it to you for so long.

It is such a small thing.

But even so, I want to tell you all that on January 10th at approximately 11:57 P.M., Eastern Standard Time....

The Clock said.....

“Yes.”