The youngest boys in our vacationing clan froze in their tracks and eyed two plastic palm trees with immediate interest. The winding line to climb to the top of these tropical fakes (two poles with attached footholds designed like the climbing rock walls you often find at ball parks and carnivals) was eight kids deep and stretched into the middle of the boardwalk. Passers-by were forced to at least pause for a look.
Our group of twenty vacationers, immediate and extended family with a few friends in tow, included three boys and a girl twelve years old or younger. There were eight adults in our party, four married couples, each pair with close or reasonably close cousins represented.
My wife Rothann and I had three of our four boys with us – Gabe, Reggie and Maddux. Our oldest, Gardner, was spending the summer playing baseball in Missouri and missed this particular trip. My first cousin Grant Gardner and his wife Laura Jo had their three kids with them – Grady, “Buzz” and Melly Grace, the youngest girl on the trip – and Craig and cousin Mitzi Gaines, my next-door neighbors, brought their two grown boys Rustin and Tanner and a friend along. Rounding out the group was another cousin Molly Goodson, her husband Cole, their two daughters Claire and Halley, and a neighbor, Sara Jenkins. Now Molly’s grandfather was Grant’s and my grandfather’s nephew, and the two of them – uncle and nephew – married sisters. So, in fine Southern tradition, Grant and I are actually double-kin to Molly; we’re both 3rd and 4th cousins. This substantial group of fun-loving, Northeast Mississippians was enjoying Day 3 of a week-long, single-house adventure in Seagrove Beach, Florida, in late July when we launched into one of our typical evening excursions, this night to Baytown Wharf, a boardwalk development in Sandestin filled with restaurants, shops and carnival games.
What must be known about our families, especially the Richeys, Gardners and Gaineses, is that we are sports nuts, ultra-competitive and occasionally downright vicious when a game is afoot. Never has any Indy 500 been as competitive, or ruthless, as the routine, every day turn our family takes on the go-carts of the Wild Woody at The Tracks in Destin or Gulf Shores. If you think dainty, soft-spoken Melly Grace won’t put you into the wall when the opportunity arises, prepare to taste wall. When we spot a Louisiana church group playing volleyball on the beach from our sea-view balcony, our group will typically race to challenge them to a “friendly” game, a game that inevitably morphs into a battle of state-to-state supremacy, often ending with me setting Grant up for a spike into some hapless teenage Cajun’s face. Bless her heart. The women in our travelling party, while outwardly appalled by the worst of our trumped-up contests, require only minor surface scratches to reveal that they too have been indoctrinated into our cult of competition. Many a teary-eyed child has checked out of one of our particularly brutal beach football games, seeking solace under his mother’s umbrella, to find himself greeted with “Oh, my little sweetheart, let me wipe that sand off … Listen, you are going to have to catch the dang football. Sweetie, nobody likes a cry-baby. Now get back in there, and don’t let them push you around!”
Grady, Buzz and Maddux jumped into the lines to ascend the Baytown palms, hands extended for the $5 required for the experience. The object of the palm tree climb was simply to reach the top. There you would hit a button that caused a red light to go off, proving that you had in fact achieved the summit, and then you could descend with the satisfaction that you had scaled the Everest of tropical vegetation. We watched as many a kid returned to earth to the hugs and congratulations of family members. I suspect they all held hands and sung gaily together as they went for ice cream and mochas to celebrate. All our family saw was two – not one, but two – palm trees, side by side. Two buttons at the top. Two red lights. Two vertical paths to glory on the Baytown Wharf.
To Grant’s horror, Melly declined to enter the queue, citing “no chance for victory” in the potential match-up with her older, male siblings and cousin, leaving us with an odd number of contestants for the race to the top of the Palms. Twelve-year old Grady altruistically aligned himself with an unknown kid in line 2, foregoing the sure win he would have enjoyed against his younger brother or cousin. I’ll always respect him for that. Of course, the unknown kid was summarily toasted and then taunted as Grady shimmied up the pole like a Rhesus monkey, breaking decades-old Baytown speed records. The kid never realized he was in a race until Grady let go, as his feet hit the ground, with “In your face!” I felt sorry for the little guy with his stunned expression. I high-fived Grady.
Buzz was, and is, bigger and older than Maddux. Maddux’s chances of beating Buzz to the top of the palm trees were pretty slim. If the boys’ weren’t aware of this pre-race decision by the odds-makers, Grant and I certainly were. I attempted a pep talk. “Move quick, and don’t look down … and, oh, have fun. Just– Just, uh, have fun.” You are obligated to say that last part. There were other people within earshot; you don’t want to sound crazy. Being crazy is OK, but you don’t want people to know it.
