Remembering my 13-mile long classroom

Many of my friends and former classmates are mourning the loss of a former teacher today.

The news of Jeffrey Johnson’s passing takes many of us back to our high school days, to our interactions with him and how he changed our lives.

I never had Mr. Johnson as a teacher, however.

Instead, he changed my world as a friend, and I realize now – suddenly, now that he’s gone — what a debt of gratitude I owe the man.

As the crow flies, my family home in Orrington, Maine, was just about two miles or so from Hampden Academy, the school from which I graduated.

It was directly across the Penobscot River and from certain points in Orrington you could look across the river and the see the school.

By car, however, it was 13 miles away … six-plus miles to Brewer, across the bridge to Bangor, and six-plus miles to Hampden on the other side of the river.

When I made the decision to transfer from John Bapst Memorial High School to Hampden Academy for my senior year, transportation was my biggest hurdle.

This is where Jeff Johnson changed my life.

I had known Jeff prior to my year at Hampden Academy. In fact, looking back on it, I had known him when I was in middle school.

He lived in Bucksport, the town south of my hometown, and was a regular visitor to the convenience store my mother and step-father owned.

As one of my stomping ground places where I spent much of my time, I got to know Jeff and his wife, Pam, also a teacher, enough to ask them a big-time question leading into my senior year.

Could I hitch a ride to school every day?

As far as I know, they never gave it a second thought.

So pretty much every morning from Labor Day of 1983 to graduation in 1984, I would walk a half mile from my house to the Main Road where Jeff and Pam would pick me up and allow me to attend Hampden Academy.

Every morning, we would talk about life and love, family and education.

(As an athlete who always stayed after school for practices, I rarely if ever got a ride home. Instead, I hitchhiked the journey home … though that, too, became a regular journey of regulars who would pick me up and drop me off at certain spots).

The Johnson family decision to allow me to ride with them to school changed my life.

First and foremost it allowed me to avoid attending Brewer High School, a thought I dreaded.

It gave me a new set of friends I still care about to this day.

And, it opened my door to two new English courses, one of which was journalism, pushing me further down the path that would become my life’s career.

I’m sure I thanked Mr. Johnson for the rides back then, but only today – after hearing of his passing – did the magnitude of them hit me.

My heart hurts knowing he’s gone, but what an effect he had on so many lives, as a teacher … and as a friend.

Thanks again, JJ.

May you rest in peace.

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Taking a Stand: When are we going to get to the real issues?

Roofers in Waterville, Maine, stand for the National Anthem playing at nearby football game.

So three roofers are standing on a roof.

What sounds like the beginning of a lame bar joke is actually one of the problems with what’s wrong with America, at least in my humble opinion.

Let’s get one thing straight, though: Three roofers taking time out from doing their job and standing for the National Anthem isn’t the problem.

The fact that act is going viral?

I have an issue with that.

My own job puts me in places where the National Anthem is played from five to seven times a week.

I can say with 100 percent authority that in my 33-year career as a sports writer, 99.99 percent of the people within my eye sight are standing when Francis Scott Key’s words start getting sung.

“Oh say can you see….”

A problem in America?

Boy, can I.

Why is something 99 percent of Americans do going viral?

Because the hatred in this country in 2017 for that other 1 percent runs so deep, it’s scary.

Now I’ve gone on the record saying I can’t ever see myself NOT standing for the National Anthem, regardless of the fact that “God Bless America” should truly be our country’s Anthem.

I do support those who want to “protest” by not standing, however.

Their freedom to do that, at least to me, is the ultimate statement of how truly free this country is.

This fall, for journalistic reasons, I’ve been looking around a lot more during the National Anthem to see if anybody dares to take a knee or stay seated during the twilight’s last gleaming.

I’ve seen baseball players two fields away stop their game and stand at attention. I’ve seen adult softball players in the same complex put down their hidden beers and stand at attention. I’ve seen people outside of the stadium stop what they’re doing as the music wafts across the air and disappears into the distance.

