Day 31: Jerry “The King” Lawler

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Dear King:

You threw fire burning opponents to a crisp. Labeled wrestling’s greatest announcer, “Banana Nose.” You caused innocent women to get their heads shaved and laughed when their husbands would wake up the next morning to a “shiny cue ball.” You even called us, your greatest fans, “stupid, lazy, buck-toothed rednecks who just rode in on the tractor.”

And we LOVED every minute of it.

Then we counted the days until next Saturday.

Long live the King!

My lord, where to begin?

In the King's Palace, otherwise known as the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday nights.

In the King’s Palace, otherwise known as the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday nights.

I can’t think of a single person in 51 years who’s provided me with more thrilling entertainment than you, King. I mean that. Just thinking about all the great moments makes me feel like a kid again.

Saturdays 11 to 12:30. You know exactly what I’m about to say. The television was mine. Do NOT interrupt my Saturday morning TV5 Championship Wrestling.

Pile drivers, fire, chains, folding metal chairs over the head, putting tar and feather to Jimmy Hart, the Mouth of the South … and of course the signature moves when the shoulder strap comes down it’s about to be all over. A final ascent to the top turnbuckle, the King goes airborne across the ring and a carefully placed fist right in the challenger’s stinking mouth ends it. One. Two. Three. Another one bites the dust. The King owns Memphis. This is Jerry Lawler Country.

This is good stuff right here:

Oh the great battles you fought: Superstar Bill Dundee, Handsome Jimmy Valiant, The Universal Heart Throb Austin Idol, Canadian Lumberjack Joe LeDuc, Kimala the Ugandan Giant, Terry Funk, Eddie “Hot Stuff” Gilbert, Dirty Dutch Mantell, Terry Funk, and that sorry little miserable man Andy Kaufman. You were victorious against all comers.

In fact, let’s hear from Andy Kaufman for just a brief moment:

And let’s not forget the most beautiful jewel in that royal crown of wrestling May 9, 1988, when the world (my world, anyway) stood still for 24 minutes and 27 seconds.

Let’s go back in time and relive those final two and a half holy minutes. It’ll be special referee Fabulous Jackie Fargo, and Lance Russell and Dave Brown at ringside with the call:

A NEW. WORLD. HEAVYWEIGHT. CHAMPION!

Oh, how sweet it is. Finally. Finally. World Heavyweight Champion. Oh, the splendid glory!

I recall a summer day in 1996 answering the phone working at our daily newspaper, The Jonesboro Sun.

“Jonesboro Sun,” I gave the standard reporter’s phone greeting.

“Who’s speaking, please?” You asked.

“Steve Watkins.”

“Steve, this is Jerry Lawler, how you doing today.”

I was a 26-year-old professional journalist, months away from having my first child and found myself completely tongue-tied and starry-eyed at the sound of your voice. “I’m talking to Jerry Lawler on the phone? Oh, my gosh, don’t say anything stupid. Sound cool. Don’t slobber all over the phone.” A million thoughts went through my brain.

Me and The King, two years ago in Memphis.

Me and The King, two years ago in Memphis.

At 67, Jerry Lawler still throws a pretty good left. Here, he rattles Dangerous Doug Gilbert's cage at a Beale Street exhibition in Memphis.

At 67, Jerry Lawler still throws a pretty good left. Here, he rattles Dangerous Doug Gilbert’s cage at a Beale Street exhibition in Memphis.

And I still feel that way, too, King. We’re all a little older now. The punches have a little less punch, the dropkicks are a little lower, and I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to throw fire any more. Stupid pencil-necked lawyers.

But the strap still comes down a few times a year, and when it does, my heart still races. It was great to see you in Jonesboro just a few months ago.

Thank you, King, for so many thrills.

Long live the King!

Your #1 Fan,

Steve Watkins

Day 30: Jackson “Mission” Spencer

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Dear Jackson,

We older guys are the ones who should set examples and inspire young whipper snappers like you. Now look at you, a young guy who turns 26 today, inspiring an old cuss like me.

You know how it is. You do one thing. Then you set your sights on the next thing. Some of us live this way because we know no other. And we know we’ll never know how much we can do until we try something that’s more.

Just a few days after returning from camino in 2015, my wife told me about a local guy who recently through hiked the Appalachian Trail in 99 days. She’d seen him on the news.

Jackson Spencer celebrating the conclusion of through hiking 2,182.7 miles in 99 days on the Appalachian Trail. What an extraordinary achievement.

