Although Lil Jan and I have visited some amazing places all over the world, some of our fondest memories happened in Nashville, Tennessee…Music City USA. It was in Nashville where we first laid eyes on each other, had our first date, and shared our first kiss. It was in Nashville where we fell in love, graduated from college, got married, and rented our first little duplex. We recently decided to return there to reminisce on some old memories and make a few new ones.
First on our agenda was a visit to our alma mater, Lipscomb University. As we strolled along the campus, we walked near what used to be an open field near the southeast corner of campus. It was on that field, in the fall of 1984, that the incoming freshmen class gathered for the freshmen mixer. Former Lipscomb President Willard Collins welcomed us to the university and, in his booming voice, invited us to enjoy the games and other festivities that evening. But he also gave us a warning. He said, “Be careful who you talk to tonight, because you might just meet your future mate.” (Sounds like a country song.) I laughed at that suggestion, not realizing that about 20 minutes later I would meet my future mate.
One of the icebreaker games that evening involved music being played while the entire freshmen class walked around the giant field. When the music stopped, the freshmen guys took a knee and each of the ladies would rush to find a guy’s knee to sit on. You then had 30 seconds to tell the other person your name, major, and hometown. As luck, fate, or perhaps Divine Providence would have it, Lil Janet Climer sat down on my knee and we shared our information. My recollection is that she instantly fell in love with me, although she maintains that by the end of the night, she simply thought I was obnoxious. Whatever. After the mixer ended, we ended up going with a group of new friends to McDonald’s. We both ended up in that group because my roommate, Kurt, was from her hometown. When Kurt and my other two suitemates got back to our dorm room later that evening, we pulled out our freshmen pictorial directories and one of us (probably me) suggested we go through it and circle ten girls that we potentially would marry some day. As I scanned the pictures and descriptions, I came across Janet Climer, the cute young lady from Summitville, Tennessee who had a charming southern accent and had spent 30 seconds on my knee earlier in the evening. Without hesitation, I circled her picture. A few months later I asked her out on a date, and randomly picked a dollar movie, because money was tight. The movie was Purple Rain, a disastrous choice. (Sorry, honey… “I never meant to cause you any problems…I never meant to cause you any pain…”). We somehow survived that date and have been dating ever since.
After strolling and reminiscing around Lipscomb, it was time to make our way to downtown Nashville. Our first stop was Centennial Park, home of the full-size replica of the Greek Parthenon. It’s a beautiful park featuring lakes, fountains, flowers, and walking paths. On these hallowed grounds, 28 years ago, we took our relationship to a whole new level. Asking someone to marry you is an enormous, life-changing, deal. I wanted it to be special and Centennial Park seemed like a special place to make it happen. I also wanted a record of what happened…some sort of proof in case she ever denied saying yes to the obnoxious Air Force kid from Tucson, Arizona. So I talked to my roommate, Dave Esslinger, and the conversation went something like this…
Dave: “Why don’t you just have me take some pictures of you proposing to her?”
Me: “Because I want it to be a surprise. If she sees you, especially with a camera, she’ll know something’s up.”
Dave: “No worries. I’ll go under cover. She’ll never see me.”
Me: “I don’t know, it seems kind of risky.”
Dave: “Trust me, you guys will never see me. It will be like I don’t exist. But I’ll get some great photos.”
Me: “Well, alright, but we better not see you. That would ruin everything.”
Dave: “I got this. You just do your part and don’t worry about me.”
With the engagement ring in my pocket, I picked up Janet from her dorm, and we headed toward Centennial Park. As we drove into nearby Green Hills in Nashville, we decided to go through the Wendy’s drive-through to get a bite to eat (because what could be a more romantic meal prior to a proposal than Wendy’s?). As I sat in the queue to pay the lady at the window, I looked in my rear-view window and saw…DAVE!!! Yes, “Mr. Invisible Man”, “Mr. You’ll Never See Me” was in the car behind us, slumped down, head barely visible above the steering wheel, with a ball cap pulled down to partially shield his face. He was tailing us! In a Wendy’s drive-through! Unacceptable! I tried to remain calm and not draw Janet’s attention to the situation. Fortunately, she was pretty focused on her Frosty.
