"I'll be your savior, steadfast and true … "
Dateline: Eating Cheese Dip with Gerald Swindle
Gerald does that to me a lot. Full disclosure dudes, Gerald and I are good friends, the kind of friends who have been through a lot of tough telling, tough listening together.
Bound by tears, bound by laughs, bound by constant jabs at each other.
We first met maybe a couple of years ago at the Angler Of The Year thing in Montgomery, Ala. I was sitting in some pretty cool rehabbed downtown hotel waiting for him to come in and commence to interviewing.
To be honest, I wasn't going to wait long for him, back then I had a whole other feeling for the man. I thought him to be very good at what he did, which was to get publicity, "pub."
In the business we call people like this pretty much a soundbite waiting to happen. Easy picking with a deadline approaching. A go-to quote machine.
Just as I was about to leave, the mahogany door of the hotel opens and in walks a guy in some kind of baggy pant thing, neon sneakers and wearing a flat wide brim baseball cap, with a tiny very pretty blonde by his side.
I'm thinking, the band has arrived, without the band.
I was wrong.
It was the chorus … a chorus of soul.
In the leather chairs of the marble hotel lobby Gerald and LeAnn Swindle sat down and opened their hearts to me in a story about how much Gerald misses his brother, Tony, who had recently passed away with cancer.
That story, "A Livewell for Tony," was the first plank in my friendship with Gerald and LeAnn.
Then came the 2011 Bassmaster Classic … and a young fireman named Kevin Oldham.
Kevin was battling the same disease that took the life of Gerald's brother, Tony, so the bond between them was instantaneous and unbreakable.
On the Saturday of the Classic in New Orleans, when the fireworks went off and the music started to play, when the curtain was drawn back and Gerald was led into the arena sitting in his boat, sitting right next to him was Kevin Oldham.
In almost 20 years of covering all sorts of big league professional sports, it was to me THE MOST moving experience of my sports writing career.
Three weeks later to the day, Kevin passed away.
Plank two … and Gerald and LeAnn Swindle were becoming family.
Then came the tornados that swept through the south, and Alabama in particular.
This past weekend I went to devastated Cullman, Ala., and came away leaving a part of me there both physically and mentally. I needed a ride to the next two Elite events and as I was wondering what I was going to do, came this text from LeAnn:
"I just saw yur fb msg. I can pick u up tomorrow and u can stay wit us sat night and ride wit us on Sunday."
Me: "That would be great do you have room for some clothes"
"Even better than that u can borrow my new Tacoma and drive it til we get back from Murry if u would like."
Plank three … Gerald and LeAnn are family.
So LeAnn picks me up and in her sweet, restored Camaro we go out to dinner on Saturday night. While driving, Gerald is one Swindleism after another, something about mayonnaise is more effective spread over a whole loaf of bread than just a glob in one spot if you want to taste it … and something about chickens.
It takes me time to digest each Swindleism and he moves from one to another so quick, forgive me for not getting the quote.
But there is a stun factor going on here … me being stunned. Speechless actually. And being family, I pretty much tell him so, and he just looks over at me underneath the wide brims and smiles.
The smile of a Cheshire cat with an Alabama drawl.
But I'm going to bust him up here a little bit, so that you know the real Gerald.
He is one of the most intense athletes I have ever met … a game face that I think will someday bring him Hall of Fame credentials. A very intelligent man, a very emotional man, a very loving man.
A man you would want next to you in a firefight.
NOT the kind of man you would want talking though while you are trying to eat fine BBQ without spitting it out or having sweet tea come out your nose.
So, it was mid sip, with the sweet tea just left hanging in mid air so as to not having it come out of my nose in public-like, when Gerald was talking and I was expecting another Swindleism, when he stunned me.
Stunned me with a tale of rescue. No Swindleisms needed.
" … I'll come to your emotional rescue … "
Let me play this out for you.
Gerald was telling me of his morning, last Saturday, when he went up to North Alabama to meet up with his friend, Jake Freeman, a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy.
"I call him the Big Russian because he looks just like that Russian dude in the movie Rocky.
