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Love lost on Labor Days past

We were downtown looking at our phones when one of us said, “We’ve got to go to Joymongerz to watch the rest of this game.”

It was just an ordinary Thursday night, and we’d actually forgotten about the Appalachian State game in Knoxville against the ninth ranked Tennessee Volunteers, until one of us looked it up and saw the Mountaineers led 13-6 late in the second quarter. By the time App State intercepted a pass near the endzone to end the half, we were on the way up to Greensboro’s newest brewery.

The football season sort of snuck up on us. We knew big games were coming Saturday, but this was a treat. The second half rolled off by the time we arrived and I had just ordered a beer when I turned to look at the television. Neyland Stadium. All 100,000 of them packed in there cheering wildly under the bright lights in the Tennessee foothills.

That’s when it hit me. The memory of a time I’ve struggled for 34 years to forget.

As Labor Day approached in the late summer of 1982 my extended family prepared for the trip of our lives. Off to the Knoxville for the World’s Fair. My family. My grandparents. My cousin’s family. We’d booked a trio of connected rooms at a motor court in Gatlinburg. In order to give my parent’s enough time and energy to keep up with my younger twin siblings, it was agreed that I’d ride along, and stay with, my grandmother and her third husband, Roy.

The things I remember about the drive are small. The endless highway toward Asheville where the mountains seemed to rise from the visible horizon of the interstate. Seeing how far we could keep the signal from WTQR as we rose over Black Mountain and into the hills. The beauty of Gatlinburg in late summer. The pool at the motor court. The arcade in town!

At the World’s Fair itself over in Knoxville, I mostly remember the crowds, the space needle, and especially the Chinese exhibit hall, which I had to be lured away from with promises of hitting the National Football League exhibit. I was football crazy then. Anyone who’s read these missives I put together with varied sentence rhythms should recall that I write about pigskin fever from time to time.

As night settled in over Knoxville I began to notice the distinct glow of light coming from this giant structure off to the edge of the fairgrounds. Roy told me it was the football stadium for the University of Tennessee. I guess at 11 you don’t notice these things. No, he couldn’t take me to the game, Roy said, but he pointed over to the large Ferris wheel at the fairgrounds.

“I’ll bet we can see into the stadium from there.” I was afraid of heights. I was deathly afraid of rides, after having nearly died on the old Oaken Bucket spinner at Carowinds just a few years earlier. Roy turned white as a ghost, my memaw had said, and I turned a light shade of green. She clamored for the guy to turn the bucket off, but to no avail. We survived, but barely, and I was not much interested in rides after that.

This was different. I took a look at that Ferris wheel and looked back to the bank of blazing lights that ringed the stadium and said, “Let’s go.”

I was breathless with nerves and shut my eyes tight.

My white knuckles evidenced the type of grip I kept on the guardrail. Eventually Roy nudged me. I wish I could have seen the sense of wonder on my face when I realized what I saw. At the Ferris wheel’s top I could see just over the edge of the stadium. We could make out about one third of the far end of the gridiron. As it was, Duke had the ball driving toward that end zone. The blaze orange of Tennessee’s uniforms against the rich green of the field contrasted with Duke’s white helmets and royal blue trim. The light bounced off the freshly painted helmets, creating a sense of illumination I’ve never quite forgotten.

I loved that man. I was sexually abused as a child and my parents hit me in the face and with spoons and belts and bare knuckles so often that I thought it as normal as waking up each morning. Roy loved me. I knew he loved me because two years before he’d handed me an ice-cold Coke in a sweating glass wrapped in a napkin. I let the glass fall through my hands. As it shattered on the floor I flinched for the expected blow and when it didn’t come I looked at Roy and he said, which I will never forget as long as I have memory, he said “It’s all right precious. It’s all right.”

Roy left Knoxville with my grandmother to head out west to visit her family in Utah. I never saw him again. He had a third massive heart attack in Salt Lake City and he died. He was not quite 50 years old.

I can’t recall much from that fall. I played football in the seventh grade and we went undefeated. I didn’t much care. I began to act out my grief by becoming a juvenile delinquent and my mother put me in Baptist school.

I recently tired of carrying all this emotional weight and instead of seeking yet another therapist, I decided to find a happiness coach. She looked me in the eye and said, “grow up.” She gave me a book on reinventing yourself and I read it at the beach this summer. I’m supposed to suppress my victim mentality that I earned as an adolescent. Most people never outgrow their first personality, according to this author, and remain victims their entire lives. Successful people, and those more oriented to the good things in this life, take possession of circumstance and beat it down like Alabama did to Southern California last Saturday.

I’ve been doing much better with my negative personality this summer, but when the memory of Knoxville 1982 hit me last week, I had to let it breathe just for an instant. !

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