Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Good Country People

Greg looks a little like Willie Nelson. At least like the Willie I remember from twenty years ago, a time when the Red-Headed Stranger was somewhere between his Pat Boone Sunday school teacher phase and his current outlaw scruffiness. He has the same sandy red hair as Willie; the same twinkle in his eyes. A demeanor and voice that could put anyone at ease--soft and southern, but also animated when he tells a story.

Today I am working at Greg's farm. He doesn't really know me from Adam's house cat, but he has hired me to mark and sell his timber. I was hired on a handshake, based on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. There are still places around in which business is conducted this way. Rural Alabama is one of them, and Greg is an old-school guy who believes a man's word is his bond.

Greg's land is no gentleman's farm. It is not manicured and maintained as a show place--not a "look-at-me" status symbol the way rich guys do it. It is not part of a collection that includes a trophy wife, pure bred animals, and a one hundred thousand dollar S.U.V. It doesn't have a contrived name, like "White Oak Acres" or "Whispering Hills." It is simply referred to as "the farm" or "my land." It is working class and blue collar, handed down from the previous generation or purchased with dollars earned with the sweat of hard work.

As a working farm, some might describe it as "junky." There is a vast collection of things a man might someday need--old cars and trucks, farm equipment, worn-out lawn mowers--even a jon boat hull or two. There are piles of scrap iron and steel. Old sheds and barns scattered around, filled with tools and bins and buckets. There is even a pen full of beagles kept for the hunting season, because a man can't work all the time.

Greg pays me a visit as I break for my bag lunch. He arrives with a gift of home-grown tomatoes, picked fresh from his garden. He invites me to go pick some more if I want. He wishes I would take a bunch. It has been a good year in the garden, and he is about "'matered-out."

Small talk is made while I eat. I attempt to explain the method I am using to select trees for cutting, but Greg dismisses it with a shrug and a wave of the hand. "You're the expert," he says. "Whatever you decide is O.K. by me."

As we talk, one of his beagles makes an attempt to steal some of my lunch. "Come here, dog," I say as I offer him a sardine. Greg smiles. "His name is 'Brownie'." I smile too. Alabama humor is not lost on me. The dog is solid white.

After a few minutes, Greg stands and stretches. He is off to harrow some fields. Dove season begins this Saturday, and he is planning a big hunt for friends and family. The cooking will begin in the morning, with lunch at 11:00 so the "die-hards" can be in position by noon when the season officially begins.

"Why don't you join us? There will plenty to eat and drink and it looks like we're going to have lots of birds this year."

I am surprised by the offer. The rich guys would never make such an overture. After all, I am "hired-out", and as I said, the man hardly knows me.

I say that I will probably be working Saturday.

Greg is undeterred. I can come later, after lunch. Whenever I get finished working. Anytime I want. Really. Love to have you here.

I return to work with some faith in my fellow man restored. There are still a lot of good country people scattered around the Alabama countryside.

I'm doing some work for one. Really.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Rose by any Other Name Would Be--Well, Something Else

We've had some happiness this week. One of my "adopted" Honduran daughters, now married to a fine young man and expecting a baby, had an ultra sound that revealed we will be welcoming a boy in early December. I'm as proud and excited as a grandparent.

They have chosen to name their son "Ethan Jeremiah." I like that. It is a strong, traditional name.

I think naming a child is an important responsibility. Some names give a kid a good start on life. Others can lead to a tough road ahead.

Choosing a name before a baby is even born is no easy task. I remember going through the process with my two sons. Many options were discussed over the nine month wait. In the end, we decided to go with traditional English names. Neither are "juniors", but both have a part of my name as their middle names.

Some people choose to name their children after celebrities or the famous of the day. There are a lot of girls named Hillary, Brittany, and Hannah currently growing up in the U.S.

Many parents in the South look to the Bible as a resources for names. There are number of boys named Elijah, Jacob, and Noah headed for school one day soon.

Here in Alabama, where we've had multiculturalism for about three hundred years, we also have babies with more lyrical names. Names that roll off the tongue but can be hard to spell : Shamika, Loquita, Rosechetta, and Dontarius are a few that come to mind.

