Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Nostalgia on Christmas Eve

It's hard for my grandkids and even my kids to understand the Christmases before technology grew so insidious. But back home in Tennessee, Christmas almost always went down the same way for my younger brother and me. Seems only fitting to share those Tennessee traditions with those who've never had to experience them. 

Christmas Eve was an important day in our house. For one thing, my parents owned a farm store and that store was always open on Christmas Eve. Hand in hand with that, though, came the party. The Christmas party began when my mother, who was born in France and chock full of those traditions, decided to have some food as a thank you to our customers. Her father, a chef, had owned a restaurant before the Nazis killed him on their way out of occupied Paris, and he'd always celebrated Christmas Eve the same way in predominantly Catholic France. He put on an all-day party in his cafe, displaying his skills as a chef in gratitude for the people who patronized his business. During the years of occupation, he used that party--and the Nazis who attended it--as a way to smuggle both food and information to the French Underground, feeding hundreds of people who were desperately fighting against the Germans or fleeing them. 

In Tennessee, of course, we weren't fighting anyone. But starting in the late 1970s, the farming communities in the northwestern part of central Tennessee and southern Kentucky were struggling to survive under worsening economic conditions. So my mom came up with the idea of having some food available on the half-day we worked on Christmas Eve. She and I spent the night before baking and cooking. The spread we put out was unexpected--pate' and French salads, slow roasted prime rib and hams for sandwiches, crusty French breads, eclairs and croissants and creme du caramel and a sheet cake for those less adventurous in their dessert choices. And after that first year, the party blew up beyond our expectations. The spread got bigger every year. So did the crowd. Instead of taking one night to get everything ready, my mom and I would work for a week. Some of the farmers from the near-by Mennonite community would bring ducks or geese in the days before the party, and hundreds of people would show up every year. They'd talk about the party all year long too. There's a large number of farming families around Clarksville for whom chicken liver pate' is now an annual homemade tradition, because my mom was generous with the recipe. And even now, after my parents were divorced and ten years after my mom passed away, today in Clarksville, my dad threw his fortieth Christmas Eve party for his customers--a tradition for our family as well as theirs. 

But unlike every other day of the year, Christmas Eve we closed the store early. It'd be three o'clock by the time we got home after cleaning away the remains of the feast. Night would already have fallen as we drove from our house in St. Bethlehem to my grandmother's house in Oakwood. Highway 79 was two lanes from the bridge over the Red River all the way to Land Between the Lakes. Oakwood was the last bump in the road before you could leave Montgomery County for Stewart County. 

My grandparents lived in a modest ranch house on the family farm, a mile away from the small convenience store my grandfather had owned. My dad had eight brothers and sisters, six of whom lived in the area. On Christmas Eve, my grandparents' house was stuffed to the gills with Harrisons. All my aunts and uncles, all my cousins, and as I grew older all my cousins' spouses and kids crowded into the house. There were so many of us that we only got token gifts. But we weren't there to get presents. We were there to give presents to our grandparents, who'd slaved as small tobacco farmers during the Depression, who'd moved to the steel mills in Gary, Indiana during the war years, who'd come back and started over on the tobacco farm after that. In my dad's words, they were "poor as snakes" when he was growing up--no money to educate their kids beyond their high school graduations. But all of my aunts and uncles grew into successful, affluent adults and they loved to give back to their parents. 

As a little kid, of course, this felt like a punishment. Watching old people open presents on Christmas Eve? Man, give me Santa Claus instead! But as I grew older, those two hours in my grandparents' house every Christmas Eve gave me the deepest sense of family, of roots and ties and obligations to the grand old family whose name I bore. Even after I got married, I continued the Christmas Eve trip to Grandma's house and took my own kids who were the hit of the evening from their first Christmas on. 

But then, we'd drive back home. 

The world is still dark in that part of Tennessee at night. The rural area of western Montgomery County wasn't broken up by anything other than Christmas lights and the headlights of oncoming cars. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car, watching each new decorated house come up and pass by. The radio was always on the same local station that played the same pre-recorded Christmas special every year for decades. I could recite the stories they told and knew which song was next. And while the frosty night made the December lawns glistened like sugar and there was rarely any snow, the quiet winter's peace of Christmas Eve would enter my soul. When we got home, only Midnight Mass was left to do, when my mother and I would go to the tiny old cathedral and worship in the oldest Catholic chapel west of the Appalachians. The candlelit service made the old church even more beautiful than it already was, and Father Bob's Irish-accented Massachusetts voice which always sounded so incongruous in Tennessee became an integral part of my Christmas experience, enough so that even now I don't feel like the priest is doing Mass right if he doesn't have that peculiar blend of heritages infusing the beauty of the loveliest service of the year with that resonant tone. 

