The Beautiful Heth knew. Don’t ask me how. She just knew. As I was packing on a recent Friday afternoon for my weekend trip to Bell Buckle, Tennessee — no, not Belt Buckle, I said Bell Buckle — TBH said something unusual, or at least something that struck me as unusual at the moment.
“Check it out to see if it’s someplace we’d want to bring the kids.”
“Really?” I thought, laughing to myself in terms of where central Tennessee might rate on the list of someday destinations compared to, let’s say, Disney, Nantucket or a Caribbean cruise. I nodded politely and finished packing.
But The Beautiful Heth knew.
* * *
There was a wild man on stage.
It was around 8 p.m. Saturday night, and James Anderson was getting carried away. The Bell Buckle banquet hall was full, as it is most Saturday nights, this time to celebrate the second annual and wildly successful Rollin’ Round Robin Classic wheelchair basketball tournament, and many of the revelers in attendance were those very athletes, pumping their fists and providing the roll to the evening’s rock. It was early yet, but already James, a Bell Buckle resident and the lead singer of a local band called Speakeasy, was snapping his head forward to drummer Toby Fuss’s big beat, his long curly hair spraying sweat liberally around the stage. He was three buttons down, on the way to all six by night’s end, and a couple of tattoos were beginning to creep out from the upper corners of his torso as he channeled Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler …
“You talk about things that nobody cares,” he railed.
“You’re wearing out things that nobody wears.”
Toward the back of the room, I sat with 3-year-old Gracelyn Howard and her mom, Linda, eating one of the most amazing pieces of chocolate cake with white frosting I’ll ever have. Ridiculously moist. I left only a few crumbs, and a little bit of white frosting. Then I turned away for no more than three seconds, and when I turned back, Gracelyn was licking my paper plate clean, her mouth now the centerpiece in a chocolate and white mosaic.
She climbed into my lap for a moment, smiling the kind of 3-year-old smile that could thaw New Hampshire, even today.
“Sweeeeeeeeet … emooooooooo-tion,” James Anderson sang.
It was a wonderful moment, in a wonderful day, in a wonderful town.
* * *
I’m pretty sure that we — meaning, you know, people — are a species that fundamentally wants to get along. As children, we look around and recognize the goodness in most everyone. We see friends, not adversaries. We smile. We lick each other’s plates. We climb into a stranger’s lap.
And then the big world comes along, and many of us become slightly misshapen. We prioritize money, or fame, or love of the wrong kind. We become distrustful, cynical. We pass a stranger in the street and look down rather than connecting eye to eye.
We grow to focus more on our contrived differences than our innate similarities. Our default position shifts from open-arms to arm’s-length.
And that is where Bell Buckle, in my opinion, is different than most.
In a town of 463 residents as diverse as any you’ll ever see — in terms of socioeconomic status, in terms of interests, in terms of length of residency — the people of Bell Buckle seem to live and breathe in the spirit of their shared human condition. Weekends that are not filled with the town’s annual events — like Daffodil Day or the Shakespeare Festival or “Mutts in May” or the RC-Moonpie Festival or the Bell Buckle Quilt Show or the Webb School Art & Craft Festival or the Old Fashioned Christmas — are spent at the local Super Bowl Party, or this neighbor’s Elvis Party, or that neighbor’s black tie party for the sake of a black tie party.
The residents here smile, shake hands or hug first, and ask questions later.
And tonight, as James Anderson howls through Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones and the Doors and beyond, the corporate attorney sits with the owner of the Bell Buckle Country store and the couple who last year lost their home in the Nashville floods and have since been enveloped in love by this Bell Buckle community. “You’re one of us,” they are told. More importantly, they are shown.
* * *
It was on Nov. 30 that I received an e-mail from the First Lady of Bell Buckle, Tennessee, Carla Webb, wife of Mayor Dennis Webb and no relation to the founder of the prestigious Webb School, which resides in Bell Buckle and was the site of the tournament.
“We are a potent little place filled with caring people,” she wrote in part, asking if I’d want to join the town for its wheelchair basketball weekend.
I said absolutely yes, we made travel arrangements, and two months later I was on a plane.