Jackson Spencer of my hometown in Jonesboro, Arkansas celebrating the conclusion of through hiking 2,182.7 miles in 99 days on the Appalachian Trail. What an extraordinary achievement.

“No, you’ve got your facts all wrong. You missed something somewhere,” I told her. “Nobody through hikes the Appalachian Trail in 99 days. It takes about twice that long. It’s nearly 2,200 miles for crying out loud.”

A few days later we walk into the Gearhead outlet and she whispers, “I’m pretty sure that’s him. The AT guy. You ought to go over and talk to him.” So I did.

“You didn’t really through hike the AT in 99 days did you?” I asked, confident in my own recent 40-day trek over 500 miles.

“Yes, sir. It was quite an experience. I had some of the greatest days and some of the lowest days of my life out there, but I made it,” you said.

No wonder they trail named you “Mission.” My goodness gracious. Sakes alive.

What a pleasure to meet you, Jackson. In fact, what an honor. I can barely imagine your glorious achievement atop Mount Katahdin. The really cool thing is that no one else possibly could imagine it. It’s between you and the trail. Some of the most special things in life are so special, they are meant to stay between you and  God. Just the two of you.

I’m hopeful to walk that footpath on my own some day. If it happens, I’ll remember many things you shared with me that day. I’m so proud of your achievement and will cheer you on in your next adventure.

Thank you for helping me keep the dream alive. It’s like breath in my lungs.

Happy birthday, young sir.

With much respect,

Steve “High Roller” Watkins, AT dreamer

 

 

 

Day 29: Meredith Tobin Heffner

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Dear Meredith:

It often amazes me how the simplest gesture can make such a difference.

Lying in bed early this morning making my first bleary-eyed scroll through social media I came across a comment from a friend who said something really nice about a blog post from yesterday. It was endearing enough that it brought a tear. After the tears subsided I reckoned to a moment not long ago when you wrote me something equally as touching.

Something inside has always allowed me to detect certain qualities in people as a fairly quick study. It came in especially handy during interviews where the aim is often pulling information from people whose job it is not to reveal things. As mass communication has evolved and my spectrum of friends has grown I’d like to think I have that same sense about relationships on social media.

But it wasn’t difficult with you at all. Your hopeful words toward the end of my first camino were exactly what I needed, when I needed it. Some people are blatantly encouraging, and I thank God for people like you.

Meredith (second from left) with family last Christmas.

Meredith (second from left) with family last Christmas.

Post-camino and months later I wrote and asked the favor of a “testimonial” for another blog site where I regularly tested writing that will soon make its way into my first book. Your response was quick and immediate. “What’s my deadline?” I believe those were your first words. Thank you for saying yes.

But thank you even more for how you said it in a subsequent paragraph. I dug back through some notes to read exactly what you wrote in a brief encouraging sidebar.

“Steve, I read a lot of stuff and you’ve got what it takes, believe me. You really do have it. You’ve got this.”

Triumphant pilgrim.

Triumphant pilgrim.

I’m not repeating those words so to boost my own ego, I hope you know. I’m recounting them because they meant so much. Your words gave me a push at a critical moment when I needed a push. In fact, I recall a certain peace that came with your note as I stepped into something quite unknown.

Sometimes we all need to know we’ve got what it takes. Thank you for being the type of person who knows that, and acts on it. I have the feeling I’m not the only person who is the beneficiary of your gracious gestures. I aspire to be more like you in this way.

And yes, you’ll be one of the first to have an autographed copy. I still have that request.

PS: It was a pleasure to follow you on your own pilgrimage across the camino.

A fellow pilgrim in life, and with sincere gratitude,

Steve Watkins

Day 28: Pastor Terry Watson

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“Then I will give you shepherds after My own heart, who will feed you on knowledge and understanding. ~ Jeremiah 3:15

Dear Pastor Terry,

Yesterday, a pastor friend from South Carolina whom I admire and respect posted this social media message:

To my Christian Friends:
I returned yesterday from a conference for pastors. So many of my colleagues bear burdens you just can’t imagine unless you’ve been there (just as I cannot truly imagine childbirth). Please look for ways to encourage and build up your pastor. Question the reasonableness of your expectations, and don’t let them become your “demands.” Say “thank you,” and “I love you” and ask “How is your family (I mean really!)?” Have you ever bought your pastor lunch, not because you had some church business or grievance you wanted to discuss, but just to show kindness? Pastors are real people. They bear real people’s burdens. They bear them for their very real families … and for yours. Many are suffering in silence. The Church in America is weaker for it. Please be part of the solution, not the problem.

