Thousand Word Thursday

Maybe this one should be “at a loss for words Thursday.”


The Time of His Life

Lee is a man with time on his hands.

It hasn’t always been this way. In fact, until the last two years, it has never been this way.

Lee was born in the decade of the second war to end all wars, near the little town of Camp Hill in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. Like most country boys of his era, he learned to work early in life. There was always something to be done on his family’s small farm; and if not, there was always a little “pulp wooding” to do on the side to make some extra money.

When Lee was a teenager, the paper mills were still fairly new in the state, and most of their timber supply came from small railroad yards scattered throughout the Alabama countryside. There were several of these in the Camp Hill area, and Lee learned early that a man with a strong back, a saw, and an old truck with a short pulpwood rack on back could make a little honest hard cash from the Tallapoosa County hills. And thus began a nearly uninterrupted forty year tenure in what is commonly called the “wood business” in east Alabama.

After graduating from Camp Hill High School, Lee landed a job working at one of the paper mill’s satellite rail yards. He would spend the next fourteen years loading short pulpwood onto railroad cars. It was a job that paid a decent wage and even had some employee benefits, like reduced rate life insurance and medical coverage. But when his marriage failed, Lee decided he needed a change of scenery. He quit this job and headed West. He spent two years working in a factory in Kansas. But Kansas isn’t anything like Alabama, and eventually the homesickness got to be too much. Besides, Lee had sawdust in his blood.

Lee came back to Tallapoosa County and bought a chainsaw and a pulpwood truck. He worked hard for a couple of years, but the timber business began to change. The paper mills decided that it was more efficient to buy pulpwood directly at the mill. The rail yards began to close. Loggers converted their operations to tree length harvesting, a system which was highly mechanized and required large amounts of capital for machines and trucks. Lee found a job on one of these logging crews. Due to his nearly life-long experience in the woods, he soon was promoted to foreman of a crew.

Several years went by. Lee’s employer owned several of these logging crews. Lee remembers the day in 1989 when his boss asked him if he would like to own the crew he supervised. He thought about it for a few minutes, and said “I reckon so.”

For the next 15 years, Lee had his own logging business. Times were pretty good for loggers in Alabama, as paper mills expanded and demand for timber was high. The work was still hard–daylight until dark five or six days a week. But a man didn’t have to be a really sharp business man to make a pretty good living–he just had to show up and work. Lee remarried and bought a little piece of land of his own near his boyhood home in Tallapoosa County. He built a nice cabin overlooking a pretty hardwood cove, and had enough open land to have a garden. He wasn’t getting rich, but he made a nice living.

But the timber business began to change again as the twenty-first century arrived. Paper companies consolidated across Alabama and the entire South, leading to decreased demand and lower prices. Logging costs increased, however: fuel, insurance, machine costs, labor–everything went up. Accounting, business analysis, and tax advice became crucial for survival. Suddenly just working hard was no longer enough. A life of working in the woods, of doing good, skillful, work became secondary to being a good business man. Lee never saw it coming until it was too late.

After he lost his business, Lee went back to work as a foreman on another logger’s operation. He had lost most of what he’d worked for all those years, but at least he still had a paycheck and a home to call his own.

That all changed two years ago in an instant. While hooking up a line between a log trailer and a tractor truck, Lee was run over. The truck backed over his right leg, crushed his foot, dislocated his knee, and pulled his leg out of his hip socket. He was airlifted to a regional hospital. He survived this horrible accident, but he is now permanently disabled. He is unable to walk without a cane. He cannot sit, stand, or remain in any position for a long period without considerable pain.

For the first time in his life, Lee was unable to work. To add insult to injury, his former employer’s insurance company went to great lengths to avoid compensating him for his injuries. It took two year’s of legal wrangling for him to receive a modest settlement. A settlement on any future medical bills resulting from the accident is still ongoing. The amount offered to date would not cover a one day hospital stay.

I stopped by to visit Lee today. In spite of all the adversity he has faced, he remains relatively positive in his outlook. His biggest problem is figuring out what to do with the one thing he has never had: time.

We sat in lawn chairs in his yard as he pointed out his activities on his estate. He has become, by his own admission, a “putterer.” He has a small garden which he works at intervals (he weeds by hoeing down a row for a few minutes, then laying on the ground until the pain in his leg subsides). He has built a number of bird houses and feeders, which he constantly monitors for new customers and defends from invading squirrels. He tinkers with an old tractor and a pickup truck. He is building a tool shed, sometimes only able to stand long enough to nail on one board before having to sit down. He works, as he says, “in sputs and spurts.”

