Practical Jokes

“There is a fine line between a good practical joke and all out meanness.”

There is a fine line between a good practical joke and all out meanness. The line is determined by whomever is on the receiving end of the joke. This has always made practical jokes a gamble, albeit an enticing gamble for a mischievous boy. A good practical joke on a sibling could be enjoyed by all, but adults have a finicky sense of humor sometimes, especially if they have been “gotten” by a child. I could only tell when I had crossed the line from good humor over to blatant meanness after the joke had been played, because I always got whooped for meanness.

My grandmother, Nonna, took me to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga when I was eight or nine. It seemed like it took forever to get there. I don’t know if it was the distance or the Southern Gospel AM radio station that she listened to, WURL, where you are loved. It was worth the wait, because the aquarium was pretty amazing. I still have vivid memories of all of those fish. Nonna let me pick out something from the gift shop, I got a rubber copperhead snake that was about five inches long, which was quite a monster when paired with the 3 3/4″ GI Joe action figures that I took with me everywhere. There was a time in my life that I did not of observe the sacred ritual of the Sunday afternoon nap. Instead, I had the option to “play quietly” as my parents slept between church services. It was one of these afternoons that, on a whim, I put my rubber snake in the salt shaker. My parents, like all good Southerners, were quite fond of salt. Our salt shaker, not the fancy decorative type that people collect, was a solid utilitarian piece resembling a plastic coffee cup with a slightly domed screw-on lid. It was possibly the most used kitchen utensil getting only slightly less use than the sweet tea pitcher. I had to scrunch the snake down a bit since it was taller than the shaker, but eventually I was able to keep it in as I screwed the lid back in place. It took about a month before the salt needed to be refilled, and I had forgotten all about hiding the snake. Dad happened to be the person that noticed that the salt was low, and when he unscrewed the lid, the rubber copperhead sprung out of the shaker. Dad hollered and threw the salt shaker across the kitchen table, spreading the last of the salt all over the kitchen. I was thankful to be in the bathroom at that particular moment, or I would have gotten a spanking. I waited until Dad had calmed down a little bit before coming to survey the fruit of my forgotten labor. I mark this incident as the introduction to my work as a practical joker.

Every Fourth of July and New Years Ever, Zach and I would beg Dad to buy us a brick of bottle rockets. Sometimes we got whistlers and Roman Candles, but in my book, nothing comes close to a bottle rocket. At first, we would try to light our fireworks with those pitiful incense sticks that they give away when you make your purchase at the fireworks stand, but eventually we came to trust in the BIC cigarette lighter. We would nearly burn our thumbs off shooting those bottle rockets into the air, or at each other. Zach once bounced a whistler off my face. Every once in a while you would try to light the fuse and the fuse would come off in your hand. You can still light these fuse and they’ll spit and sputter just like a live firecracker fuse, but without any explosion. Once, while Mom was standing by the stove, cooking something delicious, I lit a fuse and threw it on the kitchen tile. “Watch out Mom!” She scrambled to get to the other side of the kitchen. After the fuse fizzled out and there was no explosion, she was not amused. Not only did I get a whipping, but Zach got to shoot the rest of the bottle rockets without me.

In the third grade, I had a friend named Kevin Boozer. He was a good deal shorter than me, wore a letterman style jacket and had neatly combed blond hair. We were buddies until he moved away abruptly and I never saw him again. We used to talk on the phone after school, and I was surprised to hear him swear like a sailor. Our desks, the table style desks with detached chairs and an open drawer underneath, were arranged in a U and Kevin sat directly across from me. I don’t know how I was able to be so stealthy, but one day as Mrs. Wright was teaching, I crept under the desks and tied Kevin’s shoelaces together. By and by, Kevin raised his hand to be excused to the restroom. This being a mild distraction from the lesson, everyone stared at Kevin as Mrs. Wright gave him permission only after making sure that it was an emergency. His first step was fine, but as he took his second step the laces went taught and he fell face first in front of the entire class. Mrs. Wright stifled a laugh. I had to take a note home to my Mom, who did not stifle her laughter. Despite this injury, Kevin and I remained friends.

One Halloween, Jared and Creed had each received a realistic rubber mask for their costumes. One mask was a gorilla and the other of an old man. Zach and Creed about gave Mom a heart attack when they looked into the kitchen window while wearing these masks.

As an adult, I’ve become a bit more mellow with practical jokes, but only a bit. I was a new hire at my current job a few years ago when I decided to wrap the Christmas Tree in toilet paper. The lady who had spent so much time decorating the tree was furious and took all of the toilet paper, wadded it up and threw it on the desk of the man who she thought had committed the offence. The man, who was out of the office at the time and didn’t know about the tree, did not realize that this was a counterattack, but took it as an unprovoked attack. This set off a chain of retaliations against the two, who didn’t need much provoking to get at each other anyway. I didn’t say anything for a few years, I’ve learned that anonymity is the best policy when playing a practical joke.

Humor, like language, is handed down from one generation to another. Since my recent ancestors struggled in life to provide for themselves, they could do little in the way of inheritance for their great grandchildren. Frankly they were poor. But they were rich in humor. Humor is the closest connection that I have with some of my forefathers. My Uncle Doss loved a good practical joke. He once found a pair of false teeth in the river while he was fishing. After he boiled them in the wash pot, he wore them proudly. That’s not a joke, I’m just letting you know what kind of person he was.

Uncle Doss was my Dad’s Grandmother’s Uncle. I’ll write this filler sentence while you reason that out in your mind. Uncle Doss lived in rural Alabama in the first part of the twentieth century. In a time were the South was still reeling from Reconstruction. There were no streetlights to light the dirt roads and fewer cars than horses and buggies traveling on those same dirt roads. It was a time when superstition abounded. The Black community in Uncle Doss’s time and place were not only superstitious, but also very religious. Each Sunday they would get up early and walk together in large groups through the winding dirt roads through the woods on their way to church. They would spend the entire day at church, having diner between services and returning in a group late in the evening. Knowing this routine, Uncle Doss decided one Sunday evening to lay in wait unseen on one of the embankments that the road had carved into the side of a hill. This way he could dangle a piece of white wrapping paper by a string from about ten feet above the road while making eerie noises as the wind blew the paper to frighten the faithful parishioners on their way home from church. Uncle Doss tied the six foot string to his overall galluses and sat down by a tree on the embankment high above the road to wait for the home bound worshipers to pass. He did not take into account that church would go longer due to a special service, and as he was waiting, he fell into a deep sleep. When he was aroused by the night noises of the dark forest, the first thing he saw was the spectral wrapping paper floating in the wind. He got up and ran in fright, now fully awake and petrified with fear. Looking over his shoulder, he saw to his dismay that the ghost was chasing him. “I ran until the briar patch stopped me.” He later recounted. Sometimes a failed practical joke is funnier than it’s intended end.

Like you, I’ve been involved in too many practical jokes to recount here, and even if I did, most of them would not be funny. All out meanness is never funny, and a practical joke is only funny if nothing gets hurt, except for pride.

