Hope and Change

It is a gray morning here, as if the sun wants to sleep in today.

Yesterday was a record high temperature, 95 degrees. We’ve had no rain for nearly a month, and almost nothing is green. Brown leaves are beginning to fall from dry trees. Fall colors, never that spectacular this far south in Alabama, may be even less so this year.

My son in Costa Rica is supposed to visit a “dry forest” today. I can walk a hundred yards and do the same.

We have a 70 percent chance of rain today. I hope the odds makers get it right.

The approaching Fall is still evident in spite of the temperature. My hummingbird feeders are frequented less. The little guys are off to winter further south. Through the window, I can see a cat squirrel on my lawn, carefully gathering straw and dried grass clippings to line her Winter nest. Cooler weather is on the way. The signs are there for the reading.

I await hope and change. I am optimistic that it won’t be as big a let down as the political slogan.

Advertisements

A Sunday Poem

Every now and then the Redhead says “Get in there and write me a poem.”

I don’t post my poems very often. I believe most people today would just as soon go to the dentist as read a poem, especially one of mine.

But since you are here already, you might as well read this one.

To the Children in the Trees

Small graveyards are scattered across the Alabama countryside,
Many no bigger than a backyard tomato patch.
Some are perpetually tended beside old wooden churches on lonesome county roads.
Others lie forgotten in the woods.
The passage of time and the resilient southern forest has almost erased this link
to our past.
In places where loblolly and red oak now stand.
a heart-pine clapboard house once stood.
Surrounded by a few sweat-cleared acres,
Proud people once tried to will a living out of rocky red clay,
Unwanted hill country too poor for cotton or much anything else.

A graveyard tells a story if you have time to listen.
Granite or marble markers faded by Nature’s relentlessness.
Some of the prosperous have proper monuments.
Po’ whites and blacks made do with simple slabs of field stone,
Anonymous as the lives sweated away in the Alabama sun.
First glance reveals nothing, but attention whispers a story.
This place is full of the graves of children.
Here is Annie, age six, died on June 5, 1876.
Here is little brother Jim, died on June 7, 1876.
And close by Sarah, infant, dead a few days later.
There are others over there, different last names, in singles and pairs,
all dead within a few days or weeks of one another.

Something Evil once stopped here.
The awful desperation of the fever,
and children who simply got hot and died.
Anguished mothers who stood by with damp dish cloths and prayed to the Almighty
that the Death Angel might pass over as he did in the Book.
Men with brows as furrowed as the worn out ground worked on,
mumbling the Psalms and cussing their mules in the Valley of the Shadow.

They buried their dead namesakes here and moved on,
searching for a place the fever might not find.
Some new ground with no neighbors to spread the plague
And steal the next generation.

And you thought it was going to be some kind of sappy love poem, didn’t you?

Waffle House

I was at the Gulf Coast for a couple of days this week at the Alabama Forestry Association annual meeting. The hotel and conference where we stayed is very nice, but they wanted fifteen bucks for the breakfast buffet. I would not pay that much for breakfast unless it involved a very large piece of beef with a bone in it. Instead, we opted for a Waffle House just down the strip.

I’m not sure if the Waffle House is a nationwide franchise. I do know that it is a fixture of the Southern landscape, as common and prolific as Kudzu and pine trees.

It is a decent place to eat breakfast. Now especially, since most restaurants have banned smoking. Before, it was difficult to eat there without a lingering fear of acquiring lung cancer along with your eggs and bacon.

The Waffle House at Orange Beach, Alabama is a microcosm of the diversity that is the “New South.”

As we came in the door we were greeted by a cacophony of voices from all the employees: “Good morning,” “Hello,” Welcome,” “How’s it going?” and other variations. It is a little disconcerting to be received with such a welcome early in the morning. If you weren’t fully awake, you are now.

The place was packed, so we sat at the counter in the last two available seats.

Our waitress was a middle-aged woman. I must assume that she has migrated South from New Jersey. She asked us if “You’s wants some cawfee?” She was all business, this one. She possessed the curtness that Southerners usually assume is rudeness. Perhaps it is just the Yankee way of picking up our slow pace of life. She took our orders quickly and moved on. I never saw her stop moving for the thirty minutes or so that we are there. She had obviously done the waitress thing for a while.

