Monday, March 29, 2010

Southern Accent

"There's a southern accent, where I come from.
The young 'uns call it country
The Yankees call it dumb
I got my own way of talkin'
But everything gets done, with a southern accent
Where I come from." Tom Petty

I'm a forester by education and profession. I've spent most of my working life in central Alabama, buying timber, managing forestland, and dealing with a diverse group of people. It's a challenging job--especially the dealing with people part. On any given day, I may have to effectively communicate with blue collar folks who have never finished high school, all the way up to white collar professionals with advanced college or technical degrees.

Communication--it's a constant challenge we all face. Not just the right words, but also the more intangible aspects: tone, facial expression, volume, cadence, and body language. Sometimes even accent plays a role.

I've been made more aware of the accent aspect recently. I also own a small real estate company, specializing in the sale of farms, forest, and other rural properties. I subscribe to a 1-800 number service for my business. It's a telecommunications slight-of-hand that allows potential customers to dial a toll free number, which then transfers the call to my cell phone. This toll free number is considered to be essential to doing business in this modern world. It's ironic in a way. I would assume that someone who has several thousand dollars to potentially purchase a property would be willing to spring for a long distance call, but apparently not.

My problem is that my toll free number is very similar to that of Comcast, a large telecommunications business. I've been getting a lot of calls from New England lately, especially Massachusetts. The calls invariably go something like this:

Me: "Clifton Land Company, this is Ray."
Caller: Silence.
Me, repeating: "Clifton Land Company, this is Ray"
Caller: More silence, then "Is this Comcast?"
Me: "No, I'm sorry, buy you have the wrong number"
Caller: More silence, then a tentative "O.K.", or "Huh?"

The callers have what I consider to be a heavy northeastern accent, but I have no problem understanding them. I can tell by their reaction, however, that they don't have a clue as to what I'm saying. We live in the same country, speak the same language, watch the same T.V. and entertainment, but you'd never know it. I might as well be speaking Russian or Chinese.

Accents are an integral part of who we are. They attach us to a particular landscape and time. Like it or not, they create an image in a listener's mind. To the callers from Massachusetts, I believe mine may include overhauls, a straw hat, and a banjo. For the record, I don't own a banjo.

The term "southern accent" is really a misnomer. There are a wide variety of variations across the American South. A trained ear can locate your origin from these subtleties. There are distinct differences in the speech patterns and choice of words. South Louisiana is distinct from Virginia. Kentucky southern is distinctly different from the Mississippi variety. Texas southern is different from everywhere else. I don't consider Atlanta or the entire State of Florida in the discussion. There are so many Yankee transplants in those two locations that they might as well be located north of the Mason-Dixon line.

There are also variations within States. Low country southern is softer than hill country southern. Aristocratic low country southern is the softest of all. You can always spot these genteel wannabes because they don't pronounce their "r's". As in, "I rememba the old days in the South. It was a kinda, gentla, sota time..." I agree with Alabama author and fellow hillbilly Rick Bragg about these phonies. Nobody talks like that without a conscious effort to do so.

There's a scene in a movie I like (Slingblade) in which the main character Carl describes the nature of his friendship with a young boy. Carl says "Me and him's good friends. He like's the way I talk and I like the way he talks."

Maybe you and I will talk someday. If so, I hope you'll like the way I talk.

In the meantime, ya'll come see us, and tell yo momma and 'em I said "Hey."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Kid Called "Big D"

I ran into an old friend a few nights ago. The Red Head and I were eating a late supper, and we went to a little place downtown that serves burgers, chicken fingers, and fried catfish. Business was kind of slow for a Friday night, and a tall young man saw us and came out of the kitchen. D.B. sat down at my invitation, gave us a big smile, and offered a handshake, which I declined in favor of a big hug. He explained that he was home from college for the weekend, trying to make a few bucks. We talked for a while--got caught up on the details of his life. He's 21 now and a year away from a college degree. It looks like he's going to turn out to be a fine man with a bright future. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have bet on that outcome.

