Saturday, May 30, 2009

The 70s, my thoughts and a book review

This morning, listening to the radio, I heard Maureen McGovern sing “The Morning After.” This was the theme song to the Poseidon Adventure, one of the worst movies of all time in my humble opinion. But listening to the song this morning, words I first heard on my AM/FM radio that I received as a Christmas present in 1970, I realized that the song spoke to that age.

There’s got to be a morning after
If we can just hold on through the night
We got a chance to find the sunshine
Let’s keep on looking for the light.
In the summer of ’73, when the song was a hit, things were pretty messed up. I was reminded of this as I read a new book on the 70s. I had my 13th birthday party just 16 days into the decade that would shape my life. Over the next ten years, I would graduate from high school and college, get a drivers license, work in a supermarket and then a bakery, begin a doomed marriage, and visit Japan. The decade ended on a rainy night driving back from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, listening to the FM radio, or maybe an 8-Track. Gas was expensive then, over a dollar a gallon for the first time. It was 35 cent a gallon when I got my driver’s license in January 1973. Somewhere around Wilson or Mt. Olive, driving on wet pavement through a dark night, the 80s began.

Here is my review:

Edward D. Berkowitz, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 283 pages.

For Berkowitz, the 70s as an era ran from 1973 to Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. He cites ’73 as a beginning because so many things that helped define the era occurred that year: the end of American involvement in Vietnam, an Oil Embargo, and the crisis of a president that included the resignation of the Vice President (Nixon would resign a year later). Berkowitz does a great job of describing the 70s, reminding me of all the twist and turns we had in those turbulent years. We had a president who, by visiting China, changed the history of the world in ways that we can only begin to understand. I don’t think I realized how close we were to National Health Insurance in the early 70s, an idea that died with the economic downturn in ’74. And then we had a whole series of scandals, starting with Nixon and Agnew, but they weren’t nearly as colorful as Wilbur Mills and his strippers.

The sixties was an optimistic decade; the seventies were pessimistic. In the 70s, according to Bruce Schulman, America got made over, and ‘its economic outlook, political ideology, cultural assumption and fundamental arrangements changed.” It was an era of declining productivity and extreme inflation. It was the era when much of the United States industrial strength started to slip and countries like Japan made great strides in their own productivity.

Politically, Berkowitz divides the seventies into political eras: the fall of Nixon, the Ford years, and the Carter years. Reading the book, I felt sorry for Carter (and am reminded of Obama’s challenges). First of all, most of his problems were inherited. Berkowitz points out that Carter’s attempt to be “transparent” actually made it harder for him to get things through Congress. Furthermore, Congress had new found powers inherited from a weakened executive branch following Watergate. Carter was also the first post-World War II president not to have a period of economic growth. Then, just when it seemed his luck couldn’t get any worst, it did. His administration ended with Three Mile Island and the Iranian hostage crisis. Berkowitz notes that the problems Carter inherited and faced may have been beyond any politician ability to handle, but that Carter’s moralizing issues didn’t help and probably only made things worst.

Civil rights for African-Americans was the focus on the post-war years. According to Berkowitz (and others like Thomas Wolfe, whom he likes to quote), the 70s was the decade that everyone began to demand rights. Women’s rights were at the forefront. 1970 saw the release of a new brand of cigarettes that focused on women. Virginia Slims were advertised with the logo, “You’ve come a long ways, baby.” Much of the decade was spent arguing over the ERA amendment. I hadn’t realized that the ERA passed Congress with the support not only of the left, but with right-winged senators like Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater. Berkowitz goes into detail on reasons why it failed. One reason was the economic downturn, which made people afraid of change. The other two major reasons was the political savvy of those against it and the ERA debate being framed around the abortion issue. In addition to women’s right, the 70s saw the rise of the gay movement, disability rights and rights of immigrants. In many ways, all the new groups demanding their rights paralleled a shift from the Civil Rights era views of doing what was good for all America, to a focus on more individual concerns. The 70s is seen as the “ME” decade, which helps explain the rise of Reagan in the 80s.

Growing up in the South in the 70s, I was shocked that Berkowitz discussed the integration of Boston’s public schools and spent little time talking about the integration of the schools in the South or other areas of the country. Interestingly, the ruling that got busing started wasn’t in Boston was from North Carolina (Swan vs Charlotte Mecklenburg, 1971). Three years later, this ruling was used in Boston. As a Southerner who’s lived much of his adult life up north, I am still shocked at how segregated schools remain up here and find it strange that in upscale neighborhoods around northern cities, one can still find school districts that are mostly white.