Her young assistant was apparently a trainee. She was in her early twenties and had “Jesus” tattooed on her neck. Whether this refers to the Savior or a Hispanic lover, only she knew. I hope that she likes her work and is successful at it, because she may be doing it for a long time. I don’t believe most of corporate America is ready for neck tattoos, unless of course your last name is Jolie.

The grill man was a big strapping guy, probably late twenties. He moved like a machine as the orders flew in from all corners. No wasted movements, this one. He wore the Waffle House uniform like a Marine wears his dress blues. His chef’s smock had the word “GRILL MASTER” embroidered in large letters across the back. This I suppose to clear up any confusion we may have had that our eggs were being prepared by a rank amateur.

The lady at the register was young and Black. She was quick and efficient. This establishment thrives on volume. Move them in and out, honey, that’s how we make money.

A young Hispanic man removed our plates and cups before we are out the door, putting them in a large plastic bin to be taken to the dishwasher. Beside him, an elderly lady with a dish towel awaited to wipe down the counter and prepare the spot for the next customers, who are already moving in that direction.

The whole breakfast experience took less than thirty minutes. Diversity and waffles–maybe we all can “get along.”

The Cycle of Life

My youngest son is in Costa Rica this semester studying Spanish, so this weekend I am driving his car, a sweet little Acura RSX Type-S. She is a silver bullet, low and sleek, and she drives like a sled on a rail. We call her the “RS Sexy.” We joke that she is a chick magnet. One has to be careful with magnets, though. They attract scrap iron equally as well as valuables.

It is the third car he has driven in his young life. The two previous provided life-lessons for both him and me.

As he approached his first driver’s license, almost any conversation led to a discussion of cars. I sensed an opportunity. At age fifteen, he was an extremely bright kid and potentially a great athlete. But he was already on auto pilot. In school and on the athletic field, he was mailing it in–doing enough to get by with minimal effort. Lots of bright people do this, but it’s a shame for a young person to develop such a life-strategy.

I offered a deal. Get serious about life. Quit coasting. Study and earn the grades you are capable of making. Don’t just make the varsity football team as a sophomore and stand on the sidelines watching every Friday night–earn a starting spot. Show me something and I’ll get you a nice car. Any car you want that I can afford.

He accepted the challenge. His grades went from “B’s” to “A’s”. He was one of three sophomores on a varsity team that was a perennial football power in Alabama, and one that was full of senior players to boot. He not only started, but played well, earning an All-Area Honorable Mention.

He wanted a Ford Mustang. The Red Head was vehemently opposed. Grandparents were opposed. Friends advised against it. Everyone said the same thing. “A sixteen year old kid does not need a mega-horsepower muscle car.”

But a deal is a deal.

I’m not sure who was more proud–him or me. She was a used car, but she looked new. Solid white with a black interior, a sweet ride. The look on his face when I picked him up that day after school was worth every penny I paid.

Speeches were made: drive slowly; stay off the cell phone; take it easy until you get more driving experience; no riders; please be careful.

But a young man is immortal and bullet-proof in his own mind. You simply can’t convince him otherwise.

The mustang survived about a month before he ran off the road, over-compensated the correction, and totaled it. He walked away without a scratch. We both got lucky there. I got most of the lecturing. I didn’t lecture him–no need. He was hurting enough, and I hurt for him.

The replacement car was a little less glamorous–a ten-year-old Ford Explorer. We called it the “mama car”, because it looked like what a mom might drive to pick up kids from school or go to the grocery store. It was already a little dinged-up and made some interesting noises. It was his ride through the rest of high school.

The deal was honored, though. He stuck with the studies and worked hard on the field. The result was a good scholarship to Mississippi College, some six hours away from home.

We didn’t think the old mama car would be reliable for the long trip, so the RS-Sexy was purchased. It was a reward, of sorts, for a job well-done. And it has been a good car.

Life teaches lessons to fathers and sons, and sometimes things seem to run in cycles.

