The Road Goes on Forever*

50s-wpman

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.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s

breakfast at Tiffany's

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

fences

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

The Old Man, the Chihuahua, and Jesus in the Woods

rambler

Back in my younger days I bought a tract of timber from an old man.  Just as a side note and for your education in the intricacies of forestry parlance,  anyone associated with the timber business refers to  a parcel of wooded land as a “tract,” as in “that’s a nice tract of wood.”  It’s pronounced “track,” and I suspect a good many of them would spell it that way.

But I digress.

I had just moved a logger onto the tract when the owner drove up.  He was 80 years old if he was a day, an old man dressed in old man work clothes:  khaki pants, matching khaki shirt, red and black plaid hunting jacket, and a cap with ear flaps.  Looked like he might have just stepped off the cover of a 1957 edition of Outdoor Life.  His car was also from the 50’s, a Rambler I believe, and it was as neat as the creases on those khaki pants.  I initially thought “bless his heart, this poor fellow has come today  because this land is dear to him.  He probably got it from his father, who managed to scrape up enough share-cropper dollars to buy it just before the Great Depression,  and he wants to take a last look at the trees he and his poor old dad planted together right after he got home from the Big War.”

I would later discover that he owned a couple of thousand acres and had more money than Carter had little pills (Google it, youngsters).  I’ve got more imagination than sense sometimes.

He motioned me over to the passenger window.  “Hop in, young fellow, I want to show you some things before you get started.”

Now at this point in the story I should mention that there was a chihuahua in the back seat of the Rambler, who looked to be about as old as the man (in dog years, of course).  I should also mention that he was in a rage, barking and snarling and flinging himself against the rear passenger window.

I’m not a person who has any fear of dogs.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a healthy respect for a snarling one with a murderous look in his bugged-out eyes, even if he does weigh 15 pounds and barks with a Mexican accent.

I hesitated.  “Is your dog going to bite me?”

“No, son, get in.  Jasper, hush that up now, you hear.”

Jasper was apparently bilingual, as he did calm down slightly.  But as soon as I got in he jumped to the top of the front seat, where he hunkered down facing me.

We rode around in that Rambler for 20 minutes as the old man pointed to this and that.  We bounced down roads and pig trails that I wouldn’t have attempted in a four-wheel drive pickup.

I said “yes sir” a lot, but my eyes were straight ahead and I was trying not to flinch.  That chihuahua’s nose was one-inch from my cheek, and he was growling the entire time — one of those breathing, inhale/exhale growls, indicating murderous intent.   I knew if I made one move my left ear was gone.  I was focused.

We eventually made it back, my face still intact.

The next day I called the logger to see how things were going.  He said “this is some good wood” (more forestry parlance), “but I’m afraid we’re going to accidentally kill that old man.  He stays out here all the time watching us work.  We’ve had several close calls.  He just walks up around the equipment out of nowhere.  I almost cut a tree down on him this morning.”

I promised I’d come by the next morning and talk to him about the dangers of logging equipment.  Make sure he understood.

Let me digress a bit and tell you a little about this logger.  Eddy had found Jesus at a Pentecostal tent revival a couple of months before, and he was as excited about his new-found faith as any man I’d ever met.  Within a week, his entire crew had joined the flock as a result of his preaching.  He invited me to his church, “the West Georgia Assembly of Signs Following,” where the Spirit was working.  People were speaking in strange tongues, being healed of various afflictions, and sometimes were “slain in the Spirit.”  There were no timber rattlers being passed around, so I guess all the signs following were not yet on display.*

Once Eddy asked me if I had ever been slain in the Spirit?

I said I didn’t think I had.

“Well, you ought to come to one of our Saturday night services.  It happened to me a couple of weeks ago.  It was like being hit by a bolt of lightning.  I came slam out of my shoes.”

I smiled and nodded.  Didn’t say anything.  Never had any desire to be struck by lightning.  Try to avoid it most days.

Back to the story.  The next day I came out to talk to the old man, but he was nowhere to be found.

I stopped Eddy and asked if he had been out to the job that morning.

“Oh yes, he left about an hour ago.  I asked him if he knew Jesus, and he said ‘No, I don’t want any part of religion.’  So I radioed all my men and got them to come in.  We formed a circle around him and prayed for his eyes to be opened by the Spirit, but he just jumped in his car and left.”

Funny thing, we never saw that old man again.

Probably just afraid of lightning.

 

* The Bible, Mark 16:17-18.

Spring in Alabama

redbud

It begins with subtlety.

Red maples blooming on the right-of-way along highways, a stark contrast with hues of grey that have dominated the landscape through the chill of winter.  The redbud is close  behind, purple blossoms joining the first splatter of color on the Master Artist’s canvas.  The daffodil and dogwood follow.

Only days now until a riot of green breaks out through hills and hollows.

Until then we wait, balanced on the edge of a Bowie knife.  All change is chance — step right up and spin the wheel.  Speculation is risk, and the wound is deeper when the odds are higher.  Roll them bones until you crap-out.

The warm days put a bounce in our step.  The fever awakens, the sap begins to rise.

