A Loss


There are times when the words stay trapped inside. I have found no magic to coax them out into print today. Perhaps they need the passage of time to age and mellow.

I have a heavy heart as I think of my family in Nashville and Birmingham.

The world lost a great man yesterday.

He was not a man that you will find in the history books or the headlines. Just a simple man with simple pleasures. A man who worked hard, took care of his family, and lived his life with a quiet dignity.

Rest in peace, Uncle Jimmy. You were one of the finest men I knew.

You may read more about him here.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

“We just beat the hell out of you! Rammer jammer yellow hammer, give ’em hell Alabama.” Cheer after another University of Alabama football victory.

I live in Alabama. Except for a brief period of exile spent in the Louisiana Territory, I’ve spent most of my life here. Alabama is my State, the place I love, the land I’m proud to be from. When I die, whatever is left of my worn out shell will become a part of Her, molecules and atoms mixing to bond with the soil, trees, and rocks that formed a people and influenced the man I was during my brief stay.

Alabama is unique, and she has produced a unique people. Her native sons and daughters have retained their singular spirit through three centuries. We once survived invasion by blue-coats from the North. We now survive a new invasion from Yankees with a different intent, those who are fleeing harsh weather and the economic and social collapse of their own lands. They mix with us, but they will never be a part of us, and they will likely never understand us, for they are not formed from this same soil.

Part of what separates us as a people is our intense pride. We will not be looked down upon with impunity. We corporately despise those who think they are better than us. And we have been, and continue to be, ridiculed by our fellow countrymen. We are summarily dismissed and labeled: rednecks, hillbillies, hicks, Bible-thumpers, in-breeds, and racists. For some, we will always be associated with a troubled racial past and the little bulldog of a governor who knew how to capture and focus our frustrations, even though his aim, and thus ours, was misdirected. Our achievements and contributions to world culture remain ignored or unrecognized. Our native sons and daughters are among the world’s best musicians, athletes, writers, scholars, soldiers–even astronauts.

We are in many ways an enigma. Although we distrust our government, we are are always first in line to volunteer to shed our blood for her. We defend the rights and liberties of the very ones who disdain us. Our blood is mixed with the soil in every place the U.S. has sent her armies. We are the pitbulls of the American people, and we never run away from a fight.

Through our troubled past, through all of the disdain, through all our struggles with poverty and a myriad of other problems, we have clung to one source of pride above all others: we will flat-out whip your ass in football.

It matters not to us where you are from. For the last fifty years, from sea to shining sea, we have vanquished more foes than not. No state with a population this small has accomplished this with such frequency and consistency.

It started with a man called “Bear.” For many years, his teams humiliated and conquered all foes. He left a legacy that will never be forgotten and a cadre of players who went on to other fields of glory. Household names engraved on hearts and in halls of fame: Starr, Namath, Jordan, Stabler, Musso, Hannah, Lowe, Newsome, and many, many others. The phrase “Crimson Tide” became synonymous with winning, and by default our citizens became winners too. Truck drivers and farmers, cotton mill workers and loggers, janitors and ditch-diggers all could share in the pride that came with the wins and championships. Many of these blue collar folks are her most rabid fans, even though they have never set foot on campus or witnessed a game in person. It is part of a corporate pride in a place where personal pride can be as hard to come by as a sawmill dollar.

Over the last twenty years, things have begun to gradually change. The Bear retired and passed on, and Alabama’s “other” university began to improve. Now the state has two football powers to reckon with instead of one.

Last year, the University of Alabama collected another National Championship to go with all those in the past. One of her players won the Heisman Trophy, the award given to the best college football player in the nation.

This year, Auburn University won the National Championship, and Auburn quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman.

Our pride should be at an all time high, but it is not.

The last two months have tested our unity. The last week has left a wound that will not heal for years to come.

A University of Alabama “fan” poisoned two trees on the Auburn campus with herbicide, then called a national sports-talk radio show to brag about it. These were not ordinary trees, but the “Toomer Oaks,” which have been a gathering point for celebrations for Auburn University victories for years. In many ways these trees are a symbol of the University itself. They are irreplaceable.

The more educated and sensible citizens of our State have decried this as the act of a mentally unbalanced individual. But a couple of hours spent listening to the callers on the same sports-talk radio show this week leave me unsure. For every Alabama fan who denounces this act of stupidity, there seems to be one who is willing to excuse or condone it.

My personal hope is that no one with an Auburn label attempts any sort of retaliation.

But I wouldn’t be surprised. This is Alabama. We are a proud people and we never run from a fight. If there are no more worthy opponents, we’ll make do fighting ourselves.

Memory


I have another birthday coming up, and I’m starting to feel old.

The biggest change I’ve noticed is my memory.

My long-term memory has always been exceptional. I hope it holds out, because I have a lot of stories to write. I can remember thousands of song lyrics, lines from poems, book passages–even things people said or did in my childhood. I remember them in the sharp focus of exquisite detail, as if they occurred yesterday. I’m not kidding. I can recall exact conversations I had thirty-five years ago. Things from grade school, innings of baseball games, kindnesses and meanness from a childhood long ago.

