Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fishing the Pere Marquette

After a day of rain and cold, yesterday morning looked to be perfect. But then, I’d never fished for Steelhead in the rivers and learned that cloudy days are the best. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky yesterday as we drove north. And the further we went, the more snow was left from the weekend’s storm. We got to the Pere Marquette around 10:30 PM, suited up and hiked back into the river. The water was higher than my friend had expected and at places I found myself in fast water, well over waist deep, pushing the limits of chest-high waders. Once I tripped and almost went swimming, catching myself before diving headfirst, getting only my left arm soaked, which made a cool rest of the morning. After lunch, I changed into dry clothes and the afternoon was more pleasant. We were in a fly only section of the river, using artificial fish eggs on a heavy fly rod. I’d had one strike, Lee caught the only fish I saw, a 6 inch long trout, nothing like the 10 pound Steelheads that supposedly come in from the Great Lakes to spawn. We didn’t see any fish spawning on the gravel beds, where they drop their eggs to be eaten by other fish that lurk in the holes behind the gravel bars. At least we weren’t alone, proving that misery loves company; no one else along the river was catching any fish, either.

My friend watching his line as the faux eggs bob downriver, just above the bottom.

Drift boats floating the river, looking for spawning fish.
Another sign of spring is Skunk Cabbage. This is a unique plant that develops its own heat and melts the snow and ice from around them. They grow early in the season, in swampy areas, and provide pollen for early insects. Their name comes from the smell they give off when they’re broken (or crushed underfoot). Yesterday, I saw many such plants sticking up in the snow, a sign that despite winter’s attempt to hold on, the seasons are changing.
As the bumper sticker reads, a bad fishing beats a good day in the office…

Monday, March 30, 2009

Whiteville, the Fine Arts, and Michael Jordan's Jump Shot

It now all seems like another world. After I left the bakery and went to work for the Boy Scouts in early 1981, I found myself living in Whiteville. You’ve probably never heard of the town. Whiteville is the county seat of Columbus County. But that ain’t saying a whole lot since North Carolina has 100 counties and therefore a 100 county seats. Being a county seat isn’t anything special. I can’t say that I disliked the place. I found the town to be pleasant and there was much I enjoyed about living there. But since my time there included a failed marriage, I’m left with bittersweet emotions about the place.

Whiteville is an interesting town. It’s a town divided. The old part, where I lived, centered on the courthouse which sat in the middle of the two major cross streets. While I was there, they opened the bypass around the town, allowing folks passing through to avoid the traffic circle around the courthouse and its various statutes to the war heroes: those who fought for the Confederacy, in Hearst’s war of expansion and in the various World Wars. The commercial district was a mile south, around the railroad tracts. Folks told me that when they put the tracks in, they insisted that they be one mile south of the town so the engines would disturb things around the courthouse. I found that logic to be suspect as the old Wilmington and Manchester Railroad didn’t have a bend in their tracks between Delco and Fair Bluff and most likely the straight line missed the courthouse. Furthermore, in 1853, when the tracks were laid, I doubt there were many people in the county who’d even seen an iron horse. The tracks would later become a part of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and by the time I arrived were just a spur line for the Seaboard Coastline.

Having the parts of town a mile apart, with the traffic circle around the courthouse on the north end, created a wonderful set-up for cruising. Folks would come from around the country to drive the loop that circled the courthouse, stopping off and on to talk to folks in the opposing lane. I’d been told about this custom which had been going on for decades, but didn’t register until one Saturday night I went to the movies. When I came out, at 9:30 or so, there were hundreds of cars on the street. I quickly learned that if I wanted to get to the other part of town on a weekend night, you needed to avoid the main streets.

Whiteville, in the early 1980s was still a tobacco town. Large warehouses stood around the edge of town where, starting in late summer, farmers from across Columbus and Bladen and Brunswick County would sale their dried golden leaves. However, I would be wrong to say it was just a hick town without much culture. What other town with 5000 citizens could draw in the Atlanta Symphony to perform in the local 1,000 seat high school auditorium? The concert, part of the music arts program, was a sell-out.

