Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

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No Longer a Single Day: A Different Kind of Christmas Story

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It’s Christmas time again.

That statement infers the experience of Christmas in previous years, of course, and the characteristic of the holiday being observed once per year on December 25. As we grow older, Christmas Day evokes memories of Christmas past; not the ghost from the Charles Dickens story, but the sensory experiences that our brains associate with the calendar date December 25 and the various places we spent that time, across time.

It’s a natural process that helps us make sense of the passage of time – or, in this case, the passage of Christmases – and it’s primarily built upon changes we have noticed. Across time, the people with whom we interact are different, the toys the kids got this year are so much different than the ones you got at that age, the foods we have for Christmas dinner are different, and so forth.

I present this explanation to set up another explanation: How Christmas stopped being a day in late December for me and instead became a daily celebration more amazing than I could have imagined as a child, or even just a few years ago. To do this, I’ll start with a Christmas memory of my own.

In 1972, in a housing subdivision on the east end of Sweetwater, Tennessee, Christmas Day arrived for a family of five living in a wood-frame house, situated about midway on a hillside populated with a circle of homes that marked the end of the subdivision. A modestly decorated Christmas tree stood in one corner of the living room with a high pile of wrapped gift boxes underneath, and three young boys, each sitting cross-legged on the floor, waiting patiently to be handed one of those boxes in turn.

One of those kids was a 7-year-old rape victim, beginning what would become four decades of mind-torturing silence about the attack. For me, Christmas Day that year was less about Jesus or a turkey dinner or opening Christmas presents as it was about finding psychological refuge in all of those things so that I didn’t have to feel alone, vulnerable, and loathsome for just one day.

The day did not disappoint in that regard; it was a fabulous Christmas, all told, with me and my brothers feeling on top of the world with our new toys. We each got several things we had asked Santa Claus to bring, but the one gift I absolutely loved was a battery-operated robot that walked and featured a “video” screen (actually see-through plastic that encased a mechanical wheel of preset space-related images) in its chest. Given that my mom and dad were hosiery mill workers at the time, that robot must have set them back a few hours of pay.

But I didn’t get to play with that robot for very long. Just weeks later, the robot and everything else were gone in an instant. The flames spread so rapidly that had we been home at the time, instead of just up the street visiting one of our neighbors, I would not be sitting here writing this essay today.

When you’ve lost everything – your sense of safety, self-worth, peace, trust of others, innocence, toys, books, records, clothes, and everything else you possessed – before your eighth birthday, you are standing on a dangerous, dark roadway that relatively few ever survive for long.

For many years, I didn’t think I would survive it, either. There were days I didn’t want to survive to the next, and I doubt anyone around me at any point in time realized it.

And that brings me to this Christmas Day, in 2015. It’s my first Christmas Day as a resident of Missouri, as a college instructor, as a media researcher in a doctoral program, and as a lot of other statuses I could have never imagined 43 years ago.

It is this daily wonder and amazement at all that I find myself within now, and what I had to somehow survive to get here, that brought another sort of realization, one that refutes the notion that Christmas comes once per year on December 25.

Instead, Christmas has, for me, become a daily experience of experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. At the top of that list is waking up every day knowing I am the father of one Ryan Britt in Arlington, Texas. Like his father, he has proven to possess resilience against the worst life can bring.

Being where I am now, I can hardly wait to see where he goes. That is going to be a thousand times more exciting than unwrapping that toy robot in 1972.

So, how to describe or maybe give a name to this Christmas gift that is opened each and every day? A number of words or phrases could be considered, among them, “personal redemption,” “wisdom from determination,” or maybe even “attained peace.”

But I’ve drawn upon my collegiate literature studies background to come up with what I think is the most fitting name: The Perpetual Gift of Being There, an intentional reference to the Jerzy Kosinski novel “Being There” and the film of the same name that starred Peter Sellers’ in his last role. In essence, it’s all about finding yourself doing the most extraordinary things in the most unlikely of circumstances, and somehow making it all make sense to everyone else.