In my family, Christmas Eve was the real holiday. Christmas Day, once my brother was old enough to have outgrown Santa, was a day to sleep late, a day where eating leftover sheet cake for breakfast was an acceptable meal (none of the French dishes ever had leftovers), a day where my parents actually got to rest from the rigors of running a business six days a week, a day where a girl who was more interested in books than clothes got to stay in her room and dream. 

Now my family is scattered, my mom is gone and my dad is still plugging along, running his store at 81 much the same way he did at 41. My brother and I both are grandparents, and our kids live apart from us and juggle the traditions of their spouses' families with their own. My husband and I this year are spending Christmas with his parents, which we're devoutly grateful to do after the scare we had with my mother-in-law's health just a few weeks ago.  But as I sit here on this Christmas Eve, I remember the quiet beauty of those long-ago nights where I sat with my face against the car window in the back seat watching as the glow of decorated houses first grew then slipped away out of sight. I can see the clarity with which the stars sparkled overhead, and while listening to "What Child is This?" or Bing and Bowie's "Little Drummer Boy" on the radio, wondering which star was THE star. 

I'm not a nostalgic person for the most part. But some part of me will always be nostalgic for the Christmas Eves of my youths, when my mother shared her French heritage with a group of men who looked forward to her annual gift to them every year, and my father changed from the gruff disciplinarian of the rest of the year into a man both proud and fond of his kids as we all moved through the unspoken schedule of our holiday that reaffirmed our heritage as part of an old, large Tennessee family. All the hurts and anger drains away, and for this one night I think of my family and what makes them such an overwhelming influence over who I am today. Both French and Tennesseean, country-bred and city savvy, dreaming away a Christmas Eve while reality clustered cold and dark and yet somehow gilded on the other side of a frosty window.

Merry Christmas...and Joyeux Noel. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Count Haslamovich--A Tennessee Vampire Story

Author's note: As this 100% fabricated story is becoming better known among the Tennessee fan base and media, other alleged sources are coming forward to add their imaginary suggestions for my fictional story regarding the Tennessee coaching search. With the events of the past few days, it seems like this story needs a sequel or--more properly a prequel into a sequel. So here's my totally fictional, 100% completely made up continuation of this tale as it would have been told to me if I'd been told by now around fifteen imaginary sources close to the UT program. No really. Fiction. I promise. 

This fictional story is a little different from the last one. This one is a horror story, about a vampire that feeds off a beloved institution and nearly drives it into the grave. Pay close attention to this story, because as with all my fiction there's more here than it seems.

There's almost a perfect line of demarcation between the success of Tennessee athletic teams and the misery of the last nine years. This story began with a huge power play in 2008 and culminates in a bigger one in 2017. So now it's time to pull the threads of this story together and see what we can come up with. 

On Thursday, when then-AD of the University of Tennessee suddenly disappeared off the grid, it was a desperation move. If he was going to save his job, he was going to have to go solo and ignore the wishes of the man who was really calling all the shots. That man was, of course, a mega-booster vampire.

One completely made up source said, "He's the epitome of a kid that was born on third base and always acted like he'd hit a triple."

In our society, money confers power. The vampire's family had plenty of both. After the fictional purchase of the Cleveland Browns in October of 2012 for $1.05 billion, the vampire was able to turn his attention back to his first franchise--the University of Tennessee. A few weeks later, his hand-picked coach for the University of Tennessee, Derek Dooley, was fired after being allegedly beaten by Vanderbilt.

Sorry. Had to put that one in. That loss hurt.

When Lane Kiffin had abruptly departed the program to bolt to USC, the UT athletic department had two choices: they could proceed with an interim coach or they could hire Derek Dooley, who had a 17-20 record at Louisiana Tech. The vampire insisted on the Dooley hire which propelled UT into a dismal three-year stretch of football. Allegedly, the fictional David Blackburn, then in the UTK athletic department and future UTC athletic director was the only one who stepped forward.

