I heard the sad news last week that Charley Pride, one of my all-time favorite singers, passed away. Not only did he have a voice like no other, but he broke many barriers in the field of country music, and paved the way for other black entertainers like him to become leaders in this genre.
Growing up, we listened to Charley Pride on our long, six-hour trips to my grandparents’ house. Some of my favorite songs on the 8-track tapes were “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” and of course, “Roll on Mississippi,” which was used at the beginning of the film “Tom Sawyer.” (You may or may not know that at one point in my life, I wanted to travel on a steamboat up and down the Mississippi River and write books about the South, a not-so-well-thought-out dream rooted and inspired by that movie and song).
As I try to gain some perspective, I think what strikes me most about the news of Charley Pride’s death, is the connection his music gives me to another time and place. His songs always carry me back to my childhood, along with memories of my dad, and the time our family saw Mr. Pride in person at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
Just as the winter wind causes a lone leaf to fall from a tree, and dance across the yard, my thoughts of Charley Pride songs drift into other memories of music, and how it has shaped my life.
I believe more than anything else, songs can connect us in ways that give meaning to our past, present, and future, and certain words and melodies provide the perfect soundtrack for our lives.
For me, one such song is Willie Nelson’s version of “Rainbow Connection.” Willie is another singer I began listening to at a very young age and the 8-track tape we heard most often on car trips was “Red Headed Stranger.” I didn’t fully understand the greatness of this album until years later—the fact that every song was part of a story about this stranger with red hair.
I know many people don’t like Willie because of his politics or penchant for weed, but whether you’re a fan of his or not, it’s undeniable that he has one of the purest, most iconic voices ever known to man.
“Rainbow Connection,” has been revived in the last month in what is without a doubt the best holiday commercial of 2020 (if not ever). I’m sure you’ve heard it. As often happens when commercials come on, I hear them more than see them. It seems I’m always in the other room, or doing chores while the television is on in the background.
I heard this song, (which absolutely melts my heart), a number of times before I actually watched the commercial. When I finally saw it, I cried. In about thirty seconds, Kohl’s holiday commercial sums up this past year in the most epic, beautiful way.
If I had to come up with one word that sums up 2020, it would be “Connections.” During this time of social isolation and distancing, people have longed for a connection to others, and the Kohl’s commercial so perfectly illustrates this need we have to reach out to others, to be a part of something, to not feel alone.
In a time of instant access to communication, it has been more difficult than ever to feel connected. We are shut off, shutdown, and shut-in. The word “virtual” describes how many people and businesses communicate. Holidays have changed, and everyday, run-of-the-mill, boring aspects of our lives have also been inconvenienced. If I have learned anything through the trials and hardships of the Year of the Pandemic, it’s that we all need to make an effort to reach out to other people.
And that lesson has reminded me of an experience I was part of several years ago. A story about a simple connection that became a life-changing day.
In 2012, my husband accepted a job as the assistant principal at West Rusk High School. This is a school where he had previously worked for 16 years (1988-2004).
In the fall of 2012 in his new position, Brian met an exceptional young man named Francisco, better known as “Fran” by everyone who knew him and adored him.
Fran was one of the managers of the WR football team, and a huge fan of the Texas Aggies. He was sweet, and kind, and had such a positive spirit and love for everyone and everything.
Things didn’t come easy for Fran. You see, he was confined to a wheelchair, and lived every day knowing that his days were numbered due to a terminal illness.
Fran NEVER made excuses. He never looked at himself as disabled. He used every day to bless others with his warm smile and relentless spirit.
Brian and Fran became instant friends when Fran discovered Brian was an A&M fan. They often had conversations about Aggie football, and Fran revealed that his favorite football player was Johnny Football.
One day Fran came to see Brian, and handed him a letter that he had written to Johnny Manziel, who was at that time the red-shirt freshman quarterback who seemed to come out of nowhere, rocking the world of college football. Fran knew that our boys were both at A&M, and they knew Johnny. As he gave the letter to Brian, his wish was that it would be given to our boys who would get it to Johnny.
This was in November, and by this point, Johnny had gained national attention. There was even buzz of a possible Heisman nomination. Brian brought the letter home, and we both wondered how in the world we would pull this off. We decided the fastest way to get the letter to Johnny was to take a picture of it and send it to Charles, who would then be able to get it to Johnny Football.
