“Serendipity And Sheep” | Blog #15

“Serendipity And Sheep” | Blog #15

Picture gallery at the bottom of the blog!

Saturday broke beautiful and sunny on the lake. It was gloriously cool siting out on the porch sipping hot tea. Anne Mahone had a career as a Delta flight attendant, so the hospitality was impeccable. I hated saying goodbye, but I wanted to spend a little time at a small museum in Taccoa, GA, just 15 miles west of where they are on the lake. One of our WPC members, Ben Folk (who had pitched for UGA back in the day) had contacted a HS & UGA fraternity buddy whose own son had pitched for UGA and the friend reached out to me with a ticket to the Saturday VandyBoy v Dawg middle game, so I wanted to get back down to Athens. My problem was the Taccoa museum – the Currahee Military Museum – dedicated to telling the story of the “Band of Brothers” (and other paratroopers who trained there in WWII) only opened at 10:00am and I needed to be in Athens noonish. Undaunted, I got to Taccoa and found the museum shortly after it opened, toured it quickly and appreciatively, and got back on the road arriving in Athens on time. Or so I thought!

Nearing Foley Field, as I drove through UGA’s campus, I had to drive slowly. The roads were clogged with students in academic regalia and proud families traveling in their wake. But they wore doctoral robes. I knew UGA’s graduation was next weekend – as WPC member Matthew Ikard is scheduled to graduate – but then I realized as I drove past the Vet School that they were likely newly minted vets. Parking and walking up to the entry went smoothly and I was surprised at how empty it was. When I had checked the Vandy web site the night before it stated that the game was at 1:00. Always liking to get to the ballpark early, I was there at 12:15 only to be told the gates didn’t open until “an hour before the game.” Hadn’t realized the VandyBoys site had listed game-time in Central time instead of Eastern. It gave me a chance to rest and relax in the sunshine…the lone Vandy fan in a growing sea of red and black UGA faithful. 

The growing crowd was more active than the fans I’d seen the night before. It quickly became obvious that there was excitement growing along with the crowd. The growing enthusiasm was a shirt give-away. Initially I thought it would be a tee-shirt, but through the buzz I kept hearing “cool Hawaiian shirt” and queues began forming at 12:30. Right at 1:00 we were scanned in (in a much more efficient way than at the Hawk!) and got my shirt for Ben Folk. The tickets his friend had gotten me was not just a ticket. It was in the Press Club. It’s been a while since I watched a match in such rarified air. Not since I used to go to the Braves NLC and World Series games in the early ‘90’s had a such seats. But the seat – first row, covered, upper deck next to the press box just up the first base line from home plate – also came with lunch, snacks, and drinks. Talk about serendipity! Of course, this is where the hard-core, former UGA athletes, big supporters, and player families congregate, so I did the only gracious thing I could think of and stuffed my Vandy hat down my jacket sleeve and vow to cheer silently in my heart. Ben’s friend, Tom, caught up with me after the game began and it was a delight to get to know him. A banker in Athens, Tom and I found out we had several connections, and the afternoon flew by.

One of the things we found out we had in common was being at the ’92 Braves v Pirates National League Championship game #7 where Sid Bream slid home to beat Barry Bonds’ throw to win the pennant and go to the World Series. I was there and stayed to the improbable, glorious, end. I can’t remember how I got there. Rick Castleberry had invited me and Jim Simmons, but I think we got down there separately. But I remember how we got home: the three of us driving in Jim’s Miata with the top down in a very chilly October night. Last September I went to see the Braves for the first time in their new ballpark near Marietta. I remember the old Fulton County Stadium and, later, Turner Field, but this was the first time of seeing the new park. It was a middle game against the Phillies late in the season (they went on to clinch the next night on the way to their World Series victory), and one of the surprises was the Braves memorabilia they have around the ballpark…including Sid Bream’s knee brace, the one he wore the night of his famous slide.

It was fun remembering that night and thinking about Jim Simmons being with me. Of course, that wasn’t the only memorable sports moment we had together. On the bedside table of the guest room, he had placed a photo from that day, June 17, 1994. It was the opening game of the ’94 World Cup, hosted here in the USA for the first time. I’ve been deeply involved with soccer since the early ’70’s and even went to the ’82 World Cup in Spain with my high school buddy John Krupka. In early ’94 I had taken a call to First Presbyterian, Libertyville, IL, a great church on the north side of Chicago just west of Lake Forest. Early on I went to a dinner one of the folks on the search committee put on so I could meet other members of the church. I already had arranged to have time off in June-July to see World Cup matches in Boston with Johnny, as he was working in Newport, RI, but I asked, hopefully, whether anyone at the dinner might know how I could get two or three tickets to the opening match of the World Cup that was to be held in Chicago’s Soldier Field on June 17. “How many do you need?” one man asked, “two or three.” “Well, two would be better than three, if possible.” So that’s how three of us, Jim Simmons, Johnny Krupka, and I found ourselves 20 rows above mid-field for the opening match between defending champions, Germany, and Bolivia, courtesy of Ron Whaley, who, I’d learn, was CFO of Solo Cup. Our seats were so good that when we turned around Pele and President Clinton were 20 rows above us. Jim put the photo I took of Johnny Krupka and him at the match that day. 

I left the ballgame while Vandy still had a slim lead to drive back to Alpharetta to stay with Phil and Mary Jo Busman at their Cherith Brook farm. Some of my oldest friends from Alpharetta, I met them within weeks of taking the field. Michiganders, they had moved down for Phil to help a Reformed Church of America New Church Development in nearby Roswell. The NCD pastor had been much influenced by Robert Schuller and that slick style caused conflict with Phil, who was in his second year at Western Seminary in Holland, MI. Meanwhile, Mary, who has an angelic soprano voice, started teaching music, and became pregnant. So, Phil got a job installing Toro water systems in golf courses and they decided to stay. They ultimately bought a small, derelict farm about 6 miles north of Alpharetta. It had s small house that needed a lot of work and about 5 acres with a barn. I had finally purchased my home on an acre of property. One day were talking and commiserating how long the mowing upkeep took us each week, me with a push mower and he with a small riding lawn mower. Phil had already started raising rabbits and chickens on the “farm” and was considering goats to keep up the pasture, as some of his neighbors had. Maybe its due to the Matthew 25 parable of the “Sheep and the Goats” or, more likely, because some of my Welsh relatives keep sheep (one runs 1,200 head of Welsh Mountain Sheep) but I convinced Phil that if he’d consider sheep, I’d go in with him and get his riding lawn mower in the deal. This would have been in ’87 or ’88! We did research, bought movable electric fence, sunk posts, and finally selected a starter flock of a ram and two ewes. They were glorious, full-blood Romney sheep, an English lowland breed. They were large and hearty and after a time, lambs came. Over the years since, Phil has changed the variety – the Romney’s don’t tolerate the heat so well – and we even had a small flock of black Welsh Mountain that we bought out of singer, Kenny Rogers, flock. 

It was so fun to be back on the farm. Early in ministry, when my blood pressure was high from the challenges of ministry, I’d go out and put a foot on the rail post and just watch the sheep. He has a flock for 8 now that are a Cotswold/Tunis cross and can take the heat. A few years ago Phil retired early and now runs a very successful CSA (Community Supports Agriculture) farm on part of the property. They had church friends over for me to meet and we reminisced about the old days of APC and the success of the music ministry under Mary’s direction. Being at their farm brought back so many blessed memories and I went to bed thanking God for the gift of friends in faith and shared memories that stretch back for more than half of my life. Plus, it was great going to bed and hearing the sheep in the fields again.