"That's a bad hire. The man can't coach."

Blackburn was overruled, but his protest was noted by the vindictive vampire. This act became important later.

Strangely, when Dooley was fired three seasons later, there was a sudden surge of hope. Jon Gruden, an imaginary Super Bowl-winning coach who'd also coached at UT, was available. And interested. A group of pretend boosters had him close to signing but there was a sticking point--the pay pool for assistant coaches. The boosters thought they could get the deal done, but as they worked out the details with Gruden then-AD Dave Hart--allegedly primed by the vampire--suddenly went off course in pursuit of Charlie Strong. Gruden got angry...hypothetically...and walked away from the deal. When Strong turned UT down the vampire and Hart offered the job to Butch Jones, who had been headed to Colorado.

You read that correctly. the vampire preferred Charlie Strong and Butch Jones over Jon Gruden. (note there are no references to fictional or allegedly or made up in that sentence)

In 2017, when Hart resigned, there were two popular candidates for the job. Phillip Fulmer, who the vampire and Hamilton had ousted in that fictional 2008 power play, and David Blackburn, one of the brightest and best young ADs in NCAA sports. But neither was an acceptable option to the vampire. Fulmer had been booted because he had too much control over the football program, and Blackburn, of course, had questioned his judgment in the Dooley hire.

The vampire--let's call him Count Haslamovich--pressured the university to choose someone completely not on the radar: John Currie, the athletic director at Kansas State. Currie was loathed by a huge section of the K-State fanbase, and allegedly had issues with legendary football coach Bill Snyder. Currie, of course, had also participated in the "Et tu Brute?" ouster of Fulmer in 2008 and so the vampire wanted him in the UTAD office. Currie was a yes man, and that was the vampire's primary job requirement in an athletic director. So Currie was hired over the two men pretty much everyone else thought should be given the job. Thus the vampire avenged himself on Blackburn, and Fulmer was passed over entirely.The former coach was installed afterwards as a special assistant to President DePietro, which becomes important later.

And then, Butch Jones was fired.

I imagine one of these totally fictional imaginary boosters would say something like this: "Fast forward to this year. Same group of boosters approach Gruden, except this time all contract terms were thought to have been agreed upon. Count Haslamovich, although he led Hart away from Gruden in 2012, played like he was on board this time. The other boosters were wary but really didn’t think the vampire would try to sabotage this thing. These boosters had begun working this plan back in 2012 when they got blindsided the night Hart went after Strong."

But there was another sticking point.

"This is where Count Haslamovich balked. He has always had the most say so in regards to athletics due to being the largest donor. I believe he’s also pledged the most money toward the stadium renovation project. I believe he’s worried if Gruden is hired then he loses the control he desperately loves to have. He knows someone of the magnitude of Jon Gruden will do things his way, not Haslamovich's. The vampire also knows that since the other boosters brought Gruden to the table that he would be more apt to listen to them than Haslamovich. So, the vampire enacts his sabotage plan by having Currie (who was his hand-picked AD, even though most of the other boosters wanted David Blackburn) to cut a deal with Schiano. All the boosters were unaware of this as well as most in the AD office."

Bolding mine.

"So, when the other boosters thought we were fixing to bring Gruden to the table Currie goes rogue and gets (a) MOU signed by Schiano. Luckily someone in our AD office finds out and leaks it. They knew this would not sit well with Vol Nation, and you saw what happened. From that point forward the other boosters that brought Gruden to the table went to work to remove Currie and minimize Haslamovich’s influence."

All this, folks, is the imaginary preface to the Schiano fiasco and what followed. 

But here's the thing. There's a vampire in this story, a vampire that's been feeding on the life's blood of Tennessee athletics and football in particular for the past ten years. This vampire drove the program into its darkest era after a series of disastrous hires, ridiculous PR, and the most humiliating public spectacle of a coaching hire ever. That vampire has been pushed back out of the spotlight with the dismissal of his AD-gone-AWOL John Currie, who allegedly vanished Thursday and had to be summoned back to Knoxville by fictional Chancellor Beverly Davenport. But make no mistake--he'd not only gone rogue from the UT athletic department but allegedly also from Count Haslamovich in his desperation to save his job. 

