Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for July 2013

Why I’ve Adopted Satchel Paige’s Sixth Rule

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“When you look back, you know how long you’ve been going and that just might stop you from going any farther.  And with me, there was an awful lot to look back on.  So I didn’t.”

–     from Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever by Satchel Paige


If there has been anyone in modern times who exemplified greatness in the face of overwhelming obstacles, it was baseball legend Leroy “Satchel” Paige.  Perhaps the greatest pitcher in the game’s history, Paige had to spend most of his professional career outside the major leagues simply because he was a black man playing in baseball’s shameful era of segregation.

The excerpt above from Paige’s autobiography refers to the sixth, and most famous, of his six rules for staying young – a set of sayings that, in the same book, Paige admitted was not his own invention but ascribed to him by an east coast sportswriter – and the only one of the six, Paige stated, that he truly followed in his life: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

I’ve never been a baseball pitcher and never will be one.  No one has ever refused me the use of a restroom or the booking of a hotel room because they didn’t like my skin color.  Yet I can relate quite well to Paige’s sixth rule and the reasoning behind it, so much so that I’ve adopted it as a personal motto and Paige has become my role model of personal philosophy in dealing with life’s twists and turns, good and bad.  Much of what follows deals with some very horrific experiences I have never talked about publicly, until now.  The reason I am finally opening up about so much has to do with where I stand in life now, and where a lot of other people, especially children and teens, need to see they can eventually reach as well.

For those who know me, friends and people I’ve worked with in some capacity over the course of a 30-year journalism career, or those who have met me and have carried the notion that I am a well-adjusted, confident man who benefited from a solid upbringing, all I can say is, “Wow, did I ever have you completely fooled.”

Instead, what you have known to this point was a man who lived most of his childhood and adult life with one foot constantly dangling off the cliff of oblivion and self-destruction.  I had one thing going for me as a child, and that was an above-average intellect – and even that was a double-edged sword considering the incessant bullying I suffered at school, from the time I entered into the first grade to my high school graduation in 1983.

But there was worse I endured and much of it before I had made it out of elementary school.

When I was 6 years old, I was sexually assaulted in the home of a neighbor on our block, with my mother and two younger brothers in the living room, totally unaware of what was taking place.  I was terrified and crying as we went home immediately and then I heard what I never expected to hear, but did not dare protest against it:  My mother pleaded with me to say nothing to anyone about the incident, else my father would find out and probably do something horrible to the man responsible, his family, and who knew who else.

I said I would keep quiet about it, pretend it never happened, and I understood why.  Even at that age, I was perceptive enough to see the beginnings of my father’s physical and psychological plummet.  I knew he had a bad temper and a very protective stance when it came to his family.  In all probability, it would have led a rage-fueled killing spree and probably suicide if I told the police, who would have to tell him, or told anyone else, for that matter.  So I went through the rest of my childhood and teen years with a very dark knowledge and horrid self-image throughout, but I said nothing.

My father died in December 1999.  He never did learn what had happened to me.

I did not then and have never blamed my mother for asking for my silence about the incident.  She could not have borne it any more easily than I did, but the alternative might have been unthinkable.  Yet I cannot help but think the guilt, coupled by so much family hardship in the three years that followed, led to another incident that just about shattered me mentally and emotionally as a child.

I don’t know what happened to the man responsible, but I hope his parents got him the psychological help he obviously needed and that he never did anything like this again.  Being 6 years old, I didn’t think about the broader implications of keeping silent, only that the sooner I could forget about it all, the better off I would be.  Of course, I never forgot it, and I was in my 30s before I finally told a psychological counselor about it.  Somehow, I managed to cope with it as best as I could.

It was less than a year after that incident that we were suddenly homeless.  This time, being at a neighbor’s house turned out to be a life-saving blessing as my mother was rushed to her friend’s window to see that our home was totally engulfed in flames.  In an instant, everything we had but the family car and the clothes we were wearing was gone.

We slept on couches and fold-out beds at my grandparents’ house for a while, and then lived in a double-bed motel room that my parents managed to get on a cut rate out of the owner’s sympathy.  Finally, after the insurance money came in and our replacement home was being built on the same lot, we lived for months in a small three-room rental trailer in the local RV park.

