Playgrounds

The playground at Vincent Elementary School, like many things in the town of Vincent, was outdated and probably homemade. There was a one hundred percent chance of getting a splinter if you dared to climb onto the fort that I think was made partly from discarded shipping pallets from the papermill, and partly from untreated scrap lumber. The wood peeled and splintered into long grey and black, sword-like splinters that laid in wait for a child who was running for their life while playing a dangerous game of tag. If you made it to the top of the wooden structure without a splinter, or without stepping on a rotten or missing board, you had the option to slide down a rusty pole, which took a moderate amount of skill, or a shiny metal slide that had been preheating in the sun for the better half of the day. It was hot enough through my blue jeans, I feel sorry for the kids who wore shorts. Aside from the swings, this rickety homespun wooden structure attracted the most children during our recesses. That it was the furthest from the shade tree where the teachers sat may have contributed to it’s popularity.

But you had to walk through an otherworldly section of playground to get to the fort. A place where they didn’t even bother spreading pea gravel underneath the equipment and left the hardened red clay. The pea gravel, we had been told, was there to cushion any falls. It was here you could find odd contraptions probably designed by someone’s Dad who was free from the safety constraints and regulations placed on modern playground designers. There was a telephone pole with a spiral staircase of used tires screwed to the side, winding upward a good ten feet. There were heavy equipment tires laying on their sides, big enough to fit half a dozen kids inside. There were half buried tractor tires sticking up out of the ground like small gateways, big enough for three to climb inside if one of you was nimble enough to shimmy up the inside. The tires were my favorite part of the playground, even if they did leave me covered in black smut. Red spray paint let every child know that what resembled abandoned lumber and building materials had once been a piece of the playground but was now off limits.

Relics of playground equipment still holding up since the late sixties, such as metal monkey bars nearly a dozen feet high, were not off limits. In the very center of the playground rose a green cylindrical monkey bar tower that in my childhood mind was the pinnacle of the playground. Perched atop this stately steel keep one could watch the traffic amble by on Highway 231. You probably could have watched the traffic go by from the ground, but it would not have been as romantic.

I remember watching a kid fall down from the top of the green tower and land on his head. I was so thankful that the pea gravel was there to catch him. He held his head for a few moments as the teachers ran over to him. We all watched the teachers take care of him until somebody rounded the rest of us up and marched us back inside. The next time we went to recess there was red paint on the green tower. When the kid finally came back to school a week or so later, he was wearing a red bicycle helmet.

Within the next two years, the old playground was torn down and scrapped. A new colorful plastic, and much shorter, playground was installed and thick brown mulch was spread underneath. The new playground was a bit starchy and uncomfortable, like ill fitting church clothes. It was nice because it was new, but I sure did miss those tires.

 

 

 

Purple Martins

I was working in the lumber department of our local big box home improvement store when I was flagged down by an elderly man in a rambler scooter. He had clear blue eyes that peered out from underneath a mesh backed hat. He moved and spoke at such a pace that when I focused on him the hubbub of the lumber department seemed to become a blur, like a photograph shot with a wide aperture.

“I’m looking for some one by fours to build a bird house for purple martins.” He said. It’s often the case with a customer like this that a simple, “Aisle forty-nine, on the right” answer will not cut it. So when he begin to describe with his arthritic hands how he planned to build the bird house I abandoned my original errand and gave him my undivided attention.

I showed him where we kept the cedar boards since he had explained that “Purple Martins won’t stay in houses built out of treated lumber.” Of course the cedar boards were outrageously priced and I eventually ended up selling him a bundle of cedar shakes for much cheaper. “Now I’ll need some finishing nails.” He said as he kept describing how he would drill a hole an inch and three quarter since anything bigger would allow other birds to come in. He kept right on expounding the virtues of purple martins the whole five minutes, four aisle trip. By the time that we got to the finishing nails I had almost decided to build myself purple martin house since purple martins eat mosquitos “by the truckload.”