Mayor Webb was there to greet me at Nashville International Airport, and immediately offered a gift basket full of Bell Buckle T-shirts (“What happens in Bell Buckle … beats you home.”), Bell Buckle jams and sauces, a Bell Buckle community cookbook and, of course, Moonpies.
A Vietnam veteran, Dave Orr, was driving, and the three of us talked about wars past and present for the one-hour trip southeast. Dave recalled returning from Vietnam to San Francisco and receiving a similar welcome home to that of so many of his fellow soldiers in the era: a drink in the face. He told the story as if he were remembering a recipe for barbecued pulled pork, without a hint of regret or resentment. He said he believes today’s soldiers have it worse, returning to Iraq or Afghanistan for multiple deployments before coming home to a country that sometimes seems to have forgotten it is at war.
There was not a trace of pretense in his voice. Only gratitude.
We pulled into Bell Buckle under the cloak of darkness, and drove up a long gravel driveway to the vacant guest house of Elijah and Kim Collard, where I would be spending my two nights. Elijah and Kim were gone for the weekend, picking up their newly adopted child, who would become Bell Buckle’s 464th. The guest house was as beautiful as it was immaculate. There was a new supply of food on the counter and in the fridge, an SUV in the driveway for my use, and a hand-written note on the kitchen table inviting me to make myself at home.
“Dave, Welcome to Tennessee and to Bell Buckle.”
* * *
The first traces of sun were just beginning to backlight the Tennessee hills when I walked out onto the front porch early Saturday morning, greeted by the distant welcome of cows and the postcard view of Bell Buckle farmland. Look … a home on that hilltop to the east, and another to the north, and to the south. And that was pretty much it, as far as the eyes could see. I was smitten already. I hoisted my gear into the SUV and headed the five miles west on Route 82 into town.
Then things started speeding up.
It was about 6:45 when I arrived at Webb School, where the tournament and my shooting would begin in a little more than an hour. There was the Mayor, and then his wife, Carla Webb. I would learn over the course of the day that Carla is not only the force behind most things Bell Buckle, volunteering 40 or so hours a week, but is also a former cop, model, actress, dancer and TV news reporter, and currently writes plays, plays her instruments by ear and teaches ballroom dancing at Webb. I’m leaving a million things out.
“I married over my head,” Mayor Webb must have told me a dozen times.
And every time, I answered, “That’s two of us.”
The Mayor and Carla introduced me around, to many of those who make the town’s incredible events tick, including members of this event’s host — the Bell Buckle Park Board.
I met Carla’s brothers, Doug and Carl, and Carl’s buddy (and potential future girlfriend?) Lara, who whaddya-know moved back to these parts, her original home, a couple weeks ago after 20-ish years in, that’s right, the only Henniker in the world — Henniker, NH. That’s about a half-hour from where I sit at this very moment.
We had breakfast, and then with Doug and Carl on rebound/assist duty, as the wheelchair tournament got rolling in the gym next door, we got to shooting. We began the day at 615,507 made foul shots, and the goal was to make 5,000 and land on 620,507 by day’s end.
* * *
Marc Decoteau is with us every day, his memorial dogtag around my neck and his memory serving as a beacon as we march toward 1 million made foul shots.
Saturday, he was even more present than usual.
It was last January 29, exactly one year to the day, that Army SPC Marc Decoteau, who grew up in Waterville Valley and played lacrosse and football on the Plymouth High fields, was killed while serving in Afghanistan at the age of 19. We met his incredible family less than a month after he died, and members of his detachment — 6th Battalion, 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne) — this past October. We consider their loss every day.
We were especially considering it on Saturday. And then, there he was.
We were rolling along — 3,232 … 3,233 … 3,234 … 3,235 — with Zach Akers and Jingzhe Cao under the hoop and Gunnar Peas handling the exchanges to my right, when a ball got loose. Probably my fault. It bounded off to my right, and when Jingzhe went to retrieve it, I looked his way, just for a moment. And that’s when Zach’s pass hit me squarely in the chest.
And when Marc’s dogtag came free of its chain and fell to the floor.
