It’s in the Blood

battlecivil

For over a thousand years we have fought our enemies.  When they are vanquished,  we fight among ourselves.  This predisposition for conflict, this affinity for strife, came over with us from across the big pond.  It wasn’t a part of the cargo — it was the cargo, flowing within our arteries and veins.

Over on this side the battlefields were at places called Manassas, Shiloh, Harpers Ferry, and Gettysburg.  Landscapes now designated by stone monuments and markers, all but forgotten except in our collective subconscious memory.  Pastoral scenery where blood spilled-out like winter rain onto farm and woodland soil.  Mostly Celtic and Saxon blood.  Blood which has never mixed well, except on the smooth surfaces of cannon balls and the razor-sharp edges of sabers and bayonets.

Some scholars and most revisionists will tell you that nearly a million souls died over the concept of slave labor.  I don’t buy it.  There were simply too many men involved without a dog in that fight — dirt farmers and hillbillies with few possessions other than their pride.  I believe the motivation has always been encoded in the blood:  “you think you are better than me, but you are not.”

It continues today on other battlefields.  Places like Pasadena, Ann Arbor, South Bend, and Norman.  When those foes are vanquished we turn on each other in Athens, Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge and Gainesville.  Conflicts still fought in pastoral settings where sweat (and sometimes blood) soak into manicured turf.

It is college football, lived and played in the South.

And if you think my analogy is a “stretch” explain why log truck drivers, brick-layers, and other blue-collar laborers who have never set foot on a college campus are the most consumed by Saturdays in the fall.  It defines them — gives them a sense of pride and place.  Men who daily wear the colors and can easily offer-up the account of a game played twenty years ago with as much detail as Shelby Foote described Gettysburg.

“You think you are better than me, but you are not.”

My boys prove it every Saturday, every fall, every year.

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The Farm

We have some land in Central Alabama where I spend what little free time that I can assemble  — mostly on weekends.

I say “we.”  Actually the Redhead owns the land, a gift from her parents who bought and shaped it with school teacher wages, no small accomplishment then or now.  My role in the story is care-taker.  I don’t claim co-ownership.  It is against my hillbilly code to lay claim on something I didn’t earn.  My sons are the heirs, and that is a good enough reason to try to leave the place better than I found it.

We call this land “the farm” though it’s mostly trees and a little pasture.  I know it doesn’t sound like there would be much work to do, but land always requires some kind of attention.  Mother Nature, like any beautiful woman, is easily bored and will make a man pay for indifference.  She will be complimented, adored, loved, caressed, worshiped or entertained — but she will not be ignored.

I consider myself a sharecropper.  I’d like to be a tenant farmer, but the Redhead is like Eva Gabor — “‘Fa-aaaarm’ living ain’t the life for her.”  Most of the time I work alone, which allows me to piddle at my own pace and daydream.

Sometimes I think of owning a few animals.  Maybe some chickens, goats, a cow or two, or even a horse.  But the fences are old and in disrepair.  One of the unsung benefits of farming trees is that they never stray off in the middle of the night and make a man liable for a wrecked car or a ruined garden.

I look at downed sections of fence and I sigh.  Maybe next year, I think, if I can find the money and time.  But the years continue to pass.

Sometimes my thoughts are more abstract.  I think of missed opportunities and things I should have done better.  Work.  Family. Friends.  Life.  Introspection is my hobby, and like hobbies it can become an obsession if a person is not careful.

I’m not careful.

But on a good day — which is most days at the farm — I think that I am a fortunate man to be able to scratch-around on this little patch of ground.  It’s quiet, and that alone allows the luxury of thought.

I don’t even have the bother of a cell signal.  All the the phone screen offers is a word:  “Searching…”

I guess that’s about right.

Lies and Other Statistics

pine seedling

Once upon a time when I was a young forester, part of my land management duties included an annual assessment of seedling survival.

Every year my company harvested select stands of mature timber and replanted the acreage with pine seedlings the following winter.  In August, I’d check the little trees to determine how many survived the first growing-season.  Most of the time if they lived those first few critical months I could be sure of a good stand of trees for the future.

Survival checks were one of my least favorite duties.  Basically, I hiked across rough ground through a botanical explosion of briars, vines, and other new growth, searching for seedlings that might be one-foot tall after the first growing-season.  It was Alabama August, which meant temperatures around 98 degrees with relative humidity at 99.9%.  I couldn’t see my feet most of the time because of the brush, so I always hoped those snake-proof chaps I wore were indeed snake-proof.

The procedure was simple.  I walked a specified distance, marked the “plot” center with a strip of flagging-tape,  and made a count of living seedlings within a 100th-acre radius circle.  The plots were arranged in square-grid layout to insure that all the acres were equally sampled. When I finished the survey I had a reasonable estimate of how many seedlings were alive.  I knew how many were originally planted, so it was easy to determine the number of viable trees per acre.

I always hoped for a good number.  Lots of dead seedlings meant trouble. There would be questions from the head shed, and it would be an expensive problem to fix.

One year things didn’t go so well.  We had a drought in the Spring.  My numbers were bad.  I checked with a couple of my fellow-foresters.  Their numbers were bad.  We presented our results to the boss-man, a mid-level manager who probably had some bonus pay riding on the results.

“That can’t be right,” he said.  “Bring your maps and let’s go look.”