But my short-term memory is slipping. I have what the shrinks call a “busy mind” to begin with, which means my mind is constantly racing from one idea or thought to the next. I suppose that could make person careless, but it has never seemed to have that effect on me. I’ve never been one to lock the keys in the car or leave the stove on or anything like that. That’s why I believe age is beginning to take a toll.

For example, just this past Valentine’s night, I took the Redhead out to dinner. Today I discovered I was missing my credit card. I had left it on the table at the restaurant. That is twice I have left a credit card behind somewhere in the last six months.

By the way, the Valentine’s dinner was good. We met two young friends and had a great time laughing and talking. They are young and in love, and it showed in their eyes and their smiles.

It wasn’t as much fun as the Valentine’s dinner we had in 1995, though. That night it was just me and the Redhead. We had a pretty teen-aged babysitter who later got a music scholarship to a fancy university up North. We went out to eat: I had a rib eye medium (it was supposed to be medium-rare) and the Redhead had fried shrimp. She wore her faded jeans and a blue blouse that she got for Christmas that year. The food was good, the night was clear, and there were a million stars in the sky as we drove home.

I’m sorry, what were we talking about?

The Intruder


We have a mouse in the house.

We get one or two a year. Our house is surrounded by woods and pasture. The pasture is field mouse habitat. When the weather gets cold, they don’t like their home. They prefer the warmth of ours.

I am usually the one to make the discovery that we have an intruder. I’ll be enjoying a cup of coffee before daybreak when a small form makes a mad dash from under the T.V. to under the couch, then onward to the kitchen. I give chase, but my foot speed has been somewhat diminished by the passage of time.

I’ll make a report to the lady of the house. A few days may go by in the interlude from discovery to report. A rattlesnake in the house creates a certain sense of urgency. A mouse is hardly worth consideration.

The Redhead does not share my tolerance. She has a merciful heart, but it does not extend to fur-bearing nocturnal critters. In spite of my best efforts, she remains a steadfast city-girl. Her philosophy is that the outdoors should stay outdoors. She once walked out on our back porch and yelled at a mockingbird–told him to “shut up.”

I could take care of the of the situation with a simple spring trap. A little peanut butter on the trigger mechanism and snap–no more mouse. But the Redhead views this method as inhumane (I told you she had a merciful heart). She prefers the “sticky” trap, a fly-paper type device that the mouse steps on and becomes hopelessly affixed to. How that is more humane is debatable in my view, but I learned a long time ago to pick my battles. Mouse removal didn’t make the list.

Our current visitor has escaped capture for a week. The Redhead encountered him in the utility room two days ago. With broom in hand she tried to swat him. But this is apparently no ordinary ignorant country field mouse. Although trapped in a confined space, he evaded her with all the cunning of Cool Hand Luke. At one point he even shimmied up an electric cord, like a man climbing a rope. I was surprised when she told me the story. I expected horror, but she actually laughed.

Last night she informed me that there was a little tuft of fur in the invincable sticky trap. She laughed again.

I told her that I’d stop by and pick up a spring trap this weekend.

She said “No, no, that’s OK.”

I think she’s beginning to like the little guy–admire his cleverness.

There may be still be hope that I can transform this woman into a country girl.

Nah…

Breakfast in Monroeville


One of the great things about my new job is that I get to travel occasionally throughout Alabama. Monday night I had the privilege of attending a county commission meeting in Chatom. If you’ve never heard of Chatom, don’t feel bad. I’ve lived in Alabama most of my life and I hadn’t either until I had to go there.

Chatom is a nice little south Alabama town. Live oaks around the courthouse square, couple of gas stations, one traffic light. About two hundred people attended the meeting, and I suspect everyone knew everyone else there but me. I was prepared to speak if necessary, but thankfully I didn’t have to. I’m sure the words of a stranger from North Alabama would have been received with all the credibility of a hippie at a Young Republican rally.

The meeting adjourned too late to drive all the way back home, so I decided to spend the night in one of my favorite little towns. Monroeville is a place I try to stop every time I get the chance. So many great writers have spent time there: Harper Lee, Capote, Rheta Grimsley-Johnson. I visit in hope that the secret of being able to arrange words on paper so beautifully might somehow be able to be “caught” there, like a cold or the flu. I always take deep breaths and drink plenty of water. A man can always hope.

I ate breakfast at the Monroeville Huddle House the next morning. As a true Southerner, I prefer the Waffle House, but sometimes you have to settle for what is available. Waffles are waffles, after all. The Gospel at the Methodist church should be the same as that at the Baptist church, and whether you are sprinkled or dunked, you leave just as baptized. You’re just a little wetter in the latter case.

The Huddle House is a blue collar establishment. I arrive thirty minutes after sun rise, so most of the real working folks are long gone. Farmers, loggers, and truck drivers won’t be caught lolly gagging over coffee at that late hour. There are only a few patrons still present: Mike (I know that from the name patch on his uniform shirt), an elderly couple, and a middle-aged supervisor from the cement factory who bears a striking resemblance to the late Country Music star Conway Twitty.

