The Valley of the Shadow

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It is Coleta Valley on the map.

I passed this way a few days ago.  Stopped for a photo and a memory.

Once upon a time three boys wandered into this spot in an old Jeep Scout.  The Scout is no more.  Neither is one of the boys.  The other two are worse for wear.

The day that old Scout clanked into the valley the driver immediately christened it “the back side of heaven.”   It was the most beautiful landscape they had ever seen, and the name stuck, part and parcel of the bond between them.

In their boyhood journeys together it became the end of the line.  The turning-point back toward home.

The mountains in the background are a part of the Talladega National Forest and the Hollins Wildlife Management Area.  The boys spent countless teen-age hours in those mountains, learning to hunt white-tailed deer.  Never any success, as deer were not abundant in Alabama in those days.  They might see less than ten a season between the three of them, and they never managed to kill one.  That was not important.  Still isn’t.

In other seasons they bounced along Bull Gap Road on Friday and Saturday nights, straight through the heart of that country between home and Coleta.  Spot-lighting deer without guns when that pastime was legal in Alabama.  The thrill of eyes reflecting back like stars from the beam of the white light gave hope of success for the next deer season.

Occasionally they brought a girl or two along for the ride.  Jokes told.  Tales of nocturnal killers that roamed those woods, always useful if the girls wouldn’t scoot over a little closer.  Zeppelin, Skynyrd, and “Do you feel like we do?” blaring from the Scout’s tinny speakers.

Conversations eventually turned spiritual.  Always.  What Jesus said here, what He did there.  What it all meant now.  The driver had plans to be a preacher of the Gospel.  In truth, he already was.

A couple of hours later Coleta, then the trip back toward home.

The boys grew up and went their separate ways, as boys do.  Contact became less frequent, then not at all.

The preacher got his flock, but his life unravelled, the thread picked and pulled until the fabric was unrecognizable.  His journey down the road of life ended, leaving a shadow on that valley that blue skies and wispy clouds cannot overcome.

He once reminded us that Jesus said “the road to heaven is narrow, and few find it.”

I know that the road to Coleta is also narrow, but there was a time when three boys travelled all the way to the back side of it.

 

 

Einsam

They call it an “estate sale” in real estate lingo.  In layman’s terms it is nothing more than a house with a deceased owner and an unpaid mortgage.  No family willing or able to make a claim or settle the books.  A faceless bank with no need for a house.

I accompany my favorite realtor, the Redhead, to show this house at the end of an isolated country road.  I am the protector on rural properties, well-armed and well-schooled in matters of country dangers.

A potential buyer is to arrive in 30 minutes, allowing my charge just enough time to open doors and conduct a quick inspection.

I stroll the grounds.  A small lawn with woods alongside.  Well-tended once, southern standards now fading away from neglect:  knockout rose, dogwood, camellia, and crepe myrtle.  A bird-feeder in the likeness of a covered bridge hangs precariously from a frayed string on a maple limb.  A stone walkway from front door to back, now crooked and askew.

No sign of the customer, so I wander inside.  The rooms are mostly ransacked, an overturned chair here, a broken end-table there.  A large stack of old VHS tapes on a table catches my eye.  Handwritten labels:  “Aus Bitburg In Der Eifel” and “Lustige Musikanten.”  A few titles in English:  “A Journey from the Alps to the North Sea.”  Even some American films in the pile (if you consider “Robocop” a film), but the German tapes predominate.

A closet holds other surprises:  a faded envelope with a postmark that reads “Deutsche Post.”  A brightly colored pint-size paper box in the shape of a cottage.  Two children on one side, a grotesque witch on the other.  I turn it over:  it is a container for lebkuchen, a kind of gingerbread Christmas treat.

A black car pulls-up in the drive, but it is not the overdue customer.  It is the Law around these parts.  Muscular, heavy-set Black man, the kind that would not have to say “get down on the ground” twice.

Convinced that we are not robbers, introductions are made.  The Redhead offers a tour, but he says he has been here before.

I must ask:  “Did you know this lady?”

“Oh yes, I stopped by to check on her whenever I was in the neighborhood.”

“Did she have family?  Friends?”

“No, she didn’t have nobody as far as I know.  Didn’t even know who I was down toward the end.”

We talk more.  I ask about the German angle.  He says there are lots of people of German descent in the area.

“Do you know of any others around here that are completely alone like she was?  Someone who might need some company?  Some help?”

“Yes I can think of about ten off the top of my head.  You want some names and addresses?

“Yeah, I think I do.”

“Stop by the station next week and I’ll have you a list.”

He drives away.  The customer finally arrives 30 minutes later, now over an hour late.  His name is Jesus, but he is not my Saviour.  I stay outside and keep my mouth shut.  I am just the guard dog.  I do not bark or bite unless commanded.  Good boy.