Like most folks in town, I had no idea that fall when I purchased season tickets to the arts programs that the Atlanta Symphony would be performing the same night that Carolina would be playing for the NCAA championship. It was the Spring of ‘82 and there were lots of men in town who really didn’t want to be there, but we were shamed into coming because, after all, it was the Atlanta Symphony. It would be bad to have a lot of no-shows for the concert. So I sat near the back of the hall. In the foyer, those who were bright enough to volunteer to staff the ticket windows had set up a TV. They’d figured out that once everyone was in, they could listen to the background music while concentrating on the game. The game would go down in history as a classic battle and we missed it all. As the performance ended, we treated the symphony with a warm applause when, from the lobby, a cry came out that could mean just one thing. Carolina had won. People went crazy. The musicians, overcome by this suddenly enthusiastic crowd, bowed and bowed. Little did they know the applause was actually for Michael Jordan, who’d hit the game ending jump shot, giving Carolina the victory of Georgetown.

Oh yeah, in case any of you don't know, Carolina won last night and will be playing one again in the Final Four, which is next weekend in Detroit.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Opera

Lisa recently published a blog titled, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Monster Truck Show.” Hers is a nice story about giving away tickets to the Monster Truck Show. For some, that would be a great act of kindness, for me the kindness would be the sucker who took the tickets off my hand. However, I shouldn't be so harsh on some people's idea of a great time. After all, there were people who actually enjoyed disco. I didn't associate with any of them, but Lisa's story reminded me of this experience during the waning years of disco. By the way, just to dispel any rumors since I'm often portrayed as a rugged mountain man with a dirty hat, I have been to more than just one opera… This particular event happened in '81 or '82 and I still get a chuckle thinking about today

I couldn't believe the traffic on highway 76, also known as Independent Boulevard. Five days a week, this was a hectic road, but it was a Saturday afternoon and the cars along the main drag into Charlotte were so thick the highway was nearly a parking lot. Certainly all these folks weren’t going to see the Charlotte opera’s production of Madame Butterfly. We hoped to arrive in time to check in to our hotel, dress up and head out for dinner then to the show. As it was, we were afraid we’d not have time to even change clothes. As we got closer to Owen’s Auditorium, we noticed that everyone was turning in. I’d never imagined opera was that popular in North Carolina’s Queen City.

We still had a little over an hour to the show and our hotel was only a few blocks away. We drove on past the auditorium, ran through a fast food establishment and checked into the hotel, eating in our room as we dressed up. Instead of fighting traffic, we decided to walk back to the auditorium. As we walked, moving faster than the cars turning into the parking lot, I read the shared marquee. The auditorium and the old Charlotte Coliseum were next door to each other and, as folks in suits and fancy dresses were promenading into hall for opera, others dressed much more comfortably stampeded into the coliseum to see monster trucks and over-sized tractors duel it out. I was worried that we’d be late as the tickets made it very clear that latecomers would only be seated between acts and was glad to find that we just beat the clock. We found our seats just in time a red-faced conductor to step out on the stage. He stumbled as he apologized over and over, saying that he’d never had to do this before, but because of the traffic for the event next door, they didn’t have enough musicians in the pit to perform the opera. That evening, Madame Butterfly started with a thirty minute intermission.

Madame Butterfly was beautifully staged. We enjoyed the show immensely. But I couldn’t help but to think, as Butterfly was croaking with a knife in her guts and the curtain falling, that folks next door were watching tractor’s play tug-of-war and trunks with over-sized wheels drive over junk cars. Although Puccini would have rolled in his grave, I chuckled at the thought of bringing the two sides together with a monster truck opera featuring the band Queen. All this was over a quarter century ago; I have yet to write the opera. Maybe tomorrow.

Monday, March 23, 2009

General Ramblings

I haven’t done a rambling post lately… It’s time to get things off my chest.

This morning when I went out with the dog, I noticed the crescent waning moon just above the eastern horizon. The sliver will appear again, in a few days, in the evening sky above the western horizon. I miss living in the desert where the skies were always clear. When my daughter was three, she’d look out right after dark and when the moon was new would run through the house shouting, “The moon is back, the moon is back.”

The songbirds are back. A sign of spring, more reliable than even the calendar, are the birds singing in the predawn hours. I first noticed them about a week ago.

