Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Surgery in the Age of Information

I am recovering from a little minor surgery I had last week. You know, "minor surgery"--the term we all use to describe surgery that someone else has.

Through this process I believe I have discovered the chief reason that our health care system costs so much in the U.S.: information management.

We live in an age in which it's fairly easy to find out anything about anybody in just a few minutes. Don't believe me? Google your name. Give me 24 hours and internet access and I can tell you what you had for breakfast yesterday.

Our health care professionals seem to have missed out on this explosion of information. It's hard for me to understand. They have the same gadgets the general public has--computers everywhere, tablets, smart phones, and reams of paper forms that must be completed by the patient OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Apparently, these highly-trained professionals are unwilling or unable to communicate with each other.

Let me preach on it.

I injured my right foot almost three years ago training for a marathon. I went to a specialist who took x-rays and ran tests. An hour later he made a diagnosis: "you need surgery." I balked. My foot was just numb. It didn't really hurt, and limping isn't so bad once you get used to it. It can even be an advantage in certain business and social situations ("poor man, I can't ask him to do that, he's a cripple"--or more likely "he's physically-challenged" in the P.C. nonsense vocabulary of today).

I should mention that at this initial visit I completed approximately ten pages of forms consisting of my complete life history. Every sickness I had ever had. Every place I had ever traveled. Every doctor I had ever seen. Everything I had ever eaten. I believe they even asked what I'd had for snack in preschool (grape juice and a graham cracker, by the way).

Fast forward three years and suddenly the numbness turns to pain. Not just a little ache, mind you, but a jump-out-of-bed-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of pain.

I made an appointment with the same specialist.

Before the ink had dried on the register, the receptionist asked me the question I feared most: "How long has it been since we last saw you? Well then, hang on a second, we will need you to update your file."

This was no update, which to me would indicate the period of time since my last visit, but rather a complete rehash of my life story again. I purposely changed my answer to "apple juice and graham crackers" to see if they were paying attention. They were not.

They even took my picture on this occasion. For my file, of course. This gives me a much-needed peace of mind for the future. I wouldn't want an imposter to have any surgery on my behalf.

The interrogation continued at every step of the process. Questions I had answered in my previous biography were repeated, over and over again: by the little old lady (a volunteer!) in the outpatient waiting room; by the nurse who shaved my foot; by the nurse who put in my IV.; by the anesthesiologist; by my surgeon who came and actually drew an "x" on my foot with a Sharpie to make sure he operated on the right one (a real confidence builder, that); by the nurse who gave me the gas that put me to sleep. Seriously, I was still being grilled as I went under. I believe she said "now which foot is it?" to which I tried to yell "the one with the 'x'!", but I'm not sure if I got it out before I lost consciousness.

Now some of you will likely say "they are just being careful, and that's a good thing." And I might agree--a little. But how hard is it to share information in this electronic age? A 'one and done' question and answer system is surely possible. Before they went bankrupt, I could walk into any Blockbuster video store in the U.S. and learn I had a late fee on "Ernest Goes to Camp" from five years ago.

I am resting at home now, and I guess the system worked. The correct foot has been cut, and I think I am recovering satisfactorily. I even thought that maybe all those questions were somehow worthwhile, until I looked at my my post-op instructions.

They were addressed to Joseph Clinton.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Zombies in the South

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently made news with the release of a report entitled "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse." Now a lot of people made fun of this (most notably Fox News), but I get it. The CDC is using the huge popularity of Zombie-themed movies and shows in an attempt to persuade the American public to prepare for natural disasters like hurricanes or pandemics. The report recommends simple precautions like having an emergency supply kit and a few days of fresh water in reserve.

It probably wasn't the brightest marketing campaign ever devised, but I give the CDC an "A" for effort.

They are certainly dead on (no pun intended) that Zombies are a hot commodity.

I think it all began in the 1970's with "Night of the Living Dead," a movie that was advertised as "so terrifying that movie patrons are fainting in their seats." I saw that one as a teenager, and although I didn't faint or even find it particularly scary, I have to admit that it had a really cool ending.

"Night" spawned a number of sequels and knockoffs, but few packed the original's bite and Zombie interest sort of died out (no pun intended).

Interest revived (no pun intended) a few years ago with a couple of pretty good Zombie comedy spoofs: "Shaun of the Dead" and "Zombieland." While both were funny, my personal favorite was the latter, mainly because it had a set of rules to live by for the "un-dead": 1.Cardio; 2. Double-tap; 3. Beware of bathrooms; 4. Wear seat belts; 5. Check the back seat, etc,.

Zombie-mania is now at an all-time high due to an AMC television show, "The Walking Dead." It's a Sunday night staple at my house. The story details the trials and travails of a group of survivors of a Zombie apocalypse. It begins in Atlanta and follows the group as they make their way toward Fort Benning, GA, where they hope the military can provide safe harbor from the hordes of Zombies that roam the Georgia country side.

"The Walking Dead" is not overrun (no pun intended) with acting ability, but it is an entertaining story. I find it plausible because I believe that Southerners are well-suited to survive a Zombie attack.

Consider the facts, if you will:

1. We have been invaded before, first in the 1860's and then later by Yankees seeking a better place to live. We have survived both invasions and still maintain our unique identity;

2. We subsist quite comfortably on garden produce and canned meat products;

3. In any random sample of ten Southerners, at least four know how to hunt.

4. We are proficient at hand-to-hand combat, which was illustrated at most Walmart stores this past "Black Friday."

5. A gun lives at every house.

It will take more than hordes of flesh-eating Zombies to defeat the South. We can only be defeated by one thing: snow.

I began to hear murmurings on Thanksgiving Day. "Did you hear that they are predicting snow on Monday night?"

The frantic pitch picked up throughout the weekend. By Sunday night the prediction had increased to "possibly two to four inches."

In Montgomery yesterday, I noticed people looking up at the sky, as if they were somehow trying to determine if the clouds were laden with snow--like someone from Montgomery would actually know what a snow cloud looked like if they saw one.

As I write this, I have no doubt that every grocery store in the north half of Alabama is now completely stripped of bread, milk, and batteries. It happens every time snow is predicted. These three items are apparently all we believe we need to survive.

I don't know if the South will ever face a "Zombie Apocalypse."

But one thing is certain: the CDC can be confident that we will be the ones full of loaf bread and milk and our flashlights will be shining brightly.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


I saw this the other day at a paper mill in south Alabama, where I was meeting and talking with log truck drivers.

Yes, you are correct--it's a window-unit air conditioner that had been mounted in the rear wall of a log truck.

It gets hot down here, you know? A late November day and still 75 degrees.

Now I'm sure you laughed. I'll have to admit, I did too. I told the driver I had never seen that before. He shrugged it off. "Works good," he said.

Later as I gave it some thought, I realized that it was he who should be laughing at me.

This driver is a guy with a high school education (maybe) who had a problem. He probably didn't have the money to have an expensive air conditioner installed in his truck. So he gave the matter some thought and came up with a solution--one that involved mechanical and electrical engineering, along with some serious craftsmanship.

I couldn't do that despite years of education. Even if I looked it up in some books, or researched it on the internet, I simply wouldn't have the skills to pull it off.

The driver's education is superior to mine in many ways. His degree is not from a fancy institution, but from the school of "have to." Men like him produce things that make life easier for me. I suspect for you as well.

I gave that man a pat on the back and told him how much I appreciated his work as a log truck driver--how much the economy of Alabama depended on it.

He shrugged that off too. He wasn't used to being appreciated. I don't think he knew how to react.

And that's a shame.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


A couple of years have passed since I wrote , but the day for me will be much the same. Wherever you find yourself this Thanksgiving, I hope you'll take moment to be thankful for what you had--and what you've got.

Over the River November 24, 2009

The Opelika Cliftons will soon be gathering to head "over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house" for a Thanksgiving feast.

The river is the Tallapoosa, crossed on a four-lane bridge on US 280 at Alex City. There will be a few nice creeks crossed on the journey as well, which will attract little notice from the travelers. Creeks with equally lyrical Indian names: Saughahatchee, Chattasofka, and Socapatoy. Names and places much older than the holiday that demands their crossing today. The hardwood and pine woods will be designated by five counties, names also Indian or early statesman or soldier: Lee, Chambers, Tallapoosa, Coosa, Clay, and finally Talladega. We will stop short of the actual town, Sylacauga, which is also an Indian name that means "buzzard roost." Yes, I am from buzzard roost. But that is a story for another day. Today the focus is on "grandmother's house". Grandmother is my mom.

The sheer volume and deliciousness of food at this annual gathering will be shocking. There will be turkey, of course, but likely also a country ham. There will be cornbread dressing, giblet gravy (actually two giblet gravies because my brother doesn't like chopped egg in his), squash, green beans, scalloped potatoes, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, vegetable slices, deviled eggs, and various kinds of pickled things (slaws, relishes, etc.). There will be several varieties of casseroles. And of course, the homemade rolls--good for soppin' or just plain good by themselves.

