Monday, December 27, 2010

Fancy Funerals


Some think a fancy funeral will be worth every cent
But every dime and nickel will be money better spent
Better spent on groceries or covering the bills
Instead of little luxuries or unnecessary frills

Lovely yellow daffodils and lacy filigree
Pretty little angels for everyone to see
Lily of the valley and long black limousines
It's three or four month's salary just to pay for all these things.

So don't buy a fancy funeral, it's not worth it in the end
Goodbyes can still be beautiful without the money that you spend
There's no amount of riches that will bring back what you've lost
To satisfy your wishes, no way to justify the cost.
--Lucinda Williams

I know a little about funerals. I've been to hundreds of them.

As a teenager, I worked summers and weekends for a burial vault company. I was the guy who put the concrete vault in the freshly dug grave. I laid out the fake grass, put up the tent, set up the chairs for the bereaved family, and otherwise arranged all the flowers and other trappings you find at the typical graveside service.

I did this in country church cemeteries that might only have one burial every year or two and in the city cemeteries that had a permanent caretaker who cut grass and kept everything neat and tidy.

They say you never forget your first, and I haven't forgotten mine. Her name was Maddie Smith. There were four people in attendance that day: the preacher, the funeral director, the grave digger, and me. I was so affected that I believe I went home and wrote a bad poem about it: "Maddie Smith is Dead in Alabama."

Through five years of funeral services of all sizes and descriptions, I developed a few observations and opinions on burial practices. I've seen and heard a lot of things behind the scenes. Let's just say I'm not a fan of the funeral "industry."

Morticians, funeral directors, headstone salesmen, and others directly associated with the funeral business are a nasty lot. I'm sure there are exceptions to this sweeping generalization, but I haven't met any. They are skilled emotion manipulators who excel at transferring grief into big bucks. If grief doesn't work they will attempt to appeal to your vanity.

You will be told you need the super deluxe burial vault (guaranteed not to leak for fifty years), the ten thousand dollar stainless steel casket, the ornate granite headstone and solid bronze marker. It is what your loved one deserves. Don't you want the best? And after you purchase all these luxuries (none of which perform as advertised), they smile all the way to the bank.

I'll give you a personal example. When we buried my father, we sat in an office with a marker salesman who presented us with two options. There was a tremendous difference in price. When my grieving mom asked the difference, this jackass replied "Well, you know, there are Cadillac people and there are Chevrolet people."

Huge mistake in judgment on his part. Yes there are two kinds of people. We were, and still are, Chevrolet people.

I found that most of these shysters feign kindness and sympathy, at least until you are gone and the check clears.

I first realized that it was all an act at a graveside when the mourners returned to their cars and pulled away in the procession. The funeral director turned to me and said "Move it, boy. Let's get this sumbitch in the ground. I'm taking my wife out to eat tonight."

So take a little advice from Lucinda and a man who has seen and heard a lot in the funeral business. Skip the fancy funeral. Use the money to honor your departed loved one in another way. Pay some bills, or give the money to charity where it can help the living. Remember your loved one with friends and family in a personal way. Reminisce: laugh, cry, and comfort one another.

Honor the memories and skip the vanity. It's not worth the cost.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Day After Christmas



It is the day after Christmas and all through the house, not a creature is stirring--except for me. Outside, there is a dusting of snow, the remains of the first white Christmas this old Alabama hillbilly has ever seen. Inside, the beautiful Redhead is still fast asleep upstairs, her favorite old quilt pulled up to her nose. Beside the bed, the widow Dolly, still grieving and needy, snores and probably dreams of her lost love.

I will meet Dolly's potential new beau tomorrow at our vet's office. A late Christmas present of a sort. He is a big strapping brindle male, two years old and well-trained (or so says the owner) who must be relocated due to a divorce. I am hopeful that he will be the one who will run beside her, racing along ahead of my ATV, sending gray squirrels bouncing along the ground toward safety in the trees. Maybe he will be the one to play tug-of-war with an old blanket left in the yard for that purpose. He will be the one who lays beside her in a sunny patch of ground on a cold Alabama day. Because as a suave crooner used to sing "Everybody needs somebody sometime..." He was right, for dogs as well as people.

Santa was good to me. Beside me is a stack of books almost two feet high, most of which were written by people I know or have seen at book fairs and writer's conferences. Books written by fellow southerners who have succeeded at their craft, who inspire me to work harder to write something worth reading.

There is A.M. Garner's "Undeniable Truths"; Rick Bragg's "I am a Soldier, Too"; Tom Franklin's "Crooked Letter Crooked Letter"; Janis Owens' "My Brother Michael"; and William Gay's "Provinces of Night" and "Twilight." These are books filled with words I will savor, chewing each sentence like a fine fillet, as if I could absorb some of the magic that inscribes the word to the stark white empty spaces of the blank pages.

These are books I will hold in my hands. I will admire their covers, feel their heft, turn their stiff pages until they become well-worn with the turning and re-turning. And hopefully someday, at the next conference or book fair, I will hand them to their creators and ask them to autograph and personalize my treasures.

In other homes across the land, others will hit the "on" button on infernal machines with names like Kindle, Nook, Hanlon, Ipad, and LIBRIe. They will download and read their "e books" without leaving the comfort of their homes. But they cannot and will not have the same experience. Their magic will be different from mine. My magic is stronger, more powerful, because it is physical, sensual, and above all personal. It requires real work, physical exertion, sweat, and sometimes even blood to produce. It is even "green", requiring the use of renewable resources in it's creation.

My hip friends scoff at me--tell me what I am missing--call me a dinosaur. It is the future, they say. But I don't care. Let the future pass on by this hillbilly. I am comfortable with my mojo. It suits me just fine.

Black ink on white paper. It is a glorious, mystical thing. May it live forever.

And maybe, just maybe, one day "Words not on Paper" will become words on paper. That would be real magic.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Repent (Change Your Mind)

I have never been to Galilee
Walked up and down the dusty hills
Surrounded by hypocrites, whores and freaks
Catching fish to pay the bills.

I’m sure His words from long ago
Still hold the truth for ears today
Enough to make me change my mind
Enough to give my gold away.

But I guess the world is still the same
Not much has changed since those ancient days
We’re still hypocrites, whores, and freaks
Not really willing to change our ways.


I hope you will join me and take a moment to remember the story of the man from Galilee this Christmas. It is good news.

I know some of you will dismiss His story without consideration based on what you have seen and heard of it. I can't say that I blame you.

But please don't dismiss Him because of those who claim to be His people.

He is not the television evangelist stealing money from the sick and the old.

He is not the preachers who advocate prosperity as Gospel.

He is not those who twist His words to push a political agenda.

He is not those who try to make you follow rules instead of the Man.

He is not among those who have dismissed you, excluded you, labeled you, made you feel that they believe they are better than you.

Read His words. Listen to what He says to you. Make up your own mind about who He is and what He did. His story is above all a personal story, and it was written and done just for you.

Merry Christmas from a little patch of ground in Alabama. I hope you find true peace and joy on your little patch of ground.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fear Not

"Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy..." Luke 2:10

"From the firefly, red orange glow. See the face of fear running scared in the valley below." u2

Fear.

It was present at the first Christmas. Simple shepherds, the lowest rung on the economic ladder, received the first news of the birth of a Savior with fear and trembling. The angelic announcement was of the arrival of a Messiah who would establish a new kingdom, one not built with human hands. A kingdom with humble origins that would last forever. A King who would level the playing field for rich and poor alike. A babe born into poverty who would later identify with the outcasts of society, more comfortable with misfits and sinners than with kings and religious leaders. A Man who asked for nothing but simple belief and trust.

Fear.

It is still present this Christmas. I see it in a lot of eyes here in what some believe is "God's Country," as if we were His favorite.

It is the fear that all that was good and honorable and decent in this nation is past. That this earthly kingdom's greatness cannot be recovered or restored. That what we once had here has been ruined by politics, greed, and apathy.

I see it in the eyes of the man who has lost his job and cannot find another. So much of a man's identity is in what he does. When that is lost, a soul-jarring desperation sets in, deep and dark as the blackest night.

I see it in the eyes of some of the old, who live in one of the richest nations on earth and yet must often choose between their prescriptions and their power bills.

I hear it in the conversations of many otherwise sensible middle-class men, who are stockpiling guns and ammunition because they no longer trust their government.

I see it in the faces of men and women who both work, sometimes more than one job, but still cannot keep up with their escalating debt. People who are trading their children, their relationships, and everything really important in their lives to support a desire for more "stuff."