If I’m not mistaken, there was a fawn in the field behind the house this morning… Maybe it’s time to throw a baby shower and put out some flowers, allowing the deer a change in diet. They sure did a number on the low branches of the evergreens this winter. Our deer enjoy a sheltered life, without any predators. They must have signed a peace accord with my dog, for he no longer chases them and they no longer run. They coexist. And because they stay within the city limits, they’re safe from the hunter’s crosshairs. The deer have even learned how to invade their only other serious predator, the automobile. Now, when crossing the highway, they stop, look and listen better than most 2nd graders.

I’ve had a sextant for a number of years, an unexpected gift from a friend. I’d once mentioned that I’d love to learn how to navigate with a sextant and then he found this one at a garage sale. For years, it has sat on a bookcase. My daughter has been asking me about it, so we spent time this weekend learning how it works. I got the jest of it figured out (meaning I think I can find my latitude at noon). I can’t imagine using it to determine my location at sea, on a boat that’s bobbing around.

Yesterday morning I had a dream that included my parents. They were at some unfamiliar place, which reminded me of Montreat, North Carolina. They were standing outside a stone-building. I came up to them and they were talking to strangers. My mom was going on and on, bragging about me. It felt so good to hear her praise. This morning, I was reading about how many adults struggle to know that they are cherished or loved by their parents and how they live their lives trying to please their parents. I can’t say that was me. Although I did not always do what my mother wanted me to do, I remember how she was always proud of me. She once saw a photo of me in the newspaper. I was in my mid-20s and making a presentation and she wrote me to say she was proud of me even though she has a hard time understanding that I’m now grown. I’ve often heard her brag about me to friends and when I woke up, I realized that it felt good to once again hear her praise. It’s been a few years since I heard it. Alzheimer’s is a terrible thing. These days she mostly doesn’t even know me. Some days she doesn’t even know my dad.

And to end on an "up note," it was nice to see our President picking Carolina to go all the way in the NCAA tournament. I hope he does as well as he did with the Superbowl!
After comments from Lisa and Murf, I decided to add the above picture of a sextant. I was afraid some of you were thinking I was talking about a mobile bordello--a sex tent--or something along that vein.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ava's Man (a book review)

Reading Rick Braggs stories have conjured up memories from my past. My recent post about my Mama’s Daddy was inspired by this book. The story of Hottie, a man that Bragg’s granddad adopted, got me thinking about a hermit that lived on the beach, just south of Fort Fisher, in an old World War II bunker. I enjoyed this book. I’ve been reading Bragg’s family trilogy backwards, and still have the first book in the group to read.

Rick Bragg, Ava’s Man, (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 259 pages

Rick Bragg never knew his granddaddy. Charlie Bundrum, his mamma’s daddy, died two years before his birth. He’d worked hard all his life, which spanned the years of the Depression. He never got ahead and he died young, in his fifties. Charlie Bundrum wasn’t exactly the most saintly man in the hills of Alabama. He was a roofer, but that often didn’t pay the bills, so he was also a small time moonshiner. One of his pleasures in life was the pint from every gallon that he’d keep for himself; the rest of the hooch he sold to help feed his family. When he needed to, Charlie Bundrum was also a fighter; he protected his family and those he loved as well as they who could not take care of themselves. Bragg describes his grandfather’s morality in this fashion:

He was blessed with that beautiful, selective morality that we Southerners are famous for. Even as a boy, he thought people who steal were trash, real trash. He thought people who would lie were trash… Yet he saw absolutely nothing wrong with downing a full pint of likker—a full pint is enough to get two men as drunk as lords—before engaging in a fistfight that sometimes required hospitalization.’ He saw no reason to obey some laws—like the ones about licenses, fees and other governmental annoyances—but he would not have picked an apple off another man’s ground and eaten it.” (53)

One of the most endearing stories of Charlie Bundrum was his adoption of an older man, who ironically became like a son. Hootie was an elf-like man who lived as a hermit by the river. He earned his name because he talked to owls and they’d answer. He was small, somewhat deformed and, everyone agreed, down-right ugly. Often drunk men along the river would stop by his shack and, for the sport of it, beat him up. Rumors begin to fly around that Hootie had buried treasure there along the banks of the river, some said it was the contents of a bank robbery. These rumors gave drunks and mean men a new reason to beat him up. They’d demand to know where the non-existent look was hidden. Charlie befriended Hootie and the two of them often fished together. It was a good match: Charlie liked to talk and Hootie never had much to say. One day Charlie found Hootie nearly beaten to death. He stayed by his friend that night, with a roofing hatchet in his hand, waiting for the hoodlums to return. They didn’t and the next day he took Hootie home with him. For the next two decades Hootie lived with his family. At first, his wife Ava protested. After all, she and Charlie would eat after the kids had been fed, to make sure everyone had enough. But Charlie reassured her that they’d get by.