Jesus’s pick-up truck is a tricked-out lowrider.  Big money in that ride.  I notice four soldered-over bullet holes in the radiator.

A few minutes later agent and customer emerge.  Agent provide  information about sources of financing, but Jesus always pays cash if he decides to buy.

The Bible says you should tell people about Jesus if you know him.  I might mention him to my new friend when I stop by the station to get the list of loneliness.

Later that night I sit on my porch and have a vision of Ursula in that little house at the end of the road.  She sits alone, illumined only by the light of a television, remembering happier days at Zuhause.

 

 

 

Kudzu

It always starts with good intentions.  A hopefulness that something will fill the empty spaces where something else has been lost.  Entanglements ensue, and soon the solution is worse than the problem.

Southern soil, worn-out and stripped of nutrients by King Cotton and the Great Depression.  Summer downpours on sandy-clay became rivulets, ditches, gullies.  Worthless hardscrabble land swept along the current to the Gulf of Mexico.

As with most bad ideas, a solution came from the government.  Import a vine from Japan to shelter the soil from the impact of the rain drop. Growth so fast a man could almost hear it.  Green tendrils and wide leaves with late-summer purple blossoms hanging in the scorch like little clusters of grapes.

Initial trials went well.  If a little was good, a lot must be better.

A million acres were cultivated by farmers in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Hope and dollars in short-supply back then.  Paid-out at the rate of eight dollars per.  Better money than cotton or tobacco.  Better money than most anything.

Stopped the erosion, but it would not stop.  Covered trees, pastures, roadsides.  Anything it could cling to.  A little sunlight and a little space and a little time lead to a big problem.  Nobody knows how many million acres today.

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  The roads in Alabama are lined with them.

No longer able to pay eight dollars per acre, the government simply plants it for us as they mow the right-of-way.

kudzu spread

 

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Porch Sittin’

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Last October the Redhead and I moved to the country.

Our homestead is a half-day’s hike on the double-time from Horseshoe Bend, a little spot  on the Tallapoosa River where Andrew Jackson defeated the Creek Indian Nation and acquired twenty-three million acres in the process.  Done a mere two years after he “caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.”

Old Sharp Knife went on to be the seventh President of the United States.  The remaining Creeks went to Florida.  I suppose neither felt they had been punished enough.

No wars on our plot.  Just an occasional skirmish between English and Irish.  Settled with words.  No muskets to date, but one never knows.

The nearest town is Jacksons Gap.  I know, there should be an apostrophe, but there isn’t.  Public schools in Alabama wasn’t to dadgum gud back in dem days.  Theys a hole lot better now.

The population in my zip code is listed at 808, but I have my doubts.  We have no traffic light, no store.  We have a church, small city hall and a volunteer fire department.  None do much business.

My nearest neighbors are just up the road a quarter-mile or so.  Both in their eighties, so we never call the High sheriff about the noise.

I sit on the porch at night in true darkness.  See the stars for the first time in years.

I hear the call of a Whip-poor-will.  Ol’ Hank thought they were lonesome and had lost the will to live.  Mine always gets an answer from somewhere down the hollow, so I reckon he’s okay.

Sometimes late at night I think I hear the war cries of the Creek off in the distance.

Probably just lonesome coyotes.

A Personal Note on Writing

Write

There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Hemingway wrote that.  I know this because I read almost every word he published.  Most of them twice.  I sipped each sentence.  Drained the bottle.  Held it upraised for that one last drop clinging to the rim, suspended in time until gravity provided sweet release.

Papa’s sentences were sparse.  No wasted words.  Pure prose poetry.

No coincidence that the template I picked for this blog is named “Hemingway.”  No bells and whistles.  Black ink on virtual white paper, hence the title.

Sometimes nice people ask me when I will write something here again.  Flattering words.  All kinds of things vie for attention these days, and I am sincerely honored that someone would make time to read a few paragraphs of my construction.

One reason for long dry spells is quite simple.  Writing is hard work for me.  A curious mix of God-given talent and practice.  It must be daily.  Most of the effort ends in a garbage can.  Gluteus maximus planted firmly in chair, cursor blinking on white emptiness.  Thoughts transferred from brain to keystroke on a beat-up old laptop computer with the “caps lock” key missing.

Sometimes the words come easy, but more often must be mined from solid granite with pick and shovel.  Mostly gravel in the pile.  Occasionally a nugget worth polishing and keeping.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Hemingway also wrote that gem.  How to begin anew.

In this quiet moment I choose to take his advice.  Perhaps the simplicity of it will cling  like flesh on dry bones.

“I just wrote something.”

Hard Days

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The photo above is one my most cherished possessions.  It was a gift from Gathan and Lavonda Burns, a logging family in north Alabama.  It hangs in a frame made from old barn wood, next to another scene of the same man.