There’s no more to it than that. Just a simple reminder. His mom, Nancy, has alluded to the fact that I should be ready to hear from Marc every now and then — like the time last summer he guided that dogtag to the safety of a crevasse rather than the bottom of Pleasant Lake, or his help in lifting one single shot to the hoop at Boston Garden on New Year’s Eve — and on Saturday, it was literally true.
And there he was again. I picked up the dogtag and smiled.
* * *
By 11 a.m., we had 4,000 in the books, and it was time to go see the real basketball next door. By now, my buddy Gary Flanagan from Sevierville, Tenn., had arrived to lend his support. Gary paid us a rebounding visit in early November, just before embarking on his fundraiser for the Sgt. Dennis James Flanagan Foundation, honoring his nephew by driving through as many states as possible in one day. (Answer: 19 states. Don’t ask me how.) Gary, who as his wife says “has a little bigger playground than most,” made the three-and-a-half hour trip west to join us, and to expand that playground so as to include playing witness to some wheelchair basketball.
He was as blown away as I was.
Which leads me to this question: Have you seen wheelchair basketball? And this one: Have you seen it played well?
Put it this way: It seemed incredible to watch even before they sat me in one of those chairs and asked me to play in the exhibition game. Once I had the experience of competing — and looking like a complete fool in every conceivable aspect of the game — it really struck me how ridiculously skilled and athletic these men and women are.
In the five minutes I played against some of the varsity men and women from the University of Alabama (Yes, “Roll Tide” is an appropriate reference.), here was my contribution:
- I whined. “Are you guys really going to press?” I cried to one of the women who decided she simply wasn’t going to let me advance my chair up the court … at all.
- I reached up for a sure rebound, only to have it taken away from above from Jared Arambula, Carla’s nephew and the young man who single-handedly beat a team of five in last year’s exhibition. Yes, it’s true.
- I brought the ball up the court, once, and with nobody around me. It took me about half a day.
- I passed the ball to the other team.
- And in my one attempt to boldly show my scoring prowess, I fired up a shot from the right wing, about 14 feet away. The ball traveled about 10, wasn’t even in the same county as the rim, hit nothing but floor and bounced harmlessly out of bounds. It was about three levels short of horrible.
“A lot tougher than shooting them free throws, isn’t it,” the PA announcer mocked.
The game could have literally been 100-0, if the Alabama kids had decided to make it so.
Have a little taste, and a little contrast in skills, below …
* * *
The ladies from SHeDAISY were in the house.
If you haven’t heard SHeDAISY, it’s not too late, but it is necessary. They are three sisters — Kelsi, Kristyn and Kassidy Osborn — based in Nashville by way (originally) of Utah. Their eyes glisten. Their smiles illuminate a gymnasium. Their harmonies slay dragons — even the ones that breathe fire, I’ll bet.
I mean, Wow.
At some point, you’ll want to check out this video of their song “Come Home Soon,” a tribute to military families.
And for the folks of Bell Buckle, in addition to signing autographs for an hour or so, they performed the most perfect rendition of The Star Spangled Banner I have ever heard.
Yes, I am a musical imbecile, but I do know this: There is a very fine line between tasteful and disrespectful when you tinker with our national anthem. If you’ve got two additional minutes, check this version out — HERE — and see if you agree that this one landed precisely and brilliantly on that line.
After the anthem, and after the autographs, Kelsi, Kristyn and Kassidy were kind enough to walk next door and put their high heeled boots to the gym floor and rebound a few, then do one last signing, like so …
My gratitude, ladies, for the incredible harmonies, and for playing a role in 10 more hoops in the books.
Following those 10, we wrapped up our day’s work in the old gym quickly, then made our way back to the main court, aiming to complete our daily quota during halftime of the championship game. With a lot of help (and patience) by the cheerleaders and audience counting down to the end, we made the final 100 to get there … for a total of 620,507 down, 379,493 to go to 1 million made foul shots.
It was soon to be party time.
Two hours passed.
And there was a wild man on stage.
* * *
I cannot comprehend how one recovers from the loss of a child. When I think of how I would respond if —
You know, I can’t even bring myself to type the words.
Six summers ago, at nearby Tims Ford Lake, Bell Buckle lost one of its sons, 2-year-old Ward Anderson, in an accident that tore a hole clean through the town’s heart.
