I left home in the stifling heat of August 1977 at the same time Elvis left the building for good. My destination was Searcy, Arkansas and Harding University. I had no inkling that the friends I made in college would affect my thinking, my life, my politics, my spirituality, my love life and my sense of humor…forever. Nor had I any thought about how the Civil War might affect some of my friendships with those above and below the Mason-Dixon line. One such friend from below the line hailed from Lake City, the same north Florida town that’s home to Pat Summerall. He’s still my friend even though we don’t see each other much these days. His name is Ralph Rowand and he’s one of the funniest people I know.
Ralph and I were part of a very good unlimited arc softball team winning several club championships at Harding, a battery if you will. Ralph caught, I pitched. We warmed up before games and I’d try to get the arc of the pitch above the field lights so it’s trajectory was vertical as it crossed the plate and into the dirt on the back edge of the plate. We often had big crowds watching us and Ralph sometimes got bored during blow out games and wanted to do something other than just play ball in the traditional sense of hitting, catching and scoring runs. A faithful Atlanta Braves baseball fan, Ralph would wear a Braves helmet to the games often turning it around backwards when catching and forward when hitting. Before one game Ralph says, “I’m wearing my old Braves helmet to the game.” Ralph had a new shiny helmet and an older one, identical but scarred and slightly cracked. We decided to act out a melodrama on the softball diamond if we got way ahead. We got way ahead. Then he starts bouncing the ball back to me, throwing it over my head, to the side and I get increasingly agitated and yell at him several times about his limp arm and erratic placement of the ball back to me on the pitching rubber. Our ruse was that we would get into an argument and I would snatch the Braves helmet off his head and hurl it into the infield dirt smashing it to pieces. I could hear Kelly Kemp laughing in the stands when I smashed the helmet into the dirt. Mostly, people looked on in stunned open-mouthed wonder, because it was out of character for either Ralph or me to get mad, especially with one another…which was why, I guess, we thought it funny.
Here are some other random things I remember about Ralph. He once broke his foot getting into the bathtub. On a dare, he threw a sixteen pound shot put ball through one of the interior doors in Rector House where we lived just on the edge of campus. He drove a white 1970 Dodge Charger and called it The General. He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but loved to sing anyway, and we sang Jimmy Buffet songs in the car…and he sang the National Anthem at ballgames ending the song with the words, …’and the home of the (Atlanta) Brave.’ It was kind of funny that he loved music. He didn’t seem the type to love music, but I often thought of Ralph later in life when I sang to my kids before I put them down for bed. I sang An American Trilogy, Dixie, All My Trials and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a trio of songs arranged by Mickey Newbury which originated as American folk songs from the 19th century and popularized by Elvis in the seventies. I don’t really know why I sang that trilogy to them. But I thought of the stories Ralph told me about being young and hearing about the Confederacy from his Mom and listening to songs about the South before bed. And so that song framed my memory connecting me to Ralph and my kids. I was from the Great Plains and thought all Americans were like me, and yet one of my best friends still spoke of the South, he may have even had a Rebel flag, and he spoke of the War of Aggression Against the Southern States and he laughed when he said it but I knew the truth buried in the humor was complex and textured and layered with pain, heartache, pride and honor. And of course I married a Yankee from New Jersey. And so I sang that Trilogy of songs to my kids and thought about how great our country was and is and how we are all different, yet the same…and how many have died for that ideal. And that Ralph and I are friends despite our being cut from such different bolts of geo-political-cultural cloth. We are unique…we are the same…and I sense that every time I hear An American Trilogy and every time I see the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze while singing our National Anthem.
Ralph was a master of the one liner:
“Restaurant buffets lose money on me,” spoken upon reaching the beginning of an all you can eat buffet line. It was true.
“My generation got cheated out of a war”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to admiring the Greatest Generation fighting World War II and to the draft ending just in time for our generation to enter the all-volunteer era.
“I’m a Native American,” spoken in defiance of anyone claiming special privilege because of their lineage in this country. He was an American and he was born here so…Native American.
And if you asked Ralph what he did with his days, Ralph would reply, “I keep planes apart.” Which was a modest deferential aside to the fact that he was an air traffic controller and later a manager of controllers at a regional air traffic control center for the Federal Aviation Administration FAA. Lurking under his facade of deep south self-deprecating humor lies one of the most intelligent guys I know. That doesn’t mean he didn’t do dumb things though. We were club brothers and each fall we initiated into our fraternity of collegiate brotherhood lambs primed for slaughter…or at least a large dose of demeaning camaraderie. For several weeks leading up to initiation week, Ralph kept company with a one gallon plastic milk jug. The milk was mostly consumed, perhaps ten ounces remained in the bottom, but the bottom-of-the-jug milk would never see the darkness of a refrigerator for the two weeks leading to rough week. And ingredients would be judiciously added in the time of fermentation. Tobacco juice, garlic, motor oil, Tabasco sauce…and some gross stuff too. The jug would sit outside on the front porch for several weeks and when the time was ripe, the bond of brotherhood was tested in the enmeshment of Ralph’s organic milk jug recipe bonding brother to brother like shampoo-rinse-repeat on the golden locks of a sorority girl.
And so Ralph is one of my best friends from way back. We’ve played ball together, gone to church together, lived in the same house together, sung Jimmy Buffet together, but probably more than anything…we’ve laughed together. Sorry about busting that helmet Ralph. I think it was worth it though, even if we were the only ones who got the joke.