That’s what I hope to do in the years to come with regard to how we use media content to shape our perceptions of time, space, and memory.

Speaking of time perceptions, the Missouri School of Journalism was founded in 1908, a full 63 years before Tyler State College, the predecessor to the University of Texas at Tyler, even existed.

Four years ago, I was marking my first Christmas after having taken a leap of faith in returning to college for one last shot at finishing a bachelor’s degree. That was at UT Tyler, and at that point in time, I wasn’t even thinking about entering a graduate school program anywhere.

But that was when The Perpetual Gift of Being There started appearing in my life.  Less than 17 months later, on May 10, 2013, I was degree-less no more and, although an exhaustive records search has not been conducted, there were faculty members in the Department of Literature and Languages who thought I may be the first UT Tyler graduate from that department to be accepted into the graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where I spent the next two years earning a master’s degree.

I can say with more certainty that I am probably the first English or journalism student at UT Tyler to teach and perform research work at the Missouri School of Journalism. There may soon be a day when you can do an online search for “Terry Britt and media theory,” “Terry Britt and neuroscience,” or “Terry Britt and memory studies,” and get several pages of results.

There once was a day when I thought the only thing with which my name would be associated would be something like “funeral services at 2 p.m.” and strong doubt that anyone aside from my parents and my younger brothers would bother to show up.

So, this Christmas Day, by all means please celebrate as you wish, attend a service, ring your church bells and, if you are fortunate enough to have the following, savor your Christmas dinner, open your gifts, and hug and kiss the people you love.

But if there is anything I could wish for you for Christmas, it would be to wake up as I will and realize that the extraordinary and the priceless are not restricted to experiences and memories that are but once a year. Believe me, it’s an awesome gift.

Blessings to each of you,

Terry L. Britt

PhD Student/Graduate Instructor

Missouri School of Journalism

University of Missouri

#thefuturedrbritt

#mediatimespacememory

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Time to Let Go of Myths About Alcoholic Beverage Sales

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Early voting starts next week for local city and school district elections in Texas. For my former city of residence, Canton, and nearby cities Van and Grand Saline, this includes a local option election on legalizing alcoholic beverage sales in those towns, all currently “dry.”

As a veteran journalist, if there is something I’ve learned about local option elections, it is that you have three groups of voters: those who are against alcoholic beverage sales for moral or religious reasons, those who support alcoholic beverage sales being allowed, and those who really don’t know whether it is a good idea or a bad idea.

It’s the last of those groups that often determine the outcome of the election, and it’s the group for which this opinion essay is intended. Any voter in the other two groups is not going to be swayed to the other side.

That said, here is my statement for the undecided in Van Zandt County’s three cities with this big decision on May 10: There is no logical reason for any of those cities to remain “dry” – not one.

There are, however, a lot of mythological reasons for why they have continued to keep out alcoholic beverage sales to this point, and several of those reasons combine to formulate the central argument for anti-alcohol sales groups. These include the following:

