Helicopter Down

Helicopter Down!

Twenty-one years ago, my obstetrician handed me my newborn son and sent me on my way. She assumed that since I had created this tiny new human that I knew what to do as a parent. I did not.

Our children come into the world completely vulnerable and dependent upon the adults around them. Like most new parents, my husband and I brought Kendrick home and tried our best to rise to the challenge.  I read dozens of parenting books. Some of them encouraged letting the baby cry himself out, while others said at this early age you should respond quickly and fulfill all of their needs. I couldn’t stand the crying, so I chose the “fulfill all of their needs” route.  Soon I was adept at discerning the many cries that let me know if he was hungry, tired, or just needed to be held, and I did my best to meet that need.

As had been planned long before Kendrick was born, I went back to work when he turned 8 weeks old. I handed him over to a highly recommended and thoroughly vetted daycare worker named Brandy. I was both elated and terrified. I was happy maternity leave was ending because I missed the mental stimulation of my career as well as my work family.  However, I could not help worrying obsessively about leaving Kendrick with someone else. Would Brandy really take good care of him? Would she be able to give him enough attention? Would Kendrick be happy? I needn’t have worried. Brandy was awesome, and Kendrick thrived both at home and at his daycare.

Two years later, our second son was born, and Kendrick proudly took on the role of big brother. The months and years went by, and somewhere along the line, my baby boys began to need me less and less. They learned to walk, then to run, and then to climb. They learned to dress and feed themselves. I remember the day neither of my kids needed me to buckle their car seats. But by then my brain was hardwired to always be there and to always help (or at least be ready to help). Switching from “fulfill their every need” to letting them go it alone was very nearly impossible.

When Kendrick started middle school, he begged me for an iPhone. I finally relented but not because everyone else had one. Instead, it was because a friend had shown me the Find My iPhone feature. As long as Kendrick had his phone, I could always see where he was. You know, just in case he was kidnapped or something. Well, he was never kidnapped, but there were plenty of “or somethings.” For example, he was on the wrestling team which practiced after school, so he couldn’t ride the bus home. Since I was always at work, the parent of another wrestler was kind enough to take him home every day. And every day I kept a close eye on the little dot on my phone to make sure he got there.

Find My Iphone shows Kendrick in his dorm at High Point University.

Kendrick and Keaton have always known that I monitored their location, and they mostly have simply accepted it. However, they have sometimes expressed their confusion over my obsession with their safety. Once, when my mother happened to be visiting, Kendrick asked me, “When are you going to stop worrying about me?” I immediately responded with, “When I am dead.” Kendrick rolled his eyes at me and told me I was weird. It was at that exact moment my mom walked in the room. I looked at her and asked, “When are you going to stop worrying about me?” Without hesitating, she responded, “When I’m dead.”

When Kendrick started high school, I told myself it was time to back off. I knew I was hovering too much and needed to let him learn to take care of himself. It was hard, and I failed. A lot. I easily forgot my vow, and I made sure he got up in time to get to school. I reminded him of homework and tests. I hovered over the kitchen table as he put school projects and posters together and made sure he got it done on time. I mean, he had to graduate. Right? Then I’ll completely back off. At least that is what I told myself.

At his college freshman orientation, the school purposely had separate agendas for students and parents. One of the speakers on my agenda was Gail Tuttle. I would come to know her as an amazing member of the High Point University team, but at the time I really didn’t appreciate the insight she was sharing, especially when she talked about helicopter parents. She said helicopter parents were those who tried to orchestrate their children’s lives and make the adult transition as easy as possible for them. I scoffed. She isn’t talking about me. I’m not that bad. I never complained to a teacher if he failed a test or yelled at the coach when Kendrick didn’t get to play as much as I thought he should.  Gail finished by telling the helicopter parents that it was past time to back off. “Your sons and daughters can do this. Let them.”  Again, I told myself she wasn’t talking to me. Of course, I had every intention of letting him succeed or fail on his own.

Once school started and Kendrick was nearly 500 miles away from home, I found myself worrying again. I worried he would oversleep and miss class. I worried he would spend too much time playing games on his computer. I reasoned that since I was the one paying for college, I had the right to check on his grades and to see whether or not he was going to class. Well, whether it was right or not, he still had an iPhone, and I could still use it to see if he was in class. I told myself I would only do it for the first week or so. Or maybe just the first semester…

I am happy to report that he never missed class that first semester, although he was late a few times. This gave me the confidence to take a step back and not check every time to see if he was in class. Or so I thought. His second semester he signed up for an 8 AM class. Kendrick is not a morning person. What was he thinking signing up for a morning class and on a Monday no less? So, yes, I watched Find My iPhone—but only on those days he had the 8 AM class.

As I feared, the day came when I checked my phone at 7:50 AM and he was still in his dorm. It took every fiber of my being not to call him. 7:52 AM, still at the dorm. 7:55 AM, no movement. Maybe he left his phone in the dorm? At 8:00 AM I couldn’t stand it any longer and I called him. A very sleepy and slightly annoyed Kendrick answered, “Yes, Mom?” When I asked him why he wasn’t in class, he responded, “It’s Tuesday.”


It had been a three-day weekend, and I had forgotten. That was the day I landed the helicopter and walked away from it. Gail was right. He’s got this, and it was past time for me to let him sink or swim on his own.

Kendrick with mom just after HPU’s graduation ceremony in May 2023.

Now he is a college graduate. When he started as a freshman, he had no idea what he wanted to do or what his career might be.  Four years later, he is an accomplished game designer and knows exactly what he wants to do with his life. Although he hasn’t yet landed the job he really wants, he has a plan to make it happen. He has had successes and challenges and has learned to handle everything that life has thrown at him.

This reformed helicopter mom could not be prouder.

Top Photo: Mom and Kendrick a few hours after he was born. (September 2001).

Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences: The Agent Orange Story

During the early days of World War II, four groups of scientists, two in the U.S. and two in Great Britain, were independently working to identify herbicides that could be used to boost production of food crops by eliminating weeds that depleted the soil or crowded out the desired plants (1). As the war dragged on, one of the men realized the weedkillers might also have military value.  He proposed that at high doses the herbicides would kill all plants and not just the unwanted weeds. Both governments embraced this idea and eventually each team of botanists identified the same two chemicals* as the most effective for destroying enemy food crops. Although the war ended before their discovery could be used (2), less than two decades later, the same chemical combination would be tapped for use in Vietnam.

In the 1950s, the U.S. sent military advisors, supplies, and money to South Vietnam in an effort to stabilize the troubled democracy. It wasn’t enough. Soon American Green Berets would arrive. Vietnam’s lush rubber trees, expansive rice paddies, and dense, dark green jungles provided ample cover for the enemy. Ambushes were common and deadly.

In 1961, Operation Ranch Hand, the military campaign to destroy Vietnam’s jungles, was initiated (3). Over the next decade millions of gallons of defoliants were used across Southeast Asia. The chemicals were shipped in 55-gallon black barrels with a different color stripe depending on its contents. The most powerful and widely used combination bore an orange stripe and was nicknamed “Agent Orange.”

Wounded being evacuated from a jungle decimated by Agent Orange. Near Dak To, Vietnam, November 23, 1967. Photo by: Consolidated Alfred Batungbacal/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images. Uploaded to flickr by Manhhai.
Used by permission via flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/

Acres and acres of South Vietnam were sprayed with Agent Orange. It destroyed any kind of vegetation and decimated the thick forests that covered much of the country. Although during the war Agent Orange was highly effective in protecting Western soldiers from enemy ambushes, the long-term price would be high.

Early in the 1960s, the manufacturers of Agent Orange discovered that the product being shipped to Vietnam was contaminated with dioxin. Dioxin is a highly toxic chemical that is known to damage the immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems of humans and other animals (4-9). Studies in mice found that many of the effects of dioxin could be passed down to the next generation (10-13). Improvements were seen in the third and fourth generations, but these animals did not completely escape the effects of their ancestor’s exposure.

Agent Orange wasn’t supposed to contain dioxin. It was a by-product of the manufacturing process. Although the problem was identified early on, the solution was time-consuming and expensive and was never implemented. Use of Agent Orange in Southeast Asia continued until 1972 when knowledge of its harmful effects could no longer be ignored (4).

Decades later, the path of Agent Orange’s destruction winds through generations. Multiple types of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and numerous other conditions are more common in men who served in Vietnam compared to those who didn’t (14-15).  Their children and grandchildren often suffer with birth defects like spina bifida or missing limbs and are at an increased risk of developing leukemia and other diseases (16).

Kaylon Bruner-Tran, PhD (center) with her long-time research partner, Kevin Osteen, PhD (left) and Ken Gamble (right), the founder of the Orange Heart Medal Foundation which recognizes American Vietnam-Era veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

The fate of the people in Vietnam has been far worse. Although the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on remediation efforts, many parts of the country remain contaminated with dioxin and may never be the same. Millions of Vietnamese civilians were exposed during the war, and because of the contamination of the water and land, their exposure didn’t stop when the spraying ended. Serious diseases, stillbirth, and preterm birth are frequently observed (17, 18). Far too many children suffer with one or more severe birth defects. Multiple missing or misshapen limbs, blindness, and mental disability are common (4, 18).

Since the original scientific studies that led to the development of Agent Orange were conducted during World War II, the U.S. and British governments placed a temporary moratorium on publication of the work. The delay each group faced in being able to report their findings ultimately led to uncertainty over which team of scientists should receive credit for the discovery of the chemicals that came to be known as Agent Orange (2). Nearly 80 years later there is no dispute regarding the unintended consequences of their work. Although I cannot speak for these men, my guess is that if they were still alive today they would be devastated by the death and destruction their work produced and would likely be grateful for the uncertainty surrounding who among them deserves the credit for it.

*2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) were the herbicides used for Agent Orange. It was unintentionally contaminated with 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD or, more commonly, dioxin).

Top photo: Ninh Binh, Vietnam. Photo by Francisco Anzola. Taken on June 12, 2012. Used by permission via flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/

Note: This article was originally published in the Relatable Voice magazine (December, 2022).


(1) Olson K and Cihacek L. (2022) How United States Agricultural Herbicides Became Military and Environmental Chemical Weapons: Historical and Residual Effects. Open Journal of Soil Science,12:2

(2) Troyer, JR (2017) In the beginning: the multiple discovery of the first hormone herbicides Cambridge University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4046518?seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents

(3) https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/operation-ranch-hand-initiated

(4) Martinez, L. 2020. American Studies, International Relations, Military History, Political History, Political Science, Public Health, Social Sciences, Sociology. https://stmuscholars.org/consequences-of-agent-orange-during-the-vietnam-war/#marker-106116-12

(5) Czarnywojtek A, Jaz K, Ochmańska A, Zgorzalewicz-Stachowiak M, Czarnocka B, Sawicka-Gutaj N, Ziółkowska P, Krela-Kaźmierczak I, Gut P, Florek E, Ruchała M. 2021. The effect of endocrine disruptors on the reproductive system – current knowledge. European Review for Medical Pharmacology Science. 25(15):4930-4940.

(6) Bruner-Tran KL, Gnecco J, Ding T, Glore DR, Pensabene V, Osteen KG. 2017.  Exposure to the environmental endocrine disruptor TCDD and human reproductive dysfunction: Translating lessons from murine models. Reproductive Toxicology. 68:59-71.

(7) Kreitinger JM, Beamer CA, Shepherd DM. Environmental Immunology: Lessons Learned from Exposure to a Select Panel of Immunotoxicants. Journal of Immunology 196(8):3217-25.

(8) https://www.epa.gov/dioxin/learn-about-dioxin

(9) https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dioxins-and-their-effects-on-human-health

(10) Gaspari L, Paris F, Kalfa N, Soyer-Gobillard MO, Sultan C, Hamamah S. 2021 Experimental Evidence of 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlordibenzo-p-Dioxin (TCDD) Transgenerational Effects on Reproductive Health. International Journal of Molecular Science. 23;22(16):9091.