 

 

Skipping School

“Middle School is one of the most trying times for a young boy.”

Middle School is one of the most trying times for a young boy. Middle schoolers can be some of the meanest people on the planet. Perhaps it’s because the average middle schooler is a walking identity crisis and unsure of their self. This insecurity causes many to lash out at everyone else. Combine this with questionable parenting and the rural Alabama Public Education System and you’ve got the makings of a pretty miserable place for anyone to be, much less try to learn. When I was in Middle School, so much of the teacher’s energy was spent on misbehaving kids who weren’t interested in learning and their parents who weren’t interested in anything that there was little left for students who were there to get an education. As I recall, I got in a number of fist fights in middle school. I don’t say this to brag, but to let you know that I’m not embellishing when I say that middle school was one of the most trying times for me as a young boy. I guess it did prepare me for the real world. I remember everyone getting picked on in my middle school, fat kids, skinny kids, tall, kids, short kids, black kids, white kids, mixed kids, locals, new kids, foreigners, boys, girls. Maybe your middle school experience was different. You should write about it. My experience in middle school is one of the reasons that I am still in youth ministry today.

I tell you this so that you will understand why I would have rather strung tomatoes than taken a field trip to Atlanta with some of the meanest people I knew. When I convinced my Mom that most of my class would be on the field trip and there would be no point in going to school, Dad decided to take the day off and float the river with me. Ordinarily, we would have just gone fishing, but as I recall the boat motor was out of commission, so we decided to float from the Kelly Creek landing to McGraw’s landing, a few miles down the Coosa River.

I remember it being cold as we got an early morning start at Kelly’s Creek. The morning was still and there was fog on the river as we launched the boat. I think when you’re on the river at daybreak you get a more perfect understanding of what God meant in Isaiah when he promised to extend peace like a river. The river is one of the few places where you can still imagine what it the world was like before the industrial revolution, automobiles, and, well, before people moved in. When you’re out there it’s not hard to imagine that the forest you see on the bank goes on for miles and miles.

It was always fun to observe the wildlife on the river, a turtle as big a manhole cover, or a water moccasin, but on this particular day it seemed like we saw more wildlife than usual, probably because we didn’t have our loud outboard motor to break the still air and disturb the peace. One of the first things we saw that morning was a raccoon sitting on a log that hung down into the river from the bank. After pausing for a moment to study us, the raccoon turned around scurried back into the woods. As Dad steered the boat to the Eastern bank with the trolling motor, we watched a pair of turkeys fly silently through the fog across the river, they were just a few feet above the water. When we got to the eastern bank a deer jumped into the river and began to swim across. All of this happened within a few minutes of being on the river.

It seems that the fishing was good that day, even if Dad had to do it all himself. Dad knew all the best spots. We would anchor the boat and sit until the fish stopped biting. Bass like to be around underwater structure and we were anchored by an old concrete pipe when we noticed a school of gar breaking the water not far from the boat. Gar have swim bladders that can be filled by gulping air. They do this to supplement their oxygen in poor water conditions. If you’ve ever seen a gar, it will make you think twice about swimming in the river. They are long skinny fish with long snouts and long sharp teeth.  Gar comes from the old English word for spear and they just look mean. Normally, you wouldn’t want to catch a gar, because they’re not good to eat. But on this day, I thought it might be fun to catch one. Dad made a single cast into the splashing school of gar and caught one on the first try. When he finally reeled it into the boat, it was about four feet long and too big for our net. The top snout had been broken off about halfway down. It’s funny how you remember odd things like that. You have to be careful cutting your lure loose because those gar teeth are sharp.

As the day wore on it began to get hot. We anchored the boat a little south of Buzzard Island in hopes of catching a few fish. I forgot to mention the other wildlife creature that we always seemed to encounter on the river: mosquitoes. The mosquito’s favorite food source is human blood. They sound pretty sinister when you read it like that. We sat in a visible cloud of mosquitoes while Dad tied on a new lure. Since it was so hot and the mosquitoes were eating us alive, we decided to jump in the river to cool off and escape the mosquitoes. It’s surprising how cold the water can be when the sun is as blistering you on the surface. I can never swim too long in the river because my imagination gets the better of me and I start thinking about gar, and alligators, and alligator gar, and water moccasins, and the Loch Ness Monster, and before I know it I start thinking that I’d rather take my chances with the mosquitoes. It’s a little harder to get into the boat than it is to dive out. Especially when you think that there is a five hundred pound snapping turtle about to get you. You’re afraid for a second that you’re going to sink the boat as you climb to safety. Even so, every time we went fishing after that I wanted to go swimming. You tend to forget about the river monsters when you’re about to die of a heat stroke on the river.

Somehow, Dad knocked a rod and reel into the river as he was climbing back into the boat. I should have been more sympathetic, but I was just glad that it wasn’t me that did it. He tried several times to dive and retrieve it but to no avail. He had owned that reel since he was just out of High School, and I know he was upset about losing it, but he didn’t let it ruin our day. It’s never fun to lose a tangible object that is dear to you, or worse have it taken from you. But I value the memories that I’ve taken from the river more than I value the physical things that I’ve lost in the river. Or that Dad has lost river. I think he shares the same sentiment, although I’d be afraid to ask him about it if I had have been the one to lose his fishing pole.

We finally made it to McGraw’s Landing in the late afternoon with a cooler full of fish and a heart full of memories. Of all the years we spent fishing, this particular time stands out vividly. Maybe it was because I was skipping school with my Dad to go fishing. Not that anyone else was at school, since most everyone in my class went on the field trip to Atlanta. I’m sure they had a good time too, making fun of each other, and stressing out the chaperones, but I am pretty confident that many of them might have benefited more from a day on the river with their father than any field trip our public school system could have offered.

Uncle Dave

To describe My Great Uncle Dave Reynolds would be hard because the description fits so many other men of that generation.

To describe My Great Uncle Dave Reynolds would be hard because the description fits so many other men of his generation. He wore overalls, a collared shirt, a cap with a mesh back, and work boots. He drove a single cab pickup truck, and was a farmer. Sounds pretty stereotypical, but it’s true. He should have worn glasses all of the time, but mostly he kept them in a soft case in his shirt pocket. In his old age, Uncle Dave became hard of hearing and had to walk with a cane. I’ve heard rumors that used the cane to correct smart mouthed teenagers at Uncle Raymond’s gas station pool hall, but I didn’t witness it. However, I was sure to not smart off around him no matter how deaf he was. I think his vision might have been going as well at the end of his life, and he was bad about pulling out in front of traffic and driving really slow. I also remember some complaints that he had nearly run cars off the road while he was on his way to sell watermelons in front of the High School, or at the gas station in the neighboring town. He would drop the tailgate, put up a canopy and take a nap in a folding lawn chair until someone pulled over to buy a watermelon.