The man was Marsh Pence, a logger from the Ball Play community in south Cherokee County.  Marsh was born in 1875.  The photo was taken in 1905, about a year before he died.  You do the math.

A couple of things about the photo pique my interest.

The first is that Marsh used oxen to log timber.  Mules would have been cheaper and easier to care for, and I’m sure they were more plentiful in that day and age.  Mules are highly intelligent, though, and are often incorrectly labeled as “stubborn,” when in truth they simply will not do things they know they cannot do. Perhaps the size of the timber solves the mystery.  We have all heard “strong as an ox.”  We’ve also heard “dumb as an ox.”

These oxen were named Broad, Spot, Bod, Rat, Lep, and Charlie.  I reckon Charlie was the most obedient, since his name earned two syllables.  I suspect Marsh was a man of few words who liked to make his syllables count.

The second is a realization of just how difficult and dangerous it was to get those logs up on that wagon.  I know how he did it, but I don’t know how he did it for any length of time without being maimed or killed.

The irony is that Marsh wasn’t killed logging.  He died while picking muscadines.*  He fell out of a tree and onto a split rail fence, a blow that probably ruptured his appendix.

According to family records, Marsh suffered horribly through that long night.  His blood soaked through the mattress, and his eyes set in death before his heart stopped beating.  Those who prepared the body for burial were unable to close his eyes.

Eyes wide open.  Turned out to be a hard day for Marsh.

Today was a hard day for me as well.

First I had a 7:00 a.m. business breakfast at a nearby community college to discuss the water quality of the Tallapoosa River.  I’m invited to these meetings as “that forestry guy,” as in, “I wonder how the creeks are looking in the woods?  I know, let’s ask that forestry guy.”

From there I went to my office where I found twenty email messages in the ol’ inbox.  Ten were summarily deleted.  Eight were answered with one word replies.  Two required an entire paragraph.

Next on the schedule was a 60-mile journey to the home office to receive my mid-year job performance review.  I was delighted to learn that I was declared competent to continue practicing forestry for wages for at least the next six months.

After the drive back home I decided to do a little deer hunting.  The end of hunting season is approaching, and I have yet to pull the trigger.  Saw a decent-sized deer, but I didn’t offer up a shot.  We have meat in the freezer, and a fully-stocked grocery store just five miles away.  If I killed something it would mean a couple of hours of hard work.  Who has time for that?

Got back to the house right after sunset.  Put on my gym shorts and tried to keep up with some twenty-somethings on an exercise video.  I think I did pretty well, but then again no one was watching.

After a quick shower I ate a delicious supper prepared by the Redhead.  Then off to my easy chair for some fake news and some mind-numbing drivel that is supposed to be entertaining.

Oh, I almost forgot, I spent about 30 minutes writing this little piece that you’re kind enough to be reading.

In a little while I’ll get ready to go to sleep by taking three different pills that allow me to do so.  The doctor says I have a “restless mind,” but I think I may just be plumb crazy.

In summary, this modern life makes for some hard days.

How was yours?

Rest in peace, Marsh.  My eyes are wide open too.

 

*For those or you who may not know, muscadines are a kind of wild grape that grow on vines which often drape from lower tree branches.  They are delicious.

 

 

A Christmas Memory

Merry Christmas you’ll. Be it happy or sad, it still ain’t about me or you.

Words Not On Paper

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Another Christmas day is rapidly approaching, and with it, another year of outcry from the so-called culturally elite .

No Christmas tree allowed at the statehouse in Rhode Island.  Arkansas school children prohibited from watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” because an atheist parent objects to the scene in which Linus quotes from Luke 2.  Nativity scenes banned across the country.

All of this flap over the celebration of the birth of Christ brought back a Christmas memory that always makes me smile.

The year must have been 1968 or ’69.  Our neighbors erected the first life-size (or nearly so) Nativity scene that I had ever seen in their front yard.  It was really something.  Stable built with sawmill slabs, floored with hay, and characters arranged (which were lighted for night-time viewing) around the manger.  It was a lot of work and quite a spectacle, especially since we lived way out…

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The Road Goes on Forever*

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A day-traveler learns to look for truck stops.

The one alongside Interstate 65 in Clanton, Alabama is one of my frequent haunts.  Located in the geographic center of the state, I crisscross Sweet Home on the asphalt ribbon — always on the way there, or on the way back to here.

Busy place.  Cheap fuel, clean bathroom, swipe your card and continue moving to here or there.   Red Bull and fried chicken for the truckers on the long haul.  Bottle of water and a full tank for me.

The sweet anonymity of continual movement.  Time is of the essence.

Well, mostly.

