Zombies in the South


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently made news with the release of a report entitled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.” Now a lot of people made fun of this (most notably Fox News), but I get it. The CDC is using the huge popularity of Zombie-themed movies and shows in an attempt to persuade the American public to prepare for natural disasters like hurricanes or pandemics. The report recommends simple precautions like having an emergency supply kit and a few days of fresh water in reserve.

It probably wasn’t the brightest marketing campaign ever devised, but I give the CDC an “A” for effort.

They are certainly dead on (no pun intended) that Zombies are a hot commodity.

I think it all began in the 1970’s with “Night of the Living Dead,” a movie that was advertised as “so terrifying that movie patrons are fainting in their seats.” I saw that one as a teenager, and although I didn’t faint or even find it particularly scary, I have to admit that it had a really cool ending.

“Night” spawned a number of sequels and knockoffs, but few packed the original’s bite and Zombie interest sort of died out (no pun intended).

Interest revived (no pun intended) a few years ago with a couple of pretty good Zombie comedy spoofs: “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.” While both were funny, my personal favorite was the latter, mainly because it had a set of rules to live by for the “un-dead”: 1.Cardio; 2. Double-tap; 3. Beware of bathrooms; 4. Wear seat belts; 5. Check the back seat, etc,.

Zombie-mania is now at an all-time high due to an AMC television show, “The Walking Dead.” It’s a Sunday night staple at my house. The story details the trials and travails of a group of survivors of a Zombie apocalypse. It begins in Atlanta and follows the group as they make their way toward Fort Benning, GA, where they hope the military can provide safe harbor from the hordes of Zombies that roam the Georgia country side.

“The Walking Dead” is not overrun (no pun intended) with acting ability, but it is an entertaining story. I find it plausible because I believe that Southerners are well-suited to survive a Zombie attack.

Consider the facts, if you will:

1. We have been invaded before, first in the 1860’s and then later by Yankees seeking a better place to live. We have survived both invasions and still maintain our unique identity;

2. We subsist quite comfortably on garden produce and canned meat products;

3. In any random sample of ten Southerners, at least four know how to hunt.

4. We are proficient at hand-to-hand combat, which was illustrated at most Walmart stores this past “Black Friday.”

5. A gun lives at every house.

It will take more than hordes of flesh-eating Zombies to defeat the South. We can only be defeated by one thing: snow.

I began to hear murmurings on Thanksgiving Day. “Did you hear that they are predicting snow on Monday night?”

The frantic pitch picked up throughout the weekend. By Sunday night the prediction had increased to “possibly two to four inches.”

In Montgomery yesterday, I noticed people looking up at the sky, as if they were somehow trying to determine if the clouds were laden with snow–like someone from Montgomery would actually know what a snow cloud looked like if they saw one.

As I write this, I have no doubt that every grocery store in the north half of Alabama is now completely stripped of bread, milk, and batteries. It happens every time snow is predicted. These three items are apparently all we believe we need to survive.

I don’t know if the South will ever face a “Zombie Apocalypse.”

But one thing is certain: the CDC can be confident that we will be the ones full of loaf bread and milk and our flashlights will be shining brightly.

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Ingenuity

I saw this the other day at a paper mill in south Alabama, where I was meeting and talking with log truck drivers.

Yes, you are correct–it’s a window-unit air conditioner that had been mounted in the rear wall of a log truck.

It gets hot down here, you know? A late November day and still 75 degrees.

Now I’m sure you laughed. I’ll have to admit, I did too. I told the driver I had never seen that before. He shrugged it off. “Works good,” he said.

Later as I gave it some thought, I realized that it was he who should be laughing at me.

This driver is a guy with a high school education (maybe) who had a problem. He probably didn’t have the money to have an expensive air conditioner installed in his truck. So he gave the matter some thought and came up with a solution–one that involved mechanical and electrical engineering, along with some serious craftsmanship.