Allow me to digress. When my two boys were young, I coached youth baseball. I've always loved the game, and I had a desire that they learn to play it the way it is supposed to be played. I always felt I had to coach out of necessity. It's an unfortunate fact that most of the men who are youth baseball coaches know very little about the game. I can't fault them, because they are volunteering their time and are filling a need that allows kids to participate in a good activity. But I wanted to do more than babysit--I wanted to teach. It was through these experiences that I met a lot of great kids. One of my favorites is D.B.

I first met D.B. when he was seven years old. He was small and thin, even for his age--maybe 70 pounds soaking wet. I nicknamed most of my players, and his became "Big D', an obvious irony due to his small stature. He was quiet, had a big smile, and was a coach's dream. Not extremely athletic, but a hustler who listened, learned quickly, and would try to run through a brick wall if you asked him too. He didn't possess the basic mechanics of the game at first. Like a lot of kids who are raised without a father at home, he lacked the experience of the backyard pitch and catch. But like I said, he picked it up quickly. He was hungry to be good, so we spent extra time after scheduled practices, working on pitching, hitting, and fielding--much of it in my backyard.

I would be his coach for the next six years. For a few months each year, we became a part of each others lives. He lived in the government housing project with his grandmother. His mom seemed nice, but lived elsewhere and worked a lot of hours to try to keep things together without the daddy around. With only a few exceptions over the course of those years, the Red Head and I picked him up and took him home-- from practices, games, whatever. He became a part of our family each baseball season. He spent the night at our house a couple of times, and I took him to his first (and only) Atlanta Braves game. I always hated to take him back to the projects. Such a nice kid to be living on a thug-lined street. His next door neighbor, only two years older, would several years later (at age seventeen) kill a convenience store clerk in a robbery.

There are a couple of instances in our time together that I will never forget. They are minor details in the story, yet it's funny how such things remain with you after so many years.

When Big D was nine, he began the season as my number one pitcher. The problem was that my number two pitcher was my only experienced catcher, and I had no other candidates. Although he was still small and had never played the position, I decided that Big D was my best option to put behind the plate. Now for those of you that may not know the intricacies of baseball, the catcher wears a "special" piece of protective equipment. It is basically an athletic supporter with a hard plastic cup insert, designed to protect a sensitive area. I purchased one of these for Big D, handed him the store bag, and told him to wear it to the next practice. When I picked him up the next day for practice, he jumped in the car all smiles. "I got on that little panty you gave me." Raised by women, no idea of what I thought any boy that age would have known.

The second occasion was the District All-Star tournament when Big D was ten. We were playing our arch rivals (a team from the adjacent town) at their field, and Big D was on the mound. Now as a pitcher, Big D barely threw hard enough to break a window--but he had amazing control for his age. Before he took the field I took him aside. "Try to keep the ball down and just throw strikes. If they hit it, we'll get 'em out. I don't want walks."

It was the best game I've ever seen a ten-year-old pitch. Nothing but strike outs and easy ground balls. I doubt the other team had three players get on base all night. As the team celebrated I pulled Big D aside. I asked a question, though I already knew the answer. "How many did you walk, D?" "Nairin" he replied with a grin. For those of you who don't speak Alabamian, that means "none". It was an absolutely amazing performance, one rarely achieved by a pitcher at any level of the game.

When Big D became a teenager, I left the coaching to the professionals, so our time together came to an end. I would still see him around town some, but his small size eventually caught up to him. He didn't make the team at the high school level, and his baseball days were over. Mine too.

I left our visit in the restaurant with a feeling that the story of Big D is going to have a happy ending. Who knows? Maybe he'll coach my grand kids one day. I know I'd sure like that.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Spring is beginning to arrive here in central Alabama. We've had an unusually long, cold, wet Winter. This weather has had a pronounced emotional effect on me for some reason this year--the cold, rain, and seemingly constant grayness of the days have given me a prolonged case of the blues. It is a mental and physical weariness, a yearning for warmth and sunshine. The kind of feeling that makes me want to just walk out the door, get on my bike, and strike out for a more southern location, like Mexico or some other tropical clime. Some place with warm breezes, blue skies, and pretty dark-haired senoritas walking down dusty streets to the market. But since my dear wife would not appreciate such behavior, I stay put and hold on for the warmer temperatures and explosion of color that is the Spring here.

