Politicians and other Strays

stray dogs

I seldom write about politics, even though I read enough blogs to know that doing so  would probably increase my number of readers tenfold.

I have my reasons for silence.

First and foremost, I loathe politics and politicians.

Second, I’m not interested in arguing about politicians or political parties, and even if I was I’m not naive enough to believe I could change your mind if you hold a different opinion.

I will give you a hint as to my view:  I’m not a member of a country club, nor do I believe in giving away “free” stuff.

I do, however, have experience with the political process.  I once had a job that required me to become a part-time “registered lobbyist” in the great State of Alabama.  This experience formed my distaste for the body politic.

My duties occasionally required trips to “Goat Hill” to speak with the governor and various members of the Alabama legislature.  It was there and then that I decided secession from the union was probably not a good idea.

The majority of my experiences were at the municipal and county level.  These folks are the  “grassroots” to which political pundits always refer.  Without boring you with all the details, let’s just say that I traveled all over Alabama attending city council and county commission meetings.

I can’t say that I had much success as a lobbyist, but these assemblies were a writer’s gold mine, especially the county commission meetings.

County commissions met once a month, and somewhere between five and ten people were in the audience.  The average constituent attended to complain about a specific issue affecting only him or her, as in “I sure wish y’all would pave my road this year.  My wife’s car gets muddy every time it rains.”

Heavy stuff.  Critical issues.  Pressure-packed agendas.

I made multiple trips to one central Alabama county to speak with the commission on behalf of loggers, who I believed were being treated unfairly in their use of county roads.

The drill went something like this:  I’d show up 30 minutes before the meeting to have my name added to the agenda.  I was then allowed five minutes during the session to make my impassioned, eloquent speech, after which I’d be told that the matter would be given due consideration and would be decided at the next commission meeting.

Next month, same result.  These fellows were seasoned veterans — four of the seven Commissioners had served 25 years or more.  They knew odds were I’d eventually give up and go away.

But I didn’t.  Mules come to me for advice.

One evening I was preceded by a young lady from the county animal shelter who made an emotional plea for additional funding.  The shelter was being over-run with stray dogs, and she had struggled to stay within budget.

One of the honorable Commissioners quickly identified the real problem:  too many country folk allowed their dogs to roam free, which caused an undue financial burden on the county.  Something had to be done, and it had to be done immediately.

“Our county simply cannot afford to continue eulogizing these dogs.”

I smiled.  Looked around.  No one else was smiling.

Another Commissioner concurred.  “I agree with my esteemed colleague Commissioner Smith.  The cost of eulogizing these animals is destroying our budget.”

There was no further discussion and the issue was tabled until the next meeting.

I thought a lot about that exchange and grieved that I couldn’t do more to help.  Too bad I wasn’t a resident of that county, or I would have volunteered my services to help solve the budget crisis.  I imagine it might have gone something like this:

Beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Brownie, our dear friend and occasional companion.

As we all know, Brownie was just a mutt with humble beginnings, the product of an unknown father and an unwed mother.  But in spite of these overwhelming obstacles, Brownie grew to be a respected member of the canine community.

Brownie was always cheerful — never bit a man who didn’t deserve to be bitten.  He will always be remembered as a gentle tail-wagger, a dog who loved his Alpo and a good scratch behind the ears from time-to-time.

Unfortunately, Brownie was also a bit of a rambler, and this ultimately led to his untimely demise.  Still, we can all take comfort in the blessed assurance that all dogs go to heaven, where “mange doth not corrupt and fleas will never abide.”  Amen.

Not bad, huh?  Maybe I’ve found my niche and this writing thing will work out for me after all.

 

 

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Wrong Roads and Second Chances

dirt-road-into-the-forest

Everyone takes a wrong turn or two on the road of life.  Some realize their mistake and get back on course before the pitfalls along the way lead to the point of no return.  Others are not so fortunate.

I count myself among the lucky ones, at least in one case.

I was fresh out of college when my employer sent out two-man teams to scout the acreage of a large land swap between two timber companies.  The transaction involved several thousand acres in Georgia for similar land in Alabama.  The deal was a value for value swap, so my coworker and I were sent to eyeball some of the properties our company was to receive.  Armed only with a compass and old paper county maps with landlines sketched in small-scale, our assignment was to make sure that the trees they said were there were, in fact, there.