(11) Bruner-Tran KL, Osteen KG. 2011. Developmental TCDD Exposure is Associated with Infertility and Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes across Multiple Generations Reproductive Toxicology  31(3):344-50.

(12) Ding T, McConaha ME, Boyd KL, Osteen KG, Bruner-Tran KL. 2011. Developmental Dioxin Exposure of Either Parent is Associated with an Increased Risk of Preterm Birth in Adult Mice  Reproductive Toxicology 31(3):351-358.

(13) Mokshagundam S, Ding T, Rumph JT, Stephens VR, Osteen KG, Bruner-Tran KL. 2020. Developmental TCDD Exposure Enhances the Formula-Associated Risk of Necrotizing Enterocolitis in Neonatal Mice.  Birth Defects Research 112(16):1209-1223.

(14) https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/01/26/agent-orange-exposure-doubles-risk-of-developing-dementia-study-finds.html

(15) Committee to Review the Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides (Tenth Biennial Update); Board on the Health of Select Populations; Institute of Medicine; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Veterans and Agent Orange: Update 2014. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US) PMID: 27099897

(16) Peak, E. 2014. A haunted legacy: The multi-generational effects of Agent Orange. Mountain Xpress. https://mountainx.com/living/a-haunted-legacy-the-multi-generational-effects-of-agent-orange/

(17 ) Vuong TP. 2022. Research on the Relationship between Exposure to Dioxins and Cancer Incidence in Vietnam Toxics 10(7):384. 

(18) Ngo AD, Taylor R, Roberts CL, Nguyen TV. 2006. Association between Agent Orange and birth defects: systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Epidemiology. 35(5):1220-30.

Sports Stories

Sports Stories

For most of my life, I never understood the joy so many people get from watching other people play sports. Honestly, watching grown men chasing a ball for millions of dollars just seemed ridiculous to me. Didn’t they have better things to do with their lives?

My dislike of sports and utter disdain for watching such events might have forever remained had I not married a man who loved American football as well as European football (aka soccer).  I tried hard to change my attitude. On Sunday afternoons, I would sit with Ken on the couch while he watched his favorite NFL team battle it out on the field. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to mind that I paid more attention to the book I was reading than the game.

Before long, Ken and I had two sons, and he couldn’t wait until they were old enough to play soccer. As soon as Kendrick turned five, Ken signed him up to play. A couple of years later, Keaton was also old enough for soccer, and somehow we were able to get both our boys on the same team. Perhaps because Ken decided to coach that year or perhaps because our hometown was still pretty small back then and they didn’t have enough players for every age group. Whatever the reason, my sons would be in high school before they played soccer for the same team again.

Little did I know soccer was only the beginning. Between them, they did it all. Swimming, karate, basketball, baseball, wrestling, and football.  As a parent, it was exhausting and a lot of work. In addition to just getting them to and from practice and games, we were expected to volunteer to run the concession stand, prepare pre-game meals, keep score, move the chains—the jobs were endless. I often hoped all the hard work would pay off in college scholarships.

Although I can’t say that I learned to love sports, I did love watching my sons on the field. It was easy to see that playing a sport was good for both of them. In addition to the physical activity, they both were fortunate to have many great coaches who emphasized the importance of good sportsmanship and teamwork.

A few examples:

When Kendrick was in middle school, he was on the wrestling team. There was another student on the team who had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. You read that right. We had a child on the wrestling team who was in a wheelchair. The coach had a walk-on policy so anyone who wanted to be on the team was allowed to join. The young man attended every practice and dressed for every meet. He loved being part of the team but was disappointed that he would never experience an actual match. I was in the stands at the school when our coach approached the coach of the opposing team with an idea. He asked for the other team’s most kind-hearted wrestler, regardless of weight class. The boy in the wheelchair was carried onto the mat by his father. The referee blew the whistle, and the boys “wrestled.” Eventually the kind-hearted wrestler was pinned, and the boy with cerebral palsy was declared the winner. Both teams cheered.

In high school, Kendrick played mid-fielder for the soccer team. One night his team had a home game, and many of our parents were already in the stands when the other team arrived later than expected. They were from a rural school more than an hour away and had had trouble finding our field. We watched the boys as they got off the bus. There weren’t very many of them, and I wondered if there were others who were driving themselves. The loudspeaker crackled and an announcement was made. The visiting team had only 11 players, one of whom was injured. Rather than forfeit the match, the visiting team would play with just 10 on the field. For that reason, our coach decided that we too would field only 10 players. He didn’t have to, but he wanted a fair game. In the second half, one of our players collided with one of their players and both boys had to leave the game. Although we had plenty of kids who could have stepped in for our injured player, our coach declined. Now the game would be played nine-on-nine.  Our boys easily defeated the smaller team, but, in my mind, the lesson in sportsmanship held far more value than the victory.

Keaton (left, age 15) and Kendrick (right, age 17) in their high school jerseys in 2018. The big smiles and messy hair suggest the picture was taken after a winning game.

Keaton had a similar experience when he played high school football. Unlike the soccer games, which typically were only attended by the players’ parents, high school football games are an event. It often felt like the entire town turned out. Although typically the visitor’s side was as jam-packed as the home team side, I remember one Friday night when the opposing team had no one in the stands. Our side, as always, was filled to capacity. The other team was no match for ours, and we quickly pulled way ahead. I don’t remember the score, but even before halftime it was something ridiculous. Maybe 40-0. Late in the fourth quarter, the other team finally managed to score, and we all cheered. Yes, our fans cheered when the other team scored. None of us wanted the opposing team, with no fans in the stands, to go home on the losing end of a shutout. So we cheered when they scored. We also let out a collective groan when we saw the flag on the field. It was against the team that had just scored, and we all expected the goal would be nullified. But then the announcement came. “The penalty on the field is declined.” We all stood and cheered even louder. We were happy for the other team and proud of our coach for declining a penalty that enabled the other team to score. Sportsmanship wins again.

