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“I say good-bye”

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” — Ecclesiastes 3:1.

There’s an empty nest at the Nelson house.

On Tuesday of last week, Melissa pulled out of Waco, Texas, where she had helped set up our oldest son, Austin, in his garage apartment. He will be obtaining his master’s degree at Baylor University.

Our youngest son, Evan, went with Melissa to help his brother move in. Melissa and Evan arrived back home in Little Rock that Tuesday night, and Wednesday was a whirlwind for them as Evan prepared to begin college at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia.

On Thursday, Melissa moved Evan into his dorm room at Ouachita.

By that Thursday night, it was strangely quiet at our home.

As they say in the Westerns right before the Indians attack: “It’s quiet. Too quiet.”

The quiet had been shattered in February of 1993. At the time, I was the political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and we were in the first crazy weeks of the Clinton administration in Washington. I was in charge of our three full-time reporters in the nation’s capital. I also was in charge of three full-time reporters at the state Capitol, where Jim Guy Tucker was in the middle of his first legislative session as governor. As if that weren’t enough, late nights and weekends were being spent at the office writing a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The 16-hour day at the newspaper office had become the norm.

The news stories were lined up to be edited late that gray winter afternoon when Melissa called in a panic. Her water had broken even though the baby wasn’t due for another month.

I looked across my desk at the man who was then the newspaper’s city editor, Ray Hobbs, and said: “Ray, you’re going to have to edit these stories. I need to get home.”

As it turned out, it was the only icy night of the winter. The bridges were beginning to freeze as I headed west on Interstate 630, and it took me far longer than normal to reach our apartment on Chenal Parkway. To add to the frustration, when I opened the door, our neighbor’s dachshund raced into the apartment. I had to retrieve it from under a bed while Melissa stood next to the door with her bag in her hand.

It was slow going on the drive to the hospital but — long story short — we made it to Baptist Health Medical Center in plenty of time.

I should have known that Austin would grow up with an interest in politics, government and current events (he was a politics major at Hendrix College, where he obtained his undergraduate degree). Melissa would leave him in a playpen in front a television tuned to CNN, which he would watch as a baby for hours at a time.

His first sentence: “This is CNN.”

I came home following the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades, which had occurred shortly after takeoff from Miami International Airport on May 11, 1996. The CNN coverage had been on for hours

An excited Austin (age 3) stood up in his playpen and screamed at me: “The ValuJet crashed!”

Austin was obsessed with anything having to do with trains and airplanes. In that simpler time before long security lines at airports were the norm, Austin and I would spend Sunday afternoons at Little Rock National Airport, walking from gate to gate as we watched planes arrive and take off.

Austin had a strange name for airplanes. We would later figure out that he was calling them, “I say good-bye.” He had been conditioned by the many good-byes he would hear on those Sunday afternoons at the airport.

Austin was slow to potty train, and it was my mother who came up with the idea that finally worked. She promised Austin that if he were to become potty trained, she would take him on a “real train.”

She was true to her word.

Austin spent the night at his grandparents’ house in Arkadelphia, where one could always hear the freight trains crossing the Ouachita River late at night. My mother would later tell the story of how Austin had a difficult time falling asleep. Each time he heard a train, he would ask: “Did we miss it?”

The next morning, my father took Austin and my mom to the old Missouri Pacific depot in Arkadelphia. Mom and Austin boarded an Amtrak train, going only as far as Texarkana.

My father raced down Interstate 30 to pick them up. They had lunch at Bryce’s Cafeteria (long a family favorite), and an exhausted Austin slept all the way back to Arkadelphia.

Evan came along in January 1997, and there wasn’t as much drama this time around. In fact, his delivery was scheduled.

With a precocious older brother who was good at barking orders, Evan was forced to grow up quickly. At an age when other children were watching cartoons, Evan was watching CNN and ESPN with his brother each morning before school.

Both boys attended school at Holy Souls in Little Rock from pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Austin went on to Catholic High, where he would be the valedictorian before heading to Hendrix on a Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship.

After attending Catholic High in the ninth grade, Evan decided it was time to go his own way. He transferred to Arkansas Baptist High School. Always the extrovert, he made friends easily and was elected the president of the student body for his senior year.

Like his big brother, Evan earned a Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship. But just as he had decided to attend a different high school than his brother, he also decided to attend a different college. Evan makes the third generation of his family to attend Ouachita (my mother is Class of 1947, my father was Class of 1948, my sister is Class of 1972 and I am Class of 1982).

We’re proud of both boys. And we miss them.

With my trips to Arkadelphia in the fall to broadcast football games, I’ll see Evan a lot more than I see Austin. Giving Austin a hug that morning he left for Waco was hard. As I drove to work (yes, I was wiping tears from my eyes), I thought about his first name for airplanes — “I say good-bye.”

It was time to say good-bye to my oldest son.

True, Waco and Arkadelphia aren’t that far away. The boys could be on the West Coast, the East Coast or in a foreign exchange program.

Yet the quietness of the house on weeknights is going to take some getting used to.

The empty nest is as old as civilization itself. I suspect that most of you reading this have been through it. It’s yet another stage in life.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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