Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Bachelor Sunday

I have been a bachelor for the last few days. The Redhead is in Honduras, an angel of mercy on a mission of love. Unsatisfied with the misfortunes of one of our ex-orphanage girls and her injured child, she caught a flight and went down to take matters into her own hands. At last report, things were under control and well-organized for the immediate future. I am confident that our girl's situation is much-improved. Mission accomplished, the angel will return in a few days and will be much happier than she has been these last few weeks.

Meanwhile on this side of the Gulf of Mexico, the bachelor life has been quiet but productive. I've gotten in some good writing time and may actually finish a short story I've been wanting to write for some time. I've survived the basics: I haven't starved, wore dirty clothes, or burned down the house. Everything is in as good or better condition as it was when she left.

The only hitch in this wild bachelor life has been today. I had a LONG motorcycle ride planned for this afternoon, but severe weather looks like that I may have to go to "Plan B."

Plan B is, of course, a long nap.

Yes, I know the bachelor life is tough, but sometimes you just have to struggle through it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


It's Spring in Central Alabama, and the wisteria is in full bloom. Purple, fragrant blossoms draped from the trees in a wild explosion of color--a vineyard in flower form. It's enough to make a young dog howl at the moon, and an old dog chase rabbits, dreaming of the pursuit as he sleeps in the sun on the porch.

Most foresters are not fond of wisteria. In fact, they hate it enough to spend considerable amounts of money in attempt to eradicate it in commercial forests. It is regarded as a weed and a nuisance. Left unchecked, it grows rapidly and the vines climb and choke commercially valuable trees and shrubs.

But I am not most foresters.

I will tolerate the loss of a few money trees for a couple of weeks of mad beauty and sweet fragrance. It is the stuff that poems are made of.

Ah, sweet Spring in Alabama. If you're not here, you don't know what your missing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Locked Up Abroad

One of the few things I watch on television these days is a show called "Locked Up Abroad." It's a travel show about people from the U.S. (and occasionally one of the European countries) who find themselves held hostage or incarcerated in a foreign country. Most of the time they are caught trying to smuggle narcotics through an airport or some such similar crime. Their experiences are reenacted while the actual person narrates the story. Most of the time I find myself empathizing with the "victim," even though they are usually very guilty. Perhaps it's because they are often U.S. citizens, and it makes me feel some sort of kinship to them. They look like me, talk like me, act like me--except they made a very bad error in judgment.

Allow me to tell you a little story with a different twist.

A few years ago, a Mexican man (I'll call him "Pedro") crossed the border illegally and entered the U.S. in search of the "American Dream." I don't know what lured him here--probably higher wages than he could make in his homeland. That and the materialism we export South via television: fancy cars, big-screen televisions, nice houses, and all the other trappings of our culture.

Young Pedro couldn't get a work permit legally. Hardly anyone from down South can. Do a little research and you'll see for yourself. It's a rigged game. We've got the low wage jobs in abundance that lure people like Pedro up here, but we won't allow them a legal route to get here. You can walk by the bakery, but you can't come in and buy something to eat. Try to ignore the aroma and stay out on the sidewalk.

So young Pedro did what many illegals do. He had himself a set of fake papers made. He got a good old counterfeit U.S. Social Security Card and a fake work permit. Before you can say "wetback" he had a job landscaping, roofing, brick-laying, or welding. Pretty soon young Pedro was making the big bucks (well, actually he was making minimum wage, but to him it seemed like big bucks). He had U.S. dollars in his pocket and enough to send the relatives back home.

Pretty soon Pedro learned a little English and met an American girl--a bonafide U.S. citizen. There wasn't much to this girl, but Pedro couldn't see that. He was living the dream, after all. And Mrs. Pedro, she wasn't stupid. She could see she'd found her a man that would pay the bills. This boy would work seven days a week if he could, and she could sit at home and watch t.v. and take it easy. She was living her "American Dream" too.

Things worked out pretty well for the happy couple until Mrs. Pedro got pregnant and gave birth to a little girl. This required that the couple find a better house, and Pedro was ready and willing to work even harder to make his American wife and new daughter more comfortable. She found them a nice place, and although it was going to stretch his minimum wage earnings, he agreed.

There was only one flaw in the plan. It was Winter, and very cold, and young Pedro didn't have the cash on hand to have the electricity connected. So he made an error in judgment. He cut the lock off the meter box and turned his power on so his sorry wife and his new daughter would be warm. He figured it would be O.K. until next payday, when he would go down to the power company and make things all nice and legal.