Berkowitz does a better job on describing the political changes in the s70s than the culture changes. Culturally, he explores only movies and TV in depth. Although he acknowledges significant authors like John Updike, he does not explore the role they played in defining an era. In movies, he focuses mostly on “blockbusters,” a new way of marketing movies in an era that was seeing declines at the theater. As for TV, the 70s were the golden years as they didn’t have competition from cable and other forms of media. He discusses not only sitcoms, but also news programs and sports. Outside of a few brief mentions, he does not discuss the role of music. Maybe it was because I spent most of the decade as a teenager, that I think that music defined the era. It was the day when “album stations” bucking the top-40 trend were exiled to FM, the era of Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan and southern rock. It was also, sad to say, the era of disco.

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it; I just wished Berkowitz had gone further. He does a wonderful job discussing American politics. One final criticism, he overlooks lots of major world changes that were occurring, especially in Africa. Maybe the book should have been called a political history of the 70s in America.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Harold and Giovanni's Room: a memory

Yesterday morning I had a little procedure done on my foot and have spent much of the time since, in a recliner with my foot propped up, loopy on pain medicine. I was beginning to enjoy the Viocidin, until I woke up at about 5 AM, my body itching and my breath wheezy. I must be allergic to the stuff, so I am now on something new and can barely stay awake. I have books and a pile of paperwork, but haven’t done much of anything. I did finish this piece which I’d started last week. Digging out the old photos of Delano, I found the one of him and Harold and it got me thinking about a friend from the past… Delano (on the left) was the scoutmaster of the Mormon troop outside of Tabor City and Harold (on the right) was the scoutmaster of the Tabor City troop.

Thinking back, it was probably a cruel joke. Harold was planning on spending the week with his scout troop at summer camp and he asked for book recommendations. I lent him a couple of books, one of which was James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. I knew he’d read it. He was shocked there was a book by Baldwin I’d read that he hadn’t (I’d read it in college). After all, he taught social studies and was African-American. I was a white boy and the Boy Scout’s hired hand. Harold dug right in. Giovanni’s Room isn’t your typical Baldwin work. Unlike Baldwin’s better known writings, Giovanni’s Room has nothing to do with the African-American experience. The story is set in Paris and features a unique triangle relationship between an American couple and an Italian (Giovanni). But it’s not Hella, the American girl, who’s interested in Giovanni; it’s David, the boy. When I gave him the book, I had a suspicion Harold was unaware of Baldwin’s sexuality. I should add that in addition to teaching Junior High, Harold was also a preacher in an Apostolic Pentecostal Church.

Harold didn’t exactly fit the Norman Rockwell’s view of a scoutmaster. He ended up with the job by default. The coach at his school had been recruited to be the scoutmaster and he asked Harold to be his assistant. That next school year, the coach accepted a high school position down in South Carolina and when no one else stepped forward, Harold took over as Scoutmaster. I don’t think Harold had ever camped before becoming an assistant scoutmaster. I’m not even sure he’d built a campfire and I’m pretty sure he never used a compass. Harold was much more comfortable sitting inside with his head in a book than outside swatting mosquitoes and gnats. Even though he wasn’t created out of the scoutmaster’s mold, Harold was a good leader and saw to it that several of the boys in his troop earned their Eagle. These were the first Eagles earned in Tabor City in a decade or so. In fact, until Harold and the coach got together, there hadn’t been a scout troop in town for several years. Tabor City was a rough place; it was also known as one of the Sweet Potato Capitals of the World and Razor City, depending on whether you were talking to the Chamber of Commerce or the man on the street. The city had a brutal past and in the 1950s, the Klan ruled. After intervention by the FBI, the Klan had been destroyed, but an uneasy truce had been formed. As an African-American, Harold did a lot to break down the barriers that still existed in the early 80s. He was respected by all in the community, as shown by families allowing their white boys join his troop.

Harold and I became good friends, partly drawn together by our interest in history, social studies, literature and practical jokes. He finally forgave me for shattering his idyllic view of Baldwin. When my personal life became chaotic and I went through a divorce, Harold was there to support me. He even tried to set me up with another teacher in the school, but it was too soon for both of us. Her husband had been killed in a work accident and I think Harold was trying to take care of both of us. Later, after I left the area and moved across state, Harold and I would occasionally get together for lunch or dinner when I was driving home to see my parents. We wrote back and forth a few times after I left North Carolina for Pittsburgh, but with me having no reason to travel through Columbus County, and Harold no reason to head up north, we lost contact. As with Delano, I was blessed to know Harold.

Yet the key to my salvation, which cannot save my body, is hidden in my flesh.
-David imagining Giovanni’s execution (James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Grocery Career, Part 2

This is my second post on my time as a "Country Boy," working for Wilsons Supermarkets. Click here for my first post.