I hear it in the whispered conversations of the owners of small businesses, who have leveraged everything they have in order to stay open these last two years. They have no options left, and if "things don't turn around soon," are facing bankruptcy and the loss of years of work.

I see it, hear it, smell it--everywhere I go.

If I have learned anything from all this fear it is that what is really important is not what we have, but who we are, who we love, and Who we are loved by.

I, too, have felt the fear. But through these difficult, dark days I have found moments of pure joy. I've found it in the accomplishments of two great sons; in the encouraging words of family; in holding a new baby; in the bond of friendships old and new. It has arrived in a smile, a touch, a song, or beautifully arranged words. Moments of life that cannot be bought with cash or credit.

If you are among the fearful I hope you find some peace and joy this Christmas season.

Fear not. It had a nice ring to it, like Christmas bells.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Man's Best Friend


It has been three years ago today that I lost my best friend.

There is something wrong with a man who has loved a dog more than most of the people he has known. Then again, there is something wrong with a man who is loved by a dog more than most of the people who have known him. I plead guilty on both counts.

One day I will write the story of this dog, but not today. After three years, the wound is still too tender, too painful.

Time, they say, heals all wounds, and grief will eventually fade away. I say they are wrong. Some wounds do not heal. They scab over, true, but they cannot heal because the scab is continually knocked off.

Every day I leave for work, and he is not there, pleading to go with me. Destination unimportant. The desire to just be by my side the only requirement.

Every day I return, and he is not sitting in the driveway, waiting expectantly. Each day's reunion like I had been gone for years and not hours.

It was that link between us that proved to be the strongest. On this morning three years ago I found him laying by my truck, already too cold but still breathing shallowly. It was as if he was waiting for me to give him a final ride across the Great Divide.

I got a final look of recognition, and a few minutes later he died in my lap. It was as it should have been, and I am eternally grateful for that.

Today I will be the one standing in the driveway. There will be no reunion, but there will be memories that will last forever.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Age Has Its Privileges

Part of the Christmas season is that church services tend to run a bit long. Christmas music by choirs and ensembles, lighting of Advent candles, and other holiday traditions can stretch the usual Baptist hour into something a little longer.

Makes it hard to beat the dad gum Methodists to the Sunday buffet.

We were talking about this the other day, and the Redhead mentioned a special lady from our hometown church years ago. I had almost forgotten dear old Mrs. Looney.

Mrs. Looney was a fixture at our church. It was a church of about 150 members, so most people knew each other. I doubt she ever missed a Sunday service during my childhood there.

Mrs. Looney sat on the left side of the sanctuary, first seat on the second row. She sat there every Sunday for, oh I don't know, something like a hundred years. If someone came in early and took that seat (even a new visitor), Mrs. Looney would inform them that they were "in her seat." And they would move--period. I know most modern church-goers would be horrified by such an action. But I remember it with a smile. Old age has its privileges. They are earned.

Mrs. Looney also believed in schedules. If a service began to go long, she knew how to deal with it. At noon, when the service was supposed to end, her car keys came out of her purse, and I can assure you that they did not come out discreetly. It was a signal to the preacher--wrap it up old hoss, I've got places to go and things to do.

There are a lot of Sundays I miss you, Mrs. Looney. The fried chicken is getting cold.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Abomination of Desolation


The days tick off one by one, and Christmas day bears down on me like a runaway train. I stand frozen on the tracks, knowing that I must get moving soon or be flattened. It was a day that seemed to take forever to arrive so many years ago when I was a child. Now it sneaks up on me like a final exam in a class that I skipped way too many times.

As I write this, I look across the den at an artificial Christmas tree. It is tastefully decorated by the Redhead, and yet I hate it. No, I despise it. No wait, I loathe it. It is an abomination. I think of the Scripture: "and when you see the abomination of desolation standing in the place where it aught not be, flee for the hills...."

A forester with an artificial Christmas tree. It is Monet deciding to paint a velvet Elvis. It is Anthony Bourdaine eating at McDonalds. It is washing down a canned biscuit with a glass of instant iced tea. As we sometimes say here in Alabama, "it just ain't right."

The abomination was purchased about three years ago. It was a marital compromise. Perhaps compromise is not the right word. I just wore down. Years of complaints about the mess, trouble, and expense of a real tree took a toll. Real trees dry out. They drop needles. They must be disposed of after Christmas. All valid points. I relented. Go ahead and buy the fake tree---whatever.

As I assembled the plastic and wire perfectly-shaped replacement this year, I noticed a large pile of plastic needles on the floor. I said not a word. Sometimes marital harmony is best preserved with an internal smile and simply walking away. A secret satisfaction of sorts.

I will summon my courage and enter the fray this weekend to do my Christmas shopping. I will buy useless, unnecessary gifts for loved ones who lack nothing out of some misplaced sense of obligation or guilt. I will be bumped into, pulled out in front of, cut off, and probably cursed at some point by fellow shoppers. But I will get it done for another year. Joy to the world, peace on Earth and goodwill to men.

I feel a long way from Bethlehem. And like my tree, that is an abomination.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Celebration



A cold North wind is howling outside my window this morning. It is a wind of change.

Most of the remaining leaves will be stripped from the hardwoods in the gale. They have put up the good fight, but like all living things they must return to the dust from which they came. Their sentinels will stand naked against the cold, awaiting renewal in the Spring. Warmth will bring twig, bud, and then new leaf. The cycle will continue until the Great Voice issues the final command: "Cease."

Inevitable, this change, but the spirit of the living fights and rages against it. The only variable in the equation is the strength of this spirit, this will, that hangs on and fights against it tooth and nail.

There is something admirable and noble in this will, even if the outcome is inevitable.

Today I will attend the 50th wedding anniversary of a dear aunt and uncle. They have weathered well through some changes, and have persevered with will, spirit, and determination.

There will be smiles and laughter, hugs and tears--the stuff of sentimental occasions. But only they will truly know the steps of their journey, for only they have taken them along a road of 18,250 sunrises and sunsets.

It has been a road filled with happy times. Children and grandchildren, friends and family. Times shared that only two souls joined as one can know.

But it has also had it's times of unfathomable sadness. The loss of a child. Two serious car accidents. Gravesides and disappointments, lean years and sorrow.

The road ahead is uncertain, but they will walk on hand in hand. They are a happy reminder that some still do get it right the first time.

Happy Anniversary, dear ones. You are an inspiration to us all. Love is real, and sometimes it lasts forever.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thrift Store Blues

If you follow this blog, you know that I sometimes write a poem and have even toyed with a few Country Music songs.

I wrote this little ditty for my friend Jennifer, who won third place in a country music contest with a song we co-wrote called the "Laptop" song. You can watch Jennifer's rendition here.

Jennifer hasn't put this one to music, partly because she likes thrift stores and partly because it doesn't fit her smooth, soulful singing style.

I'll admit the rhythm of this one is more suited to a Jerry Reed/Tim Wilson type singer.

Hope you get a Monday smile from it, if nothing else.

Thrift Store Blues

I got a bad case of the Thrift Store Blues
Walking dirty aisles in my worn out shoes
No make-up on and unwashed hair
Sorting through some lady's used underwear

Well they say it’s a bad economy
That’s made a thrift shopper out of me
Sifting through other people’s old junk
With a pasted on smile to try and hide my funk

They got pots and pans and old text books
But the manager keeps giving me dirty looks
The twins are crying for a toy they need
And Bubba just rolled by on an old ten speed

I got a bad case of the Thrift Store Blues
From the top of my head down to my shoes
Well I know that we got bills to pay
And things’ll get better, one of these days
But this ain’t the kind of shopping that I was meant to do.

Good Lord what’s a woman like me supposed to do?


You promised me a life of wedded bliss
But instead you delivered all of this
Four crying young ‘uns and bills to pay
Ain’t the picture that you painted on our wedding day.

While you’re off fishing and drinking beer
Me and the kids are stuck right here
Trying to find a fan before the weather gets hot
With our beat-up old van in the parking lot.

Momma told me not to marry you
Said I’d end up with a case of the Thrift Store Blues
Shuffling along flat broke and sad
Said you was ‘no count’ just like my dad

If I could go back and start over again
I’d run with a better group of friends
Find a good-looking man with money who’s smart
Then I could do my shopping at the Super Walmart.

I got a bad case of the Thrift Store Blues
From the top of my head down to my shoes
Well I know that we got bills to pay
And things’ll get better, one of these days
But this ain’t the kind of shopping that I was meant to do.