The signs of her coming are appearing. Red maples are beginning to bud, their reddish-purple hues the first inkling in the canopy of the Alabama landscape. The pear trees will be next, followed by dogwood and then a seemingly overnight explosion of blooms from azaleas, rhododendrons, and mountain laurel along the creeks and streams. The Artist's pallet of purples, reds, yellows and greens will explode over these rolling hills. A fine yellow dust will cover every outdoor surface, as the pines take part in their annual aerial intercourse. And last, but certainly not least, the pecan trees will leaf-out. Real country folk, those who still pay attention to nature and know how to read her moods and vagaries, know that Winter is never really over until this happens.

Life's transitions are rarely easy. Change is often fraught with struggle. Such is the case with Spring in Alabama. As the atmosphere warms and the landscape changes, Winter attempts to have the final word in the argument. Cold fronts sweep down from the north and collide with warm, moisture-laden air moving up from the Gulf of Mexico. The collision of these opposing air masses produces thunderstorms and tornadoes. Other places have their own unique calamities: earthquakes, wildfires, and hurricanes. We have the whirlwind, a much more unpredictable and finicky adversary.

Tornadoes are an awesome force of nature. They tear off roofs and toss cars, level buildings and snap off one hundred foot tall pine trees like an elementary school kid breaking a #2 pencil to prove his strength to his buddies. And their destruction is unpredictable--seemingly random. A tornado dropped out of the sky a couple of years ago on the central Alabama town of Prattville, plowing through a mile or so of the landscape before lifting back up to the sky. I once lived there for a couple of years, so I am familiar with the streets and neighborhoods. A day or two later, I looked at some aerial photos of the destruction. The condition of houses on one street were especially fascinating: three houses in a row leveled, next house untouched; roof gone on the next one, the next untouched. It was like some sort of cosmic pinball machine had been unleashed on the sleepy neighborhood.

A tornado is an equal opportunity destroyer. A couple of years ago, a tornado leveled a high school in Enterprise, a small south Alabama town. School was in session at the time, and several students were killed. In 1992, a tornado destroyed Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama. The church was having their Palm Sunday service when it hit. Twenty members of the congregation were killed, including six children.

Such incidents inevitably invite theological tensions in the minds of many. Some are quick to blame God, as if He sits at some celestial computer keyboard, His finger poised and trembling above the "smite" button. I don't buy what these people are selling. For one thing, from what I've seen and heard at many churches, I believe He'd level a lot more with the whirlwind if that was His mode of operation.

It's easy to blame God for things you don't understand--that don't make sense. But don't blame if you never thank. I thank Him for many things: being raised by loving parents, a beautiful red head who has slept beside me for many years now, two fine sons, being able to live in beautiful Alabama, and for this Spring.

Enjoy the transition this year--but watch the sky.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thousand Word Thursday

A winter day at Bean's Mill, near Opelika, AL.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thousand Word Thursday

Nueva Armenia, Honduras.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Good Reads, Part II

In my last post I mentioned a few of the books I've read lately. I want to continue that today with a few more.

Chronicles, Volume One, by Bob Dylan
I read this book after a friend of mine mentioned it in her blog a few months ago ( I down-loaded the audio book from itunes and liked it so much I decided I needed a "real" copy. Note to self for future reference: the word "abridged" on an audio book means they leave a LOT of stuff out.