When I was pursuing my supermarket career, it was the custom for grocery stores to run weekly sales from Thursday to Wednesday. Late Wednesday night, Bert would have a bag boy help him hang large signs in the widows, advertising our weekly specials: a five pound bag of sugar for 59 cents, some cut of steak for 1.99 a pound, bananas for 10 cents a pound, baby food a dime a jar, five pounds of potatoes for 39 cents. Also late Wednesday, as we’d be closing up, the job of changing the marquee out front would fall to one of the bagboys. This was always a fun job, except for when it was raining or windy. We’d used a 12 foot long mechanical hand to take off the old letters and put on the new ones. By the time I arrived at work from school on Thursday, the grocery store would be packed with customers trying to get in on the deals.

I don’t recall a lot about my few months working at Wilsons. Everyone that I worked with, except for Tom, was older than me. During this time I mostly worked up front, bagging groceries and carrying them out to the customer’s car. This was fine with me for you were often tipped for helping someone with their groceries. Occasionally, we’d be assigned another task like taking care of bottle returns. In the front of the store were several large bins on wheels where soft-drink bottles were placed after being redeemed for deposit. Whenever a bin would begin to fill, or when there was a lull in the action, Bert would assign one of us bag boys take the bins to the back of the store and separate the bottles into several large wooden bins, divided by brands. The distributors picked up the empties a couple times a week. Although this gave you a break from bagging, it was really a dirty job and the novelty of working in the back of the store soon wore off.

At this time in my grocery career, I worked only three days a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On school nights, I’d arrive at 4 PM and work till 8 or 9 PM. As things begin to slow down in the evening, Bert would begin to send some of us home for the night. It was always nice to get out a little early on Thursday, especially if I had homework. On Saturday, I’d work from late morning till early evening. As the weather warmed and school was done for the summer, there was a turn-over of personnel. Many of my colleagues had graduated from high school and they left for permanent jobs, college or the military. As these guys and gals were replaced, I was no longer the new kid on the block. Of these new employees, Tina was the most exciting. They'd later be others such as the from North Brunswick High who stood me up for the ROTC ball, but Tina was the first of the girls my age working at the store. Like Tom, she was a student from New Hangover High. I remember her with hard dark hair, olive colored skin and big dark eyes. For the next couple of years, we’d flirt back and forth. She was the only cashier younger than my mother who called me “honey.” But for some reason, I never got the nerve to ask her out and after a year or so I'd missed my opportunity as she was dating others.
Late that summer, I found myself being trained for new jobs around the store. Bert trained me to run a cash register. It seemed a nice skill to have and it meant a small increase in my paycheck (but an actual decrease since cashiers never received tips). All the regular cashiers were women, just as all the bag boys were “boys.” But, there were always a few bag boys trained to take over a register if things got busy, or to allow those on the register to take a break and to fill in if there was an absence. It was a treat to be assigned to a cash register on a rainy day. At that time, the store used mechanical cash registers. These were heavy machines that had rows of numbers. There were no scanning of products. A carton of cigarettes at the time cost $1.89 (this was North Carolina, after all!). Holding the item in one hand, I’d mash the 1 button on the third-to-the-left column, the 8 button on the second and the 9 on the left-hand column. Soon, I could do this in one motion. I then rolled my hand to the right and with the side of my hand hit enter. The price would appear on the tape and show on the top of the machine. It became second nature and after a few weeks, I discovered that I was as fast as anyone in the store except for some of the older women who been there for years and mainly worked the morning and early afternoon shifts.

Another new job I found myself being assigned to was mopping. On week nights, about 15 minutes before the doors were locked, Bert would have two of us go back and begin preparations for mopping the store. We had a large machine that put out a cleaning solution, scrubbed the floor and then vacuumed up the dirty solution. Behind the machine, the second person would come with a mop and bucket and scrub the sides of the aisles and any missed areas. It’d take 30 or so minutes to cover the floor.

Late in the summer of ’73, Bert asked if I’d be interested in working the Saturday night mop crew. For this, I had to get my parents permission since we worked well into Sunday morning. The store was closed on Sundays. My parents agreed and, for the rest of the time I was in high school, I didn’t have to worry about a Saturday night curfew and often came home at 4 or 5 on Sunday mornings. This was okay with my parents as long as I was up in time for church and provided me with more freedom that I should have had as a high school kid.