I couldn’t do that despite years of education. Even if I looked it up in some books, or researched it on the internet, I simply wouldn’t have the skills to pull it off.

The driver’s education is superior to mine in many ways. His degree is not from a fancy institution, but from the school of “have to.” Men like him produce things that make life easier for me. I suspect for you as well.

I gave that man a pat on the back and told him how much I appreciated his work as a log truck driver–how much the economy of Alabama depended on it.

He shrugged that off too. He wasn’t used to being appreciated. I don’t think he knew how to react.

And that’s a shame.

Thanksgiving

A couple of years have passed since I wrote , but the day for me will be much the same. Wherever you find yourself this Thanksgiving, I hope you’ll take moment to be thankful for what you had–and what you’ve got.

Over the River November 24, 2009

The Opelika Cliftons will soon be gathering to head “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” for a Thanksgiving feast.

The river is the Tallapoosa, crossed on a four-lane bridge on US 280 at Alex City. There will be a few nice creeks crossed on the journey as well, which will attract little notice from the travelers. Creeks with equally lyrical Indian names: Saughahatchee, Chattasofka, and Socapatoy. Names and places much older than the holiday that demands their crossing today. The hardwood and pine woods will be designated by five counties, names also Indian or early statesman or soldier: Lee, Chambers, Tallapoosa, Coosa, Clay, and finally Talladega. We will stop short of the actual town, Sylacauga, which is also an Indian name that means “buzzard roost.” Yes, I am from buzzard roost. But that is a story for another day. Today the focus is on “grandmother’s house”. Grandmother is my mom.

The sheer volume and deliciousness of food at this annual gathering will be shocking. There will be turkey, of course, but likely also a country ham. There will be cornbread dressing, giblet gravy (actually two giblet gravies because my brother doesn’t like chopped egg in his), squash, green beans, scalloped potatoes, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, vegetable slices, deviled eggs, and various kinds of pickled things (slaws, relishes, etc.). There will be several varieties of casseroles. And of course, the homemade rolls–good for soppin’ or just plain good by themselves.

If you are able to survive all that, then comes desert. Probably three or four pies (pecan, sweet potato, cherry cream cheese, and peanut butter) and a couple of cakes. Maybe even some cookies, just in case none of the other sweets strike your fancy. Weight can be gained just by looking, and I can assure you there will be more than just looking.

Almost all of this bounty will be bought and prepared by my mother. She is the glue that holds what remains of this small family together. The extravagant meal is prepared with time and effort, but also with love. At the end of the meal each year, someone will invariably point out the obvious–that this was way too much food–way overdone–and vow that we will not do this next year. But I know we will, as long as mom is able to do it. It is her way, among other ways, of showing her love for us. This gift is taken seriously, so much so that if I call on Saturday and say, “Mom, I’m coming up to visit tomorrow–let’s go out to eat,” she will likely say “But I’ve got this roast I can fix us…”

The family has held together for another year. There will be Becky and I, along with our sons John and Kyle. John’s girlfriend, Taylor, will be joining us this year, separated from her other family in Mobile. Becky’s parents will also be there, although her dad will be a little more feeble than in year’s past. My brother and his beautiful wife Wendy will be there. This will be Wendy’s second Thanksgiving as a Clifton (she hasn’t run away screaming yet, so I guess she’s going to make it). My brother finally found her after year’s of searching, and their happiness together in their second year of marriage is touching. Sometimes so much so that I have to sternly say “You’ll stop, you’re making me sick.” But I couldn’t be more pleased for them. Good things do sometimes come to those who wait.

My dad will be absent from all this. It is hard to believe that he has been for twenty-three years. I am approaching the age at which he died, which is a strange feeling for me. I often wonder if the thoughts I have–my views, my outlook– are similar to what he was thinking at the same age back then.

The great John R. Cash once sang “Let the Circle be Unbroken”. I am thankful, this year, that our remaining little family circle still holds for another year. Because I realize all too well that one day it will, like Johnny’s, be only rejoined in the “bye and bye”.

