Saturday, March 31, 2007

Remembering Great-grandparents

Four generations! That's me, the cute little guy sucking his thumb and held in his great-granddaddy's hands. My father and great-grandmother are to the left. My grandmother is on the right and my Uncle L (who is a closer to my age than to my dad's) is in front.

My great-granddaddy had given up raising tobacco by the time we moved into the house down the road from his farm. He leased out his tobacco allotment, allowing someone else to raise it. But he kept busy. With my great-grandma, they raised a large garden, had some chickens that ran around the yard and roosted in an old out-building, and kept a dozen or so whitewashed bee hives. The hives were in the woods separating our two houses, and even though I was never stung, I was always afraid to walk the trail running through the woods. If I was by myself, I’d run the whole way.

One day my dad and granddad came over and helped my great-grandfather harvest the honey. In addition to wearing lots of layers of clothes on a warm late summer day, they pulled on gloves and put netting over their heads. Granddaddy had a tin pot, which looked kind of like a tea pot or oil can. Inside the pot he placed oil soaked rags and set them on fire. By squeezing the handle, smoke would billow out of the spout, allowing him to chase the bees away while he robbed them of their honey. Back in the kitchen my mom and grandma helped my great-grandma separate the honey from the cones, storing the sweet nectar in jars. We kids stayed on the back porch, placated with pieces of the wax cone to chew and to suck out honey.

Whenever I had dinner with my great-granddaddy, if there was no desert, he would end his meals by placing a pat of butter on his plate and slathering it with either honey or molasses. Taking his fork, he’d mix the butter and syrup together and then sup it up with pieces of homemade biscuits. The honey he used for this treat came from his own bees. Although the molasses was “Grandma’s” (a store brought variety), I’m sure that earlier in his life he was using homemade molasses from the sugar cane he grew, pressed and boiled down into syrup.

Great-grandma, as I’d later recalled, looked a lot like Ma Joad in John Ford’s silver screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Plumb, she always seemed to have an apron over her dress except for Sunday mornings. She worked in a kitchen in which two stoves had been crammed along the outside wall. One was a modern gas range, which she didn’t like. Her preferred choice was a cast iron wood-burning range. Out back, there was a wood pile. I remember being there with my great-granddaddy as he split up “lighter wood” for cooking, I'd help gather up the split wood. Lighter wood came from the heart of pine and was so filled with pitch that it burned like wood soaked in kerosene. It was either used to quickly start a fire or to provide a quick hot flame. On this wood burning stove, great-grandma would bake biscuits and pies, fry chickens and apples, boil potatoes and beans, fix gravy and steam rice. At a family gathering on a Sunday afternoon, she’d have a feast prepared with three or four pies cooling out on the back porch.

The summer after we left Moore County, my great-grandma suffered a stroke. She and great-granddaddy had been out in their strawberry patch beside D’s pond, between the canebrake and the dam. Great-granddaddy had to run all the way home to call for help and by the time someone got there, it was too late. We were in Virginia and came home for the funeral, the first that I remember. The night before the services, we gathered at the large old funeral home in Carthage, where I’ve been many times since. My mother led my brother, sister and I up the casket and pointed out great-grandma’s hands and talked about her peeling apples out on the back porch. I’d never noticed her swiveled her hands, but today that’s what I remember best about her. Her hands were finally at rest.

Great-granddaddy lived another seven years. For a while, my grandma and her sister alternated staying with him during the day, helping him out with chores around the house. On one of these visits, grandma took great-granddaddy and me back through the woods on a trip down memory lane. We drove on a two-track across the sandy high ground, passing the two tobacco barns still in use by the man leasing great-granddaddy’s allotment. For a few moments the sweet smell of curing tobacco filled the air. Then we passed the sugar cane press which hadn’t been used in decades. The press was rusty, the frame was rotting away and the arm onto which a mule was attached to turn the press had broken off. We didn’t even get out of the car, but drove on a hundred yards or so to the house where my great-granddaddy spent his boyhood years. There was no furniture left inside, except for an old organ. Tobacco sticks (sticks onto which tobacco leaves were tied for curing) were stored in the living room. Several years later, the next time I visited that abandoned house, the organ was gone as was the mantel over the fireplace. Someone had even ripped the copper wiring out from the walls, wires that had carried electricity for less than a decade as rural electrification didn’t come about in these parts until after the Second World War. This house had been abandoned in the early fifties. The last time I saw the house, in the summer of 2001, the roof was falling in.

We walked around the house. In the yard were a few overgrown shrubs. Out back were fruit trees in need of a good pruning. My great-granddaddy told me about a pet chicken he had as a boy and how one Sunday, with the preacher over for dinner, his pet chicken was made into chicken and dumplings. My great-granddaddy had been a boy no older than I was at the time and he told the visiting preacher all about his chicken that they were eating. “After the preacher had left,” he said, “I got the whippin’ of my life.” He also told me about the time when he was a kid, a little older than me. He had slipped into a neighbor’s watermelon patch and was cutting only the heart out watermelons and feasting on the tasty fruit. With watermelon juice running down his shirt, he noticed that the birds were beginning to sing. The temperature was dropping, which was strange for the middle of a summer afternoon, especially with no clouds in the sky. He looked up and saw the sun disappear. He dropped his watermelon and ran for his life, as fast as his bare feet and skinny legs could take him, not wanting to be caught in another man’s watermelon’s patch on judgment day. He had just witnessed an eclipse. Both of these events occured back in the 19th century.

On this particular summer day in the late 60s, we continued on the two-track running between two branches of the Lower Little River, back way to my great-grandfather’s grandfather’s home. It was a large two story structure that still stands, although it has been remodeled many times. All three of these houses, belonging to my great-grandfather, great-great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather, are probably within a two mile radius by the way the crows fly. They all sit on land first settled by our common ancestor who migrated over from the wind-swept islands off Scotland and settled in the Carolina Sandhills back in the mid-18th Century.