One of these early Sunday mornings, I came home hungry. Everyone had been asleep for hours. Looking in the fridge, I spotted some sliced ham and made me a sandwich. It was good and I decided when I got home from church that Sunday afternoon, I’d make me another sandwich. I started to fix this to my mother’s horror, who informed me that it was a fresh ham and it hadn’t been cooked. She was sure I was going to come down with some terrible disease, but I never did.
On Saturday night, we’d not only mop the floor, but strip it of wax. As soon as the last of the customers were out, we’d take all the shopping carts out of the store and place them in the parking lot. Then the three of us (there were always three on Saturdays), would remove anything from the aisles and place them in the back room or up off the floor. With the floors cleared, except for the aisles themselves, we’d use chemicals in the machine and in the buckets to cut the wax off. Where the wax had built up, we’d scrap off the excess with metal scrapers attached to hoe handles. The floor had to be spotless and dry before waxing. We’d had special mops and buckets for the wax, which came in 55 gallon oil drums. Using a mop, One of us would put a line of wax along the edge of each aisle, about two inches from the edge. Then the other two would come in and fill in the aisle with wax. The job required a steady swing of the mop in order to place the wax evenly on the floor. Then, after the wax had dried, we moved everything back out onto the floor and brought in the shopping carts and the store was ready to open on Monday morning. (If it was raining, we’d have to mop again the area where we brought the carts in, for it’d be sloppy wet.)

There was lots of freedom with working on the mop crew. Bert or John (John was the assistant manager and the two of them rotated Saturday night duty), would lock us in the store after we’d taken the carts out. We’d be on our own till they came back, generally at 1 or 2 AM, after the clubs were closed. They’d often have beer on their breath and on many occasions, Bert would have a hot looking woman with him. (Bert was divorced, John was married.) They’d help us finish up and we’d leave for home an hour or so later.

Two or three weeks after starting to work on the mop crew, the other guys who’d been on the crew left and I found myself in charge. I also quickly learned that it didn’t take six or seven hours to do the work. We’d normally be done by midnight and would spent an hour or two sleeping on the cash register belts as we waiting for Bert or John to come back and open the doors so we could bring in the buggies before going home. Since we were still on the clock, those were some of the best hours I’d work. I ran mop crew throughout my high school year. Bert, knowing that we were faster than others had been, would come back earlier and we started being out of the store between midnight and 1 AM. When I and the others started turning 18, during my senior year in high school, getting out “early” on this late night shift had the added advantage of allowing us to cruise around and to close down night clubs.

It doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly thirty-five years since I worked in the grocery. I wonder what happened to Bert and John and Tina?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stuff (including a ball game)

Work’s so busy that I decided I could take off today and head to Detroit and watch the Tigers beat up on W’s old team, the Rangers. (Actually, I'd planned this two months ago.) What a great day for baseball, beautiful skies and warm but not too hot (it was 79 degrees when the game started, 85 when the Tigers turned a double play to end the game in the top of the ninth). We got to Detroit around 11 AM, in time to have lunch at the Hockeytown Café. I decided to live dangerously and ordered a veggie burger (their black bean burger was excellent!). But I’m sure I broke some kind of unwritten guy rule by eating vegetarian at a place with hockey jerseys from so many great players. But the cute waitress with her dyed red hair told everyone that it was her favorite, so I felt vindicated as everyone else chowed-down on Reubens and ½ pound hamburgers. After lunch, we headed over to the game. Jackson, the starting pitcher for Detroit, got off to a bad start. He gave up a homer in the first inning (but so did the Rangers) and for the first few innings was only tossing the ball around 93 miles per hour. But as the innings continued, he began to smoke it with 97 and 98 mph strikes. The Tigers swept the Rangers this series!

The Redwings are still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, but as I’ve said before, I don’t really understand hockey. However, this guy is a real fan!


It was sad to see the monument to the Big Three automakers in the outfield. Just behind them, down on the river, is the GM tower…

There are many development opportunities available around Detroit. This fixer-upper has nice ventilation. It was a successful trip; we got home with four tires and an equal number of hubcaps! Life is hard in Detroit and if you haven’t read the Walking Man’s poetry about the city, you should.

On the home front, my daughter’s award banquet for school was yesterday and she is nearly done with elementary school. I was proud of her. Unlike when I was in the 5th grade, she received several academic awards and was one of the recipients of the Presidential Academic Achievement Award that included a pin and a signed certificate by Obama (or someone on his staff working a printer). She was probably the only kid at her school excited to have something signed by Obama! Unlike me, she was also recognized for making it a full year on safety patrol. If you remember, I got court-martialed! I had to be proud even though she didn't follow in my steps.

I hope to have my second story about being a Country Boy (working in a grocery story) posted by Saturday.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Delano: Boy Scout Memories

The post below is a repeat. I first published it in my blog in April 2007. Delano was one of the characters I got to know working for the Boy Scouts. He was the scoutmaster of the Mormon Troop in Tabor City, but lived in Pireway, down near the Waccamaw River. This weekend, his second cousin found my first post via google and noted that he'd like to see the photos I had of Delano. I couldn't find the photo I'd shot of him chopping wood. I know it appeared in the Whiteville NC newspaper, probably in 1982 or 83. Here are two pictures of Delano that was not in the original post. In the second shot, he's with his son. The man on the left is Harold, the scoutmaster for the other troop in Tabor City. It was at an Eagle Court of Honor. I think those two boys were the first Tabor City scouts in 20 years to receive their Eagle. One day, I'll write memories of Harold, as he was another good friend of an age gone by. The last photo is of me (pardon the quality of the photos).

