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One enthusiastic customer, beaming, walks up to the front of the store balancing a waist-to-chin stack of books he wants to purchase.

As I begin to add up his finds, I notice that they are all about astronomy, the scientific heavens, real space travel, cosmic phenomena, stargazing, telescope making…

This takes me back to a time some sixty years ago when I was an amateur astronomer reading and poring over some of these same titles.

I wax nostalgic about my childhood planetarium, star maps, late-night watches, eclipse predictions…

“You know there’s going to be a major solar eclipse this year!” he reports. He plans to travel to the Carolinas with family to view an event most people won’t even know is happening.

OK. This makes me want to tell the story of my blacktop fireflies.

Stop me if you’ve already heard this. Here goes…


 The firefly nights and the ‘skeeter mornings frame each day as we the children of summer and autumn play at our chores and work hard at our play.

Back then, in childhood (where I suddenly am transported), time doesn’t matter at all. We are too young to notice time slipping and sliding past our nighttime openscreened windows.

Sometimes we lie on our backs on the black flat roof of our small home at 26 Eastwood Avenue in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and gaze up at the stars and the planets and the Moon and an occasional meteor and an even less frequent comet, and we lie there and breathe the dampened chilly nonpolluted air, sometimes unable to tell the difference between shooting stars and spasmed fireflies.

The shooting stars can be oohhed and ahhed at, but we can never catch one unless we are lucky enough to be hit directly, and then wouldn’t we be famous for a while? “There goes that boy who got hit by that meteor,” everyone would say.

The fireflies we  touch and gently cradle in our palms and place in widemouthed Ball jars for a few minutes in hopes of getting enough together to light the entire neighborhood, but we never gather quite that many, because there is always something else to do.

Lying here on the flat black roof, looking at the stars and smelling the moist fragrance of the old quilts Mother lets us use, we do not notice the mosquitoes. There is just too much to do, you see. We have to count the stars and figure out how many per square foot are up there, we have to hide the Moon behind our thumbs, we often count the number of meteors we see in a 15-minute period, then chart their paths on a sky map, we need to take the lens cap off the old Criterion cardboard-tube refractor telescope and take a close look at the stars and now and then at the neighbors’ homes, we have to wonder which of those tiny colored lights moving very high up in the sky might be satellites or planes or unidentified flying objects.

We never get bored, because we do not yet know what time is. We do not know that time passes and that everything changes all the time–even us, even our dreams.

We only know that lying on our backs on the flat blacktopped roof, munching on a few Graham crackers we have taken from the kitchen, is the only thing going on that we are aware of.

The stars twinkle. The planets do not. The Moon is so glowy bright. The crickets provide ambience so cleverly and persistently that we seldom hear them.

The fact that the flat black roof is stone hard is not even noticed. We sleep like the near-babies we still are.

At long last, the Sun begins to rise and we slowly wake up to its radiant pressure on our faces and feel the dew over our clothes and now-soggy Graham crackers and quilts, and we never guess that the Sun might never rise again, we never think about the stars disappearing, we only wonder how far the Sun and stars go and what lies beyond the boundaries of the Universe. One thing we do know: we are dead-center in the middle of the Universe. We are each the center of the Universe. And we somehow know, instinctively know, that every creature in the Universe, whether on Earth or on Jupiter or in a distant galaxy, every creature, wherever it is, is definitely and individually at the center of the Universe, too. We somehow know that the center of the Universe is always wherever we are at the moment, no matter who or what we are.

So, 26 Eastwood Avenue is the center of the Universe and at least in one dusty wing of my heart, it will always be thus


© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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My late-afternoon trek resumes after I stop for gasoline and a quick snack at just another roadside convenience store. I hold in my hand a Baby Ruth candy bar, something I haven’t eaten for years, something that syphons memories from the cloudy recesses of my dormant childhood. The flexible metallic packaging is quickly separated from the delicacy.

