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.

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.

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.


Christmas Wishes with a Crayon

(Spoiler alert – Santa is discussed openly in this blog. Young children should be excused from the room.)

Well, the Holidays are upon us once again. Time to trim the tree, plan the recipes and write the Christmas cards. By show of hands – who still writes Christmas cards? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Yet another joy Facebook has robbed from us. Burn, Mark Zuckerberg! Personally I love receiving Christmas cards. I think it’s a long-time tradition that is rapidly taking a backseat to social media. I enjoy seeing pictures of people throughout the year on my smart phone, but come December I want a card in the mailbox. I feel the only letters I get these days are from bill collectors and my mother. I have many bills and only one mom, so the odds that I want to actually walk to the mailbox are very slim.

In 2015 the Greeting Card Association reported that over one billion Christmas Cards were purchased. I got 37. I feel that’s fair, as there are well over 100 million households in America and I’m not terribly greedy. Plus, this stat doesn’t take into account the millions of letter kids write Santa Claus each year. I stopped writing Santa two years ago, but the idea of Santa still makes me happy.

When I wrote Santa as a child, it was with the mindset that if I put it down on the paper with my crayon, it would appear under the tree. Simple enough. Hey, isn’t it interesting that we write letters to Santa for what we want, but we don’t write thank you notes back to him? Do you think this feeds into the “expectant attitude” Americans have now? Just thinking out loud here.

We didn’t have the internet when I was 7, so we would get ideas on what we wanted from Santa by looking through the biggest, best book in the whole wide world – The Sears, Roebuck & Company Christmas Wishbook. Oh, I remember what a special day it was when this 500-page literary masterpiece would arrive in the mail. This was back when I enjoyed getting the mail.  Back before car payments and overdraft fees.

I couldn’t wait to look through it. I would need complete privacy as I submerged myself into another world. There was a full two-page spread of Star Wars figurines. I’ll need five, please. There were Batman vehicles with movable wheels and opening doors. I’ll need that. Don’t forget Flash Gordon and his inflatable rocket ship, which parents could air up and suspend on a string from the ceiling. Amazing!

Transformers and Go-Bots made the catalog in 1985, waging their own war for the attention of the youngest generation. I don’t have to tell you who won that major conflict, as today no one owns the Go-Bot Trilogy on Blu Ray.

Over the years I’ve lost track of the Sears Catalog. By the time I was in high school I was looking at the ads for stereos and these new computers everyone kept talking about. My “Wishbook” eventually turned into real cars and real life, but I look fondly back on the winter afternoons I spent on the shag carpet circling wishes with a crayon.

So, what’s in your Grown-up Wishbook this holiday season? If you had a magic crayon, what would you circle? You know, if you write it down with expectation, you just may get it under the tree.

Beaten by a Butter Knife

“Give me your knife,” she said. My wife was standing above a box that had just arrived at the house and was having trouble with the packing tape.

“A knife?” I replied.

“Yeah, your knife.” She chuckled. “All real men carry knives. Where’s yours?” I was caught off guard.

I don’t have a knife. I mean I do, but it’s up on my dresser in my jewelry box, with my pinky ring and my ID bracelet. However, I didn’t want her to think her rough-neck husband was a Mama’s Boy. So, I did what any other honest, self-respecting husband would do. I faked it.

Thinking that I was about to have my Man Card revoked, I patted my pants like I was trying to identify which pocket I had slid my knife in, as if I had just used it to remove a tick from my bicep. Honestly I was just killing time, hoping a knife would magically appear in my “wrinkle resistant slacks”. Perhaps, when I wasn’t paying attention, my iPhone and car keys conceived a knife-child. I checked my suit pockets while praying to St. Al Buck, believing he could magically make a Wal-Mart run and slide a Buck 210 into my vest pocket. Nothing. I feigned surprise but was inwardly embarrassed. With an air of disappointment, she shuffled off to the kitchen to get a butter knife out of the dishwasher. I was beaten by butter knife.

I haven’t carried a knife with any kind of regularity since the 90’s. And if I recall correctly, it was because I was deployed in Saudi Arabia during a war! Are we at war in Knox County? No. Will I be jumped by guerilla rebels while carrying Gouda Dip from Fresh Market to my car? Unlikely. Will I need to defend myself against an actual bear while picking up takeout at the Panda Express? Of course not.

My father however has been packin’ heat for years. Actually, he is a walking Swiss Army Knife. Growing up under this Boy Scout/Vietnam Veteran, I was instructed to carry a multitude of items including a comb, a pocket knife and a handkerchief. A handkerchief? You want me to blow my nose into a cloth and then stick it back in my pocket for later??? I think I just answered my own question.

Additionally, Pop’s car has an Emergency Supply in his trunk: a shovel, a gallon of water, and a blanket. “Because you just never know, son.” You just never know…what? Are we preparing to dig ourselves out of a snow embankment, using the water for hydration and the blanket for warmth? Do we have to trek through the snow, following the stars back to civilization? I know how to follow stars–OnStar and Starbucks. And I never leave the house without either one.

I can’t make too much fun of my father, without inadvertently poking fun at my wife. It is her belief that we can put anything in the trunk of her car as long as it is preceded by the word emergency. We have our emergency dog bowls, emergency swim trunks and emergency snow boots. “Sorry, Dad, but there is no room for blankets and shovels with these emergency travel board games in the way.”

At any rate, after losing to a butter knife that night, I carried my Starbucks up the stairs and dug through my jewelry box. There, tucked nicely between my pocket watch and a movie stub from Die Hard II, was my thin, locking blade. I slipped it into my pocket and instantly became more like Clint Eastwood and less like Woody Allen.

So, what’s in your pocket?