According to his cousin who wanted to see the photos, Delano died in 2004. "He was one of the most happy and full of life people I ever knew," he wrote. Click here to see the original post.

What are those government fools thinking, offering classes to teach us how to make alcohol? There ain’t a farmer in these parts that haven’t made liquor at one time or another,” Delano fumed.It was in the early 80s and after years of prosecuting farmers for turning corn into liquids, a lively discussion was being held with how to do this legally, for internal combustion as opposed to internal consumption. If the farmers made their own, they could reduce their dependence on gasoline and diesel fuel. The local community college offered a course on alternative fuels, but Delano didn’t think much of the idea. The government was meddling where it shouldn’t be meddling. His views weren’t a surprise; everyone in Columbus County complained about the government meddling, except of course when they were first at the hog trough. However, his admission on the moonshining activities of area farmers surprised me. Did he include himself in the bunch? After all, he was a Mormon and the scoutmaster for a small Mormon troop in southern part of the county. Mormons weren’t supposed to be drinking. But then, neither were Baptist and those in that area who weren’t Mormon were members of one the several off-brand Baptist Churches. A part of me always wanted to know what went on in the “Primitive, Fire-baptized, Fundamentalist Baptist Church,” but I never got up the nerve to find out.

Even though he marched to his own drum, I loved Delano. There was never a dull moment when he was around. He was always smiling and joking. Living out on the edge of the Green Swamp, down near the Waccamaw River, Delano could be counted on to tell a story that included hunting and fishing how-to tips. Like his neighbors, Delano supplemented his livelihood from the bounty of the earth and would entertain us telling about the tricks of his neighbor. He never indicted himself, but one had to wonder. One favorite was dialing for fish (using an old crack phone to create an electrical charge that races through the water and stuns the fish so that when they come to the surface you can net ‘em). To hear him tell the story, nobody in his neighborhood purchased canned dog food to feed to canines. Dogs got scraps from the table. Canned dog food was used to chum the waters for fish. Holes were punched in a can that was tossed into the water at a spot where you wanted to fish in a day or two. The dog food attracted fish so that when you came back for business, you didn’t have to spend much time finding the fish. You just had to hope the fish, fat on dog food, were ready to bite into a juicy worm.I met Delano at a chicken bog for scout leaders held in Fair Bluff. Having been told he was a Mormon, I made sure we had alternatives to the coffee and tea that everyone else would be drinking. I’d gotten a couple bottles of apple juice and offered him one. He refused and poured himself a cup of coffee. At this same event, I was troubled when I learned that a chicken bog contained not only fowl, but also sausage. Realizing that we had several Jewish leaders, I apologized. What little training I’d had from the scouts by this point had stressed sensitive to such issues. But sausage wasn’t a problem, these guys assured me, as long as their wives weren’t around. I’m sure the same applied to Delano’s coffee and soft drinks and most other leaders who indulged in one thing or another.

Delano was a disabled veteran of the Korean War. He once told me about his experiences there. I don’t recall much of what he said, but there was a story about a small group of them lost behind enemy lines and struggling to make it back to safety, surviving minefields, frostbite and starvation. Although he could walk and get around, he wasn’t particularly fast and was limited in the amount of work that he could do (although I do remember him splitting wood with a maul one Saturday when several troops got together to take firewood to people in need). We got along well; both of us believed that when camping, an afternoon nap was a necessity. He had a small but devoted group of scouts who looked up to him and knew that he looked out for their best interest. At camporees, where all the troops in the county gathered, Delano made a point to invite me to eat Saturday dinner with his boys. Sometimes the fare would be normal, venison or fried fish. Other times the menu was down right exotic. In the three years I worked that district, I was served bear, squirrel, turtle, raccoon, and even a greasy opossum.

I came across many characters during my three years working for the Scouts in Eastern North Carolina. I cherish these memories. It’s hard to accept the fact that the boys who were in scouts at the time are now in their 30s. “Oh my,” as they say down there, “how time flies.”

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Population: 485 (A Book Review)

Michael Perry, Population: 485, Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (San Francisco: Harper Perennial, 2003), 234 pages

After twelve years of wandering, Michael Perry returns to the land on which he was raised. An established author, who is also a nurse, he settles in the town of New Auburn, a place where the town office will lend out their sewer rod and not far from the dairy farm where he grew up milking cows. He joins the local fire department. The membership requirements aren’t too tough, he suggests. He has to be able to move and have a driver’s licenses. Helping his cause is his flexible schedule, allowing him to be on-call whenever he’s home. This book is the story of Perry meeting the people he served as a fireman and EMT.

