Halloween

When I was a kid, there were only two holidays I looked forward to: Christmas and Halloween.

I grew up in the 60’s in small-town Alabama town where Halloween was — well, magic.

I remember spending hours thinking of what I wanted to be on Halloween. Those were the days before Walmart ate the South, but we we did have shopping options even then. In Sylacauga, we had Grants, a sort of small-time version of the aforementioned abomination, and we also had a Woolworth and a couple of five and dime stores. I loved looking at the store-bought costumes and dreaming of what I could be on that scariest of nights. Marvel super heroes were high on the list, as were the monsters of the day: Frankenstein, the wolf man, the skeleton, and Dracula. Girls had a variety of witch costumes, along with ballerinas, princesses, and other “girly” options.

A lot of those years, dreaming was all I could do, but it was enough. I never got too many store-bought costumes, as it was the 60’s and money was tight. Several years I went trick-or-treating as a ghost. Po’ folks know how to improvise, and two eye-holes can convert an old bed sheet into a pretty scary ghost.

Then there was the selection of the pumpkin and the hours of planning associated with designing a proper jack-o-lantern. Should it be scary or funny? I usually chose scary. After all, it was a night to be delightfully frightened.

Halloween night was glorious for a kid in those days. We dressed up, pretending to be something we weren’t, and waited for dark. Kind of like most adults do now on a daily basis.

First there was the trick-or-treat haul. In those magical days, you could hit a hundred houses and end up with a grocery bag full of candy and treats. We went all over town without a thought that there was any danger involved. After the town neighborhoods, we went to the cotton mill village across the tracks. Even the po’ folks there were good for treats, though they were more likely to be “home-made” candy like caramel apples or popcorn balls. We never had fears that anyone would try to poison us or hurt us in any way, because people just didn’t do that back in those days.

After the big candy haul, there were at least two Halloween carnivals: one at the city school and one at the county school. You could score some candy there too, but mostly you went to the various booths for trinkets. Drop a fishing pole line over a wall with a clothes pin as bait, and land a plastic whistle or set of vampire fangs. Throw a bean bag through a hole in a back board and win a fat Fred Flintstone pencil eraser or a piece of bubble gum. One year I scored a nifty plastic skull ring with fake ruby red eyes. I think I wore that treasure until the eyes fell out and it got so tight that I had to give it up or risk losing the finger.

When I got older, haunted houses became the rage. I got to be a part of a really good one as a teenager–which was sponsored, by the way, by my church. We had Frankenstein’s lab (with an adult dressed as Frankenstein–complete, with neck bolts), an elaborate cardboard maze that you had to crawl through (completely in the dark), the feast of the damned (which involved lots of bloody teenagers sitting around a large table appearing to eat raw flesh), and several other “themed” rooms. It was a big hit in our town, and we raised lots of money for youth choir and mission trips the following summers.

Now I’ll admit there were some tricks in those days. Major evil activities. You could be hit by an egg or have your yard toilet-papered.

I must pause here in this epic tale to make a clear, concise, statement of fact: at no time during these childhood revelries did I feel a compulsion to worship Satan. It was simply a night of pretending and fun. The innocence of childhood in all its glory.

But at some point, Halloween was hijacked. I think it probably started in the 80’s.

People got mean, and there began to be a danger that the treats a child might receive could be tainted with drugs or poison. Hospitals began to offer free x-rays of treats to make sure they didn’t contain razor blades or straight pins. You could no longer roam freely to get your treats–only to houses of people you knew. This was the Halloween trick-or-treating my kids experienced. It was not magic.

Then some of the churches decided that Halloween was evil. That it was a pagan holiday that could lead to all sorts of demonic spiritual problems. Halloween carnivals turned into “Fall Festivals” and haunted houses became “Judgment Houses” in which you were shown where you were headed if you didn’t repent of your evil ways.

I remember the first time I heard this idea in church. The Redhead and I were in a Sunday School class with other couples who had young children. Before the Bible lesson, a young lady got up and read a prepared statement about the potential evils of Halloween, it’s pagan history, and how we as good Baptists should not allow our children to participate.