I’ve seen people standing in their backyards having lunch, or a swim in their pool, climb out on their decks, face the flag while soaking wet, and honor America.

It’s what we do. Well, 99 percent of us.

So when I see a photo of three guys doing what I’ve seen countless others do “go viral” I can only shake my head.

Only in America.

The fact the National Anthem keeps being an issue, at least to me, is nothing but a deflection from the Orange Glow out of Washington, D.C., to distract us from the real problems this country refuses to deal with.

And that saddens me.

Why are we having this fight?

When are we going to get to the real issues?

If I had to guess, it won’t be until 2020 when the next President of the United States is voted in and has the unenviable task of trying to heal a shattered country.

Again in America

(Photo by John Locher/Associated Press)

I never wanted to go to Las Vegas. It was never on my bucket list of places to visit or things to do.

I had no interest in the bright lights, The Strip, the casinos, that silly sign that sits obnoxiously on the edge of the city as a photobomb for tourists who stand in line to pose for photos underneath it.

It was never a take it or leave it situation, either.

I was leaving it without ever being there.

Until I went.

I loved it and can’t wait to go back.

This Monday morning though, as the sun rises over the southern Nevada desert city, Las Vegas has changed.

Its lights won’t flicker as brightly. The bells and whistles of the casino slot machines won’t sound so musical as it plays as the city’s soundtrack.

Not with the echoes of all those gunshots still ringing out.

Late Sunday, from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, a 64-year-old man opened fire with an automatic weapon.

Photo by John Nash

He pointed his killing machine toward an outdoor concert venue across the street, a plot of land that had more than 30,000 people sardined in front of a stage to attend a country music festival.

More than 50 people were killed – children, daughters, sons, parents. That’s a number that’s likely to go even higher after this diatribe is published.

More than 200 people were injured, their bodies torn apart by flying bullets, or hurt during the stampede to escape with their lives.

A small part of Las Vegas died last night.

The rest of the country could only cry.

Another day in 21st century America, folks.

Less than two months ago, I was across the Mandalay Bay casino floor. I did one big loop and left the way I came, back to the Luxor, which is where I was staying while in town for an AAU Basketball Tournament.

Directly across the street from the Luxor was the open space that held the Route 91 Harvest Country Festival.

Maybe that’s why this latest American tragedy hits so close to home.

While I walked the Las Vegas Strip, from The Venetian south, I had spent four days living within a football field from the place where so many people would be innocently gunned down.

With my trip to Vegas almost 60 days behind me, I had gone to bed in the safety of my humble abode two hours before the shooting started.

I woke up at 3 a.m. local time, glanced at my cell phone and saw a long line of text message alerts telling me off the shooting.

I got out of bed and turned on CNN for more information. I tuned in to the Las Vegas Police Department’s online scanner. I turned to Twitter and saw the videos and heard the gunshots.

At that time, only two were confirmed dead and more than 20 were injured.

I was pretty sure those numbers would grow by morning.

Sadly, I wasn’t wrong.

More than 50 people dead.

More than 200 people injured.

By a man with a gun.

Again in America.

There are still many questions to be answered and the LVPD, FBI, ATF and all those other alphabet agencies will do its best to answer those.

And, this isn’t just about the guns, believe me. That’s part of the problem, certainly, but it’s a far bigger issue about the society we live in.

Sadly, because this is the – ahem – “United” States of America nothing will change.

You won’t work with us to do what’s truly right, so we won’t work with you.

Somewhere down the road, in another city of another state, another mass shooting will shock us and sadden us.

More of our children and parents will die in pools of blood, be it in a public venue like the one in Las Vegas, a movie theater in Colorado, a night club in Orlando, or schools located in Columbine, or just up the road in Connecticut.

To those lost on a suddenly violent Sunday night alongside the Vegas Strip, may their souls rest in peace.

To those of us once again left behind, may our souls dig deep to start finding the answers to change the world before it’s too late.