If you are a Bob Dylan fan, you will likely love this book. If not, it is still an interesting read. In addition to being a living encyclopedia of American music, Bob Dylan is a master poet with a dry sense of humor. His prose is often more poetical than most poets' poetry. I especially enjoyed the middle section of the book ("Oh Mercy") which recounts the time Dylan spent in New Orleans recording the album of the same name.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt
This is another book that's hard to put down. It is written by a New York author who decided to move to Savannah, Georgia, and who subsequently lands right in the middle of the story of a lifetime. It is supposedly based on a true story of a murder (or not a murder, you decide). The story's richness is in the characters that can only exist in southern towns. Be forewarned that many of the characters in this book would not likely be found sitting next to you in Sunday School (and that's a shame).

The Most They Ever Had, Rick Bragg
One of Alabama's best authors writes the stories of poor whites and their struggles working in the cotton mills. Having grown up in central Alabama and being only one generation out of the mill village, I found the book to be a humbling reminder of the trials and tribulations that my recent ancestors went through just to put food on the table and survive. If you can read this one without a tear or two, your momma didn't raise you right.

Bragg writes great stories, all nonfiction (All Over but the Shouting, Ava's Man, and The Prince of Frogtown, to name a few). He can turn a phrase with the best of them. I believe he intends to try his hand at fiction in the near future. I'm looking forward to that.

The Widow and the Tree, Sonny Brewer
Another Alabama author, Brewer has written a couple of books set in Fairhope, a south Alabama town on Mobile Bay. This story is a fictionalized account of an historic live oak tree that meets an untimely fate. While not likely to make the New York Times Best Seller list, it is a very good read that I believe most southerners would enjoy.

I hope these short reviews inspire you to cut off your stinking T.V. and read some. There are a lot of great stories out there.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Few Good Reads

Alabama author and Auburn University graduate Rheta Grimsley Johnson's recent weekly column included her contention that book reviews are difficult to write well and therefore probably should never be written. Although I have much respect for Ms. Johnson as a writer (also love her ex-husband's comic strip "Arlo and Janis"), I am going to ignore her advice and write a little about some of the books I've read lately. Who knows? Maybe you will be interested enough to read a few of these selections for yourself.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.
I first read this book when I was a senior in high school. I remember this vividly because it was on a "restricted" list, and I had to have a signed note from my parents in order to check it out of the school library. The book is still widely banned in public school libraries across the U.S. I decided to re-read it a few weeks ago when the news reported that J.D. Salinger had passed away.

The book tells the story of Holden Caulfield, a teen-aged prep school student who attempts to come to grips with a culture and society that he views as "phony". The story is narrated by Caulfield as he recounts the last few days prior to his nervous breakdown. The book is admittedly crude at times, but also very funny as it paints a pretty good picture of the "establishment." I found Caulfield's view of children and his quest to protect their innocence to be very touching.

It's interesting to me that J.D. Salinger lived the rest of his life as a recluse after the book became widely successful. He published a few more stories after wards, but no more major books. This kind of reminds me of Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird). It makes me wonder if they only had one really good story in them--or is it something associated with the unwanted attention success sometimes brings?

In Cold Blood, By Truman Capote
I started reading Truman Capote's writing last year after visiting Monroeville, Alabama's annual writer's workshop and theater presentation of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Harper Lee and Truman Capote were cousins, and it is said that Capote was the inspiration for that story's character "Dill."

In Cold Blood is widely considered to be Capote's finest work. A "non-fiction novel", it recounts the grisly murder of a farm family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, and the subsequent capture, trial, and execution of the killers. It is one of those books that you "can't put down" until you finish. Once you finish, rent the movie "Capote" on DVD. It recounts the story of his writing the book and will add even more appreciation for the book.

I consider Truman Capote to be one of America's finest writers--the man could write a sentence and turn a phrase with the best of them. It's a shame that his literary success didn't lead to a happier personal life.

Mi Moto Fidel, by Christopher P. Baker
This is the story of the author's tour of Cuba in 1996 on a motorcycle. Baker is a travel guide writer, and his journey through Cuba was allowed under the pretense of writing a travel guide to Cuba.