Perry’s writing is folksy and humorous. Although each of the stories can stand alone, they are arranged in somewhat of a chronicle order. The first and last stories are tear-jerkers. The first, titled “Jabowski Corner,” tells of a particularly danger bend in a road. Soon after joining the fire department, Perry is called to a wreck at the location. In telling about the high school girl who’d lost control of her car, he recalls other accidents he’d know about at the curve. We learn of the nearby farmer for who the curve was named. We learn of the rescue squad’s valiant efforts and how they’re thankful when they get her onto the waiting helicopter, still alive. Getting her to the hospital gives her a chance. And we learn she doesn’t make it through the night. The book ends with even a sadder story. “Sarah” is about another accident victim, his young sister-in-law. Although Perry was out of town when the accident occurred, he writes of the hardship of being called to an accident when it’s family. In a small town surrounded by rural country, this happens too often. On the call were both of Perry’s brothers (including her husband), along with their mother who is an EMT. But between the sadness, there are lots of laughter and good times and Perry catches it all.

Each story centers on a theme. In one, he deals with his relationship with his brothers as he discusses fighting a structural fire. In another, he takes a jogging tour of the town, pointing out the sites and the town’s history. In another essay, we’re drowned in alphabet soup as Perry explains the procedure an EMT uses when approaching a victim. It begins with the ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation), and then gets more complicated. As I read each story, I was treated by being introduced to the characters around the fire department. A favorite is Beagle, a butcher whose two ex-wives both work at the town’s only convenience store.

Having just read the Rick Bragg’s family trilogy, I must compare Bragg and Perry. In a way, they’re both similar. Both stick out in the big Eastern Cities (Perry gets pleasure in hanging his “Billy Bob’s Honky-tonk jacket next to mink coats, while Bragg threatens to whip an intellect's ass at a Harvard dinner). Perry admits his inability at diagramming sentences, while Bragg is proud that he won a Pulitzer without having graduated from college. The sadness in Bragg’s stories come from the poverty he endured; in Perry’s stories, the sadness centers around the suffering of others. Both, ironically, write about a place named Auburn and make reference to its name in 18th century poem. Both authors are humorous, but I think Bragg is funnier than his Yankee counterpart. That said, I still recommend this book. It’s a treat and you’ll enjoy losing yourself in the stories.

My advice to Perry and his publisher… To really pull off the “redneck Yankee” persona, that cow crossing sign on the cover needs a few strategically shot bullet holes. Thanks TC for recommending Perry to me!
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Greenfield Village

What a way to end a career as an elementary school chaperon! My daughter had her last field trip as an elementary school student yesterday, a trip to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum on the other side of the state. Like so many other times, I went along as a chaperon. It was scheduled to be a long trip. We gathered at 6 AM and were suppose to be home between 7 and 8 PM. We got home at 11, after the bus blew a tire on the freeway! Getting to bed shortly before midnight, I was rousted out at 2, when the storm cells moved through with high winds, constant lightning and window-rattling thunder, creating one freaked out dog… He's got a hang-over this morning! The photos are from yesterday's trip.

I’d never been to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum. It’s an impressing place. We got to ride in Model T’s and on an old stream train and watch glass blowers (my favorite) and make candles and all kinds of other stuff. The museum boast Lincoln’s chair at the Ford Theater and the actual bus (restored) that Rosa Parks rode back in the mid-50s. All the kids got to sit in her seat. There was much more to do, but it would take a couple days to do everything.

I like the fish on the storm drains at Greenfield Village. I’ll end with that shot as I got to get some work accomplished. I also got to find time to write more of my “Country Boy” memories as well as catch up on some book reviews. I really enjoyed Michael Perry’s Population: 485. He’s a Yankee version of Rick Bragg, whose family memoirs I’ve recently reviewed. I also want to capture my nostalgic views of Edward Berkowitz, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies. Although work is still crazy, I’m planning on heading back across the state next week to take in a Tiger’s game.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Post

I found this photo on the internet. It’s of a Sunday School attendance pin, like the one described below. Mine had a number of bars for additional years hanging on it. If I ever find it, I’ll post a picture. The bottom photo shows my brother and me and our parents. I'm held by my Dad.