I allowed her to finish, raised my hand, and stood to make an unsolicited opposing viewpoint. I wanted to say “Woman, what the hell is wrong with you? Are you nuts?” But I was, after all, in church, so I restrained myself. I simply pointed out that we had a lot more serious evil to worry about: drugs, pornography, child molesters, sex that was already becoming common among preteens, etc. And of course, divorce. Want to mess up a kid? Give him two or three sets of parents to deal with (I noticed several couples shifting in their chairs on that last one). If you want to fight evil, fight real evil. There’s plenty around without looking for imaginary versions.

Funny thing, I still see church lady around town.  She won’t speak or look me in the eye.

I realize that the Halloween of my youth is gone, and it’s not coming back. Childhood innocence in general is gone. It was murdered by cable television, the Internet, and all the other trappings of prosperity. But mostly it was ruined by adults who refuse to be adults.

I think that’s a real shame. I might even say that it’s evil.

The Song Writer’s Contest

“…Like a preacher stealing hearts in a traveling show. It’s all over money, money, money, money….and fever, getting hotter. Desire.” u2

Last night was the finals in the Central Alabama Country Music Songwriter’s contest.

You can read the story of this origins of the song here.

I wrote this country song as a joke. My friend Jennifer, a very talented artist, musician, and home-schooling mother of four thought it was funny and wrote the music to go with my lyrics. She performed it in my kitchen for the first time last summer. You can watch the original performance here.

Later on, my mom saw an advertisement in her small town newspaper about a country music songwriters contest in Central Alabama. We decided to enter with our song–again, just for fun.

Jennifer stole the show in the preliminary, winning first place. We had an automatic bid to the finals.

We arrived at an old high school gym in rural Coosa County last night to an audience of about one hundred mostly elderly country folks. Jennifer performed first, followed by ten other preliminary winners. As before, my talented friend absolutely stole the show.

We won third place. I was happy for Jennifer, but disappointed in the results. It was advertised as a “Country Music” contest, but first and second place winners sung “Gospel” songs with long spoken “tear-jerking” introductions about how Jesus helped them through this or that miserable situation in their lives.

Now no disrespect to my Savior intended here, but I’m not about to use Him to try to win a contest where the top prize is $300.

We did receive some justification in the end. Nashville songwriter Troy Jones was in attendance. He has written songs for country music stars like Kenny Chesney (“Shiftwork” and “Like Me”), Joe Nichols (“Shade”), and one of my favorites “People are Crazy.’

Troy made it a point to seek me out after the contest. “I liked your song,” he said. “I thought it was the best in the contest.”

Thanks Troy. We did too.

Here’s the performance. Jennifer should be in Nashville, don’t you think?

Movement

I’m out early this morning on the bike. A beautiful morning for a ride. Alabama blue skies and a brisk 58 degrees. Traffic is light but already beginning to build. L.S.U. is in town for an afternoon contest with Auburn, and the faithful from both sides are already converging on the Plains.

There is nothing like a motorcycle ride to clear your head and experience the complete sensation of movement. Other forms of transportation just don’t stack up. The bike gives you the total package: the weather, the sights, the potentially life or death interaction with other vehicles, even the smells of the areas you pass through. The vibration of the motor running through your body like the pulse of blood through your veins. The feel of the imperfections of the road surface. It is the ultimate form of travel. Something you just can’t experience within the enclosed confines of today’s automobiles. Perhaps travel by horseback is a close second, but my country is too closed-in to make that practical.

I feel the need for movement. Dylan once said that movement was the key to writing. That there were many great writers who couldn’t write because they weren’t moving anywhere. I’ve thought a lot about this, and I believe he may be right.

Am I moving? I’m not sure. Lately it feels that if I am moving it is simply running in place. Neither forward nor backward. Something like the sensation felt when you sit at the railroad crossing as the train passes. That brief moment in time when your brain is unsure whether it’s you that is moving or the train.

Movement.

If you are moving, you are headed away from something or toward something. At present I can’t tell which is true for me.

But I feel the need to get moving.

Fall in Focus

“Fall is the best time for remembering things–be they good or bad.” Felipe Zapata

“I’ve been aware of the time going by, they say in the end it’s the wink of an eye.” Jackson Brown

Fall lends itself to a certain reflection and introspection. As I approach middle age (yes, I said “approach,” not “reach,” so shut it), I find myself more melancholy in the season, and yet it is still my favorite time of the year. I am refreshed by the cooler temperatures–but I feel a sense of sadness that another year of life has slipped away.