The book is interesting only if you are interested in the people and politics of Cuba. Baker admits that he was a kind of American socialist before the trip, with a deep admiration for Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the "liberation" of Cuba. The Cuba he discovers is not the utopia he imagined, and by the end of the story he begins to question his political ideals. One distraction from the story is the author's quest to bed almost any willing Cuban woman he encounters.

To be continued...

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Man in Black

Stray bombs kill kids in Afghanistan.
They're building the big one in a lab in Iran.
A war is coming, it'll be here before long,
And Satan is whistling a Johnny Cash song.

Street gangs control the heart of downtown.
Gunfire and sirens the usual sound.
The meek may inherit, but for now it's the strong,
And Satan is whistling a Johnny Cash song.

Earthquakes and storms pile up bodies like wood.
The line is blurred between evil and good.
Some people try, but they don't try too long,
And Satan is whistling a Johnny Cash song.

The dealer promised it would make her feel right.
Give her a high that would last through the night.
The highs kept on coming, but never as strong,
And Satan is whistling a Johnny Cash song.

They're no longer in love in spite of the vow.
Their futures alone look brighter than now.
The kids will be fine, if they learn to be strong,
And Satan is whistling a Johnny Cash song.

The horses are restless and saddled to ride.
Rank upon rank and side by side.
A river of blood, as deep as it's long,
And Satan is whistling a Johhny Cash song.

Put on your black suit and stand in the rain.
Listen up close--you'll recognize the refrain.
He whistles upbeat, 'cause he knows it's his time,
"Because your mine, I walk the line."

Things in this world seem to be going his way.
More bodies and souls he's collecting each day.
But the truth of it is, he's a thief and a liar,
And the Cash song for him is really "Ring of Fire."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Thousand Word Thursday

Neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras (photo by William). Click on photo to enlarge.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Update on the Story of "The Girl"

I have written a number of posts about a young women in Honduras who I referred to as the "the Girl." I told the story of our meeting and subsequent relationship, her struggles growing up in various orphanages, and her current struggles as she begins a new chapter of life in Tegucigalpa.

The Girl gave birth to a son in January. His name is Jarvin Gabriel. Although we have been unable to speak her directly, both her brother and our missionary friends at The Micah Project ( report that mother and baby are doing well.

Honduras can be a tough place to grow up. The country is very poor, and the current world economic downtown is only making a bad situation worse. There are few jobs, food shortages, and widespread malnutrition.

If you are a praying person, please take a moment to offer a prayer for Daisy and Jarvin. I appreciate it, and I know they would too.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Empty Pockets and the American Dream

"I wish a buck was still silver, it was back when the country was strong. Back before Elvis and the Vietnam War came along. Before the Beatles and "Yesterday" when a man could still work, and still would. The best of the free life's behind us now, and are the good times really over for good?" Merle Haggard, "Are the Good Times Really Over."

America's a big place. I can't speak for what's going on in other parts of the country--only about what I see and hear in my little corner of Alabama. The overall mood here is gloomy.

I live in the Auburn/Opelika area. These two cities have experienced tremendous growth in the last twenty years. So much so that we are in the top three fastest growing cities in Alabama. Families have moved here for opportunities and the quality of life afforded by the area: a major university, good medical care, light industry, and great location. Hundreds of homes have been constructed, along with new shopping centers, restaraunts, and other amenities. Churches and schools have expanded. And there were ambitious plans for more--much more. A multi-million dollar KIA automobile plant, which recently opened, would bring thousands of jobs to the area. Just two years ago, I heard more than one person brag that our area was "recession proof."

What a difference two years can make.

I heard one man's story today. He owned a small "mom and pop" auto parts store in a nearby town. It was a thriving business several years ago. Then the franchise stores moved in. He struggled to keep his customers but began to lose them one by one to volume pricing. He tried to adapt, changed direction--converted his parts inventory to big rig trucks and heavy machinery. Then logging and construction declined as the economy faltered. What was a successful family business is now closed. His wife lost her job, they lost their house, and are now looking for a small plot of land in the country to put a mobile home on to start over. As I tried to encourage him with "Well, I hope the economy starts to turn around soon", he responded with "It ain't gonna get better no time soon."