  1. Local alcoholic beverage sales are a detriment to our children/families: This is an example of a false causation argument. It tries to directly tie local availability of beer, wine and liquor to physical and emotional abuse in homes. Alcoholic beverage abuse certainly is a factor in many cases where physical and emotional abuse of children and/or a spouse are present. It is not, however, a given fact that anyone who consumes alcohol is more likely to become abusive in personality or behavior. I’ve personally known many outstanding, successful men and women whose parents always kept a fully stocked liquor cabinet. I’ve also known cases of physical and emotional abuse of children where there was not a drop of alcoholic beverages in the household at any time – and I was one such case.
  2. We don’t want our local stores and restaurants promoting and selling a dangerous, addictive product: This is hypocrisy on two levels. First, it makes the assumption that most, if not all, people in a community are completely incapable of making reasonable decisions when it comes to purchasing and consuming alcoholic beverages, and therefore we all need the absence of availability to keep us safe. The truth is that people who don’t want to drink alcoholic beverages are not going to start simply because Walmart has a special on 12-packs of Miller Lite. Likewise, those who do are not going to go crazy with consumption habits simply because they can buy it without leaving town. Second (and worse), this argument turns a blind eye to the fact that local stores are selling tons of dangerous, addictive products every day. Still, you never see picket signs or quotes in newspaper articles from alcoholic beverage opponents about all the tobacco products, over-the-counter medications, and junk food that fly off the local shelves.
  3. We will have more drunk drivers, alcohol-related traffic accidents and we’ll need more police officers if we allow alcoholic beverage sales: I have heard this specific fear expressed constantly by some people when faced with a local option election. The truly fascinating thing, though, is I’ve never heard it from an actual police officer or state trooper – and that is because there has been no published study supporting the notion. As one area police chief told me a few years ago, it is just the opposite: The farther someone has to drive to have a drink, the more likely that person may drive back while intoxicated. The same police chief also said, “If a person can buy beer locally, you’re talking about a five-minute trip home from the store. If that person has to drive 30-40 minutes each way to buy beer, the temptation to pop open one on the way back is much greater.”
  4. Alcoholic beverage sales will do nothing positive for our community: Well, except giving your community the sales tax revenue that has been going for decades to places like Dallas, Kaufman, Terrell, and Tyler. I lived in Canton for a total of 12 years and have been to Van and Grand Saline countless times to cover public meetings and events during my career in newspaper journalism. It does not require a Ph.D. in Physics to know when you have turned off a state highway or FM road onto a local street in any of those cities. Alcoholic beverage sales are not going to generate enough revenue to renovate every street, water line, or sewer line in Canton, Grand Saline, and Van. It may, however, allow the respective city councils to start more repair projects instead of having to say “maybe next year.” Still, if you need to be further convinced that something like restaurants with bars can actually be good for a community, consider the Applebee’s that opened in Canton late in 2012. All it has done since is help rejuvenate business in a shopping center that had been in decline for more than a decade. About 12 miles east on Highway 64, you have the town of Ben Wheeler, where the late Brooks Gremmels and his Ben Wheeler Development Corporation literally resurrected what had been almost a ghost town. Part of that redevelopment plan included two venues for food, live music and, yes, alcoholic beverages. I haven’t heard anyone wishing Ben Wheeler was back the way it was.
  5. (and the most ludicrous argument of all) Our city has moral standards that need to be upheld: In the earlier years of my journalism career, I developed 35mm film rolls that were not as thin and flimsy as this statement. Moral standards of a community have nothing to do what beverages are available in a store or at a restaurant. “Dry” cities and counties are not automatically of higher moral character than “wet” areas. Being “dry” doesn’t guarantee a lower crime rate, better schools or cleaner streets. There is, however, one thing I can tell you “dry” cities and counties definitely are: Relics of one of the most embarrassing chapters in American history – Prohibition, when the federal government decided no one in the United States should be able to enjoy anything that had been fermented and poured into a glass. You might remember how well that went; to this day, it is the only instance in the U.S. Constitution where one amendment has been repealed by another amendment. What is not as well remembered is that, in repealing Prohibition, the federal government essentially left it up to individual states to determine the legality of alcoholic beverages, and many states, Texas included, subsequently left the decision with individual municipalities and counties. That is how “dry” and “wet” areas came into being, but it seems only in the “dry” areas that the designation is even considered necessary for brandishing a sense of local merit. The reality is simple: Great cities are great cities for reasons other than what is, or isn’t, sold in the beverage aisles.

Here is another bit of reality the anti-alcohol faction would rather you not know: The vast majority of people who consume alcoholic beverages, myself included, do so responsibly and in moderation. And, contrary to some of the laughable propaganda that has been passed around for years, we really aren’t looking to turn Canton, Van, and Grand Saline into dens of iniquity. If you think that statement is a little dramatic, let me take you back to a feature story I wrote for the Van Zandt News in 2008 looking at the recent opening of licensed Texas Wineries in the county. In that article, the owners of Savannah Winery and Bistro in Canton related the story of how, as they prepared to open in late 2006, someone had felt such religious conviction against the presence of a wine merchant as to borrow from Martin Luther and nail a letter of protest to the front door of the winery – although that conviction apparently was not strong enough to warrant signing the letter.

