I am a native Floridian. That’s a title belonging to a smaller number of people than you might think. But I’m part of an even smaller group. I’m a native Floridian born and raised in the IPC. That’s Imperial Polk County. It’s not the Florida featured in tourist publications or other media designed to attract you to the Sunshine State. It’s not necessarily highlighted on TV shows, except maybe for Bizarre Foods America – you know, because we eat squirrel chili and swamp cabbage.
I grew up here in Auburndale, Florida. We have far more Live Oaks and Palmetto bushes than we do Palm trees. Our idea of a day on the water is on a lake, on the Peace River, or at a mud-hole with a 4×4. When I was in 5th grade, my music teacher, Mrs. Jones (there’s a road named after her husband, Fred, who was a long-time member of the Florida House of Representatives) taught us the state song, Old Folks at Home, aka, Suwannee River. I was part of the Caldwell Elementary Baritone Ukulele Band, so we also learned the chords.The song is racially insensitive, to say the least. Mrs. Jones would likely get on big trouble for teaching it to kids today, but the message image of old folks at home stuck with me all these years. Back then, I had no idea what the song meant, other than it being a river we would cross on our way to my family’s hunting camp, and that it was about old folks. In 5th grade, everyone older than 16 was an old folk.
But in my hometown, these old folks were involved and invested in my life. Bud Harper cut my hair. Bud cut a lot of hair on a lot of heads. He would talk to us when he cut our hair. I remember him telling me how important it is to look another person in the eye when you talk to them. He made me practice when he was cutting the front of my hair. When he took the clippers to the back of my neck, he said: “bow your head and say a prayer, son.” Bud told me to approach a girl I had a crush on and confidently, say, “Stephanie, I think you’re pretty, do you think I’m pretty?” When it didn’t work, he said, “It’ll work on the right girl, Kevin. Don’t you worry.” It worked on Serena. Thanks, Bud.
Mrs. Webb taught Geography at my middle school. She taught my dad, too. She said I was just like him. I asked if that was okay and she said, “We’ll see.”
Don Ratterree led the Children’s Church when I was a kid. He made me lead the singing when he heard that I could sing. “Get up here, Kevin. The Lord gave you a gift and you better use it.” I did. I still am. Thanks, Don.
Mrs. Kilpatrick was my best friend’s mom. His name was also Kevin. She said she went to a school called Slippery Rock University. I always thought she was joking. Then they took me on vacation with them and we went to the campus. Mrs. K never let Kevin and I miss church when we stayed up all night fishing on Saturday (they lived on a lake). Her husband, Burl helped me learn how to sing the bass line when my voice changed. Thanks, Mr. and Mrs. K.
When I entered 6th grade, Harry Vann heard from Don Ratterree that I had memorized a lot of Bible verses. Harry told me to get a Bible lesson ready to bring to the youth. My first Bible study was to a group of High School juniors and seniors. I was scared to death, so he made me do it again. And again. So, when you ask me how I got comfortable teaching people older than me. That’s how. Thanks, Harry.
Any of you who’ve known me know the impact of my Granny. Someone said I should write a book on all Granny taught me and title it, Granny said … I think I need to do that. Thanks, Granny.
My Dad was a firefighter and mechanic. He could (and did) fix anything. He also was the coolest and calmest person I’ve ever seen under pressure. The more intense the emergency, the more calm Dad became. This was contagious. It made you calm. The current Fire Chief in Auburndale started out under my Dad. Chief Hall said today, “We would ask your Dad in a tough situation, ‘What are we going to do, Louie (slang for Lieutenant)?’ He’d say, ‘We’re going to go to work.’” He never broke his stride. He led by example because that’s the example Dad had set for him by his Father, my Paw-Paw. Dad was as tender toward his loved ones as he was tough. He had the kind of rock-steady faith that was caught in his actions rather than taught in his words. My old man and I are so close. While these other folks mentioned above have made a profound impact on me in many ways, it’s my Dad who was and is my hero. Thanks, Dad
Dad passed away last week.
I got the news just before take-off as I was flying home to Auburndale. He’d taken a turn in his fight with cancer and I was hoping to get home before he passed. I got to talk to him the day before, though. I told him how much I loved him, and how proud to be his son that I am. I told him that I knew he was hurting and that if he was ready to go home that he shouldn’t wait for me. I knew where he would be and that I’d see him in a little while. I ended by saying, “I love you, Old Man.”
The Old Man is home now. Home with Granny, Mr. K, Paw-Paw, NaNa, Don, Harry, and so many other old folks.
This week, I’ve been able to catch up with some of the old folks whose home is still here in Auburndale. I went to church where many of them still faithfully worship. They had no idea how much they ministered to me. Amid all the congratulations, pats on the back, and words of how proud they are of me “being a preacher,” or how “you made a doctor,” was a lost, frightened, and hurting kid.
I needed the old folks.
And there they were – at home.
Dad’s passing had me feeling lost and disoriented, but these folks have taken me back to my roots and helped me find my footing again.
I’ve been guilty at times of being impatient with older folks and forgetful of the importance of our elders in the life of individuals, families, communities, and society. It can be easy to do. But in a world that’s running non-stop, and is defined by a general loss of depth and direction, I wonder what kind of footing we would regain if we slowed down to listen and learn from the old folks?
They are easy to find. Just go home.