It reminds me of a day years ago. I’ll never forget the look on my momma’s face the day my dad and I drove up in my new Camaro.

Thirty Year Road


“Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies and the king and the queen of the prom. Riding around with the car top down and the radio on. Nobody looked any finer, or was more of a hit at the Parkway Diner. We never knew we could want more than that out of life. Surely Brenda and Eddie would always know how to survive.
Billy Joel, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

I have a thirtieth high school reunion coming up in a couple of months. I went to the tenth, but skipped the subsequent gatherings. Still haven’t decided whether to go, even though it will be held only an hour’s drive away. There are some old acquaintances I’d sure like to see, but let’s face it, the years can be sometimes be unkind to childhood memories.

It’s funny looking back and remembering things and people we thought were so important in high school. The groups and cliques represented: jocks, band geeks, smart kids, hipsters, rockers, rednecks, and so forth. I don’t remember there being much room for individuality, although I’m sure there were some kids that just flew under the radar of all that nonsense. Those are the ones that I’d really like to talk with if I go. I’d wager they’re the ones that are more well-adjusted today, some thirty years later. Probably have nice families, good jobs, and are fine upstanding members of their communities.

It all seemed so important to “fit in” when you were there, but a couple of year’s of life later you realize what a bunch of nonsense it all was.

And of course, time can be awfully hard on our appearances. It is this part that makes me hesitant to go. The riskiness of destroying images from the past. The awful realization that some people “peak” in high school, and it’s all a downhill slide after that.

I imagine the guy who was voted “Best Looking” sitting over by the punch bowl. He was a stud athlete that all the girls dreamed about. Fancy car, latest clothes, All-State credentials, a total mister cool. Seemed to have the world on a string; sky’s-the-limit life ahead. Today he has a huge beer gut and his face looks like a caved-in catcher’s mitt. He’s been divorced five times and is currently selling mobile homes out on the bypass.

I visualize what was once the girl of my adolescent dreams. Cheerleader, homecoming queen, most likely to win Miss America and marry a millionaire. Face like an angel and legs all the way up to her neck. She wouldn’t give me the time of day back then. Today she is seated strategically close to the buffet table, and she looks like she’d have a legitimate shot at the starting right guard position for the Dallas Cowboys. Somebody call Jerry Jones. He’s always looking to spend a few million on mediocre talent.

But then there will be the real surprises.

I’ve already discovered a few through the magic of Facebook. Guys who seemed like under-achievers back in the day who have gone on to do great things in business, science, and the arts. Girls who I can’t remember giving a second look, now closing in on 50, who are drop dead, movie star gorgeous. Holy smokes, woman! Where were you in ’79? Oh, you sat behind me in homeroom. Sorry.

I, of course, have absolutely nothing to worry about. I am still the same suave, debonair, sophisticated hillbilly of thirty years ago.

Just the other day, I asked a co-worker what happened to another forester who used to do some work around our area. “He’s retired,” was the response.

I asked how that could be, since he was younger than me.

“His wife’s got money.”

Always a quick wit, I asked “You think I could steal her away from him so I could retire? After all, he ain’t much to look at.”

“Well, maybe you haven’t noticed it, but you ain’t either,” was the comeback.

Touche. Maybe I’ll just stay home on reunion night.

Reader Poll Confessions

There is no fiction that will truly fit the situation.
I’m documenting every detail, every conversation.
I’m not used to talking to somebody in a body,
somebody in a body… u2, “Xanax and Wine.”

I have a confession to make. If you took part in my reader poll– especially if you sent a comment–you fell for an Internet scam.

You know about Internet scams. There’s that sweet widow in Africa whose husband left her millions–she only needs you to send your bank account number so she can deposit the money in the U.S. (and she’ll give you half for your kindness). You’ve won the lottery in the U.K.–just send your Social Security number to claim the prize. Offers to lose weight, grow hair, increase the size of parts of your anatomy that are implied to be lacking, or clean out your colon (that one is just plain disturbing). All you need to do to change your life is send in your social security or credit card number.

My scam wasn’t designed to get your money. It was to identify you.