Like his father and grandfather, going back at least a half dozen generations, my great-granddaddy was a farmer. Six days a week, he’d be hard at work. On Sunday, he’d be a suit and at the Presbyterian Church where he served as an Elder and the Sunday School superintendent for over forty years. My last memory is of him sitting in a chair in the room in my grandma’s house, where he lived the last year or two. On the table next to this chair were his Bible, which he read faithfully and a folded up copy of The Pilot, a local newspaper that he read almost as faithfully as the Good Book. In this edition of the newspaper was a picture of soldiers getting ready to take off for France in the Great War. Great-granddaddy was trying to identify everyone. One of the men was his brother, who would be gassed in the trenches in Europe and live out his days disabled. The next time I would see my great-granddaddy, he’d be in a casket in that Carthage Funeral Home. The next day, in November 1969, he was buried beside his wife; just west of the church which he helped build and where he had served a lifetime.

This story is a follow up to my Uncle D story (which has a picture of him and his son, my Uncle D, in a tobacco field)

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Breaking News

I don’t know of anyone who has been called to jury duty more than me. And it has happened again—this time I’m being called up to the big leagues—to work with the Feds (U. S. District Court). This will make my eighth time being called up for jury duty. In all, I’ve sat on one jury, when I was just 21 years old. It was a murder trial and after deliberating a day and a half, we found they guy not guilty. Maybe I’ll write about that sometime. Later, we learned the same guy had already been tried by another jury. They were unable to come up with a verdict. I’ve must of gotten a reputation as a softy, for no DA has wanted me on the jury since (twice my butt has been saved from the jury box due to being good friends with the defense attorney). I am really looking forward to seeing if I can make it in the big leagues. On a Monday, in a few weeks from now, I’ll drive north to the big city with 8 quarters in my pocket (they tell me to bring 8 quarters in case the parking attendant is AWOL—is this class or what?) and a good book to read. It’s too bad I don’t live a few more miles away; I could go up Sunday evening, book myself into a hotel and take them up on their generous $110 “subsistence allowance.” I'm not sure what kind of hotel I'd have to stay in the downtown area without "subsidizing" their allowance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Ranting and Raving and Confessing

The glass shattered easily. It was that type of neighborhood.
(This is my minimalist attempt at Bone’s 3 Word Wednesday writing exercise. This weeks words are: “easily, type, shattered. I took the photograph in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh in 1986.)

Yesterday it was beautiful here. The mercury in the thermometer soared to 81 degrees, the sky was clear. But as evening approached, bands of thunderstorms made their way through, dropping the temperature and bringing large amounts of rain. Today, it’s a typical spring (or fall) day—gray and wet. But the maples are beginning to bud. Just since yesterday, the buds have turned red. Of course, for those in the maple syrup business, this means the end of their harvest, but for everyone else it means that the seasons are changing and it’s time to stock up on allergy supplies.

I feel I need to confess my role in North Carolina’s loss to Georgetown on Sunday night. I should have kept my mouth shut, but I was bragging about them to Kenju (who lives in NC, but whose husband once played for Georgetown). The basketball gods, knowing that there is nothing in need of more humbling than a bagging fan, decided to teach me a lesson. Carolina lost in overtime to the team Bill Clinton was rooting for (at the beginning of the NCAA tourney, he came out publicly for Georgetown). I found that even worst than Carolina’s loss was the fact that I was on the same side as most Republicans. They were cheering for Carolina only because they couldn’t support anyone or anything that Bill supported.

Hopefully tomorrow or Friday I’ll have Sage-type memory posted concerning one of my great-granddaddies.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy: A Book Review

Gary D. Schmidt, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (New York: Clarion, 2004), 219 pages.

It’s 1911. The Buckminster family moves to Phippsburg, Maine where Turner’s father has been called as the pastor for the Congregational Church. But Turner isn’t happy about the move. They don’t play baseball in Maine like they do in Boston. He has a hard time making friends and quickly gets into fights with the local boys while upsetting many of the townsfolk. His father, a strict disciplinarian, requires Turner to make amends by visiting the elderly Mrs. Cobb. He spends afternoons reading and playing the organ for her. Although Turner doesn’t make many friends in town, he befriends Lizzie Bright, a young Afro-American girl who lives on Malaga Island. As their friendship grows, Turner begins to learn some terrible truths about his town.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is written for 6th to 9th grade students. The novel is set against the backdrop of an actual racial cleansing, the forceful removal of black citizens from Malaga Island. The reason for their removal is economic, the town wants to develop the island and they don’t want to support the island residents on their welfare rolls. Some of the residents move voluntarily, but those who remained were moved to a state mental institution. According to documents from the time, one of those who were forcefully removed was a young girl. Although her identity isn’t known, Schmidt gives her a name and creates her an identity in the character of Lizzie Bright while telling the Malaga Island story through the eyes of a boy.

At first Turner’s father seems to sides with the interest of the town. Everyone is worried that the shipyard is going to close and if so the town will fail. They want to develop a tourist industry. But Turner father’s changes his position and challenges the removals as illegal and immoral and against the principles of the gospel. For this, he’s attacked by the town’s leading citizens. The attacks are not just verbal and he dies from a fall he takes when wrestling with a man as the island is being attacked. The surprise in the book is that Mrs. Cobb dies and bequeaths her home to Turner. Turner wants to allow Lizzie to live there, thinking that’s what Mrs. Cobb wanted, but in the end he and his mother move into the house. Lizzie dies in the insane asylum.