On The Road in the Heart of Dixie


My job at the Alabama Forestry Association allows me the opportunity to travel across the state, soaking up the beauty of the countryside and meeting the people who are as much a part of the land as the forests that grow here. It is believed that the name “Alabama” is from the Choctaw tongue and originally meant “thicket clearers.” Surprising that things haven’t changed all that much here in a few hundred years.

Occasionally I spend the night somewhere on the road, which might prompt you to ask “Forester-poet (well, only a couple of my friends call me this, but I kinda like it) how do you manage to sustain the pace of your rock-n-roll lifestyle?”

Well sometimes it ain’t easy.

Working for a non-profit allows me the luxury to wine and dine and stay at the very best hotels. Consider the sign shown in the photo above, posted at the five-star resort I spent the night at a few days ago.

My stay was fine, in spite of the fact that someone had previously jimmied the deadbolt lock out of the door (at least the management had covered the hole).

Maybe if they allowed folks to keep their dogs under the motel things like that wouldn’t happen.

Just saying…

A Happy Story

This post is for my young friend Ivey. She is a wonderfully talented and beautiful young lady who told me that she liked my last story, but wished I would write a “happy story” next time. So here goes, young friend…

Once upon a time there was a beautiful young princess who lived with a nice family in central Alabama. The princess was tall and quite striking–more beautiful than any of the other young girls in the kingdom. But that was not all. This princess had brains to go along with her beauty. She was a talented artist: she could draw or paint almost anything imaginable (which she often did). She could sing like a rare tropical songbird (which she often did). She could even make up stories right out of the air when she wanted. Some say that she was even secretly writing the “Great American Novel,” quite an accomplishment for a girl of 15 tender years.

But the most amazing thing about the beautiful young princess was that she was happy. Not just your run-of-mill-hum-a-little-tune-out-loud happy, but real happiness. Happiness was not just a feeling to the princess, it was a way of life. She wanted the whole world to share her happiness, and she was determined to seek out those who were unhappy to share her secret.

Now there was an evil dragon living in the same part of central Alabama. He lived in a cave on the banks of the Coosa River (on the Chilton County side, of course–Coosa County is too poor even to feed a dragon).

This dragon was not happy. Some say that he was even grumpy. He complained constantly. “All there is to eat in this stupid kingdom is peaches!” (that proves just how unhappy he was, for everybody knows that Chilton county peaches are one of the tastiest treats anyone could ever hope to eat).

The dragon was just plain mean. Every now and then he would breathe fire and torch a kitten, just for fun.

All the people of the kingdom were afraid of the dragon. Not one would challenge him.

The princess decided that something must be done (she was a lover of kittens). She resolved to journey to the banks of the Coosa, confront the dragon, and teach him the secret of happiness.

She made the long journey and stood at the cave entrance. “Come out Mr. Dragon,” she sang in her beautiful princess voice. “I’ll share with you the wonderful secret of happiness!”

The words had no more finished echoing through the dark cave when the foul dragon rushed out and swallowed her whole.

Luckily for the princess, a kindly forester happened to be passing by. He slayed the dragon on the spot, cut open it’s huge belly, and rescued the princess.

Now the moral of the story is threefold:

1. You can be happy yourself, but that doesn’t mean others will decide to join you.
2. If you are going to be eaten by a dragon, it is a good thing to have a kindly forester in the near vicinity; and
3. Sometimes two people can’t be happy no matter how hard they try. This is called “irreconcilable differences,” and it makes lawyers very happy.

The End

The Benediction

Until two weeks ago, ten years had passed since I last heard from John.

I was about to lie down for the night when I heard that little ding from my cellphone. The text message snapped me back awake, and I stood in the darkness, the white glow from the phone’s screen the only light in the cabin. Nobody I know would text me at eleven o’clock at night.

“Meribah.”

