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.