He does not take pain medication. I believe he would rather die than to lie around in a drug-induced stupor.

A lesser man might give up under such circumstances. But I think Lee will be puttering around for a while to come. It takes a lot to keep a good man down.

The Spice of Life

I have written before about my friend Laurie Matherne. Laurie is a south Louisiana lady who relocated from New Orleans to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Among other things, she feeds and shares the love of Christ with destitute children in a very poor and dangerous neighborhood. She is both hero and inspiration to me, and I am glad to be able to call her “friend.”

Laurie also writes an excellent blog about her experiences, which you can read here.

In a recent post, Laurie waxed eloquent about New Orleans. Now I won’t disparage the Crescent City’s charm, as I am a fan of her also. I could point out that the first Mardis Gras celebration in The U.S. was held in Mobile, ALABAMA in 1703, but I won’t.

The quote from her blog that I take issue with was as follows:

“The grocery stores in Tegucigalpa generally carry Louisiana spices. Not Texas spices. Not ‘Bama spices. Louisiana spices. Smart people.”

Now Boo (or is it “Cher?” I never could figure out the linguistic difference between ‘Boo’ and ‘Cher’–I only know that my Cajun friends always address the ladies as one or the other), I believe you done gone and besmirched the honor of the great State of Alabama. I feel I obliged to defend Her.

First, you aren’t going to get an argument that south Louisiana produces some of the world’s best eating opportunities. There are folks down there who cook up some mighty tasty dishes that can’t be duplicated anywhere else that I know of. Some of these dishes even feature critters that we refer to as “bait” here in the Heart of Dixie.

But Alabama has her own distinct culinary culture, too, which is also based on what the landscape gives us to work with. We have peanuts from the Wiregrass region; blueberries from Clay County; peaches from Chilton County (so sweet and juicy that you better not have your good shirt on). We have tomatoes grown on Sand Mountain, satsumas from Baldwin County, catfish from the Black Belt and chickens produced in the whole north half of the state.

But spices?

The Red Head said, “She’s got us there. We don’t have any spices. Vices, maybe, but not spices.”

Ladies, I beg to differ. Alabama does have a unique spice. One that you can’t find in south Louisiana, or Honduras either, for that matter. Our spice is hickory smoke.

Now don’t argue that hickory smoke doesn’t qualify as a spice. Spices enhance the flavor of a dish. They bring out the finer qualities and subtleties of the taste. Hickory smoke does just that, and it can’t be sprinkled out of a jar with a picture of a fat Louisiana chef who I always get confused with Dom Deluise.

You have to work for our spice–sweat–maybe even shed some blood. A hickory tree does not “go gently into that good night.” It is knotty, heavy, hard, and cantankerous. It is usually found only on hillsides and steep slopes. Let your mind wander while felling one and your next meal may be angel food cake. In addition, it must be properly seasoned to burn, which requires six months to a year of drying time.

Hickory smoke is the key spice in preparing the finest dish man ever figured out how to cook: bar-b-que pork. Oh the rapture of pit roasted, hickory-smoked pig flesh. There is absolutely nothing that can compare. Sliced, pulled, chipped, or chopped on the block. Served smothered with a tomato-based sweet sauce or slathered with vinegar-based “yellow jacket” sauce, or better yet served without sauce of any kind. Put it on a bun or just eat it right off the plate.

So don’t sing me a song about the virtues of Tabasco, Prudhomme, or Chachere. Give me a few sticks of dried shag bark hickory and a match any day and we’ll do some cooking.

Laurie, next time you’re in the States the Red Head and I will meet you in New Orleans. We’ll eat some etouffee, po’boys, crayfish, boudin, jambalaya, and gumbo. Then we’ll head up to sweet home Alabama and hit some of my favorite bar-b-que houses from Opelika to Birmingham. Order up some hickory smoked pig and maybe finish off with some peach cobbler, banana pudding, or a big slice of peanut butter pie. Wash it all down with a big ol’ glass of sweet tea.

We may not settle the spice wars, but I bet we’ll put on a couple of pounds.

Haircuts and Memories

The weather is getting warm here in central Alabama, and lately the Red Head has been hinting (well, nagging really) that it’s time to get my “summer” haircut. The summer haircut is an old southern tradition in which men get their hair cut a little shorter than usual for the summer months. In my case, it’s not going to make a lot of difference, because every passing summer leaves me with a little less hair to worry about.

The summer haircut brings back old memories. I hated haircuts as a child. Funny how the passing of the years turns such memories into soft-edged nostalgia.