I finally found some satisfactory finishing nails for him and I was afraid I was going to have to shop with him for the rest of the day when a spry old man with a flannel shirt and tinted faded prescription lenses walked up and started talking to him. They both spoke loudly to each other, although by the responses that I could hear I’m sure it wasn’t loud enough. As I walked away I understood by their conversation that they were next door neighbors. I almost made it to the end of the aisle when the newcomer hailed me for assistance. “Where’s your pressure treated one by sixes? I need to replace the fascia on my house to keep them cotton picking purple martins from roostin’ in there.”

BB Guns

“I sent Wesley a package for his birthday. I figured it would be easier to tell you after I sent it. It’s a BB Gun. I only got him 1,500 BBs, so you’ll need to get him some more pretty soon.” This is what Dad told me. 

I can remember my first BB gun. Zach and I each got one on Christmas morning when I was about four years old. Mine was a Daisy Red Ryder model. “Don’t shoot any song birds.” Dad admonished us. Zach had his gun rights recalled about half an hour later when he shot a blue bird off of the play house. 

Between the two of us, we kept the squirrels at bay. Our reasoning was they ate too many of our pecans. But we didn’t like picking up pecans anyway. We did eat what we shot though. I’ve never had much if a stomach for skinning squirrels. Or rabbits, deer, and fish for that matter. Shoot, my wife baited my hook the last time we went fishing. I know my limitations. 

The coolest BB guns that we ever had looked just like a Colt Peacemaker and Winchester lever action rifle. We would run out of BBs shooting at the Comanches and resort to shooting rocks and sticks through them. Eventually the hammer broke off the pistol and it’s hard to play cowboys and Indians when your new BB gun looks like a Colt 1911, so we shot BBs, rocks and sticks at the Germans and Japanese. 

I think that we wore out more BB guns than the average boys. It’s probably a good thing too, because I shot the girl next door with a BB gun. I don’t remember why I did it. it doesn’t matter anyway, nothing worth shooting someone over. The real reason was meanness. “Watch your legs!” I yelled as she ran across her yard. I aimed through chain link fence and got a lead on her before squeezing the trigger. I hit her right in the knee. I can’t imagine what kind of damage that could have been done if I’d have had a proper working firearm, but I’m glad I didn’t. I’m also glad her dad was a church going Christian, because he might have killed me if he wasn’t. After my mom nearly beat me half to death, I had to apologize to Tiffany, and her dad. “I don’t accept your apology!” She screamed. She was as ill as a hornet. I can’t blame her. On top of that, I had my BB gun priviledges revoked for a few years. 

Tiffany, if you’re reading this, I hope that you’ve forgiven me. Because I can’t tell you how sorry I am. 

After opening Wesley’s birthday present, I learned that Daisy has dialed back the stopping power on these newer models considerably. For that I am grateful. Well, a little bit anyway. 

Gun Safety

Zach and I used to beg Dad to let us help “Clean the Guns”, a ritual where we all would crowd around Dad’s closet and he would carefully lubricate and clean each firearm with a tin can 3-In-One oil. “Don’t touch the metal. You’ll get fingerprints all over it.” That’s rule number one of gun safety. I still make a conscious effort to not touch the metal on a gun any time I’m handed one to inspect.

Before he started wiping the firearm down, he would set the stock on his knee with the barrel pointed towards the ceiling, and we would all look at it in wonder. Each gun had a story. “I traded a bird dog in 1970 for this 12 gauge Remington 1100. I’ve killed a few deer and ain’t no telling how many birds with this thing.”

He was also prone to shooting dogs. We lived in an old house that was built on blocks. Before Dad installed underpinning, or had me and Zach install, stray dogs used to get under the house and break the water lines. One time Dad got caught up in the moment and shot under the house. Another time he chased a dog out of the yard for waking him up by barking. Dad had been working late nights and when he came to himself, he was standing out in the front yard in his underwear and work boots, holding shotgun yelling at a dog, at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning. But he didn’t usually tell those stories while we were cleaning the guns.