It was not O.K.

Several days later, a sherriff's deputy escorted Pedro down to the county jail. Pedro produced his fake credentials, which were apparently good enough to fool his employers (wink, wink), but not good enough to fool a duly appointed agent of Uncle Sam.

As we sometimes say here in Alabama, Pedro soon found himself "in a whole mess of trouble."

A year has now gone by and Pedro is still sitting in the Chambers County jail. He has had no visitors except for a court-appointed attorney and an interpreter. Apparently Mrs. Pedro has been too busy to visit and bring his daughter. He has had no trial nor hearing. He just sits.

It is my understanding that the power company will drop the charges on electricity theft. Pedro will still be charged with entering the country illegally, and he will be deported, whenever Homeland Security can get around to picking him up. His sentence will include provisions that make him inelgible to even apply for a visa to return to the U.S. for ten years. If he attempts to return illegally, he faces up to 50 years in U.S. prison.

Pedro will probably never see his daughter again.

Now let me say for the record that I have stated my views on immigration on this blog before. They are simply this: secure the borders, institute a fair work permit system, and allow workers who come here a path to citizenship if they are good citizens during their stay.

Let me also say that if this is not your view, be advised that I could care less. Don't bother leaving me a comment otherwise. As we also sometimes say here in Alabama "I don't give a hoot in hell what you think."

This story is not about immigration. It is about a man who is languishing in a county jail for an unreasonable period of time in the "Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave." It is shameful, and it is just plain wrong.

I wonder if Telemundo has a Mexican version of "Locked Up Abroad." Maybe they should.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Put it on My Tab

I grew up in what I guess could be described as a lower middle class family. We lived out in the country, about five miles from the little town of Sylacauga. My daddy had somehow managed to move us from an old downtown home to a country neighborhood of upper middle class folks. Most of our neighbors were merchants, owners of prosperous businesses in town. In hindsight, I realize the sacrifices my daddy made to keep it all together so I could live in the country with room to roam. We lived very simply. We never ate "out," and I only remember him having one new vehicle in the twenty-five years that we spent together.

Our neighbors maintained a different lifestyle. New cars, vacations, boats, motorcycles, and other toys appeared seemingly at will.

The folks across the street had a kid that was three years older than me, and he was always getting some new toy, usually before he was old enough to have it. His daddy owned the Dairy Queen, a very successful business before the McDonalds and Burger King came to town. This kid got pretty much everything he wanted. It was hard for an eight-year old like me to understand.

My rich neighbor rode to school with us every day. We always stopped at old man Spruell's country store on the way into town. My daddy bought gas three dollars worth at a time--what was needed for the day (this was at a time when gas was 50 cents a gallon). I never saw him fill up. I realize now that he didn't have the cash to do so.

Me and rich kid always went inside while daddy pumped his gas. He would always roam the aisles and pick up several things for his school day. Pencils, a coke, some potato chips for snack, and maybe something sweet like a Little Debbie cake or a Hostess Twinkie. He'd toss this loot on the counter and tell old man Spruell to "put it on my tab."

I didn't know what "put it on my tab" meant, but it sure looked like magic to me.

One day I decided to try the magic. My momma always fixed my lunch and snack and had me prepared for the upcoming day, so I didn't really need anything. But Fritos corn chips had a special promotion going on. Each bag contained a prize--a big pencil eraser shaped like the "Frito Bandito." Man, I wanted one of those for my pencil.

I had just thrown the bag on the counter and uttered the magic words when my daddy came through the door.

"What did you say?"

"I said, uh, uh, put it on my tab?"

"Put it back," he said. "First thing is, you don't need that. Second, we don't have a tab. We pay cash for what we buy."

Rich boy laughed, and I took the prized Bandito back to the display. He would have to rest in his tomb of corn chips until I had 30 cents.

Looking back some thirty years later I realize how smart my daddy was.

We are currently living in a time when our Nation is broke. Our State is broke. We are beginning to experience the consequences of fifty years worth of "put it on my tab."

Need a new government program? Put it on our tab. New school? Put it on our tab. Need to subsidize something that can't stand on it's own two feet? Put it on our tab. We'll pay the bill someday.

Well someday is here. We are broke, and the tab has come due. A whole lot of people who have been living off the tab are about to become very unhappy.

You were right, dad. If we couldn't pay for it, we should have put it back.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Love is a Verb

"Love is a verb." One of my friends made that comment in response to my last post. I believe that was the case with my dad, and I want to share a quick story to illustrate his love for me in action.