Uncle Dave was the third of ten children. He was almost named for his father, David Reeves Reynolds, but his parents decided to name him Dave Ray Reynolds. Dave was raised not far from McGraw’s Ferry on the Coosa River, where his father was a sharecropper. Mr. Reynolds also worked across the River at the gunpowder plant during the second world war. One day after returning home from work Mr. Reynolds asked young Dave why he hadn’t plowed very much.

“That mule was getting tired and I stopped him Daddy.” Dave said, thinking that his father would understand. A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. Mr. Reynolds must have not put as much stock in that passage as he did in,“Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying”, and he about beat Dave to death for not having plowed enough.

The next day Mr. Reynold’s came home from work and found Dave sitting on the plow in the field with the mule laying down.

“I didn’t stop him today Daddy. He stopped himself.” Uncle Dave had plowed the mule to death.

I didn’t spend too much time with my Uncle Dave and many of my memories come from Easter Dinner at his house. Most of the extended family would make their way to Uncle Dave’s house after church on Easter Sunday, and we would have a massive spread of food outside: Ham, fried chicken, dressing, green beans, deviled eggs, man I’m making myself hungry! Once after the blessing was asked for the food, Uncle Dave put his hat back on and said, “Amen and dig in!” After everyone had eaten, all the young children would wait inside the house while the adults would hide the Easter eggs in the cow pasture. The little kids were hoisted over the barbed wire fence first to get a head start, then the rest of us would climb through the fence being careful not to tear our pretty new Easter clothes, and join in the hunt.  I would sometimes pass over the dyed boiled eggs in search of the prize eggs with money inside. I think for meanness the adults would sometime stick a prize egg in a cow patty. After all of the prize eggs were accounted for and pictures were taken, we would play softball in the cow pasture using paper plates as bases. The game would usually wrap up after a foul ball dented a car parked next to the fence.

Uncle Dave sometimes attended our church on Sunday morning, the United Pentecostal Church that his mother had attended since the ‘50s, and his brother and my grandfather Brant Douglas Reynolds, had served as pastor. I don’t think their father ever attended this church. The story goes that once as my grandfather was trying to invite him, and Mr. David Reynolds said, “Tinker, I’m four things: a Baptist, a Democrat, a Mason, and a Klansman, and that’s how I’ll die.” I’m pretty sure he died that way too.

For a short time, there was a restaurant in Vincent called Yo Mamma’s, and Uncle Dave was a faithful patron, dining there several times a week. He always ordered catfish. This became part of his routine even after the restaurant changed hands. He would also frequent the Huddle House in the neighboring town. One day Dad and I were eating there and Uncle Dave came in and sat down in the booth behind us. After Uncle Dave ordered a young man walked by and Uncle Dave spoke to him.

“Charles Ray! How you doing?” ask Uncle Dave.

“My name ain’t Charles Ray.” The young man said. This simple fact did not seem to bother Uncle Dave, because he was hard of hearing.

”Charles Ray, how’s ye’ mom an’em doing?” Uncle Dave pressed.

“I don’t know who Charles Ray is.” The man said, a little flustered.

“Huh?” said Uncle Dave interrupted the man before he could finish explaining that Uncle Dave had him mistaken for someone else.

“Old Charles Ray.” Uncle Dave said wistfully with a chuckle as the man sidled off.

After this short interaction, I wondered how much Uncle Dave had heard when we had just spoken to him. Uncle Dave probably spent the rest of the day thinking that he had talked to Charles Ray and wondering what Charles Ray had said back.

It seems like the family were always worried about Uncle Dave because he was so much older than many of the brothers and sisters, and he had fought some battles with his health some time before I was born. In spite of their worry he outlived many of his younger siblings by decades. I think about Uncle Dave every time I see an old single cab Ford Truck going well under the speed limit. He set his own pace in life and didn’t get too worked up about anyone else’s agenda. I think we could all benefit from Uncle Dave’s philosophy by slowing down our busy lifestyles. Just keep your glasses on and don’t pull out in front of anyone or run anybody off the road.

 

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Merry Christmas, and Thanks

92670027From my family to yours, Merry Christmas and thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog, it means a lot to me. In a world where we are conditioned to digest 140 character thoughts, and fifteen second videos, you have carved out time to read 1500 word ramblings of my childhood. If anything I’ve written has been able to make you laugh, or has brought back your own fond memories, then I count that as success. Perhaps you’ve cried, please don’t hold that against me, I’m a bit sentimental myself at times. Thank you for sharing Mostly From Memory with your friends and family.

Thanks to my Dad, Perry Wells, who has always been my biggest salesman. If you’re reading this because he told you about it, thanks for taking his advice. I hope I’ve lived up to the hype.

Earlier this year, I decided to withdraw myself from FaceBook because I felt that I wasn’t using my time as wisely as I could. And after I disabled my account, I realized just how much time I had been wasting there. About the same week that I unplugged, I had bizarre experience at work that was too in depth to tell orally,  and too fantastic to merely gloss over, so I decided to type a lengthy email in the form of a story and send it to my wife and siblings. I was surprised to receive such a positive response about my story, so I decided to write Hauling Hay and share it with a few more people, and got an even better response. After a few more similar stories and encouragement, I decided that a blog was the best platform for sharing these stories with anyone that cared to read them. I linked the blog to Twitter, which means it shares the link to every new post I make.  In a happy accident, I found out that my Twitter account is still linked to FaceBook, so when I post on here it automatically posts on Twitter and FaceBook. I said all of that to say, leaving FaceBook inspired this blog, and I don’t think I can bring myself to reconnect in that platform. So if you’ve posted kind things, or mean things for that matter, on FaceBook and been frustrated at my lack of response, it’s not because I am being aloof, I just didn’t see your comment. However, I do see anything that you post on WordPress.

As a Christmas gift to you, I would like to share the bizarre situation that I endured at work, and what became my first story. This is an account of a real life experience, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

                                                   The Endorsement Page
                                                           By Zane Wells
It was in early August when Michael asked me out of the blue, “Did he call?”
Perhaps I was just coming back to work from a day off, because Michael looked surprised when I looked up nonchalantly and asked, “Who is he?”
“Kwa.”
I searched my memory, surely I would have remembered a name like that. “No. What would he want?”
“He wants to rent a gym, tell him that he must have the insurance before he can make a reservation.”
“Ok sounds, good.”
 
It seemed that Kwa was a gentleman who wanted to host a basketball tournament in one of the county gymnasiums, a sure fire way to not make any money, mainly due to the rigid and costly insurance requirements in place to keep groups like his from destroying the facility. Apparently, Kwa was having a little trouble getting his insurance in order to make such a reservation, a telltale sign of someone trying to cut a corner.
 
Later that week I started noticing a strange name on the caller ID, Kwabena. The first time or two I think Sue, my coworker, must have answered the phone, because by the time I got talked to him, he was already frustrated from calling to no avail. The conversations were pretty cyclical, Kwa would call and ask for Michael, who would usually not be in the office, and I would send him to Michael’s phone. Kwa would call back without leaving a message for Michael, I would pick up the phone, he would ask about the status of his insurance endorsement, I would tell him that we haven’t gotten anything. He would then ask to talk to Sandra who verifies all insurance forms, Sandra would tell him that we have your insurance, but no endorsement.
 
