Deer Hoof Destiny

I am a practical joker. I enjoy the practical jokes, mostly those played on others. Don’t get me wrong – I am a good sport, I’m just more of a sport when the gag is at someone else’s expense.

I have been playing practical jokes on my family since I was little. Of course, once I learned to walk and talk the jokes got easier. You can only play, “Hey Mom, guess what’s in the diaper?” so many times. And that has to be played to a very specific audience.

Mainly Mom.

At 2am.

I love my mom. Mom was my first victim. She didn’t know she was raising a prankster at first, but after The Diaper Games she figured it out.

When I was 13-years-old my family rented a house in the mountains of New Jersey. Yes, we’re from New Jersey and yes there are mountains. It’s not just a collection of highway on-and-off ramps as most people think. New Jersey is called “The Garden State” for crying out loud! It’s on our license plates.

Speaking of pretty states with license plates, the state of Colorado’s plates used to say “Colorful Colorado”, although the plates were just white with green lettering. After vacationing in Hawaii, a Colorado congressmen saw the Hawaiian license plates which feature a full rainbow on them and (feeling outdone by the islanders) returned to the Rockies and petitioned to have their motto changed to, “Colorado: at least we don’t pay $10 for a gallon of milk.” Sadly, that fact does not fit on a 12”x6” plate, so they went with “We’ll Have Weed One Day”.

The house my family rented in NJ was on beautiful Highland Lake. It was a hunter’s home, and aptly decorated with multiple deer heads, raccoons holding up lamps and a stuffed possum on the fireplace hearth. (Sidenote: it turned out to be a real possum, playing possum, which we found out during Family Game Night two weeks later. Kudos to the possum. Seriously. Top of his class.)

Mom said the house gave her the hebbie-jebbies. Not like a “This-house-is-drafty” feeling, more like a “I-think-that-picture-is-watching-me-make-coffee” feeling. So after a few weeks, my father was encouraged to take the creatures of taxidermy out to the garage. At 2am.

Back then when my siblings and I would feel sick, Mom would want to feel our palms for clamminess and kiss our foreheads to see if we were running a fever. This was common practice. Apparently she had temperature sensors in her lips. Looking back now I think she was actually doing it for strength, kissing our heads and praying to God like, “Lawd, give me the strength not to take this one to the No Kill Shelter on Route 23.” I’m kidding of course. Mom loved us dearly and the No Kill Shelter was actually over in Hoboken, NJ. That’s a fun word to say: “Hoboken”.

“And now, welcome to the center ring – Hoboken the Clown and his Flaming Swords of Death! Watch in amazement as he…wait. What’s that? What happened? Oh, that’s too bad. I didn’t even know they were real swords. …ahem.  And now, welcome to the center ring – Tonya the Bareback Rider! Watch in amazement as she…”

So one night Mom and my older sister Heather are watching TV in their PJ’s under a blanket on the couch. And I’m bored. Which is a bad combination. I’m rifling through drawers looking for pencils to journal with, when I find the most unusual paperweight. It is a deer hoof, about eight inches in length, cut off at the ankle and weighted down to about two pounds by the taxidermist. The fur is reflective and soft to the touch. The deer’s toes are out stretched and rough. Deer’s hooves are actually formed of keratin, the same material that forms our fingernails. Speaking of fingernails, my next practical joke springs to the front of my mind…

I hold the “ankle nub” of the hoof with my left hand and with my right I roll my blue flannel pajama sleeve down, covering my hand and fingers. Now, just a hoof protrudes from my shirt sleeve. I tuck my hoof and my remaining five fingers behind my back and shuffle down the hallway in my slippers, back towards the den, passed the picture that watched Mom brew coffee this morning. The time is 9:15pm.

(Can you see where this is going? I’m so excited!)

I walk into the room slowly yet purposefully, squaring myself up in front of the one that gave me birth and I try to look pale. With one eye partially closed, I make my voice soft and say, “Mom, I don’t feel so good.”