My dad always took me to a downtown barbershop in Sylacauga back in the late 1960’s, which I believe was located on one of the side streets between Broadway and Norton. This shop was a real man’s haven: three big leather-clad barber chairs, black and white checkered tile floors, and mirrors on the back wall. Other walls adorned with mounted deer heads and a large mouth bass or two, along with an auto parts store calendar featuring a pin-up girl (scantily clad in the latest one-piece bathing suit). In one corner, an old glass-front cabinet filled with creams and tonics that every man needed to keep his coiffure under control. Metal chairs with vinyl cushions lined the waiting area. One or more conversations taking place at all times, usually about football, problems at the mill, or the latest frustrations rebuilding a small block 350 engine. Plenty to read while you waited: Field and Stream, Popular Mechanics, and the current edition of the local newspaper, The Daily Home. An old AM radio on the counter, playing good country or gospel music. Depending on the time of day, you might even hear old L.R. Ross tell you what great merchandise was available for sale or trade on the “Shop and Swap” segment on W.F.E.B.:

“Neighbors, we have a man who’d like to trade a real nice goat for a single-shot 12 gauge shotgun. If you have a gun you’d like to trade, please call…”

I can still smell the witch hazel and talcum powder.

Although there were three chairs, I only remember one being used. The barber was old Mr. Mallory. As a little boy, it seemed quite possible to me that he had probably given Moses his first hair cut. Mr. Mallory wore glasses that had lenses as thick as the bottom of an old green glass coke bottle, and the end of his nose was always about an inch from your head while he worked his magic.

Mr. Mallory always asked “How you want it?” The answer never mattered. You might “want it” like Elvis, but you “got it” in a style called “flat top.” I believe it was the cut he liked best. But it was the haircut for the small town southern gentleman at that time. I was always just relieved to leave the chair with both ears still attached. If I didn’t squirm too much during the whole ordeal, I’d get a piece of bazooka bubble gum as a reward.

Times sure have changed.

The place I go these days for a haircut is a “style shop.” The customers are both men and women, although the barbers are all now called stylist and are exclusively female. The walls are pastel and there are flower arrangements. Something soothing and “New Age” plays on the sound system. The place smells of bleaching chemicals and potpourri. There is no Field and Stream, though if you look hard enough you might find a copy of Time or Newsweek. The last time I went, the receptionist asked me if I wanted a warm cookie.

My stylist is blond and attractive. She tries to engage me with conversation about American Idol or Dancing with the Stars, but it is to no avail. I have never watched either. Confident that my ears will survive intact, I usually have to fight the urge not to doze off while she works. She always asks if I would like a little mousse or styling gel before I leave. I always decline. As Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

She and her coworkers are trained psychologists. They tell me how good I look–how my graying hair makes me looked “distinguished.” I am aware that I am being worked for return visits, like a waitress works a middle-aged man for a bigger tip at Hooters.

I’ll admit she does a good job with the little bit of hair she has to work with. But for her skills, she charges a fee that would have probably made Mr. Mallory decide to close up early and take the rest of the day off.

Manhood still barely intact, I leave knowing I’ll have to return in a month or so. I feel a strange urge to go rebuild a small block 350 engine or shoot an animal.

Maybe times haven’t changed all that much over the years.

I still hate haircuts.

Uncle Jack

“I sang Dixie, as he died.
The people just walked on by, as I cried.”

Dwight Yoakam

Stonewall Jackson Clifton was buried today in Sylacauga. He was my daddy’s last remaining brother, out of the original family of eleven brothers and sisters. While many of his friends knew him as “Stoney”, he was always Uncle Jack to me.

He was thirteen years older than my dad, so I assume they weren’t as close as brothers who are nearer in age. I don’t remember our families spending much time together other than the requisite family reunions, weddings, funerals, and similar occasions in which extended families are obliged to congregate. But my mom tells me that he and his widow, Nell, were always very kind to them in the old days, especially when they were a newly married couple. That alone is good enough for me to hold him in high regard.

Like his namesake, Uncle Jack was in many ways a relic of days gone by. His racial views were distinctly “Old South.” He once told me that unions, the government, and blacks were ruining the country. Political correctness was not a concept he practiced. Like a lot of old folks, he said what was on his mind, and didn’t much care what anyone else thought about his viewpoint.

While I certainly don’t condone or excuse his racial views, neither will I judge him for them. Like I said, he was from another time. It is easy to pass judgment on someone without a common experience. It is what Harper Lee described as “not judging a man before you walk a mile in his shoes” in To Kill a Mockingbird. Such judgment, a kind of generalized dismissal, is the bad seed from which the vine of racism grows.