This went on until the day before his reservation. By that time, Sue and I cringed whenever we saw his name on caller ID, or even worse, when he came in person. The details are a little fuzzy but eventually he did get his certificate of insurance and endorsement-the day before his event if I recall correctly-so he was able to actually make his reservation. He paid for it with cash out of his shoe.
 
We thought that was all behind us and this was a one-time event. We were wrong.
 
Only about a week after his first reservation in late August, Kwa came in to make a reservation for another date. I double checked and his insurance was still good, but his endorsement had expired, it being only good for the first reservation date . So the cycle began again. He would call, I would transfer, they would not answer, he would not leave a message, he would call…The only thing that could break the cycle was for him to bring in the endorsement page, and he was having a real hard time doing that.
 
After this went on for about three weeks, he came in on one of his routine checkups on a nonexistent insurance endorsement. As we were finishing up the cycle-I can’t remember if it was “He’s not here”, or “I’m sorry, we haven’t received anything”- he casually chanced to ask if the date was still good for his reservation. My heart sank as I realized that he was going to have to stay at my desk until the elevator came back around, our elevator being a bit stuffy and somewhat less than immediate. I quickly got over this shock and checked the date and astonishingly someone had booked the gym for the date that he wanted. He let out a dismal sigh and set down on the park bench that sits at a 45 degree angle beside and behind my desk.
 
I can honestly say that this isn’t the first time that a grown man has cried in my office, but that’s another story.
“I’ve been promoting this for month.” He mourned. “I thought we had it reserved.”
Kwa could not understand that he only had a reservation if he paid for it, and he could only pay for it if he had the endorsement page. I quickly rang Michael to come talk to Kwa.
 
I was expecting the cycle to begin again, but Michael said, “I tell you what, we have another gym, and I’ll let you book it today, without the insurance, and we’ll refund you if you don’t have the endorsement by the reservation date.”
“If you pay with cash, we’ll have to refund you from finance, which might take a month.” I chimed in, remembering the sweaty shoe bills and hoping he would not pay with cash again.
“I don’t have the money on me, but I can go get it.” Said Kwa.
 
We all agreed that it was a very good deal. Kwa finally got on the elevator and left. Michael looked at me and said, “He’s not coming back today.”
And he didn’t.
 
He did however come nearly every other day for the two weeks leading up to his reservation.
“I’m just checking on the status of my endorsement.”
“I haven’t gotten anything.”
I don’t know why it never occurred to him that he was badgering the wrong institution, he should have been calling the insurance company. Perhaps he did. God help them.
 
On a Friday, the day before his reservation we had still not received his endorsement. The first time Kwa came in that day, I was able to evade him as I opened the janitor’s closet for Terry who had just broken a bowl in the kitchen. Kwa came in and went through the cycle with Sue. At this point we were still in hopes of the mythical endorsement page, but had decided against letting him reserve the gym without it, as the reservation was the next day.
 
I’m not sure how the conservation went, but when I got back Kwa was gone.
 
Michael gave us clear instructions as he left to work off site for the rest of the day. “Kwa’s insurance isn’t right, I can’t staff anybody for tomorrow, do not make any reservation for him. The deal is off.”
 
I prayed quietly that I would be on lunch break whenever Kwa came in to check on his reservation and endorsement again. God answered my prayer and I noticed that Sandra was at my desk talking to Kwa whenever I began to make my way back from down the hall where I take my lunch break.
“…And we won’t be able to staff it at this point even if the endorsement came in right now.” I heard Sandra say as I ducked into the bathroom to hopefully avoid contact.
 
To my shock he was still sitting on the park bench whenever I came back to work from loitering longer than usual in the restroom.
 
Kwa sat there for ten minutes. I busied myself with answering the phone. Kwa sat there for twenty minutes. I replied to all the emails in my unfinished box. Kwa sat there for twenty five minutes, looking at his phone and occasionally receiving a text message. I got up and went to the copy room to fill the copier with paper. While I was up,  I decided to scan some documents into our database. I finished in about fifteen minutes. When I came back to my desk, Kwa was still sitting there on the park bench.
 
“Is there someone else I can talk to? Maybe Michael’s manager?” Kwa asked, with a frown on his face.
“Sure I’ll go get Sandra.”
“I’ve already talked to her too.”
“Well Jeremy is in a meeting right now, he’s the Director. He’s due to be out of the meeting at 3:30.”
“I guess I’ll be back at 3:30 then.” Kwan retorted triumphantly and whirled around to punch the elevator button.
He was back at 3:00. I was on the phone when he walked in, so he went ahead and flopped down on the park bench. We didn’t say much once I got off the phone.
 
As we were waiting, Marv, the curmudgeonly Superintendent of Parks, came down the hall and asked Kwa if there was anything we could do for him.
“I’ve got a situation with my insurance. He sent it to y’all and now y’all are saying you don’t have it.” Kwa said vaguely.
Marv who was already aware of the Kwa’s position and had only asked to dig a little, replied. “We can’t do a reservation without the endorsement page, and we can’t staff an event on such short notice.”
Kwan said ok, knowing he still had Jeremy as a trump card, and Marv sidled back to his office no doubt giggling inside.
 
Kwa looked over to me with an angry frown and said. “What does he mean staff? We didn’t have staff last time.”
“If you had a reservation with us, then our staff were there.” I said, with reservation.
“No they wasn’t. I didn’t hire any staff, I had my own referees.” He said in confusion.
“The facility staff was there to let you in the building and to clean up.”
“Then where are all the staff for tomorrow?” he demanded angrily.
“They’re at other facilities tomorrow.” I said.
“Oh.” Kwan pondered for a moment. “If I had had the endorsement page this morning could I have had the tournament?”
“Possibly.” I said,
“I don’t understand why I could done it this morning, and not now.”
“Normally we only take reservations five business days in advance. Michael was just really trying to help you out by waiting till the day before, but we never got your endorsement page.”
“I sent it!” Kwa tried to start the cycle again as I was answering the phone. We didn’t pick the conversation back up after I finished the call. Thankfully.
 
After a quarter of an hour of awkward waiting, the meeting dismissed and the board members poured loudly down the hall. Since I was on the phone, Sue got up to go brief Jeremy of crisis. I assured Kwa that she would bring Jeremy out soon. He very hopefully said thank you.
 
After about ten more tense minutes of waiting, Jeremy walked slowly down the hall, jingling his keys in his pocket. The entire time that Kwa was sitting on the bench, he had been busying himself with his noisy cellphone, sending texts and leaving voice messages for what seemed to be the shadiest insurance company this side of Wall Street. When Jason arrived at my desk, Kwa had just placed a call and asked for Melanie, he quickly hung up and stood up to meet Jeremy.
 