If you are able to survive all that, then comes desert. Probably three or four pies (pecan, sweet potato, cherry cream cheese, and peanut butter) and a couple of cakes. Maybe even some cookies, just in case none of the other sweets strike your fancy. Weight can be gained just by looking, and I can assure you there will be more than just looking.

Almost all of this bounty will be bought and prepared by my mother. She is the glue that holds what remains of this small family together. The extravagant meal is prepared with time and effort, but also with love. At the end of the meal each year, someone will invariably point out the obvious--that this was way too much food--way overdone--and vow that we will not do this next year. But I know we will, as long as mom is able to do it. It is her way, among other ways, of showing her love for us. This gift is taken seriously, so much so that if I call on Saturday and say, "Mom, I'm coming up to visit tomorrow--let's go out to eat," she will likely say "But I've got this roast I can fix us..."

The family has held together for another year. There will be Becky and I, along with our sons John and Kyle. John's girlfriend, Taylor, will be joining us this year, separated from her other family in Mobile. Becky's parents will also be there, although her dad will be a little more feeble than in year's past. My brother and his beautiful wife Wendy will be there. This will be Wendy's second Thanksgiving as a Clifton (she hasn't run away screaming yet, so I guess she's going to make it). My brother finally found her after year's of searching, and their happiness together in their second year of marriage is touching. Sometimes so much so that I have to sternly say "You'll stop, you're making me sick." But I couldn't be more pleased for them. Good things do sometimes come to those who wait.

My dad will be absent from all this. It is hard to believe that he has been for twenty-three years. I am approaching the age at which he died, which is a strange feeling for me. I often wonder if the thoughts I have--my views, my outlook-- are similar to what he was thinking at the same age back then.

The great John R. Cash once sang "Let the Circle be Unbroken". I am thankful, this year, that our remaining little family circle still holds for another year. Because I realize all too well that one day it will, like Johnny's, be only rejoined in the "bye and bye".

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

On The Road in the Heart of Dixie

My job at the Alabama Forestry Association allows me the opportunity to travel across the state, soaking up the beauty of the countryside and meeting the people who are as much a part of the land as the forests that grow here. It is believed that the name "Alabama" is from the Choctaw tongue and originally meant "thicket clearers." Surprising that things haven't changed all that much here in a few hundred years.

Occasionally I spend the night somewhere on the road, which might prompt you to ask "Forester-poet (well, only a couple of my friends call me this, but I kinda like it) how do you manage to sustain the pace of your rock-n-roll lifestyle?"

Well sometimes it ain't easy.

Working for a non-profit allows me the luxury to wine and dine and stay at the very best hotels. Consider the sign shown in the photo above, posted at the five-star resort I spent the night at a few days ago.

My stay was fine, in spite of the fact that someone had previously jimmied the deadbolt lock out of the door (at least the management had covered the hole).

Maybe if they allowed folks to keep their dogs under the motel things like that wouldn't happen.

Just saying...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Happy Story

This post is for my young friend Ivey. She is a wonderfully talented and beautiful young lady who told me that she liked my last story, but wished I would write a "happy story" next time. So here goes, young friend...

Once upon a time there was a beautiful young princess who lived with a nice family in central Alabama. The princess was tall and quite striking--more beautiful than any of the other young girls in the kingdom. But that was not all. This princess had brains to go along with her beauty. She was a talented artist: she could draw or paint almost anything imaginable (which she often did). She could sing like a rare tropical songbird (which she often did). She could even make up stories right out of the air when she wanted. Some say that she was even secretly writing the "Great American Novel," quite an accomplishment for a girl of 15 tender years.

But the most amazing thing about the beautiful young princess was that she was happy. Not just your run-of-mill-hum-a-little-tune-out-loud happy, but real happiness. Happiness was not just a feeling to the princess, it was a way of life. She wanted the whole world to share her happiness, and she was determined to seek out those who were unhappy to share her secret.

Now there was an evil dragon living in the same part of central Alabama. He lived in a cave on the banks of the Coosa River (on the Chilton County side, of course--Coosa County is too poor even to feed a dragon).

This dragon was not happy. Some say that he was even grumpy. He complained constantly. "All there is to eat in this stupid kingdom is peaches!" (that proves just how unhappy he was, for everybody knows that Chilton county peaches are one of the tastiest treats anyone could ever hope to eat).

The dragon was just plain mean. Every now and then he would breathe fire and torch a kitten, just for fun.

All the people of the kingdom were afraid of the dragon. Not one would challenge him.

The princess decided that something must be done (she was a lover of kittens). She resolved to journey to the banks of the Coosa, confront the dragon, and teach him the secret of happiness.

She made the long journey and stood at the cave entrance. "Come out Mr. Dragon," she sang in her beautiful princess voice. "I'll share with you the wonderful secret of happiness!"

The words had no more finished echoing through the dark cave when the foul dragon rushed out and swallowed her whole.

Luckily for the princess, a kindly forester happened to be passing by. He slayed the dragon on the spot, cut open it's huge belly, and rescued the princess.

Now the moral of the story is threefold:

1. You can be happy yourself, but that doesn't mean others will decide to join you.
2. If you are going to be eaten by a dragon, it is a good thing to have a kindly forester in the near vicinity; and
3. Sometimes two people can't be happy no matter how hard they try. This is called "irreconcilable differences," and it makes lawyers very happy.

The End

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Benediction

Until two weeks ago, ten years had passed since I last heard from John.

I was about to lie down for the night when I heard that little ding from my cellphone. The text message snapped me back awake, and I stood in the darkness, the white glow from the phone's screen the only light in the cabin. Nobody I know would text me at eleven o'clock at night.


Eighteen hours later I'm in the hollow, stepping careful with my old deer rifle, not knowing what I will find, what I've become a willing party to for the sake of an old friendship.

We sit in the darkness of midnight, staring into the glowing coals of the fire and saying nothing for long stretches of time. The fire pops at intervals as the hickory burns. John jumps a little with every hissing crack, as if he expects a tongue of fire to leap out of this little crude altar to consume him for his sins.

The full moon that illuminated the hollow so completely is setting behind the ridge. A coyote howls on the ridge and is answered by a chorus of mournful yips and howls off in the distance. It sounds like damned spirits grieving their fate, condemned to walk these hills and hollows until God puts out the light once and for all.

"I can't go to prison," he says. He begins to rock in his camp chair, repeating the words over and over, like some demented Gregorian chant.

"I know, John."

We both know what happens to pudgy middle-aged men who are sent to prison for child molestation. Especially those who were once preachers.

"You've got to get me out of here, man. They're coming for me. I can feel it."

I say nothing. The front page of The Birmingham News has covered the manhunt for the past week.

It is only a matter of time until they find his abandoned pickup on the logging road two miles away. Then they will spread out and walk through these hills in long flanks with the dogs and guns, a small army of lawmen, auxiliary deputies, and volunteers, any of whom would love a chance to pull the trigger on a pedophile. It's not everyday you get to bag a trophy, and the reporters have stoked the fire of their rage by labeling John as "possibly armed and dangerous."

He doesn't look to dangerous to me. He looks like a broken-down old man who can't even find the courage to end this himself.

"Mexico," I say. "I'll take you down to my friend's hunting camp near Big Bend. You can slip across the border as easily as the Mexicans slip in. I'll drive around and cross at Juarez. Pick you up and head on down to Mexico City. A man can get lost in the crowd for a long time. You can disappear. You'll be O.K. there until things settle down."

There is silence again as we both stare into the fire. Deep down, we both know I lie. My words come out flat and float away into the darkness of the hollow.

"I can't go to prison. I can't go to prison. I can't go to prison."

"I won't let them take you, John. We'll leave at first light. You've got to calm down, now. Keep your head on straight. I need you thinking clearly."

"Help me, brother. I messed up big this time. Help me. Please. I can't be locked up."

"Hey," I say. "Let's me and you pray about this, like we used to pray when we were kids. We'll ask Jesus to forgive us. He'll help us. I know He will. He forgave that thief on the cross. He'll forgive you too."

"I don't think I can pray. I can't remember how."

"Sure you can. Let's get down on our knees. Remember how you used to say that men should always get on their knees to talk to God? Kneel down with me. I'll lead and you repeat, just like we used to do before our football games in high school."

We get down on our knees in the hardwood leaves, two sinners in the hands of an angry God. I put my left hand on his shoulder to steady us before the celestial throne.

"Follow me now," I say. But my words sound hollow, almost as if they are coming from someone else.

"Our Father which art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

I see John's lips move. His eyes are closed.

He doesn't see the .45 as I ease it out of the waist band of my jeans behind my back. For an instant, I see the reflection of us kneeling in the flickering firelight, a portrait in the stainless steel on the side of the gun--two sinners pleading for mercy.