First, a little background. As I wrote, my dad was a fine and decent man. He treated others fairly and quietly lived his Faith. He wasn't the type that went around quoting Bible verses--he simply read his Bible and tried to follow his Lord in the way he lived his life. He never "pushed" his beliefs on me or anyone else. But I could walk by his bedroom any night at bedtime and see him on his knees praying. His Faith was long on walk and short on talk. Most Christians could learn something from that.

When he died, a neighbor told me "Your daddy was a good man. I never saw him get mad or even cuss."

I'd seen him get mad. But I'd never heard him curse either. Except once. And what he said really wasn't a curse as I define the term.

I was fifteen years old and the top pitcher on a city-league baseball team. My dad was an assistant coach. I was in my baseball prime, and I had a fastball that not many could touch in our small town.

One sultry Alabama night we were undefeated and playing a team that wasn't very good. I was on the mound, and headed to Florida with a youth group from my church as soon as the game was over. We scored 15 runs in the first two innings. All I needed was nine more outs for the game to be "official" by the "mercy rule." I was on cruise control. Those guys couldn't have hit me that night with a tennis racket, let alone a baseball bat. They hadn't even had a runner reach first base.

As I mentioned, it was a hot, humid Alabama night. A slight breeze began to blow, and jagged lighting appeared way off in the southeastern sky--a summer thunderstorm was headed our way.

The other team devised a strategy. They would stall the game. If the storm arrived before we completed five innings, the game would not be official and would have to be replayed the next day. That would mean no trip to the beach for me. I would have to stay home and play. That was one of the life-lessons my dad taught me--when others are counting on you, you don't let them down.

The other team's strategy was simple. Each batter would take his sweet time stepping into the batters box--extra practice swings, retieing his shoes, etc. Once in the box, they waited until I started my wind up, called "time out,' and stepped out.

This was illegal. I was getting angry. They were laughing, really yucking it up. Their fans were laughing. Even the umpire was enjoying it.

After the second batter, I yelled at the umpire. "Make them get in the box!"

He stepped out in front of the plate and wagged his finger at me. "You shut up and pitch. I'm calling this game. One more word from you and you're out of here."

I tried to throw the next pitch. In the middle of my wind up, the batter called time and stepped out.

My dad called time and walked out to the mound. This had never happened before. If I needed a visit, it was always the head coach who came out.

"You OK?"

"Yes sir."

"Ok. Just keep your cool and throw strikes."

Then he motioned for the umpire to come to the mound.

"You going to call this game right and make them kids stop stalling and get in the batter's box?"

"No. They can call time out. And if I get any more lip from your pitcher or he throws a pitch after I call 'time' then I'm going to eject him."

My dad paused for a second. He looked down then looked the umpire directly in the eyes. "Then I guess I'm going to have to whip your ass."

To say I was shocked would be an understatement. To say the umpire was shocked would be a greater understatement.

"Hold up now," he said. "No need for that. I think I can speed things up a little. Let's all just calm down here."

My dad walked back to the dugout. Nine strikeouts and fifteen minutes later, I was on my way to Florida.

If that wasn't love, I don't know what is.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fathers and Sons

I mentioned in a previous post that I recently lost a very dear uncle.

The timing of his death closely coincided with the death of my own dad twenty-four years ago. As I watched my cousins grieve their father and my mom attempt to console her sister-in-law, it brought back a flood of memories of my dad's sudden passing at the age of fifty. I was twenty-five at the time, a grad student at LSU, with a wife and a young son of my own. My brother was in his senior year of high school.

My last memory of my dad was in a hospital parking lot in Birmingham, Alabama. We had come for a weekend visit to see my sick grandmother and he had followed me back to the car to us see us off back to Louisiana. We laughed and talked about the things we were going to do when I graduated and returned home. We made plans to buy a small Jon boat and do some fishing. Good times ahead that we would spend together. Our last words together were "see you son", "see you dad."

A week later I got a call that he was dead. Heart attack while working in the yard. My brother found him slumped over in the back of his pickup. Apparently the pain hit and he sat down on the tailgate to catch his breath, then laid back and never got up. His last view was that sweet blue Alabama sky.

I think of that a lot these days. I am getting close to the same age as he was when he died. I look at his picture and wonder if I am now having the same thoughts he had--if my views and outlook on life are similar to his at the time. I think we have a lot in common in the ways our lives have played-out, although his road was considerably harder than mine has been.