Good Lord what’s a woman like me supposed to do?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Game-changer

The sun is rising, almost tentatively, as I have my first cup this morning. A glance out the window reveals a light white dusting on the ground. As I quietly step onto my back porch, I am hit with the cold air--air that was in Canada only a few days ago. It has made a long journey across a continent, hiding all the way behind yesterday's wall of rain.

It is a pattern that will be repeated over the next few months. A part of a cycle that has been occurring for thousands and thousands of years.

The dusting is frost. It coats the grass and the unraked leaves in my corner of central Alabama. It is beautiful to me--not as lovely as the landscape whitened by snow--but this, as I said, is Alabama. We only get that visitation every few years.

This frost is our first of the year in my little corner of the State. It is a game-changer.

Cold is hard on the little things. The birds will have to work for their breakfast this morning. The whitetail deer will have to change his habits, leaving the heavier cover of the forest for the more open areas where the warmth of the sun can penetrate. The squirrels will wait until mid-morning before leaving the warmth of their leafy nests.

My dog could care less. She is snoring heavily on a blanket at the foot of my bed. Dreaming, perhaps, of chasing one of the squirrels. Or perhaps she still dreams of her lost love.

The game has changed, but it continues. It is not unexpected, after all.

Every ending a new beginning.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

About the Blog


I've been blogging for a little over two years now.

It's been an experience that I've really enjoyed. It's allowed me to make new friends over the Internet and reconnect with old friends that I haven't heard from in years. I'd have to say it's been worth the experience just for that benefit alone.

I've managed to attract a small but apparently loyal group of readers, and for that, I'm thankful. Your kind comments have encouraged me to work harder to be a better writer. I have a ways to go (a little Southern expression, that), but I'll keep working as long as you keep reading.

I try to write about things that interest me and hopefully will interest you. In some cases we "connect"; other times we don't. I'm often surprised by the posts readers appear to like, and some that I think are really good work that fall totally flat.

At this point, I do feel the need to clarify an apparent misconception about the blog. I think some readers have figured this out, while others haven't quite caught on.

I consider myself a writer and not a journalist. The distinction is subtle, but one that needs to be understood.

A journalist (by my definition) should stick to the facts. He or she sees, questions, and reports. Such writing should be classified as "non-fiction."

A writer, on the other hand, crafts a story. It may be fiction or non-fiction, or a combination of both.

My writing is a combination of both, sometimes in a single post. I write some things that are true stories in a journalistic fashion, and I write some things that are based on real people and events, but they have been "spiced up" a bit in an attempt to write a better story.

What I'm telling you is this: "This ain't no personal diary." It is written for enjoyment--hopefully mine and yours. So if I write about the expectations of high school reunions or heading down to Mexico on a motorcycle or having the blues on Sundays, don't read too much into it about me personally. The writer is not the story--the story is the story.

Some of what I write is straight from my heart. Some of it is not.

I hope you will continue reading and maybe we can figure out which is which--together.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Control

My forestry work lately has consisted primarily of setting a lot of fires.

Surprised? I expect so. But in spite of what that stupid bear has told you for the last 50 years, fire can be good for the forest. Indeed, it is essential in most cases for the establishment of a new forest. The Southern Pines in particular require fire for their survival and early growth.

Foresters can't take credit for the practice. Historical evidence and the writings of early European explorers has shown that the Native Americans were using fire for such purposes before the New World was even a gleam in Queen Isabella's eye.

The burning I've been doing is called site preparation burning. It is the process of manually burning the debris left from logging (unusable portions of previously harvested trees like limbs and tops), as well as brush, undesirable plants (briars, vines, and weeds), and standing trees that were already dead and therefore unusable at the time of harvest. All of this is done to prepare the site for planting pine seedlings. Planting is done mostly by hand, and almost always by workers from south of the border. This will occur from late November until about mid-April.

Most years, such burning takes place in September and October. This year, we had a drought which prompted a statewide burning ban. So we are behind in our work. It is a mad dash of sorts to complete the schedule before winter rains begin.

Fires that foresters start are also called prescribed burns because they have a definite plan and purpose. The burn area is chosen based on the amount of fuel, the wind speed and relative humidity predicted for that day, and of course, what lies around or near the burn area. Houses, highways, young trees, and other features that might be adversely affected must be accounted for in any burn plan.

These fires are also called controlled burns.

Controlled. Under my command. As in, "I call the shots, here." "You do what I say Mr. Fire." "Who's your daddy."

Yeah, right.

I've participated in hundreds of these so-called "controlled" burns, and I've yet to see one that I was confident I had control over. One little change in wind speed or direction from that predicted--one little spark or ember that blows across the containment line--and control quickly becomes chaos.

I have witnessed a 50 foot tall wall of flame advancing across an area where it should not be. I have seen fire tornadoes that suck burning debris off the ground to deposit it hundreds of yards across property lines.

I have seen the devil dancing in the flames.

And I have experienced that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realize that the game is over--any measure of control is lost. Time to call in reinforcements: men with big machines, fire trucks, and an insurance agent or two. Maybe even a good lawyer.

Control, in life as in fire, is an illusion. We like to believe we have it, but we never really do.

We can make our plans and chart our course. But there are just too many external factors that interact with our plans: a change in the economy, illness, politics, failures in others that we were depending on. Failure in ourselves to stick with the plan. An unexpected "spark" falling from a clear blue sky that ignites chaos.

Do you have things under control? Really?

My response to you: "HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA." You better call for back-up.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Morning Coming Down

"On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
Lord I'm wishing I was stoned.
'Cause there's something 'bout a Sunday
that makes a body feel alone."

Kris Kristofferson

Sundays sometime give me the blues.

It's a beautiful day, and I've been up to see the sun rise. There is the nip of a cool breeze in the air. The remains of Fall leaves, fighting hard to retain their yellows, reds and oranges, contrasted against the Alabama blue sky. This blue sky that songs and poems have been written about.

Thousands will congregate in houses of worship soon. They'll sing, study and pray to a good and merciful God, One who is worthy of their worship, who created all of this I write about and enjoy.

Some will be sincere, and some will only be going through the motions. Acting, pretending--there for reasons only they know. Only God knows which are which.

I will be there too.

But I will be there with a certain heaviness of heart, an unfulfilled longing of some sort. Perhaps a memory of days gone by. Perhaps a yearning for days to come. Perhaps none of the above. Maybe just a defect in the heart or emotions.

Some would say that it should be hard to feel lonely in a crowd--that friends and family and those that surround us should overcome such notions.

But like Kris, there is something about a Sunday that makes this body feel alone.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Mystery Solved?



It's been a very busy week in the woods of East Alabama. No rain, blue skies, and beautiful Fall weather aligned for plenty of field work for this forester.

I'm grateful for the work, but after about three straight days of plowing through brush, vines, and briers, an aging forester's legs begin to tire and his feet get heavy.

By Thursday, I began to trip and fall some. Fell down probably four or five times in two days. A couple of these falls were real face-planting nose-in-the-dirt masterpieces. If I was in film, I thing I might be nominated for an Academy Award-- "best fall in a woodland setting." I should at least be considered for a Golden Globe.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia for those of you who are interested in the quirks of human behavior. A man working alone in the woods who falls down will always quickly look around to see if anyone saw him fall. It must be in our DNA.

There are many mysteries in life--questions that have been pondered for ages:

"Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

"If man evolved from apes, why do we still have apes?"

"If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make any sound?"

I don't know the answers to these mysteries. But I do know that if a forester falls in the woods and nobody is around, he does make a sound. Usually something like "ooof."

The initial "ooof" may or may not be followed by other sounds that shall not be addressed in a family blog.

Use your imagination.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Cure

"It was an attitude adjustment--it made my whole life look brand new."
Hank Williams Jr.

An Internet friend of mine in Mexico recently wrote a post about the onset of arthritis in a couple of his fingers. I wrote him back to say that since he was in his 60's that I thought he was in remarkably good shape. At 48, I have some problems with two of the fingers on my right hand. I attribute this to high school football and a large number of fist-fights in my youth. He wrote back that he was surprised to learn I was "pugnacious."

Pugnacious? Oh yes, I was a scrapper in my early teens. Almost any provocation, however slight, could lead to a beating. It could be provoked by a laugh, a word, or even a look that I interpreted to imply that some guy thought he was "better" than me.

Need examples of head-busting verbal offenses?

"Love that haircut. Somebody put a bowl over your head?"

"Where did you get those shoes, the five and dime?"

"What's with the leisure suit? This ain't no birthday party."