I swing the barrel up just above his right ear. There is a flash and a crack in the stillness of the hollow. In my mind's eye it is like the lightning that struck the longleaf at the top of the ridge.

John slumps forward, face down in the dirt.

I continue to kneel for a moment. The blood pools and forms a rivulet that runs an imperceptible slope toward the creek.

I get to my feet. I have a lot to do in the six hours that remain before sunrise. I will leave no trace of our presence here. The hollow will look much the same as it did years ago when two boys first found it.

I am focused on the task at hand. I'll have the rest of my life to think about what I've done.

One thing is certain. I know that one day I too will stand before the Great White Throne to give an account of what I've done. I'll be asked for a reason.

Maybe I'll answer the question with one of my own.

"What are friends for?"

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Two hours pass, and I let John sleep. I hear snoring from the tent, the rhythm of his breathing broken only by a periodic moaning, the kind of low guttural whine a dog makes when it hears a siren in the distance.

I use the time wisely. I dig a hole in the soft bottomland ground and bury all traces of our presence--the cans and other food containers, all the evidence people always leave wherever we go. I wonder in the end if this is all we are--a few items buried in the ground that show future generations that we were here once. Everyday things we take for granted that some archeologist will use to judge what we must have been like and how we went about living our short existence. The sum total of our lives postulated in simple trash. "The people of this period ate beans from metallic cans and something called 'Snickers'."

I'd like to think we are more than that. That our laughs and tears and loves and struggles mean more than what we possessed. But one thing I do know as I clean up--we can never leave a place just like we found it. It's just our nature.

I rake leaves back over the disturbed ground and find the latrine John has dug just down the bottom. I'm thankful he has that much woodsman left in him after all these years. I didn't want to spend precious daylight combing the brush looking for used toilet paper. I fill in the shallow hole and cover it with a dead tree branch.

In the last light of day I survey my work. I see a tent, camp fire, and a few camping tools. Nothing else to show that someone has been here. Only leaves turned over that would easily be rationalized as wild turkeys scratching through the bottom for acorns.

There is nothing left to do but wait. I'm in no hurry, and I'm not going to wake the man up, even from a disturbed sleep. We will both be leaving here soon enough, and at least one of us will be rested and ready for the journey.

I unload the rifle, pocket the shells, and settle in by the fire. A big full moon is beginning to peep over the ridge. The hollow will be lit with pale light tonight, and no flashlight will be needed.

I recall that the Bible says that "what is done in the darkness will be seen in the light."

I take no comfort in that thought.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Appointment

To follow the story, first read "The Ridge" and "The Descent."

Twenty minutes pass as I work my way to the floor of the hollow. The last third of the slope is thick with mountain laurel and wild azalea, and I am forced to move through the hedge slowly. The ground is slick from the water that seeps out of the hillside here, and the laurel branches are tangled and stiff. The waxy evergreen leaves block my view of the ground, and I fight to keep my balance as I grab and push through the living wall. This place is an explosion of beauty in the Spring--white flowers in stark contrast to the lush green of the leaves. It is one of God's little paintings that nobody sees.

I hear the water from the creek as I reach the bottom. I take a few minutes to work my way along the base of the cliff to see the source. I have three hours until sunset, and I'm in no hurry. I want to see this place again. Something in me needs to see it, or at least that's what I tell myself. A lifetime has gone by since we discovered it as teenagers.

I guess I'm looking for the comfort of an old memory here. Maybe I'm trying to summon up some sort of courage. One thing's for sure--I know that this will be the last time I ever lay eyes on this spot, so I want to linger here a moment.

The creek that originates here and flows through the hollow comes out of the base of cliff. Water drips down the slope around it, but there is a definite point of origin, a cleft in solid rock where the water pours out into a kind of hollowed-out rock basin before it forms the channel that will enlarge and become the creek. The water is cold and crystal clear, so cold that it hurts my teeth as I take a drink from the pool. I sit for a moment, calming my mind to the hypnotic sound of the water poring into the pool.

If you were to find this place on a topographic map, the creek wouldn't be drawn in. Not even a thin blue line to mark its entry from the subterranean depths to sunlight. Even further down the hollow, down where he is waiting, the creek is wide enough that you can't jump cross without getting your feet wet, but the cartographers didn't even bother to give it a name.

We call it Meribah.

Actually John named it Meribah the day we found it. Even at seventeen, the boy knew his Bible. He had to explain it to me, take a moment to tell the old story from Exodus.

Seems that Moses and the children of Israel had wandered the desert for nearly 40 years. All that time, they moved from waterhole to waterhole, eating what God provided, living from day-to-day. The waterholes had gotten few and far between towards the end of the journey, and they complained to Moses. They were always complaining.

"We're hungry Moses."

"We're thirsty Moses."

"Do something, Moses--we're dying here."

Old Moses asked God for help, and God told him what to do. Go over there and hit that rock with your staff, and I'll send water straight out of it. It will be another miracle you can show the people. Another proof of how great I AM.

And that's what Moses did.

But he didn't do it exactly the way God commanded. God said to to hit the rock once, but Moses swung his magic stick twice. I reckon he was probably just sick and tired of all that constant moaning and complaining. I would have been--probably about 39 years before he was.

The water gushed out of solid rock, and the complainers drank and were momentarily satisfied.

But old Moses, old faithful Moses who had put up with all that crap for so long, who had dotted all his i's and crossed all his t's and done ever little thing God had asked him to do for all those sunrises and sunsets--old Moses messed up by not doing exactly what God said. Because he hit the rock twice instead of once, God told him that he wouldn't be allowed to enter the land they'd been promised for so long.

The moaners and complainers get to go, but you're out, old faithful servant. Sorry.

When John told me the story, I remember thinking that Moses got a bum deal. I still think that today.

John didn't think so. He thought that Moses should have done what God told him to do. He said that God is not in the compromise business. No variance allowed.

I wonder if he feels that way now.

I don't think it matters much what either of us think. God is God. He runs his business like He wants, and as far as I know, He ain't asked for my opinion.

I move on down the creek, past one hundred-foot tall yellow poplars that guard the banks.

I pass the rusted-out remains of a moonshine whiskey still, the ax marks still visible in the curled-in cuts where metal met metal of old 55 gallon drums. Scattered metal tubing and half-broken glass gallon jugs remain along the creek bank, a testimony to a man trying to make a living in a destitute era. Some old-timer recognized that you could hide for a long time in this hollow. The smoke from his cook fire would blend in with the morning mist rising into the mountain air, just like it hides John's small camp fire when he chooses to have one.

The man had to work hard to cook in this spot, carrying in his supplies and hauling out his finished product. I suspect someone ratted him out. Maybe a jealous customer or a competitor. No lawman could find this place on his own. He would need help. Probably need help finding his way back to town when his job was finished.

I hope the whiskey-maker got away and found a new location, suffering nothing more than the loss of his cook pot.

But I doubt it.

Ten minutes later I reach the camp, such as it is--a one man tent, a stack of wood gathered for infrequent fires, food wrappers and tin cans scattered about.

John is sitting on a camp stool leaned back against a big white oak, his rifle across his lap. He is red-eyed and dirty, and he looks as if he hasn't slept since I was last here four days ago. He looks right at me, but it is almost as if he doesn't see me.

"Hey John," I say.

"Were you followed?"

"No man. You know I wouldn't let anyone follow me. I circled around and watched my back trail five times on the way in. No body's following me."

"They're after me man. I saw a helicopter fly over yesterday. I'm pretty sure he didn't see me, though."

"No John, they ain't after you. That helicopter was just a coincidence."

I lie. No need to make things worse.

"Why don't you get in the tent and sleep a while. I'll keep watch. Give me the rifle. I'll just tidy up your camp. I'll build a little fire and fix us some supper after sunset. I brought some steaks. We'll eat like kings--just like the old days."

"OK," John says, but the answer is half-hearted and without a hint of emotion. "You watch that ridge line, now. I though I saw a sniper moving around up there last night, but I could never find him in my scope."

"Sure, man," I say. "You rest easy now. I'm here. I got your back"

I take the rifle and sit down in John's camp chair. It is a changing of the guard, like an old war movie. "You go on to sleep now."

I watch him crawl into the tent. I hope he sleeps a couple of hours. I've got lots to do.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Descent

I work my way around the rim of the hollow, walking carefully through the dry leaves. I leave the trail, instead choosing a more circuitous route that will allow me to go slowly and make my way down. Although I am expected at my destination at the creek that lies some 500 feet down and a half a mile below, I don't want to come unannounced. No sir. That could be hazardous to my health.

The hollow that I am hiking into is steep on three sides. The fourth, a narrow canyon that leads away to the south, follows the creek and gradually widens out into a flat bottom that runs out into a green valley. I suppose if we were out West, rather than in North Alabama, you could call this hollow a "box canyon." At least that's what they were called on the old Westerns I watched when I was a kid. They were always a part of the story, and the cowboy heroes of my youth were always making their stand there. I can hear old Festus in my head: "Matthew, I believe them boys is holed-up in that there box canyon. What we gonna do now?"