We called Charles, told him what was going on, and he said, “Send it, and I’ll DM Johnny on twitter.” We took a picture of the letter, and also of the photo Fran included of himself dressed in his WR Raider jersey on the sidelines during a football game.
Charles gave a little background information when he sent the letter to Johnny, and we were simply praying Manziel would at least respond so we could tell Fran that he received the letter.
Boy, were we surprised when Johnny immediately sent Charles a text, and said, “Man, that’s cool. Thanks for sending it to me. I’ll have to autograph a football for him!” And that was the beginning of what led to one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had the honor of being a part of.
We never expected this kind of reaction, and as we were talking about it, and figuring out how/when we would get the football to Fran, Brian said, “I wish we could get Fran down to a game.” Again, this was November, and there was only one home game left on the schedule: November 24th against Missouri.
Normally, it wouldn’t be that difficult to find tickets. We knew that Fran’s teacher, Joshua Conway, would love to go with him because he was also a graduate of TAMU. The problem was we would have to find tickets that were in an area with wheelchair access.
As we discussed the obstacles to this plan, we almost gave up because it was going to require a lot of footwork and jumping through hoops. But then we remembered who this was for, and it was no longer just a plan. It became a mission.
Brian said, “I wish we could contact someone higher up, and tell them Fran’s story. Show them his letter. They might do something special. I just don’t know who to contact.”
Our oldest son, Christopher, was working as a graduate assistant with the A&M basketball team, and he said that we should start with the Athletic Director. He gave Brian the email address. Again, we were having doubts as to whether or not this had even the slightest chance of working out. I finally said, “All he can say is no.”
So the next morning, Brian sent an email to Eric Hyman. Imagine Brian’s excitement when he received a response, and was connected to a man named Jeff who would work out all the details.
There was an enormous amount of time that Brian put forward into this endeavor, but he was motivated and energized when he thought about how much joy this would bring to such an outstanding young man. When everything was finalized, Fran was told about the game, and his parents were thrilled he would have this experience.
So on a beautiful Saturday in November, we set out for Aggieland. Brian, Joshua, and Fran rode together in Brian’s truck, and I tagged along with my brother Greg, and his wife Melissa. We wanted to get there early so Fran could have the full “game day” experience.
We tailgated and ate fajitas with all the fixings. We then met up with Jeff, who included Fran and Joshua in the Spirit Walk, which is where the A&M players walk through campus before they go to the locker room to prepare for the game.
After the Spirit Walk, we were all taken into Kyle Field. At that time, the wheelchair access seating was several rows of bleachers which were located behind the goal post on the south end of the football field. Brian and I were able to go down on the field before the game, and enjoyed watching the team warm up.
The day couldn’t have been better! Clear blue skies, not too cold, the sun was shining, and Fran was in heaven. The team was wrapping up their warm-up time and we were about to head up to actual heaven (our seats at that time were located near the top of Kyle Field on the third deck). As we were leaving the field, Joshua was pushing Fran’s wheelchair toward their seats, when we saw Johnny coming off the field.
As he jogged by us, Fran yelled out in his quiet voice, “Hey, Johnny!!”
And then it happened. Johnny Manziel, who two weeks later would receive the highest honor in NCAA football, the Heisman trophy, spun around and waved at Fran. As soon as he reacted to hearing his name, I saw the connection…
Johnny recognized Fran from the picture that Charles sent him. And that’s when he headed over to Fran, kneeled down beside him, and began to talk to him. We were about to take a picture and he said, “Wait a minute. Hey, Swope, come here!”
And then one of Johnny’s favorite receivers, Ryan Swope, came over and posed on the other side of Fran. Of course, my eyes were filled with tears, and I knew that there was a higher power involved in all of this. It was honestly one of the most precious moments I’ve ever experienced.
And not only did we capture that once in a lifetime photo opportunity, someone from ESPN did too. During the game, our phones began blowing up with people texting us saying they saw the picture of Fran, Johnny Manziel, and Ryan Swope on television.
A&M went on to win the game, but that wasn’t the end of the excitement for Fran. He was invited into the Bright Complex, which was where the Aggie locker room was located. There, he met Coach Sumlin, and many of the players.