My boys are in college now and neither play on a school team, so my fantasies of a soccer or football scholarship didn’t materialize. No matter. Ken was right to get them involved in sports at a young age. It helped them to grow up strong and pushed them to work hard for what they wanted. Most of all, they learned that being a team player is about much more than just the game. And that’s a great lesson even if they never again step foot on a ball field.

Top photo: Kendrick (left, age 7) and Keaton (right, age 5) in 2008, the first year Keaton played soccer.



“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

—John Lennon, Beautiful Boy.

Early in December I decided to write a Christmas blog. I envisioned a happy, funny piece for the holidays.  In January in honor of my mother’s birthday, I planned to write a blog for her. Neither of those things happened. I had only just begun to flesh out the Christmas blog when my sister called me and asked if I was sitting down. She gave me a chance to respond and then said, “Uncle Garry has died.”


My Uncle Garry was the youngest of my mother’s siblings and, as far as I knew, was in good health. How could he be dead? No one really knew. He had not felt well for a couple of days but didn’t want to go to the doctor. My cousin found him after he didn’t respond when she called to see how he was feeling. It was December 5th.

My grandparents had six children—three boys and three girls. My mother, the third child, was the oldest of the girls and was 10 when Garry was born. My mother had a small camera when she was growing up and loved taking pictures of Garry. Sometimes someone else was behind the lens, and then the picture of Garry usually had my mom close by. Although she moved to Little Rock after she married, she and Garry remained close. Even after my sister and I were born, she frequently drove the 50 miles back to Morrilton to see her parents and baby brother.

Young Garry with his sisters. Left—with my mother, Betty, in an undated photo. Middle—(L-R), with Linda, Betty, and Brenda in 1958. Right—(L-R) with Brenda, Linda, and Betty in 1955.

Garry lived in Morrilton, Arkansas, his entire life, while my family eventually moved to Mississippi. When I was younger, I’d see him over the holidays when we would make the long drive north. Garry was 10 years older than me, and by the time I was a teenager, my sister, cousins, and I tended to spend more time at his house than with our grandparents. He was older but not old. We’d watch TV or play games. We played epic rounds of the card game Rook that often went long into the night. Garry and my cousin Ray were both “caution to the wind” type players and took big risks, bidding high even when their hand was weak. They sometimes got frustrated with the rest of us and said we were too conservative. As a team, Garry and Ray won a lot despite their recklessness.

Garry was also an excellent chess player, and he and I played whenever we had the chance. In all the years we played, I only beat him once.

Over the years, my life got more complicated. College, career, marriage, children—all the usual stuff that take up our days and keep us busy. As a result, my visits with family in Arkansas have been far fewer over the last 20 years. Although my sons, Kendrick and Keaton, met Garry once or twice, I doubt they would be able to describe him.

My Uncle Garry was tall and thin and always wore cowboy boots. He drove a Ford F150, loved the USA, God, and football. Now that it is too late, I realize how unfortunate it is that my sons spent so little time with him. With the benefit of hindsight, I see the similarities between my uncle and my youngest son. Like Garry, Keaton is tall and thin, a ruthless Rook player, loves football, the USA, cowboy boots, and playing chess. Just like my uncle, Keaton makes his chess moves quickly and is often frustrated with me when I take too long to make a move. He always wins. In my mind’s eye, I can see Garry and Keaton playing a rapid game of chess, but I have no idea who would have won.

Garry was what the Bible calls “the salt of the earth.” He got up, went to work, went to church, and always did what he thought was right. He wasn’t famous. His name will never appear in any history book, but he still leaves a legacy. His legacy is in the lives of those he touched, and, like so often happens, the mark he left on us is only fully appreciated now that he is gone.

Garry was briefly married when he was in his thirties and never had children of his own. Perhaps for that reason, when he wrote his will he was generous with his extended family. After his death, I found myself in possession of his beloved Ford F150. Without hesitation, I gave it to Keaton. Although he’s not Garry’s son, he’s still part of his legacy. I think Garry would be pleased with my decision because Keaton will love the truck the same way he did. I can easily imagine Uncle Garry looking down from heaven and smiling as he watches over Keaton behind the wheel of his F150.

Keaton with Garry’s 2004 Ford F150.

Top Photo: A recent photo of my Uncle Garry.

Garry Wayne Coffman—October 19, 1954-December 5, 2022. May he rest in peace.



Recently Vanderbilt gave me a gold pin that recognized my having worked there for the last 25 years. Apparently they only started counting after I joined the school as faculty; however, I received my first paycheck from the University in October of 1989.  That means I have spent the better part of 33 years at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee.

A lot has happened in 33 years.

In 1989:

George Bush (the first one) was sworn in as the U.S. President

Margaret Thatcher began serving her last year as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Daniel Radcliff—whose name for many of us will always be synonymous with Harry Potter—was born.

Cell phones were expensive and rare. They were also huge!

The internet was in its infancy and the World Wide Web was just an idea.

The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989.

In 1989 I was 25 years old living in my hometown of Grenada, Mississippi, trying to figure out what to do with my life. I decided to move to Nashville, but I really didn’t have much of a plan beyond that. I knew I needed a job and easily found one waiting tables at O’Charley’s on 21st Avenue. It had opened in 1971 and was the first one in the country. The restaurant would eventually become a chain and spread across the Southern U.S. The original O’Charley’s on 21st Avenue is long gone, the building torn down sometime in the nineties. The next business didn’t last either, and, as I write this, a shiny new Starbucks sits in that coveted spot across from Vanderbilt.

I worked at O’Charley’s for about six months before landing a job as a research assistant working with Dr. Clark Tibbetts in Vanderbilt’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. With Dr. Tibbett’s help, in 1992 I matriculated into the graduate program and received my PhD in reproductive pathology from Vanderbilt a few years later.

The Wildhorse Saloon on 2nd Avenue in downtown Nashville.