"db, we were in this big subdivision, and man it was at least 80 percent GONE … 99.9 percent of the place was really damaged. It was so bad it almost looked fake, like what Hollywood would make a tornado set to be looking like."
So Gerald and Deputy Jake were going through a cul-de-sac trying to help anyone they could by doing anything they could.
"Mainly the only thing that was left were the concrete steps leading up to homes that weren't there anymore."
Jake must have patrolled the area since the tornado came through on Wednesday because he told Gerald about a "house where the tornado was so strong it sucked the carpet right up off the floor, even sucked up the commode."
Gerald gives me the Cheshire Cat smile and says, "but I know that boy, and I tell him, ‘You might be done telling me one there, Jake.’ "
Or not, because Jake takes Gerald over to the house so he can see it for himself.
"It's just concrete steps up to nowhere because the house where the steps are going to ain't there anymore. And I'll be danged, the carpet was gone, and all that was left of the commode were the pipes that lead up from the cellar to it. They were just sticking up from the floor and the commode was gone."
Gerald shakes his head yes like still trying to tell himself it is OK to believe what he saw.
"How strong does a tornado have to be where it can suck the carpet out of a home?"
Strong enough where it sucked the whole home away, not just the carpet.
"So db I'm standing there on the floor of the house and I hear what sounds like a moan, like a whimpering, and Jake and I be quiet and listen, and it seems like the sound is coming from underneath us, from down in the cellar."
Both Gerald and Jake then leave from standing on the place where the carpet used to be and go around to the side of the house where the garage used to be and listen more.
"I listen and I say to Jake, ‘Do you hear that?’ And he shakes his head yes, and we listen some more, and then I tell him, ‘Jake, I believe that's a dog. It sounds like a dog crying’”
And then the two men start digging through the debris and start CRAWLING into the cellar, "it was just a mess crawling through the stuff, wood, glass, insulation, but I can hear scratching, whimpering and by God I'm going to find out where it was coming from."
And then Gerald spots a closet door.
"As I got closer to it I could hear the scratching, so we finally get over to it and open the door, and this dog comes flying out of it."
The dog, who was probably in the closet for at least 3 days at that point, starts running around bumping into things.
"We are thinking that he has been in the dark so long his eyes hadn't adjusted to the light yet," he said. “He comes running over to me and jumping on me, licking me, just so happy to be free."
The two men pick up the dog. Gerald said he thought it was a mix of pit bull and bulldog, and carry it outside and into the back yard where they find a container and pour water into it, "and that dog he drank three of them straight down."
It was then that Jake looks at Gerald and says we need to call this dog “Twister.”
“And this dog was just loving on us, and I'm thinking, oh boy, if I bring Twister home and LeAnn sees it we are suddenly going to have two dogs in the house."
I have no doubt about that, but then Gerald tells me something that will tell you of the man.
"I'm thinking I have to bring Twister home because after all he has been through in the last three days the last thing I was going to do was to bring him to the pound. If it survived all of this, it didn't deserve that."
No dog does, but especially not Twister. If dogs are disposable, so are we.
So for the rest of the day Gerald is walking around with Twister on Jake's Sheriff's Department K-9 leash, he finds food for it and feeds Twister, "he ate three bowls of the food … whoosh … gone … that dog was hungry."
As he is leaving and trying to figure out what he's going to say to LeAnn about the new dog in the house, Gerald is standing at a checkpoint waiting to get out, when a lady walks up to him and says, "that's my dog."
And Twister goes nuts as he sees his owner.
"The woman tells me the dog's name is Coco or something like that, and says she has been looking for him, and I hand her the lease and say well here's Twister, er, Coco for you, and off they go."
I'm a sweet tea fiend, and I haven't taken a sip. I know this is close to his heart, know it affected him because throughout the whole story there wasn't one Swindleism.
Both Gerald and LeAnn have the look on their faces of what could have been. Both would have opened their hearts, their home, to Twister.
Or anyone they found out there needing help.
And like Twister before me.
I'm loving on them for it.
"I will be your knight in shining armor."
The Rolling Stones