Charlie’s wife, Ava, was also a tough woman. Once, a “painted lady” showed interest in Charlie. Ava beat the woman and sent her packing. She also struck out at Charlie, who had allowed the woman to stay in her house. But when a neighbor, taking her side pulled a knife on Charlie, she threw herself in front of Charlie and hissed. Although she was mad at Charlie, she wasn’t going to let anyone else harm her man. The two of them raised a mess of kids as they travelled back and forth between the counties of northern Alabama and northern Georgia in an attempt to eke out a living.

Charlie would work all day in the hot sun and not make ten bucks, but he got five bucks for every gallon on moonshine he sold. His was a pure product, run through clean pipes and often sold by merchants and druggists. Although they came close, the sheriffs and government agents never caught him. Before Charlie would go into the clearing in the swamps where his still was hidden, he’d circle the site like a dog circling a spot to lie down. It’s thought that a dog circles around to make sure he’s not going to plop down on a snake. The moonshiner does it for the same reason. (127)

Charlie wasn’t a religious man. Later in his life he’d have a religious experience, but even after that he didn’t become a regular church-goer. (219) Reflecting on the good memories of his granddad, Bragg notes:

Sometimes a good reputation can be just as inflated as a bad one, but everyone in that part of the world learned of the man’s kindness, and people, people in need or in trouble, just seemed to drift his way. They stayed a night or a month or like Hootie, decades. It is not as romantic, maybe, as his reputation for making good likker, or for laying grown men flat with one good lick, but people still mention it from time to time. (185)

Although Bragg never knew the man, he tells the story as if he’d been there all along…

The hands were magnificent… They hung at the ends of his skinny arms like baseball mitts, so big that a normal man’s hand disappeared in them. The calluses made an unbroken ridge across this palm, and they were rough, rough all over, as shark’s skin. The grease and dirt, permanent as tattoos, inked his skin and the tar and dirt color the quick under his fingernails, then and forever. He could have burned his overalls, changed his name and brought himself a suit and tie, but those hands would have told on him.” (52)

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it. Bragg is a master storyteller and he has painted with words a lovely picture of his granddad.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chichen Itza and Basketball

I've mentioned being in the Yucatan earlier this month. While it was kind of a business trip and I don't talk about work, I did get out and enjoy the countryside as well as play some hoops.

I played basketball several nights. On our first night in town, us old guys were taken to the cleaners by these younger kids (whose ages ranged from 17 to 21--our ages ranged from 52 to 67!). The oldest of us "old guys" wanted to know why the guy in the middle was named Anna. At breakfast the next morning, we gave him a biology lesson. He was so humiliated having been beaten by a girl, that he played ever harder the next time. Even though we weren't as fast as the kids we were playing against, we began to use our height to our advantage. I liked playing against Mayans, I felt tall!

Another highlight of the trip was a visit to Chichen Itza, one of the largest Mayan ruins in Central America. Behind me is the Observatory--a really neat building. These guys were great astronomers.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan is the highlight of Chichen Itza. Snakes are a favorite subject on the stone work. Their worship seem to focus on the sun, snakes and the male anatomy.

This is one of two cenotes at Chichen Itza. There are no rivers in the Yucatan, only sinkholes that open up to underground rivers that flow through the limestone.

Although these look like artillery shells, they're actually stones phalluses... Use your imagination.