On the weekends my grad school friends and I would go to downtown Nashville, which back then was struggling to be relevant. Parking was free, food was cheap, and the music was amazing. In 1994 the now-famous Wildhorse Saloon opened, and we were among the first to try out the dance floor. I learned I couldn’t line dance, but we had a lot of fun trying.

Fast-forward three decades, and Nashville is now a major tourist destination crowded with people from all over the world. Nashville is THE city for bachelorette parties that last all weekend. Drunken bridesmaids in pink cowboy hats lean out of open-air party buses and shout “Woo” in unison as they pass by. Nashvillians call them the “Woo girls.”

Even before the throngs of tourists were common—back when the Nashville airport rolled up the tarmacs long before midnight—Nashville had a fireworks display on July 4th. Hundreds of people would bring chairs and picnics to the banks of the Cumberland River to watch the show. I’ve never had a desire to fight the crowds, and so back in the grad school days some of us would watch the fireworks from the seventh floor of our research building where we all worked at Vanderbilt. At that time there was an open-air mezzanine that had largely been abandoned. The huge room it was attached to held big, whirring machinery and random office items with nowhere to go. We weren’t supposed to be there, but once we discovered the mezzanine, it became a favorite place to eat lunch and get away from the lab for a while. It was also our private spot for viewing the fireworks.

These days the Nashville fireworks display is one of the largest in the country. Last year the event drew more than 250,000 people to the banks of the river. Although the mezzanine and machinery on the seventh floor of my building have been replaced with new and spacious research facilities, you can still see the fireworks from enormous windows that now cover the northeast side of the building.

A recent photo of downtown Nashville taken from my research building. Although the mezzanine has been replaced, the view is amazing on a clear day. In the distance you can see the AT&T Building, which Nashvillians call the Batman Building. (Photo credit: Sherry Ameli)
Satco on 21st Avenue across from Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Nashville and Vanderbilt have changed a lot since I first arrived in 1989. Over the years most of the businesses along 21st Avenue have been replaced. One that remains is the San Antonio Taco Company, which everyone just calls Satco. The building was a bit dilapidated way back when I was a student, and time has had little effect on it. Then, as now, the wooden deck is huge and inviting, the food is good, and the beer is cold. My friends and I spent quite a few lunch hours and many a Friday night on that deck and it remains a favorite of the current crop of students. Although I rarely get to Satco these days, I like that it’s still there. Change can be good, but there is something comforting in having a few things that remain the same.

The gold pin I received from Vanderbilt in October of this year.

Thanksgiving is a day to reflect on our past and be grateful for what we have. As I look at the gold pin that Vanderbilt gave me, it’s hard for me to believe I have been in Nashville more than half of my life. When I moved here 33 years ago, I never imagined that I would stay so long, and I could never have guessed the life that would unfold for me in this city. It’s a good life—and I am thankful.

Top photo: The Vanderbilt University ID I was issued in 1992. I have blurred out my social security number. Identity theft wasn’t a thing back then.



Years ago when I was still in college, my roommate adopted a puppy she named Sandy. She was a blondish cocker spaniel with the sweetest disposition, and I completely fell in love with her. I decided that I too wanted a cocker spaniel just like Sandy. I started watching the ads in the paper, and before long I found a breeder with a litter of cocker spaniel puppies. I went for a visit and met the breeder and the canine family. The puppies came with papers that listed the names of their purebred mother and father and guaranteed their unblemished cocker spaniel pedigree. Not just anyone could adopt one of these puppies. I was required to pass a background check and, once approved, had to hand over a chunk of cash before I could take my puppy home. I was approved, paid the breeder, and named my puppy Sasha.

Six-week old Sasha (far right) with her littermates a few days before Kaylon adopted her.

Sasha and I quickly bonded, and she and I were nearly inseparable for more than a decade. She was with me through my best and worst days, and, after developing a blood disease, she died in my arms shortly after she turned 13. That was nearly 15 years ago, and the pain of her loss has barely diminished over time. I have no regrets over having Sasha in my life and cannot imagine the day will come when I won’t miss her. However, she is also the reason I will never again buy an animal from a breeder.

You see, an unexpected thing happened when I got Sasha. Suddenly, I was far more aware of other dogs. Whenever we went for a walk or to the park, if I saw a dog off a leash, I found myself worrying about them. Do they have an owner? Have they been abandoned?  Do they need help? I wasn’t just Sasha’s mom—I wanted to take care of all the dogs. Even more important, Sasha’s papers became completely irrelevant. She was my baby no matter her pedigree.

By the time Sasha died, I was married with two young sons. When we were ready to open our home to another pet, they both wanted a kitten. Instead of a breeder, we went to a shelter called “Love at First Sight.” A decade before that same shelter had taken a litter of puppies I ended up with after a friend and I rescued a pregnant, abandoned dalmatian. I was so grateful that I promised I would adopt from them if I ever decided to have another pet. The day I returned to fulfill my promise, they only had two kittens. They were siblings and the last of their litter left at the shelter. How could we leave one behind? I easily convinced myself that since I had two boys, we should get two kittens.

Kendrick and Blackie (left) with Keaton and Stormy (right) shortly after we brought the kittens home in 2009.

Shortly after we brought Blackie and Stormy home, my youngest son made a new friend at school. Alex lived in our neighborhood, and Keaton wanted to try and find his house. We did and Alex’s mother and I soon became good friends. The first time Alex and Christina visited our house, they couldn’t get enough of the kittens. Christina had recently lost her cat, and she was thinking it might be time to adopt another. I mentioned that my sister lived on a farm in rural Mississippi and that she frequently found abandoned animals at the “pitch-in.” The pitch-in is a dumpster down the road from their farm, and, sadly, some people dump more than their trash.

The pitch-in dumpster near Leana and David’s farm in Vaughan, Mississippi.

Christina asked me to let her know the next time Leana found a kitten. “We might be interested,” she told me. If Christina thought it would be a while before Leana found another stray, she was mistaken. Right about the time I was telling Christina about my sister and the pitch-in, Leana found two tiny, flea-covered kittens huddled next to the dumpster. Less than a month later, my mother happily drove to Nashville to see her grandsons. She brought with her the now flea-free kittens and handed them to Alex. He named them Zeus and Athena.

