Closin in on the big 45 i reflect back often on the people who have been influential in my life and several people come to mind more than others: my grandmother charlotte, my step-father chester, my dear friend tiger edwards and my mentor dan ruffin. now these folks helped mold me into the person that i am today. I dare say all of them over the years have tryed with varying degrees of success to polish off some of my rough edges (shut up tiger) and i remain forever grateful that they saw something in me that motivated them to try to instill in me some of their own fine qualities. More on them later-today i'd like to talk about three people who i've come to know over the years but who regretfully I will never know as well as I wish i could have.
The first is Allie Smith. Coach Smith is an elementary P.E teacher like myself who i got to know several years ago as we worked together on fridays at Brock Elementary School here in Slidell. I dont know all of Coach Smith's history but I do know that he was involved with Covington High School's football program for many years-both as legendary Coach Salter's longtime asst. and as the head coach for several years after Coach Salter retired. Those of you that read this (both of you) and know Coach Smith know what an incredible individual he is and for those of you that have never had the honor to meet him I will try to put him into some sort of perspective but I know I wont do him justice. He is a relatively small man in stature but is in excellent physical condition and looks like he could run a marathon at any time. I'm not sure of his age but Im thinkin hes got to be around 60 give or take but looking at him you get the impression that he could put Mike Tyson on his ass in the blink of an eye. He carries himself in a soft spoken manner yet he does it with such an inner confidence that when he speaks, you are compelled to absorb every word as it comes out of his mouth. Kind of like the old E.F. Hutton commercials (for those of you old enough to remember those). I know from talking to several people over the years that his overall health is not very good and that he doesnt have the use of all of his organs and systems. I think its like 1 lung and some other organ is missing or something like that. Yet, i've never heard him complain about it nor have i been able to find anyone else who has heard him complain about it. He just goes on with his day to day routine as if he was 20 years old. I know through our discussions that he was screwed over by a new principal when she took over and because of that he has been sympathetic to my recent situation as i've had to endure the same scenario. Its hard to put into words what attracts me to this man spiritually although those of you that know him are shaking your head up and down right now agreeing that he is indeed a spiritually powerful individual. And i dont necessarily mean that in a strictly religious sense because I dont know him well enough to know his religious views or background - i mean it in the way that he seems to have such a solid foundation of old school principles and values that are so sorely lacking in most people today. I wish I would have had the chance to know him in the way that some of the people that I respect so much have had -people like Tiger and Coach Ginn and Coach Blocker - I have no doubt that many of the qualities that make them good coaches and good people can be directly linked to their association with Coach Smith. With Coach Smith, our times together are too few in number and too short in duration but afterwords when I reflect in amazement regretting that I dont know him better, I find myself feeling honored that I know him at all.
Another person who I wish I could say I know better is Uncle Dan. Uncle Dan is Dan Miller, my mom's baby brother. Uncle Dan is the one who in the late 60's when I was little and didnt really know what "cool" was just driving around in his blue VW bug being "cool". To this day he is just so frickin' cool. I mean hes a bachelor living on a beautiful sailboat in south miami. How cool is that? I mean define cool. You cant can you? But you know it when you see it, right? Thats this dude. Hes only about a dozen or so years older than me but life has just caused our paths to take different directions over the years and i only get to see him every couple of years or so. When I do get a chance to hang out with him i always get him to whip up a batch of his hamburger n beans . Awesome!! I just have some great memories of hangin out with him way back n the day. Doing some of his boy scout stuff (yeah that used to be cool), working on his worm farm down in grandma and grandpa allwardt (my great-grandparents) basement in illinois, riding in his bug, he was in a band back then too and that was cool they had some connections to musicians that went on to make it big like Gary Richrath from REO Speedwagon and some guys from the Fifth Dimension - we'd do some fishing every once in awhile out at isaac walton lake where grandpa was a member- his nickname is tinker- man he can fix anything i think he could make an aircraft carrier out of a rubber band 2 paper clips and a wad of gum. the original McGiver. I wish our paths crossed a little more often. Maybe I'd be a little cooler than I am (shut up tiger)
