Porch Sittin’

horseshoe

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.

Advertisements

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

dsc01142

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

christmas-in-dixie

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…

View original post 141 more words

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.

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.