And then, the town got to the work of healing.
The first $20,000 was collected in the blink of an eye, and then another $20,000, and within a few months, in time for what would have been his third birthday on Oct. 28, 2005, Ward Anderson Playground was dedicated, including a life-sized statue of Ward, looking to the sky, and handprints of many of those who knew him cast into its base. Blue balloons, each carrying a tag with Ward’s photo, were released to the heavens.
If you close your eyes and go there now, you’ll see them, going up, and up, and up, turning into tiny blue dots in the massive expanse of sky, and finally disappearing from view …
And now, if you come forward through calendar pages, through all the tears that flowed on that October day and since, through all the hugs that have been shared on that playground, and now to children’s laughter as they run around that statue and swing on those swingsets and jump into their parents’ arms, look closely and it is there. The photo is there. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Maybe as close to perfection as two dimensions can get. That curly blond hair. That tight, toothy smile. Those translucent eyes. His left hand is raised, coming upward, toward his chin, for what? He’s about to speak, maybe, to tell you something, a secret. You lean in close.
What is it, Ward?
And then, it occurs that you know those eyes. You’ve seen that toothy smile and curly hair. You look up from your cake crumbs, and your glance swings past Gracelyn and her mom, beyond the Mayor and Carla, over the Alabama kids in their dancing wheelchairs, in front of the band, to the man whose hand is rising up, toward his chin, holding a microphone and practically blowing the roof off the Bell Buckle banquet hall as he testifies.
“Sweeeeeeeeet … emooooooooo-tion,” James Anderson sings.
And then, it begins to become clear. It is not Ward Anderson who has the secret to tell. It is his dad.
* * *
Picture the child.
The photo from six years ago, of the boy with the bright eyes and curly hair. The photo from last week, of the girl at the banquet hall table, licking a stranger’s paper plate clean. The photo that will be taken next summer, of Elijah and Kim Collard’s new child, Kaylyn Rose, giggling with friends at the Ward Anderson playground. Hold those photos up to the light, together, and look again. There is an authenticity about them. A perfection.
In each of those faces is the purity of faith. A child’s faith.
And now, as the noise level in the Bell Buckle banquet hall continues to rise, and as the dance floor continues to defy physics and support this mass of laughing, singing and dancing bodies, and as Gracelyn Howard is tickled to near-hysterics by her mom, the faith of those children is revealed in the face of James Anderson, as he gyrates and wails and kicks and contorts and smiles. From that stage, in this hall, on this night, in this central Tennessee town, the man who thought he would die from the anguish six summers ago is here to tell me this:
We can still love. We can still trust. We can open our arms. We can connect eye to eye. We can see strangers as friends, and maybe even lick their plates clean.
We can still have faith.
Faith is what allows Kelsi, Kristyn and Kassidy Osborn to pour their harmonies out into the world. Faith is what allows Carla Webb to paint and write plays and teach dance lessons to Webb School children. Faith is what allows men and women without the full use of their legs to provide breathtaking moments on the basketball court, and beyond. Faith is what allows the friends and family of Marc Decoteau to let the beauty of his life outweigh the pain of his death. Faith is what allows James Anderson, a buttoned-up investment broker by day, to button himself down by night, and to sing.
Despite all that has pulled us in the other direction in the years since being those very children, we can still have faith. We can still sing.
We can, and we must.
* * *
That faith, I suppose, is how The Beautiful Heth knew.
She knew there would be something special about Bell Buckle. When I called her from the Collard’s house on Saturday night to share the magic of the day, she was excited, but unsurprised. TBH is one of the most intuitive people I know, and this was no exception. She knew we’d be going back.
I’m already looking forward to that day — to seeing the Mayor and Carla and the Howards again, to thanking the Collards for their hospitality and meeting Kaylyn Rose, to seeing the town square by daylight, to introducing TBH, Noah, Mason and Rosie to this incredible Bell Buckle family. I want to walk the campus of Webb School. I want to buy Moonpies at the Bell Buckle Country Store. I want to see James Anderson and Speakeasy perform again.
I want to walk onto the Ward Anderson Playground and see the faithful smiles of the children, feel the faithful smile of my own.
Thank you, Bell Buckle.