Munching my fond memories, I glance to the right and see this stunning apparition passing me by. It’s an old house.

This old house is just sitting here in the dusk by the side of the blue road I am driving on, somewhere in the Gothic reaches of rural Alabama.

The sun and mellowed-red skies are behind the house, and the streaked clouds glow, casting the front of the house into shadows that aren’t quite ebony, not quite gray, not yet blackened.

I pass by, but it’s too late to ignore the image implanted within me.

The old house sitting in the dusk looks abandoned but sturdy, a place you could still move into and live a life in if you chose, but it looks like nobody has been there for some time.

The caramel and peanuts feel right at home in my mouth, and I wonder how many Baby Ruths I craved when young so many years ago.

The windows have no glow to them, as if lights and lanterns have not been turned on inside for years.

Houses like this are always branded Haunted by my generation and my parents’ generation. Some folks are scared to go into houses that are old and not quite stylish, afraid they’ll run into things that a well-lighted carpeted air-conditioned suburban home couldn’t possibly contain, things like ghosts and spirits and nesting animals and crawly critters.

The candy’s sweetness sticks familiarly between my teeth, but I know it will slowly melt and absorb and disappear.

There is something different about this house, though.

It just sits here empty but ready for occupancy. It is not run down and abused as those feared old houses of yore were. Nobody has vandalized it or marked it for desolation.

Nobody wants this old house right this instant.

My first thought in seeing this old structure is, “Boy, I’ll bet there are some really interesting ghosts in that place!” But something nudges at me, pushes me one notch further.

This is a house so lonely that it would gladly welcome ghosts. This house was once a Home.

This is a house so forlorn that even the ghosts have moved out, gone on to other hauntings.

Both life and death have been sucked out of the old wooden floors and plaster walls of this old house.

Now it just sits in a time zone all its own, and it is just a matter of time before either curious humans or curious haints take a second look and try to decide whether this elegant corpse is ready for reanimation, or whether it is now so much a part of nature that it will just be dismissed from memory and left to the winds and the rains and the scorching days and the humid nights.

Until it looks once more like part of the red clay earth from which it springs.

Until it and my Baby Ruth wrapper fade away and survive solely as some weary traveller’s long ago idea of what the world once was, what it is now, what it may or may not become

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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What was I thinking? How could I be so half-a-century selfish? And how many great teachers the world wide have been ignored in the same manner?

I could have thanked her, you know.

I could have thanked Helen Hisey for being one of the best teachers in my known universe. I could have shown up one day at the retirement home and said, “Mrs. Hisey, thanks, thanks, thanks for making my life so bearable.” And I would really have meant it, too. Helen Hisey made me take a right-angle turn and sent me on my way down the long long road to this moment, the moment in which I feel comfortable enough to write down this little thought.

I’m standing in front of a classroom full of eighth grade students, students who are required to sit quietly and pay attention to me, the fellow eighth grader standing before them.

I’m making my first speech in Helen Hisey’s speech class at Tuscaloosa Junior High School in 1954.

I have nervously prepared for this moment, going over my three-by-five lined stiff note cards until I have them memorized…only I’m so nervous that I can’t get up enough confidence to depend upon memory, so, for lack of anything else to look at besides students, I stare down at the note cards and try to give a speech, utilizing all those rules that good speechmakers are supposed to follow: make good eye contact with the audience (not furtive glances, which is what I am producing), speak loudly (I’m projecting ok, since I was born with this Voice), be convincing (I’m convinced I’m going to expire prior to taking my seat), make appropriate gestures (I’m sure my hands are flailing about, if not in time with my spoken emphases), and be passionate about my subject (I am, I am…only I’m afraid to show it before an audience.).

Helen Hisey’s wonderfully warm and slightly nasal non-southern voice gently interrupts my speech, “James, try slowing down a bit,” is what she says, but what she manages to mean is, “James, you’re doing fine, and I’m enjoying this so much that I would really like to see you enjoying it, too…so relax and tell me a good story.”

