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I'm getting to that age where I look everywhere for my keys and finally realize they're in my hand.

Things that meant something to me no longer do. My materialistic side has given way to comfort. My ego is contained. My past, very decadent lifestyle has been replaced with a resurrected belief in the Almighty. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a born-again religious fanatic. Far from it. But I'm a better man than I was.

It was just a few short years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, that I got on my knees in the living room of our home in Malibu, California, and asked for help from the Man Upstairs. It was the first time in decades that I'd poured my heart out to God.

Not since Vietnam had I asked the Almighty for anything. I guess you could say that I didn't feel like I deserved any sort of divine consideration. I'd pretty much crossed the line on every one of the "Thou shalt nots." I was fairly certain that I was gonna end up doing time in the hottest corner of hell.

Family betrayal, lost loved ones, demons from the past and mere crumbs of friendships weighed heavily on my mind and tugged at my heart every waking morning. It got to be laborious just to drag myself out of bed.

My belief that if I made a mess of money I'd be happy turned out to be wrong. From the time I was a teenager, I was led to believe that the solution to everything was the almighty buck. It'll keep your electricity on, but it stops way short of real happiness.

Depression's an evil cloud that sits overhead and rains on you day and night. If there's no sunshine but, instead, just a little drizzle, you settle for that being a good day. But sooner than later, here comes another storm.

Drugs mixed well with my morning coffee. My only outings were to the golf course or driving my wife, Jana, to the grocery store. I stayed close to home with our dogs, stopped talking to people and basically shut down. Those closest to me had broken my heart. I didn't see it coming.

I faked it. Very few knew what I was going through. Frankly, the details were too embarrassing to talk about to anybody. That's not my style anyway.

Writing this column has been the only time in my life that I've ever let my guard down or shared this much about myself to anyone. I believe that privacy and dignity go hand in hand.

Over the years, I've seen several shrinks. Psychology is fascinating to me. I know that it helps many people to get past their problems, but I'm of the opinion that, if you don't watch it, you come out of the sessions with discovery of more problems than you went in with.

Besides, there was no way that I was going to tell a stranger, even one with a framed degree hanging on the wall, my innermost thoughts and secrets. If I had, chances are they'd have refunded my money and wished me good luck.

I was so depressed that, more than once, I thought about ending it all. It was the least that I could do for my beautiful wife. She deserved so much better than I could give of myself. It gets really weird when you start thinking that taking your life is a "solve-all."

Jana's truly a wonderful human being. I'm very lucky to have her by my side. Twenty-four years, so far. She and I are like Velcro. Her heart is pure, and she loves me for me. That makes things easy because, at this point in my life, I don't think I can make too many more changes.

All my life, I've been different. Different than my family. Different than most anyone. Seems like all the different kinds of people from the corners of everywhere end up in Los Angeles working in the entertainment business. The lost get unlost. I was in the rat race for 40 years. I had a good run.

The subject of God doesn't come up much in Los Angeles. Acknowledgement of the Almighty's existence kind of puts a damper on the lifestyle. Showbiz has a religion all its own: 'Tis better to get than give.

Actually, that sounds more Shakespearean than holy. But you get the point. There's a good chance that some of my friends in Los Angeles won't like this, but deep down they know it's true.

So there I was in my living room in front of the fireplace. For the first time in a long time, I was getting ready to ask the Almighty for some guidance.

I hadn't planned to get on bended knee, but there was a voice that came from within, telling me that if I was serious that I needed to kneel. Down I went.

I didn't quite know where to start. There was a lot of ground to cover. I prayed for a while. It felt good. I hadn't had the feeling I was experiencing for quite some time. Like decades.

Not more than 48 hours later, out of the blue, it came to me that I should return to where I started. Where I felt my best. Where I had a fighting chance to find myself and reclaim my soul. We made some arrangements, and Jana, the dogs and I were on our way to Tennessee.

It was the first time since I was a kid, running with my dog, Prince, through the country fields of Middle Tennessee, that I'd taken a leap of faith. I had my fingers crossed.

In the back of my mind, I reckoned that if I could hold on and live a little longer, I could do enough good to even out my wrongs and I'd be put on the list at the Pearly Gates allowing me an unencumbered entry.

I wasn't sure what I was going to do once we got back here. I thought maybe I'd try my hand at writing. The only stuff I'd written my entire adult life were sales presentations and commercials.

After all this time, maybe I'd get back into radio and do an air shift. That's where I started when I was 14, working six-hour weekend shifts for my dad.

I figured I'd try to do something that truly contributed to others. Not for the money but for the derived pleasure of making people feel good. That may come off a little corny, but that's what I thought.

I ended up here in Cleveland, where I lived with my two younger brothers and Dad back in the late 1950s and the first two years of the '60s. They were the happiest years of my childhood. Cleveland's still a great little town.

We've been back here for over three years. Initially, we thought we'd be here for no more than six months. Enough time for me to see how this writing thing was gonna work out.

I've been writing for this paper for over 26 months. Over 100 stories. I had no idea that I had all this in me.

Way back when, to protect my heart, I stuffed away a lot of my childhood. There were just too many episodes of unhappiness and tragedy that I didn't want to think about. So almost all of my childhood memories, good and bad, got locked up somewhere in my brain.

Somehow, I've managed to sift through it all, pluck out the good stuff and leave the rest in the ashes of my mind. I am no longer demon-infested. It's a really good feeling.

In a way, I have all of you to thank for the weight that I've carried for most of my life being lifted. Writing my little ditties for you has been my pleasure and provided me with some great therapy.

Your response to me has been overwhelming. I've received thousands of emails and Facebook messages from you. You're very kind.

I've also written two books of short stories about my Southern upbringing. If it hadn't been for my grandmother, Miz Lena and Elizabeth, Dimple, Clarence, Ole Tom and so many other great Southerners I grew up around, there's no telling how I would have ended up.

This is my last column for a while. I have some other things I want to pursue before they turn out the lights.

My thanks to Alison Gerber and Lisa Denton for the opportunity to share a little bit of me with you. They're nice people. Maybe somewhere down the road, they'll let me drop in to say hello to you. Also, my thanks to the Tennessee Press Association for the awards. I'm humbled and honored.

And, last but not least, thank you, God. It's great to have you back in my life. I'm trying to be good. As you know, that's a full-time job.

So, there you go, folks. It's a wrap. I'm gonna miss you guys.

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Bill Stamps

Bill Stamps' books, "Miz Lena" and "Southern Folks," are available on Amazon. For signed copies, email bill_stamps@aol.com.

Southern Folks

 

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