More than seven years later, Savannah Winery and Bistro is still going strong, and the city of Canton has not gone to hell in a handbasket. I sincerely doubt it will after May 10, 2014, either, if Walmart and Brookshire’s are allowed to start stocking beer and wine, and if a bunch of full bar-endowed new restaurants open.

But that is your upcoming choice in Canton, Grand Saline and Van – and, at the very least, you are finally getting a choice.

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Written by terrybritt

April 24, 2014 at 11:32 am

A Farewell Toast to an Incredible Year

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vanillaporterI don’t know how common it is for adults to seriously reflect on a year of life gone by as a birthday approaches.  Maybe it doesn’t happen that often; after all, there are birthday plans to be made – maybe dinner and drinks with friends – and the normal course of daily life with regard to work and family.

I’ll admit I haven’t thought much about years gone by as they pass.  All too often, I didn’t want to spend time reflecting on something bad or unfortunate that transpired between Oct. 2 and Oct. 1 of each year.

As I am writing this, I am bidding adios to age 47 and bienvenue to birthday number 48.  But the gravity of what has happened to me in the preceding 12 months, and how it has transformed me personally, demands far more than a casual couple of moments of memory search.

Simply stated, I realize I may be saying goodbye to the most pivotal year of my life thus far.

Twelve months ago, I was just someone barely making ends meet while trying to achieve a long-desired goal of finishing a college degree program, one that still appeared far into the horizon on Oct. 2, 2012.  And while I knew I would like to go on to a graduate program the following year, just where and for what remained a mystery.

I had carried similar feelings about the year to come on many birthdays in the past, that sense of hoping for better (or at least no worse) than what the previous year had brought me, hoping for clues to fulfillment and directions toward true happiness.

That is exactly how age 47 was different from any other.  With the pace of a Porsche climbing from zero to 60, big changes for the better started happening, one right after the other:

Back-to-back appearances on the Dean’s List at the University of Texas at Tyler…a handsome result on the GRE test…new graduate school suitors almost every week for the next four months…my first foray into filmmaking and a research project in media studies that was unlike anything the university’s Institutional Research Board had ever seen…an unexpected opportunity to function as a teaching assistant in British Literature…membership in a third national academic honor society…a conference trip to Nashville for my first research presentation.

And this all came about while I was still being the dependable, if unheralded, newspaper reporter many people had come to know.

When graduation night finally arrived, that walk across the stage at the Cowan Center at UT Tyler literally felt like a transformational process taking place.  There was a different Terry Britt descending the steps at the opposite end, one who no longer had to feel inadequate or embarrassed about the fact that he didn’t have a college degree.

I had even more than that.  I also had a renewed confidence, a renewed drive to reach further in life, and, finally, a sense of direction and purpose.  An even greater bonus was all of the new friends I had made on campus, especially my colleagues at the Patriot Talon after making the decision the previous summer to join the editorial staff.

In most cases, these were people who were literally half my age or younger.  In no case did any of them make a big deal about that, and I now consider them my friends for life.

Age 47 will always stand out in my mind for another, probably more important, reason: The fact that no one who knew me will ever be able to see me the same way again.

Not after what I published on this blog on July 2, 2012.

One of the peculiar things about confidence is it has a way of spreading throughout your whole being – physical, mental, emotional, psychological – and allows you to tear down walls that may have been constructed many years, sometimes decades, ago.

Having ascended a mountaintop I once thought well beyond my ability to reach, I found it a lot easier to open up publicly about the monstrous experiences I endured on the journey.  Being a childhood sexual assault victim, battling depression, dealing with suicidal family members, nearly falling into a drinking problem, and other dark days have suddenly and irreversibly changed from prison bars to the platform of an inspirational story.

Perhaps it is poignant that two of the final weeks of this year of my life were spent volunteering in a program I once thought I would never find, Suicide Prevention Week, at a place I once thought I would never be, the University of Texas at Austin.