I KNOW that’s what she means, and that’s what makes her a great teacher. Helen Hisey never makes you think she doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and her kindly, business-like manner reinforces this idea.

From that moment on, I do fine in Mrs. Hisey’s class, because, like every other student, I just know she is in my corner.

Later that year, she inspires me to write my first short story, entitled “The Fool,” and from then on, I am hooked on writing and telling stories to anyone who will listen or read. Subsequent teachers seldom encourage my writing, save for high school instructors Campbell and Williams, so there are years of gaps, years when I write lots of words for other people—my bosses—but seldom write what I NEED to say.

There are times I feel perhaps nothing I have ever written is worthy—did Mrs. Hisey tell me my story was good just to encourage me and fortify my self esteem?

I learn the answer to that question years later, when it is revealed that Helen Hisey had kept my story, “The Fool,” and read it aloud to every class for many years, using it as an example of a good tale well told by a writer willing to slow down and enjoy the ride.

When my first “respectable publishing house” book is released 45 years after Mrs. Hisey’s eighth grade speech class, it contains a dedication to her on the first page. When I call to arrange to present her with a signed copy of the book, ready to tell her how much she has affected my life, I learn that she has died. My dedication and devotion are a little too late.

What would Helen Hisey have said about THAT?

I can hear her clear voice, “James, you never had to thank me. Watching you emerge was the greatest thanks. Don’t you know that’s what good teaching is all about?”

Whenever I speak to gatherings of five or five hundred, I never have a moment of fear. Because of Helen Hisey, I’ve learned to slow down and enjoy the ride. Like her, I have learned that if you are enjoying the ride, and if you show your audience that you are enjoying the ride, they, too, will enjoy it.

Doesn’t matter what your subject is, the audience is there waiting to be taken away to a world full of good teachers who only want their students to emerge as good and happy grownups

© Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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Some time ago…

Or was it once upon a time ago…

Uh, what about once upon a time or two?

Anyhow, way back when—which may only have been yesterday—I had the sudden impression that ‘most everybody I encounter is shaped funny in one way or another.

People are shaped funny. Why was I just then realizing that?

If the world is peopled with oddly-shaped people, why do I view them as being, well, oddly-shaped? Wouldn’t this mean that oddly-shaped is normal and that therefore the term “oddly-shaped” has no meaning at all?

So, the world is peopled with normal-shaped people.

This must also mean that people who have “perfect” countenances—leading actors and athletes and models, for instance—are the odd ones. They are the shapeshifters who don’t fit the mold of “odd.”

Hmm, if most of us are in the randomly odd category, why do we still compare each other to a handful of perfectly shipshape people? “Well, I don’t see what you see in her looks…her forehead is too high.” “I don’t think he’s so good-looking–his arms are short.” “How can he play that part when he’s only 5′ 8″ and his character is 6’7″?” “She’s not so hot—look at that birthmark.”

And so on.

Seems like we spend much of our time trying to make idiosyncrasy look bad, despite the fact that most of us ain’t so  hot ourselves. Maybe we’re trying to level everybody out, uglifying the beautiful and beautifying the misshapen.

This doesn’t get us anywhere at all. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Once this idea took hold in my daily life, I began the exercise of making the bodies of others disappear for a time, so that I can explore and observe who they really are. What joy may lie beneath.

That includes me. I don’t look in the mirror to see myself anymore. The horror. I focus on whether I feel like a kind and helpful person. If I feel like this today, then my shape means nothing. Today, I can feel Gregory Pecky. Tomorrow I can be Pee Wee Hermanesque. Next day I become Roy Rogersy, then Gandhiful, then Denzel Washingtonian.

Or I can just be me, eschewing the transmogrified self-imaging and focusing on the decency lying dormant and waiting to be accessed.

I can look for Teddy’s joy.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Avast, ye thief.

Bring forth the joy


(c) Jim Reed 2017 A.D.

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