It is also a mistake to overlook good qualities in a person based on one particularly offensive flaw.

Uncle Jack grew up in the culture of the mill village in Sylacauga. It was a hard-scrabble life of hard work and little money. It was a way of life many of us cannot fathom today, though it was only a generation ago. A life of walking everywhere you went because you had no other means of transportation (my dad, bleeding badly, was once carried across town to the hospital on one of his brother’s shoulders, because there was no other way to get him there). A life of working when you were sick, because you knew there were three others to take your job if you laid out. And for this particular family, even a time when they buried their oldest brother at a young age, his throat cut in a fight that involved moonshine whiskey and a woman.

Like a lot of other southern boys, Uncle Jack did his time defending his country against the Germans and Japanese. And like most, he came back home, picked up his tools and went to work like nothing had ever happened.

His was a life that helped build the country that we enjoy and often take for granted today. He raised a family, to which he was unquestionably devoted. Worked and saved, living what used to be the “American Dream”–making life better for your children and grandchildren than it was for you.

He spent the last few months in a hospital and a veterans home in Alexander City. It was not a dignified end to a long life. His prolonged illness accentuated his negative outlook, a condition I believe Waylon Jennings described in a song as feeling “lonesome, ornery, and mean.” He didn’t have a lot of visitors, and those who did visit were warned that his personality could be “abrasive”. Church folks, especially, were told that they might rather pray for him than visit.

I find it ironic that a man who characterized and dismissed an entire group of people based on their skin color wound up being cared for by many nurses of that race in his last days. Perhaps he was being given an opportunity to soften his heart, to smooth off the jagged edges before eternity. I don’t know. But I have read of another man in the Bible who Jesus called “Stoney” who initially had similar prejudices. I think things worked out pretty well for that fellow in the end.

Rest in peace, Uncle Jack.

Biscuit Man

I sometimes eat breakfast at a little diner on Friday mornings. I like a proper southern breakfast at least once a week: bacon or sausage, couple of eggs, grits, and especially biscuits. A good biscuit is the coup de gras of a real breakfast.

I will admit that I am a little spoiled in regard to biscuits. My momma made such a breakfast every morning when I was a child. In my humble opinion, she is the world’s premier biscuit chef: an artist who works in flour and shortening; the undisputed biscuit-making champion of the world. She should have her own show on the Food Channel. Maybe call it Ginger Clifton’s “No Reservations” or better yet, “The Biscuit Whisperer.”

A good biscuit is a thing of beauty–a culinary masterpiece. Every culture has its bread specialty, but none stack up to a properly made southern biscuit. It is an art form that does not lend itself to mass production.

Fast-food biscuits? Only in a code-red biscuit emergency. Canned biscuits? Blasphemy and abomination. I’d rather be floured and flattened with a giant rolling pin.

My preferences as to what constitutes a properly prepared biscuit has led to a new nickname at the diner–“soft, fluffy, biscuit guy.”

This designation came from a simple request one Friday. I politely asked the waitress if the biscuits were “good” today. She yelled the question back to the cook, who I could see through the kitchen window. “My biscuits are always good” came the reply. I might mention that the cook was holding a very large butcher knife at the time, which she waved menacingly. Fearing for my safety, I clarified: “What I meant was, I don’t want a ‘hard’ biscuit–I like my biscuits soft and fluffy. If they are baked too long they get hard and crusty.”

I watched the cook shuffle over to the oven, hands on hips, reach in, and pluck out a biscuit.

It was good. Not as good as mama’s, but pretty doggone good.

Now whenever I walk in on a Friday morning, the waitress yells back to the cook “here comes soft fluffy biscuit guy.” And so far, I get what I came for.

A real southern biscuit-maker may tell you that the secret to a good biscuit is attention to baking time. Some will tell you that it’s the right kind of flour, or the right amount of ingredients–especially the shortening.

My momma will tell you that the most important ingredient is “love.”

My Hometown

I was born and raised in Sylacauga (pronounced Sill-a-caw’-ga), a town of about 12,000 people in central Alabama. The name is of Creek Indian origin, and means “buzzard roost.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the southern U.S., a buzzard is a large, ugly, carrion-eater, similar to what is called a vulture in other places. Buzzard roosting areas are typically foul-smelling and covered with droppings and vomit. Apparently Sylacauga was not a garden spot during the Creek days.

So yes, I grew up in buzzard roost. Proud of it, too. I could have done a lot worse.