He would then pass the 1100 to Zach, who would put to his shoulder and aim across the room as if he was getting a lead on a dove. POW, he would say under his breath, letting it reverberate a little bit as if he had shot a bird on a cool still morning in the Alabama wilderness.

“Watch where you’re aiming that thing!” Dad would say as he reached to take the shotgun away from an eight year old boy who had just nearly hit him in the head with a shotgun. “You have act like every gun is loaded.” That was rule number two of gun safety.

Dad would then hand the shotgun to me, who had been waiting impatiently to hold a shotgun that was taller than my brother. When you’re that small, you are doing good just to be able to hold the gun without dropping it, let alone stressing about proper form and aiming. My Uncle Johnny remedied this by sawing about four inches of stock off of a single shot Harrington & Richardson .410. I still remember him bringing it over to our house.

The most mystically firearm in our modest arsenal was Dad’s lever action Marlin .30-30. A genuine cowboy rifle, replete with a gold trigger. Zach & I would work the action from hip, pretending we were Tell Sackett. Dad had shot a deer with this rifle that didn’t quite die. As he was walking toward it, the deer jumped up and began to run by him, Dad leaped off a stump like Tarzan and cut the deer’s throat with a pocket knife. This story added to the mystique of the cowboy rifle.

It didn’t take long to clean oil all the guns, but the ritual of “Cleaning the Guns” also involved looking at all of the pocket knives. Dad bought us a bunch of cheap, made in Pakistan knives because he knew that we would end up losing them anyway. And he was right. I lost a Frost Cutlery Royal Flush at Mrs. Yvonne Clinkscale’s house as I was climbing a tree while my brother endured his piano lesson. I probably climbed thirty feet up into that tree.

I had a Barlow pocket knife that I threw at a tree across the road after church one day. I remember thinking that no one would see me if I went around to the side of the church. Somehow Dad saw me, maybe through one of the six windows. Anyway, he must have witnessed the knife fall about fifteen yards short of the desired target and land in the middle of the road, square on the tip, bending it at a ninety degree angle. Dad sent for me to come see him on the back pew of the church, and he pocketed my Barlow.

The only two knives that I have left from my childhood are the only two that matter to me anyway. Dad bought me a yellow handled Case Slimline Trapper when I was two years old. 

I carried that knife for about fifteen years, before I decided to get a new one.

Uncle Jimmy gave me a red stag handled Case Trapper the year after my grandfather died. He would have been 55 years old. This knife is 55 of 110. Perhaps my first introduction to gun safety was when Dad took me out by the chicken pen and sat up a milk jug full of water as a target. He raised his shotgun, drew a bead on the milk jug and BOOM! The milk jug exploded. I was just barely out of diapers looking with amazement, first at Dad and then to where the milk jug had been. Ever the teacher, Dad said, “This is not a toy.” Wide eyed and unblinking I nodded back at him. This is the principle rule of gun safety.

My cousin Kent could have benefited from a demonstration like that.  When Kent was about seven, his grandfather took him hunting. Kent sat down beside him and they waited for a deer to walk by. Which is the part of hunting that seems the least exciting to me. Perhaps Kent felt the same way because his eyes began to wonder from the field over to his grandpa who was watching and waiting diligently. Then Kent’s eyes wondered to his grandpa’s shotgun, which he held directly in front of him, the barrel directly under the bill of his cap. Then Kent’s eyes wondered to the trigger, which was closer to him as he sat the on the ground. Eventually curiosity got the better of him and he slowly and quietly, sneakily probably is a better word, reached over and pulled the trigger. Booom! I can only imagine his grandpa’s surprise as the shotgun fired, blowing his hat off.

This brings us to the final rule of gun safety, in general, one gun is as dangerous as the next, but some people are far more dangerous than others.