I attribute my short fuse to genetics. I am one generation removed from the cotton mill village, a place where poor but proud people struggled to prove they were just as good as the more affluent folks that lived across the tracts. Although my dad grew up there, he escaped that life to make a find a job and home elsewhere. Maybe something in my DNA tied me to those earlier times when you had to be tough to survive.

I certainly didn't get the tendency to fight directly from my parents. I was raised in a Christian home, where following Jesus and His command to "turn the other cheek" was the rule. My dad always advised "walk away when you can, but don't get picked on or bullied." I took the second part of his advice, but selectively ignored the first.

Most of my fighting was in junior high, and mostly in gym class. Fighting was an offense that led to an automatic suspension from school from one to three days. Since coaches supervised gym, I always got away with fighting. I was on the school teams (football, basketball, etc.), and a suspension also meant I couldn't play whatever sport was in season. So you could say I was "protected" by the coaches. It was an arrangement I took advantage of, and like James Bond I felt I had a sort of "license to kill."

Now let me state here, dear reader, that I was not a "bully." I did not go around picking on or beating up kids smaller than me. I never fought without provocation, but I will admit that it didn't take a lot to provoke me. This was, after all, junior high, when large amounts of testosterone flood the male bloodstream. I didn't ever go looking for a fight, but I didn't have too much trouble finding one.

My mistake came in the hall one day between classes. I was talking to a pretty girl when a big upperclassman came by an intentionally bumped into me. I think he was about to say "Leave my girlfriend alone" but he never got the chance. I immediately tagged him square on the jaw, then proceeded to hit him with anything I could get my hands on--text books, gym bag, etc. I think I was taking off my belt to give him a proper beating when old Ms. Bennett walked out into the hall to see what all the commotion was about.

Not good. Ms. Bennett could have cared less that I played both ways on the football team.

A short walk to the Principal's office resulted in a one day suspension.

My dad didn't say anything when he arrived to take me home. That was a bad sign. I was raised with the stated rule that if you got in trouble at school, you could expect a double portion of the punishment you got there when you got home.

I could tell dad was angry--very angry. But I got nothing but the silent treatment.

Until the next morning, that is.

At five a.m., before the sun had even risen, my bedroom light was switched on.

"Get up and get dressed. Time to go to work."

"Sir?"

"Time to get to work. Since you don't think an education is important, I'll show you what an uneducated man has to do to make a living every day."

I spent the next twelve hours in various forms of manual labor. I cut grass. I raked leaves. I split and stacked firewood. I hauled brush. I washed cars. I did every possible thing he could think of until we ran out of daylight.

Then I went home and went to bed. I was exhausted.

The message was received. My school fighting days were over. In fact, I don't know that I ever fought again, except for maybe a few scuffles on the football field.

It's amazing how much you can learn about life in one day if you have a good teacher.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Love Story

"I am not a smart man. But I know what love is." Forest Gump.

I believe it was love at first sight.

I witnessed their first meeting, and I could almost see the spark of electricity that jumped between them. It is a rare thing, this phenomenon, but I believe it still happens on occasion. It is like lightning from a clear blue sky, or a rogue wave that hits the land without warning, washing away everyone and everything in its path.

They were an unlikely pair, a couple with more differences than similarities. A professional match-maker would have scoffed at the idea that they could fall in love and be happy together. There was just too much in their backgrounds and personalities to overcome.

She was of dubious heritage and bloodline, the youngest of a large family. She was used to hand-me-downs and being ignored. This made her try a little too hard to be noticed in social situations, as if trying to overcompensate for the attention she had been deprived of in her youth.

He had a distinguished family tree. The kind of family history that is recorded in Registers, with expectations that a high-brow blue-blood union would be in his future.

She was petite but pretty, with delicate features more akin to a china doll than a Grecian statue. She would never make the cover of a magazine or be "discovered" for the silver screen, but she had had the kind of plain wholesome beauty that the glamor girls often lack.

He was broad at the shoulder, wide in the chest, and narrow at the hip. He was rugged masculinity on display, all muscle and sinew rippling over big bones. He looked as if he could take down a bear if the occasion arose. You would not describe him as handsome, however, and his expression was often stern--except when he looked at her.

She was nervous and fidgety. Never completely still, she was given to pacing as if she always had something on her mind--some hidden worry or anxiousness.

He was laid back and easy-going. Some might even describe him as a bit goofy. Never seemed to have a care in the world. Despite his physique and stern look, he was happy-go-lucky. He was a lover, not a fighter, and his love was reserved for only one girl.

She could be moody and snappy with him. Sometimes she was even bossy. Not the kind of behavior that most "macho" guys would stand for.

He never seemed to mind. He was always loving and forgiving, letting unkindness pass without complaint or memory. He would shower her with kisses on such occasions, as if he could willfully love her out of her displeasure.

And so this unlikely match was pure love--the kind written about in fairy tales and old country songs. They were inseparable. They spent almost every waking moment together, and even when sleeping they were usually touching each other, as if by touch they could even be together in each other's dreams.

As intense love stories often go, this one ended much too soon. In a moment as brief and rare as their first meeting, the wink of an eye or the nod of a head, he was gone. The doctors still aren't sure what happened, but it appeared to be a heart attack. Struck down in his prime and too young to imagine such a fate could be possible.

And now she is left to grieve--and grieve she does.

Educated men have studied grief and written volumes on the subject. They postulate that there are definitive "stages" that must be passed through: denial, anger, acceptance, healing, and so forth. I don't know about all that. I just know that watching grief can be as heartbreaking as experiencing it yourself.

She is confused and sad. She finds herself looking for him out of habit, as if he will suddenly be there again. She walks from room to room and visits all their old familiar haunts. She rushes to meet each new visitor and thrills at the sound of an approaching car, as if she expects him to be returning to her side at any moment. And each time, there is a heavy sigh of disappointment when he is not found.

She has turned us for comfort. She does not want to be alone. And yet when we must leave her, we return to find her sitting and staring off into space, as if awaiting her lover's eminent return.

All of this worries me somewhat. I have seen this script too often. Love so powerful that is interrupted can lead to a quick demise of the remaining partner. It happens all the time. Johnny Cash didn't last long without his June. You knew it was coming, and I did too, and we were powerless to stop it.

You will probably say that I am a hopeless romantic. You may say that I am projecting feelings where there are none. You might even think I'm crazy. For this love story is about my two dogs, Dolly and Max.

All I can respond is that I know what I see. Dogs love and dogs grieve. They are as close to humans in these emotions as any members of the animal world.

And I have one who has lost her love and is grieving.






Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween



When I was a kid, there were only two holidays I looked forward to: Christmas and Halloween.

I grew up in the 60's in a small Alabama town where Halloween was--well, magic.

I remember spending hours thinking of what I wanted "to be" at Halloween. Those were the days before Walmart ate the South, but we we did have shopping options even then. In Sylacauga, we had Grants, a sort of small time version of the aforementioned abomination, and we also had a Woolworth's and a couple of five and dime stores. I loved looking at the "store bought" costumes and dreaming of what I could be on that scariest of nights. Marvel super heroes were high on the list, as were the monsters of the day: Frankenstein, the wolf man, the skeleton, and Dracula. Girls had a variety of witch costumes, along with ballerinas, princesses, and other "girly" options.

A lot of those years, dreaming was all I could do, but it was enough. I never got too many store bought costumes, as it was the 60's and money was tight. Several years I went trick-or-treating as a ghost. Po' folks know how to improvise, and two eye holes can convert an old bed sheet into a pretty scary ghost.

Then there was the selection of the pumpkin and the hours of planning associated with designing a proper jack-o-lantern. Should it be scary or funny? I usually chose scary. After all, it was a night to be delightfully frightened.

Halloween night was glorious for a kid in those days. We dressed up, pretending to be something we weren't, and waited for dark. Kind of like most adults do now on a daily basis.

First there was the trick-or-treat haul. In those magical days, you could hit a hundred houses and end up with a grocery bag full of candy and treats. We went all over town without a thought that there was any danger involved. After the town neighborhoods, we went to the cotton mill village across the tracks. Even the po' folks there were good for treats, though they were more likely to be "home-made" candy like caramel apples or popcorn balls. We never had fears that anyone would try to poison us or hurt us in any way, because people just didn't do that back in those days.

After the big candy haul, there were at least two Halloween carnivals: one at the city school and one at the county school. You could score some candy there too, but mostly you went to the various booths for trinkets. Drop a fishing pole line over a wall with a clothes pin as bait, and land a plastic whistle or set of vampire fangs. Throw a bean bag through a hole in a back board and win a fat Fred Flintstone pencil eraser or a piece of bubble gum. One year I scored a nifty plastic skull ring with fake ruby red eyes. I think I wore that treasure until the eyes fell out and it got so tight that I had to give it up or risk losing the finger.