This was the location of the Mayan Final-4 for several centuries, the last big dance occurring long before Columbus arrived and turned the hoop 90 degrees... A closing shot. You can enjoy these photos without local craftsmen trying to gain your business, crying out as you approach: "one dollar, one dollar." If you ignore them, as you walk away they change their pitch to "ten pesos, ten pesos," amounting to a 30% drop in price! I couldn't believe how many vendors they allowed inside the grounds. They line the paths between the various parts of the site. I've also visited Copan, another Mayan center in Honduras. There, I only remember vendors outside the gate. Once you were inside, you were free to look at the sights without having to beat off salespeople.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Memories of Mama's Daddy

Last month, I wrote about my maternal grandfather visiting us shortly after we moved to Wilmington. Over the past four years, I’ve mentioned him in several other blog entries including one about his last Christmas, his family on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, planting his vegetable garden on Good Friday and him killing rattlesnakes. The photo is of his lantern sitting on the mantel of my fireplace. That lantern and a kerosene lamp that is in Rick Bragg’s family (he tells about it in Ava’s Man) inspired these memories. The second photo is of my granddaddy holding me when I was 4 1/2 months old (May/June 1957)

The fire truck had already left and the barn had been reduced to a heap of smoldering logs and twisted tin when we pulled up in Dad’s big Buick. We came as soon as Dad got home from work. Mom had received the call about the fire earlier that afternoon and took us out into the backyard and we looked in the south for the smoke. Back then, flue-cured tobacco barns were built like a chimney, designed to draw heat up through the leaves on sticks. If a stick of tobacco fell into the fire and flashed, allowing the flames to reach the bottom leaves, the flames would quickly be drawn up through the drying the leaves. There would be little one could do to save the barn.

Dad parked behind the pack house, pulling off of the sandy two-track so that other vehicles could get in and out. We walked over to where my granddaddy and a few men were standing around, exhausted, leaning on the on shovels and rakes they’d used to clear the brush from around the barn, to keep the fire from spreading to the pack house. It was bad to lose a barn, it would have been disastrous to have lost the pack house which was filled with tobacco that had already been cured and waiting for the market to open. There was nothing left for us to do. Luckily, the summer was almost over. For the rest of season, my granddaddy hauled his tobacco down to Frank’s farm, his son-in-laws, on the other side of Carthage, and cured his crop in one of his barns. I didn’t know it then, but it was an end of an era.

Ever since he’d left the shipyard at the end of the war, my granddaddy had raised tobacco along with some of the best vegetables in Moore County. Before the war, he’d worked on other people’s farms along with driving a truck for the WPA and making moonshine on the side. After doing time for the later, and under the watchful eye of his mother-in-law (my great-grandma), he stopped making hooch and, I’ve been told, became a teetotaler. Although he was never very active, he joined the Beulah Hill Baptist Church. The war was a good to him. With the shipyards opening in Wilmington, he’d gone to High Point to take a welding class. During the Christmas break, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, he moved his family to Wilmington. He took a job in the shipyard and my grandma worked in the cafeteria at the dry docks. My great-grandma moved with them and lived with them, watching the kids and cooking for the family which always included a few boarders who’d moved to Wilmington to work in the defense industries. During the war, he’d saved enough to buy two small farms—the Gyger place and Brook’s land. These farms were adjacent to my great-grandma’s land and just west of Beulah Hill. It must of took him a while to arrange things, for after he was laid off from the shipyards at the end of the war, he spent the first year as a sharecropper in Lillington, raising crops on someone else’s land. But then, in late ’46 or early ’47, they’d moved back to Moore County.

Granddaddy built a log barn at the edge of the woods, behind the Gyger house. There, during the late summer, he’d spend most of his hours around the barn, often sleeping under the tin porch, as he cut wood and fed the fires that cured the golden leaf. He’d come home for dinner and to clean up, but he had to stay close to the barn to tend the fires. At night, his constant companion was a kerosene lantern that I have and still use.

Granddaddy had a small tobacco allotment, raising only three or so acres of the leaf. In the winter, he’d take on a second part-time job, as a night watchman or tearing down buildings for salvage. That winter after his barn burned, he built a new one. Instead of using logs, it was a framed barn, built out of salvaged materials. He covered the outside with green tarpaper. Instead of using wood heat, he installed four kerosene burners, attached to a large tank that sat beside the barn. No longer would he have to sleep at the barn, waking up every few hours to feed the fires. Now, with a thermostat, he could sleep in his own bed, stopping by two or three times a day to make sure the temperature was holding. Of course, I was young and don’t remember my granddaddy sleeping at the barn, but I wish I had been there. Guy Owen, in his classic story, “The Flim-Flam Man” writes about men watching the barns at night, while sipping whiskey and swapping stories. Owen blamed modern curing barns, the ones that used kerosene and later gas, for the decline in storytelling in southern culture. No longer did men have to live at the barn, constantly watching the fire. But it was a life I never got to experience. I was four or five when my granddaddy’s barn burned, nine when he raised his last crop of tobacco. My granddaddy’s heart gave out a month or so before setting out tobacco beds for a new season (the plants are started in a bed late in winter, then transplanted into the field after the threat of frost is over). It was a week before my tenth birthday. For years, he’d been suffering from emphysema.