It strikes me that Fall is a good metaphor for middle-aged introspection.

Spring in Alabama is a shotgun blast. One day you notice the red maples are budding against the stark contrast of the gray hardwoods hillsides. A few days later the delicate white flowers of the dogwood appear. Then almost overnight–“BAM”–everything is suddenly green or blooming. Luxurious, flagrant, riotous greens of every shade and hue dominate. Views disappear, and green is the color of our world for one-half the year.

By contrast, Fall is a gradual process in Alabama. The temperatures begin to moderate around the first of October, and the nights cool as the month progresses. We usually have a light frost at some point, but the weather may warm back up to the low 80’s in the daytime for the majority of the month. The season is fitful and moody, and like the woman in my previous post, sometimes just downright unfaithful.

This roller coaster ride of temperatures results in a gradual change in the vegetation that reveals a little more of the landscape each day. Trees burst into color then quickly fade to brown. Brown leaves begin to drop, a few more each day, extending the view into areas that have been hidden by lush vegetation for the previous six months. Creeks and hillsides come into focus where there were only shades of green before. Things long hidden are revealed. Forgotten landmarks are once again prominent.

Such is also the case as life reaches it’s “normal” mid-point. Past choices, actions, and words are more often recalled and are open to reflection and examination. Good times, important relationships, and good choices come into clear focus and are fondly remembered. But regrets and a continual rehashing of “what if I had done this, went there, chose this, said that, etc” also occupy (and sometimes dominate) the mental landscape.

This is the crisis point. It is the feeling that you have opened and gone through a door with no way back to the other side. Choices have been made, the lot is cast, and the rest of the journey is already determined.

Some get off track at the crisis point and the result is a train wreck of a life. It is what Jerry Lee sang about in “Middle Age Crazy.” New clothes, new car, new life, new spouse, and trying to prove you’re still young.

Others handle the transition a little more gracefully. They focus on the good and minimize the failures of the past. They revel in travel, grandchildren, and pursuits they never had time for in the earlier years.

Either way you weather the Fall, one thing’s for certain: Winter’s right around the corner.

A Death in Mississippi

For those of you who don’t live in the South, I’m sad to report that we lost a longtime resident this weekend. The “Old Colonel” in Oxford has passed away. There was no funeral, no wake, no casseroles. He was simply dumped in the garbage can of history.

The Ole Miss Rebel Black Bears?

What exactly is a rebellious black bear? One that won’t eat honey? One that refuses to poop in the woods? One that starts forest fires?

What in the name of the god of political correctness is going on here? Have the good people of Mississippi and the South lost their minds along with their heritage?

For the record, I understand how some Blacks take offense at some of the symbols of the “Old South.” The song “Dixie” is never played publicly anymore, and the Confederate flag is pretty much gone except on a few bumper stickers of old pickup trucks (in fact, the symbol has been outlawed at many public schools).

I understand how some of these symbols of Southern heritage might be construed as being connected with slavery, which remains an abomination in our nation’s history.

I will not debate the contention that the Civil War (or the “War of Northern Aggression” as we like to call it) was only about slavery. I’ll leave that to historians and guilt-ridden white upper class liberals. I do know that the majority of the blood shed was from poor whites–farmers and frontiersmen. They didn’t own slaves, and it’s hard for me imagine that they bet their lives in a struggle in which they didn’t really have a dog in the fight.

The “Old Colonel” was the last vestige of the old South heritage at the University of Mississippi. He was killed in the name of political correctness and in an attempt to recruit more Black athletes.

I guess it could have been worse. The other two options were the Rebel “Land Sharks” and the Rebel “Hotty Toddy.”

It’s a shame, Mississippi. I never though “old times there would be forgotten.”

The Lover


“Come away with me,” she whispers.

For a brief moment you believe she is sincere. You must believe it. Not because your reason tells you that it is true, but because you so want to believe it. You yearn for her to be true. Because she is what you dream of in the lonesome hours of each dark night as you lie in the heavy air of your bedroom, unsure if you are awake or asleep, afraid to exhale lest you miss the faintness of her whispered breath above the hum of the silence.