“Glad to meet you, I’m Jeremy.” Jeremy said as he extended his hand.
“Kwabena.”  Kwa said.
“Cabana?”
“Kwa-Bena.” with more emphasis added.
“Cavana! What can we do for you?”
“Well we have a situation with my insurance. It’s exact same insurance that I sent for the last time I did this, and they sent the endorsement page, but y’all don’t have it.” Kwa was a bit hard to follow.
“What is your event?”
“A basketball tournament.”
“For kids or adults?”
“Adults.”
“So we don’t have your endorsement page, and we’re bound by that. And at this point we don’t have staff for an event tomorrow.”
Kwa sat down and elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
“I’m sorry. I wish we could…” Jeremy said consolingly as he fumbled with his keys.
“Man I’ve been promoting this thing for a month.” Kwa moaned. “I’ve got referees coming from Ohio, a team from Pennsylvania, teams from out of state.”
“I wish I had better news to give you.” Jeremy said.
 
After standing for a moment, shifting his weight from heels to toes, Jeremy walked back down the hall to his office. Kwa didn’t move. I could tell that this was a person who was now completely without hope, totally broken. He was in the depths of despair and had finally given up on trying to move, much less having a tournament. He sat there for ten minutes. Not much to do when you don’t have any hope left. He had finally realized that there would be no tournament on Saturday.  
At last he looked over at me and said. “Can I bring the endorsement page Monday?”

 

 

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Christmas Traditions

I’ve always loved Christmas time, it’s just like Thanksgiving but you get presents.

I’ve always loved Christmas time, it’s just like Thanksgiving but you get presents. For our family, Christmas season began whenever Mom let us put up our meager Christmas decorations consisting entirely of a wooden toy barn where we placed the beloved porcelain Nativity set, in flat white, and a hand woven tapestry from Peru which was a souvenir from when a relative adopted a child from there. My siblings and I would fight over who got to put baby Jesus in the barn, I’m sure he was flattered at all the attention. These modest Christmas decorations stand out vividly in my memory and they were precious to my siblings and me. The decorations grew each year. Mom added some hand painted camels to the Nativity scene and once the house was renovated and stairs were added she strung garland on the handrails. Finally, she added one of those miniature porcelain villages replete with real powdered snow that proved a grave temptation to the toddlers that followed after we had reached adulthood.

Once our decorations were set up, we would venture out as a family in our Burgundy Chevrolet Astro Van to look at other people’s Christmas lights, a tradition that I still enjoy today, although I think the lights were cooler back then. Mr. Lansford was the undisputed king of Christmas lights in our community. I couldn’t pick him out in a crowd, but I could identify his house. It was the third house on the left once we got on Highway 25 and headed to our weekly pilgrimage to Nonna & Pop’s to eat. We would all look with anticipation to see if Mr. Lansford had decorated his house, another tradition that marked the beginning of the Christmas season, not just for him, but the whole town. Mr. Lansford not only decorated his house, but also made the driveway loop that circled his house into a light display and he encouraged people to drive through. This was when Christmas lights were multicolored and many of the decorations were original. Eventually, Mr. Lansford got up in years and wasn’t able to decorate his home as he had done for so many years. This happened around the same time that multicolored Christmas lights gave way to the colorless trendy new icicle lights. The new all white Christmas lights that have prevailed in the past twenty years are the equivalent of microwavable grits, you still enjoy them, but it’s not the same.

Unlike microwavable grits, my childhood was filled with delicious homemade dishes during the Christmas season, as well as the rest of the year too. I’m not sure if the chicken and dressing that Nonna made on Christmas was any different from the chicken and dressing that she made fifteen other times throughout the year, but it wouldn’t have been Christmas without it. After all, “Dressing”, a dish made from cornbread, is one of the surest ways to tell a true Southerner from an import or an imposter. Southerners eat dressing, and it will confuse us and hurt our feelings if you try to serve us “stuffing”, which is what you put in pillows and homemade dolls, and certainly not something that you eat for Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner in my childhood was an express image of Thanksgiving dinner, with turkey, ham, chicken and dressing, or just plain dressing, chicken and dumplings, deviled eggs, rolls, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce (from a can), green beans, sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and about a dozen cakes. These were the staple dishes for Christmas, but they were supported by any number of side dishes including but not limited to, fried okra, fried potatoes, scalloped potatoes, slaw, pork and kraut (homemade kraut), butter beans, Lima beans, pinto beans, creamed corn, baked beans, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, boiled potatoes, and potato salad. Perhaps a bit heavy on the starches, but you get the picture. I’m sure I left something out and offended one of my great aunts. We may not have had fancy silverware and fine China, but we made up for any shortcomings in class with heaps of delicious food.

Once Christmas Eve finally arrived, we were on a tight schedule for the next two days. One of the disadvantages to being related to every one in the county, next to trying to date anyone, is that you’re expected to attend as many Christmas get-togethers as possible. We would eat Christmas dinner at Nonna & Pop’s, my Dad’s parents, with about fifty other people in the afternoon, then drive smooth across the county to eat supper with my Mom’s maternal grandmother, then drive back to Nonna and Pop’s to open Christmas presents. Once we got home from a full day, we would beg Mom & Dad to let us open presents early. They eventually caved and it became a tradition, I haven’t been as successful getting my wife to start this tradition at our home. On Christmas morning, we would go to my maternal grandmother’s house and eat breakfast and open presents before we went out into the back yard and shot guns for an hour and a half. It’s because of the many odd traditions like shooting guns on Christmas that Jeff Foxworthy’s You Might Be A Redneck jokes didn’t make much sense to me as a child.

Although this full schedule of family Christmas celebrations was full of delicious food and fond memories, it also exposed us to our stranger relatives. After my brother had a gun pulled on him as he was waiting to fix a plate at my great grandmother’s, my parents decided to change our Christmas traditions slightly so our Christmas Eve schedule wouldn’t be so cramped. It seems like it was around that time that we adopted the new tradition of opening our gifts on Christmas Eve. As an adult, I’ve taken the approach that if it feels like a obligation, it might be a tradition that needs to be replaced. Obligation is no substitute for genuine love, and the Christmas season is too short to spend with anyone but the dearest of friends and family, and to do this, sometimes you need to create new traditions.

What I looked forward to at Christmas more than anything was opening presents. I would start making my Christmas list shortly after my birthday. In April. I enjoy the anticipation of a gift as much as actually getting to open the gift. When I was a child, my parents got me some pretty amazing Christmas gifts. Here are a few that stand out in my memory: a bicycle, Lincoln Logs, action figures, GI Joes, Cowboy LEGOS (Nonna got some of these too), and a Marlin .30-30 rifle. It seems like our parents were able to make Christmas special every year, and even if money was tight for them in certain years, we never knew it. It was during one of these leaner financial seasons that I got one of the most memorable Christmas presents, in addition to all of my cousins hand me down GI Joes, we each got our own personal roll of commercial bubble wrap. You would have thought they bought us each a pony, the way we enjoyed that bubble wrap. It seemed like it lasted for a week. I still think of that Christmas every time I get some bubble wrap. Although my parents were able to work some Christmas miracles and I still have some of those gifts today, I must say that the best Christmas present that I ever got came on Christmas Day 2015 in the form of my daughter, Miriam Vivian Wells. Since her birthday falls on Christmas, I realize that we’ll have to rethink all of our Christmas traditions, but I’ve had some experience already in that area.