Moments after reading the post, I sent him a private message with a genuine question. I asked him what’s at the core of the pastoral burdens he mentioned.

It’s a cumulative list of things, he said, but among them “…It’s as if people are agitated, ginned up by politics and talk radio and uncertainty about their futures … and then that spills over into their spiritual lives. They’re often on the attack and don’t even know it! They have no inner peace, so they have no peace in their relationships. It’s not a new thing. But it is growing.”

Pastor Terry Watson at the Rock of Northeast Arkansas

Pastor Terry Watson at the Rock of Northeast Arkansas

No inner peace.

I’ve thought much about this lately.

Some time about a year ago as we drove from the parking lot onto US 49 headed to lunch after the 9:30  service, Dana asked as she always does, “Well what did you think?”

My response wasn’t the typical one she expects when I share a thought about the sermon you preached. In reply to her question, I offered this:

“I think it’s a pleasure to learn from, and observe a man who is completely at peace.” That’s what I told her.

I meant it as the highest compliment. The quest for real peace can go down lots of wrong detours in this world. But when someone has authentic inner peace … that peace that surpasses all understanding, you recognize it, and what a wonderful thing it is to witness. I have felt it too, for some time now, and because of peace, I am changed.

Isn’t it great and aren’t we incredibly thankful when we reach the point where we’re completely over ourselves?

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But let me back up a moment to my friend’s social media post yesterday and the need he expressed to build up your pastor and church leadership.

What’s funny is not an hour before I read his post, I’d chosen you for today’s note. You’ve been on the list from Day 1, but something about today seemed right. It’s a little funny that I can say, “Pastor, you’ve been on my list for a while now!” Ha!

Tomorrow, you’ll stand in front of a thousand people over two services. Has the reality and magnitude of that milestone even really set in yet? What an amazing lifetime of ministry.

So many people would be inclined to look out and say to themselves, “Look what I’ve done.”

But the best thing of it all is I know how deep inside your heart you don’t take the credit. You know where the credit goes. You know what it’s all about. You know the identity of the real Senior Pastor.

I’m guessing tomorrow you’ll continue the series on Getting Real. Now, that’s my kind of stuff. It’s also the thing I appreciate most about you.

Your authentic, transparent, and humble example in a life well lived as a genuine servant leader is the best gospel message you can preach. But we like your preaching pretty well too, by the way. Ha.

There was a time in life when I was angry with the Church. Thought I didn’t really need the church. “I can have church any where, any time,” I thought to myself. I was wrong. I need a church family for more reasons than I can list here. Thank you for bringing Dana and me back to Church.

Thank you for being a good man and a trusted shepherd. That’s honestly the best thing I know to say.

You’re one of those people I wish I’d known longer. I wonder what things we might have done together, shared about, and dreamt toward. But it’s all good. We have an eternity for those things now, don’t we?

We love, and care about your family, and declare the best is yet to come.

PS: If you go to Wal-Mart today, remember you don’t have to click the lock five times. Three times will do just fine.

A thankful sheep in the flock of The Rock,

Steve Watkins

Day 27: Ed “Ecuador Ed” Harned

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Dear Ed:

One thing I’ve notice lately is how people are more than willing to get involved and do a good deed as long as they get to talk about it publicly – as long as there’s something in it for their EGO. Every day you see countless good deed doers shouting from the social media mountaintop.

It’s strikes me as one of the saddest trends in ages.

The English standard version of Matthew 6:1 reads:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them …”

Ed Harned

Ed Harned

So when you wrote early yesterday morning to ask if you could drive over and help me repair a broken window, it was actually a bit shocking. Who reaches out and goes completely out of their way to help some gringo schmuck down the road with an unbelievable story that a window fell on him in bed during the night?

Apparently, you do. And what a blessing to me.

Not only did you offer to help. You made a 40-mile round trip to see it through.  And you know how it is down here. In the event someone does something for you, they generally want something in return. Usually something green with a president’s picture, right?

Not you. You just wanted to help. Isn’t it amazing we now live in a time when something like that almost shocks the conscience?

Thank you for shocking my conscience, Ed. It was a MUCH better shock than the window falling on me. As we often say, “…only in Ecuador.”

PS: It was lovely gathering at your home Wednesday night. Thank you for including me. Good people and a vista de magnifico.

Yours truly,

Steve Watkins

Day 26: Jeannick Guerin

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Dear Jeannick:

I’ve asked lots of people lots of questions. If I told you the number, you probably wouldn’t even believe.