Sylacauga is a typical small Alabama town. Not much has changed much since I left thirty years ago. It certainly hasn’t grown, a victim of the changing economic landscape that is the “New South.” The cotton mill closed several years ago, and hundreds of jobs vanished. A nearby paper mill is on it’s last leg. A marble quarry produces a beautiful pure white marble that is favored by sculptors and builders all over the world, but sales and jobs are probably not at the level they once were. And as is the case all over the South, the “big box” stores and chain restaurants are all located on the four lane that skirts the town, leaving the small family-owned stores and businesses in the heart of downtown to struggle for survival.

Still, a lot of former residents of Sylacauga have done well. Her most famous resident made it all the way to Hollywood. His name is Jim Nabors, and you will likely recognize him in the clip below.

I met Jim Nabors once years ago, when he came home for “Jim Nabor’s Day” back in 1980. It was a Mayberry-type celebration, with speeches, a parade, and the key to the city. I found him to be as decent and friendly as the character he portrayed on television.

So I’m from a town whose name means “buzzard roost”, but at least I share that distinction with television royalty.

It is at this point that you should be thinking “well, gawwwwwl leeeee!”

And for reading my blog, let me say “Well, thank yee, thank yee, thank yee.”

Whole Lot a Shakin’ Going On

The world needs a new cause to get behind. I propose that we all get together and do something about “global shaking.”

For the last ten years or so, there has been much talk about global warming. Scientists, politicians, actors, and groups of various political and religious stripes have all weighed in on the issue. Al Gore, former vice president and one-time presidential wannabe, is the self-appointed spokesperson for the cause. In addition to the appearance of sincerity, Mr. Gore has made a huge pile of money espousing his opinions.

For those of you who have spent the decade living in a cave in Afghanistan (or simply don’t have cable television), global warming is the idea that the average temperature of the earth is increasing. This is caused primarily by man’s activities; principally manufacturing, travel, and other pursuits of modern living that cause the production of “green house” gases. The two principal gaseous offenders are carbon dioxide and methane. These are introduced into the atmosphere by everything from car exhaust to cow flatulence.

The debate on whether or not the earth’s temperature is rising is complicated. Scientist on both sides of the issue have reams of data to support their positions. Recent cold winters in Europe and North America have cast some dispersions on the “warming” side, prompting one prominent scientist to recently state “weather is not climate.”

Predictions of the result of the alleged warming have been dire. I recently attended a workshop on southern pine trees at Auburn University. One of the speakers was a scientist from Texas who touted the warming position. This lady was eloquent and had more initials behind her name than this year’s winner of the Westminster Dog Show. Her data was impressive–her predictions catastrophic.

She postulated that if the current level of increase in the earth’s average temperature is not halted, the South can expect all kinds of catastrophes in the next ten years. Among these were changes in plant life, droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, diseases, and famines. The area where I live in central Alabama will likely become ocean front property. That was about the only good news I got from from her presentation. After all, the Red Head loves the beach, and I’m pretty sure we will never be able to afford anything located there otherwise.

While all this is certainly scary, we do have ten years to turn things around. It would seem to me we have a much more urgent threat: global shaking.

The number of earthquakes the world has experienced in the last six months is startling. Places like Mexico, California, Haiti, Chile, El Salvador, Japan, Sumatra, and China come to mind. Quakes that have caused devastation, death, and injuries.

The urgency of this problem cannot be understated. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there may be millions of quakes occurring each year–as many as 50 per day.

Immediate action must be taken. I propose a three-pronged attack.

First we must raise awareness. I suggest we organize a world-wide celebrity concert to raise money. It should be a three day satellite-linked event, capped off by the performers holding hands and singing an anthem. Perhaps they could be lead by Jerry Lee Lewis, with the theme song “Whole Lot a Shaking Going On”.

Second, we should get some scientists together to investigate the cause of these earthquakes. They certainly must be caused by something we are doing in our modern lifestyles. My personal theory is that we have become too fat. The extra weight is causing increased pressure on mother earth, and she is reacting. Diets should be mandatory, fatty foods banned, and exercise legislated (preferably something low-impact; a bunch of fat people jumping up and down will only exacerbate the pressure on the earth’s surface). For those who don’t want to be skinny, never fear–there will be “fat credits” to mitigate your lifestyle choices. If you don’t like celery you can simply buy some in exchange for every Big Mac you consume.

Finally, we simply must get the cable news networks on board. After all, the world has a very short attention span, and we simply cannot focus on any story we are not reminded of every hour of every day.

The problem is real and action is needed. We must have leadership.

Where are you Al Gore?