Schmidt does a wonderful job in showing Turner’s growing love for life by the ocean. In Lizzie’s dory, he see’s a whale up close. It’s a life changing experience.

I found that the adult characters in the book to be too predictably. Their language is filled with clichés. However, in my life, I have heard some of the same “economic logic” be used by people trying to legitimize their own racial feelings. Also, there are some characters in the book that don’t seem fully developed. One is Mrs. Hurd, an old woman who is sent by her son to the insane asylum. Another is Jonah, Lizzie’s father, who is mentioned throughout the book as if something happened to him, getting me curious, but you never learned what did happen to him and why was he named Jonah (did I miss it, was there a clue in the whales?) However, I find this to be a good book. It opens our eyes to the problems created by prejudices and I plan to reread it with my 3rd grade daughter.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Remembering Uncle D

Ed recently wrote about some of his ancestors got me thinking about some of mine. The photo to the left is a copy of a copy of a photograph taken in the 1930s. D is holding the mule and his father (my great-grandfather) is in the back. With them are two helpers. For those of you who don't recognize it, they are in a tobacco field. I took the second photo taken in 1981.
Was it the winter of 1981? Or was it ’82? The years seem to run together when I don’t have a specific event to which to tag things. It had to be winter for there were no leaves on the trees and the air was cool. Uncle D and his two yippy dogs had been living with my grandma, his sister, ever since he had been released from the hospital. Finally able to get out, the two of us along with his two dogs hiked down to Joe’s Fork, in the swamps behind grandma's house. We followed the creek downstream by a series of beaver dams to the place where the old mill had once been, then followed the ridge back to grandmas.

I don’t remember much about this hike, except that it was the first time Uncle D talked to me as an adult. My grandmother wasn’t around to censure his stories, so he could be quite frank. I should have made notes. He told about leaving the tobacco fields in the late 30s and heading up to Norfolk where he worked in the shipyards. They were busy as the world prepared for war. He told me about signing up with the Navy after Pearl Harbor and spending time at Great Lakes, learning to be a corpsman, and about buying a ’34 Ford Coup and, once he had leave, driving home down through the West Virginia Mountains. Then he told me about his service upon a banana boat converted to supply ship for use in the Pacific. After the war, he wandered around a bit, but as he got older, he became more settled and seldom left Moore County. And finally, he told me how to make good moonshine.

Although we always called him as Uncle D, he was really my great-uncle. My earliest memory is of him in a neck brace, after one of his accidents. I assume he was living with his parents, my great-grandparents, just down the road from us. My parents were remodeling a house and he’d come down and help out. I also have vague recollections of him and my Dad working on the copper clad steeple that went up on the new church building in Eastwood. When the crane placed the steeple on the roof, we were all there to watch. My first fishing experiences at fishing was in D’s pond. D loved to fish.

Shortly after the new church was completed, right before I started the first grade, we moved from the Sandhills. Over the next dozen years, whenever we came back, seeing D was always a treat. When he saw us (my brother, sister and me) they’d be a sparkle in his eyes. He always got us Christmas presents, generally handkerchiefs. We always got him something, often candy or cookies. D was a favorite uncle even though I knew he had problems and not all my memories were positive. Once, when I was about ten or eleven, my grandma picked up him and brought him over to her house. He was sitting at the table, slurring his words and, as was evident to all, quite ashamed of his condition. My grandma poured black coffee down him trying to get him sobered up enough to visit. On another occasion, my dad, brother and I went over to D’s place one Saturday afternoon. Uncle D and several other men were there. The place was in shambles, they were all drunk. We didn’t go in, but from standing on the back porch I could see men passed out the couch in the sitting room. Again, I could tell that D was ashamed to be seen in such a condition and we didn’t stay long.

It’s an understatement to say that D. had a hard life. But he always seemed to recover. Twice he’d broken his back in a car accident, I assume while under the influence. Right before moving in with my grandma, he’d been severely burned. Planning on doing some grilling, D poured gasoline on coals that weren’t turning white quick enough. He was in the hospital for several weeks with the doctors not giving him much of a chance to survive. However, once again Uncle D seemed indestructible. He rallied and after a few weeks was released from the hospital and, upon taking a temperance pledge, moved in with my grandma.

D’s last quarter of century would be significantly different. My grandmother didn’t cut him much slack and he mostly remained sober, only occasionally falling off the wagon. He started attending church more regularly. It should have been in his blood as his daddy, granddaddy and great-granddaddy had each served a long tenure as an Elder. For well over a century, someone from the family was in a leadership position there. He stayed with my grandma until she, his older sister, couldn’t take care of him anymore; then spent his last year and a half in a nursing home.

A year or so ago, I asked a distant and older cousin if he knew anything about D’s moonshining activities. He told me about a time around 1960, just after my cousin had finished school. D had gone out squirrel hunting that morning and when he came back, asked my cousin to grab a couple jugs and to come with him. While hunting, D had discovered someone still. Fearlessly, D and his nephew went out and ran off a gallon or so of liquor, using someone else’s still, mash and firewood. D didn’t think they had to worry because it wasn’t likely that they would be calling the law to report the missing mash. D got away with running someone else’s still without getting shot. He always seemed to have good luck.

My uncle D passed away this past November. I think he was 84 years old.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Thunderstorms, Banana Pudding, & Stuff

“The night has been unruly.” Last night and this the wee hours of morning were like living a production of McBeth. Waves of thunderstorms rolled across the land, driving my dog nuts. Even with tranquilizers, I found myself clearing up dribble this morning. It was pouring rain and 64 degrees at 6 A.M. Needless to say, the snow is gone. Spring is coming. A few daffodils and crocuses are poking their heads out of the ground. I’m sure the dandelions can’t be far behind, to be followed by lightning bugs and mosquitoes.