I am reminded of a story I heard this week about a name choice. The man who relayed the story told it as Gospel truth. He has a very serious, matter-of-fact personality--never tells jokes, so I assume it is legitimate.

Seems his wife knows a nurse who works in a hospital in a west Georgia town. The nurse took the birth certificate form to a young mother to be completed. When it was returned, she glanced at the information and did a double take. She asked the young mother if she was sure she had completed the form correctly. The mother said "yes".

She took the form to the nurses station where she showed it to the other nurses. They decided there must be a mistake.

She returned to the room and questioned the mother again. "Are you sure you want to name your son this?"

"Yes," the mother said.

"Are you sure you want to spell it this way?"

"Yes," the mother said. "My baby's name is 'Shytheed'."

At least that's the way it was pronounced. Unfortunately, it was spelled "Shithead."

Poor lady must have learned to read with "Hooked on Phonics."

I bet this child is going to have more problems than Johnny Cash's Boy Named Sue.

Good luck, kid. You're gonna need it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Head South

I've had numerous comments about a previous post concerning a possible motorcycle ride south, through Mexico and beyond. With one exception ( sweet Jennifer, my friend and fellow day dreamer), all have been against the idea. Perhaps this is what makes the idea so appealing. I'm funny that way.

The reasons against such a ride are numerous.

My Mexican friend Felipe Zapata points out that the Mexican highways are dangerous. Traffic laws are often ignored, and drivers are reckless. Accidents are frequent and often deadly.

My Honduran friend Laurie simply says "don't do it."

One person even asked "What will you do when it rains?" My response: "Get wet."

Of course, most people point out that robbers, narcos, and other bandits are the main concern. I have given that some thought. That's a danger here in the U.S., too, though.

I have questioned anyone I have encountered who has ever made the journey. My most enlightening conversation came from a Honduran cab driver who claimed to have made the trip from Tegucigalpa to New York City (as a truck driver) many times. I asked if I should worry about "banditos" in Mexico? He laughed. "No" he said. "Worry about la policia."

People who really know me often point out that their main concern is that I don't know enough Spanish. I'll admit my Spanish is pretty basic, to say the least, and I need to know a lot more to be able to function in a Spanish-speaking country. But I believe I know enough key phrases to get by on a motorcycle adventure:

"No tengo dinero." (I don't have any money.)
"Tengo hambre." (I'm hungry.)
"Donde esta la gasolinera?" (Where is the gas station?)
"Neccesito el medico." (I need a doctor)

And just in case, "No me muerte." (Don't kill me).

That ought to just about cover it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Forester's have their own lingo. Special terms that outsiders are not likely to understand without explanation. One of these is "the deadhead."

Most foresters hate the deadhead.

When foresters cruise timber (there's another one--it refers to taking an inventory of trees), they walk "lines" back and forth across the terrain from property line to property line. The lines are spaced at predetermined intervals. The cruiser stops at points along each line and measures all the trees in a specified area. The idea is to take a sample of trees to estimate the total.

Occasionally the design of the cruise creates an "odd" line. This means a walk back across ground already covered. It is exertion with no purpose other than to return to the starting point. Kind of like going shopping in a large store, methodically moving down each aisle as you shop, then having to follow that same route back to the start.

Like I said, we hate it. It is time and energy expended without financial compensation.

Life, sometimes, is a bit like a deadhead. We find ourselves running over the same old ground, with no noticeable progress. We may even believe we are progressing toward a goal--some destination--only to find that we have been moving back and forth on the same old trail. And we all know that a path traveled too frequently will eventually become a rut from the wear.

The worst kind of deadhead is one that you walk alone.

If you ever find yourself in a deadhead, I hope that there will be someone alongside to make the journey more tolerable: a coworker, a friend, a loved one, or maybe just a memory to keep you moving. Because the rut can get awfully deep when you walk it alone.

I know. I've done it.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Brett's Back

This news just in: Brett Favre is coming back for another season as the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings.