Anyone who wanted to hike into the hollow would likely take the path of least resistance, through the big yellow poplars and white oaks and along the rocky creek, up through the narrow gorge that leads directly into this hidden place.

I don't come in that way. There are trip wires there, hidden in the undergrowth. I know, because I help set them. You don't get into this hollow unannounced.

No one in their right mind would enter the way I am. The crunching of the leaves under my boots, the openness of the forest under the big mountain oaks and shagbark hickories that cover the rim of this hollow--all of this makes me visible to anyone or anything near the creek below. That is why I choose this route--to be seen.

Even now, I'm quite sure that I'm being watched through a rifle scope. I take my time and keep my head up where my face can be seen. I've hunted deer since I was twelve, raised-up with guns. I know what an exit hole looks like from a 150 grain 30.06 rifle shot, even at this distance. I'm not looking to get shot. Not today.

The going will be difficult for the next fifteen minutes. The first half of my descent down to the bottom is very steep, a sixty per cent slope that will put a man on his back in the blink of an eye, sliding through the dry hardwood leaves until he comes to rest against whatever granite outcrop or big mountain oak stands between him and the ledge below. It is the kind of ride we would have looked for as kids, using a flattened cardboard box to sled down hills like the kids up north got to do every Winter in the snow.

I smile for a second at a memory--a cold Winter's day so many years ago. We were ten, maybe twelve, and it was the kind of Winter day in Alabama when the sun is so bright and the sky is so blue that it almost hurts your eyes. It was his idea. He was always the one with the crazy ideas; always the one looking for the next thrill, the next adrenaline rush. We stood at the top of the pine-strawed slope, seeing nothing but the edge of a neatly raked lawn below. We would slide down in tandem, giving no thought to what lay at the bottom of the ride, and certainly no thought as to how we would stop. But stop we did--about a third of the way into old lady Johnson's prize rose garden. Laughing, scratched to pieces and bleeding, we high-tailed it out of there, hoping we hadn't been seen, but it was too late. He got off with a few rose thorns embedded in his arms, torn jeans, and a big scratch on his forehead. My daddy whipped me when I got home, and I spent two Saturdays the next Spring working in that stupid rose garden, old Lady Johnson alternating between lecturing me and bringing cookies and lemonade.

It was the way we spent our childhood. Me accepting his challenges, me getting the punishment when things didn't quite pan out and a window was broken or a rose garden plowed through. Him always walking away without consequence.

Times have changed. We aren't kids anymore. Debts come due. There are always consequences. And although thirty years have gone by, I still have to wonder if things haven't changed so much after all.

He is down there now. Watching. Waiting for me.

I reach the ledge that partially encircles the hollow. My descent here will be tricky, as I face a sheer 50 foot drop of solid granite before the slope continues the rest of the way down to the creek. I will have to work my way around to a cleft in the rock, where I can ease down through to the slope below.

It will be dangerous--an easy place to fall--especially with a full pack of canned food and other supplies. But I don't have a full pack today. Just a couple of frozen steaks, a six-pack of Pabst, and a big bag of ginger snap cookies. The ginger snaps are his favorite.

I sit in the ledge for a few minutes, breathing the cool air and taking in the beauty of the hollow. Thinking of what must be done. Wondering if our roles were reversed if he would do what I am doing.

Beside my leg I notice a mountain lion track in the soft thin layer of dirt and moss that lies in patches on the granite outcrop. The track is big and fresh. So, we are not alone here after all.

The wildlife experts all say that the big cats haven't come back into Alabama. Country people see them on occasion, surprised to flip on their lights in the middle of the night to see a six foot long-tailed cat eating cat food from a bowl on their back porches. But the wildlife people always dismiss them in the newspapers. "What you saw was a big bobcat" they say. Maybe they are trying to keep people from panicking. Maybe they want to keep the cat's reappearance into Alabama a secret, figuring some fool redneck will try to hunt it down and kill it. Maybe they are just stupid. I don't know.

Those of us who get off the trails--who have walked these wild places where roads don't penetrate--we know better.

I reach around my back and finger the .45 that is tucked into the waist band in the back of my jeans. It would stop a mountain lion. Probably even make a grizzly bear reconsider his position.

But I haven't brought it for either.

Break time is over. I have an appointment at the creek below, and I need to get moving again.

Next: The Appointment.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Ridge

I walk the ridge line, following the well-worn trail past 300 year old longleaf pines that stand like sentinels before the passage of time. There are other sojourners here too--gnarled black-jack oaks, mountain white oak--even the huckleberry bushes that cover the ground where the sunlight filters through the canopy seem old--much older than I am. Much older than I will ever be.

The tallest of the longleaf on this spot of ground has been struck by lightning. There is a long scar, bark peeled in a smooth strip from near the topmost branch all the way to the ground. It is an old scar, but a wound none-the-less. A visible indicator that a jagged bolt can descend from an angry sky and change everything in an instant. The plight of the tree reminds me that standing tall and proud is not always the best option, for trees or people.

A small fire blazed up from the lightning strike. It was brief but intense. Some of the smaller trees, stunted dogwood and scrub persimmon, were burned before the rain followed the lightning spark and doused the flames. Such is the nature of storms. It is not always the tallest and strongest that take the hit and suffer. Sometimes the innocent bystanders have the worse fate.

I pick up a strip of the thin peeled bark and put it in my pocket. It is a talisman of a sort--a reminder that other bolts will drop from these same heavens, sometimes even before a whisper of a breeze indicates that a storm is on the horizon. Jagged, loose electricity without a wire, high voltage descending through the stillness of heavy air. Such are not random, though they may appear so. They are predestined, preordained before the beginning of time. There is no other way that they could be. Like the trail worn by the passage of feet and hooves for ages and ages that I walk on this Fall day. There is no other place this trail could be; no other time that it could be walked by me in this way and in this moment.

I cross a ledge where the trail narrows in the ridge line. It is a thin, rocky place between the broad flat of the hilltops before and behind me. I imagine that from the air above it looks as if God pinched this spot while the bedrock was cooling, like a woman works the edges of a pie crust out of soft white dough. The soil is eroded and thin--nothing grows here for the lack of an anchor-hold. I mind my feet on the exposed granite. This is where the rattlesnake comes to warm on the first few cool days of Fall.

The ledge safely crossed, I follow the trail a few hundred yards until the ridge flattens wide again. Another trail, more faint but still discernible, angles toward the side slope. A fox squirrel chatters a warning as I step onto this path to make my descent. Whether this warning is for me or for other squirrels, I cannot know. Only time and the descent will tell.

I only know that I am headed down, but I have known that in my heart for some time now. Down the steep side slope to the broad level land in the hollow below. There is a creek flowing there, although I cannot see or hear its music yet. And near that creek is my destination.

Next: The Descent

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Republican Debate

I've written here before that I don't much like politics. Unfortunately, in the last three years I have come to understand that I'm going to have to become more involved. Governments at the local, state, and federal levels have too much control over people's lives in the U.S., and it's time for common people to change that.

I don't listen to a lot of speeches or debates. I end up getting more angry about our current situation if I do. I mostly read what has been written, and analyze what people do--not what they say. I did, however, make myself watch a little of the Republican debate on CNN last night. I was curious about how they might present themselves.

Allow me to give you my impressions.

Ron Paul: A Libertarian who runs as a Republican, this guy is attractive on the surface because I think a lot of Libertarian ideas are great. But Paul is a nut job. He has his moments when he says something brilliant--which he quickly follows with something that is bordering on insanity ("We must cut this unsustainable level of federal spending!"; "I have recently been in touch with the President of Venus, and this is what he says...").

Rick Santorum: Reminds me of the smart kid who lost the spelling bee. "I was the best one there! I thought she said 'remittent,' not 'remittance.' You know that's what happened. Your blue ribbon has no credibility."

Rick Perry: The guy who I originally had high hopes for. He does pretty well until someone asks him a tough question. Then he looks like a Texas deer in the headlights of an eighteen-wheeler.

Newt Gingrich: Probably the most intelligent guy of the lot, but it's hard for me to imagine he'd make a good leader. Maybe a cabinet position, but not President. If your wife can't trust you then why should I?

Mitchell Bachmann: "Will you go to the dance with me?" No. "Will you go to the dance with me?" No. "Will you go to the dance with me?" NO! Leave me alone.

Mitt Romney: "Look at my teeth. Don't I have great hair? I have confidence in me, and you should, too. The people of Massachusetts love my health care plan. Never mind that it bankrupted our state. Have you looked at my hair?"

Bottom line: you put all these in a sack and shake 'em up and dump one out, and it won't make much difference. It's just the same ol' same ol' the Republicans have trotted-out since 1988.