It’s been a hectic week and this is my first free night at home. If it was cooler, I’d build a fire and sip scotch while reading a bit by the hearth. But since we’re in this heat wave, I decided to make of my favorite comfort foods, banana pudding. I use the recipe right off Nabisco’s Nilla Wafers box, except that I add more bananas and increase the vanilla.

I’m working on a couple of stories and a review. Hopefully I’ll get one of the stories posted tomorrow. But first, I’m going to fix a bowl of pudding. Let me sign off with a benediction from the Youngbloods:

Come on people now,
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try and love one another right now

Monday, March 19, 2007

Hiking Camp Creek

This is a story of an afternoon hike taken in December 1998 (I remember the date because I spent the morning working on drywalling my garage). The photo is not from Camp Creek, but of Cedar Canyon, a few canyons to the north. It was taken in November 2003.

My heart briefly stops as I look on the ground ahead. “Fresh tracks,” I think, “those weren’t here when I hiked in.” When I get to the tracks, I stoop to examine them closely. Sure enough, they’re fresh, less than ten minutes old since some of the paw prints are on the top of my boot prints. I stand back up; I don’t want to appear too small, and look ahead on the trail. I see cougar tracks leading up to this point. It appears something startled the beast, for the last tracks were dug in deeper as if he quickly hit the brakes and then twisted around. He headed back fast, taking only a few leaps before turning right and heading up the side of the canyon. “The cougar must have been tracking me as I hiked into Camp Creek,” I think to myself, “and now he’s in the rocks up on the canyon wall, watching.” I’m alone and my car is a couple miles away. Mine was the only car at the trailhead. It’ll be a long walk out.

Camp Creek flows through a box canyon on the north side of Zion National Park. There’s one way in and one way out. I do not make it all the way to the end, which according to the map appears to be a tight slot canyon. Before getting there, low clouds move in and a light sleet begins. It’s early December; darkness will come early to the canyon, especially with these conditions, so I decide to turn around and head out. I’ve not gone far, maybe a hundred or so yards, before I spot the cougar tracks.

The canyon is not as spectacular as Taylor or LaVerkin Creeks a few miles to the south. Those creeks flow under sheer bright pink Navajo Sandstone cliffs. Nor have I reached the tight slots that you find in Spring and Kanarra Creeks to the north. The rock in Camp Creek is less colorful, mostly a pale off-white or reddish tint. These are the Chinle and Kayenta formations. The layers of rock were twisted as they were pushed up by the Hurricane fault. Millenniums of water and wind have carved out these canyons. Along the section I’m traveling, it’s fairly wide. The walls of the canyon are steep, but they are not sheer until you get near the top. It would be quite a scramble for me to make it up the side, but from the appearance of the prints, the cougar raced up the side with little problem. Rock outcroppings, rising like minarets, dot the canyon walls. There’s plenty of hiding places for the cat. Sagebrush, mixed in with rabbit brush and Mormon tea grow along the canyon floor and up its walls. There are also a few pinions and junipers and some cottonwoods along the creek bed. At the higher elevations deep within the canyon and up on top are a few stately ponderosa pines.

I step up my stride. It’s cold and the brisk pace helps me warm up. I won’t stop to explore, I’ll keep moving, knowing that the cat is probably watching. Taking stock of my equipment, I realize I’m nearly defenseless. I only have a Swiss army knife, which I take out and open, but feel stupid carrying it. If a cat attacked, his outstretched claws would be as long as the knife blade. I close it partly and clip it by the blade on my pocket, so I can quickly pull it out and open it at the same time. It wouldn’t be much good against an animal that weighs more than me, but it gives me a plan. I don’t even have the whistle I normally carry. It must be on my backpack. I look around for a large stick. I find one, and test it by striking the ground; it’s rotten. I find another; it’s not as large, but sturdy. I clinch it in my hands. My best defense is to look large and to keep moving.

I continue walking briskly, occasionally hearing sounds behind me. I keep looking back every few steps, but see nothing. I’m sure my mind is playing games with me; but I’ve heard of cougars attacking joggers from behind and don’t want to be surprised. This is cougar country. Although I’ve hiked most of the canyons in this country, I’ve never seen one. Few people do. Within the park, their protected, but only part of this canyon is within the boundaries of the park. Outside the park, they’re not only hunted but because they’re a menace to the sheep herds, they’re trapped. They shy away from people. Occasionally someone catches a glimpse of one crossing a road. A friend who works for the Forest Service was confronted by a cougar one day along a trail, but when his radio squealed, the beast took off. Other Rangers have spent a career working these parts without seeing one. I’ve always wanted to see a cougar, but today I’m not so sure.

After an hour of brisk walking, I come to the end of the canyon. The sleet has turned to snow, covering all the tracks including my boot prints. I’ve not seen any more signs of the cougar. He now seems like a phantom. Did I really see those prints? Here, at the end of the canyon, the creek drops over an escarpment and flows out into a broad basin where it eventually evaporates under the desert sun. Instead of crawling down the cliffs by the falls, I take a trail which leads north and which connects to an old two track, that leads me back southwest and down to my car.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Valley of Light: A Book Review

Terry Kay, The Valley of Light (New York: Washington Square Press, 2003) 239 pages

Three years after the end of World War II, a drifter is walking across the Southeast, traveling from one fishing hole to another. Noah Locke’s gift is for fishing. He’d served in the Army during the war and was at the liberation of Dachau. In his travels, an old man tells him about the “Valley of Light” and the large bass that resides in a lake there. Noah discovers the lake near the small community of Bowerstown in the North Carolina Mountains, not far from the Georgia border. Stopping in town to pick up some coffee, he quickly becomes friends of Boyd who runs the local store. After they spend time together fishing, the word spreads about this strange fisherman who seems to have a gift to catch fish when no one else can. Boyd encourages Noah to stick around till the following weekend for an upcoming fishing tournament and hires him to paint his store. Throughout the week, Noah also befriends Eleanor, a young widow whose husband committed suicide a few years after he came back from serving in Army in Europe. Noah learns the terrible truth of Eleanor’s husband (which he doesn’t share) along with the reason why the lake on which he has camped (home of the large bass) is known as the Lake of Grief.