We pulled onto Hillsboro Pike and headed toward Centennial Park. I sped up, hoping to put some distance between Dave and us. No such luck. The right lane slowed, and sure enough, Dave went zooming by in the left lane, still slumped down, ball cap pulled down to his eyes. He looked like a Mario Kart character that had been rejected early in the design process. My heart nearly stopped, as I was certain Janet would notice him and suspect something. Fortunately, she never looked his way. We made it to Centennial Park and found a nice shady place by the water with a great view of the mighty Parthenon. We laid down on a blanket, talked about life, and for just a moment I forgot that Dave was somewhere out there on the prowl. I finally got up the nerve to pop the question. I asked her what she was thinking about. She said, “not much, just enjoying being here…what are you thinking about?” I slowly pulled the ring from my pocket, placed it before her, cleared my throat, and said, “I was wondering how great it would be for you to be my wife. Will you marry me?” She reached towards her face, fell back on the blanket, and said, “Yes! Yes!” As we embraced and soaked in the beauty of the moment, our bliss was interrupted by a middle-aged man walking by. He got our attention and said, “Excuse me. I hate to bother you. But there’s a man in a trench coat and ball cap behind a tree over there taking pictures of you.” Dave! Mr. Invisible! Well, at least he made good on his promise. We had our photographic evidence (now located in a scrapbook in a box in a condo in Florida), and by some small miracle, Janet never noticed him stalking us.
So there we were, in 2015, walking those same hallowed grounds. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come to any agreement on the exact spot where I proposed. In hindsight, I should have asked the city of Nashville to erect a monument there. Or maybe Dave could have rented a spy plane and taken some aerial photos. After strolling around some more, we headed to Hattie B’s Hot Chicken for lunch. Wow! Hot chicken! Where have you been all my life? Public service announcement: go there and get yourself some hot chicken and thank me later. We waited in line outside in the heat for 30 minutes to get in, but it was worth the wait. The hot chicken was…HOT! I had sweat beads on my forehead and tears in my eyes before I even got to the pimento mac n cheese. (That, too, sounds like a country song.)
After finishing our meal and sharing a banana pudding, we headed toward Nashville’s country music district. We strolled passed the Ryman auditorium and ducked into Tootsies Orchid Lounge, the famous watering hole. Country singers like Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Waylon Jennings have all visited or performed at Tootsies. In fact, Willie Nelson got his first songwriting job after singing there. Songs have been written about it, and movies (including “Coal Miner’s Daughter”) have been filmed there. We went in to see what all the fuss was about, but mainly because I had to pee. The place was packed to max capacity, with an aspiring country band jamming on the small stage by the front door. I had to turn sideways and shuffle sideways through a gauntlet of drinking, singing, and partying country fans and tourists. This is how diseases are passed. I somehow negotiated my way to the bathroom, and took my place at the urinal next to a Cowboy with dip in his mouth and a bit of a scowl on his face. For some unexplained reason, I looked over at him, violating urinal protocol, especially at a country & western bar. Then, equally unexplainable, I felt the need to make small talk… “I’m here with my wife.” He didn’t speak…he simply nodded once, looked over his opposite shoulder, and turned and exited without flushing or washing his hands.
Our next stop was the Country Music Hall of Fame, which turned out to be well worth the admission price and a great way to spend a couple of hours. We saw Elvis’ gold Cadillac, hundreds of exhibits, old footage of country music history, the original hand-written lyrics to country songs, and much more. We then walked across the Pedestrian Bridge for a great view of the waterfront and Titans stadium.
On our way back toward the parking garage, I decided to surprise Janet with a short detour to our final stop…queue the Star Wars theme song…The Hermitage Hotel! Like Centennial Park, there are no monuments or historic markers devoted to us at The Hermitage…but there should be. Because on March 25, 1988, we spent our wedding night at the Hermitage! As we entered the lobby (in 2015), I was pleasantly surprised to see they had set out delicious homemade cookies and lemonade for us. Assuming these amenities were part of our original hotel room price from ’88, I helped myself to them. My plan was for us to spend several minutes reminiscing about our wedding night, but it was mostly a blur. We didn’t remember where we parked, our room number, or who made the first move (pretty sure it was me, though). As far as we can recall, we were alone and whatever happened in that room was a good thing. (Possible words to a country song?) At least it was good enough to celebrate in the lobby with cookies and lemonade 27 years later!
I’m thankful that Lil Janet Climer sat on my knee at the freshmen mixer, and that I circled her name in the freshmen yearbook. I’m thankful that I asked her out and that, 3 years later, I asked her to marry me. I’m especially thankful she said yes. Nashville may be known to most people as a place where country music legends are made. But to me, it will always be the place where I fell in love with my soul mate. That, too, could be a country song.
P.S. While in Tennessee recently, we enjoyed a meal in historic Bell Buckle with our famous, invisible photographer, Dave Esslinger, and his lovely wife, Bonnie. Dave is now an elementary school principal in Franklin, and Bonnie runs an antique store in Columbia, among other entrepreneurial pursuits. It was great to catch up and talk about old and new memories with them!
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