Then there's Herman Cain. He's the only one in the lot who gives specifics. The only one who is not a career politician. The only one who knows what it is like to work, to pay bills, to balance a check book.

I have high hopes for you Mr. Cain. Please don't let me down.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


My old enemy is back. He is like a relative, the one who is "between jobs," the one having a problem at home with the little woman, and he just needs somewhere to stay a little while to get his head together. His last visit lasted several months until he finally moved on. That was ten years ago, and he left me hollowed-eyed and half crazy. I don't know what his intentions are on this visit.

He comes into my room like a mother on a school day.

"Wake up, little buddy. Time to get ready for school."

"But it's not time to get up" I protest. "It's the middle of the night, there is nothing to do at this hour, and I have to work tomorrow. I need to sleep"

"No, old buddy. I insist. There are things to think about. I've got some ideas you need to mull over. Sleep is over-rated anyway. Let's talk about you. How are things going? What you gonna do tomorrow? How are things going? Oh, sorry, I already asked that. Maybe there's a good B movie or an infomercial on T.V. Hey, you got anything to eat around here?"

We will repeat this scene night after long night. Sometimes there is a lull in the conversation and he grows quiet, as if planning the next night's strategy. On these occasions, I may slip away for a restless hour or two, a little nap before the real day begins. Other times he is more persistent, and we will watch the sunrise together.

Either way, he will call me tomorrow. "Hey buddy, how you holding up? You look a little tired. How's that project going you are working on? Have a cup of coffee. You've got lots to do. Remember, you've got the drive after while. Look sharp now. We wouldn't want you to drift off to sleep on the way home. You might just kill somebody. That would be a shame. Have a good day, and remember, I'll see you tonight about two or three. We'll have a nice visit. Maybe there's a good one on A.M.C. that we haven't seen yet."

I will push on with life--try to ignore him until he gets tired of the game. The last time he finally packed up and moved on after about six months.

Maybe he intends to move on quickly this time. Or maybe he intends to stay until the job is finished.

One of us will have to go. That much is certain.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Blank Page

A blank sheet of paper is an infinite possibility.

There are innumerable stories that can be written here: romance, high sea adventure, intrigue, espionage. Something to lift the spirit or move to tears. A call to action or a nudge toward the cliff of despair. Boy meets girl, girl meets other boy--and the rest, as they say, is history.

Oh yes. Novels, short stories, poems, and essays, waiting to be plucked from the ether and committed to finite space. Infinite possibilities.

Or perhaps not.

Infinite possibility is not quite true. These words are limited as they creep across the emptiness of the page. They are limited by the writer: vocabulary, experience, knowledge of the subject, imagination. Choices have been made that have led to this point--choices that, in essence, control the very keystrokes. High sea adventure is out; romance, questionable at best. Dog stories and snippets of Southern life the norm. Nothing profound for the ages. A blog about nothing at its very best.

Doors have been opened and others have closed. Once passed through, there is no realistic possibility of return. Sometimes we are aware that we have passed through the door, sometimes not. But one thing is for certain: there are no "do-overs." The path continues until the final door is opened and then is slammed shut.

So what shall we write?

We write what we know, or at least what we think we know.

It is the best we can do with our limitations, and we hope someone will enjoy reading the words every once in a while.

We will write regardless. It's the activity of choice when we have the choice. Write and rewrite--and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.

And every now and then, we get one right.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I Stand Corrected

In my last post, I implied that the University of Georgia wore the ugliest football uniform ever created last Saturday night.

I stand corrected.

My apologies, UGA. Maryland has out-uglied you. Not even close.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

U.G.L.Y., You ain't got no alibi

College football is fairly important in the South.

The first line of an essay is supposed to grab the reader's attention. I thought I'd lead with one that is so ridiculously understated that it is laughable.

College football is life to many in the South. It's what they eat, drink, and sleep 365 days a year. It's our pride--it's what we do better than anyone else. We are consistent in our passion and our excellence. It is our heritage, our tradition, and it's under attack.

First it was last year's news that the University of Mississippi had changed their mascot. I won't preach on that again, you can read it here. Rebel black bears--puh-leeze.

Now we have been subjected to the University of Georgia appearing last night in one of the most hideously ugly uniforms ever to be worn. I don't know how much NIKE paid them to wear that atrocity, but it wasn't enough. Thank God they weren't playing Boise in their all blue uniforms on the blue field--the entire state of Georgia would have been lined-up in emergency rooms getting I.V.'s. Projectile vomiting is no laughing matter.

This is the way it's supposed to be: the red and silver at Georgia; the crimson tide in Tuscaloosa; the navy blue on the "Loveliest Village on the Plains;" yellow, purple and white on the bayou; an orange like no other on Rocky Top; orange and blue in the Swamp.

Even lowly Vanderbilt, who has never really figured out how to play the game, has a tasteful distinctiveness in their dress.

Repent, Georgia. If you can't win, at least look good getting whipped.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Bad Ink

You know, you almost had me there with your cool flier. Maybe I'd get some ink like the young folks: an "Angel of Death" like my young artistic friend drew on my arm with a Sharpie a few days ago.

That might help me cultivate a tough-guy Biker image. I'm not a man to be trifled with. Don't start none, won't be none--understand?

Then the Redhead noticed you spelled "available" wrong.

That would be just my luck.

No spell-checker on the needle.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Two Ways of Thinking

Part of my job at the Alabama Forestry Association is to help our members make improvements in the "supply chain." The supply chain includes all the people and steps involved in harvesting and transporting trees and timber to mills where they are processed into the products that you and I use each day.

A major component of the supply chain is road transportation, specifically trucking. I've been trying to learn all I can about it, especially about safety and ways to improve it.

I recently took a short course from the Auburn University School of Engineering on "Road Safety Analysis." The focus of the class was to be able to analyze and process traffic accident data in order to make improvements to the road network (signage, lighting, etc) that could help increase safety and save lives.

I won't bore you with the details of the class, but I wanted to give you one of the case studies and the discussion that ensued. I think it illustrates the current political climate in the U.S.--the nature of the debate between those who believe that government has the answers to our problems versus those who believe that we as citizens are better able to run our lives.

Keep in mind that I was the only person in the class who was not employed by the government. The others were all state or federal employees.

A city in Florida went through a "beautification program" sometime back. A part of that effort concerned redesigning some of the streets to include more greenery--trees, shrubs, and flowers--the sort of thing, I suppose, intended to make people want to stroll along and shop.

One particular street was modified from four wide lanes of two-way traffic to four narrow lanes with a long island of trees and shrubs in the middle. One side of the street was residential--mostly apartments and multifamily dwellings. The other side was commercial; comprised of small shops, restaurants and bars.

All of this was indeed attractive. The median was thick and lush with greenery--a city block a couple of hundred yards long between the traffic lights with a little oasis in the middle. A great idea at face value: good for business and good for the "planet" (whatever that means).

It didn't take long for a problem to emerge, however. There were twelve pedestrian fatalities within a fifty yard area of the street in less than a year.

A federal safety team was sent to the city to investigate. They viewed the site, reviewed the police reports, and interviewed store owners and some people on the sidewalks. A pattern quickly became evident.

All of the fatalities were Hispanic men. There was a large community of Hispanic farm-workers living on the residential side of the street. Many were employed in the nearby orange groves, and these workers were all issued uniforms--green uniforms. In the first informal interviews conducted in the neighborhood, the team found that the "official" number of fatalities was probably understated. The police indicated they believed that some potential fatalities had been unreported--physical evidence had been present that families of the victims may have removed the bodies before police arrived.

The federal safety team was gathering some useful information until a resident asked them who they were and what they were doing. When one of the investigators identified himself as being a federal employee, communication stopped. The neighborhood cleared. People went back into their homes. Children left the playground. Doors were locked, curtains closed.

Many of these people were obviously "undocumented"--or illegal, if you prefer.

The safety team was naturally curious about the actual number of unreported fatalities. Since the opportunity for more interviews with residents was over, they located the nearest Catholic church, which happened to be a couple of blocks away. An interview with the priest provided another useful bit of information. He indicated that he had conducted at least six funerals in the last year in which the bodies had been badly traumatized--"like they had been hit by a truck." The families wouldn't talk, and he had been left to wonder at the fate of his parishioners.

The safety team surmised that the actual number of fatalities was possibly 18 to 20 in less than a year.

There was one piece of the puzzle left--the "why?" The investigation team came back the next evening to watch the road for clues. The mystery was quickly solved.

The buses carrying workers from the orange groves arrived about six p.m. Soon after, workers crossed the road through the median to a bar on the commercial side of the road. None went down the block to the traffic light--they simply took the shortest route in the middle of the block through the median. A couple of hours later after sunset, the same men crossed back singly or in pairs. Even a casual observer could tell that the drivers and pedestrians couldn't see each other after dark.