When I got older, haunted houses became the rage. I got to be a part of a really good one as a teenager--which was sponsored, by the way, by my church. We had Frankenstein's lab (with an adult dressed as Frankenstein--complete, with neck bolts), an elaborate cardboard maze that you had to crawl through (completely in the dark), the feast of the damned (which involved lots of bloody teenagers sitting around a large table appearing to eat raw flesh), and several other "themed" rooms. It was a big hit in our town, and we raised lots of money for youth choir and mission trips the following summers.

Now I'll admit there were some tricks in those days. Major evil activities. You could be hit by an egg or have your yard toilet-papered.

I must pause here in this epic tale to make a clear, concise, statement of fact: at no time during these childhood revelries did I feel a compulsion to worship Satan. It was simply a night of pretending and fun. The innocence of childhood in all its glory.

But at some point, Halloween was hijacked. I think it probably started in the 80's.

People got mean, and there began to be a danger that the treats a child might receive could be tainted with drugs or poison. Hospitals began to offer free x-rays of treats to make sure they didn't contain razor blades or straight pins. You could no longer roam freely to get your treats--only to houses of people you knew. This was the Halloween trick-or-treating my kids experienced. It was not magic.

Then some of the churches decided that Halloween was evil. That it was a pagan holiday that could lead to all sorts of demonic spiritual problems. Halloween carnivals turned into "Fall Festivals" and haunted houses became "Judgment Houses" in which you were shown where you were headed if you didn't repent of your evil ways.

I remember the first time I heard this idea in church. The Redhead and I were in a Sunday School class with other couples who had young children. Before the Bible lesson, a young lady got up and read a prepared statement about the potential evils of Halloween, it's pagan history, and how we as good Baptists should not allow our children to participate.

I allowed her to finish, raised my hand, and stood to make an unsolicited opposing viewpoint. I wanted to say "Woman, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you nuts?" But I was, after all, in church, so I restrained myself. I simply pointed out that we had a lot more serious evil to worry about: drugs, pornography, child molesters, sex that was already becoming common among preteens, etc. And of course, divorce. Want to mess up a kid? Give him two or three sets of parents to deal with (I noticed several couples shifting in their chairs on that last one). If you want to fight evil, fight real evil. There's plenty around without looking for imaginary versions.

Funny thing, I still see that lady in church every Sunday. She won't speak or look me in the eye.

I realize that the Halloween of my youth is gone, and it's not coming back. Childhood innocence in general is gone. It was murdered by cable television, the Internet, and other forms of electronic entertainment. But mostly it was ruined by adults who don't want to be adults.

I think that's a real shame. I might even say that it's evil.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Song Writer's Contest

"...Like a preacher stealing hearts in a traveling show. It's all over money, money, money, money....and fever, getting hotter. Desire." u2

Last night was the finals in the Central Alabama Country Music Songwriter's contest.

You can read the story of this origins of the song here.

I wrote this country song as a joke. My friend Jennifer, a very talented artist, musician, and home-schooling mother of four thought it was funny and wrote the music to go with my lyrics. She performed it in my kitchen for the first time last summer. You can watch the original performance here.

Later on, my mom saw an advertisement in her small town newspaper about a country music songwriters contest in Central Alabama. We decided to enter with our song--again, just for fun.

Jennifer stole the show in the preliminary, winning first place. We had an automatic bid to the finals.

We arrived at an old high school gym in rural Coosa County last night to an audience of about one hundred mostly elderly country folks. Jennifer performed first, followed by ten other preliminary winners. As before, my talented friend absolutely stole the show.

We won third place. I was happy for Jennifer, but disappointed in the results. It was advertised as a "Country Music" contest, but first and second place winners sung "Gospel" songs with long spoken "tear-jerking" introductions about how Jesus helped them through this or that miserable situation in their lives.

Now no disrespect to my Savior intended here, but I'm not about to use Him to try to win a contest where the top prize is $300.

We did receive some justification in the end. Nashville songwriter Troy Jones was in attendance. He has written songs for country music stars like Kenny Chesney ("Shiftwork" and "Like Me"), Joe Nichols ("Shade"), and one of my favorites "People are Crazy.'

Troy made it a point to seek me out after the contest. "I liked your song," he said. "I thought it was the best in the contest."

Thanks Troy. We did too.

Here's the performance. Jennifer should be in Nashville, don't you think?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Movement

I'm out early this morning on the bike. A beautiful morning for a ride. Alabama blue skies and a brisk 58 degrees. Traffic is light but already beginning to build. L.S.U. is in town for an afternoon contest with Auburn, and the faithful from both sides are already converging on the Plains.

There is nothing like a motorcycle ride to clear your head and experience the complete sensation of movement. Other forms of transportation just don't stack up. The bike gives you the total package: the weather, the sights, the potentially life or death interaction with other vehicles, even the smells of the areas you pass through. The vibration of the motor running through your body like the pulse of blood through your veins. The feel of the imperfections of the road surface. It is the ultimate form of travel. Something you just can't experience within the enclosed confines of today's automobiles. Perhaps travel by horseback is a close second, but my country is too closed-in to make that practical.

I feel the need for movement. Dylan once said that movement was the key to writing. That there were many great writers who couldn't write because they weren't moving anywhere. I've thought a lot about this, and I believe he may be right.

Am I moving? I'm not sure. Lately it feels that if I am moving it is simply running in place. Neither forward nor backward. Something like the sensation felt when you sit at the railroad crossing as the train passes. That brief moment in time when your brain is unsure whether it's you that is moving or the train.

Movement.

If you are moving, you are headed away from something or toward something. At present I can't tell which is true for me.

But I feel the need to get moving.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fall in Focus

"Fall is the best time for remembering things--be they good or bad." Felipe Zapata

"I've been aware of the time going by, they say in the end it's the wink of an eye." Jackson Brown

Fall lends itself to a certain reflection and introspection. As I approach middle age (yes, I said "approach," not "reach," so shut it), I find myself more melancholy in the season, and yet it is still my favorite time of the year. I am refreshed by the cooler temperatures--but I feel a sense of sadness that another year of life has slipped away.

It strikes me that Fall is a good metaphor for middle-aged introspection.

Spring in Alabama is a shotgun blast. One day you notice the red maples are budding against the stark contrast of the gray hardwoods hillsides. A few days later the delicate white flowers of the dogwood appear. Then almost overnight--"BAM"--everything is suddenly green or blooming. Luxurious, flagrant, riotous greens of every shade and hue dominate. Views disappear, and green is the color of our world for one-half the year.

By contrast, Fall is a gradual process in Alabama. The temperatures begin to moderate around the first of October, and the nights cool as the month progresses. We usually have a light frost at some point, but the weather may warm back up to the low 80's in the daytime for the majority of the month. The season is fitful and moody, and like the woman in my previous post, sometimes just downright unfaithful.

This roller coaster ride of temperatures results in a gradual change in the vegetation that reveals a little more of the landscape each day. Trees burst into color then quickly fade to brown. Brown leaves begin to drop, a few more each day, extending the view into areas that have been hidden by lush vegetation for the previous six months. Creeks and hillsides come into focus where there were only shades of green before. Things long hidden are revealed. Forgotten landmarks are once again prominent.

Such is also the case as life reaches it's "normal" mid-point. Past choices, actions, and words are more often recalled and are open to reflection and examination. Good times, important relationships, and good choices come into clear focus and are fondly remembered. But regrets and a continual rehashing of "what if I had done this, went there, chose this, said that, etc" also occupy (and sometimes dominate) the mental landscape.

This is the crisis point. It is the feeling that you have opened and gone through a door with no way back to the other side. Choices have been made, the lot is cast, and the rest of the journey is already determined.

Some get off track at the crisis point and the result is a train wreck of a life. It is what Jerry Lee sang about in "Middle Age Crazy." New clothes, new car, new life, new spouse, and trying to prove you're still young.

Others handle the transition a little more gracefully. They focus on the good and minimize the failures of the past. They revel in travel, grandchildren, and pursuits they never had time for in the earlier years.

Either way you weather the Fall, one thing's for certain: Winter's right around the corner.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Death in Mississippi

For those of you who don't live in the South, I'm sad to report that we lost a longtime resident this weekend. The "Old Colonel" in Oxford has passed away. There was no funeral, no wake, no casseroles. He was simply dumped in the garbage can of history.

The Ole Miss Rebel Black Bears?