The last person I wish I knew better is my dad, Richard Howell Cleek, Sr. He and my mom divorced when i was 2 or so and we didnt see much of each other for the first 20 years of my life. He lived in Illinois and we had moved down to Louisiana. My mom married chester when i was 12 and dad agreed to let Chester adopt me soon after that. I remember dad calling me and asking me if thats what I wanted to do and me telling him yes. Didnt seem like much at the time cause i really didnt know my dad anyway so what did i care. So i went from being Richard Howell Cleek, Jr to being Richard Michael Spring in one short court visit. I do remember eating at some nice restaurant after. So anyway life went on. My mom didnt bring up dad much over the years. She was doing her best to raise me and the only thing i ever heard her say was that she wished she could have gotten some child-support to help take care of me those years she was raisng me on her own. But she never really talked bad about him. she just said they were just too young to be getting married she was just 17 at the time and that the only good thing to come out of the whole deal was me. (moms are contractually bound to say nice things like that). I dont really remember how it all happened but about the time my wife was pregnant with our 1st child stephanie it occured to me that i needed to reach out to my dad. maybe its because chester has just died and i was looking for something or someone to replace what i had lost i dont know. i just know somewhere along the line we just started talking. I remember early on that i seemed real comfortable with dad like i had known him and been around him the whole time when in fact the times that we actually were together could be counted on 1 hand. he on the other hand was squirmin like a worm on a hook. When we finally got down to it he said he was having trouble getting over the guilt of not being there for me while i was growing up and everything. I explained to him that I had no reciprocal feelings in that regard, that i had a father figure growing up that i was grateful for and that i wanted us to just let it go and start fresh. I told him i had a father and lost him and now i wanted a Dad and a grandpa for my kids. That was 21 years ago and to this day, I'm not sure how much progress we've made in that specific area. I guess regret is a powerful emotion for him to overcome. I hope i've relayed to him that i dont have any hard feelings about that. Its been a wonderful 21 years. i only get to see him once a year for a couple of weeks in the summer. we talk every other weekend or so on the phone and i try to send him pictures when my sorry ass can get around to it. Over the years i've gotten to know his wife, sis, who is truly an angel on earth. It comforts me to know that while I'm this far away he has her as his companion. I've gotten to know sis's daughters who he helped to raise especially kelly and misty. They are special people as well. What i've really come to discover is how alike we are yet i wasnt around him during my formative years so i guess that gives creedence to the argument of the genetic side of behavior. Our temperment, our procrastination, our recogition of the importance of family, our appreciation for classic movies, our love of music, our standards when it comes to our friends-- its uncanny sometimes. I have come to appreciate what a warm and caring person that he is and i admire how he has made mistakes in his life and how he doesnt blame them on anyone else, he claims responsibility for his actions and tries to make restitution when he can. He has helped raise Misty's daughter Ciara while she tries to make it as a single mom. She is smart as a whip and a lot of it is due to the time that he and sis have spent with her. He has been a terrific grandpa to my 2 children Steph and Aaron and now as a great-grandpa to Bailey. He treated Steph like a little princess every summer and the visions i have of him and aaron at the kitchen table listening to old country songs will stay with me the rest of my life. I really truly enjoy and cherish our times together and pulling away from his house to begin our trip back home is one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences that I have had to endure in my lifetime. I cant help but think that one of these times will be the last time that I will ever see him or sis again and it tears me apart inside. Its probably 60 miles down the road before the tears stop streaming down my cheek. I did make a point last week before I left to let him know that I love him and that along with my children and bailey that getting to know him again was one of the most important things to happen to me in my life. I'm glad I could tell him that so he knows.
Life deals us some strange hands and we have little choice except to play the cards we're dealt. I just wish my hands would have included more of Coach Smith, Uncle Dan and my Dad a little more often.