The instructor asked for potential solutions to the problem. I sat quietly and listened to the proposals from my fellow students (remember, they all work for government agencies):

"We need to canvas the neighborhood. Go door to door and hand out fliers. Have a 'town hall' meeting to discuss the problem. We should educate the Hispanics that we cross at the traffic light in this country."

Instructor: "Won't work. They don't trust you. They are afraid of being deported."

"How about an educational program at school? We develop training materials for the children, who will go home and discuss what they have learned with their parents."

Instructor: "Not bad, but that would take a long time. Eighteen people have already been killed in less than a year."

"How about doing the educational program through the church?"

Instructor: "Again, they don't trust you. If they didn't trust the priest enough to tell him what happened to their loved ones, what makes you think they will listen to you?"

The class fell silent. The instructor waited. I tried to be quiet, but that's not my strong suit.

"How about we cut down the trees down and get some lights put up? Plant some flowers or low-growing vegetation, but the rest has to go."

The instructor laughed. "I thought you were a tree man."

"I am. But no stupid beautification project is worth a human life."

He laughed again.

That is exactly what the city did--along with some additional lighting and a couple of signs.

Problem solved.

Now lest you misunderstand me, let me make something very clear. My recounting this story is not an attempt to make anyone look stupid or me look smart. It is simply a juxtaposition of two ways of looking at a problem. The students who were government workers thought in terms of government solutions. They were sincere in their belief that "programs" could solve the problem. They had no hidden agenda, and I really believe they thought their solutions would be effective.

My belief is that programs take time and cost lots of money. Our country doesn't have a surplus of either. I believe that direct approaches are better.

This is the true nature of the political debate in the U.S. today in the simplest of terms. Throw out all the labels, all the rhetoric, all the name-calling and political spin and you are left with one simple question: "who do I believe is best able to run my life?"

I hope you think it's you. I do.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Dog Tale

This little story is for my young friend Stephanie Pugh.

Steph recently lost a dog. I've lost a couple in the last few years. If you haven't loved and lost, you won't understand the way we grieve for an animal. And if you haven't loved at least one dog in your life--well, that's just sad. You've missed one of the great pleasures of life.

This story sounds like fiction, but it's not. I don't write much fiction, because I'm not smart enough. Besides, there are enough real stories around if you pay attention.

When I was very young, my mother's aunt and uncle lived in the country near Bessemer, Alabama. We would visit them on occasion, taking my grandmother (who couldn't drive a car) to visit her sister.

Uncle Lewis had an English Bulldog named "Tubby." He was getting old and grumpy by the time we first met, and I was warned not to pet him because he "didn't like children" and might bite. That was tough for a five-year-old kid. He looked like a big sack of slobbering sunshine.

The interesting thing about old Tubby was his daily routine.

Tubby's favorite treat was salted peanuts. He liked to have a small bag as a mid-afternoon snack. Uncle Lewis had taught him a unique way to get them.

There was a little country store not too far down the road. Every day about two o'clock, Tubby would begin to beg for his treat. Uncle Lewis would reach into his pocket, take out a dollar and give it to Tubby. He'd hold the bill in his mouth and go to the door to be let out.

Tubby made the trek to the store (where the owner was waiting), hand over the dollar, and receive his precious bag of salted peanuts. He then made the trek back home, bag in mouth, and scratch on the door to be let back in the house. He'd give the bag to my Uncle Lewis, who opened them and rewarded the bulldog for his savvy.

Too bad we didn't have YouTube back then. You wouldn't be able to say I made this up.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

An Open Letter to Auburn/Opelika, Alabama Politicians

Dear Idiots:

I hope you took the opportunity to ride around our little communities today.

Perhaps you noticed the traffic and the difficulty in finding a parking space at all our major shopping areas. Probably the largest crowds we've had in several years. Larger crowds than we've had during the holiday shopping season in the last three years.

I'm no genius politician like you all are, but I think it might have something to do with it being a "no sales tax holiday" across our great state. Seems that people will still get out and buy the things they need when they can save nine cents out of every dollar they spend, even in a recession, double-dip recession, global depression, or whatever you want to call this malaise.

Weren't you all the ones who raised our sales tax (coincidentally in both towns on the same day) a couple of months ago?

Might there be a lesson in this for you? Or are you just too stupid to understand human behavior and basic economics?

Perhaps if you cut our sales tax in half, we could have this kind of activity all along. People would buy all year long, and your precious revenues would actually increase. You could probably even all vote yourself a pay raise.

Enjoy your remaining time in office. Some of you will no doubt be re-elected, because voters have short memories.

But I don't. I won't vote for any of you, and I'll do my best to remind others not to either.

Have a great weekend, jackasses.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Modest Proposal *

In my last post, I mentioned that I have been traveling the state and talking to forest landowners who suffered loss in the Alabama tornadoes of April 15th and 27th. I am part of a team of foresters and resource professionals commissioned by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. We have been conducting "town hall" meetings with the goal of providing information to help people find the resources to recover some of the value of acres of trees and timber that were blown down, as well as describing possible alternative methods of reforestation.

Most of the landowners I have met have no idea how to even start. Private and industrial forestry has begun the clean-up and timber harvest on many properties, but there is simply so much timber down that the sad fact is that much of it will never be recovered before it becomes unusable. There is simply too much destruction and too little time.

State forestry has provided a lot of useful information on the consequences of the storm, as well as a lot of talk about what could be done with money from state and federal programs. The problem is that most of these programs are budgeted but UNFUNDED. I believe they will continue to be so. Governments at both levels are broke.

Yesterday I attended a meeting of another group, "The Natural and Cultural Resources Recovery Task Force." This group was comprised of almost entirely federal workers: FEMA, Department of Interior, Historical Preservation, EPA, etc. This group is focused on recovery of historical sites, parks, recreation areas, and landscapes in towns. The discussion was upbeat and grandiose. Terms like "green spaces" and "Eco-tourism" were bandied about. Programs to restore the beauty of little Alabama towns like Hackleburg and Phil Campbell were laid out on a conference room table with the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. Each agency representative talked about what could be done--and each concluded with the same phrase: "if we had the money."

Let me repeat to you, dear reader, what I finally had to say in this meeting: "WE DON'T HAVE THE MONEY, AND WE'RE NOT GOING TO GET THE MONEY." These tornadoes didn't drop us off in Oz. There is no yellow brick road. This movie will continue in black and white.

Some might say I am too negative. I prefer to be recognized as a realist.

So what can be done?

One of the things that made me proud to be an Alabamian in the first few weeks after the storms was the huge response of individuals and groups, working as volunteers, who poured into affected areas with supplies and manpower. Private citizens rolled up their sleeves and went to work wherever they were needed--collecting supplies, cooking, removing debris, repairing homes, etc. So much food and clothing was collected that some communities had to say "Stop--enough."

And these good people did stop. For the most part, they are still stopped. They went back to their homes, jobs, and lives, while people in devastated areas continue to live in tents and trailers in a countryside that looks more like a moonscape than the lush green hills of north Alabama.

As Paul Simon once sang, we have a "short little span of attention" these days. Out of sight, out of mind. We move on to the next crisis, the next political debate, the next celebrity scandal.

That has got to change for these areas to recover. Recovery must come from the private sector if it comes at all.

So if you are reading this and you live in Alabama, I'm "calling you out."

Church people: quit meeting in your holy huddles and get organized. Quit talking about loving your neighbor, and actually go out and do it. Postpone that new parking lot or "Christian Life Center" or "youth mission trip" to Disney World and divert the money to rebuild homes and infrastructure in Alabama. Partner with a church in an affected community. They probably no longer have a building. Help them build one so they can minister to their own community.

Big business: organize your thousands of employees to give time and money to volunteer here in Alabama where you operate. Not only is it good public relations, but it makes perfect financial sense. Consider it an investment in potential customers and long-term economic recovery and growth.

Small business: your entrepreneurial skills and visions are needed. There is opportunity all around. You are the real "movers and shakers" in America, so get to moving and shaking. Not only can you help people, but there is money to be made. Nothing wrong with doing both.

Civic groups: get to work. Habitat for Humanity, we have areas that need houses. Boy Scouts, plant some trees and clear some trails. Lions Club, act like lions in raising money and providing volunteers. Master Gardeners, use your skills to feed and beautify. Adopt a community. Most are less than a few hours away.

Private citizens: find some place to get involved. Give some money to a group working in a restoration effort that you are passionate about. Give up a movie or a meal a week and give the money to a relief effort. Spend a weekend a month helping your fellow Alabamians. Every occupation and trade has something to offer: teachers, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, plumbers, cooks, writers--even foresters.

Alabamians, we are on our own. Let's get to it.

It's the least we can do.

*With apologies to Mr. Swift

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Long Road

It has been a long week on the road. I've spent my time traveling to areas of Alabama that lay in the path of the tornadoes of April 27th. I've been part of a team of foresters who are providing information to forest landowners who were affected by the storms.