She is what you think of during the toils of the day. You look for any sign of her coming–test the air for a scent of her strange perfume. You are like a teenage girl, sitting by the phone on Friday night. Ring! Ring! Oh, please ring.

She has become your fixation. She is a drug and you are now her hopeless addict. You have passed the point of want and entered the dark realm of need. She is now obsession.

You know she is a liar, a flirt, a tease. She has no qualms about playing with your heart. She has broken it before, and doubtless countless other hearts along the way. But you don’t care. Like the addict, you tell yourself that this time will be different. Just one more chance. This time, she will be true to you.

She is, after all, so beautiful. Eyes so blue that you can see straight through into eternity; and yet at night they seem so dark but still filled with the twinkle of a billion stars. Her breath is soft on your cheek. Her touch cool and caressing. Her dress is hued in a thousand colors, so beautiful that she can make your heart feel that it will explode within your chest. She refreshes you, invigorates you, somehow makes you feel like a young man again. Perhaps this is the real reason you want her so badly. It is not a desire for her as much as an unrequited need in you.

It matters not that she’s disappointed you so many times before. It matters not that she is a straight-faced liar. It matters not that you’ve been used. You’ve played the fool on countless occasions, and like the dog who has been beaten again and again, you cower at her feet and hope that this time she will be true. This time will be different.

And yet, she will appear at your side for brief moments and then disappear, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, leaving you sad and heartsick again.

She will always be unfaithful, and you know that you will never be able to change her. But that doesn’t diminish your desire or make you relinquish the false hope that you desperately cling to.

She is Fall in Alabama, and I long for her touch.

Hollywood

I called him “Hollywood.”

It was a razz, given by an opposing team’s fans in a high school baseball game. That day he was in left field in a late afternoon game, and he wore sun glasses to fight the glare of the setting sun. The year was 1978, and although the practice is common among baseball players today, it was unheard of then.

But the truth was, the nickname kind of fit.

Hollywood was a good baseball player, but he really excelled in football. A natural quarterback, he had speed, scrambling ability, and a rocket arm. He was also a quick thinker, the piece of the puzzle that is sometimes missing in otherwise gifted athletes.

He was flashy on and off the field. I guess you could say he was the “big man on campus” in our little high school. A good looking guy with a big smile that all the girls probably dreamed of dating. He was cocky and brash but knew when to talk and when to shut up. Some of the guys didn’t like him–were jealous that he seemed to have it all–yet I don’t recall him ever being in a fight. If a situation started to turn nasty, he simply walked away.

But off the field things maybe weren’t as good as they seemed. He came from a broken home, and worse than that, it was a broken home with money. As is often the case, parents in such situations may try to compensate a kid with money and gifts. I don’t know if that was the case with Hollywood, but it sure seemed he didn’t lack for cash in his pockets. There were rumors that he did a lot of partying–but marijuana and alcohol were as easy to get in those days as they are now, and lots of kids took advantage if they had the means.

His football prowess became evident his junior year, when he lead a young team with low expectations to the first playoff game the school had seen in several years. Opposing teams quickly learned that Hollywood could beat you with his arm or his feet. He put up big numbers, and the college boys began to pay attention to the kid from the small town.

His senior season was a repeat performance. The team had some talented players on offense, and Hollywood ran the show. I will never forget one crisp Fall night, when he threw a long touchdown pass to a kid we called “Redbone.” It was a streak route, straight down the sideline, and it was delivered on target forty-five yards down field. Caught over the shoulder in full stride. I don’t think I have ever seen a pass thrown any better. It was a throw that Drew Brees or Manning would admire.

As that season went on, rumors began to circulate that the Tennessee Vols had paid a visit. They liked what they saw, and a scholarship might be forthcoming. Hollywood had a future beyond our small town–a chance to perform on the big stage in front of thousands instead of a few hundred.

But the promising season came to an abrupt end when we lost the final regular season game. Unlike today, when teams with losing records can still make the playoffs in Alabama, in those days one loss could keep you out. So the magic ended, and Hollywood was unable to showcase his talents in front of larger playoff crowds in bigger towns.