Alex with Zeus and Athena on adoption day.

In the years since she found Zeus and Athena, Leana has rescued more cats and dogs than I can count and at least one duck. Sometimes she can find them homes, but, if not, she and her husband, David, add them to their menagerie.  At the moment their farm is overflowing. In addition to their own animals, which includes four dogs, two cats, and five horses, they have recently taken in a litter of six puppies that they found at the pitch-in. Not only did they have fleas, but they also all had varying degrees of mange. She took the whole group to the vet and immediately began treatment to get them healthy. One puppy, a little girl named Dolly, has found her forever home, but, at least for now, the rest remain with Leana and David. Unfortunately, the puppy count soon returned to six. Almost as soon as Dolly was settled in with her new family, another puppy was found wandering near the road by their farm. Leana didn’t hesitate. Lucky for the pups, their farm is nearly as big as Leana’s heart for animals.

The puppies at the pitch-in immediately before Leana and David brought them to their farm.

Not everyone is in a position to rescue lost and abandoned animals, and I am thankful for those who do. I’m also grateful for the many veterinarians who offer their services at a discount to those who rescue animals or who offer at-cost spay and neuter services. I wish I was able to do more to help the cause, but I am not a veterinarian and I do not live on a farm. I can assure you, though, that every animal I adopt from now until the end of my days will be a rescue. He or she will come from a shelter or perhaps from the pitch-in in Vaughan, Mississippi.

Top photo: Dolly at the farm shortly before being adopted. Although she is no longer available, four others are. If you are looking to add a new member to your family, please email me at kaylon@kaylonbrunertran.com and I will put you in touch with Leana and David.

Car Trouble

Car Trouble

Something that you may not know about me is that when I buy a car it is a long-term commitment. I will drive it into the dirt before I buy a new one. In July of 2022, I was driving a 2016 Mazda CX-5 that I absolutely loved and had no intention of replacing. I bought it right before my oldest son turned 16 and got his driver’s license. Once I got the Mazda, I gave him my 2008 Nissan Altima. The Nissan was a good car and being nearly 10 years old made it a perfect first car.

By the time Kendrick started college, the Nissan was a bit beaten up. The back side panel was dented, the trunk bore the scars of having the garage door close on it, and the driver’s side mirror had been knocked off half a dozen times. Kendrick didn’t really need a car at college, and so the Nissan stayed home with his brother. When Keaton left for Auburn two years later, he took the Nissan with him. By then the car had more than 150K miles on it, and I crossed my fingers hoping it would last until he graduated.

It did not.

This past summer when my car was in the shop, I had to drive the Nissan. It was a bit terrifying because sometimes the transmission would hesitate. You know how sometimes you need to accelerate quickly to pull out into traffic? Well, the Nissan frequently just said, “No. I’m not doing that.” I asked Keaton how long the car had been hesitating. He just shrugged and said, “A while.”

I took the car to the mechanic who had worked on it previously. He said the transmission was on its last leg but didn’t think the car was worth enough to replace it.  I couldn’t send my child back to school in a car with such a lackadaisical attitude, so I started looking at used cars. Unfortunately, my knowledge of cars is fairly limited. I know to change the oil and rotate the tires, but do I feel confident that I can pick out a gem of a used car? No. So I did exactly what Dave Ramsey tells us not to do—I bought a new CX-5 and gave Keaton the old one.

I knew Keaton wasn’t thrilled to be driving the Mazda. When I bought it years before, both the boys called it a “Mom car.” However, when I handed over the keys, Keaton wisely chose to just be grateful. Not cool is better than no car, right? And it was a good car. Not only did the transmission work, but everything worked, unlike the car my sister and I took to college. Our hand-me-down was a 1967 fastback Mustang. Sounds cool, doesn’t it?

It wasn’t.

For starters, it was puke green. Although I am reasonably certain that wasn’t how the Ford brochure described the color, “puke green” was an accurate description. By 1976 when my sister and I inherited the car from our parents, it already had a few eccentricities. It leaked oil so much that anytime we put gas in it, we also had to top off the oil. The A/C didn’t work in the summer, and the heat didn’t work in the winter. As an added bonus, the driver’s side door would freeze shut in the winter, and we had to climb in from the opposite side.

By the time we took the car to college, the car had also acquired a few dents and dings. The most significant of which was the result of Leana driving into a basketball goal. After that, the green machine always looked like it was snarling, and occasionally the hood would fly open while we were driving.

Perhaps the most annoying of the car’s idiosyncrasies was that somewhere along the line it stopped being able to drive in reverse. Not being able to back up made parking a real challenge. 

Eventually we got rid of that car. My sister graduated from college, got a job, and bought her first new car. I was given another hand-me-down. It was big and ugly, and I referred to it as “the tank.” Since it had a bench front seat, the passenger side didn’t adjust on its own. I’m on the short side and had to keep the seat shoved close to the steering wheel. Unfortunately, all my college friends were tall. Anytime someone rode with me, they sat in the back and I sat up front by myself. But I never complained. The car was reliable, had both heat and air conditioning, AND could even be driven in reverse.

I’m glad I was able to give my children better cars than what Leana and I had in our early driving days. I am also glad my parents never gave me a new car. They gave me the privilege of buying my first new car myself. And it was a privilege. It was the most adult thing I had ever done in my life. It was both exciting and terrifying, and I wouldn’t want to deny my boys that experience.

Photo: Although I didn’t have a photo of the Mustang Leana and I drove, the one above is a good representation–all it needs is the snarl on the front end.

Midnight Writer

Midnight Writer

By the time this article is in print, I will have published three novels. I never planned to write a novel, let alone a trilogy, but my brain just woke me up one night and gave me no choice.