I tell you the fellow that invented them gas curers ought to be horsewhipped. He put an end to some fine tale-swapping and yarn-spinning. The truth is, that's where I got my real education, hanging around Tobacco barns and listening to old timers talk.
-Guy Owen, The Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Tortilla Factory (in the Yucatan)

I've been busy since getting back, so I decided to do mostly a picture post of a "neighborhood visit" in the Yucatan.

In the fashion of Mr. Roger's, let's visit the neighborhood in the village of Xocenpich. This is a Mayan village (hence, the name is in Mayan, not Spanish). Pich (pronounced peach, but not a peach tree) is the name of a tree in which they carve masks and other items. This is the typical sidestreet, just north of the bakery. Look at the concrete powerlines--impressive.

Our stop today is at the tortilla factory. It's a good thing I'd already eaten some of their tortillas before stopping here.

The corn for the tortillas is first cooked over a fire in this barrel. Obviously, there are no health inspectors here... I didn't know if I could eat another tortilla after seeing open buckets of shelled corn in the same area as pecking chickens.

I was impressed with the simple machinery, especially the oven circular oven that allows this place to turn out 1000s of tortillas.

For some reason, I forgot to take a picture of the combination grinder and mixer (where the dough is prepared). Here the dough is run through a machine that sheets out the dough and cuts out the tortillas.

The oven is kerosene fired. I did notice the night before a slight taste on the tortillas--and if I had my choice would prefer a wood fired oven. When I worked in the bakery, I had an oven operator who once told me about working in a bakery when he was young (in the 50s). He had a kerosene oven to blow up on him.

Here is a family, welcomed by the village dog, as they wait to buy their daily tortillas.

That ends our trip to the neighborhood bakery. And yes, I did eat more tortillas, but I wish I had made my visit to the tortilla factory on my last day in the Yucatan, instead of my second!

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Prince of Frogtown: A Book Review

Sometime soon, I'll write something about the Yucatan and post pictures, but first, let me tell you about a great book... I know Bragg got in some trouble as a journalist, when he was working for the New York Times... Maybe he was a bit like Mark Twain and couldn't let a good story get in the way of the truth. This book will have you laughing and crying! As I listened to this book and did not have it in written form in front of me, some of the quotes may not be exact.
Rick Bragg, The Prince of Frogtown (Random House Audio, 2008) 7 hours 59 minutes.

Frogtown was the name of a Jacksonville, Alabama working class neighborhood where Rick Bragg’s father grew up. In this third in a trilogy on his family, Bragg seeks to understand his abusive and alcoholic father. Although he’s never able to redeem him, Bragg interviews relatives and friends of his deceased father in an attempt to learn more about the man. With chapters that jump back and forth, Bragg tells his father’s story (and some of his own) as well as inserting his own battles with helping raise a step-son. The methodology works surprisingly well, probably because Bragg refers to his step-son as “the boy” and his wife as “the woman,” which keeps the primary focus on the story of his dad and family. Instead of learning the details about Bragg’s current family, we learn about his father and the family he grew in as well as a bit about how about how fathers relate to sons and also about how things have changed in the rural South. Listening to the author read, in audio version of the book, provides an additional treat as we hear Bragg’s soft southern voice.

Bragg begins telling about a family gathering at a spring, a special place where “a boy, a genuine boy, can have no real fun with so many Presbyterians puttering around and so many mammas in one tight place.” I almost gave the book up right then and there, with his digs about Presbyterians. But Bragg is an equal rights offender and before he was done writing, he’d poked fun of the Methodists and Baptists and most other religious groups of the South. His description of the men who’d gathered there is especially telling:

“Some were saved, some backsliders and some yet unaffiliated, but even the men that walked in the holy of holies didn’t preach to the others out of respect—if you went to work and fed your babies, you were already half way home. So they spoke of the secular, of the secrets of fuel injection and how to put on brake shoes.”