Sometimes I think of my own heart and wonder how many beats are left. I think of the similarities of stress and diet and genetics. I suspect I may also have a ticking time bomb inside, a devise with a timer that only the Master Bomb-Maker knows. How many ticks remain until the tumblers align and the timer hits zero?

One of my regrets is that I can never remember a time when we said "I love you" to each other. I wish my last words to him would have been "I love you, dad," instead of "See you, dad."

Three little words that never passed between us. And yet, they didn't have to. It was understood. It was played out in our lives, in our time together, interwoven into the very fabric of our lives. It was unspoken and unnecessary.

I suspect that the lack of verbal affection came from my dad's own childhood. He was the next to last child in a mill village house with eleven brothers and sisters. His own dad was a carpenter with bills to pay and a lot of mouths to feed. I'm sure sentimentality was in as short supply as cash money. Love was expressed by the clothes on your back and the food in your belly, as well as the stories and life lessons you got along the way. Perhaps it just wasn't a "manly" thing to say in the culture of that day.

My dad raised me in the same manner. He was a good and decent man who worked hard and sacrificed so that I could have a easier road than the one he walked. He was successful. No "I love you" was ever necessary. It was overtly implied. It was understood. Years later it still is.

And yet, it still bothers me somewhat. I am the the debtor in the verbal transaction. I wish I could somehow make it right. Perhaps in some small way I can.

Like father, like son. I have raised my two fine sons in the same manner. They have been the joy of my life, and I can say in all honesty that neither of them have ever given me reason to be anything but proud. I have been a most fortunate man. How many men can say that their sons have never disappointed them? I can.

My boys are grown now, both in their twenties. We've never been verbally affectionate either. No "I love yous" passing either way. Like my relationship with my own dad, it has been implied and understood.

I have decided to try to change that. It has been gradual and awkward. An "I love you son" slipped in occasionally as they drop by and then leave to pursue their own busy lives. It has been strangely satisfying.

I do this in hopes that I can stop the pattern, break the code of silence between fathers and sons. Halt regrets that need not be, regrets that begin at a graveside and can linger for a lifetime.

Three simple words between father and sons.

I think my dad would have liked that.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Life's a Beach

I find myself alone at the beach today. I have been attending a conference on logging research, and today is field trip day. I have seen enough pine trees go from vertical to horizontal in the last twenty years, so I decided to skip the bus tour of the woods of the Florida panhandle for a little quiet time.

What to do on a day of nothing to do?

I started by sleeping late. I am almost ashamed to say that I didn't get up until 7:00 a.m.--scandalous behavior for a forester. Showered and went down to the hotel lobby for an overpriced cup of Starbucks.

Later I took a long walk on the empty beach. Nobody around but snowbirds. A few signs that the locals are preparing for the spring break college crowd--tents going up with "Welcome Spring Breakers" being assembled. Otherwise I have it to myself.

I head back to the lee side balcony of my room, overlooking the Miracle Mile. Return some phone calls on the cell since I have no service inside the concrete walls of the room. I notice there is a tattoo and body piercing shop across the street.

For a moment, I consider the proposition. After all, I am alone, wild and free. I am not attracted to dragons, crosses, or tribal motifs. Perhaps something literary. Words from a favorite author: Faulkner, McCarthy, Twain, or Papa Hemingway. Most are too verbose (except Papa) for skin, so I reconsider.

I decide to follow the guidance of another favorite author: Bragg. We both come from a generation where "if you have a tattoo, you better be a Marine, and if you have an earring, you damn sure better be a pirate."

Decide instead to hang out in my room overlooking the beautiful Gulf of Mexico. I check the cable news to see how much closer we've come to the Apocalypse in the last twenty-four. People are being gunned-down in the streets of Tripoli. Unrest is spreading and governments are in danger of toppling all across the Middle East. People are still digging out in New Zealand. The government is broke in Wisconsin (and every other State in the Union, by the way). And then there's Charlie Sheen, who gets at least fifty percent of the coverage.

Note to CNN, Fox, and CNBC. I am American. Screw this other stuff. MUST HAVE MORE CHARLIE SHEEN. Can he keep his kids? What about his show? What does his body language suggest? We MUST know, and we must know NOW.

I decide to spend the rest of the day reading, writing, and napping.

I have to attend a banquet tonight, but otherwise I could get used to this pace. Too bad it's just one day.

But I'll take it.