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Snow

It decided to snow yesterday.

It decided to snow yesterday. This was the first snow of this season and we ended up canceling church. Like a true Southerner, I love the snow because where I grew up snow only came once or twice every five years. I appreciate snow because rare things are often precious, like when your parents had company, which is what we called visitors who were invited. Visitors who were not invited, were simply called visitors, and it is not offensive if the visit is confined to the front porch swing and rocking chairs when visitors drop in. My siblings and I loved when we had company or visitors. Canceling church because of snow is like canceling your birthday party because you had company over, both were things you enjoyed, but you are miserable because you can’t enjoy both.

Snow was a treat when I was a child. I can only remember just a few times when we had enough snow to last through the day, most of the time it melted away by afternoon. The first real snow that I remember was The Blizzard of ’93. I see you remember that too. It was such a catastrophic event that people in the South still refer to it as The Blizzard. The snow knocked the power out for what seemed like a week and neither of the two snow plows in State of Alabama made it to my county, so we had to wait until the eighteen inches of snow melted before we could venture out. The entire region was completely shut down. It was alright though, we had bread and milk. That was the first time that I was introduced to Snow Cream, which I think is one of the reasons that you have to buy milk when snow is in the  forecast. Mom made me wear all of the winter clothes that I owned before she allowed me to walk outside for just a few minutes. Most of my outside time was wasted in being rescued from the ditch, where the snow was much deeper. I remember jumping into the big pile of snow that had drifted into the ditch, only to learn that once you’re in snow over your head it’s impossible to move.

I honestly don’t remember another time when snow lasted for more than a day. Whenever we knew that there might be a chance of snow, my brother and sister and I would stand at our front door and stare out into the yard hoping that the flurrying snow would “stick”. On the rare occasion that the snow did decide to stick, we understood that it was a cardinal sin to defile the pure snow as it was falling. We waited patiently and gratefully until it had stopped snowing so that we could take an official measurement of how much snow we had gotten, before we went outside and made the saddest looking snowmen that you could imagine, even after you had borrowed all the snow that you could from the neighbor’s back yard. It was always sad when you had been watching snow pile up in the yard while you thought about what fun it would be to hit your brother in the head with a perfectly formed snowball, only to have those dreams wash away as the snow turned into rain. Sadly this was too often the case during an Alabama snowfall.

It snowed on us once while we were camping. My brother, cousins, and I used to camp every other weekend in the fall it seemed. We were talking around the fire deep into the night when we noticed the snow falling. I’ve always enjoyed the sound of rain. It’s beautiful steady music. People even play recordings of rain to help them sleep. The beauty of snow is that it falls so quietly, a prevailing stillness that hushes any rustling leaves or critters. The noisy world holds it’s peace whenever the snow falls. Sitting around the campfire we watched in awe as a thin layer of snow covered the countryside. We were able to rake up enough snow to each have a snowball or two. The snow melted as soon as the sun rose.

When I went to college in St. Louis, Missouri, snow was commonplace in that region, and many of the folks who had grown up with snow like I had grown up with oppressive heat chuckled at us Southerners who were playing in the snow like school children. Our first snow that semester was the most snow that my future wife, a Floridian, had ever seen at one time. To see snow that lasted for more than twelve hours was a new experience for us. We made snow angels, and proper snow men. Eventually, a large group piled into my minivan and we went sledding at the park. There was a hill at the park that was about a hundred and twenty yards at a steep angle, which was perfect for sledding, as long as you bailed off the sled before you got to the woods at the bottom. This was a departure from what we called sledding back home, which was sliding down the icy asphalt hill in one of the turtle shell lids from a Little Tykes sandbox. Now I had a chance to sled on real snow, with a real sled, and sledding professionals who had been privileged to experience snow every winter of their life. In my giddy state of excitement, I agreed to let a friend ride down the hill on my back. “Don’t bail off at the bottom!” He said. “Let’s see how far we can go into the woods, it’ll be fun!” He said. I would like to pause here and talk about the dangers of peer pressure. Flying down a snowy hill on a sled with questionable steering, in the dark, is not the time to listen to new ideas from someone who is yelling in your ear. I should have been able to recognize this as bad influence, but as usual, that revelation came afterward. We flew down the hill at an alarming speed which didn’t check as we cleared the woods. I put my head down and closed my eyes. I hit a log headfirst and was knocked unconscious. My friend was getting worried as he called my name several times without any answer. I lost my glasses, chipped all four of my incisors and had a bruise on my face that was so bad that I was sent home from work the next day because I looked so rough.

Learning to drive in the snow was also quite an experience. What I was taught about driving in the snow was “don’t”. That wasn’t an option when I moved away, my boss didn’t understand the concept of everything shutting down so everyone could make the most of the snow. My first venture out onto the icy road was on my way to work while I was in college. The route to work required me to merge onto the interstate, which required making a left turn. I sat in the turning lane looking at the hard packed ice and snow that covered the ground wondering why I didn’t just call in to work. When the light turned green, I pressed the gas and started to make the left hand turn, the vehicle spun slowly around on the slippery ice and when I finally got it stopped, I was on the opposite side of the road in the lane heading back from where I had started. I just kept driving and called in that day. Sometimes you’ve got to know when you are defeated.

I think Southerners have the best experience with snow, because we have so little experience with snow. I know children that have never seen snow and I was four or five before I remember seeing any. Now that I live in a land where snow is not a rarity, everybody and his brother has a snow plow and they even salt the roads, I realize that these people have a different understanding of snow. They have no problem ruining the pure unadulterated snow by walking or driving through it. It’s always sad to see the well-meaning snowplows turn the beautiful white snow into an ugly black.This is too much for me. Can’t we just let the snow be pretty for a while before we start trying to get out of the house? Snow has a way of making everything look beautiful. Snow can make a house with a bad roof look like a Christmas card. Just a couple of feet of snow can make your neighbor’s junk pile look like one of the prints on those three flavored popcorn tins. It’s no wonder that the Lord used the image of snow when he said, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” It’s a very peaceful thing to experience a snowfall and watch the world turn to white, but it’s a laborious, noisy, and dirty job to remove snow. Maybe it’s the little boy in me, perhaps I’m lazy, but something  about shoveling snow just doesn’t feel right.

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Clearing Land

My Pop had a ring of keys that would make a janitor jealous.