And Johnny came through with the autographed football. He gave it to Charles, who brought it home over the Thanksgiving break. The ball was waiting for Fran when he was picked up early that morning, and he said, “This is the best thing ever!” Little did he know, that mere hours later, he would actually meet Johnny Football.
As fun as the day was for Fran, it was equally exhausting. When he had been lifted out of his chair and placed in the backseat, they began the journey home. Fran was quiet for just a moment, but right before he fell asleep he said, “This was the best day ever.”
And it all began because a young man named Fran decided to take a chance and reach out to someone he admired through a letter.
And then the letter was given to Johnny, and Brian took a chance, and reached out to a stranger, to ask if there was any possible way this special young man could come to an Aggie football game.
And the athletic director, in turn, connected Brian with a guy named Jeff, who coordinated an entire game day experience for Fran.
And then Johnny recognized and made the connection with Fran, and a young man’s dream was fulfilled.
All because people took a chance, reached out, and made connections.
Just a few years ago, Fran passed away. We all knew the end was near, and Brian went to visit him in the hospital. Fran was extremely weak, but as Brian held his hand he whispered, “Johnny Football. Best day ever.”
Life is hard, sad, difficult, and at times completely unfair. But it’s also beautiful.
It’s not our circumstances, and situations, and difficulties that we remember in our last days. It’s not the hardships, and trials, and triumphs. It’s the people who were there for us during those times. The ones who stuck with us, and stood by our side, and smiled, and believed, and encouraged. The ones who picked us up and carried us when we were weary. The ones who were selfless, and whose hearts guided their actions. The ones who made those rainbow connections…
This year, I’ve learned something new about rainbows. I’ve always thought of them as a sign, or symbol that everything is going to be okay. The rainbow AFTER the storm.
On April 9, 2020, my grandson was born in San Antonio. We couldn’t be in the hospital due to COVID, but we drove down and were in the city in case we were needed.
After Cooper arrived, Brian and I went out to pick up something to eat. As we were driving back to the hotel, I spotted a double rainbow. I had a funny feeling as I gazed at the colors. It wasn’t my normal thought that this symbolized the calm after the storm. I was in awe of its beauty, took a picture of it, and simply viewed it as a celebration of Cooper’s birth.
And then five hours later, I was abruptly awakened from a deep sleep by my phone, and the voice on the other end was my son’s. He told us that Cooper had been taken to NICU. Charles wasn’t allowed in, and he was scared and worried out of his mind. I asked if he needed us to come get him, or meet him in the parking lot, and through his tears he said he would be okay.
Of course Brian and I felt helpless. And scared. And worried. Thankfully, an hour later, Charles called and said that Cooper was doing much better. Since he arrived three weeks early, they just wanted to strengthen his lungs. We were so thankful for the news, and knew we were beyond blessed.
And then I thought of that double rainbow. The one that I didn’t understand because life was good and we weren’t in the middle of any kind of storm…
And I realized, God was telling us ahead of time, “It’s going to be okay. I’ve got this. I promise.”
Sometimes we get the rainbow BEFORE the storm as a reminder to remain faithful. To keep believing. To never doubt or give up.
Oh, what an important lesson to learn! To know that we are always connected and protected by the love of God.
“Who said that every wish
Would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning star.
Somebody thought of that,
And someone believed it,
And look what it’s done so far.
What’s so amazing,
That keeps us star-gazing,
What so we think we might see.
Someday we’ll find it
That Rainbow Connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.”
During this week, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, I am thankful for frogs, and football, Charley Pride, Fran, wonderful memories, my family, and friends, connections, and rainbows.
I hope that if you need to connect, or reconnect with someone, you will make the effort.
Maybe this won’t be a physical meeting. Maybe the connection needs to be made in your heart and your mind. In a time of division, and separation, and misunderstandings, and differences in politics, and views, and beliefs, and outcomes, and hopes, and dreams, maybe that connection needs to be inside each of us. Maybe we need to find a way to understand those who think differently. Maybe we need to walk around in their shoes, see things from their point of view.
Maybe we need to build bridges, and find a way to meet others halfway.
That love and only love can join the trials of man.
I would give my hearts’ desire so that you might see,
The first step is to realize that it all begins with you and me.
Between your heart and mine.
Love can build a bridge
Don’t you think it’s time?”