Eighteen hours later I’m in the hollow, stepping careful with my old deer rifle, not knowing what I will find, what I’ve become a willing party to for the sake of an old friendship.

We sit in the darkness of midnight, staring into the glowing coals of the fire and saying nothing for long stretches of time. The fire pops at intervals as the hickory burns. John jumps a little with every hissing crack, as if he expects a tongue of fire to leap out of this little crude altar to consume him for his sins.

The full moon that illuminated the hollow so completely is setting behind the ridge. A coyote howls on the ridge and is answered by a chorus of mournful yips and howls off in the distance. It sounds like damned spirits grieving their fate, condemned to walk these hills and hollows until God puts out the light once and for all.

“I can’t go to prison,” he says. He begins to rock in his camp chair, repeating the words over and over, like some demented Gregorian chant.

“I know, John.”

We both know what happens to pudgy middle-aged men who are sent to prison for child molestation. Especially those who were once preachers.

“You’ve got to get me out of here, man. They’re coming for me. I can feel it.”

I say nothing. The front page of The Birmingham News has covered the manhunt for the past week.

It is only a matter of time until they find his abandoned pickup on the logging road two miles away. Then they will spread out and walk through these hills in long flanks with the dogs and guns, a small army of lawmen, auxiliary deputies, and volunteers, any of whom would love a chance to pull the trigger on a pedophile. It’s not everyday you get to bag a trophy, and the reporters have stoked the fire of their rage by labeling John as “possibly armed and dangerous.”

He doesn’t look to dangerous to me. He looks like a broken-down old man who can’t even find the courage to end this himself.

“Mexico,” I say. “I’ll take you down to my friend’s hunting camp near Big Bend. You can slip across the border as easily as the Mexicans slip in. I’ll drive around and cross at Juarez. Pick you up and head on down to Mexico City. A man can get lost in the crowd for a long time. You can disappear. You’ll be O.K. there until things settle down.”

There is silence again as we both stare into the fire. Deep down, we both know I lie. My words come out flat and float away into the darkness of the hollow.

“I can’t go to prison. I can’t go to prison. I can’t go to prison.”

“I won’t let them take you, John. We’ll leave at first light. You’ve got to calm down, now. Keep your head on straight. I need you thinking clearly.”

“Help me, brother. I messed up big this time. Help me. Please. I can’t be locked up.”

“Hey,” I say. “Let’s me and you pray about this, like we used to pray when we were kids. We’ll ask Jesus to forgive us. He’ll help us. I know He will. He forgave that thief on the cross. He’ll forgive you too.”

“I don’t think I can pray. I can’t remember how.”

“Sure you can. Let’s get down on our knees. Remember how you used to say that men should always get on their knees to talk to God? Kneel down with me. I’ll lead and you repeat, just like we used to do before our football games in high school.”

We get down on our knees in the hardwood leaves, two sinners in the hands of an angry God. I put my left hand on his shoulder to steady us before the celestial throne.

“Follow me now,” I say. But my words sound hollow, almost as if they are coming from someone else.

“Our Father which art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I see John’s lips move. His eyes are closed.

He doesn’t see the .45 as I ease it out of the waist band of my jeans behind my back. For an instant, I see the reflection of us kneeling in the flickering firelight, a portrait in the stainless steel on the side of the gun–two sinners pleading for mercy.

I swing the barrel up just above his right ear. There is a flash and a crack in the stillness of the hollow. In my mind’s eye it is like the lightning that struck the longleaf at the top of the ridge.

John slumps forward, face down in the dirt.

I continue to kneel for a moment. The blood pools and forms a rivulet that runs an imperceptible slope toward the creek.

I get to my feet. I have a lot to do in the six hours that remain before sunrise. I will leave no trace of our presence here. The hollow will look much the same as it did years ago when two boys first found it.

I am focused on the task at hand. I’ll have the rest of my life to think about what I’ve done.

One thing is certain. I know that one day I too will stand before the Great White Throne to give an account of what I’ve done. I’ll be asked for a reason.