Kay is a wonderful writer. You can almost taste Noah’s coffee and Eleanor’s pan-fried chicken with butter-rich creamed potatoes. You can almost see the light coming into the valley in the morning, burning off the fog. You can almost feel the heat of mid-day and the sounds of crickets and frogs and night. Reading the story, you get the sense of the goodness that is deep down in most people as they come together to help those in need. There’s a magical quality to Kay’s words and the images he draws.

This is a book about gift and about hope. Noah uses his gift of fishing in a way that brings hope to the people of the valley. It’s an enjoyable read even if Noah never owned a fly rod.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

My Life with Rodents: A memory (Along with 3-Word Wednesday)

The photo to the right was taken in 1981 at Camp Bowers, a Boy Scout Camp in Eastern North Carolina. My thanks to V , whose search for a pet got me thinking about some of the pets I've had in my past....
Sigmund died on my 25th birthday. I was feeling so old I wrote my mother to complain about reaching the quarter century mark. She wrote back a short letter asking, “How do you think I feel?” Until then, I thought it was safe to take my concerns to Mom. My 25th birthday was a disaster in other ways. My relationship with my high school sweetheart was waning and about to fail. That evening, we drove into town with friends and went out to eat at an expensive Japanese type of restaurant where they cook your food at your table. This would have normally been a wonderful meal, but as the chef dropped a piece of meat on the floor and immediately picked it up and placed it in the wok. My mouth dropped in amazement, then I said, “we’re paying way too much for this meal.” He went and got another pan and ingredients and gave us a discount which allowed me to have a couple more drinks. I wasn’t driving.

Afterward dinner, we went to a movie. The day was going from bad to worse. I don’t remember the title, but the film was one of the stupidest movies I’d seen. It was about the closing of a military academy. The kids at the academy revolt and take over the academy, showing that violence and weaponry are valid ways to solve problems. This can be explained as it was early on in the Reagan era. Making the experience even worse was the hoots and hollars from the guys and gals in the seats in front of us. They looked like Marines from Camp Lejeune. They were encouraging the cadets on the screen to fight it out. Feeling that I was already so old that I didn’t have anything to live for and having become best friends with Johnny Walker, I tapped the guy in front of me on the shoulders and told him if he wanted to cheer for something he should go to a basketball game. Immediately, he stood up and turned around and called me a punk. I laughed as others in the theater started whispering “shut up” and “sit down.” He did, and we left as soon as the credits started rolling in order to avoid another confrontation. When we got home, Sigmund was dead in his cage.

Sigmund was a gerbil and the first pet I had after leaving my childhood home. Not being content to have just any dumb animal, I decided I wanted one that had at least been to college. Sigmund was freed from the psychology department (and named for the father of psychology). He was nearly four years old when he died. I’d gotten quite attached to that little rat. One year, for Christmas, I wrote him a check for a million dollars. He promptly processed it, turning it into mulch, much to the relief of my bank account. He was also great at recycling toilet paper tubes. Together, we made quite a pair, both chewing on toothpicks. I wish I could find a picture of him.

Gerbils are compulsive about cleaning themselves. One summer, I had the windows open and a lizard got in the house. I was trying to catch it as it ran through Sigmund’s cage, running over the top of the sleeping gerbil. Sigmund immediately woke up and starting a purification ritual that lasted all day as he tried to clean himself, constantly licking his hands and running them over his fur. It’s amazing the little guy didn’t have a heart attack, for you could see his heart pounding as he washed himself over and over.

After Sigmund’s death, I was given a pair of gerbils from one of the Cub Scout volunteers who had an excess on hand. She insisted that I take two, so that they keep each other company. Seeing what two gerbils could turn into, I told her that they both better be male or that her son would never see his Eagle badge. It wasn’t that I wanted gay gerbils; it was just that I didn’t want to be over populated with rodents. That might necessitate raising snakes and that hobby was bound to be a hindrance as I re-entered the dating world. She must have guessed correctly for Ivan and Alyosha (named for two of the brothers in Dostoevsky’s, The Brother’s Karamazov) never had any offspring. The two were quite a pair and fought like brothers. Ivan especially liked to get in the wheel and to run when Alyosha was fast asleep under it. I think that’s where the term “rude awakening” came from. Alyosha didn’t live but about a year, obviously traumatized by his bully brother. Ivan, ornery as he was, stuck around for four years, a decent life for a gerbil. In 1984, being totally disgusted with the prospects for president presented by our two major parties, I made up a campaign button touting “Ivan for President.” It featured a thumbprint gerbil (take a print of your thumb, add eyes, mouth, nose, ears, whiskers and a tail). Ivan passed away right before I moved to Pittsburgh and returned to school. At my moving garage sale, I sold his cage and wheel. Since that time, I haven’t willing had any rodents in my house. Today, those freeloaders who do occasionally stop by for a bite to eat are offered a tray of D-Con.
Three Word Wednesday
Bone has a fiction writing assignment every Wednesday. I don't claim to be a fiction writer, but I have often tried to participate by posting some of the shortest pieces of fiction (generally one sentence) on his blog. Here's my enter for yesterday's assignment. The three words are "hoarse, bended, and downtown."
“I’ve gotten hoarse from the long ride from downtown,” the man told the bartender as she shook the rain off his slicker.