The fat lady hasn’t sung yet, although she is standing and clearing her throat.

Certainty dictates that the cold air will return with vengeance, marching down from the north like Sherman’s push to the sea.

The battle between north and south is not without casualty.  Lines are drawn.  Sirens blare in the darkness of night.  Doppler radar images in hues of yellow and red interrupt our regularly scheduled program.  Technology warns, but it cannot always outwit Mother.

Whirlwinds drop from the sky.  Destruction is seemingly random.  Families huddle in hallways.  Some pray while others curse.  One house destroyed, the next untouched.  One tree twisted and snapped here, a broad swath through the forest there.  Poor and rich.  Towns and farms.  Young and old.  The evil and the just.

Still we wait with child-like expectancy for the warmth and beauty that is to come, knowing that danger will pass when the hickory finally bears its green leaf.

 

 

 

 

Blessings from the Sky

the balloon

I find them more frequently than you would imagine.

Singular apparitions in the deep woods where I walk.  On the ridges among the pines, or in the hardwood creek bottoms among towering oaks and poplars.  Often far from paved roads.  Away from the houses, miles from any town.

They drop down silently from the Alabama sky.  Drift in on currents that I cannot see but only feel.  Softly land in wild places among the trees and woodland creatures.

A bit of colorful foil, adorned with a pretty ribbon, once filled with helium.  The modern-day version of a bouquet of flowers with a hand-written card.

The messages vary.

“Happy Birthday!”

“Be My Valentine.”

“Happy Graduation!”

“Get Well Soon.”

Sentiments of congratulation, care, or concern, now lost to the four corners.

Each represents a unique story, one that I will never know.  I let my imagination wander to fill in the missing lines.

Whose birthday was it?  Were they in the joys of youth, or facing the loneliness of out-living all their loved ones?

Are they truly loved, or were the words simply a cheap token of false sentiment.

Will they get well?

Was the blessing offered rejected and released to the winds, or did it simply escape from careless fingers?

I will never know.

Little blessings from above, drifting down to earth.

Each of us must choose our own response.

Jeep Family Values

jeep 2

I like Jeeps.  Have since I was a kid, even though I never drove or even rode in one until I bought my first in 2007.  A 1995 model, she was intended to be a “spare vehicle” — something to drive on the weekend, or when my pickup truck was in the shop.

Coincidentally, 2007 was the last year that I had any “spare” money.  The economic crash of 2008 and some poor career decisions have not been good to my net worth.  The spare became the primary vehicle a few months ago.

When I say Jeep I mean “Wrangler,” the vehicle in the photo above.  It’s based on the military work-horse that moved U.S. troops from Point A to Point B in World War II.  The first commercial version became available in 1944 and was dubbed the “C.J.” which stood for “Civilian Jeep.”

Other models are available under the name Jeep, including one that looks something like what we called a “station wagon” when I was a kid.  Another is a puny little car-like thing called a “Liberty.”

Patrick Henry once said “Give me liberty or give me death!”  Well Pat, if I had to drive a Liberty I reckon I would give death some serious consideration.

The real Jeep is a no frills vehicle.  Pretty basic equipment like manual transmission, no air conditioner (at least in mine), vinyl seats, and a heater that will roast a chicken in five minutes or less.  Easy to work on, a big plus for a man like me who is admittedly mechanically challenged.  And they make so many after-market accessories that a Jeep can be customized to reflect any individual’s personal taste.

On the flip side they are drafty, noisy (with or without the top) and ride like a buckboard wagon on the highway.  As the Redhead is fond of saying “Let’s not take the Jeep — that thing will beat us to death.”

But they are sweet as granny’s tea in the woods.  They go up, down, around, or through almost anything you encounter.

What I didn’t expect when I bought that first one is that Jeep owners apparently consider themselves to be some sort of family.  I never meet a Jeep coming or going in which the driver does not give me a wave.  And of course I wave back.  Don’t know when or why this came to be.  I suppose it’s just a Jeep thing that you wouldn’t understand.  I’m still not exactly sure that I do.

I’m not bothered by the gesture.  In the Alabama of my youth, country folk always waved when their vehicles met.  It was a nice custom, one that I wish would make a comeback.  A polite acknowledgement of the kinship of mankind, a time when folks didn’t ride around angry and self-absorbed.  No texting or web surfing while driving.  No cursing at other drivers.  No obscene gestures.  No road rage.

Sadly my trusty old ’95 bit the dust a couple of months ago.  A college kid with a cell phone and a short attention span pulled-out in front of me.  I didn’t even have time to hit the brakes.  Thankfully neither of us were hurt, but both vehicles were total losses.

The bright side was that the insurance company paid me nearly a grand more than I originally paid for her.  Try to pull that off with a Prius.

The replacement is a 2007, so I’m slowly making progress toward the present.  At this rate I may get a current year model sometime around 2050.

Time marches on, or bounces along if you drive a Jeep.

So if you’re looking for me today you might check an old Alabama back road.  I’ll be the one in my “new” old Jeep, grinning and waving at any of my extended family along the way.