The other day I was looking through a hardbound copy of old newspapers – that’s the way they were saved for history’s sake before microfilm and digital archiving came about – trying to help a fellow find information on an old Air Force buddy he lost touch with.
I thumbed through the dusty pages, amazed they could still put ink on my fingers (or it may have just been grime), when I spied a picture of my old friend Grady Wacaster, one the most interesting men I’ve met to date.
Grady, who said goodbye and entered the next realm in 2003 at the age of 68, was a veteran of three branches of the military, a former mailman, a guitar picker, an unsuccessful politician, a civic club president, an elementary school teacher, a prison warden and later a criminal justice reformer of some renown who sometimes kept a gun in his pocket in case he needed it.
The picture in the paper I happened upon showed Grady holding a guitar, with two kids grinning beside him as he entertained at a public library children’s program. I am sure he was packing heat in case trouble broke out during snack time.
Grady and his wife Barbara lived in a house on Spooky Hollow Road south of Marion, North Carolina that some may have called cluttered but I thought of as lived-in and full of treasures. On the other side of the driveway, opposite the pond, was a singlewide mobile home that served as Grady’s office, full of papers and notes and books and manuscripts in the works.
Grady’s efforts in the field of criminal justice reform caught the attention of The New York Times in 1989.
“Prison can be a dumb solution” read the headline of an article written by Ann Crittenden, which detailed Grady’s plan of tough, structured alternative sentencing for some offenders.
“In five years, Grady Wacaster's group has devised such sentences for some 100 people, and only about 20 have ended up behind bars, most of them for technical violations such as getting drunk,” reads the article.
When I got to know Grady two or three years after that article was published I was a young reporter, 30 years his junior and happy to hear about whatever adventure he was embarking on next.
“Come on down to the house,” he’d say on phone. “We’ll talk and eat some lunch.”
“We’ll talk” meant listen to Grady and “eat some lunch” meant endure whatever god-awful food concoction he came up with that day. While Barbara was at work, Grady was on his own for the midday meal.
“You like ’nanner sandwiches, don’t you?” he said once.
“Oh yeah,” I answered.
He then produced some of the most rotten bananas I had ever seen this side of a Dumpster, began slicing the mush with a butter knife, took some mayonnaise out of the refrigerator and smeared the concoction on pieces of white break.
I tried to sneak mine to the dog, but even he wouldn’t go for it.
On another occasion, he announced, “We’re having weenies.”
I heard him banging in the kitchen and then he came back out on the porch and launched into another tale as we overlooked his Spooky Hollow spread. A while later, I caught the whiff of flaming hot dogs.
He went back to the kitchen – bang, bang, bang – then emerged with two plates, both containing pork and beans, a piece of white bread and two black, shriveled hot dogs oven-broiled nearly beyond recognition. The only part not burned was about the size of a pencil lead in the middle from end to end.
Still, the stories out there on the porch over the years were worth any gut-wrenching culinary horror I faced.
On the day I found Grady’s picture, I did not find anything on the Air Force buddy of the fellow who contacted me, but I am going to keep looking.
We all need to remember our old friends from time to time.
Scott Hollifield is editor/GM of The McDowell News in Marion, NC and a humor columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.