“You want a horse to ride downtown? Mister, you need to go across the street to the stables, this here is a saloon.”

“I’m hoarse, some whiskey will do the throat good,” he said plopping himself on a stool

“You want whiskey for your horse’s throat?” the bartender asked as he bended down for another bottle of whiskey.

“No,” the man said, slapping himself as he pulled on his slicker and headed for the door. “This is a bad movie, I need to find another Western to star in.”

Monday, March 12, 2007

Angels With Dirty Faces: A Movie Review

“Angel’s with Dirty Faces” 1938, 1 hour 37 minutes, b&w

“Angels with Dirty Faces” stars James Cagney and Pat O’Brien and features Humphrey Bogart in a supporting role. The movie was released in 1938, during Hollywood’s Golden Era and tells the story of two men who grew up as rough kids in crowded slums of New York City’s lower eastside. One of the kids, Rocky, played by James Cagney, was caught by the police and sent to Reformed School where he learned to become a very successful mobster. The other kid, Jerry, played by Pat O’Brien, was able to run faster than Rocky and escaped the police. He becomes a priest and goes back into the same tenement area to minister, with the goal of reaching the loss boys there before they make some of the mistakes that Rocky and he had made.

The movie explores the friendship as well as the conflict and tension that exist between Rocky and Father Jerry Connelly. There is no doubt that Jerry loves Rocky, yet as a Priest he must speak out against crime and leads a community crusade to clean up the graft and corruption in the city. Although the two childhood friends are on opposite sides, you also get the idea that Father Jerry is Rocky’s only true friend. When Rocky’s partners in crime decide to kill the priest for making their lives difficult, Rocky steps in and there’s the big gangster shoot-out. Rocky kills his two associates, and then as he tries to flee, kills several policemen. The movie ends with Rocky on death row. Father Jerry Connelly comes to see him and asks for one last favor. He wants Rocky to go to chair as a coward. It’s an odd request, but the Father Connelly knows the boys in the tenement look up to Rocky and wants to follow in his footsteps. If these kids see Rocky as a coward, it’ll shatter their allusions about the glamour of crime. This request means that Rocky has to drop his tough guy act. He doesn’t want to do this, giving up the last thing he has, his dignity, but he does. You’re not sure why. Is it because of his friendship with Jerry? Is it because Rocky really does have a heart for the kids? Or does he at the end just stop acting like the big guy, allowing his real self comes through? Whatever way, the next newspaper had bold front page headlines telling that Rocky died a coward.

The movie ends with Father Jerry Connelly going down into the boiler room hideout of the kids who’d idolized Rocky Sullivan. The boys are reading the paper about Rocky’s execution. They can’t believe Rocky died yellow. Father Connelly confirms the rumor, and then invites the boys to come up with him and “to say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.” With that line, you get a sense that Jerry had gotten a break in life, a break for which he was grateful.I enjoyed this movie because it raised many questions. The director shows Rocky’s rise in the crime world was related to his education in reform school and later in prison. His counterpart, Jerry, received a “break” and became a priest. Many of us also receive breaks in our lives, but do we realize it? Cagney portrayed Rocky as a guy always in control of his emotions and the situation at hand. The character comes across as a strong actor and you’re never sure if you really understand what he’s really feeling or if you’re seeing the true self, for no one can be that cool all the time. In the movie, both Father Connelly and Rocky vie for the allegiance of the rough kids in the neighborhood. Outside of the two of them, there are really no other adult role models. I’m sure this set up was to contrast the “good” and the “bad.” Yet, as we see in Rocky, there is a great appeal in the “bad,” as Rocky overshadowed Father Connelly and vies for the audience’s attention. At the end, the only way Jerry can reach the kids is by creating a lie (that Rocky was a coward). He does this in order to destroy a myth, but it leaves you with an uneasy feeling that the only way good can triumphant over evil is by compromising its principles. However, the idea that Rocky does something for the good of others, something known only to God, Jerry and himself, is an example of a good deed.
For a detailed summary and review of the movie, check out this site (warning, be sure your popup blockers are on)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Weekend Roundup

Photo of sled dogs. I've still not finished any of the stories I'm working on, so I'll tell a bit about what's going on right now..

An hour after dark I noticed that Orion and his faithful dog are dropping lower in the western sky. Winter is coming to an end. The snow is melting. Where there is no shade, the bare ground is reappearing as mud. Where the snow is piled deep, it’s dirty. Spring is just around the corner. This morning, I was out just before dawn (thanks to daylight saving time moving us back an hour) and heard birds singing.

A friend of mine has taken up fly-trying (he’s the guy I paddled and fished the Pere Marquette with last spring—the trip on which I lost a rod). L’s found a pattern for a Caddis supposedly used by Hemingway. He sent me a half dozen of them. It won’t be long before the ice will give way to open water and trout will be back in season.

What could be more fun on a Saturday afternoon than to be a servant at an American Girl Spa Party? Yes, that was me, in a house full of young ladies and a few older ones, along with a dozen over-priced dolls. I did things like haul water pails for soaking feet and handed out towels while third grade girls lounged around with a mixture of oatmeal and yogurt on their faces and cucumber slices over their eyes. My daughter is getting too old, I’m already missing Barney. But the party was great fun; that is until later in the evening when I found oatmeal and a hint of yogurt on the sliced cucumbers in my salad. I’m not that big into recycling. A year or so ago, my sidekick Nevada Jack railed against America Girl. Personally, I just wish I had their marketing savvy, but I’ll have to say that their birthday kit made it easy to arrange the party.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

This and That

In the picture, my daughter is on her first dog sled ride. As a dog lover, she was in heaven.