But certain years of your life are like that: They change you, your surroundings, your situation, your future, in ways that are difficult to measure on any scale.

It is my final evening of age 47 and I felt it was only proper to send it off with something appropriately unique and magnificent – a glass of Breckenridge Brewery’s Vanilla Porter, a recent discovery that has quickly joined (512) Brewing Company’s Pecan Porter as my absolute favorite porter beers.

Tomorrow marks the start of another year of my life, but I’ve got news for age 48 and the rest to come:

You’ve all got one hell of an act to follow.

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A Short List About A Long Career

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In looking back over the 29 years I’ve spent in newspapers, I realize just how many highs and lows I’ve experienced in getting where I am now.  So, for your general interest or need for a good laugh, I’ve compiled a short list of “bests” and “worsts” from my time in the print wars.

Best thing that ever happened to me: Getting hired as a summer “sports correspondent” at age 14 for the now-defunct Tri-County Observer in Madisonville, Tenn.  As noted in a previous post on this blog, the unexpected opportunity probably saved my life at that time.

Worst thing that ever happened to me:  Actually, it’s a tie between the phone calls I got on Dec. 8, 1999, and March 15, 2005 – informing me that my father and mother, respectively, had died.

Best once-in-a-lifetime journalism assignment:  Covering the Canton (TX) High School Band in Ireland during the week of St. Patrick’s Day in March 1999.  Anyone who was on that trip still remembers it fondly and why not?  Even better, I managed to get a live story back to Canton for that week’s issue of the Canton Herald, thanks to the assistance of the Irish Times online division office.  The fact that I was forced by my employer to use personal vacation time to take the trip was the one thing that kept it from being perfect.

Best workplace:  The University of Texas at Tyler Patriot Talon.  That’s right, a college newspaper takes the prize for best place I’ve ever worked.  That’s a reflection of the top-notch young journalists I got to know there and a newsroom equipped like one should be, or it’s a damn sad comment on the professional publications for which I’ve worked.  Or both.

Worst workplace:  Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo, MIss.  Only 15 months after being hired as sports department copy desk editor, I was shown the door via the lawsuit-dodging, vague statement of “We feel you don’t fit into our future plans.”  My biggest regret is ever thinking this publication and its hapless management fit into mine.

Most life-changing experience:  Being on the staff of the Desoto Times in Hernando, Miss., chiefly because of two people there who helped me turn things around – professionally and personally – after four years of feeling like Merle Haggard’s verse about a snowball headed for hell.  I worked there just six months because my position was cut unexpectedly, but I cannot think of six months that meant more in getting me back on the right track.

Worst thing I’ve ever been subjected to as a journalist:  Being forced to wear this at a public event….newsstaff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most surreal moments:  Interviewing bluegrass music legends Bill Monroe and Jimmy Davis, walking down the hallway of Martins Mill High School with Laura Bush, being in the same (albeit large) room with Walter Cronkite, and standing on a walkway looking out over the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland.

Best time I ever had keeping an insane work schedule:  In the fall and winter of 2000-2001, I had a moonlighting gig as Dallas-Fort Worth correspondent for a national high school sports website.  I was still putting in about 45 hours per week at my regular newspaper, but trotting off to the Metroplex on Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons to cover Class 4A and Class 5A football games, along with other sports like volleyball, cross country, soccer, and basketball.  It marked the first time any of my work started to appear online.  It also gave me personal experience in the infamous dot-com bust about that time, as the company operating the website failed to find venture capitalist funding to keep me and other journalists on its payroll after January 2001.  But was it ever fun while it lasted.

Worst realization at the end of the day:  Thinking about how many fry cooks and grocery store shelf stockers were making a higher hourly wage.

Best realization at the end of the day:  How many family scrapbooks would include “By Terry Britt” in their pages.

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Written by terrybritt

September 17, 2013 at 12:29 am

Austin Awaits

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(reprinted with permission of Van Zandt News)

Is “goodbye” harder to say the second time around?

Maybe it depends on the circumstance, but it is a question I once thought I would never have to consider regarding my life in Van Zandt County, Texas.

