It wasn’t about coffee

As I noted in a previous entry, I used to post good-grammar reminders on Facebook but stopped nearly a decade ago. Since then, I’ve avoided venting openly, despite regular fingernails-on-the-chalkboard reactions to frequent assaults on our mother tongue on Facebook and elsewhere.


I have tried to demonstrate good grammar in my FB posts and comments. When I could do so without being too obvious, I’ve slipped in a response that followed a rule of grammar violated in the original post.


For example, say the post was, “Today’s sunshine made it a nice day for Zelda and I.” After several other comments, I might enter, “It gave Nancy and me a chance to do some hiking.”


Then, in May of 2018, I came up with another way to demonstrate good grammar subtly. As with the pre-2014 posts, I had no illusions of educating anyone, and my entries most certainly were not directed at any individual. It was just a way to vent. Well, maybe I also wished it might be like hiding a pill in a piece of meat before giving it to a dog.


Unlike in an incident I described in another, unrelated post, I was trying to be “sneaky.” Using colorful backgrounds Facebook offers for short posts, I created a series of memes. The first read, “It’s never too late to have two cups of coffee.” There were a number of “likes” and an enjoyable discussion of the wonders of coffee.


But it wasn’t really about coffee. It was about “too,” “to” and “two.” “It’s never too late to have two cups of coffee.” These are among the homonyms that can confuse some people. This phrase showed all three used correctly.


I created the memes while having my morning coffee. So the invigorating brew was a natural subject. The next two also had coffee as a theme.


The second was “It’s time for coffee to work its magic,” demonstrating a difference between “it’s” and “its.”


(In an English-class assignment during my junior year in high school, I wrote an “it’s” that should have been an “its.” My teacher, one of the best I ever had, circled the error and wrote “Ouch!” in the margin. A teachable moment. Since then, when I see the mistake, I think “Ouch!”)


A few days later, I attacked the often confusing (for some) “you’re” vs. “your” with “Early starts can be difficult, but after a little coffee, you’re on your way.” See? You’re on your way.


In the comments, I was able to add a treatment of “they’re-their-there.” I noted, “Not too difficult, though, because I’m headed to 7 a.m. Bible study. Some don’t have coffee at home before they leave. They’re content to wait to have their first cup there at the church house.” (Italics inserted here.)


And then there’s always the apostrophe. Very useful but often misused. I had already addressed the it’s-its problem. Also troubling is that many people seem to think the letter S must always be preceded by an apostrophe.


The Carolina Hurricanes once had a goalie named Peters. In a Facebook discussion, I saw a fan insert an apostrophe before the last letter of his name. His name! More recently, on a Seinfeld-themed page, someone did the same in a reference to Michael Richards, the actor who played Kramer. “Richard’s” either means “belonging to Richard” or is a contraction of “Richard is” or, occasionally, “Richard has.”


One day I came up with a way to show the apostrophe’s proper use in a possessive and its proper absence from a plural: ” ‘Hey Jude’ was 1968’s top hit and one of the biggest for the 1960s.” It generated some discussion of music and memories associated with that song.


At another time — maybe a couple of times — I’ve posted, “If you visit the Bectons’ home, you may see two or three Bectons, and you might get to hear Daniel Becton’s music.”


I don’t know if the subliminal messages about grammar registered in anyone’s subconscious. I’m sure the number would be between zero and “pretty small.” Likely closer to zero. But in any case, thinking up the posts was fun and a worthwhile mental exercise for me.


Hold onto your hats. Chances are you’re going to see more of these nuggets later in the 2020s. They’re forming in my mind, and I won’t want them to stay there.

Memories of a friend

The word “unique” gets tossed about too casually. Often it is used incorrectly. It means “one of a kind.” Thus the word takes no modifiers. Not “most unique,” “somewhat unique” or “very unique.” Just “unique.” Many times the appropriate word is “distinctive,” which refers to someone or some thing that is quite special and rare, but allows that there may be a few others with similar characteristics.

I am about to tell you about a unique individual.

When I relocated to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1965 to enter the University of North Carolina, I became involved in the Baptist Student Union (BSU). One of the regulars was a guy named Bill Colclough. He was older — how much, I was to learn, was part of a delightful, on-going mythology. He had graduated in some previous year and immediately began working on his master’s degree in summer sessions while teaching school. After completing his graduate degree, he continued taking classes. More on that in a minute.

I think my introduction to the myth came one evening at BSU when we were singing songs from mimeographed sheets. When we got to “Too Old to Cut the Mustard Any More,” it was dedicated to Bill. He smiled appreciatively and waved his arm as if to direct while we sang.

Yet while the myth — enjoyed by no one more than Bill — was that he was ancient, the reality was that he seemed ageless. He was at home in each generation of college student. He seemed never too shocked by current trends and was not judgmental. He was accepting of his friends and genuinely interested in them. I’m sure these qualities contributed to his success as a teacher and guidance counselor.