As a way to buy time till I get around to editing and posting some new stories, I’m send you all on a wild goose hunt across blogland. Murf's been keeping us informed us of her ongoing commitment to exercising. She’s now strong and flexible as we can see in the picture provided by Kenju. By the way, Kenju recently changed her url and the one in my blog list is out of date and ya’ll know how much I hate going into my templates to change urls!

Kontan recently enlightened me on the infiltration of Pachelbel’s Canon into the music world. Go over to her site and watch this You-tube video and learn how Pachelbel has infiltrated rock and roll, folk and other forms of music. I’ll never be able to eat at another Taco Bell without humming Canon in D. By the way, Pachelbel’s first name, the cello hater that he was, is Johann.

Karen, a native Michigander (unlike me who just took a wrong turn off the Indiana turpike), is often making fun of the follies of our president and his henchmen and women. You can find that blog to the right. Karen has another blog that makes fun of life in general. (Warning, some might be offended, this is especially true if you're a Republican). For those like me who like to paddle (canoes and such, don’t get the wrong idea here), there’s the paddle store just in case you’re up the creek (or crick as they say around here) without one. Look in her blog for the entry for March 7 (sorry, I can seem to get her blog to open just to the specific date). Karen has also introduced a new medal for those who are a pain in the “you know where (That's found in her February 21 post).” I’ve already put my order in for a case of such medals, now if I can just get away with pinning them where they belong. Are you on the list to receive one?

On a much more serious note, I’ve been reading a blog titled West Desert Journal for about six months. Nate doesn’t write often, but I love his style and his pictures are stunning. I envy him, working out on the Arizona Strip on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Mind of the South: A Book Review

I've had this review ready for a week. I know this is not a book that many of you will have read, but if any of you have read it, I'd like to know you take on my interpretation of Cash's book. For the rest of you, bare with me or just say something silly. I'll try to post some more stories or pictures in a day or two.

W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (1941, reprint New York: Vintage Books, 1991)

In the introduction to the 50th Anniversary reprint of this book, Bertram Wyatt-Brown compares Cash’s writing to that of a southern lawyer addressing the jury. If that’s the case, I’m sure most of the jury would vote to hang his defendant on sheer principle. This is a long and wordy book. It often repeats itself. Furthermore, it doesn’t come to any great conclusion. At the end, I found myself wondering if the author just ran out of steam. It appears he’s still in the middle of the story, which is true, for the changes in the South that Cash described in 1940 would continued at even a more rapid rate during the Second World War and throughout the Civil Rights movement. Although I am critical of Cash’s tendency to wax on and on, he is an engaging writer and I’m glad to have plowed through his work.

Cash divides the south into three “frontiers” (pre-Civil War, reconstruction and its aftermath, and the era of industrialization). Wyatt-Brown suggests in his introduction that Cash draws upon Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier hypothesis for the American West. Although Turner is best known for the thesis, Cash applies economic theory to the thesis (much like another disciple of Turner, Walter Prescott Webb, does in his classic, The Great Frontier). Like Webb, Cash sees the frontier as an opportunity for economic expansion. In seeing three distinct frontiers in the South, Cash see’s three opportunities for economic improvements. However, through each of these stages, certain “distinctive” Southern features remain and are reinforced.

In the first part of the book, where Cash reviews the pre-Civil War south, he goes to great extend to debunk the southern plantation myths that the planters of the old south were English Cavaliers, often linked to royalty. That may have been the case for a handful of plantations in Virginia, but most planters were ordinary men who took risk, got lucky and rose up through the ranks. Cash shows distain for the antebellum south, pointing out that despite all the mythology about how good it was; the South was backwards. The South did not produce any significant literary or philosophical giants during this way. Set in its ways, the South was reluctant to give up slavery, which economically was a failure.

Cash interpretation of the Civil War would probably anger both northern and southern apologists.

“The Civil War and Reconstruction represents in their aspect an attempt on the part of the Yankee to achieve by force what it had failed to achieve by political means: first, a free hand in the thievish aims of the tariff gang, and secondly, and far more fundamentally, the satisfaction of the instinctive urge of men in the mass to put down whatever differs from themselves—the will to make over the South in the prevailing American image and to sweep it into the main current of the nation.”
He continues by pointing out that it appears the North was successful at Appomattox, but their victory was illusory. Although the South was defeated, the will and mind of the South was not only still intact, it had been fortified. In fact, the South was even more unified after the war than during the war, when individual states overshadowed national unity. Reconstruction ended during the 1876 election, according to Cash, because Florida was willing to put the Republican “tariff gang” into the White House, trading high tariffs for the removal of Northern soldiers. After Reconstruction, the old order in the South returned. Although slavery had ended, African-Americans found they were not really free. With tariffs in place, guaranteeing low prices for southern cotton for the northern mills, Cash noted that moral issues such as civil rights were less a concern and the North. Of course, the years following the Civil War were difficult in the South due to the lack of capital. During this time, when no one had money, the leadership in the South was solidified with the former planters who had also been the officers in the Confederate Army.

As the 19th Century came to a close, textile mills began to be built across the south. Again, new opportunities were available, but they were limited as the mills became the plantations of the early 20th Century. As with the Planters and the Confederate Captains of previous decades, the mill owners developed a paternal outlook for their workers, even though they also worked hard to maintain the low wages that allowed them to lure more business away from the New England mills. In time, as one generation of leaders gave way to the next, the paternalistic outlooks of the bosses waned, leading to the textile strikes in the late 1920s. Unionism, however, failed in the South.