What exactly is a rebellious black bear? One that won't eat honey? One that refuses to poop in the woods? One that starts forest fires?

What in the name of the god of political correctness is going on here? Have the good people of Mississippi and the South lost their minds along with their heritage?

For the record, I understand how some Blacks take offense at some of the symbols of the "Old South." The song "Dixie" is never played publicly anymore, and the Confederate flag is pretty much gone except on a few bumper stickers of old pickup trucks (in fact, the symbol has been outlawed at many public schools).

I understand how some of these symbols of Southern heritage might be construed as being connected with slavery, which remains an abomination in our nation's history.

I will not debate the contention that the Civil War (or the "War of Northern Aggression" as we like to call it) was only about slavery. I'll leave that to historians and guilt-ridden white upper class liberals. I do know that the majority of the blood shed was from poor whites--farmers and frontiersmen. They didn't own slaves, and it's hard for me imagine that they bet their lives in a struggle in which they didn't really have a dog in the fight.

The "Old Colonel" was the last vestige of the old South heritage at the University of Mississippi. He was killed in the name of political correctness and in an attempt to recruit more Black athletes.

I guess it could have been worse. The other two options were the Rebel "Land Sharks" and the Rebel "Hotty Toddy."

It's a shame, Mississippi. I never though "old times there would be forgotten."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Lover


"Come away with me," she whispers.

For a brief moment you believe she is sincere. You must believe it. Not because your reason tells you that it is true, but because you so want to believe it. You yearn for her to be true. Because she is what you dream of in the lonesome hours of each dark night as you lie in the heavy air of your bedroom, unsure if you are awake or asleep, afraid to exhale lest you miss the faintness of her whispered breath above the hum of the silence.

She is what you think of during the toils of the day. You look for any sign of her coming--test the air for a scent of her strange perfume. You are like a teenage girl, sitting by the phone on Friday night. Ring! Ring! Oh, please ring.

She has become your fixation. She is a drug and you are now her hopeless addict. You have passed the point of want and entered the dark realm of need. She is now obsession.

You know she is a liar, a flirt, a tease. She has no qualms about playing with your heart. She has broken it before, and doubtless countless other hearts along the way. But you don't care. Like the addict, you tell yourself that this time will be different. Just one more chance. This time, she will be true to you.

She is, after all, so beautiful. Eyes so blue that you can see straight through into eternity; and yet at night they seem so dark but still filled with the twinkle of a billion stars. Her breath is soft on your cheek. Her touch cool and caressing. Her dress is hued in a thousand colors, so beautiful that she can make your heart feel that it will explode within your chest. She refreshes you, invigorates you, somehow makes you feel like a young man again. Perhaps this is the real reason you want her so badly. It is not a desire for her as much as an unrequited need in you.

It matters not that she's disappointed you so many times before. It matters not that she is a straight-faced liar. It matters not that you've been used. You've played the fool on countless occasions, and like the dog who has been beaten again and again, you cower at her feet and hope that this time she will be true. This time will be different.

And yet, she will appear at your side for brief moments and then disappear, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, leaving you sad and heartsick again.

She will always be unfaithful, and you know that you will never be able to change her. But that doesn't diminish your desire or make you relinquish the false hope that you desperately cling to.

She is Fall in Alabama, and I long for her touch.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hollywood

I called him "Hollywood."

It was a razz, given by an opposing team's fans in a high school baseball game. That day he was in left field in a late afternoon game, and he wore sun glasses to fight the glare of the setting sun. The year was 1978, and although the practice is common among baseball players today, it was unheard of then.

But the truth was, the nickname kind of fit.

Hollywood was a good baseball player, but he really excelled in football. A natural quarterback, he had speed, scrambling ability, and a rocket arm. He was also a quick thinker, the piece of the puzzle that is sometimes missing in otherwise gifted athletes.

He was flashy on and off the field. I guess you could say he was the "big man on campus" in our little high school. A good looking guy with a big smile that all the girls probably dreamed of dating. He was cocky and brash but knew when to talk and when to shut up. Some of the guys didn't like him--were jealous that he seemed to have it all--yet I don't recall him ever being in a fight. If a situation started to turn nasty, he simply walked away.

But off the field things maybe weren't as good as they seemed. He came from a broken home, and worse than that, it was a broken home with money. As is often the case, parents in such situations may try to compensate a kid with money and gifts. I don't know if that was the case with Hollywood, but it sure seemed he didn't lack for cash in his pockets. There were rumors that he did a lot of partying--but marijuana and alcohol were as easy to get in those days as they are now, and lots of kids took advantage if they had the means.

His football prowess became evident his junior year, when he lead a young team with low expectations to the first playoff game the school had seen in several years. Opposing teams quickly learned that Hollywood could beat you with his arm or his feet. He put up big numbers, and the college boys began to pay attention to the kid from the small town.

His senior season was a repeat performance. The team had some talented players on offense, and Hollywood ran the show. I will never forget one crisp Fall night, when he threw a long touchdown pass to a kid we called "Redbone." It was a streak route, straight down the sideline, and it was delivered on target forty-five yards down field. Caught over the shoulder in full stride. I don't think I have ever seen a pass thrown any better. It was a throw that Drew Brees or Manning would admire.

As that season went on, rumors began to circulate that the Tennessee Vols had paid a visit. They liked what they saw, and a scholarship might be forthcoming. Hollywood had a future beyond our small town--a chance to perform on the big stage in front of thousands instead of a few hundred.

But the promising season came to an abrupt end when we lost the final regular season game. Unlike today, when teams with losing records can still make the playoffs in Alabama, in those days one loss could keep you out. So the magic ended, and Hollywood was unable to showcase his talents in front of larger playoff crowds in bigger towns.

I'm not sure what happened after that. I just know that things went south for Hollywood in a hurry. The Tennessee Vols didn't come through, and football was over.

I had already left for college when I began to hear the gossip. Hollywood had been arrested. He had gotten some bad cocaine, probably "cut" with rat poison, and it had messed up his mind. His behavior had become increasingly irrational. He told everyone he was going to buy a nightclub at the beach. He took a corvette out for a test drive and didn't bring it back. Someone even said he had some business cards printed that listed him as an "attorney at law."

What is truth and what is fiction I can't say. But I do know that soon after, I heard the news that Hollywood was dead.

Suicide is always a tragedy, but it is especially painful for those of us who are left behind when it happens to someone so young--someone with so much life ahead. It is a reminder that things can sure go from good to bad in a hurry, and sometimes those who seem to have it all are secretly filled with pain.

Now thirty years later, I sometimes step outside my home on a crisp Fall Friday night. If conditions are right, I can hear drum beats and a crowd cheering for the team at the local stadium about a mile away. On these occasions I sometimes close my eyes and think of a kid who was the king of Friday nights way back then.

I wonder what might have been.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Cathedral


It was a glorious day to be outside in central Alabama: blue skies, a nice breeze, and temperatures that topped out at about 70 degrees. It was the kind of day that makes me wish that every day could be this way, but such conditions are rare in a State where the temperature can vary 40 degrees in a 24 hour period.

I spent my time conducting a timber appraisal in one of the prettiest spots around these parts--the "Big Swamp," an area of old growth hardwood timber in Macon County. By "old growth" I mean that the trees were 80 to 100 years old. That's about as old as you can find in most of the South, where we are on our third or fourth forest since the white man first arrived.

The trees on this land were large hardwoods--larger than a hillbilly forester like me normally encounter. Many were large enough in girth that two people could not reach around them, and some were well over 100 feet tall. There were species that I don't normally see in my work in the upland forest: cherry bark oak, swamp chestnut oak, green ash, basswood, and even a common persimmon that was big enough to cut lumber from. Nary a pine tree in sight.

Now I have never been to the great cathedrals of Europe, but I cannot believe they would be any more glorious than such a hardwood bottom. Shafts of sunlight filter through the heavy tree canopy like light through stained glass windows. It is a place of such beauty that it almost makes me forget that I am there to work. There is a nagging feeling that I should pay to see this rather than get paid for being here.

Such a forest is never quiet. There is a constant chatter of birds, many whose songs I don't recognize. There are the ever present crows, constantly cawing to each other over my presence, and several times I heard the monkey-like call of the giant pileated woodpecker--the one the old Black folks call the "Lord God" woodpecker in the rural South. As big as a hawk, it hammers away on the big trees in search of insects.