“Oh, no,” she says, silently wondering how long it takes to get to Hoboken. “Let me feel your hands.”

At 13 years old, the mind is not fully formed. Childish things are behind you, your whole life is ahead of you, yet you’re stuck in this space where you cannot define who you are. You just know who you are not.

I already knew I was never going to be a professional athlete, I knew I was not going into politics and that I didn’t like to be alone. I also knew my attention span lasted shorter than this sentence. …where was I going with this? Oh, yes.

The point is at that very moment, standing in that winter living room I realized that my calling was to bring joy into this world for others. Even though sometimes the joy I brought was only for myself.

And as my destiny in life became clear to me, I brought my arms from around my back…

I Was Jaded.

My first love was Jill Dwyer in the 3rd grade. I was attending a catholic school at the time, Our Lady Queen of Peace in West Milford NJ, and she was my classmate. Jill had long fiery red hair, white skin with freckles and bright green eyes. I had never seen this combination before. To me she looked like an angel, or one of Strawberry Shortcake’s friends. Either way I wanted to be near her.

Jill was a little taller than me and wore the school-required plaid skirt and solid, short-sleeved dress shirts. Always buttoned up to the neck. Always smiling in her patent leather shoes with silver buckles. Having feelings for her, I didn’t know how to act around her so I remember treating her “just like one of the guys”. This non-special treatment I showed her did not make her notice me (which I found to be odd) but she was always kind. Always smiling.

One day on the playground, a boy noticed me looking at Jill and figured out I had a crush on her. He jabbed an elbow into my ribs and chuckled, “Well, you know what they say about red heads!” I did NOT know what they said about redheads and starred at him blankly. He starred back just as blank, apparently waiting for me to finish the thought. When I did not, he just turned and walked away. Looking back I don’t think he knew what they said at all. He probably just overheard someone else use that phrase and was trying to find out for himself. I don’t remember what his name was, just that he was twice everyone’s size and never tied his shoes.

Third graders at Our Lady Queen of Peace in North Jersey got to participate in “Show-and-Tell” on a pretty regular basis. This was similar to an Oral Book Report, although no reading was required. Nor was there any real attempt in learning anything. It kinda went like this:

“I have this thing that I keep at home, but today I brought it with me. It’s not my favorite thing. I never bring my favorite thing outside, let alone across town on a school bus full of idiots. I’m not meaning you people of course — you idiots are on a different bus route. Honestly, I wanted to bring something else, but Mom said it was too nice and it might break. I don’t see what the big deal is. Christmas is a month away and if it broke Santa could just make me another one.”

On this particular Show-and-Tell day I was thrilled to be bringing in one of my Star Wars action figures. Luke Skywalker! This…THIS will make Jill Dwyer notice me! Once she sees that I am into Star Wars she’ll have to like Star Wars too! And then we can play Star Wars together – forever! I had cleaned up Luke the night before for the Big Day and had placed him in my book bag next to my bed. I wanted to set him directly on the bookbag so I could fall asleep looking at him in anticipation, but we had a dog at the time. A dog that clearly worked for The Empire. So Luke was rolled up neatly in some napkins and tucked safely inside.

The next morning I dressed quickly, shoved Sugar Pops into my mouth and was early for the bus. The bus drove uncharacteristically slow this day. I was so anxious I wanted to pull out a lightsaber and slice the driver in half! However, it would be another 9 years before I got my driver’s license, and another 15 years before I got my bus license, so I spared him. Just drive faster. Idiot.

Twenty minutes later I walked into class. It was there that the height of my excitement was met by the depth of my disappointment — Jill was home sick. (If this was a movie, we would begin slow motion here.) “What???” I cried. “Why?”

The why didn’t matter. My heart sunk so fast and so heavy it brought me to my hands and knees on the dirty tile floor. How will Jill Dwyer know that I like Star Wars if she’s not here? My book bag slid of my shoulder and landed next to my right hand. I could feel my Sugar Pops coming back up. My classmates shuffled in past me as if they couldn’t feel the foundations of the earth collapsing… It was over between Jill and I before it even began.