"It ain't gonna get better no time soon." I hear this in variations everywhere I go. From preachers, bankers, farmers, and workers of all stripes. From a friend who made his living in real estate, who now works low-wage manual labor and is struggling to keep his home. From a friend in his mid-fifties who was an executive at a plant that closed, and who confessed he would take "any job he could find." From recent college graduates waiting tables and cooking fast food.

Our country has been through at least a couple of economic recessions in my life time. But I don't recall the level of fear that I see in people's eyes these days. Homes and jobs continue to be lost, and most people I talk to think the country's on the wrong path--that recovery isn't likely anytime in the near future.

I must confess that I'm not immune to the pessimism. But I have been fortunate enough to stay afloat thus far. I was able to find another job, and for that I am very thankful. Like most folks in the U.S., I am incredibly blessed. I have way too much "stuff", and can get by on much less.

Perhaps the "American Dream" we've all been chasing the last thirty years has been the wrong dream. Maybe we haven't been thankful enough for the abundance we've been blessed with. Maybe we've bought in to a lie. I don't know the answers. But I do believe that America is too great a country to lose hope. The "good times" don't have to be over. The days, weeks, months, and maybe even years ahead will be the true test of our resolve.

May God bless America.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My Favorite Hippie Chic

We had some good friends visit last weekend. Still a little cool here in central Alabama for porch sitting and grilling, but good company and conversation can usually overcome any setting. Our guests included Steve and Jeanne, Neal and Jennifer Vinson, and the Vinson children: Ivey, Clay, Baylie, and Zach. I want to tell you a little about Ivey, who recently turned fourteen. I call her "my favorite hippie chick."

Ivey is the kind of young lady who can give you hope for the future. In this era of the short attention span, video game/MTV/pop music youth culture, she's a kind of a throwback to another era. A time when kids read books, rode bicycles and played outdoors, and basically had to think up their own fun. For me, she's a treasure, like finding a diamond when you're walking on the beach. I always enjoy the time spent with her and her family.

Ivey has an eclectic intellect. Some of this likely comes from good genes, and some from the freedom of being home schooled. While the smaller children played, Ivey sat with the adults on our back porch as we talked in rambling fashion about various subjects. She had picked up my copy of "Alice in Wonderland", which I had been re-reading before the upcoming release of Tim Burton's film of the same name. I mentioned that I was interested to see what Johnny Depp did in his portrayal of the "mad hatter." Ivey explained that the term "mad hatter" actually came from a time in England when hat-makers used mercury in their process. Mercury poisoning often led to their strange behavior, which coined the phrase "mad as a hatter." Now knowing something like that won't save the world in the next generation, but it will probably come a lot closer to it than knowing what Lady Gaga wore to the Grammys.

Ivey has the soul of an artist. When my wife commented on her purse (which was the size of a grocery bag), Ivey revealed the contents. Among the items: various sewing projects (contents contained within ziplock bags); a very nice Anthology of Poetry; sketch pencils (she noted that she had nine different shades of orange, showing and describing each one to alleviate any skepticism), and other art and craft supplies. This girl can sketch, draw, paint, act, and sing. She makes and sells jewelry. And she might even entertain you with a song if you ask her nicely. My personal favorite is a rendition of Carmen Miranda's "Chiquita Banana" commercial from the late 50's or early 60's.

Ivey is also a natural beauty. Her dad, a former Auburn football player, will likely have to put the fear of God in some young gentlemen callers in a few years. But I don't think he will have too much to worry about. I tried to tickle her at one point during the visit. She reflexively hit me with a straight left hand that vibrated through my bones all the way to my toes. I'm glad she wasn't mad--she might have knocked me out.

I look forward to see where the road will take Ivey. I'm glad I'll be able to say "I knew her when she was just a kid."