Maybe I’ll answer the question with one of my own.

“What are friends for?”

Preparations

Two hours pass, and I let John sleep. I hear snoring from the tent, the rhythm of his breathing broken only by a periodic moaning, the kind of low guttural whine a dog makes when it hears a siren in the distance.

I use the time wisely. I dig a hole in the soft bottomland ground and bury all traces of our presence–the cans and other food containers, all the evidence people always leave wherever we go. I wonder in the end if this is all we are–a few items buried in the ground that show future generations that we were here once. Everyday things we take for granted that some archeologist will use to judge what we must have been like and how we went about living our short existence. The sum total of our lives postulated in simple trash. “The people of this period ate beans from metallic cans and something called ‘Snickers’.”

I’d like to think we are more than that. That our laughs and tears and loves and struggles mean more than what we possessed. But one thing I do know as I clean up–we can never leave a place just like we found it. It’s just our nature.

I rake leaves back over the disturbed ground and find the latrine John has dug just down the bottom. I’m thankful he has that much woodsman left in him after all these years. I didn’t want to spend precious daylight combing the brush looking for used toilet paper. I fill in the shallow hole and cover it with a dead tree branch.

In the last light of day I survey my work. I see a tent, camp fire, and a few camping tools. Nothing else to show that someone has been here. Only leaves turned over that would easily be rationalized as wild turkeys scratching through the bottom for acorns.

There is nothing left to do but wait. I’m in no hurry, and I’m not going to wake the man up, even from a disturbed sleep. We will both be leaving here soon enough, and at least one of us will be rested and ready for the journey.

I unload the rifle, pocket the shells, and settle in by the fire. A big full moon is beginning to peep over the ridge. The hollow will be lit with pale light tonight, and no flashlight will be needed.

I recall that the Bible says that “what is done in the darkness will be seen in the light.”

I take no comfort in that thought.

The Appointment

To follow the story, first read “The Ridge” and “The Descent.”

Twenty minutes pass as I work my way to the floor of the hollow. The last third of the slope is thick with mountain laurel and wild azalea, and I am forced to move through the hedge slowly. The ground is slick from the water that seeps out of the hillside here, and the laurel branches are tangled and stiff. The waxy evergreen leaves block my view of the ground, and I fight to keep my balance as I grab and push through the living wall. This place is an explosion of beauty in the Spring–white flowers in stark contrast to the lush green of the leaves. It is one of God’s little paintings that nobody sees.

I hear the water from the creek as I reach the bottom. I take a few minutes to work my way along the base of the cliff to see the source. I have three hours until sunset, and I’m in no hurry. I want to see this place again. Something in me needs to see it, or at least that’s what I tell myself. A lifetime has gone by since we discovered it as teenagers.

I guess I’m looking for the comfort of an old memory here. Maybe I’m trying to summon up some sort of courage. One thing’s for sure–I know that this will be the last time I ever lay eyes on this spot, so I want to linger here a moment.

The creek that originates here and flows through the hollow comes out of the base of cliff. Water drips down the slope around it, but there is a definite point of origin, a cleft in solid rock where the water pours out into a kind of hollowed-out rock basin before it forms the channel that will enlarge and become the creek. The water is cold and crystal clear, so cold that it hurts my teeth as I take a drink from the pool. I sit for a moment, calming my mind to the hypnotic sound of the water poring into the pool.

If you were to find this place on a topographic map, the creek wouldn’t be drawn in. Not even a thin blue line to mark its entry from the subterranean depths to sunlight. Even further down the hollow, down where he is waiting, the creek is wide enough that you can’t jump cross without getting your feet wet, but the cartographers didn’t even bother to give it a name.

We call it Meribah.

Actually John named it Meribah the day we found it. Even at seventeen, the boy knew his Bible. He had to explain it to me, take a moment to tell the old story from Exodus.