Faulty Equipment

“Y’all boys are rough on equipment.” That’s what Mr. LaDuke said after my cousin Kent had broken three ax handles, a weed-eater and wrecked a moped. I guess we were pretty rough on equipment, that’s why half the every day tools and gear that we used in the hay field were broken to some degree. Pop was forever adjusting the square baler, which was always shearing pins, whatever that means. Most of the trailer jacks were bent. The old Ford truck had a tricky clutch that I never could get to cooperate. For every piece of faulty equipment, there would be a new oral operating manual that must be followed in order to get that particular item into proper working condition. These instructions were far from intuitive, and in some cases nothing close to the original manual, but I guess it was cheaper than replacement.

This rings true for every other place that I’ve worked over the past twenty years. The copier at one job requires you to jiggle drawer A before you can print. The computer at another place requires a restart before you can use the audio. The espresso machine at another place requires additional warm up time. There are always locks that require an odd key angle and a prayer. And vehicles that require you rev the engine to keep from overheating at a stoplight. I’m sure you’re thinking of a piece of equipment at work that you’d like to hit with a sledge hammer.

Probably the most dangerous faulty equipment that I have worked with were vehicles that required you to start them by bypassing the solenoid. I’m not dead certain what that even means, or why we had to do it, but basically, instead of cranking the engine with a key, like a normal person, you lay a screwdriver across the positive battery terminal and the negative terminal into the solenoid. This bypasses the solenoid relay switch and starts the car. Oh, and the key needs to be in the on positing in your ignition. 70% of the time it works 100% of the time.

This process is pretty simple on a lawnmower. Sometimes you see sparks fly off, but that’s part of the fun. If you have long arms and longer screwdriver, you don’t even have to get out of the seat of a zero turn to start it with this method. It’s a little bit trickier when you’re doing it on a truck. At one particular job, there was an old Ford Bronco that required this staring method. We were in downtown Winchester, VA getting a new lawn mower tire installed when my boss, Shawn, first showed me how to jump start the solenoid to start the truck.

I was so proud of myself when it fired right up and I got ready to back out into the street, with my lawn mowers on the trailer behind me. As soon as I put the Bronco in reverse, the engine stalled. I had to pop the hood, crawl out of the vehicle, and jump the solenoid with a pair of pliers. It fired right up this time. In reverse. The Bronco began backing out into the busy street. Panicking, I flung the pliers down and raced to catch the runaway vehicle. Fortunately I had left the door open and only had to run about twenty feet before I jumped into the moving vehicle. Once I got into the drivers seat and got the truck stopped I started breathing again. I was going to play it cool and just keep driving, but as I put the vehicle into gear I realized that the hood was still popped. I’m sure the people in the tire shop got a good laugh seeing me scramble so. I’d have laughed too. A couple of years later that Bronco burnt to the ground in a Wal Mart parking lot.

Equipment tends to wear out with normal use. But sometimes it gets help from clumsy employees, abuse and misuse. I can hear Mother’s everywhere saying, “This is why we can’t have nothing nice!”

Baths & Showers: A lesson in Sharing

We were so good at sharing we had to learn how to enjoy something on our own.

“Y’all better learn how to share!” Mom would say, as if she was introducing a new concept. Zach and I had been sharing all of our lives. We shared a bedroom, and a bed. between snatching the covers and sticking your freezing cold feet on your brother’s back, we understood that sharing was a momentary truce in the constant struggle for the upper hand. Usually we had be admonished to share if one of us had gotten a new toy or item of interest. We were so used to sharing everything that if we ever got the chance to pick out something new, we would go out of our way to find what the other didn’t like so we didn’t have to share. I think that’s why I play guitar. We were so good at sharing we had to learn how to enjoy something on our own.

We even shared the tub and shower. Mom had one of those old claw footed cast iron tubs in which a grown man could bathe fully submerged if he wanted to wait long enough for the water fill. We shared a bath until we couldn’t fit in the tub without touching one another. Which was a sure way to start a fist fight, the last thing Momma wanted to deal with while she was trying to get us clean for bed. And man did we get filthy playing in the woods and cotton field behind our house. I remember more than once mom making me get back in the tub cause I still had “granny beads”,  or dirt in the cracks in my neck.