Much of Cash’s interpretation of the southern mind has to do with holding contradictory or paradoxical views. The South both embraced progressive movements yet it was reluctant to change. A tendency toward both hedonism and Puritanism is found throughout the South. Religiously, even the Methodists in the South were steeped in a stern Calvinism, yet there was also an undercut of free-will theology. The southern conservative mythology focuses on the individual, yet at the same time demands conformity from everyone. Throughout the era of Cash’s study, a caste system existed in the South. It changed, from planter, to confederate officer, to mill boss, but it structurally remained the same. This system also prevented the rise of an egalitarian populist movement in the late 19th century that brought together poor whites and blacks. Instead, poorer whites continued to seek the leadership of more well-to-do whites.

This is not a book to understand the South today. DON’T PICK IT UP THINKING YOU CAN GET INSIDE SAGE’S MIND!!! Cash interprets the South at the end of the “cotton era,” which ended before my birth. There are many problems with the book. Although critical of romanticism, he tends to have a romantic view of the south. He also has a problem with religion in general. He sees fundamentalism rising from southern primitivism (George Mardsen in Fundamentalism and American Culture, along with others have shown that fundamentalism as a movement developed first within Northern evangelicalism). There are more up to date books for understanding the South. For Southern religion, check out Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt and Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920. For the develop of business and industry in the South, see Allen Tullos, Habits of Industry: White Culture and the Transformation of the Carolina Piedmont.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Intimate Stories: A Movie Review

Intimate Stories (Historias Minimas) 2002, 1 hour 34 minute

I love the title of this Argentinean film. It conjures up images of steamy bedrooms, illicit affairs, and backroad motels. It sounds like the title of a magazine normally kept behind the counter. But if that’s what you expect, you’re going to be disappointed. What was the American distributor was thinking by translating the Spanish “Historias Minimas” (Small Stories) into the English “Intimate Stories”? Maybe they thought the hint of sex would sell the movie. However, there are no such scenes in this movie.

Although not a great movie, Intimate Stories is a good and beautiful movie. The director, Carlos Sorin, weaves together the stories of three individuals from a small town of Fitz Roy. Although quite different, all three are desperate as individually they travel across Patagonia to San Julian. In their journeys, there’s disappointment, but also generosity that ultimately leads to hope. Maria (Javiere Bravo) is a young mother who has been selected to appear on a cheesy TV game show. She is hoping to win a multiprocessor, but comes with a make-up kit. However, just being on television brings a smile to her face. Roberto (Javier Lombardo), a traveling salesman who spends his time studying sales techniques, hopes to win the hearts of a young widow in San Julian. Knowing her son’s (or is it a daughter, he's not so sure) birthday is near, he purchases a cake and has it decorated as a soccer ball. His compulsive drive to have the perfect cake is humorous. Yet Roberto ends up disappointed. When he stops to deliver the cake, he sees the young widow and her son with another man. Heartbroken, he eats the cake alone in a hotel room, only to discover the next day that the man was her brother. The third character is Don Justo (Antonio Benedictti) an old grocer who has heard that his dog Badface has been spotted in the city. Along the highway, Julia (Julia Solomnoff), a government biologist with an engaging smile, offers him a ride. The way she graciously deals with the eccentric old man leaves you with a sense that she’s an angel. The same is true with a rough highway worker who later takes care of him and reunites him with “Badface”. Both are compassionate. Although we learn along the way that Don Justo had run over his dog in his car, he comes home with a dog that he thinks is Badface.

The pace of the movie is slow. It takes a while to get into it, but you’ll be glad you stuck with it. The scenery of the high desert of Patagonia, often filmed in the morning or evening light, is enough reason to watch the film and to stir a desire in my soul to travel there. The film is also uplifting. Each character experiences gracefulness in their travels. The dialogue is sparse, making this an easy movie to read the subscripts or to practice listening to Spanish.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Recaps from recent travels

Here I go again, breaking my rule about not talking about my family in the present, but this shows some of what we go through as our parents get older… The picture is of an Aberdeen and Rockfish train.

It is hard to watch my mother live only in the present. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the summer of 2005, and I saw more of a decline this visit than in the past. She doesn’t remember what has just happened or what was said just a few minutes ago. At least she still remembers who we all are. For a woman who once was very opinionated, she now has no opinions and generally remains quiet unless you ask her a question. We watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on AMC while there. I kept mentioning where all the scenes were shot—most near my old stomping grounds in Utah—and she acted surprised that I’d been there even though she’d visited me there many times. At one point in the movie, when Butch and Sundance were riding away with a posse on their tail, she asked, “Why are they chasing them?” She’d forgotten that in the previous scene, they’d robbed a train. Yet, she is still able to function on a basic level and my father doesn’t have to do everything for her. On the positive side, we were served desert twice one evening. As we had just finished dinner, she picked up the desert bowls and put them over on the counter by the dishwasher, then saw a part of a cake left over from the day before and brought it over and served desert again (this time in plates). That certainly never happened when I was growing up!

On the positive side, my mother’s caring and nurturing nature remains. She and my dad picked me up at the Raleigh Durham airport last Thursday evening. Then we had dinner with my nephew and niece who are students in Raleigh, before driving down to the coast. The next day my brother was over and he asked how the flight was and, in a teasing manner, if they fed me. I jokingly responded that they gave us 6 peanuts (I think the actual total was 12). Hearing this, my mother said, “You should have told us, we’d stopped and gotten something to eat.” She had forgotten about the meal we had with her grandchildren.

While down South, I caught up with an old co-worker from my scouting days that I’d not seen in twenty years. I also took my grandmother out to the store and we ended up visiting some second-hand places—it’s a good thing I was flying and only had one suitcase.

A Special Sighting: At the ACC store in the Raleigh Durham airport, they had bargain basement prices on Duke Lacrosse sweatshirts. I had to chuckle. They were only 12 bucks, but I don’t need one that bad. Although I don’t know all the details, they certainly had some bad press lately and wearing such a sweatshirt seems to be at least politically incorrect.