An old man stands between me and the register.  Dressed in his khakis and a checkered flannel shirt,  “Roll Tide Roll” baseball cap worn slightly askew. He holds out an old photo to a mostly disinterested young lady at the register.  I see it — a black and white of a lovely woman, probably from the 50’s judging from the dress and the hairstyle.  Simple, elegant.  What we call “just plain pretty”  down here.  I cannot hear what he says.  The clerk says “Yes, very beautiful.”  He turns and shuffles away.

My curiosity overcomes the traveler’s code.

“What was that about?”

“Oh, that was an old picture of his wife.  She died recently.  He eats lunch here every day, and he wanted to show me how pretty she was.  Pump 9?  That will be $38.50.  Have a nice day.”

I head out the door to get back on the road.  I see him there in his pick-up, eyes down, looking at the old black and white of days gone by.

Going to be a tough Christmas for one old man in Clanton.

I roll on toward here.  I think of a line from a Robert Earl Keen song — “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.”

I think you got that one wrong, Robert.

*For my darling Haley.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

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It is nearly sunset.  I’m an hour away from my Mobile where I know I can find a “clean comfortable room at a convenient price.”  Tired and in danger of nodding off,  I need a quick break. Don’t want to wake up dead, so I look for a place to get a bite and stretch my legs.

I get off the interstate at the Vegas of Alabama.  I’m in the shadow of the Creek Indian Casino, a gleaming monstrosity of a building rising up out of the south Alabama piney-woods.  Out of place as a Baptist deacon at a strip club.

Not being a gambler in the casino sense of the word, I pull in to the Waffle House lot.  Breakfast at supper is about as good as it gets.  Breakfast at Waffle House is as good as it gets, unless you can still eat at momma’s table.

My hostess is young, black and pretty.  Pearly white smile and twinkling eyes.  She invites me to “sit wherever I want.”  It’s an easy decision, since the joint is mostly empty.

Her name is Tiffany.  I know this from her name tag, and because she tells me so.  She will be my server, said with such conviction that would not allow me to even consider otherwise.

Never met a black woman named Tiffany.  I keep this to myself, supposing that to mention this might somehow be construed as racist.  I’m not sure why, but you can’t be too careful in the land of the perpetually offended.

Her voice is sweet and lovely, lilting.  The cadence and timbre somehow familiar.  Suddenly my tired mind puts it all together.

She sounds like Butterfly McQueen.  Now I am completely mesmerized.

I keep this opinion to myself as well.  She is much too young to know who Butterfly McQueen was, and even if she did, I’d face the racist prospect again.  I suppose if I thought her voice was like Rosa Parks I’d be safe.  But a talented actress who portrayed a slave, not so much.

Mouth firmly shut except to eat, I watch Tiffany work.  She is quick and courteous, bouncing between patrons with genuine enthusiasm.  I know with certainty that she is the real deal.  Nothing fake or phony.  Not working patrons for tips, but actually enjoying her work.

Tiffany has potential.  I see a future beyond Waffle House.  I hope she does too.

I leave a big tip.  Too big for bacon and eggs.

Call it an investment.  A hope that she too might one day have breakfast at Tiffany’s.

 

 

Fences

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Once fences were built to keep things out.  In the free-range days, livestock roamed the countryside, and anyone who wanted to secure crop or garden fenced to keep the animals out.

In my country, split-rail came first.  Poor-man ingenuity, that, a mix of blood, sweat, and the rot-resistant wood of the American chestnut.  The latter is long gone, victim of a fungal disease in the early twentieth century that killed three to four billion trees in the South.

What once was taken for granted is no more.

A few tree scientists still believe that the American chestnut can be revived and restored.  Trust me, it can’t.  When something is gone it is gone.  Over is over.  No amount of striving or grieving will bring back that which is lost.

It is what it is.

Barbed wire came next, a nasty little invention that worked well but also inspired bloodshed among neighbors.  Down here we pronounce it “bob wire,” but a rose by any other name will still draw blood if you try to cross it.

Today most folk build fences to keep things in.  Or more often just for show, depending on the size of their bank account.  Neat lines of square post and treated lumber create a nice little pastoral accent for a country estate.  Paint it white for that extra touch of highfalutin.  Things to be kept in strictly optional.

Whether for in or out, the thing about a fence is that it needs constant tending.  A great Yankee poet once wrote “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  The man who builds a fence has a lot of things working against him — weather, trees, brush, animals, and even neighbors.

Fence-tending involves introspection — lots of walking, looking, searching for weak spots.  Constant vigilance.  Continual repair.  Methods and materials may change, but sweat still smells like sweat in any century.

A single breach is all it takes to bring ruin. The bull is in the neighbor’s pasture.  Dog’s in the road.  Anybody seen grandma lately?

Whether to keep out or in, a man has his reasons for the fences he constructs.

My advice is to build them high and strong, neighbors, and don’t ever neglect your tending.  A weak fence is wasted time that you will never get back.