What Grant and I both had missed in prepping our horses for the derby was that we were sending seven- and eight-year-old kids up a 20-foot pole with nothing but a ¼” safety rope strapped to a harness they probably didn’t even realize they were wearing. When the starter pistol fired (there was no starter pistol), the two thoroughbreds burst from the starting gates, if inching forward and gazing upward can be described as “burst”-ing.
“Let’s go, Buzz,” Grant screamed in distraught tones. I, with dignity and grace, gently encouraged Maddux, “Move your butt, boy!”
You have heard of the famous race between the tortoise and the hare. Maddux and Buzz topped that fable with the reality of a much more competitive tale – tortoise versus tortoise. Eighteen minutes into our pre-pubescent Olympiad, the boys had risen about 6 feet off the ground. A contest that had begun amid great anticipation by the full contingent of our twenty-member tribe now held the attention of maybe four or five of us.
Melly summed it up, “Good grief! I want to get some Dippin’ Dots! Let’s go.”
Even 7- and 8-year-old men cannot suffer such emasculation, and the pace quickened up both poles. However, at the twelve foot mark, my pre-game speech paid dividends for the underdog, or rather it could be said that Grant’s failure to provide Buzz with similar guidance proved insurmountably costly. In either case, Maddux had been trailing by a rung or two when Buzz’s ascent took the fatal turn. He looked down. All motion on pole number one came to a halt. And now as Maddux moved methodically past his frozen cousin to 14 minutes later trigger the button that would flash the red light of glory for the Richey clan, Buzz’s grip tightened on his plastic palm.
When Maddux descended to earth and we rehydrated him with the last sip of a 20-ounce Diet Mountain Dew, we awaited Buzz’s splash-down. When the place-horse’s feet touched the boardwalk – maybe 30 seconds after Maddux’s – Grant offered encouragement to his middle child with “Good effort!” Of course, “good effort” in our family is code for “you just got your butt kicked.” The fact that Grant followed it up with “At least we had some good fellowship!” was the ultimate insult.
Every good, church-going family in the South knows a preacher will start, without fail, every church volleyball game or softball game or basketball game with the “Lord, help us all have good fellowship”-speech, to suppress the competitive overflow that often occurs anyway. Now our family, in a borderline sacrilegious move, has adopted the “good fellowship” phrase to apply to … well, to guys who had just lost or were about to.
Grant may just as well have hit Buzz in the head with a club. His lower lip and shoulders were at approximately the same elevation, slightly above the knee. Grant’s post-game commentary and Buzz’s reaction to it elicited a quick and certain reaction from Laura Jo, the mother of the endangered cub. Her dark, burning stare somehow physically blew Grant’s hair back. To her credit and to Buzz’s benefit, Laura’s maternal instinct remains stronger than her urge to compete for victory at all costs, at least slightly stronger. After all, she’s not blood-kin to Grant and me, so she has a genetic advantage.
Rothann, for her part, began to apply cold rags to the back of Maddux’s neck. We had to get his heart rate down so that he could properly enjoy his unlikely victory. Just as a smile began to crease his face and he looked over in Buzz’s direction, Grady reappeared.
“Hey, they’ve got bumper boats with water cannons,” he announced.
Maddux’s attention shifted instantly from Buzz to the new matter at hand, and Buzz seemed to brighten up too at the news, his lip returning at least to chest-height.
Melly added her follow-up to Grady’s discovery and tugged at Grant. “I’m riding with Daddy!”
Maddux followed suit in my direction. “Come on, Daddy! I’ll drive and you shoot!”
Grant and I did a slow-turn towards each other. Our eyes met. Round 2. “All right,” we said together. Grady and Buzz nodded at each other, establishing their team, but then Grady added a piece of information that had been heretofore withheld. “And the big boys are getting on, too.”
“What?!” Grant blurted.
“Don’t you and Melly want to ride together?” I offered Maddux.
I knew Maddux’s response before I even asked the question. Committing too hastily to team configuration without full knowledge of all pertinent competition information was a rookie mistake. The unknown kid from palm tree #2 had to be laughing somewhere, probably over a dish of ice cream. Grant and I knew we were dead men walking. We had saddled ourselves with seven-year-old ship captains for the Battle of Pearl Harbor that was coming. There we would combat as merciless a group of 15 to 21 year olds as had ever been gathered in Sandestin, Florida.
Grant said he hoped we didn’t drown. I tried to come up with something insightful and poignant to say, to give perspective to the circumstance we found ourselves in, but all that came out was “Crap.” The kids raced ahead, laughing. The wives smiled, but strangely, it did not seem to be only from the joy of seeing their children happy.