Isaac Asimov, a famous scientist-turned novelist, has been credited with saying, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny …” As a scientist for nearly 30 years, I can attest to that. When things go exactly as planned, breakthroughs are rarely made. However, when something unexpected happens and you are able to figure out why, that’s when science leaps forward.

Many times I have lain in bed pondering some unusual result and trying to understand what the data meant. Occasionally my sleeping brain will put the pieces together and wake me up with a crystal-clear understanding of the surprising findings. When that happens, I am instantly awake no matter the time, and I must write it down lest I forget. In January of 2021, I woke in the middle of the night with a solution to a very different problem.

Three years ago I bought four AncestryDNA kits for my family. I thought it would be interesting to see our genetic makeup since my children are a mix of Asian and Caucasian. A few months after we received our results, I was contacted by a man from California. He had recently and unexpectedly learned he was part Vietnamese. AncestryDNA told him he was related to my children and their dad, and he reached out to us hoping to find his birth mother. Over the next few months, my newfound relative’s story began to unfold. What we learned was fascinating, but many questions were left unanswered. I often found myself lying awake in bed wondering how things had happened—what events had led his birth mother to make the choices she had made? But even if the answers were known, it was none of my business. I had no right to ask, no right to probe for more. It wasn’t my story to investigate.

Then in the middle of the night, I woke up and instantly knew that I should write my own version of my new relative’s story, a novel inspired by the one told through his DNA. That very night I wrote the first two chapters of Time Intertwined. Over the next few months, I would often lie in bed thinking about events that needed to happen in my novel and wonder how I could make the story develop in a realistic way. Just like my previous experience with our research data, if I later woke with the answer, there was no going back to sleep. For this reason, much of Time Intertwined was written in the wee hours of the night.

Midnight Writer by Kaylon Bruner Tran was originally published in the October/November 2022 Issue of The Relatable Voice Magazine.

It was also in the dead of night when I realized I should weave a bit of science into Time Intertwined. Like so many soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, it occurred to me that one of my characters should be exposed to Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide used during the war. It was supposed to be harmless to humans, but it wasn’t. Much of our lab’s scientific research focuses on understanding the generational effects of Agent Orange exposure. Although many still dispute that the children and grandchildren of those exposed can be affected, our data and that of others proves that it can. 

After Time Intertwined was published, I continued to find myself lying awake and thinking about my characters. I missed them and wondered what happened to them next. I also felt I had not said enough about Agent Orange and the devastating effects that chemical continues to have more than 50 years after the spraying stopped.

And so, one summer night a few hours before dawn, the Agent Orange Trilogy was born.



Today is my older sister’s birthday. I could have gotten her a gift, but public embarrassment sounded like something she would really enjoy. So here we go.

Growing up, people always said I was the smart one while Leana was more athletic and adventuresome. Here’s an example. One of my earliest memories of my sister was on a road trip with our parents. I was around five years old, so she would have been around seven. We were probably driving from Mississippi to Arkansas to have Thanksgiving with extended family. We had a big station wagon with a roof rack over the back end. My parents were in the front seat, and I was in the back seat. My sister should have also been in the back seat, but she wasn’t. I suppose she got bored and looked around to see what she could do to entertain herself. Being the adventurous one, she rolled down the back window and climbed out. She stood on the back bumper while holding on to the roof rack. Again, road trip. Interstate. I have no idea what the speed limit on I-40 was back in 1969, but I am positive my dad was exceeding it.

I watched my sister for a moment, and, being the smart one, I decided she really shouldn’t be doing that. I tapped my mom on the shoulder and said, “Mom.” She didn’t even look at me. Just told me she was talking to Dad. It took three tries before my mom got irritated enough to look at me. That’s when she saw Leana and made Dad pull over. My memory gets a little fuzzy after that, but I like to think I saved her life that day. And it’s a good thing, because she has pulled my butt out of the fire more than once since her highway adventure. She has also pushed me and encouraged me through many difficult days. She is even the reason my youngest son exists, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

School days. Kaylon (left); Leana (right). Taken about the time of the highway incident.

The first 10 years of my life I spent in awe of Leana. She could do anything and seemed to have no fear. She wasn’t much bigger than me, but if someone tried to bully me at school—well, you forgot she was little. To me, she was larger than life. And to anyone who made her mad by messing with me, she probably seemed larger than life to them too.

She could talk me into anything. One Saturday when I was in the first grade, we were looking for something to do. Although our mom was home, it was the seventies and we typically spent the day outside. Unsupervised. Our house had a detached garage. Behind the garage there was a large pile of hay and miscellaneous pieces of lumber. I’m pretty sure the matches were my idea, but it was Leana who decided we should set the hay on fire. Being the smart one, I asked how we would put the fire out, and she said we could just smother it with a piece of lumber. That plan actually worked pretty well until it didn’t. Not knowing what else to do, I left Leana tending the fire and went inside to tell our mom. You’d think after the highway adventure, she would take me a little more seriously when I tried to get her attention. She didn’t. By the time I got her outside, all of the hay was on fire. Mom called the fire department while a neighbor turned a water hose on the hay. Even though the fire was out by the time the firemen got there, we still made the local news the next day. Mom was not amused, and we got in trouble all over again.

Leana during college.

The second 10 years of my life, I just wanted to be Leana. She seemed to have everything. Pretty, smart, athletic, popular, talented. Guys were always vying for her attention. When I was finally old enough to try out for softball, I naturally wanted to be on Leana’s team. She was an excellent and versatile player. Shortstop, catcher, even pitcher when needed. The coach was THRILLED to have Leana’s younger sister on the team and didn’t even make me try out. He just accepted me thinking I would be just as athletic as Leana. He likely never made that mistake again.

When I was 15 or so my dad taught me how to drive. Neither of us enjoyed the experience. A couple of years later, when I wanted to learn to drive my mom’s car, a five-speed MGB, it was Leana who taught me how to drive a stick shift. She also taught me how to multitask while driving—no easy feat when you need one hand dedicated to shifting. Her talents never ceased to amaze me.

