A life eight decades deep
March is the month of my 80th birthday. I grew up in a hilly and woodsy section of semi-rural Ohio.
A neighbor’s car rolled down one of those hills and into a lake. When retrieved by a wrecker, the car was full of fish. A wag called out, “That’s a heck of a way to go fishing.”
My best buddy growing up was my mongrel mutt, Bimbo. An older brother and sister were my mentors, both excelling in sports. So I followed in their footpaths, though my career in team sports had, shall we say, an inauspicious beginning at age nine.
I had never before been on an indoor basketball court with baskets at BOTH ends. So when I got the ball at midcourt and saw all the other players in front of me but no one behind me, I whirled and drove to the unguarded basket, scoring my first basket for the OTHER team. What I heard as my coaches yelling “GO, GO, GO” was their screaming “NO, NO, NO.” Live and learn.
My last field goal in competitive play was equally memorable. I had made the freshman and varsity teams at Michigan but was a bencher, not having gotten into a single varsity game my sophomore year. When we played Ohio State down in Columbus, I visited with a high school classmate before the game. She said she and her roommates would do an Indian rain dance to break the drought of my not getting into a game.
And it worked. With four minutes left in the game, Rich Robbins twisted his ankle, and I finally got the call to get onto the court—and play with four starters. So when I tell people that I “averaged a point a minute in the Big Ten,” they better believe it. Four minutes, four points, including a basket at the buzzer. Didn’t win the game, but it was memorable.
I’ve been surrounded by women with wings for much of my life. My sister still flies an airplane at age 80-plus, and my high school English teacher flew hers until age 93. She’s now 105, able to live on her own, and visits with me on the phone once a month. And my wife also has wings—she’s an angel. And she’s also the Ohio State co-ed who engineered the rain dance. We have three sons, a musician, an archaeologist, and a therapist for autistic men at a state institution.
My writing career began at the proverbial office water fountain. I had just returned from a sabbatical in Northern Ireland and was eager to share my experiences in that British-Irish cauldron of conflict. I encountered Hugh Cunningham, my university’s director of communications, and he said he’d “guarantee me a read” by an editor at the-then St. Pete Times if I wrote up my story. I did and got a Sunday feature several weeks later.
One of my richest resources for writing was a set of family letters written by my Scots-Irish ancestors in the north of Ireland. When their son joined an uncle—who had gotten here to America by being shanghaied by the British Navy—in southwest Pennsylvania in 1792, they wrote a series of letters to that son, eighteen of which survived plus one that the son wrote back to his parents in Ireland.
However, these rag-paper parchments at one time had been lost, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. My father found half of them in a shoebox in his aunt’s closet when she died in 1928. And a cousin found the other half in a metal box under a hay mound in a barn. The barn was being torn down, and the cousin heard a metal tinkle when he moved the mound of hay with a forklift. Miracle? Maybe so. But then Rich Robbins doesn’t often twist his ankle either.
These letters offer the same advice I do for a full and fruitful life—faith, family, and friends. Here’s parental advice from these 1790s letters — “They that seek the Lord shall truly find Him. Be watchful of what company you keep as bad company is the beginning of many evils.” My constant companion is God’s agent—my wife truly is an angel.
James F. Burns is an Ohio native and retired professor at the university of Florida.