I like to think I was into alternative energy as a kid, trying to figure out a means to power Dad’s Buick with something other than gasoline. Had it worked, I could have saved the country from those gas lines we experienced in the 70s. Truth is, I have no idea why one afternoon, enlisting the help of my younger brother and sister, we picked up hickory nuts and placed them into the gas tank. Maybe I’d heard someone say that Volkswagens were powered by squirrels and thought the same must be true for Buicks. This happened on a Saturday. The next day was Sunday. We were all dressed up for chruch, but didn’t even make it to the highway when the car quit. That year, my brother, sister and I missed out on the perfect attendance award for Sunday School.

When I was a kid, you got a pin for your first year of perfect attendance. Then, for your second year, you received a gold leaf wreath that wrapped around the pin. For your third year or perfect attendance and every year thereafter, you received a bar that hung below the wreath. The third one was straight, but those every year afterwards was fancier. Somewhere, I’m not sure where, there is a pin with a string of bars for my five years of perfect attendance Sunday School. Every year when they gave out the awards, my Mom would remind us that we would have had another year’s award if it hadn’t been for those hickory nuts. I felt bad and guilty for losing the opportunity not only for myself, but also for my younger brother and sister. Now I realize that I really should have felt bad for Dad who had to take the gas tank off as he tried to figure out why gas wasn’t making it to the carbonator. It’s probably good that my memory is selective. I’m not sure what happened to us when he discovered nuts in the gas tank.

My Mom always made sure we attended Sunday School. Even when we were travelling and on vacation, we’d find a church where we’d go to Sunday School. She’d always get a note to take back to our home church so we could keep our perfect attendance record. We didn’t always stay for worship when we visited these other churches. This bothered me, but Mom made sure we were there for Sunday School. Mom also taught Sunday School, but never our classes. She felt we needed our own teacher and not a Mom in our class. Although can I laugh at her concerned about us receiving our attendance pins, I am thankful she was so interested in our activities. She was always there, not just at church activities, but also for ball games and Boy Scout’s Court of Honor. And she was always proud of us.

A few weeks ago, my daughter was talking on the phone to my Dad. Mom came into the room and asked my Dad who he was talking to now. He told her my daughter’s name and Mom asked, “Who’s that?” While my daughter listened, my Dad explained that it’s her Sage’s daughter. “Who’s Sage?” She asked. My Dad told her it’s her son and she responded, “I don’t have a son.” As I’ve said before, “I miss my Mom.” Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. I’ll call her in a few hours. We’ll try to talk for a few minutes, then she’ll hand the phone back to my Dad and he'll walk out on their porch and we’ll share a few tears.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Reading Challenges, Yucatan Photos and other stuff

I’m bone tired. I did get to the gym twice this week, but work (not working out) is killing me. I don't see much of a break till after the middle of June. And it doesn’t look like I’ll get out of town for more than a day or two till July, when I’ll head west for a couple of weeks. I've got a lot to do to catch up on folk's blogs—hopefully I can do some of that this weekend!

Maggie’s 3rd Annual Southern Reading Challenge is about to begin. I have decided on the three books by southerners that I plan to read this summer. The first is David Brinkley: A Memoir. Brinkley grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina and spent his summers on Wrightsville Beach—my old stomping grounds (a few decades later). A friend lent me this book back in the fall and I really need to get it back to him. My second book is by Texas naturalist John Graves, Goodbye to a River: A Narrative. I admit, it’s hard to include a Texan in the Southern Reading challenge, but the state was a part of the Confederacy, so I'll make this allowance. Thinking of confederacies, there's a classic I've not read. My third book will be John Kennedy Toole’s comic A Confederacy of Dunces. I’ve been told by many people that this book is funny and I hope so because I may need some laughter after the next month.

I should do a non-fiction challenge this summer. In the past few months, two of my former professors have published what will probably be their life's major works. One of my former professors is now retired and just writing, the other is still teaching although he's past retirement age. Both are biographies; one on Abraham Lincoln and the other on John Calvin. These guys, whose field is history, must have picked up a course or two in marketing along the way. This year is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. What great timing! Lately, when I’ve had a few minutes, I’ve been enjoying Edward Berkowitz’s, Something Happened, a history of the 70s.
Let me close with my last set of photos from the Yucatan.
Notice the Mayan dresses of these women on this village street.
A side street. Unlike other areas in this region of the world, I found the villages to be very neat and clean.
I love taking walks in the early morning hours...

A closing shot...

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Country Boys, part 1

This weekend, I was rummaging around in a box of stuff I’d saved from high school and came across an old nametag from my first job. It got me thinking about those carefree days in the spring of 1973. Richard Nixon was still in the White House and we were just getting out of Vietnam. I’d just turned 16 and for the first time in my life, I would so learn what it means to live your life by the punch of a time clock. Hopefully, this will be the first of several stories, as I recreate my time at the store, kind of like I did when I wrote about my time at the bakery.