My Pop had a ring of keys that would make a janitor jealous. He had so many keys that he just left his truck key in the ignition all the time, something I never have felt comfortable doing. Pop had the keys  to all the fences and codes to all the gates of the rich people’s property in our community, which wasn’t a lot of people, but most of the property in that part of the county. Pop was constantly doing work for these people. Which meant that Zach and I were constantly working on some of the most outlandish projects you could think of. Once, I built a cross shaped garden out of cross ties with specific instructions that the garden faced south. Rich people can be peculiar.

One of the biggest projects that I remember doing for one of these people involved clearing a large tract of forest for a horse farm. I want to say it was a good twenty five to thirty  acres, not a bad twenty five to thirty acres. After the timber had been cleared Pop secured the bid to clean the land, so it fell to Zach and me to pick up all of the rocks and sticks while Pop plowed the land. If that sounds like an easy task to you, then you’ve probably never cleared land. We picked up enough rocks to line the ditch on a three mile road, on both sides.

While Pop was pulling the disk on the tractor, Zach and I would walk in front of another tractor and load the rocks and sticks into the bucket. This all seems so easy since you are now reading this while sitting in your comfortable chair. In the air conditioning. But I assure you that it was no easy task. This was the closest I have been to doing prison labor. Dust was flying from the disk, the raging Alabama sun was beating us down. The rocks were not merely gravel size, but anywhere from softball size all the way up to Volkswagon size. Many times we would have to use the bucket or the box plow to dig out a five hundred pounder, and it was all we could do to get it in the bucket. We would have to do the same thing for stumps and roots. When you move something like a five hundred pound rock into a tractor bucket, you get a brief taste of triumph that quickly vanishes like the dusty wind when you realize that it is only 8:30 in the morning and you still have three and half hours till lunch,and seven or so hours until you get to go home. I do not exaggerate when I say that this was the hardest work that I have ever done, but $10 an hour is a lot of money for a twelve year old kid.

We did get to catch our breath for five minutes every time the tractor had to dump its load at the ever growing rock pile. Every once in a while we did get to drive the tractor. This happened if Pop couldn’t secure us a designated tractor driver, usually someone about fifty or sixty years our senior to keep us in line, because we had so much energy to get out of line. Pop was probably right in hiring an adult to drive, because we would ride in the bucket whenever one of us were driving. I remember once my cousin wanted to be lifted up in the bucket, my brother lifted him up about ten feet into the air and tilted the bucket dumping him out. I don’t know how, but my cousin hung on with his hands, his feet dangling. Zach, still trying to get a handle on the bucket controls, tried to right the bucket, but instead gave my dangling cousin a few rough shakes with the bucket until my he let go and fell to the pile of rocks below. All in good fun, although that cousin never helped us again after that day.

I say all in good fun. It’s amazing how even in the worst working conditions, we did indeed have fun. But it wasn’t fun all the time, this job was where I was introduced to workplace violence. One day Pop hired my two meanest cousins to help us. They were mean as snakes, and if that wasn’t enough they were lazy. I did not enjoy working with these cousins, at all. They would make fun of you for no reason then laugh at you when you got upset. Their first week on the job ended when one of them hit me in the head with a rock. Pop must have sacked them, because I don’t remember working with them again.

Dad also helped on this job occasionally. I remember one day we were slaving away, bent over trying to dig a humongous rock out of the ground, when Dad stood up abruptly with his rear end as far forward as possible, stiffening his body, trying hard not to move a muscle. He said gravely, “I ain’t gonna make it boys.”  He began to trot down towards the woods with his hands out to his sides and trying only to move from the knees down, being careful to not jar himself while running across the rough rocky ground. He hollered at me without turning his head, “Go get me some napkins from the truck!”  By this time Zach and I were laughing uncontrollably. He made it to the woods. Barely. I brought him two Sneaky Pete’s Hot Dogs napkins. He was not amused.

Pop ragged us all summer about not “getting after it”, as he termed it. I guess we were not only supposed to do labor camp type work for eight and ten hour days, but we were supposed to do it faster than anyone else, without cutting up. By the time fall rolled around, Pop had finished the disking and was able to start helping us load rocks. He worked with us one full day before he changed our shift, stating “Four hours is all a man can stand of this kind of work.” I guess the cold was getting to him.

I remember those paydays. Cold hard cash. Zach saved his money and bought a nice rod and reel that he still uses today. I bought the ugliest pair of shoes that Dr. Marten’s has ever made. They had thick platform soles and monk strap buckles and weren’t even boots. Sarah doesn’t drmartenslet me wear them out of the house. Every once in a while she will badger me about cleaning out my closet in hopes that I will get rid of those shoes. I worked harder to earn enough to buy those hideous shoes than I have worked for anything else in my life, and I’ll never get rid of them.

 

 

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Bad Influence

“I better not catch you playing with them boys across the railroad tracks, they’ll be a bad influence on you.”

“I better not catch you playing with them boys across the railroad tracks, they’ll be a bad influence on you.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard my mother say this. Not that I ever did play with the boys across the street, we mainly just hurled rocks and insults at each other. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t have been too bad of an influence on me though, I could have whooped them all if it ever came to that. I was always able to identify bad influence after I got a whipping for being influenced. It’s amazing how clear your thinking is after the rod of instruction has driven foolishness far from you.

John Wayne was a bad influence on me. I got a whipping one time for repeating a few choice words that I’d heard The Duke holler at some outlaws right before he rode out into the open prairie with the reins in his teeth and rifles in each hand, to blast them away. For whatever reason, my brother was staying after school in the fourth grade to work on some project. While Mom and his teacher were conversing, I went outside with Zach and one of his friends. Perhaps I was trying to show the friend how tough I was, perhaps he was picking on me, I can’t say for sure, but I called him a dirty name, or rather I called his mother a dirty name, and he told on me.

“Zane Daniel Wells!” My mother said, then she bit her tongue. I knew she was mad cause she always bites her tongue when she gets mad. It’s a wonder she didn’t bite it off  while raising my sister. I also knew it was serious because she used my middle name.

“Where did you learn that phrase?”

“John Wayne.”  How could my childhood hero let me down like this?

Mom was not happy. If I’d have known that I wasn’t going to get to watch any more westerns at my grandmother’s house for a while I’d have said that Zach taught me that phrase.  Mom wouldn’t spank me at school, she waited till we got to my grandmother’s house.

The influence of determined parents and a belt or switch was greater than any bad influence I was exposed to as a child, but I could never get away from the bad influence of my brother Zach, who is four years older than me. We used to make bows and arrows out of green saplings and fishing line. They were crude, but good enough for Robin Hood and his merry men. One day Zach decided that we ought to play William Tell, inside. It had to have been raining, or else we’d have been outside. Rain was the only thing that would have kept us inside since this was before we got the air conditioner. As I recall, we decided that the living room was the best place to play William Tell.

“Go stand over there across the room.” Zach ordered me. He of course, got to be William Tell. If I would have known the story of William Tell, I would not have complied so easily, but this is a story about bad influence. Bad influence sounds like fun until you’re already in too deep. I stood there with my big glasses, watching Zach as he drew back his bow.