Why? Because what's the one thing that can kill a monster that feels safe hiding in its castle?

A mob of pissed off Vols fans.

So by the time Currie met with Davenport on Friday and was dismissed in record time--eight minutes--everything was already in place to elevate Fulmer to the position many felt he should have been hired for eight months before.

Almost immediately, Haslamovich's murky contact system within the media got to work. First, reports surfaced that Currie's lieutenant in the athletic department, Reid Sigmon, would become interim AD. Then, certain members of the media both in Knoxville and national started to circulate the idea that Fulmer had undermined Currie in an act of selfish ambition and petty revenge. And make no mistake, the vampire's not done yet. 

"You'll soon start to hear rumors that players were paid during Fulmer's tenure," an imaginary source informed me allegedly. "That is absolutely Haslamovich's doing. Don't be surprised if a former player says as much." 

Bolding mine. Just in case there's any substance to this fictional tale, we'll just leave that little tidbit right there. Maybe the vampire will pay him in tacos or gas station hot dogs or something.

And what's the situation now, you ask?

Well, as a novelist I love a great tale of revenge. These kinds of stories have teeth in a very Julius Caesar-Brutus-Marc Antony kind of way and that's awesome. So since I'm writing an entirely fictional piece, I have to really make the plot thicker at this point, right? In my fiction, usually that means my readers' favorite character dies. But this is a different kind of story. This is a story of injustice, banishment, and then revenge. What happens next absolutely has to be...vindication. 

So if I were writing this as a piece of fiction--which I am--then I'd say that the boosters behind the coup d'etat that ousted Currie and the vampire were in touch with Gruden's camp the whole time, and instantly began to try to bring UT and Gruden back together. In fact, I'd probably go a hypothetical step further and state that's the whole reason the coup occurred in the first place. And while Gruden might initially be reluctant after the debacle of the Schiano deal, I'd venture to guess those imaginary boosters would keep adding money to the pot until it was a deal too sweet to refuse. At the moment, the fangs of the vampire have been pulled and they'd have to move quickly to get the deal worked. 

"We don't know if he'll accept after the Schiano fiasco," one completely pretend source said. "But we'll keep adding a million until we're all bankrupt." 

Great line. Wish I'd thought of that--I mean...glad I thought of it!

Just think about this from my point of view. What greater vindication than for Phillip Fulmer to go out and bring the very man that no one in the world save for the people behind the scenes believes would actually ever coach at the University of Tennessee? Imagine what the reaction of other fan bases would be, of national media--and of the vampires that have had their way for way too long if the greatest coach of the modern era landed Jon Gruden as UT football coach within days of kicking Currie out of the AD office.

That mental picture almost makes up for the press conference from 2008, doesn't it? 

But at the end of the day, this story leads to more questions--and some answers. 

First and foremost, the athletic department is in the hands of a man who has no reason to say "yes" to any vampire, and that's a great thing. This same man has been a Volunteer from birth. We can trust him to stand up to the villain and to do what's best for UT as a whole.

Second, the vampire has been beaten in battle but the war is not won. And while the vampire might have found a way to launder away his influence on UT athletics so he looks blameless in the past, in the future that kind of diabolical influence has to be destroyed. One of the most surefire ways to destroy a vampire is to expose it to the light. And make no mistake, the voices of Vol Nation are a definite light. Every transaction, every decision must be examined carefully for evidence of undue influence.No one can forget even for a moment that in order for UT to thrive, Vol Nation must drive a stake through the heart of the vampire.

Third, the University of Tennessee absolutely must distance itself from the vampire sucking the life away from the institution. Even the appearance of collusion or corruption can no longer be tolerated, no matter what a vampire's last name may be. 

I am a writer primarily of epic fantasy. I know the story is never entirely over, and I know better than to assume the ending. The possibilities for sequels are endless as long as the vampire survives. Between hypothetical legal woes, the pretend close scrutiny of the NFL now looking at the vampire's Browns franchise in relation to an imaginary fraud case, and the fictional situation at UT now coming to light, it's essential for anyone reading this to keep the volume turned up. Because when you get right down to it, a vampire is little more than a leech...a bloodsucker

And we don't need bloodsuckers on Rocky Top. Not any more.

Not ever.

Hypothetically, of course.