I'm a big fan of Favre. As a forty-something year old man who has to put two feet on the floor every morning, often with the aid of performance-enhancing drugs (Ibuprofen), I admire the fact that he can still play a violent game six months out of the year.

Last year was statistically his best season ever, and I hope he is able to top those numbers this year.

But the media speculation concerning whether or not Brett will come back each season is tiresome. Largely created by ESPN, it is almost a daily story from the end of one football season to the next.

The reports are endless (and mindless):

"Brett was spotted riding his four-wheeler in Mississippi yesterday. Our sources indicate this means he's not coming back."

"Brett was seen tossing a football to a twelve year old outside Walmart in Pascagoula--a sure sign he's coming back."

"Michael Irving just 'twittered' that he believes Brett is not coming back."

This goes on ad nauseam for six months.

I believe there is a pattern in Brett's behavior that suggests the real reason for the delay in "making his decision to return" each year. Quite simply, he doesn't want to go through training camp.

He doesn't like to practice.

And why should he? Football practice is not fun, and Brett has nothing to prove (or to gain) by practicing. He can get ready to play in a couple of weeks. He's proven that over the last five years.

It's practice. Kind of reminds me of one of my favorite sports interviews of all time.

Just in case you missed Allen's point: "It's practice."

Good luck Brett.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Confessions of a Napper

I have a confession to make: I like naps.

I make this admission knowing full well that I will likely suffer innumerable taunts and severe personal consequences from my readers (all ten of you, not counting mom). American society does not look favorably on napping, unless of course you are under the age of five. We are a culture of go-go-go, all out, all the time--until you grab that fabled brass ring you've been told you must have, or settle under a nice piece of sod with a granite stone at Forest Lawn.

Naps are certainly not viewed as "manly." I feel obliged to defend my considerable testosterone levels.

I have spent a great deal of my life proving I am a "man's man." I've smashed baseballs with the boys of Summer and survived August two-a-day football practices. I've run a marathon. I graduated Officer Candidate School in the Marine Corps, one of about 25 in a platoon that began with 75. I've hiked through more woods than Lewis and Clark, and I've ordered that forests be cleared and re-planted. I've hunted and killed woodland animals and put their glassy-eyed heads on my den wall. I've fathered two children, both strong, good-looking manly-types like me. I've persevered through years of droughts, floods, hot, cold, and economic recessions. And although I've never hit a woman, I once gave the idea some serious consideration.

But I am a man who likes a little nap. About an hour does the trick. Anything over an hour and fifteen minutes is just plain wrong. Even nappers must have standards.

I attribute my affinity with naps to my daily schedule over the last twenty years. Foresters, farmers, and milkmen (before they became extinct) believe that they must awaken before sunrise to be effective. After only a few years of this, predawn awakening becomes habit. We can't help ourselves. Weekends, holidays, and other "sleep in" occasions are wasted. The sun's coming up, it's time to get up. Under such circumstances, naps are vital. If there is no opportunity for a nap, bedtime can come pretty early.

Trust me. I have never seen the end of a Monday Night Football game.

I do not share this affliction with the rest of my family. They are people of the night. My oldest son, who chose a normal profession in retail sales, once had to be at work at 6:00 a.m. to take inventory at his store. He came down the stairs at 5:30 and found me fully dressed and enjoying my second cup of coffee. "What are you doing up at this ungodly hour?", he said.

Either I've been real quiet for the last twenty years, or he's a heavy sleeper.

I believe society's negative outlook on naps is unfounded. A lot of great men were nap-takers.

General Patton took naps. When he missed his, he would often slap a Private.

Alexander the Great was only "Alexander the Ordinary" when he missed his daily nap.

And I won't even go into what happened to Napoleon the day he missed his nap. Look it up in the history books.

Perhaps the most famous nap in history is recorded in the Bible, Mark 4:38. Jesus and his disciples were in a boat crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm came up. Jesus had been through a long day of miracles and preaching. He was taking a nap.

I imagine the scene unfolded something like this:

Peter: "Hey, it's getting rougher by the minute. Wake up the Master."
John: "I'm not waking Him up, you wake Him up."
Peter: "Well, I'm not waking him up. Why should I always be the one to do the talking."
James: "Well, somebody better wake Him up, we're sinking here."