After I graduated from high school, I never seriously considered any college other than Delta State—my sister’s school. We didn’t spend much time together during those days, but I felt better knowing she was nearby. After she graduated, I finally had to figure out life on my own. I managed, but even before the days of cell phones, I knew she was only a phone call away.

Kaylon (left) and Leana (right) as twenty-somethings.

When I got married, my husband thought he wanted a large family. He grew up the oldest of five and always expected to have as many children as his parents. I was not fully committed to a big family, and so we decided to start with one and “see how it goes.” After Kendrick was born, my husband decided maybe one was enough. He loved Kendrick so much and felt we could take better care of him if the family stayed small. Well, having grown up with the best sister in the world, I could not imagine my son being an only child.

A recent photo. Kaylon (left) and Leana (right).

Although Kendrick and Keaton fought a lot when they were younger, they also had plenty of misadventures together. Still, I’m not sure they would be friends if they weren’t brothers. I know Leana and I would be friends even if she wasn’t my sister. I guess that makes me the lucky one.

Top photo: Leana (left) and Kaylon (right) in 1966.

Moving Days

Moving Days

It’s the start of a new school year, and while most of my neighbors are sending their children off to one of the nearby middle or high schools, a few of us are shipping ours off to college. This year I have a sophomore at Auburn University in Alabama and a senior at High Point University in North Carolina. The fact that these schools are nowhere near each other and multiple hours drive from Nashville complicates moving day. The only thing that saved me is that classes at Auburn start a week before classes at High Point. For this reason, I was able to help them both move into their dorms.

Auburn, Alabama: Child #2; Trip #1, 240 miles

Keaton worked 40-hour weeks all summer long and was clearly tired of it. He was anxious to go back to school and didn’t complain when we packed the vehicles the night before we left. He was even ready to go the next morning at 7:20 A.M.—10 minutes ahead of schedule. He’s never ahead of schedule, and so I wasn’t ready. I had built a 30-minute cushion into the schedule anticipating Keaton being slow. Of course, I wasn’t about to admit that, so I quickly threw a few things into an overnight bag and we hit the road right at 7:30.

Thankfully, the drive was uneventful. Although I worried incessantly that one of the soft-sided car top carriers that each of our vehicles sported would come flying off, neither did. We made it to Auburn in time to grab lunch prior to his pre-arranged move-in time. We pulled into the parking lot, and I asked Keaton, “Are you sure this is the place?” He was. All I can say is that dorms have come a long way since I was in college. The dorm he will be living in used to be rented as apartments. I’m guessing they weren’t cheap because they are spacious with lots of amenities. The school recently bought the property and now uses it for student housing. I’m glad he has nice digs, but good grief. I expect it will be several years after he graduates before he can afford an apartment that nice. No wonder so many kids these days seem to be on the five-year college plan. When I was in college, living in a dumpy room and sharing a bathroom down the hall with a dozen other people was motivation to graduate early.

Keaton standing on his balcony that overlooks the pool.

Keaton spent the night in his apartment-like dorm while I stayed in a local hotel. The next morning, I stopped by to see him before I headed back home. Leaving him was harder than I expected. I reminded myself that he is in a good place and is happy—exactly what we as parents want for our children. We have to let them go, but dang is it hard! I hugged him one more time, and then as I was leaving I remembered I wanted to see the view from his balcony. Yes, his dorm has a balcony. No, mine did not. I stepped outside and looked down at a lovely view of a pool. A pool? What the heck? I’m paying for a POOL? Suddenly, leaving him wasn’t nearly as hard as making myself go home and go back to work. Instead, I wanted to be back in college, jump in the pool, and not think about where the money comes from to pay for it all. Adulting is hard. Is this cushy college life really preparing them for what is to come in the real world? I have my doubts.

High Point, North Carolina: Child #1; Trip #2, 374 miles

A week later it was Kendrick’s turn to go back to school. There was less to pack since most of his stuff stays in storage near the campus over the summer. He doesn’t take a car to school, so even though there is less stuff, it all has to fit into one vehicle. Once again, I wanted to pack the night before. We started with the soft-sided carrier, and although it was probably overkill since we had no issues on the Auburn trip, this time I added a couple of ratchet straps for extra peace of mind. Neither Kendrick nor I had ever used rachet straps, and we probably could have saved some time and foul language had we just watched a YouTube video first. By the time we had the top of the car loaded, we were both tired and cranky, and he wanted to wait and finish loading in the morning. Since it is a seven-hour drive and we lose an hour, I wanted to leave at 6:00 A.M. Thus, I reasoned, we should finish packing that night. We compromised by putting everything in the car except his computer and a few things he hadn’t packed yet. I went to bed, and he promised to have everything else ready to go by 5:00 A.M.

Let’s just say our definition of “a few things” is not the same. We had left space for his computer but not the dozen other things he couldn’t live without. He looked at the nearly full car and the numerous items left in the foyer and dejectedly announced that there was no way it would all fit. Well, back in the early days of computer gaming, I was a master at Tetris. I took his proclamation as a challenge. It took two hours, but I remain a champion. Everything fit. We left at 7:20 A.M.

Kendrick on the porch of his HPU apartment.

Nearly eight hours after leaving home, we pulled onto campus. Like Auburn, High Point University has a lot of really nice housing. For the last three years, Kendrick has shared an on-campus suite with other students. The accommodations were rather upscale and far nicer than the dorms available during my own college days. This year, Kendrick’s time slot to pick housing was later than usual, and, like Keaton, he ended up in a university-owned apartment adjacent to the campus. However, unlike Keaton’s recently built apartment that has as many bathrooms as bedrooms, Kendrick’s apartment dates back to the fifties. It has two small bedrooms and one tiny bathroom that he will share with his roommate. Despite its shortcomings, Kendrick loves it because it feels like a real apartment instead of a dorm. I love it too. It has everything he needs, but there is absolutely nothing fancy about it. It’s exactly like something he might be able to afford when he gets that first job after college. It seems like an appropriate transition to help prepare him for the real world. Maybe Auburn has something similar for Keaton next year. I think I’ll ask.