I don’t remember her after this; it’s apparently the last memory I have of Jill Dywer. I had had my heart stomped out by a woman who never really talked to me even though I strategically ignored her in an attempt to make myself more attractive.

At my request the following year, my parents transferred me to another school, I grew out my hair and we changed religions. I was jaded.

I left Jill on her barren, desert planet to deal with her issues and (much like Luke Skywalker) I headed off to find my own destiny. A destiny that would take me well beyond any realm I could come up with using a 3rd grader’s imagination.

Funny how the movies we watch are not nearly as entertaining as real life.

My name is Curtis Johnston — and that was real life.

A Cup of Coffee by Any Other Name

I Like my Coffee Like I Like My Women…

We’re all addicted. Some people are addicted to chocolate, some to cute little kittens. I am addicted to hot water filtered through ground beans — coffee. I love the sound of it brewing, the smell, the taste.

Did you know that coffee first begins its life not as bean, but as a fruit? More specifically a cherry? Neither did I. Did you know that it was first harvested in the ninth century in Ethiopia? Do you even know where Ethiopia is? Yeah I had to look it up too. It’s not my fault though. My school teacher never turned the globe to the other side.

My love affair with coffee began at a very young age. I was about 13 years old and working for my father’s contracting business. Picture a crew of big, burly, bearded men clad in flannel and denim and sloshing around in the mud. And one small, blonde boy, wearing tan corduroys and a Knight Rider Jacket. (Which character do you think I am in this story?) One of these lumberjacks would inevitably make a morning coffee run and the order would be “Six cups of coffee and a hot chocolate for the kid.”

“Kid?” I thought. “KID??? I don’t see no stinkin’ kid here. We’re all lumberjacks! Coffee all around!” It was my first contact with coffee. At 13. And I have to tell you it left something to be desired. Actually, it was hideous. It tasted like hot gravy, brown crayons and motor oil. Yuck! But this was my induction into manhood. Swallow it! I had to consume all 10oz. while discussing halfbacks, fullbacks, fastbacks and scratching my bathing-suit area. It made no sense to me at the time, but I eventually grew  to love fastbacks and my bathing-suit area.

Flash forward 30 years later, my stomach is as tough as the hull of the USS George Bush. Lined with the remnants of thousands of pots of java, it could be used as in an emergency as Kevlar by Knoxville’s Finest…although I hope it never comes to that. I take my coffee black, strong and hot. Extremely hot.

Ideally, I would like it served with tongs at a rolling boil by a man in a fire retardant suit. I would also pay high dollar to have a cup of joe filtered through the hide of Juan Valdez’s mule. But, that’s just me.

Coffee (like Leonardo DiCaprio) is an acquired taste. No one takes their first sip of piping hot black coffee and thinks, “Wow! Where have you been all my life?”

Now yes, your first sip of a Caramel Frappa Mocha Hydro-chino Latte? Sure. I imagine you would go back for seconds. But to us this is not true coffee — more like pecan pie in a cup. (Oh, pecan pie in a cup…great business idea.) Drinking black coffee is like driving a 5-speed—our numbers are diminishing.

Unlike other beverages, coffee is a common thread in the world today, bringing people together with just a few simple words. “You want to get together for coffee?” Absolutely. “You want to get together for root beer?” I’ll have to check my schedule.

I don’t understand decaffeinated coffee, though. What’s the point? It would be like having a marine life preserver lined with tuna fish. You’ve missed the purpose.

Speaking of porpoise, I could go for a cup of coffee in a thick restaurant mug right now. Who’s got time?

Meeting My Forever Love

When Smooch and I got engaged in 2008, I wrote up our story and displayed it at our Engagement Party. Since it is Valentine’s Day, I thought I would share it again.