Jesus got up and very patiently calmed the storm.

To me, His reaction to having his nap interrupted is as much a miracle as the quieted storm. How was it possible to remain sinless in such a situation?

My reaction would have been "HELLO?! Here's me taking a nap. What part of 'I'm going to take my nap now' did you not understand? Do you think that you guys could show a little consideration here?"

I'm going to take a little nap now. All this writing has worn me out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tender Things

I marked timber one day earlier this week. Timber "marking" is forester lingo for painting a mark on each tree to be cut and removed from the forest. It is a "select cut" or partial harvest, as opposed to a "clearcut" in which all trees are removed.

The landowner lives in a rustic cabin on the property. He is a musician who plays in a local band--what I might describe as the "artsy" type. Some might describe him as an old hippie.

This nice man decided that we should mark and sell the large (more valuable) pines on his land. He wanted none of the interspersed hardwood trees cut or damaged in any way.

I suppose he is a gentle spirit with an empty wallet.

My friend chuckled a little as he gave me my instructions. "He wants you to mark the trees so that they can be cut tenderly. Those were his exact words. 'I'd like it cut tenderly.'"

I wasn't a part of this conversation between fellow-forester and landowner. If I had been, I would have taught a brief lesson in semantics. Let me provide the basics of it to you, dear reader:

Things that are "tender":
--a mother's touch;
--a baby's bottom;
--a lover's caress;
--a butterfly kiss;
--a nice filet;
--a sprained ankle;
--memories of first love;
--a broken heart.

Things that are not so "tender":
--an NFL linebacker;
--a right uppercut;
--a grizzly bear with a toothache;
--the T-bone steak at the Waffle House;
--a hornet's nest;
--the half-time speech when you're losing by three touchdowns;
--a hickory switch;
--and most importantly, a 90 foot tall pine tree when it is cut.

A pine tree this large will break, smash, cripple, maim, annihilate, and otherwise destroy anything it touches as it proceeds from the vertical to horizontal. Blame gravity--it's the law, you know?

I have a feeling the musician will be singing the blues when his trees are cut.

I, however, sang a little tune as I marked them. It went:

"Softly and tenderly
timber is falling,
Falling for you and for me..."

Sorry. You probably have to be a Baptist to get that one.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Forester

It is 6:30 a.m., and it is time to pull on my boots.

I will be working again today with a friend, a man who has spent over forty years in the forests of Alabama. Thin as a cedar fencepost and about as tough, he is ready to get to the woods, as he is nearly every day. After all, there is work to be done, and he believes God has put us here to do it.

The details of the job are inconsequential. It matters not if the brush is thick with briers, the weather is hot, or the terrain is rugged. We will do the job, and it will be done right.

Today we will be cruising timber on a large tract in Randolph County. The owner has recently inherited the property, and he will need an accurate appraisal of the timber for tax purposes. It will be a hot day. The National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory, urging caution for outdoor activities. We will leave our vehicle behind for several hours, and the only water we will have is what we can carry in a couple of water bottles.

"You think you can get 80 plots today?", he will ask.

I will hesitate. "Well, I hope so. It's gonna get pretty hot. I'll try."

"Well how about you man-up and put on your big boy britches and see if you can do it. After all, I'm paying you on production. I'd hate for you to ride all the way up here and not make any money."

I will get the 80 plots. Oh yes. I have been properly motivated by the master. He knows which buttons to push to accomplish his purposes.

I have asked him before about retirement. He says there will be none. "What would I do?", he asks, and it is a sincere question. He goes on to say that he will probably fall over and die one day in the woods. But that will be O.K., for he will go doing what he enjoys doing. What could be better?

We will drive home at the end of the day with a good appraisal. I will be exhausted, he will be talking about tomorrow's job like a teen-aged girl talks about the upcoming prom.

I'd like to believe I could be that tough and enthusiastic at 67.

But I doubt it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sunday Rides

Sunday afternoons are good for a long ride on the bike.