Shortly after that, my father ruptured his side at his weekend job and never worked again, suffering a complete nervous breakdown six months after the emergency surgery.  We very nearly lost the home we just had rebuilt; I woke up very early one morning with a feeling that something was wrong and walked into the living room to find my mom in tears with two men from a mortgage company threatening to foreclose on the spot if she didn’t cut them a check for several hundred dollars, which she didn’t have.  Something was worked out at the last minute – I don’t know exactly what – but I basically lost count during this time how often the refrigerator was nearly empty, or how often I overheard my mom on the phone, begging a local grocery for bread and milk on store credit.

None of this, however, was worse on me than the day I walked into the kitchen just in time to see my mom swallowing the entire contents of a pill bottle.  She told me to leave her alone, that she was going back to her bedroom to sleep, but I wouldn’t let her.  I don’t know where my dad was at that moment, but as soon he pulled the car into the driveway, I was out there to let him know what had happened.

We barely got her to the local emergency room on time.  She underwent a stomach pump and spent several days in the hospital.  When she did finally come home (actually, to my grandparents’ home), it was like she was in another existence.

It was three weeks before she didn’t have to ask someone else who I was.

There were some pretty horrible things said to me and about me by classmates who had little knowledge of few, if any, of the circumstances.  It didn’t get much better as I grew older, and by the time I had started high school, I was a depression-laden mess who had stopped caring about classwork or doing much of anything else.  I didn’t want to be around anyone, at school or at home, and put up with going to church only because I was forced to go.

I don’t know if I would be writing this today had it not been for an unexpected opportunity given to me near the end of my freshman year in high school.  I had picked up a summer job as the official scorer for the local men’s softball league, and the sports editor of one of the local newspapers caught word of that through a mutual acquaintance.  It led to the start of my newspaper journalism career – at the age of 14 – and it probably saved my life, to be honest.

It was not a cure-all, though, and years later, while in college, I started a heavy drinking habit out of self-loathing more than anything.  Fortunately, I had some friends and journalism colleagues who saw what was happening and intervened.  But ongoing social and psychological struggles, and a lack of money, led me to becoming a college dropout after three-and-a-half years of coursework in which I never performed to my potential.

I drifted around to a few minimum-wage jobs for a time, spent a couple of years in retail computer and software sales, got into a short-lived marriage with the only silver lining being the birth of my only son, Ryan, and fell headlong into bankruptcy.  Nothing was going right for me and it looked like nothing ever would.

There was one saving grace:  I never stopped believing in myself as a writer and journalist.

In researching baseball history and learning about the life and legend that was Satchel Paige, I began to understand the power of belief in self.  Here was a man who endured the worst treatment from other people on an almost-daily basis, but still carried so much confidence in his ability on the mound that he would often put on a show by calling in his outfielders to sit on the infield grass while he struck out the side.  Other times, he would amaze crowds by throwing his warmup pitches over a chewing gum wrapper placed somewhere on home plate.

Perhaps the best lesson I’ve taken from studying Paige is this:  No matter how hard others try to break you, demean you, and no matter what they say about you, the best response is to do what you do best; just go to the mound and keep throwing – hard, precise, and utterly unhittable.

For the past 20 years, that’s exactly what I did, all on the heels of one of the most hurtful things ever said to me, and it was by my now ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law:  “You need to grow up and get a real job, because you will turn out to be nothing working in newspapers.  In fact, you are deluded by grandeur.”

I never forgot those words, but not in the way they thought I should remember them.

While it is true I’ve never made much money since then and moved around a lot, I changed for the better.  I got back to what I knew I did best and kept getting better at it.  I started winning press association awards and built up a fairly impressive portfolio of articles that included interviews with some well-known people in one circle or another, as well as those who deserved a lot better than they received in life.  In 2002, I won an award for a sports feature story in a competition that spanned six states, and I topped two other finalists who both worked for a newspaper nearly five times larger in circulation.

There was just one thing that was always missing.