For those readers who don’t know my professional background, I spent seven years here from 1994-2001, before taking a sports reporter position with the Denton Record-Chronicle.

At the time, I reasonably thought I would never be back in Van Zandt County as a reporter. But like so many others in all walks of life, I learned the grandest plans do not always come to fruition.

So, after bouncing around the south central United States for several years, looking for the perfect newspaper job that never quite materialized, fortune would have it that I came back to Van Zandt Newspapers in November 2007.

In the nearly six years that have gone by, I have to say the experience has been even better than before. A vast number of people around the county were happy to see my byline again, and took time to say so in person.

And just like the time before, the people, places and subjects of my reporting work here were varied and unique, sometimes controversial, but always providing an enriching experience for a writer.

So here I am writing a farewell column again. This time, though, the reason for departing Van Zandt Newspapers is one I could have never imagined until recently.

You see, for the past two years, I’ve been leading a double life, trotting off to Tyler most weekdays and transforming into a superior-level college student.

I did not get to finish a college degree I started immediately after high school many years ago. I thought it was a distant dream I would never realize.

It takes courage to make any dream come true, and in the summer of 2011, I took the necessary leap of faith and enrolled full-time at the University of Texas at Tyler.

No part of what transpired since then was easy – but nothing good ever is.

I never thought much about doing anything beyond finishing a bachelor’s degree until I started to realize how much I loved doing research and academic writing.

I started to check into graduate school programs last year. I took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in November – the absolute hardest test I have taken in my life – and scored high enough that I was suddenly getting contacted by schools across the country.

Before this year, I never thought much about places like Boston University, Syracuse, Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana.

No, Harvard, Columbia and Stanford were not on the list. Try as you might, you can’t make everyone fall in love with you.

But the University of Texas at Austin’s Graduate School of Journalism was on the list, and Austin will be my new home starting next week.

Dreams can change very suddenly and unexpectedly, much like life in general. Over the years, I’ve learned it is a good idea to accept that and let it take you to greater things.

I may not be around in person or in the local newspapers anymore, but I hope you will be hearing a lot about me in the years to come.

If you would like to keep up with what I am doing on the way to a PhD, send me a Facebook request or follow my blog at www.terrybritt.wordpress.com.

Take care, and may God bless each of you.

Written by terrybritt

August 12, 2013 at 1:18 pm

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.

How a Guy Named Curt Turned My Life Around

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It has taken a week for me to be composed enough to write this.

The unexpected death of a friend is difficult.  When that friend was also a former co-worker, professional colleague, and mentor, the loss feels even greater.

I probably would not be the reporter, column writer, and incoming college graduate student that I am today if not for my extreme good fortune in knowing a man named Curtis P. Middleton.

The time from 2005 through 2007 was not a good chapter in my personal or professional life.  My mother (and, in truth, best friend) had suddenly died in her sleep from a blood clot.  My career as a newspaper sports editor/reporter/copy editor was spiraling earthward, it seemed.  I felt like I was just going through the motions in just about every aspect of life.  In November 2006, I was stuck in North Mississippi, unemployed for the first time in 14 years, and I didn’t know where I was going to go for another job.

That is when I met Curt, one of two people during that time period who changed my life for the better.  A few months earlier, he had taken the reins as editor of the DeSoto Times, a three-per-week newspaper in Hernando, Miss., just a short drive south of Memphis.  He needed a news reporter to round out the staff at that time, and I felt I had enough prior news writing experience to fit the bill.

Curt was a big man with a voice that demanded your attention, and he did not sugar-coat his thoughts and feelings about much.  Curt was not impressed with my previously published articles I had submitted with my resume.  Fortunately, he was impressed with me, and felt I had enough writing talent and potential to be offered the position.

In the weeks that followed, I got more constructive criticism and editorial guidance for news reporting and writing than I had received in the previous 16 years combined.  Curt Middleton the editor expected, and if you couldn’t deliver the first time, he would waste little time in showing you what he needed to see on the second attempt.