My blog software tells me how many people read each piece and where they are located. But it doesn’t reveal their identity. Some of my regular readers, mostly bloggers themselves, often comment on what I’ve written. But the vast majority are anonymous. They are represented by a dot on a map.

Thanks to the scam, I now know a lot more. I know who is reading in Mississippi, Arizona, and Virgina. I know about some old friends who take the time to read my thoughts, as well as some relatives I’ve lost touch with over the years. I can put faces and names with the dots. I still don’t know who is reading me in Iran, or for that matter why, but I know a lot more than I did.

I also found that there are a lot of people who are really kind and considerate when it comes to my writing. And I thank you–for your reading, and for all the nice things you had to say.

The truth is I write what I like to write and I hope a few people will like to read it. I doubt there would be a much I could do about it if you didn’t.

I write because I like to write–it’s about that simple. It’s something I hope to get better at as time goes by.

And like you, I read what I like to read, and there’s a lot of diversity with my habits too. I read blogs written by missionaries in Honduras, lady chicken farmers in north Alabama, and former U.S citizens who live in Mexico (and some who want to live there someday), as well as people who like to cook, ride motorcycles, or analyze politics. Some of it good writing and some of it is not especially well-written. But I read them because they interest me. I suspect you are the same way. After all, Hemingway was a genius, but Mad Magazine is good sometimes too.

As always, thanks for the reading. Hope to “see” you again real soon.

Reader Poll

I’ve been blogging for a little over two years now, and I have a confession to make: I have no idea what you, dear reader, like to read.

The blog software I use has an analytical feature that allows me to review such things as how many times each post is read, and where my readers live. I’d like to be able to say that this is a helpful tool, but it’s not. It’s baffling.

Sometimes I spend several hours writing and rewriting a post. When I finally finish, I think “Hey, this ain’t too bad.” Then I post it and get no reaction.

Other times I sit down for about ten minutes and fire off something that I consider to be “fluff”–literary bubble gum. And I am shocked at the positive response.

So I’ve decided to take a poll. If you have a second, think about what you’ve read here and give me some input.

Finish this sentence: “I’d like Ray to _________.”

  • Write little humorous stories.
  • Write about people and places in Alabama.
  • Write more of those brooding metaphorical pieces.
  • Write more poems and songs.
  • Get a new hobby.
  • Write about politics and other current events.
  • Ride his motorcycle off into the sunset, never to be heard from again.

The results will be tabulated on the upper right corner of the sidebar. The poll will run all week.

As always, thanks for reading.

More than A Feeling


It is a glorious Alabama day: blue sky, a whisper of breeze caressing my face, and a hint–just a subtle hint, mind you–that Fall is around the corner. You may call it Autumn where you live, but it is simply Fall here, and it is my time of the year. Today is the kind of day that can make you glad to be alive. A day you wish you could press between the pages of a scrapbook, like a rose in an old family Bible. It is a feeling that you may want to take out and hold again in trembling old hands, many years hence.

I head out of town for an afternoon jaunt in the psycho-billy jeep (all blacked-out, Johnny Cash style). I recon a beautiful tract of land that my company has just listed for sale: thick with pine timber, whitetail deer, and Fall wildflowers. I certify it a “winner,” just waiting for a savvy buyer. As I creep along woods roads overgrown with fescue and dog fennell, Johnny’s voice belts out “Cocaine Blues,” on the c.d. player, sung to a rowdy bunch of society’s castoffs in Folsom Prison so many years ago:

“Come on all you fellows and listen to me, Stay away from whiskey, And let that cocaine be.”

The warning came too late for many of them, Big John.

I revel in the freedom they forfeited. This afternoon is for you boys.

Twenty miles away, thousands have congregated to watch the latest edition of the Auburn Tigers play their season opener. All decked-out in orange and blue, hope springs eternal that this is the year. They will eat and drink and hoot and holler at a fevered pitch, like a congregation caught up in the Spirit at a tent revival. War Eagle and Hallelujah, neighbors, can you feel it?

I could be there with them. But on a day like this I would rather be here–prowling the back roads of Alabama.

Good Country People


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I say that I will probably be working Saturday.

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

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

I’m doing some work for one. Really.