One of my favorite Satchel Paige stories is his rendition in Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever of having abandoned the 1937 Negro National League season in favor of being a hired gun charged with winning the Dominican championship for a baseball team sponsored by a dictator, Rafael Trujillo:

“But by the seventh inning we were a run behind and you could see Trujillo lining up his army.  They began to look like a firing squad.

In the last of the seventh, we scored two runs and went ahead, six to five.

You never saw Ol’ Satch throw harder after that. I shut them out the last two innings and we’d won.

I hustled back to our hotel and the next morning we blowed out of there in a hurry.

We never did see Trujillo again.  I ain’t sorry.”

Even when you feel like you’ve gotten into more than you bargained for, a little self-belief can make it turn out well.  That summarized my big leap back to college two years ago to finally finish the bachelor’s degree that eluded me more than 20 years earlier.  There were times I felt frustrated and tired, and times I openly wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew with a 55-minute commute each way and having to continue to work in another county as a newspaper reporter.

But this was a different me, and it started to show quickly — in everything from homework to exams to research papers and projects.  Before the successful end in May of this year (2013), I had accepted membership in three national honor societies, earned one of the university’s major scholarships, finished runner-up for a regional fellowship award, and tallied a 3.8 grade point average for 52 credit hours over four semesters.

I also smacked it out of the park on the GRE in November and suddenly started getting contacted by graduate school journalism programs across the country.  A few of those included Northwestern, Boston University, Syracuse, Indiana, Michigan, Alabama, North Texas, Texas Tech, University of Chicago and the one I eventually chose, the University of Texas at Austin.

If I am “deluded by grandeur,” then all I can say at this point is there are a hell of a lot of people in the academic world suffering from the same delusion about Terry L. Britt.

One person who certainly didn’t see me as “deluded” was Dr. Catherine Ross at the University of Texas at Tyler (my new alma mater), who saw so much potential in me as a future college professor that she gave me teaching assistant duties through an independent study course in my final semester as an undergraduate.  It wasn’t a journalism course, either; it was British literature.  By all indications, I shined like the Texas sun in July.

“Let me tell you, it takes a lot of courage to set foot on a university campus after that many years,” she told me one day, “and accomplish what you have going up against people half your age.  That is one reason why you should become a college professor.”

By that point, though, courage was something I did not lack, not after about 40 years of relying on courage just to wake up every day.

Satchel Paige was 42 years old before he finally got a chance to pitch for a major league baseball club.  That was in 1948, and all he did was go 6-1 and help the Cleveland Indians win the World Series championship that year.  I’m 47 now, and I guess you could say I’m finally getting my chance at the academic major leagues, going for a master’s degree and then a doctorate.

That’s not too bad of an opportunity for a guy who was far more likely to put a loaded revolver to his head before his 16th birthday.

My biggest concerns now are finding a reasonably priced apartment in Austin and a part-time job that can co-exist with graduate studies.

That’s ok, though.  I’ve been through far worse.

The real reason I have opened up publicly about my experiences — good and bad — is this:  I know you are out there, the boys and girls who endure so much hurt every day, at school and online, from those who don’t like the way you look or the way you dress.  The same goes for everyone, children and adults, who is suffering physical abuse or sexual abuse, or live daily with the mental and emotional darkness of depression

No one deserves any of this.  You didn’t ask for it and you didn’t have it coming.  Horrible and destructive experiences are hard to forget, but you don’t have to let them rule you for the rest of your life – and I am living proof of it.  I am not extraordinary.  I don’t have superhero powers and I don’t have a cast-iron heart.  I’ve made mistakes and have done things I regret, much like anyone else.  But I can tell you this much:  There is something stronger within you, a force that will carry you to the greatness and fulfillment of the person you truly are, regardless of the darkness and hurt that has battered you in life.  If you are willing to look, you will soon find someone to help you see that.

Once you realize what I say is true, I suggest you adopt the sixth rule of a man who spent a lifetime proving how well he could throw a baseball regardless of what life’s injustices threw at him.  Don’t look back; it is an awful habit, and one that I’ve given up for good.

And I ain’t sorry.