Once we outgrew the tub, we had to “learn how to share” a shower. I was half grown before I figured out how to regulate the hot water on our single knobbed shower, so I usually conceded the position closest to the nozzle to Zach, who by some wizardry understood this conundrum. At least I trusted that he did. When Zach was feeling particularly spiteful he would tell me that he had “put Ajax” in the shower. I’m not really certain why I was so mortified of Ajax, but I was. I would scream, holler and cry until Mom would come in and ask what was going on. “He put Ajax in here!” I would explain. Zach would feign ignorance which added to Mom’s confusion.

He didn’t always torment me in the shower though, we often played until the hot water ran out. Our house had a peculiarity in the plumbing where if you flushed the commode or ran water while the shower was running, the hot water cut out and left the miserable bather with a blast of freezing cold water. Sometimes I think Mom did this on purpose to speed us up a little bit.

One particular time I remember Zach and I taking a shower and having a rollicking good time singing. We were stomping our feet in a rhythm while Zach sang, “I’m Tom Sawyer” and I would answer “I’m Huckleberry Finn.” We did this at the top of our lungs. It was great fun. We hadn’t learned that music had critics yet. We must have kept it up until we sensed that the hot water was about to run out when all of the sudden Dad burst into the bathroom like a charging elephant, snatched the shower door open and spanked both of us soundly. We were both a bit dumbfounded because usually Dad gave us a warning shot. We learned later that he had been telling us to pipe down since the opening line of our concert.

Now that I have kids of my own I find myself echoing my parents as I try to teach my kids how to play nicely together and share for goodness sake. Although I’m pretty sure they’re having so much fun that they don’t hear me most of the time.

 

The Tinker Suit

We stopped at Smith’s and got some of that orange peanut candy that tastes like rubber.

I was two years old when Brant Douglas Reynolds, my Mom’s dad, died of a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day in 1989. My memories of him are few and a little vague. I remember riding in the back of his 1968 Ford Ranger that rotted to the ground from neglect after his death. I remember him bringing me Oreo cookies. I remember going to the cow sale with him. We stopped at Smith’s and got some of that orange peanut candy that tastes like rubber. I remember going into his work shed and seeing all of his power tools.  I remember his blue tractor. And I remember being at his viewing after he died. “Dan Dan is asleep.” I said to Mom as she held me on her hip so that I could peer into his casket.

Years later as a teenager, I changed the strings on his 1972 Martin D-18. Gram had bought it new for him from Fretted Instruments with the income tax return that year. You’d have thought that you bought him a brand new pickup truck. I could tell that he cared for the guitar because he had looped the strings through the hole in the tuning peg twice before winding it, a step that I always skip because it takes longer and isn’t really necessary, but it looks nice. That extra step said something about the thoroughness of his personality, as I took those old strings off it was almost like he was talking to me. I think he’d be happy to know that I play guitar, but he’d be happier to know that I preach the same Gospel that he and the Apostle Peter preached.

I heard that he had a 1959 Les Paul in the 1960’s. The Holy Grail of guitars. He had to trade it for a car. I’d like to at least see a picture of that guitar. Perhaps it wasn’t a 1959, and it’s better to just remember it that way. I use this story to convince my wife to let me have multiple guitars, I hope it pays off one day.

I don’t know how well he played guitar, or sang. I  don’t remember. I vaguely remember him at church preaching and playing guitar. But you do a lot of sleeping at church when you’re two years old, so these memories are sort of dreamy. He was taken away early in my life and looking back I can see how his absence impacted me. I’m sure things would have been different if he were still alive today, I can’t say that they would be better. Or worse. But they’d be different. 

Rev. Roger Lewis, a close friend to “Tinker” as my grandfather was known, was traveling for Thanksgiving when he heard news of my Tinker’s death. He didn’t have a suit with him and felt terrible about going to the viewing in casual clothes. Til this day, he keeps a suit of dress clothes in his vehicle whenever he is going out of town overnight, just in case of an emergency. He calls it his Tinker Suit. I hope that it doesn’t get much use.