Conway talks on his cell phone in a voice so loud that we all know his business. At first I think he’s rude, but then I realize that he’s probably lost a lot of his hearing from years spent working around noisy equipment. He is not happy this morning. “You tell that sumbitch to bring my mixer back today. That’ll be the last time I loan him anything, you can bet on that.” He finishes his call and turns to the old couple seated at the next table. They obviously know each other. “How’s my brother? Oh, he’s fine. He’s been beat, cut, shot, and stabbed over the years, but he’s doing pretty good at the moment.” They share a laugh.

My waitress is young and pretty and more than just a little bit pregnant. She eats her own breakfast at the counter while constantly glancing over to make sure my coffee cup stays full. She asks “Is everything alright?” several times, as if I might somehow be displeased with a simple waffle.

As I eat, I ponder her future. I wonder how she will be able to afford the medical bills she will soon incur on a Huddle House salary and tips. I consider the politics of her situation. The Right would no doubt say she should wait until she could afford it before having a baby. The Left would say that we should all pay for her medical bills.

I say nothing. I leave a ten dollar tip for a four dollar breakfast.

I’m hoping for a healthy little girl with a pretty smile like her mother.

Cobwebs


Took a quick ride on the bike this afternoon. Didn’t venture too far from home. Still a little on the cool side for a long road trip. But both the bike and I needed a recharge. The bike needs to be ridden to keep the battery charged. I need to ride to keep my battery charged.

Motorcycling on back roads is a great way to clear my mind. The vibration of the engine, the feel of the rough asphalt under tires, and the roar of the wind through the helmet. Farms and woods fly by in a blur of color and texture. This is my meditation, my emptying of mental garbage that will hopefully lead to focus on the needful things.

I guess you could say that it cleans out the cobwebs of a mind that is too busy sometimes.

What is a cob anyway, and why does it build a web?

There I go again.

The Heart of the Heart of Dixie

Alabama has long been known as the Heart of Dixie. We even had the slogan on our license plates (which we call “car tags”) until a few years ago when our esteemed legislature decided that the phrase might be offensive to some groups and decided to change it. We can’t have a thing like history standing in the way of potential economic promise. All those Koreans and Japanese with their new car factories and jobs might not understand such things. They are surely much more comfortable with something innocuous like Sweet Home Alabama, a reference to an old song that is no doubt played on every Asian jukebox.

If Alabama is the “Heart of Dixie,” then Coosa County is the heart of Alabama. A small county near the geographic center of the State, it is still primarily rural, sparsely populated, and amazingly beautiful. In spite of these advantages, it is one of the few counties in Alabama that has actually lost population since the last census.

A high percentage of Coosa’s population is elderly. This became apparent to me when I attended a Country Songwriter’s Showcase in one of the old high schools last Saturday night with a gymnasium full of old folks. The old school in Weogufka community is now vacant, as are all the schools from her remaining small towns. All were consolidated into one location in the center of the county in 1990. There are not many young people, and not many reasons to stay after high school. No manufacturing industry equals no jobs. You grow up in paradise and you leave. There’s no work to allow you an opportunity to stay. It is a story that is repeated in small rural communities all across the “New South.” The little towns are slowly dieing in a country that doesn’t make anything anymore. Store fronts in the old towns are boarded up, and people in Coosa have to seek employment and basic services like groceries and health care in neighboring counties.

Still, she is strikingly beautiful. This is the place where the Appalachian Mountain range finally ends in low blue hills. There are thick forests of pine and hardwood dotted with the remnants of pasture and quaint small farms. Wild rocky-bottom creeks flow into man-made lakes that were once wilder rivers. A sportsman’s paradise to be sure, where whitetail deer and wild turkey probably out number the human population. It is country in which you can ride dirt and thinly-paved asphalt roads for miles without meeting another vehicle. The kind of place a man could lose himself–or maybe find himself.

I have an enduring love affair with Coosa* County. It is a long-running romance that began in my youth. I grew up a stone’s throw from the county line in a neighboring Talladega County, but I wiled away many youthful hours with friends roaming her ridges and deep hollows in search of squirrel, deer and turkey. She is the reason I became a forester. A summer forestry job there between by sophomore and junior years in college led to a change in career paths that defined the rest of my life.

My attraction to her physical beauty is still strong, but like all love affairs, my feelings have matured into something deeper and more tangible. Now I am also attracted to her people and especially their stories. Coosa county is a place filled with stories. They are not Old South stories of mint juleps sipped on columned verandas, but rather tales of bootleggers, crooked sheriffs, farmers, and country scholars. Share cropping, poverty, Holiness preachers, and land swindlers all thrown in the mix. The best and the worst of people’s lives played out on dirt roads and in crumbling old towns. These are stories told in country stores and old churches, logging sites and fishing holes where the characters and their tales are still remembered. Old times there are not forgotten, nor should they be.

I believe it may just be time to write some of them down. I know I’ll enjoy the research.

*Coosa is often pronounced “Coosy” or “Coosie” by locals.