Of course, there is danger too. Wild hog sign is everywhere, the ground rooted-up and turned over in areas as big as a swimming pool. I am thankful that I don't run into a big boar or a over-protective sow with a litter of pigs, as my tree climbing skills aren't what they used to be. There are rattlesnakes and cottonmouth moccasins here too, but on this day they are too well-camouflaged on the dark leaves for me to notice. Or perhaps it is just my lucky day.

The owner of the property that I am appraising has made a nice living over the last fifteen years, selling deer and hog hunts to Yankees with fat wallets who want to have the "Southern" hunting experience. For one thousand dollars a day, a man can eat fried chicken, squash casserole, cheese grits, and corn bread, and have a chance to kill a nice "trophy." Maybe even have a nice shot of fine Southern Bourbon whiskey and a fat cigar after dinner. In the dawn's early light, a good old southern boy will take him to the tree stand and tell him some stories or jokes in a soft southern drawl to get him in the mood for the day's adventure. It is designed to meet expectations: the authentic Old South--a story he can tell his fellow stockbrokers back in the Big Apple.

But times have been hard the last three years, and bookings are way down. It has become increasingly difficult to separate gullible Yankees from their wallets. Nostalgia ain't what it used to be in the new economy.

As a result, the beautiful old hardwood timber may be sold and cut. There are always bills to pay in any economy, and sometimes when the music stops you must still keep dancing.

I would hate to see this cathedral come down. It's enough to make this forester a real tree-hugger.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Hope and Change

It is a gray morning here, as if the sun wants to sleep in today.

Yesterday was a record high temperature, 95 degrees. We've had no rain for nearly a month, and almost nothing is green. Brown leaves are beginning to fall from dry trees. Fall colors, never that spectacular this far south in Alabama, may be even less so this year.

My son in Costa Rica is supposed to visit a "dry forest" today. I can walk a hundred yards and do the same.

We have a 70 percent chance of rain today. I hope the odds makers get it right.

The approaching Fall is still evident in spite of the temperature. My hummingbird feeders are frequented less. The little guys are off to winter further south. Through the window, I can see a cat squirrel on my lawn, carefully gathering straw and dried grass clippings to line her Winter nest. Cooler weather is on the way. The signs are there for the reading.

I await hope and change. I am optimistic that it won't be as big a let down as the political slogan.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Sunday Poem

Every now and then the Redhead says "Get in there and write me a poem."

I don't post my poems very often. I believe most people today would just as soon go to the dentist as read a poem, especially one of mine.

But since you are here already, you might as well read this one.

To the Children in the Trees

Small graveyards are scattered across the Alabama countryside,
Many no bigger than a backyard tomato patch.
Some are perpetually tended beside old wooden churches on lonesome county roads.
Others lie forgotten in the woods.
The passage of time and the resilient southern forest has almost erased this link
to our past.
In places where loblolly and red oak now stand.
a heart-pine clapboard house once stood.
Surrounded by a few sweat-cleared acres,
Proud people once tried to will a living out of rocky red clay,
Unwanted hill country too poor for cotton or much anything else.

A graveyard tells a story if you have time to listen.
Granite or marble markers faded by Nature's relentlessness.
Some of the prosperous have proper monuments.
Po' whites and blacks made do with simple slabs of field stone,
Anonymous as the lives sweated away in the Alabama sun.
First glance reveals nothing, but attention whispers a story.
This place is full of the graves of children.
Here is Annie, age six, died on June 5, 1876.
Here is little brother Jim, died on June 7, 1876.
And close by Sarah, infant, dead a few days later.
There are others over there, different last names, in singles and pairs,
all dead within a few days or weeks of one another.

Something Evil once stopped here.
The awful desperation of the fever,
and children who simply got hot and died.
Anguished mothers who stood by with damp dish cloths and prayed to the Almighty
that the Death Angel might pass over as he did in the Book.
Men with brows as furrowed as the worn out ground worked on,
mumbling the Psalms and cussing their mules in the Valley of the Shadow.

They buried their dead namesakes here and moved on,
searching for a place the fever might not find.
Some new ground with no neighbors to spread the plague
And steal the next generation.

And you thought it was going to be some kind of sappy love poem, didn't you?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Waffle House

I was at the Gulf Coast for a couple of days this week at the Alabama Forestry Association annual meeting. The hotel and conference where we stayed is very nice, but they wanted fifteen bucks for the breakfast buffet. I would not pay that much for breakfast unless it involved a very large piece of beef with a bone in it. Instead, we opted for a Waffle House just down the strip.

I'm not sure if the Waffle House is a nationwide franchise. I do know that it is a fixture of the Southern landscape, as common and prolific as Kudzu and pine trees.

It is a decent place to eat breakfast. Now especially, since most restaurants have banned smoking. Before, it was difficult to eat there without a lingering fear of acquiring lung cancer along with your eggs and bacon.

The Waffle House at Orange Beach, Alabama is a microcosm of the diversity that is the "New South."

As we came in the door we were greeted by a cacophony of voices from all the employees: "Good morning," "Hello," Welcome," "How's it going?" and other variations. It is a little disconcerting to be received with such a welcome early in the morning. If you weren't fully awake, you are now.

The place was packed, so we sat at the counter in the last two available seats.

Our waitress was a middle-aged woman. I must assume that she has migrated South from New Jersey. She asked us if "You's wants some cawfee?" She was all business, this one. She possessed the curtness that Southerners usually assume is rudeness. Perhaps it is just the Yankee way of picking up our slow pace of life. She took our orders quickly and moved on. I never saw her stop moving for the thirty minutes or so that we are there. She had obviously done the waitress thing for a while.

Her young assistant was apparently a trainee. She was in her early twenties and had "Jesus" tattooed on her neck. Whether this refers to the Savior or a Hispanic lover, only she knew. I hope that she likes her work and is successful at it, because she may be doing it for a long time. I don't believe most of corporate America is ready for neck tattoos, unless of course your last name is Jolie.

The grill man was a big strapping guy, probably late twenties. He moved like a machine as the orders flew in from all corners. No wasted movements, this one. He wore the Waffle House uniform like a Marine wears his dress blues. His chef's smock had the word "GRILL MASTER" embroidered in large letters across the back. This I suppose to clear up any confusion we may have had that our eggs were being prepared by a rank amateur.

The lady at the register was young and Black. She was quick and efficient. This establishment thrives on volume. Move them in and out, honey, that's how we make money.

A young Hispanic man removed our plates and cups before we are out the door, putting them in a large plastic bin to be taken to the dishwasher. Beside him, an elderly lady with a dish towel awaited to wipe down the counter and prepare the spot for the next customers, who are already moving in that direction.

The whole breakfast experience took less than thirty minutes. Diversity and waffles--maybe we all can "get along."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Cycle of Life

My youngest son is in Costa Rica this semester studying Spanish, so this weekend I am driving his car, a sweet little Acura RSX Type-S. She is a silver bullet, low and sleek, and she drives like a sled on a rail. We call her the "RS Sexy." We joke that she is a chick magnet. One has to be careful with magnets, though. They attract scrap iron equally as well as valuables.

It is the third car he has driven in his young life. The two previous provided life-lessons for both him and me.

As he approached his first driver's license, almost any conversation led to a discussion of cars. I sensed an opportunity. At age fifteen, he was an extremely bright kid and potentially a great athlete. But he was already on auto pilot. In school and on the athletic field, he was mailing it in--doing enough to get by with minimal effort. Lots of bright people do this, but it's a shame for a young person to develop such a life-strategy.

I offered a deal. Get serious about life. Quit coasting. Study and earn the grades you are capable of making. Don't just make the varsity football team as a sophomore and stand on the sidelines watching every Friday night--earn a starting spot. Show me something and I'll get you a nice car. Any car you want that I can afford.

He accepted the challenge. His grades went from "B's" to "A's". He was one of three sophomores on a varsity team that was a perennial football power in Alabama, and one that was full of senior players to boot. He not only started, but played well, earning an All-Area Honorable Mention.

He wanted a Ford Mustang. The Red Head was vehemently opposed. Grandparents were opposed. Friends advised against it. Everyone said the same thing. "A sixteen year old kid does not need a mega-horsepower muscle car."

But a deal is a deal.

I'm not sure who was more proud--him or me. She was a used car, but she looked new. Solid white with a black interior, a sweet ride. The look on his face when I picked him up that day after school was worth every penny I paid.

Speeches were made: drive slowly; stay off the cell phone; take it easy until you get more driving experience; no riders; please be careful.

But a young man is immortal and bullet-proof in his own mind. You simply can't convince him otherwise.

The mustang survived about a month before he ran off the road, over-compensated the correction, and totaled it. He walked away without a scratch. We both got lucky there. I got most of the lecturing. I didn't lecture him--no need. He was hurting enough, and I hurt for him.