Seems that Moses and the children of Israel had wandered the desert for nearly 40 years. All that time, they moved from waterhole to waterhole, eating what God provided, living from day-to-day. The waterholes had gotten few and far between towards the end of the journey, and they complained to Moses. They were always complaining.

“We’re hungry Moses.”

“We’re thirsty Moses.”

“Do something, Moses–we’re dying here.”

Old Moses asked God for help, and God told him what to do. Go over there and hit that rock with your staff, and I’ll send water straight out of it. It will be another miracle you can show the people. Another proof of how great I AM.

And that’s what Moses did.

But he didn’t do it exactly the way God commanded. God said to to hit the rock once, but Moses swung his magic stick twice. I reckon he was probably just sick and tired of all that constant moaning and complaining. I would have been–probably about 39 years before he was.

The water gushed out of solid rock, and the complainers drank and were momentarily satisfied.

But old Moses, old faithful Moses who had put up with all that crap for so long, who had dotted all his i’s and crossed all his t’s and done ever little thing God had asked him to do for all those sunrises and sunsets–old Moses messed up by not doing exactly what God said. Because he hit the rock twice instead of once, God told him that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the land they’d been promised for so long.

The moaners and complainers get to go, but you’re out, old faithful servant. Sorry.

When John told me the story, I remember thinking that Moses got a bum deal. I still think that today.

John didn’t think so. He thought that Moses should have done what God told him to do. He said that God is not in the compromise business. No variance allowed.

I wonder if he feels that way now.

I don’t think it matters much what either of us think. God is God. He runs his business like He wants, and as far as I know, He ain’t asked for my opinion.

I move on down the creek, past one hundred-foot tall yellow poplars that guard the banks.

I pass the rusted-out remains of a moonshine whiskey still, the ax marks still visible in the curled-in cuts where metal met metal of old 55 gallon drums. Scattered metal tubing and half-broken glass gallon jugs remain along the creek bank, a testimony to a man trying to make a living in a destitute era. Some old-timer recognized that you could hide for a long time in this hollow. The smoke from his cook fire would blend in with the morning mist rising into the mountain air, just like it hides John’s small camp fire when he chooses to have one.

The man had to work hard to cook in this spot, carrying in his supplies and hauling out his finished product. I suspect someone ratted him out. Maybe a jealous customer or a competitor. No lawman could find this place on his own. He would need help. Probably need help finding his way back to town when his job was finished.

I hope the whiskey-maker got away and found a new location, suffering nothing more than the loss of his cook pot.

But I doubt it.

Ten minutes later I reach the camp, such as it is–a one man tent, a stack of wood gathered for infrequent fires, food wrappers and tin cans scattered about.

John is sitting on a camp stool leaned back against a big white oak, his rifle across his lap. He is red-eyed and dirty, and he looks as if he hasn’t slept since I was last here four days ago. He looks right at me, but it is almost as if he doesn’t see me.

“Hey John,” I say.

“Were you followed?”

“No man. You know I wouldn’t let anyone follow me. I circled around and watched my back trail five times on the way in. No body’s following me.”

“They’re after me man. I saw a helicopter fly over yesterday. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me, though.”

“No John, they ain’t after you. That helicopter was just a coincidence.”

I lie. No need to make things worse.

“Why don’t you get in the tent and sleep a while. I’ll keep watch. Give me the rifle. I’ll just tidy up your camp. I’ll build a little fire and fix us some supper after sunset. I brought some steaks. We’ll eat like kings–just like the old days.”

“OK,” John says, but the answer is half-hearted and without a hint of emotion. “You watch that ridge line, now. I though I saw a sniper moving around up there last night, but I could never find him in my scope.”

“Sure, man,” I say. “You rest easy now. I’m here. I got your back”

I take the rifle and sit down in John’s camp chair. It is a changing of the guard, like an old war movie. “You go on to sleep now.”

I watch him crawl into the tent. I hope he sleeps a couple of hours. I’ve got lots to do.