One memory illustrates his subtle wit and his proclivity not to say anything bad about anyone, as well as his perceptiveness. A past mutual acquaintance, a guy prone to affecting an air of wisdom, came up in a conversation one time. “As I recall,” Bill commented, “he was studying to be an intellectual.”

I witnessed these characteristics through the BSU community for many years. And then there were all those decades of courses.

Sometime, maybe in the early ’90s, I was in a gathering of BSU alums. We were introducing ourselves. I said I graduated in ’69. Others similarly said, ’72, ’80 or whatever their class year was. When it was Bill’s turn, he said slyly, “I graduated in June.” In a sense, though, he was a member of each class.

As long as possible, Bill’s summer break featured attending both summer sessions at UNC. Eventually, the shifting schedule limited him to only one session. He was a little disappointed. After he retired, he moved to fall and spring semesters, taking one class in each. He chose from among courses offered on Tuesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. or later. Most, if not all, were in history, his undergrad major, or English. There are few courses in either department that he never took, and I think that in time he may have revisited some.

Bill attended each year’s graduation ceremonies, as well as other commencement weekend events. One of those was the “Friday Frolic,” at which each reunioning class had its own tent. Bill dropped in to most or all. He once told me about running into a young woman who remembered him from a class or two they had shared. Though she was with her classmates, Bill was the only person there she knew.

This ability to relate to college students continued the rest of his life. In recent years, he had gotten to know some students at his church who eventually made him a member of their fraternity.

Many years into our friendship, Bill told me the actual year he graduated. It would be inappropriate for me to divulge that, but I will say, it was later than the 1910s. Still there is the myth. . . .

One evening in the early ’70s, a group of us were at a UNC baseball game in the then-new Cary Boshamer Stadium. Mr. Boshamer himself was there. When he was recognized, it was noted that he was of the Class of 1917. We all turned and looked at Bill. He smiled, nodded and said, “I remember him well.”

Bill often attended UNC games and various other campus activities. He rarely missed a football or men’s basketball game. I dare say he is the only person who was an enrolled student in the years of all six of the Tar Heels men’s basketball NCAA championships.

My wife and I saw Bill at so many events on campus, we grew to assume he always would be there. That tapered off some in more recent years, but it still seemed that he was always around. It will take time for me to stop assuming he’ll always be there.

Bill’s email address referred to him as “Wild Bill.” This was wonderfully ironic. He was a gentle man, who walked the straight and narrow, albeit with a sharp wit. Each email included a header that said something like: “A message from the past.” The default signature was: “Your best friend, Bill.” I’m sure he intended both to be humorous, though there was a lot of truth in the latter. Taken together, they present the myth and the man.

Famous guests

On rare occasion over the years, I have had a chance to meet someone we would consider “famous.” When I was growing up in West Asheville, we even had “famous” people come to our house, not once but twice.

The first time was when I was about 8 or 9. My father was a veterinarian who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One evening, an older lady came by our house to get some papers signed. Something about selling some goats.

As soon as she came in, my father walked her to the book case and said, “See, we have your husband’s books.” I was confused. Why did we have his books? Had he given them to us? I knew to be seen but not heard and gave the matter little thought for several years.

It was only as a college student, appearing in a production of “The World of Carl Sandburg,” that I realized that had been Mrs. Sandburg at our house. The books were Carl Sandburg’s four-volume “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.”

The other celebrity guests visited during the summer after my first year in college. The Chuck Wagon Gang was in town for a concert. My brother Benjamin was active in their fan club. The group was to have dinner at the home of the club’s president, a friend who lived nearby. Benjamin and I were invited to the dinner, and he arranged for the two of us to drive them from the hotel to our friend’s home — by way of a brief stop at our house to say hello to our parents.

On rare occasion over the years, I have had a chance to meet someone we would consider “famous.” When I was growing up in West Asheville, we even had “famous” people come to our house, not once but twice.

The first time was when I was about 8 or 9. My father was a veterinarian who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One evening, an older lady came by our house to get some papers signed. Something about selling some goats.

As soon as she came in, my father walked her to the book case and said, “See, we have your husband’s books.” I was confused. Why did we have his books? Had he given them to us? I knew to be seen but not heard and gave the matter little thought for several years.

It was only as a college student, appearing in a production of “The World of Carl Sandburg,” that I realized that had been Mrs. Sandburg at our house. The books were Carl Sandburg’s four-volume “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years.”

The other celebrity guests visited during the summer after my first year in college. The Chuck Wagon Gang was in town for a concert. My brother Benjamin was active in their fan club. The group was to have dinner at the home of the club’s president, a friend who lived nearby. Benjamin and I were invited to the dinner, and he arranged for the two of us to drive them from the hotel to our friend’s home — by way of a brief stop at our house to say hello to our parents.

Members of the CWG on our front steps with my parents and me (in vest).