I was pleased to see that the top priorities of cleaning up the debris and restoring order in the towns has come a long way since that day. Cullman, for example, appears to be well on her way to getting back to normal.

The people of the countryside are not so fortunate. They come to our meetings hoping for help, looking for answers. Many have acres of trees on the ground, and three months later they still don't even know where to begin.

Many have hopes that there will be some kind of financial assistance from state or federal government. There will not be any. This is not Katrina. This is not the Gulf Coast, where the threat of oil washing up on the beach behind million dollar resorts sent truck loads of money and workers from D.C. This is not even Haiti or Bagdad.

This is cracker land, hillbilly county, redneck territory--the area people fly over at 30 thousand feet on the way to more exotic destinations.

You may wonder why I'd take part in a meeting in which you tell people that there isn't much of anything you can do for them.

It's simple really. We owe them that.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two Verdicts

The news tonight is dominated with reaction to a not-guilty verdict in the trial of a young girl's death in Florida. Most of the commentators have been outraged. I haven't followed the trial or the story, but from what I can gather from opinions I respect is that it looks very much like someone is going to get away with murder.

A friend of mine recently told me a similar story from Honduras. A two-year old child, left with a "friend" of a working mother, died. The initial story was fever and diarrhea. The body, along with confessions of two older siblings, told a different story.

It was a story of being tied up. A story of being beaten with the blunt end of a machete. A story of sheer terror.

The case in Honduras will never be reported, let alone go to trial. An investigation might lead to the children being taken away from the working parents, shuttled off to the anonymity of some orphanage.

A murderer will not even be arrested, let alone found "not guilty."

Justice, like revenge, is sometimes best served cold. But it is always served. Oh yes.

The blood of two little girls cries from the ground. I have to believe it is heard.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Call

My friend's phone rang at 1:30 am Saturday morning.

It was the call. Any of you that have children old enough to drive know about the call. It is the ring of the telephone in the middle of the night. An awful alarm that snaps you awake from a light, uneasy sleep, because you haven't yet heard a car pull up, a door open, a sleepy fumbling in the bedroom down the hall as a son or daughter prepares to get safely into bed.

Before the receiver is picked up, there are muttered prayers. Prayers that the voice you are about to hear will be a familiar one. Words that will hold no finality, but will only be an inconvenience: "mom, I have a flat tire" or "dad, we were having so much fun that the time just got away from me." Excuses that might lead to angry words--but only after that sweet, secret feeling of relief. Everything is OK.

For Lisa and Lance, this was not that call. The words on the other end of the line were stark, flat, business-like: "Ms. Martin, you and your husband should come to the emergency room immediately. There has been an accident."

The drive to town was hurried and anxious. To make matters worse, their trip was delayed when they had to drive around an accident--two cars mangled and fused from a head-on collision, a Satanic sculpture of twisted metal and shattered glass. One of the cars had been damaged so severely that the emergency crews had cut away a large section in order to remove the driver.

They didn't make the connection. Perhaps it was their worry and haste to get to the hospital to check on their child, or perhaps it was the severity of the damage to the vehicle.

They did not recognize their first-born son's car.

The awful realization came at the hospital moments later. The words must have hit them with a force similar to the car that had crossed the center line and slammed head-on into their son's car.

Twenty-four year old J.R. wasn't coming home again.

I went to the memorial service with a sense of dread. There is nothing to say that is adequate in such a situation, so I usually say nothing. Perhaps an embrace with a simple "I'm sorry." Although I've only known Lisa and Lance for a short time, I knew from our conversations that they were people of faith, but even people of faith can be devastated by the loss of a son or daughter. A train that is derailed is not easily set back on the tracks, even by the largest of machines. That kind of destruction leaves scars that take time to heal, and it is not pleasant to arrive just after the derailment.

I was surprised by what I experienced. A video in the lobby comprised of pictures of a young man's short journey through life: J.R. as a baby, in family portraits, in school pictures, hamming it up for the camera. Always smiling, as if every occasion was just another moment of happiness to be savored, every day an ice cream cone waiting to be licked. There were some tears by onlookers, but many more smiles.

My surprise turned to amazement. My friend delivered her own son's eulogy. It was a wonderful tribute to a much-loved son. We were encouraged to remember J.R.'s happiness, as well as his ambition of becoming a counselor so that he might help others find their happiness. We were cautioned not to lay blame, but to instead pray for the young lady whose life will forever be changed for her part in the accident.

Simple, eloquent words from someone who was clearly hurt very deeply.

People often say that the test of faith is how a person lives their life. I would agree that a walk ought to match the talk. Too often it doesn't.

But perhaps a better test of faith is how a person handles a death, when words are just no good and the hope displayed by actions say all there is to say.

I believe I just witnessed the real deal.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Home Folks

It is 5:30 pm on a Thursday afternoon, but the gravel parking lot is almost full of dusty pickup trucks and mostly American-made cars. I am reminded that country folks eat supper early on weeknights in North Alabama, and tonight will be no exception. The large cement block building with the gravel parking lot is a Catfish Restaurant, no different than those that can be found near almost any town across the Alabama countryside. On this occasion, I am in the northwest corner of the state, a half-mile from the Tennessee River. Here she flows through lush green fields and hardwoods, and if there is a more beautiful waterway in the world, I have yet to lay eyes on it.

I struggle through the front door, loaded-down with my projector, laptop computer, and a portable screen that I will need to give my forestry presentation to a group of local landowners. I am met just inside the door by a middle-aged waitress, already flustered from the supper crowd. "You must be with the forestry folks. Y'all gonna be in that room in the back. Just head on in there, and let me know if you need anything. You want me to bring you a glass of sweet tea?" It has been a long drive up from Montgomery, and I am happy to accept the offer.

The small group that will comprise my audience begins to straggle in around 6. They come mostly in pairs, husbands and wives, and as they register I realize that the average age is probably 70. I won't be leaving anytime soon--older folks are always more personable. They will not allow me to leave a stranger. Before they accept what I will say in my presentation, they will have to get to know me--find out if I'm one of them, or only some pretender sent up from south Alabama to sell them a bill of goods.

I meet the Bailey twins and their wives. Both in the 70's and both retired accountants, I am unable to tell them apart if not for their name tags. They will be my questioners of the group. With years of experience in owning forestland, there is not too much that they haven't seen or experienced. Each will corner me and ask my opinion on a variety of topics (when will timber prices rise?), and both will require that I have the data to back up my answers.

Mr. Johnson simply wants to know where I'm from. I can tell it is key in his evaluation of my credentials. He's met people from my home town. He quizzes me about each one, and I feel that I am being cross-examined; the expert witness whose credentials are being evaluated on the witness stand. I do poorly. I left my hometown at 18 and have never been back except to visit. Many of the names and faces from my childhood are no longer recalled. I think I have failed, but will be surprised later when he calls me over to his pickup in the parking lot to present me one of his hand-made hiking staffs.

Others come by and shake my hand. I meet and talk with each one of the 17 people who eventually gather for my presentation. We talk about a variety of topics but never get far away from the land: the tornadoes of April that tracked north and south of their area, rainfall, tomato gardens, and the implications of the recently concluded legislative session in Montgomery.

We are eventually seated and the waitresses take our orders. We can order almost anything as long as it's fried: catfish, shrimp, chicken, pork chops, hush puppies, and french fries. It makes little difference--it's all good. We say a blessing and enjoy the meal.

Afterwards, I give my talk. I tell them of the potential legal liabilities of owning land, and things they can do to minimize their risk. They stop me at various points and ask intelligent questions. One dear lady who must be close to eighty-years-old takes notes, carefully writing down my words in a spiral notebook with all the seriousness of a student preparing for a final exam.

I finish right on time as promised at 8 pm. I face a long drive back south, but I already know I am not going anywhere anytime soon. There is more small-talk to be made, more questions. What of my family? Will I be coming back to speak again? How did I like the food? What church do I attend?

I am back on the road an hour later, happy and honored that I have been able to make the trip.

I have never been to this place before, but I believe I have been among the home folks.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Dog's Life

We had another dog incident this weekend.

If you are wondering the specific meaning of the word "incident," let me explain. The word as I use it in combination with the word "dog" denotes an emergency trip to the local vet, along with the subsequent exchange of a tidy sum of money.

We've had a number of these incidents before. I don't want to brag, but let's just say that our vet sends me a Christmas card every year. I suspect that I am the major contributor to his grand-children's college fund.

This weekend's installment in the continuing saga involved Kota, our big male Boxer, and my Kawasaki Mule ATV. If you want to score the game at home, that's Mule 3, Boxers 0.

Let me explain the game. I have a big, fenced back yard, big enough for dogs to roam free and do all the things dogs like to do. They can run, play, chase squirrels--do whatever their little dog hearts desire. Are they content with this arrangement? No.