The replacement car was a little less glamorous--a ten-year-old Ford Explorer. We called it the "mama car", because it looked like what a mom might drive to pick up kids from school or go to the grocery store. It was already a little dinged-up and made some interesting noises. It was his ride through the rest of high school.

The deal was honored, though. He stuck with the studies and worked hard on the field. The result was a good scholarship to Mississippi College, some six hours away from home.

We didn't think the old mama car would be reliable for the long trip, so the RS-Sexy was purchased. It was a reward, of sorts, for a job well-done. And it has been a good car.

Life teaches lessons to fathers and sons, and sometimes things seem to run in cycles.

It reminds me of a day years ago. I'll never forget the look on my momma's face the day my dad and I drove up in my new Camaro.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thirty Year Road


"Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies and the king and the queen of the prom. Riding around with the car top down and the radio on. Nobody looked any finer, or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner. We never knew we could want more than that out of life. Surely Brenda and Eddie would always know how to survive."
Billy Joel, "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant."

I have a thirtieth high school reunion coming up in a couple of months. I went to the tenth, but skipped the subsequent gatherings. Still haven't decided whether to go, even though it will be held only an hour's drive away. There are some old acquaintances I'd sure like to see, but let's face it, the years can be sometimes be unkind to childhood memories.

It's funny looking back and remembering things and people we thought were so important in high school. The groups and cliques represented: jocks, band geeks, smart kids, hipsters, rockers, rednecks, and so forth. I don't remember there being much room for individuality, although I'm sure there were some kids that just flew under the radar of all that nonsense. Those are the ones that I'd really like to talk with if I go. I'd wager they're the ones that are more well-adjusted today, some thirty years later. Probably have nice families, good jobs, and are fine upstanding members of their communities.

It all seemed so important to "fit in" when you were there, but a couple of year's of life later you realize what a bunch of nonsense it all was.

And of course, time can be awfully hard on our appearances. It is this part that makes me hesitant to go. The riskiness of destroying images from the past. The awful realization that some people "peak" in high school, and it's all a downhill slide after that.

I imagine the guy who was voted "Best Looking" sitting over by the punch bowl. He was a stud athlete that all the girls dreamed about. Fancy car, latest clothes, All-State credentials, a total mister cool. Seemed to have the world on a string; sky's-the-limit life ahead. Today he has a huge beer gut and his face looks like a caved-in catcher's mitt. He's been divorced five times and is currently selling mobile homes out on the bypass.

I visualize what was once the girl of my adolescent dreams. Cheerleader, homecoming queen, most likely to win Miss America and marry a millionaire. Face like an angel and legs all the way up to her neck. She wouldn't give me the time of day back then. Today she is seated strategically close to the buffet table, and she looks like she'd have a legitimate shot at the starting right guard position for the Dallas Cowboys. Somebody call Jerry Jones. He's always looking to spend a few million on mediocre talent.

But then there will be the real surprises.

I've already discovered a few through the magic of Facebook. Guys who seemed like under-achievers back in the day who have gone on to do great things in business, science, and the arts. Girls who I can't remember giving a second look, now closing in on 50, who are drop dead, movie star gorgeous. Holy smokes, woman! Where were you in '79? Oh, you sat behind me in homeroom. Sorry.

I, of course, have absolutely nothing to worry about. I am still the same suave, debonair, sophisticated hillbilly of thirty years ago.

Just the other day, I asked a co-worker what happened to another forester who used to do some work around our area. "He's retired," was the response.

I asked how that could be, since he was younger than me.

"His wife's got money."

Always a quick wit, I asked "You think I could steal her away from him so I could retire? After all, he ain't much to look at."

"Well, maybe you haven't noticed it, but you ain't either," was the comeback.

Touche. Maybe I'll just stay home on reunion night.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reader Poll Confessions

There is no fiction that will truly fit the situation.
I'm documenting every detail, every conversation.
I'm not used to talking to somebody in a body,
somebody in a body... u2, "Xanax and Wine."

I have a confession to make. If you took part in my reader poll-- especially if you sent a comment--you fell for an Internet scam.

You know about Internet scams. There's that sweet widow in Africa whose husband left her millions--she only needs you to send your bank account number so she can deposit the money in the U.S. (and she'll give you half for your kindness). You've won the lottery in the U.K.--just send your Social Security number to claim the prize. Offers to lose weight, grow hair, increase the size of parts of your anatomy that are implied to be lacking, or clean out your colon (that one is just plain disturbing). All you need to do to change your life is send in your social security or credit card number.

My scam wasn't designed to get your money. It was to identify you.

My blog software tells me how many people read each piece and where they are located. But it doesn't reveal their identity. Some of my regular readers, mostly bloggers themselves, often comment on what I've written. But the vast majority are anonymous. They are represented by a dot on a map.

Thanks to the scam, I now know a lot more. I know who is reading in Mississippi, Arizona, and Virgina. I know about some old friends who take the time to read my thoughts, as well as some relatives I've lost touch with over the years. I can put faces and names with the dots. I still don't know who is reading me in Iran, or for that matter why, but I know a lot more than I did.

I also found that there are a lot of people who are really kind and considerate when it comes to my writing. And I thank you--for your reading, and for all the nice things you had to say.

The truth is I write what I like to write and I hope a few people will like to read it. I doubt there would be a much I could do about it if you didn't.

I write because I like to write--it's about that simple. It's something I hope to get better at as time goes by.

And like you, I read what I like to read, and there's a lot of diversity with my habits too. I read blogs written by missionaries in Honduras, lady chicken farmers in north Alabama, and former U.S citizens who live in Mexico (and some who want to live there someday), as well as people who like to cook, ride motorcycles, or analyze politics. Some of it good writing and some of it is not especially well-written. But I read them because they interest me. I suspect you are the same way. After all, Hemingway was a genius, but Mad Magazine is good sometimes too.

As always, thanks for the reading. Hope to "see" you again real soon.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Reader Poll

I've been blogging for a little over two years now, and I have a confession to make: I have no idea what you, dear reader, like to read.

The blog software I use has an analytical feature that allows me to review such things as how many times each post is read, and where my readers live. I'd like to be able to say that this is a helpful tool, but it's not. It's baffling.

Sometimes I spend several hours writing and rewriting a post. When I finally finish, I think "Hey, this ain't too bad." Then I post it and get no reaction.

Other times I sit down for about ten minutes and fire off something that I consider to be "fluff"--literary bubble gum. And I am shocked at the positive response.

So I've decided to take a poll. If you have a second, think about what you've read here and give me some input.

Finish this sentence: "I'd like Ray to _________."
  • Write little humorous stories.
  • Write about people and places in Alabama.
  • Write more of those brooding metaphorical pieces.
  • Write more poems and songs.
  • Get a new hobby.
  • Write about politics and other current events.
  • Ride his motorcycle off into the sunset, never to be heard from again.
The results will be tabulated on the upper right corner of the sidebar. The poll will run all week.

As always, thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

More than A Feeling


It is a glorious Alabama day: blue sky, a whisper of breeze caressing my face, and a hint--just a subtle hint, mind you--that Fall is around the corner. You may call it Autumn where you live, but it is simply Fall here, and it is my time of the year. Today is the kind of day that can make you glad to be alive. A day you wish you could press between the pages of a scrapbook, like a rose in an old family Bible. It is a feeling that you may want to take out and hold again in trembling old hands, many years hence.

I head out of town for an afternoon jaunt in the psycho-billy jeep (all blacked-out, Johnny Cash style). I recon a beautiful tract of land that my company has just listed for sale: thick with pine timber, whitetail deer, and Fall wildflowers. I certify it a "winner," just waiting for a savvy buyer. As I creep along woods roads overgrown with fescue and dog fennell, Johnny's voice belts out "Cocaine Blues," on the c.d. player, sung to a rowdy bunch of society's castoffs in Folsom Prison so many years ago:

"Come on all you fellows and listen to me, Stay away from whiskey, And let that cocaine be."

The warning came too late for many of them, Big John.

I revel in the freedom they forfeited. This afternoon is for you boys.

Twenty miles away, thousands have congregated to watch the latest edition of the Auburn Tigers play their season opener. All decked-out in orange and blue, hope springs eternal that this is the year. They will eat and drink and hoot and holler at a fevered pitch, like a congregation caught up in the Spirit at a tent revival. War Eagle and Hallelujah, neighbors, can you feel it?

I could be there with them. But on a day like this I would rather be here--prowling the back roads of Alabama.