Carol DeCook, a small town girl from Spring City TN, only child of Judith DeCook (retired school teacher) and Al DeCook (Community College Professor) grew up alongside her three cousins, worked at Watts Bar Resort and enjoyed the simple pleasures of life. She moved to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee where she worked in the restaurant industry to put herself through college. After earning her degree in 1998 and looking at several options, she decided on a career with Suncom Wireless. When asked to drive to Nashville for team training for her new job, she raised an eyebrow and asked if there was another way. (Carol is not much of a driver.)  Her manager Everly said she would make a call…

Curtis Johnston, born in Westwood NJ, middle child of Curt Johnston (owner of Canaan Electric) and Mary Johnston (CFO of Canaan Electric), grew up harassing his older sister Heather and younger brother Joshua. He worked construction alongside his father, before leaving to serve seven years in the US Air Force. After traveling the world, he settled down in Tennessee with his three children, Richard, Kyle and Sarah. He got a job as a mechanic at Firestone where he was recruited to work for SunCom Wireless. Late one evening, he received a call from his good friend Everly. “I need a favor…”

Early the next morning, Carol awoke fifteen minutes before the alarm clock went off. With a song in her heart, she made a pot of coffee, did a load of laundry and wrote out some bills. To make the best impression on her new coworker, she allowed 20 minutes for her 6 minute drive. She skipped out of the house saying hello to the bunnies and feeding fresh flowers to the deer. The raccoons opened her car door and she was off. Disney at its best.

Across town, Curtis rolled out of bed after hitting the snooze alarm four times. Smell-checking yesterday’s shirt, settling on mismatched socks and grabbing a tie from the door handle, he headed for the car. Running back to the house to frantically search for his keys, finding them strategically placed next to the DVD player, he flew out the door again. Allowing 6 minutes for his 20 minute drive, he decided he still had time to stop for coffee.

Careening into the parking lot and screeching to a halt to meet his traveling companion for the day, he was awestruck by a tall brunette with porcelain white skin. Backlit by the morning sunrise, she looked like Snow White in a business suit. Opening the passenger door and leaning into the car, the princess spoke the first words of their history… “You’re late.”

Yeah, not much has changed over the years. She still acts like Snow White, and I’m a hybrid of Tigger and Eeyore (depends on the day). But we’re still together and still taking road trips!

Perhaps this Valentine’s Day in lieu of flowers or chocolates, give each other the gift of loving memories. How did you meet? Where was your first date? What made you fall in love? The conversation may just surprise you.

Confessions of a Yard Sale Junkie

My wife and I are yard sale junkies. I wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago I didn’t see the value in yard sales. Hey if those guys didn’t want it, why should I bring it into my house? Turns out you can find some awesome deals at yard sales. I have bought tools, water toys and DVD’s for $1. Now they’re not BluRay…and yes, some of them say BLOCKBUSTER across the front, but hey it’s a dollar! You can’t RENT a movie these days for $1. And don’t bring up the Red Box, buck-a-night from Wal Mart. You know you guys don’t return those things within 24hrs — stop lying to yourself!

On any given Saturday, my wife (who I’ll refer to as Smooch going forward) is up by 6am and checking her multiple yard sale apps. Smooch is actually on an email chain that sends her times/addresses of local yard sales. During this “critical research time”, she’s click-clacking away on her iPhone as I lie next to her wondering why I didn’t fall in love with a sleeper-inner. Ah, a sleeper-inner… (cue fantasy music) My sleeper-inner and I would lie in bed for hours watching the sun rise across our popcorn ceiling making stalactite shadows. But no. That’s that the woman I chose. The woman I chose is up and moving before the sun and the stalactite shadows. She makes the coffee, leashes the dogs and is in the car before 7:20am. I stumble down the driveway in yesterday’s t-shirt, looking like Rod Steward the morning after a late night concert in Fiji.

Smooch and I spend the next three to four hours driving around West Knoxville looking for things we just can’t live without: cross-stitched Christmas ornaments, Chris Farley’s highlights from SNL, perhaps a Darth Vader Pez dispenser.