Jeannick Guerin

Jeannick Guerin

But of all the thousands, nothing ever stuck like your response to a question one day within minutes of the  moment we met.

“Why do you think so many people walk the Camino?” I asked, as we sipped coffees at a random bar in Azofra.

“Generally speaking you have three kinds of people: You have the walker who does it as a challenge. You have the person who does it for reasons of faith. Then you have the pilgrim. The pilgrim never knows why he’s on the path, and the path doesn’t go to Santiago. You always stay on the path. It’s people who are searching for something. Once you’re a pilgrim, you stay a pilgrim. That’s bad news for you, mate.”

Not so bad, though I’ll admit some days are better than others, my friend.

I’m still on the path, Jeannick. Thank you for letting me know it’s okay.

Hope you are well.

Walking onward,

Steve Watkins

Day 25: Yalanda Merrell

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Dear Yalanda:

What we need more than anything right now is two simple things:

  1. We need people who lead by example, and;
  2. We need people who are real.

Why are these things so difficult, and why so rare?

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Yalanda Merrell and her husband, Shaun.

I’m not even sure we’ve met, but because I see it’s your birthday, first of all, Happy Birthday! Enjoy your day. I thought this would be a nice occasion to thank you for the gift you give me daily.

The parable stories you publish on social media are one of the earliest breaths of fresh air I savor each morning. I see your name. I see the parable. And I stop and read. Thank you for making me stop. It’s never, ever, a regret.

The morning parables are a great use of your creative gift for journalistic storytelling. There’s a quote that comes from my favorite writer, Pat Conroy, and I cite this quote a lot, but I thought you’d enjoy it:

“The most powerful words in the English language are, ‘Tell me a story…'”

When you combine personal, transparent storytelling with truth, you have a mighty powerful thing. Our testimony, our witness, we might call it. Whatever its label, it brings an experience that makes us all more human. We need that so desperately in this moment. Your gift is so rare. I know you’ll never take it for granted.

You’re ministering to others, and you’re taking responsibility for growth and maturity in your own life. It requires discipline what you do. It requires looking in the mirror. Introspective thought. It requires a vision that’s bigger than you. We need that example, too.

Keep going. Keep writing. Keep telling those stories.

Good job, Yalanda. I hope you enjoyed writing your story this morning as much as I did.

A grateful fan,

Steve Watkins

Day 24: Paulo Julio Miranda Gutierrez

Paulo doing a heck of a job creating a simple bamboo trellis for two bougainvilleas.

Paulo doing a heck of a job creating a simple bamboo trellis for two bougainvilleas.

Dear Paulo,

Surely I couldn’t be more grateful that Fernando and Frede introduced us. Thank you so very much for all your help in the yard during the last week. Magnifico! A nice yard and garden pleases me so.

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-5-06-39-amBeyond the gratitude for your services, what a pleasure it’s been getting to know you, discussing our lives over back-porch breakfast and having a good laugh now and then. Some of us from North America often wonder how the local people feel about our being here. Truth is, we  just want to share in the beauty of your country and would never intentionally do anything to cause you ill feelings toward us. We know that no matter how much property we own or how much money we spend, we will always be your guests. I thank you for your gracious and humble spirit, my friend, and thank you for sharing this alluring and exotic land.

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-5-07-09-amIsn’t it wonderful when people from different cultures share a meal or a cold drink and explore their genuine curiosity and interest toward one another? The world tells us we should fear one another, a false notion created by imaginary borders, simple lines on a map. At this, we laugh. We are citizens of the world, Paulo, and we are brothers. We understand this, you and I. Thank you for joining me in breaking the rules.

Your son is so lucky. You care for him, take him to school, do everything possible  as you provide. Single dad isn’t an easy job. And yet, I’ve never seen you without a smile. You’re not a complainer. It’s not someone else’s fault. You’re taking responsibility.  He is blessed you’re his dad. Well done, amigo mio.

A child’s glory is her father.

I appreciate your work ethic, all your suggestions for improvement, and really admire your knowledge about the local flora. But mostly, thank you for your willingness to become my friend.

It’s excites me thinking about the things we’ll create together.

And whether it’s in the backyard here in Puerto Cayo, or from 3,500 kilometers north, I’m cheering for you, my hermano. Count me a fan.

Con mucho respeto,

Steve

 

 

Day 23: Paul Pickett

(Note: Paul Pickett is chief development officer for an Indianapolis-based franchise I investigated two years ago, and still follow with interest. We discussed things like business philosophies, dreams and all kinds of possibilities over a several-month period. He’s also an ornithologist, which makes him pretty cool in my assessment.)