We all piled in his big SUV and went to one of the sites.  We walked to a few of the flagged plots and counted seedlings.  After about three stops, the boss-man taught me a lesson about statistics that I had somehow missed in my college classes.  It’s something I’ve never forgotten.

“I see your problem, boys.  You’ve got to put your plots where the trees are.

Message received.

So the next time someone gives you a statistic — whether they be a politician, salesman, journalist, or just a common, ordinary liar — ask yourself what they are selling.  Do you really want to buy it?*

Because everybody knows that numbers don’t lie.

*A life-lesson presented by “Words Not On Paper,” where 99.3% of all readers are almost always above the national average in intelligence.

Brown-eyed Girl

I have friends and family who tell me I should “count my blessings”  — be more thankful.

I have to admit that I’m thankful for Direct TV.

Direct TV in my area is currently in the midst of a dispute with local network stations.  Specifically, they are in a tift with the CBS affiliate over providing their signal to subscribers.  This means that the Southeastern Conference game of the week is “blocked” from our area.

I don’t subscribe to Direct TV.  My son does.  This means my beautiful brown-eyed daughter-in-law, a University of Alabama alumni and rabid Crimson Tide fan, has to come to my house to watch her team play.

I’m an Auburn University alum.  For us, cheering for the Crimson and White is somewhat akin to rooting for Satan in a contest for lost souls.

But let me tell you, an afternoon sitting next to a beautiful brown-eyed girl will make a man rethink his priorities and count his blessings.

Beware L.S.U.  You’re next.

The Quilter

Vintage_aloha-shirt-quilt

It is all but gone, a craft and an understanding between two cultures that have lived alongside one another for decades.

My old-time logging display was on the backside of the “First Annual Stockton Sawmill Festival.”   Just a few old museum pieces and photographs I had thrown together to try and help a lady preserve the memory of a time when people had to sweat a living out of south Alabama land.

During a lull, the quilt-maker wandered by.  She looked at the two-man crosscut saw and remembered a time when her daddy used one just like it to cut the firewood that kept her and her ten brothers and sisters warm in the winter.  “It worked fine, too.  Them logs would burn all night and we never got cold.”

I told her I admired her craft, and that I remembered the hours that my own grandmother had put into making quilts.  We agreed that younger folks don’t realize that a $300 hand-made quilt is a bargain — all those hours and needle-pricked fingers while stooped over a wooden rack.

I told her my own favorites quilts were those pieced together from cloth scraps that had personal meaning — old garments out-grown or simply worn-out, the fabric of a lifetime of memories arranged as a functional art form.

She smiled.

“Oh yes.  I got one that my daughter made me that you wouldn’t believe.  It’s made of photographs, with me in the center square and my seven children and all my grandchildren in the squares around me.  She took all those pictures to Montgomery where there was a place that copied them onto cloth someway.  It’s the most beautiful thing.”

“She gave me that quilt on my 70th birthday.  Her husband told my husband that he had found an old building on a man’s place up on the river — man said he could have the wood if he’d tear it down and haul it off.  Said he wanted my husband to take a look at it — my husband is good with carpentry and stuff like that.  So he loaded me and my husband up in his old truck and we drove down these old roads way out in the sticks.  Finally come out at a old house in a little clearing on the river.”

“I didn’t know what was going on.  I got out and seen my daughter and two of my grand-babies coming out of the house with some purple balloons.  And I said ‘Hey, what you niggas doing?'”

The story stopped.  Almost imperceptibly.  She tensed, then smiled and put her hand on my shoulder.

I smiled and patted her hand.  Something unspoken passed between us.  Understanding, perhaps, that we live in a world that is so different from the one we came from.  Something only Southern country folk could understand.

“They was having a party for me, you see, and we’d got there before they was ready for us.”

She went on to tell me about the fun she had that day.  Even took her first boat ride down the river, which was kind of scary because she never had learned to swim.

We talked a little more.  The lumberjack  demonstration across the park concluded, and people began to scatter back toward the display tents.  She decided she had better be getting back to her wares.

We parted — two relics among the displays of artifacts from a land where old times are not forgotten.

Watershed Moments

OldFolksDayPrice[5]

There are certain moments in a man’s life that will always be remembered.  Turning points, if you will.

One was my first home run in Little League.  Some old boy leaning on the fence said “Hey kid.  I’ll give you five dollars if you hit one out.”  I did.  He stuck the fiver through the fence on my way back to the dugout.

Another was my first kiss (although that was somewhat of a disaster).  She was ready.  I was not.

The moment I turned to watch the Redhead come down the aisle — so beautiful.  Thinking “I done good — real good.”

Seeing my newborn son held upside down and listening to the most pitiful cry I’ve ever heard when the doctor popped his bottom to start his breathing.

Listening to my momma’s quavering voice over the long-distance wire:  “Son, your daddy’s dead.”

And then there was last week at McDonald’s in Jasper, Alabama.

I stopped for an early morning cup of coffee, half-awake with miles to go before my destination.  I ordered a medium and paid fifty-five cents.

It was after I got back in my truck that something clicked in my foggy brain.  ‘Fifty-five cents — that can’t be right.”  I looked at the receipt.  Big print, right across the top:  “SENIOR DISCOUNT.”

Say what?  I’m 51 years old.  Lady, did you get a good look at me?  I mean, I know it’s early and all, but check me out.

Maybe she did.

But I shall not go quietly into this good night.  The coffee was cheap — but it was bitter.