We head for the main streets first, usually spotting signs on Kingston Pike, Campbell Station or Grigsby Chapel Road. Unfortunately, we’ve learned you can’t judge the quality of the yard sale by the quality of the sign directing you to it. We were once lured into a HUGE letdown by some well-made signs. Personally I don’t think they made enough money at that sale to cover the price of materials. But whatever. On the flip side, we followed some mediocre signs with deflated balloons to a sale, and found a chandelier that used to hang in the old Lord Lindsay Nightclub downtown! I know, right?

Hey, one word of unsolicited advice to anyone who hosts a yard sale — have iced drinks for sale and have your kids sell them. Better yet, make it a lemonade stand. If you don’t have kid, borrow some.

Unfortunately after years of yard sales, we had to devote one side of our two-car garage to her “treasures”. Now we have a house full of previously-enjoyed furniture, a front parlor of antiques and a man cave full of…non-manly items. Quite frankly, if our house ever caught fire it would burn for 6 months. They’d see it from space.

Now I don’t have a problem putting the quantity of our possessions into this blog. I’m not afraid.  It’s not like we have a 52” HDTV or expensive jewelry. The 4,400 lbs. of possessions we own amount in street value to roughly $138. But the items we have are full of character, you know?

It’s really not about the purchasing of physical stuff that matters. We’re in it for the story. During our yard sale adventures we’ve made great friends. We’ve been on dozens of house tours. Me and Smooch even helped a guy tap a keg at 10am.

We want to preserve the rocking chair that put three generations down for a nap. She wants to find the earrings that Great Aunt Myrtle wore to meet Uncle Fletcher at the bus station after World War II.

Yard Sales inadvertently protect tangible pieces of that Americana I’ve mentioned before. I love it!

So during your upcoming Spring Cleaning, set aside your old baseball mitt, your grandma’s canning jars and the carousel slide machine. Throw them all on a blanket in the front yard, pull up a lawn chair and make some new friends.

It’s Saturday!

Aunt Mary and Betty White

My Great Aunt Mary recently passed away at 90 years old. She was the oldest person in our family and the oldest person I knew, but that’s just because Betty White won’t return my calls. I used to call Aunt Mary when she lived in Connecticut and we’d talk for an hour or so. She would talk about what it was like growing up on the farm in New York during the 1920’s. It was very different than my youth, spent in the New Jersey suburbs in the 70’s.

Aunt Mary talked about early Americana, about life after The Great War and about my great grandparents. Then we discussed their first automobile, how they milked cows and how they used their icehouse. (A quick Google of “icehouse” returns a band, a comedy club and a large ice rink in Hackensack. None of these proved to be the icehouse she was referring to.)

Their icehouse on the farm was simply that – a small structure full of ice. Aunt Mary, Grandma  and their parents would stock the icehouse themselves with ice from the lake. During the Upstate New York winter months (September 1st through Fourth of July), they would take the horse-drawn sled down to the lake and cut out suitcase-sized blocks of ice. Then, using a block and tackle device, they would hoist the blocks out of the sled and lower them into the icehouse. My great grandfather would pack the icehouse to the rim, separating the blocks with layers of sawdust so the frozen cubes wouldn’t stick together. He was a genius.

Today, the only “block and tackle” I’m familiar with is on my son’s Madden NFL for the Xbox One. And honestly, the last time I touched sawdust was during a failed attempt at a bird house (currently being enjoyed by squirrels).

I also buy ice for $2.00 a bag. …don’t tell my dad.

Obviously, things are different now.

I think we are in danger of losing touch with the Americana my aunt speaks of so fondly.  Every family has their own history. It is up to us to learn it, keep it and pass it on to our children.  So, I encourage you to call your “Aunt Mary” and share a cup of coffee over the phone. Ask them about their first car. What was the first movie they saw? Do you know their love story? Preserve a little piece of your own family history.

And if any of you speak with Betty White, give her my best.