A man named Huckleberry


My father called me Huckleberry.
It was probably because I was a tow-haired little man, always getting into trouble, never slowing down and never, ever stopping talking. The nickname was a father’s show of love, but I always hated it. To me, Huckleberry was another word for “yokel” or “hilljack.” I was simply too insecure or took myself way too seriously to accept my dad’s gift. So I took Huckleberry and buried it deeply, like a painful childhood memory.

When you hike the Appalachian Trail, everyone takes on a new identity. You trade in Steve or Mark or Evelyn for a trail name. You could be Firegod for nearly burning down a lean-to at dinnertime. Perhaps you are Sticks because you’re always carrying twigs as fuel for your Emberlit stove. You might become Hotpants for catching your clothing on fire while drying it after a downpour. Or you are Crusty Tissues — even I don’t want to hear that story. Maybe you’re Oklahoma because you come from … OK, you get the point.

Most hikers I have met who are walking all the way from Maine to Georgia (or Georgia to Maine) frown on those who name themselves. “That’s not how it’s done,” a guy named Kick-it said. “You cannot pick your own name.” I am one of those people who broke that rule, and try as they might, I’m not giving back Huckleberry Finch.

On Father’s Day 2012, my family took my dad an Indiana University flag stitched by his wife, Jane. She had given me this wall hanging so I could have it autographed by IU basketball legends gathered for a reunion in Indianapolis. My father grew up a Cleveland Indians fan who traded in his childhood team for the Reds when we lived north of Cincinnati in the 1980s, and he stopped following baseball when Pete Rose was banned for life. Dad loved the Cleveland Browns as a kid but became a Jacksonville Jaguars diehard when he and my mom became season ticket holders during the franchise’s first eight seasons in their adopted hometown.

Only one team was a lifelong sports obsession: his alma mater, Indiana University. Dad loved IU basketball and IU football. No other sports came close. On his Father’s Day flag were the signatures of Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight, then-New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson, Big Ten scoring king Calbert Cheaney, Jay Edwards, Steve Downing, Ted Kitchel and scores of other Hoosiers legends. I was the proud son that day.

When we brought Dad his flag for his room at the Alzheimer’s care facility — where he would be evicted within the month for having the audacity to actually exhibit Alzheimer’s symptoms — he did not seem to care or notice his gift. All my father could see was my 8-year-old son, Forrest. As my wife, my daughter and I spoke to him, my father stared past us and beamed at Forrest, who is the spitting image of his old man. (Let’s hope he grows out of that 🙂 )

We could tell that our boy was unnerved by the attention. “Do you know why Grandpa kept staring at you, Forrest?” my wife, Shanna, asked. He shrugged. “He thinks you are Huckleberry.” My children had no idea my father had ever called me such a name, and they wouldn’t unless they’d overheard him say it — no, that’s not right — he would sing it to me when he saw me. “Huckleberr-eeeeeeeeeeee!” In my 40s, I still hated that stupid nickname.

Three months later, my father died at a nursing home in another town. After family and friends came and went and after Dad’s funeral, life returned to normal. The kids had to get back to school, and we had to get back to living. Monday morning, I walked Forrest to the door to catch the school bus. After I kissed him goodbye, he stopped and quickly turned. “Have a great day, Huckleberry!” he said. I hugged him so hard, this wise little man who had just said the sweetest sentence I’d ever heard. When I let go, he had a huge grin. “I’m Huckleberry 2.0!”

As a hiking rookie, I try to limit my mistakes. I attempt to leave no trace, packing out all my trash and picking up after others where I can. I stick to approved campsites. I do what I can to be a good citizen of the hiker community. I have broken one rule, violated one protocol: I named myself. I took a name I once hated and finally — after 40some years — embraced it. I paired another of my favorite figures in literature, Ol’ Atticus Finch, with Huckleberry Finn. And now whenever someone calls me Huckleberry, I think of my dad.

I miss so much when I am out in the woods. I long for a shower, a steak, clean clothes, a beer. I dream of tacos and friends and family, movies and books, my Chicago Cubs. But besides my children, there is nothing in this universe I miss more than my dad. He was quite simply one helluva good man.

My father called me Huckleberry.

The wild, the magnificent and the no-street shuffle

I should sleep. But I can’t. In the morning, I  begin my southbound hike of the Appalachian Trail. No biggie, right?

My first 12 1/2 miles today are to the top and of Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin. The magnificent. (Apologies to Springsteen for twisting my blog post title to squeeze out a cheesy rock ‘n’ roll reference.)

Day 2 should be a leisurely 13-mile hike to the border of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Then it gets really wild.

Eight or nine or 10 days with nothing but the black flies, deer flies, mosquitoes, ticks and other AT hikers. No cellphone service, no roads, no McDonalds. It will certainly be interesting.

Check back in a week and a half for my next post in which I will tell you all about my trail name. Why did I choose Huckleberry Finch?

A walk in the woods

On Oct. 13, 1992, an American hero became a national punch line with his awkward introduction as H. Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate. Two decades later, as I watched my life collapsing around me, Admiral James Stockdale’s “Who am I? Why am I here?” from that debate hit me like a punch to the gut. A man who had spent a lifetime in service to his nation was mocked by millions for a bumbling few moments on national television.

What would have qualified as the worst moment in many a person’s life might have cost Stockdale and Perot the White House, but it did not defeat the career Navy officer. This was a man who had faced real adversity, enduring nearly eight years of torture and isolation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

How had he done it? Stockdale once said: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confirm the brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

My current reality: I am getting divorced. No, not locked in a 3-foot-by-9-foot cell thousands of miles from home, alone and restrained by leg irons. I was at home with my loving children, yet I was still paralyzed by my situation. I simply could not get off the couch and face life.

As a student teacher and aide in schools, I had been Mr. Positive, the guy who wouldn’t let my kiddos quit. “Indomitable,” in fact, had become my second-graders’ mantra. I had pushed and pep-talked and preached to these children in three urban school districts — some with parents in jail or siblings who’d been murdered, others who were years behind their grade level and quickly checking out — to never give in. And here I was, facing a setback, staring a challenge in the face and cowering. I felt like a failure, a hypocrite.

With two young children of my own, I could not quit. So I made a decision: I needed a jolt to get back on my feet, an adventure to put me back on the right path. I had to act and stop reacting. I would hike the Appalachian Trail and show myself, my children and students I’d met and those I’d yet to meet that you cannot quit.

Before my children, my father was the person to keep me honest. He was the one man I did not want to ever let down. My father taught us about life, treating people right and giving our best in whatever we do. Not a day went by when we were with him that he did not tell me and my siblings that we were loved.

And like Admiral Stockdale, my father died of Alzheimer’s disease. My seemingly selfish decision to leave my children for six months and focus solely on myself and my life, I knew, had to be balanced by something positive. I will walk these 2,200 miles in my father’s memory — and find a way to beat Alzheimer’s. I will not be hiking from Maine to Georgia alone.

“Who am I? Why am I here?” Well, I see things a bit differently than the admiral:

Why I am here: Who am I?

In these next six months, I plan to figure that out.