…. in a Land called Honah Lee

July24/ 2008

It has been “special” for 45 years because it has been so “ordinary” and so comfortable.  Too comfortable to ever try to analyze or dissect.  Nothing Oprah would care to devote a show to.   He could be the neighborhood pharmacist or owner of the local hardware store, but he isn’t.  He isn’t my big brother or surrogate father or even a sounding board.  I can’t recall any advice he’s ever given me but I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t known him. …. Today I said good-by to Coach Jones.

 Puff The Magic Dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee,

Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff,

And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff, oh.

    I only grew up once but I can’t imagine a better way of doing it …. in small town America in the late 50s – early 60s.   I not only watched Leave It To Beaver.  I lived it.  Since I did indeed grow up in what Jimma Cahta is now proclaiming as the most racist state in the country, I was a middle-class white boy.  I can’t speak for any circumstance other than my own.  I was blessed.  A part of that blessed circumstance has always been Coach Jones.

   He has a regular name.  It is Paul Jones.  I achieved sufficient chronological stature to call him “Paul” many years ago but it never occurred to me to do so.  I’ve known numerous “Pauls” and even more “Coaches” but only one “Coach Jones”.KFP_Paul_Jones_20090416_20090418

Coach Jones, at 76, is in the latter stages of acute pulmonary fibrosis.  His lung capacity is down to 10% and declining by the day.  He is bed-ridden now at his son’s home and under hospice care.  You can do the math.  The prognosis is “a few weeks”.

A boy and his coach story …. blah blah blah …. Move over Clair Bee.  BobLee is going to tell us how his sainted coach taught him to compete …. How to handle life’s Ws and Ls …. Sportsmanship …. The value of hard work …. Teamwork …. How the lessons learned on the sandlots and high school gyms of Eastern North Carolina served him in good stead when the storms clouds have gathered overhead in the past 40 years.  …. No, I’m not.  

Maybe some of the fellas have those stories but not me.  Coach Jones did NOT introduce me to the Baby Jesus.  He never warned me of the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, hallucinogenic drugs, or dating snaggle-toothed wimmen carrying straight razors.   

I’ve never heard him deliver a lecture on citizenship, sportsmanship, or respecting one’s mamma.  I’ve known him 46 years yet I don’t know his politics or even if he is going to be in Heaven in a few weeks.   Coach Jones wasn’t a fount of quirky sayings.  Coach Thompson filled that role.  “All’s fair in love, war and pass defense.”  being a particularly memorable George L. Thompson line.  The legendary Ed Emory was a young assistant just out of ECC.

I don’t know anyone who could do an impersonation of Coach Jones.  If anyone could, I suppose I would be the one everyone would expect to do it …. I wouldn’t know a single mannerism. There is that little finger flick when he is describing so-so’s passing.

 Coach Jones was by every measure a very successful high school basketball coach for 40 years.  At his retirement party 8+ years ago I did a Paul Jones – Dean Smith comparison that even amazed me and I conceived the thing.  Every point from having the most common of names to winning over 700 games (but each only winning two titles) to being a head coach at only one school their entire careers.  There were 8-9 other incredible similarities not the least of which was their classic coaching styles and the bond they forged with the kids they encountered over the years.

I’m trying to think if I ever saw Coach Jones on the bench in anything other than a navy blazer, gray slacks, white or blue shirt and a red-striped tie.  Did he not own a pair of khaki slacks?

He was from the John Wooden School of bench demeanor …. Legs crossed, rolled-up program in his hand and a communication code to the players on the court involving almost imperceptible hand gestures.  Like all the great ones he stressed the fundamentals.  Over the seasons his teams beat Phil Ford, Buck Williams, Bill Bunting and that guy from Laney HS in Wilmington.  They say he woulda been just as successful at the next level.  He chose otherwise.  I never heard him utter a syllable of regret.  Coach is old school.

I’ve never heard him cuss, or seen him smoke, drink alcohol or tell a dirty joke …. Or preach the evils of doing any of the aforementioned.  I do recall about 20 years ago he slipped in a comment that a certain cheerleader back in the day was quite a looker.  He was right, she was …. and still is. ….. (and that “who”, Buddies and Babes, is sure to be the question I’m gonna be asked when we all gather in a few weeks)

I left town on the heels of a two-year 51-1 string with back-to-back state titles.  A winning high school sports program makes growing up in a small town almost too good.  My buddies Brent and CQ and Warren and Danny know all about that in Rocky Mount.  Coach Reed knows it from his days in Indiana in the 50s.  Maybe you know it too.  I hope so.

Coach was just in his early 30s in those days but he was the package.  He was always a handsome fellow.  Ask Teena and Betty Lou and Phyllis.  Betty, his high school sweetheart and wife for 40+ years, was pure June Cleaver incarnate.  They had two young daughters, Kim and Trent, in the 60s and later a son, PJ.  Their home was a tidy ranch-style like the others along Carey Road.  He was a teacher/coach.  Betty was a homemaker/mother.  It was the 60s.

It’s not unusual for boys to idolize their coach especially the fellow I’ve described above.  To grow up to be like Coach Jones was unspoken but sure seemed a prize to shoot for.

I reminded him today that now I don’t trust anyone under 40 to know much of anything about Life unless it’s computer-related.  But if Coach at 33 had told us to clean all the sand off of Atlantic Beach, we’d still be out there shoveling because he asked us to.

There were periods of years over the years when I did not always drop by when I was back home but not extended periods.  During all the consolidation turmoil of the 70s, a new high school and gym was built just outside of town.  I’ve never been in it.  Our high school building and our gym is empty now but still standing.  If you climb the front steps of Mock Gym and listen really carefully you can still hear the cheering …. The New Bern game in January ’65 …. THREE HOURS before the tip-off and the local fire marshall said that’s it, full to capacity …. no more ….   THE FIRE MARSHALL GAME!  Late comers sitting on the steps outside just to “be there” that night.   We won.  We pretty much always did.  A month later we shut-out Jacksonville in the first quarter.  Jay Randall had been left off the All Conference team.  We showed’em.

Whenever I dropped by to see Coach over the decades I’d do a brief synopsis of my meanderings with a few bizarre anecdotes from my rainbow chasing, but we would soon be back in the day and 3-4 hours would just disappear.

He began to get a touch of gray at the temples and maybe a lb or two over his playing weight but not much.  Like Dick Clark he was always “Coach” and that was comforting for reasons I still can’t get a hold on.

High School coaching changed drastically in the late 70s-80s as America’s socio-cultural gyroscope got out of whack.  Coach reflected after his retirement …. Hardheaded coaches who refused to change left the profession bitter and unhappy.  Ever the pragmatist (a word I cannot imagine Paul Jones ever uttering!) Coach Jones accepted the realities of the times albeit with reluctance.  He kept piling up the Ws with Cedric Maxwell and later Jerry Stackhouse.  History says Charles Amphibious Shackleford was also in there but not in our version.

In a few weeks we’ll all receive the e-mail from Titus and a bunch of us will take a pilgrimage back home.  Leo and I will likely say a few words.  Leo will be eloquent.  I will be …. well, you know how I am.

As in any group anywhere …. some of us have achieved traditional measures of success …. some of us less so.  But we’re all better off because we’ve known Coach Jones.

Coach told me a year or so ago that he is a better man for having known us.  Wow …. That’s cool.  It worked out just right.

 Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail

Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff’s gigantic tail,

Noble kings and princes would bow wheneer they came,

Pirate ships would lower their sails when Puff roared out his name, 

oh! ….. in a land called Honah Lee.


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