Dear Paul:

Sometimes things work out. Sometimes they don’t. But then again, they just might someday, right?

How can a person not love birds? Honestly, I just say no to the bird haters!

Paul Pickett

Paul Pickett

They are graceful, majestic, beautiful, entertaining, diverse, funny, and can tell us so much about what’s going on around us. Birds know things before we do. I have a T-shirt that reads, “I feed birds to keep from choking people.” That’s true enough, right?!?

Seriously, I want to thank you for the time we spent together discussing so many things I love. When passion and possibilities collide, it’s the best of all worlds. These are the things of which dreams are made.

Thank you for the great knowledge you conveyed about your business; for the professionalism and the friendly personality every time we spoke; and for caring enough to ask about the family of which I never doubted your authentic concern.

But the moment I really assessed your character, Paul, was an instant when as I was driving to Little Rock one day I told you I was considering an independent route. In response, you articulated with a calm demeanor and any number of legitimate reasons for giving considerable thought to that path. Who knows, it may or may not have worked out, but I never doubted for a second that you had my interests at heart. I never felt like I was being sold. That moment made an indelible impression.

I think of you often, and care enough to follow your travels here and there. I always liked you, and I hope that comes across as a compliment in the way I mean it from the heart.

Things didn’t work out, but who knows? …Because they might one day, right? Thanks for being one of the good guys.

And PS: Not kidding – ornithology is so cool.

PSS: I’m in Ecuador for a few weeks and seeing some real beauties. In fact, I just stepped outside to see a beautiful pair of blue-gray tanagers who visit every morning.

Sincerely yours and my best wishes,

Steve Watkins

Day 22: A Letter to Me at Birth+10

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-7-09-16-amDear Stevie,

It’s 1966 and it’s gonna be a heck of a year, son. The space race is capturing the country’s attention. On New Year’s Eve, the Dow Jones will close at 785. President Johnson will create the Transportation Department, and radical women will wear something they call a “mini-skirt.”

And you, my good little friend, will begin walking the path. You’ll be as cute as the Dickens you little son of a gun.

I want to share some things with you about the next 10 years. Just a little simple advice to help you get along and make the most of things.

Most of all I want you to know this will be a sweet, sweet time. You’re going to screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-7-08-46-amhave a wonderful childhood and you’ll be so fortunate to have two parents who love you, probably more than anything. They are a typical young couple who will struggle through all the things young couples do, but they will never leave or forsake you. You are starting the path on good footing with them.

BTW, your parents are really good-looking people. You won’t realize that for a long time, but they are really quite handsome.

Your Granny is a special lady. Let her hug you and pat you on the bottom just as much as she wants. If she wants to do it a dozen times a day, hold your tongue and let it be so. She is the finest of people, and her compassionate example will serve you well.

Savor the Fourth of July picnics. Eat the watermelon slowly, tasting every sweet drop.

As you play outside late in the evening, watch the beautiful sun set on the horizon of the St. Francis River and soak it all in for a few moments. You’re daddy will have you spending a lot of time on that river. We’ll talk about that next time.

Play in the snow, and stop and listen how quiet things become when it blankets the Delta countryside. In all your life to come, you’ll never hear a quieter quiet.

Your little hometown school will be just wonderful. So many teachers there will take your education personally. You will love every single one of them, and have a crush on one or two. It’s okay, they’ll know it and think it’s cute. Go with it.

Hunt the Easter eggs and laugh and giggle. Let your mom dress you in whatever “outfit” she likes. She just wants you to look pretty for all the other people in church.

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-7-08-18-amYou’re not going to have any brothers or sisters. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but know you’re going to spend a lot of time alone the next 10 years because you’ll also grow up on a rural farm. Those two things will shape much about you, Stevie. You’ll be independent, and later in life it will evolve to a certain eclectic quality. You’re going to do things like read encyclopedias to pass the time. Go with that, too. Be curious. Learn.

You’ll have so many wonderful, sweet, old-lady babysitters during this time. Every single one of them will love you like their own. They will always be a part of your life.

You will be one of the luckiest little kids in the world, little Stevie. If you can, from time to time, just stop and look around and look at all the things everyone is doing for you. Every child should be so blessed.

The next 10 may not be this easy. Okay, they won’t. I’ll write you about all that garbage later. Let’s not worry about it yet. Enjoy.

Happy Birthday, Steve. Here we go, buddy.

Your good friend,

You.