Every day (and by this I mean EVERY day) they patiently wait for me to come out back and crank up the ATV for a few laps around the yard. The game is this: I am the leader of the pack, and they are the wolves. Together, we three circle the yard at high speed, on the hunt for wildebeests or gazelles or maybe even grizzly bears. After about ten minutes, we rest and drink out of the garden hose. We never kill anything on these hunts, but it is, after all, the pursuit that matters--the comradeship of the pack.

This game has not been without casualties.

First, there was Butch, the greatest dog who ever lived. Butch was fearless and never showed pain, and like the dog in Faulkner's great story "The Bear," he was the dog I'd pick if I needed one to pull down and hold a dangerous animal. One day he unexpectedly darted in front of me after a squirrel. I hit him hard enough with the front bumper to knock him head over nubby tail, probably some thirty feet. Being a dog of unusual toughness and dignity, he never even yelped. He was unhurt--but he never ran too close to me again.

Then there was Dolly, the Redhead's little female. I ran completely over her when she was about six months old. She rolled over on her back and kicked like she was in the grip of Death himself, then jumped up and continued the game. But like Butch, she never ran too close to the ATV again.

Then there was Max. He didn't understand the game at first. He thought he was supposed to catch the ATV. The Redhead ran over his foot and crushed it (that one was expensive). He ran with a limp from then on, but still loved the game--he just never got too close to the ATV again.

Which brings us to Kota.

Kota is an adopted Boxer, the product of a divorce. He was eight months old when he arrived, so it took him a while to understand the game. He showed little interest in it at first, but soon became an expert with the encouragement of Dolly.

A few weeks ago, something happened. Kota became obsessed with the game. By obsessed I mean sitting out on our back deck by the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of me headed for the back door. By obsessed, I mean sitting by the backyard gate, waiting for me to get into or out of my truck. By obsessed, I mean issuing forth some sort of blood-curdling, squealing, whine whenever I appeared--a sound that I can only describe as a cross between the cries of the damned and a fourteen year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

Along with this preoccupation with playing the game, Kota lost all respect for the ATV. That is, until yesterday, when he attempted to bite the front tire while he was in full stride. His right front leg now contains a number of stitches. We will settle up down at Smilin' Jerre's Animal Hospital tomorrow when I pick him up.

I predict Kota will enthusiastically return to the game in a few days when he's all healed. But I bet you he won't get close to the ATV again.

Maybe I can start to enjoy the game again myself--can play it with reckless abandon and no fear. After all, everybody has been injured and learned their lesson.

Except me.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sunday Ride

Every now and again, a man needs to step away for a while. Take a break from the toils and worries of life. Pick up the broom and knock down the cobwebs in the corners of his mind.

My broom has two wheels. My broom can fly.

I put my motorcycle through the paces yesterday--a 250 mile loop through the rolling hills of central Alabama.

I have had uncertain thoughts about her lately. Maybe she is not the one for me. She isn't the biggest or most powerful thing on two wheels. She doesn't have the prestige of the big Harley cruisers, or the sheer raw power of the Japanese sport bikes. Maybe she isn't big enough, powerful enough, to go the places I want to go and see the things I want to see.

Yesterday she proved me wrong.

She easily handled five hours of 95 degree heat, up and down mountain roads, with nary a hiccup. We even shared the simple pleasure of dusting a few big Harley cruisers on the way up to the top and then back down Mount Cheaha, Alabama's highest point. Big boys couldn't keep up with my little girl. She is nimble. She is lithe. She is quick.

Cobwebs cleared. Confidence restored.

And not a bad view from the top.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Afternoon in the Garden of Good and Evil

Summer has arrived in Alabama. The snakes are out.

Snakes are never really "in" in most of the state. I suppose they go through some form of hibernation, although I have seen them sunning themselves on rocks in December and January on warm Winter days.

Once while hiking in the woods I looked down and found I was standing next to a water moccasin. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and I wasn't really expecting snakes to still be above ground. My boot was right next to his coiled body. I was fortunate that it was cool and his cold reptilian blood was thick, or I would have been bitten. He was alert enough, even in his sluggishness, to show his true nature and intent: thick black body coiled, spade-shaped head back in striking position, mouth open wide, revealing his fangs and the inside of his cotton-colored mouth. Needless to say, I was displeased both with his presence and his attitude.

One of us did not have a happy Thanksgiving.

I generally have a "live and let live" philosophy about snakes. I am even tolerant of poisonous ones, as long as they keep their distance. I make one exception: the cottonmouth water moccasin. I will go out of my way to kill one. I could kill the last one without hesitation, sending the species into the oblivion of extinction.

I have spiritual justification for my bias. There is no doubt that the cottonmouth was the snake that deceived Eve in the garden of Eden. A careful reading of Genesis chapter two reveals this. God made a garden for Adam and Eve, and in this garden He planted two fruit trees, one of which they were instructed not to eat from. You know the rest of the story.

But what you may have missed is that the trees were planted by a river. Clearly, moccasin habitat. I rest my case.

The cottonmouth is the most aggressive of all the snakes in Alabama. They are territorial and will actually advance toward you (other snakes, like most wild animals, have the good sense to flee at man's approach). I don't like aggression in my fellow creatures. I meet it in Marine fashion: "with extreme prejudice."

Some of my hatred of the cottonmouth moccasin is genetic. My ancestors have been at war with this snake for generations.

When I was a boy, I lived next door to my grandparents. They in turn lived next to a steep-banked creek (which we referred to as "the ditch"). The creek bed was probably twenty feet down, and the banks were brushy. It was cottonmouth paradise.

The only memory I have of my maternal grandfather was going next door to sit on the back steps with him each morning while he drank his coffee. I must have been three or four years old at the time (he died when I was young). While we enjoyed each other's company, there would be a big pot of water slowly coming to a boil on the kitchen stove.

When he finished his coffee, we would walk over to the ditch and pull up a long cotton rope, at the end of which was a wire minnow basket.

Most days, the trap would contain a large, angry cottonmouth moccasin.

The basket was laid in the driveway, where the moccasin would thrash and strike the sides of his wire prison. My paw-paw would go into the house and get the pot, which by then contained boiling water.

We would then dispatch the evil viper to moccasin hell, where I'm sure there is weeping and gnashing of fangs. One less snake to slither up and bite an unsuspecting three year old.

No pardons given. Swift and terrible execution by scalding. Good triumphs over evil.

You must excuse me if I end the story here. I think I'm going down to the creek to do some hunting this afternoon.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Williams Timber is a large company as logging businesses go in Alabama. They have a spacious modern office, several foresters and timber buyers on staff, multiple logging crews, and a whole fleet of log trucks. They are clearly a top-flight organization, not only buying and selling timber but managing and brokering timberland as well.

I meet Mr. Williams in his office in south Alabama. He operates in the same area of the state as Mr. Mac and Vernon. As with the previous two companies, I am interested in the financial health of the business.

Williams Timber appears to be much more prosperous than the former two businesses, so I ask him how things are going.

At no time during the conversation do I sense the desperation I previously encountered. But I sense no optimism, either.

Mr. Williams explains that his logging crews are operating at about 60% of their capabilities. The reason is simple: the mills that they rely on to purchase the harvested timber are full to capacity. Their "order" is reduced, and crews that need to run five to six days a week to be profitable can fill their order in four days. Revenues are down due to the reduced orders, but expenses have increased with no corresponding increase in revenues. Especially significant is fuel cost. The diesel fuel that is the lifeblood of logging is more than one dollar a gallon higher than a year ago. Consider that typical logging operation consumes 1000 gallons a week, and it's easy to see an extra thousand a week can make the difference between survival and failure.

Mr. Williams mentions that he has recently discovered a new way to make a little extra money. It is not something he is especially proud of.

The telephone call came from New York City a few weeks ago. "Do you have a truck and trailer capable of moving logging equipment?"

"Of course. We have to move our equipment all the time."

"Are you familiar with Smith Logging? My records show they operate in your area."

"Yes, I know Joe Smith."

"I want you to go pick up his all of his equipment and bring it to your location. I'll arrange to have it picked up from there. He's seven months behind on his payments."

Mr. Williams goes on to tell that the caller asked him to go at night, when no one would be there. For this service, he would be paid a nice fee.

He initially refuses. "I'm not going to pick up a man's equipment in the middle of the night. I know Joe. Our kids went to school together."

The New Yorker is adamant, but Williams finally persuades him in to allow him to talk with Smith about the situation. Three days later, Smith sends in a partial payment that forestalls the repossession.

A month goes by, and New York calls again. Williams again calls Smith. This time he is told to "come get it."

Since that time, he has picked up the equipment of three other loggers.

Williams shakes his head and sighs. I don't know what some of these ol' boys are going to do if things don't get better soon. We're all struggling to survive.

I don't have an answer either.

I just know the woods are getting a little quieter with each passing day.