The bike is a Kawasaki KLR 650. No chromed-out Harley for me. I'm more interested in the ride than in being noticed on the ride. More utilitarian and functional than flashy, she is a hybrid. A Timex on a road filled with Rolexes. Kind of a cross between a motocross bike and a cruiser, equally comfortable on the asphalt ribbon or the dirt trails.

I call her "Esperanza", for she is hope.

I ride anonymously, full-faced helmet with tinted shield. I could be sixteen or sixty. I am acknowledged only by the other bikers. Each one I meet gives the fraternity wave, a simple extension of the left hand, fingers together as if waiting to be tagged in a wrestling match.

On this particular ride, my younger son rides behind on his Cruiser. He hangs back from the old man, a couple of hundred yards of asphalt between us. Out of safety or embarrassment, no one knows but him.

We have dreams, he and I, of riding south to unfamiliar lands. Lands of desert, high mountain passes, and broad planes of wild flowers dotted with horses. Lands inhabited by lovely senoritas and shoeless children, dirt streets and adobe walls. Lands where the citizens speak a lyrical language that I struggle to understand. Mas despacio, por favor. Habla englais? The Pacific is a right turn away, the Gulf a left. We will take off our heavy boots and stick our toes in both.

In the dream, we stop only to rest and record the journey. He with his fancy Nikon, me with my notebooks filled with white pages waiting for the words.

Or perhaps it is just my dream, and he is hanging on the edge of it, just as he lags behind on this Sunday afternoon ride.

With each passing day, the dream intensifies. The colors grow more vivid, the siren call rings louder. And yet, it also recedes into the horizon. Time is a petty thief. It steals a life unnoticed, until one day you awaken to find that you are an old man.

So for now we must find contentment on the back roads of Alabama.

Until that day, we ride on.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Economics 101

This is the annual sales tax holiday in Alabama. This weekend shoppers will pay no State sales tax on many of the items they purchase. Some things are excluded, but many goods like clothing, electronics, school supplies, and books are among the items that are at a "discount." The State sales tax is four percent on the first $100 spent. Some municipalities suspend their local sales taxes as well. Consumers may save as much as eight to ten percent total. For the mathematically challenged, that's paying $90 to $92 for a purchase that would normally cost $100.

The stores were jammed. The parking lots are jammed. I haven't seen this many people shopping since the economy started to tank over two years ago. Not even during the last two Christmas shopping seasons.

I cannot comprehend how politicians don't understand simple economics, which I believe this weekend illustrates. If the average person has money to spend, he or she will spend it. This creates jobs and makes the whole country work.

People spending creates prosperity and jobs--not the government. Lower taxes means they have more to spend.

This has been an unpaid political announcement for "throw all these bums in Washington out and start fresh."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Little Ditties of Life

Long hot day in the woods today. But a productive day.

It's strange how songs and melodies sometimes pop out of the ether and into your brain. As I worked this morning an old song I haven't heard in years ran through my mental music box over and over. It's a soft and sultry tune, totally unrelated to the work I was doing:

"With you I'm not shy,
to show the way I feel.
With you I'm not shy,
My secrets to reveal.
For you are a magnet and I am steel..."

After a lunch break, somebody changed the tape. For the next couple of hours it was an old Beatles song:

"Lovely Rita, meter maid
Nothing can stand between us
When it gets dark I'll tow your heart away..."

Once again, I haven't heard the song in ages, and it had no relation to the work I was doing. But it ran in continuous loop through my mind, over and over.

Sometimes toward the end of the day, the tape changed again. This time is was "Sweet Home Alabama." I know where that prompt came from, as last night I watched some old concert footage on PBS of Lynyrd Skynyrd in Oakland in 1977. At least it made a little sense to hum that one.

Perhaps it was just the heat that caused the internal music. It was awful hot, reportedly a 110 degree heat index. Dehydration can play tricks with the mind sometimes.

That's a scary thought. If I should ever collapse and die working in the woods, I certainly hope that "lovely Rita meter maid" isn't my last coherent thought before eternity.

Be careful what you put in your brain. You will never get rid of it.