I’m not sure what happened after that. I just know that things went south for Hollywood in a hurry. The Tennessee Vols didn’t come through, and football was over.

I had already left for college when I began to hear the gossip. Hollywood had been arrested. He had gotten some bad cocaine, probably “cut” with rat poison, and it had messed up his mind. His behavior had become increasingly irrational. He told everyone he was going to buy a nightclub at the beach. He took a corvette out for a test drive and didn’t bring it back. Someone even said he had some business cards printed that listed him as an “attorney at law.”

What is truth and what is fiction I can’t say. But I do know that soon after, I heard the news that Hollywood was dead.

Suicide is always a tragedy, but it is especially painful for those of us who are left behind when it happens to someone so young–someone with so much life ahead. It is a reminder that things can sure go from good to bad in a hurry, and sometimes those who seem to have it all are secretly filled with pain.

Now thirty years later, I sometimes step outside my home on a crisp Fall Friday night. If conditions are right, I can hear drum beats and a crowd cheering for the team at the local stadium about a mile away. On these occasions I sometimes close my eyes and think of a kid who was the king of Friday nights way back then.

I wonder what might have been.

The Cathedral


It was a glorious day to be outside in central Alabama: blue skies, a nice breeze, and temperatures that topped out at about 70 degrees. It was the kind of day that makes me wish that every day could be this way, but such conditions are rare in a State where the temperature can vary 40 degrees in a 24 hour period.

I spent my time conducting a timber appraisal in one of the prettiest spots around these parts–the “Big Swamp,” an area of old growth hardwood timber in Macon County. By “old growth” I mean that the trees were 80 to 100 years old. That’s about as old as you can find in most of the South, where we are on our third or fourth forest since the white man first arrived.

The trees on this land were large hardwoods–larger than a hillbilly forester like me normally encounter. Many were large enough in girth that two people could not reach around them, and some were well over 100 feet tall. There were species that I don’t normally see in my work in the upland forest: cherry bark oak, swamp chestnut oak, green ash, basswood, and even a common persimmon that was big enough to cut lumber from. Nary a pine tree in sight.

Now I have never been to the great cathedrals of Europe, but I cannot believe they would be any more glorious than such a hardwood bottom. Shafts of sunlight filter through the heavy tree canopy like light through stained glass windows. It is a place of such beauty that it almost makes me forget that I am there to work. There is a nagging feeling that I should pay to see this rather than get paid for being here.

Such a forest is never quiet. There is a constant chatter of birds, many whose songs I don’t recognize. There are the ever present crows, constantly cawing to each other over my presence, and several times I heard the monkey-like call of the giant pileated woodpecker–the one the old Black folks call the “Lord God” woodpecker in the rural South. As big as a hawk, it hammers away on the big trees in search of insects.

Of course, there is danger too. Wild hog sign is everywhere, the ground rooted-up and turned over in areas as big as a swimming pool. I am thankful that I don’t run into a big boar or a over-protective sow with a litter of pigs, as my tree climbing skills aren’t what they used to be. There are rattlesnakes and cottonmouth moccasins here too, but on this day they are too well-camouflaged on the dark leaves for me to notice. Or perhaps it is just my lucky day.

The owner of the property that I am appraising has made a nice living over the last fifteen years, selling deer and hog hunts to Yankees with fat wallets who want to have the “Southern” hunting experience. For one thousand dollars a day, a man can eat fried chicken, squash casserole, cheese grits, and corn bread, and have a chance to kill a nice “trophy.” Maybe even have a nice shot of fine Southern Bourbon whiskey and a fat cigar after dinner. In the dawn’s early light, a good old southern boy will take him to the tree stand and tell him some stories or jokes in a soft southern drawl to get him in the mood for the day’s adventure. It is designed to meet expectations: the authentic Old South–a story he can tell his fellow stockbrokers back in the Big Apple.

But times have been hard the last three years, and bookings are way down. It has become increasingly difficult to separate gullible Yankees from their wallets. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be in the new economy.

As a result, the beautiful old hardwood timber may be sold and cut. There are always bills to pay in any economy, and sometimes when the music stops you must still keep dancing.

I would hate to see this cathedral come down. It’s enough to make this forester a real tree-hugger.