It seemed pretty simple, and it would be with today’s technology.  But we had no aerial photography.  No cell phones.  No Global Positioning System (GPS).  Since many of the parcels were off the beaten path, we sometimes just guessed at our location on unnamed dirt roads depicted only as dashed lines on the county maps.

To make matters worse, it wasn’t my country.  My stomping grounds were further north.  I might as well have been in Panama.

We did pretty well until the third day.  Our search was for a small, isolated tract, depicted as “land locked” (no road ), so we were hoping to drive close enough to hike the final distance.

After several failed attempts (“Hey, the compass indicates we are headed north — we should be going east”) I finally found a rutted-out trail that might have been the path.

It was not.

At the end of the line was a run-down shack.  Couple of staked-out Pitt bulls and a Rottweiler snarled and strained against logging chains.  Nice late-model car parked in the patch of open ground that served as a front yard.

A 30-something-year-old man ran out the open front door dressed only in gym shorts.  His right hand was behind his back.

I just sat there, green as a June gourd.  Didn’t have a clue of what might be about to happen.  My navigator was not.  He mumbled something that sounded like “Oh quit.”

Man ran right up to my window, eyes bloodshot.  Reeked of weed.

“What y’all doing back here?”

“Well sir, we are looking for this property (I held the map up and pointed) and we thought this might be the road to it.”

He wasn’t interested in the map.  Never gave it a glance.

“You F.B.I. ain’t you?”

“No sir, like I said….”

“D.E.A.?”

“No sir, we’re just a couple of timber men and …”

“You lying.  I saw your helicopter fly over yesterday.  I ain’t going nowhere.  You ain’t neither.”

I glanced over at my partner for help.  He was white as a sheet.

I finally figured out what was happening.  Like I said, I was young and inexperienced.

The standoff probably lasted a minute, though it seemed more like an hour.  Him looking at me, me looking back and forth between the map and that right arm still hidden behind his back.

Finally I said “Mister, if you will just let me back out of here I promise you won’t ever see me again.”

He looked a little confused.  Fidgeted.  Eyes left mine for an instant as he looked around.  Right arm twitched ever so slightly.

“Git.”

And git, I got.  As fast as an old Chevrolet truck will run in reverse.

I put a couple of country miles behind us before I stopped.  My navigator got out and threw up.

I grew up a lot that day.  I learned that the most dangerous thing in the woods walks on two legs.

And I learned to never go anywhere without something that I can reach with my right hand.

 

Barefoot in Alabama

barefooting

I have known two men who spent nearly their entire lives barefoot.  Both worked the land.  Both were named Billy.

The first was “Barefoot Billy Shepherd.”  I heard about him long before I met him.  He earned the nickname because he was somewhat of a legend, and rightly so.

Barefoot Billy was a logger.

Let that sink-in for a moment.  Try to wrap your brain around it.  A barefoot logger.  A man who walked without boots in the woods.  Alabama woods.  Not park-like, manicured groves of trees, but a jungle (more often than not) of thickets filled with bushes, briars, brambles, and rocks.  Heavy ground cover where a man often can’t even see his feet.  Landscapes that shred leather boots and require most foresters and woods-workers to buy at least one new pair every year.  Habitat for snakes with nasty bites that may rot your flesh if they don’t kill you out-right.

And then there’s the logging equipment — lots of sharp edges and greasy surfaces.

By the time I met Billy, he was wearing army boots (unlaced of course).  Insurance and government regulations finally ended his barefoot ways, but the nickname stuck.

The other Billy was a family friend, a south Alabama farmer who grew whatever the commodities markets dictated.  Corn, potatoes, beans, melons or whatever payed the bills and kept ahead of the bank loans one more year.  Working the fields, feeling the good earth intimately.  Walking the furrows or climbing up and down tractors and combines that can take an arm or leg in a New York minute if a man lets his mind wander.

As far as I know, farmer Billy wore shoes one time in his life — the day of his wedding.

My family got the sad news a few years ago that Billy had died.  Farming tends to wear a man out.  It is not the stress-free lifestyle that city folk often romanticize.  Email and conference calls don’t stack-up against drought, floods, frosts, insects, and commodity prices that often flip 180 degrees between planting and harvest time.

I’ve thought about farmer Billy over the years since his passing, and one question always lingers in my writer’s mind:  did the undertaker put shoes on Billy before he closed that pine box?

I sure hope not.