But he also possessed a great personality and friendly demeanor that made the work seem not so difficult most days.  Like me, he had traveled around quite a bit in his newspaper career, and it wasn’t long before we were sharing stories of towns, publications, stories we wrote, people we interviewed, and former colleagues.

Of that time we worked together at the Times, I can tell you two things Curt thought I did remarkably well.  One was column writing.  As one of three news reporters on the staff, we were each given the assignment of writing a weekly column to go on the editorial page.  It could be about anything; it just had to be well-written and engaging.  Curt loved my columns, or as he put it to one of the other reporters one day, “Terry’s columns just have a certain style and a voice that draw you in.”

The other thing Curt thought I was a master at doing is making coffee.  I didn’t think it was anything special, personally speaking, until one morning in the newsroom when I just had to have some java to get going on deadline.

I didn’t realize Curt had helped himself to a mugful of it a short time later.  A few minutes passed and the next thing I know, Curt walks out of his office and demands, “Who made this coffee?”  I turned and answered.

He walked over, stood near my desk, and stated emphatically to a full newsroom, “I have an announcement to make.  Do you see this man sitting right here?” he said, pointing at me. “This is the only person in this newsroom allowed to make coffee if I am drinking any of it.  It’s perfect.”

Although I wasn’t anywhere close to perfect as a news writer, I think he and I both saw how much better I had become in just a few months from the beginning.  That was good for Curt, as I kept in mind one of the first things he told me and the rest of the staff a few days after I had joined the staff:  “I don’t want you to give me your best.  I do want you to give me your better.  If you hand in your best, I’ve got nothing to look forward to as far as seeing improvement each time.”

He also taught me the value of brevity in news writing.  We each had to come up with five news articles for each edition — a load to be sure, and one I didn’t always meet — but as Curt reminded us, “I’m not looking for a novella with each one. Ten to twelve column inches works fine for me.”  One of his newsroom proverbs is what I now refer to as the “drawn breath test.”  “If I can’t read your story lead aloud without having to draw another breath,” he said, “it’s too long.  Rewrite it.”

Unfortunately, the time I got under Curt’s watchful eye was cut short.  I was laid off just six months into the job when things didn’t go as well as expected in advertising revenue.  The ownership demanded that an editorial position be sacrificed, and I fell to the “last one in, first one out” methodology.  However, Curt stayed in touch with me, and Facebook kept us connected as friends after I returned to Texas late in 2007.

Facebook being what it is, you can generally determine who is reading your posts and offering a little token of encouragement or good cheer.  When it came to just about anything I achieved or accomplished during the past five years, I could just about count on one of the people clicking the “like” button to be Curt.  At times, he would leave a comment as well.

For as much as I owed him in the short time we worked together, it was nothing compared to the impact he made with a comment on my longest post — an essay, actually — in late December 2010, from a hotel room in Memphis after I had just spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day stranded hundreds of miles from home with a disabled car.

Distraught about the situation and admitting openly that my newspaper career felt like a complete disaster, Curt encouraged me to branch out as he had done as a freelance writer.  One way to do that, he noted, would be to get on with a local school district as a substitute teacher and write while in class.

The next month, I became a substitute teacher for two local school districts while holding my job at Van Zandt Newspapers.  It didn’t lead to a lot of freelance writing, but it did lead to something bigger:  Returning to college to finally finish a bachelor’s degree.

Had Curt never suggested becoming a substitute teacher, I probably would not have realized how much I missed the academic environment and the joy of sharing knowledge with others.  Two years and a lot of toil and expense later, I have not only have a Bachelor of Arts in English, but am heading into one of the nation’s premier journalism graduate schools at the University of Texas at Austin.

And that’s why it hurt so damn much when I checked Facebook on June 22 to find that Curt had suffered a heart attack earlier in the week and died in a hospital a short time earlier that morning.

Less than a month after his comment that would change my life for the better, Curt lost his son, U.S. Marines Sgt. Jason Amores, who was killed in action in Afghanistan.

Curt Middleton’s final “like” on one of my Facebook posts was of a photograph of me and my only son, Ryan Britt, together on Father’s Day.