I became a country boy a few months after I turned sixteen. I’d gone with Mom to the grocery store and she pointed out the manager to me. He was standing in the front of the store, watching everything going on. Garnering all the courage I could find, I left mom at the meat country and went over and asked him for a job. “You have to be sixteen,” he said, obviously not thinking I was quite there. Admittedly, I was small for my age. “I am,” I responded, “can I show you my driver’s licenses?” He looked at it and said okay, that I’d need to get a social security card and that he’d start me off working four or five hours on Thursday and Friday afternoons and eight hours on Saturday.

That next Thursday afternoon, with a tie around my neck, I reported to work. Two of us were to start our grocery careers that day. Tom, the other kid, was from New Hanover High School, popularly known by those of us who attended John T. Hoggard as “New Hang-over.” He had bright red hair and a twitch and a lot of people thought he was weird, but he was a hard worker. As far as I know, Wilson’s Supermarket would his only job he ever had. That first day, we were trained to bag groceries. Bert, the manager who’d hired us, assigned each of us to a more experienced bagger. For an hour or two, we learned the fundamentals of bagging groceries. You don’t put can goods on top of bread or on cartons of eggs. If you have a lot of cans, double-up your bag for strength. You separate the cleansing supplies from the meat and produce. If the cart is loaded down, you can jump up on it as you go out the door and ride it through the lot, saving your energy. And most importantly, we were taught to recognize the big tippers and hustle especially hard for them, although Tom and both tried to give our best to everyone. Soon, we were on our own, taking out groceries and always saying, “Thank You, Ma’am,” as we slammed the trunk lid.

It now seems like a distant dream. It was the beginning of the end. Not only did I have to go to school, I now had to report to work and was expected to wear a tie! Beforehand, I’d only worn a tie on Sundays, an ideal that I still maintain. But unlike most of the newcomers at the store, I didn’t wear clip-ons. I knew how to tie a Double Windsor. Back in the 70s, with ties wide enough to serve as bibs, tying a big knot like a Double Windsor was quite a feat. Before the week was out, I was teaching Tom and others how to tie one. When you’re a runt, it helps to have a skill. Tom and I began to hang out and became good friends. Six months after I left the store for good, in my second year of college, Tom would become my second friend to meet an untimely death. Bert, our boss, served as a second father to both of us. Whenever I had problems, especially with girls, questions I’d never think about asking my own dad, I’d ask him. Looking back, I don’t know why? He was easy to talk to, but his martial record certainly left room for improvement. But Bert always gave me good advice.

I stayed at Wilsons through my first year of college doing a variety of jobs: bagging groceries, stocking the shelves at night, running a cashier, counting money, mopping and waxing the floors late on Saturday night and into the wee-morning hours of Sundays and managing the cigarette accounts. The pay was never very good, but I enjoyed my time there. There’s something rewarding about serving people.
More stories to come!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Zhou Yu's Train

Zhou Yu’s Train (China, 2002, 92 minutes long), PG-13.

I’m a sucker for trains. It’s my favorite form of transportation. I enjoy reading about train travel and even enjoy watching train movies. So, a few months ago, I was watching a Korean film (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring), and caught the previews of a Chinese film titled “Zhou Yu’s Train.” The preview made it look like there were lots of train scenes in the movie, so it went into my Netflix queue. Now I really feel like a sucker. Although the movie does have lots of train scenes, it’s essentially a Chinese chic-flick, but one partially redeemed by employing lots of poetry.

Truthfully, I had a hard time figuring out this movie. The star (the beautiful Gong Li) keeps showing up as two characters. In one, she’s Zhou Yu, a carefree woman with shoulder length hair, a painter of porcelain, who is torn between her love of a poet in a distant city and a veterinarian. The train is her connection to Ching Chen, her poet in Chongyang. Gong Li is also Xiu, a silent woman with short hair who keeps appearing throughout the movie. After Ching Chen is assigned to a school in Tibet, Xiu shows us at the school and Zhou Yu is killed in a bus crash (the train only ran twice a week, she should have waited instead of taking the bus!). Are Zhou Yu and Xiu the same? Or is this all a dream, some kind of mirror image (as the poetry suggests). I don’t know. The movie was confusing as it kept jumping back and forth between the poet and the vet, with Zhou Yu riding the fast moving train back and forth between lovers.

I don’t think I’d watched the whole movie, had it not been for the train. The wail of the whistle and the clicking of the rails was the glue that held the movie together and kept me watching. The photography is wonderful. The sight of the train snaking through tunnels and racing along viaducts was enchanting. The movie is in Mandarin. Despite having eaten scores of cans of such oranges, I still can’t make heads or tails out of the language. But there are English subtitles and since the dialogue is sparse, it’s easy to follow along. Thankfully, the sound of the train is universal.

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