At the time of the described event, Charles, Rick’s father, stood among such men, but his standing there wouldn’t last long. Charles had killed a man in Korea, holding his head under water till he drowns, an event that earned him the right to a drink. But he became a drunk. However, before that, he was the man who would bring the girl who’d become Rick’s mother roses (which he picked from someone else’s yard). He courted her in his shinny car, which always looked good even though it burnt so much oil that he’d just get a bucket-full of spent oil from the service station and pour it into the engine. Looks matter more than performance. As a Marine, he wooed her with his daily letters. They got married and she began having babies, and he drank more and more and the abuse got worse and worse and one day his mother had enough.

In telling the story of his father, Bragg also tells the story of the region. He’s descended from folks who fought with Andy Jackson in his campaign to clear out the Indians, yet most of them are a 1/8 or a 1/16th Indian. They were so poor they couldn’t even afford to buy the land at a government auction after Jackson’s sent the native tribes west on the Trail of Tears. Then along came the “rich man’s war” and the sharecroppers marched off into “one of the true oddities in Southern history—to fight for a way of life that was closed off to them.” Bragg notes that these men had as much “war whoop” as “Rebel yell” in them. “It was the fight, not the cause…” Racism ensured after the war as poor whites and blacks struggled over meager resources. Then along came the mills. The mill meant salvation to the hard working farmers and sharecroppers of the region. “The cost would be terrible, but it would be salvation just the same.” Yet Charles Bragg, unlike his family, knew better than to go into the mill. As a child, seeing a one-armed man, Rick asked his mamma if it was the war. “No,” she said, “the mill.” This man had been the best guitar picker around and had been invited to Nashville, but couldn’t go for if he laid out a day, he’d be fired. Rick recalls being told that “everything he needed to know about the mill could be found in that empty sleeve.” Agreeing, he notes there is “something wrong with a place that keeps a part of you after quittin’ time.”

One of the most moving parts of the book is where Rick interviews family members and friends to learn about his dad. His dad’s best friend, Jack, tells about how Charles called him from the TB sanatorium. He wanted his friend to “bust him out,” but Jack said he couldn’t do it, that he’d be arrested. In telling the story, three decades after Charles’ death, Jack’s heart was still aching. Recalling the last time he’d seen his dad, right before his death, Rick remembers him looking like a “burned up house.” Charles Bragg died in the winter of ’75. Rick was in High School. Charles had asked not to be buried in a tie, but the undertaker dressed him up in one anyway, a clip-on. Right before they closed the casket, Charles’ mother pulled the tie off, saying it was the last thing she could do for her son…

As the book continues, Bragg tells about his mother and the house he brought for her and how she and his younger brother lives. His younger brother, who never knew his dad, has followed his ways and has been in prison, but Rick and his mom now hopes he’s beat it. Flowers grow everywhere his mom walks on her land, but there’s not a single rose.

I enjoyed the storytelling in this book. Rick Bragg has a wonderful way of painting pictures and telling stories with words. Although there seemed to be a few “extra parts” in the book (like a long ending that took us through his brother’s release from prison), I enjoyed listening to it so much that I brought a paperback copy of Ava’s Man and read it while flying back from Mexico. I recommend both books.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Back home

I'm back, safe and sound. I'll write about the trip later, including the basketball games, but for now I just want to let you folks know I'm back, without having to do battle with any drug lords (or even mosquitoes). That's me, swimming in a cenote (sink hole). A group of us hiked to this cenote one morning. Flying back on a plane loaded with tourists from Cancun (was Randall one of them?), the pilot flew low the length of the coastline. As I looked at the inviting water and ants in bikinis, I had to asked myself, "And why did I go tramping off in the jungle?" But it was a great trip. The small villages are a treat and Merida is a wonderful city (if only it wasn't so hot in the summer). My favorite new town in Mexico is now Izamal.

PS, you know it's a good trip when you go down below the Rio Grande for a week and don't fell the need to pop a single Imodium AD!