“Be still.” Zach said closing one eye. I was starting to realize that this might be bad influence.

Thwang! The greenstick arrow flew across the living room, right into my lip. I remember being so young that I couldn’t properly express to Mom what happened, and I don’t think that Zach got a spanking, but I got a band aid that did not help the cut on my gums.

It was probably hard to be an active little boy who loved the great outdoors and have a much younger half blind brother as your only playmate. Not only was Zach four years older, but he was always big and strong for his age. This didn’t stop him from expecting me to play up to his level no matter what sport he forced upon me. He taught me a lot about sports. At football I learned to run fast or get tackled, but it was a long time before I could outrun Zach. What I learned about all the sports was, play until you get hurt and then Zach will leave you alone. We used to box at my grandmother’s house with my cousins boxing gear. Zach would knock me down over and over until I got a bloody nose. I never knocked him down, but it wasn’t because I didn’t try.

Another thing I couldn’t do no matter how hard I tried was catch the ball. It didn’t matter if it was football, baseball, or basketball, I couldn’t do it. In retrospect, I probably just couldn’t see.  “Don’t be afraid of the ball!” They would say. Who isn’t afraid of an unseen fastball? I would close my eyes, look away and hope for the best. Since I was such a terrible catch, most of the time Zach would throw the baseball on the roof and catch it as it rolled off. In one of the rare events that I played catch with him, Zach knocked me out with a baseball to the forehead. I laid there for a second wondering if I was still alive. When I got up I wobbled around and stumbled into the kitchen where Mom discovered the knot on my forehead the size of a new potato. Zach went outside and started throwing the ball up on the roof. I gave up sports then, I don’t even follow football.

After we realized that bad influence would be met with swift and painful discipline from our parents, we learned to identify it from afar and avoid. Sometime in my childhood a shift happened, and we went from being influenced to being influences. I am sad to say that we weren’t always good influences. I don’t think that we were intentionally mean in most of these cases, we were just children. For example, we had discovered through years of cutting grass that you can take the hose off of the spark plug and if you hold that spark plug while pulling the start cord, it will shock you. We learned that this is the scientific way of knowing if your spark plug is bad, sort of like licking a nine volt battery. We used to take turns holding the spark plug until somebody chickened out. It was great fun. One day our neighbors were babysitting a couple of boys a bit younger than me, and since the neighbors had three girls, the boys made their way over to play with me. I thought it would be fun to play the lawn mower game, but they had never played. I probably could have explained the rules a little better, because when I snatched the start cord and he received the unexpected shock, he didn’t want to play anymore and went back to the neighbors.

We had another friend that we could talk in doing just about anything, from jumping out of trees, to swimming in the creek in February. I don’t think it was so much our influence as his vulnerability to anyone’s influence.

Bad influence can be disguised as good advice. I once gave my friend Jared the worst good advice I think I’ve ever given.  We were at his house on the back deck at the time. I was watching Jared futilely try to chop a D cell battery in half with a rusty meat cleaver. It was just before supper time and I was about to head to the house, so in order to speed the process up I suggested that Jared use the maul instead of the cleaver. The thought had not occurred to him and he was grateful for the suggestion. He rubbed his hands together, grabbed the maul, hit the battery as if he was splitting wood, and instantly dropped the maul and grabbed at his eyes with his hands. He was hollering like a stuck pig. His parents heard the commotion and rushed out onto the deck. When he moved his hands there was black battery acid all over his face and hands. I ran home as they all piled into the vehicle to go to the emergency room, probably not the way that his parents wanted to spend the evening. I’m not sure if it was because of his injuries, but not long after that Jared started wearing glasses.

Now that I am grown, I’m reliving the cycle of trying to break bad influence, but this time in the role of a parent. Right now I know that my children are very impressionable and susceptible to bad influence. I’m careful about who they play with and what they watch. In a world where bad influence abounds at every turn, I believe that parents, for better or for worse, are the single greatest influence on a child’s life. My parents set clear boundaries and gave clear warnings. More importantly, they followed up with loving admonishment, even if my mother was about to bite off her tongue.

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Driving

“I’m just going to break it to you right off the bat, I get road rage.”

I’m just going to break it to you right off the bat, I get road rage. Hollering at maniac drivers is the closest I come to swearing. My Mom taught me how to holler at “Stupid Idiots” and “Ignorant Savages ” while driving. I’m in the process of passing this family tradition on to my children. The other day I was driving Wes to get a haircut and I had to holler at a “Moron” to get on their side of the road. They didn’t though and I had to swerve to avoid being hit. “Maybe they didn’t hear you Dad.” Wes said calmly.

I guess road rage is putting it harshly. I’ve never tried to run someone off the road, or pulled a pistol. Although I have been in the car when my Uncle Scott pulled a pistol on a crazy driver we saw on the interstate. Looking back now it was a bit surreal, but in the moment you probably would have done the same thing. That’s why I don’t carry a pistol. I can’t remember what offense the other driver had committed, but we didn’t have anymore trouble with him after he saw the pistol. At any rate, I don’t get the kind of road rage that you see on the evening news, I just have little patience with people who are endangering the lives of others on the road, but if you want to know the real reason, I’ve never fully acclimated to being a “city” driver.

Aside from my Uncle Tony letting all of us kids steer an ancient sedan around in the cotton field behind my grandmother’s place, my introduction to driving was in the hayfield. Somewhere around first or second grade I learned to drive in a manual transmission flatbed dually truck. Pop only let me use two pedals, the brake and the clutch. Once you get those trucks into first gear, they’ll pull a load of hay without any acceleration, but every boy craves speed, and the surest way to get an eight year old boy to mess with something is to tell him not to mess with it. It seems that I was overtaken in this temptation and pressed the gas once while we were getting up a load of hay. The truck lurched forward, spilling a stack of hay on the unsuspecting stacker, and it seems like everyone shouted in unison “Stop the truck!” I’m glad they didn’t call me an ignorant savage. My air conditioner privileges were revoked because Pop made me roll the window down for the rest of the day so I could hear him better, and he wouldn’t stand for running the air conditioner with the window down. I was mortally afraid of pressing the gas after that. Even going at a snail’s pace in granny gear I managed to run over quite a few square bales. In my defense though, it was my job to drive and their job to pick up the hay, and many times I ran over a bale that had been neglected. I’d rather not talk about the other times. I also managed to run into the same fence with two different trucks, but I’m writing about driving, not wrecking.

Because my brother was older, he always got to drive the hay truck on the highway if Pop deemed it necessary to break the underage driving law. He was already breaking all the child labor laws, so I don’t know why he made any fuss at all about us driving on the road. We didn’t do this often, mainly just going from one field to another. We’d have done it more if Mom hadn’t have passed Zach on the road. She probably wouldn’t have noticed if Zach hadn’t have blown the horn at her. I normally wouldn’t condone underage driving, but we were on the river loop and there were more cows than people, on top of that, they don’t even line half the roads over there. All the same, Moms are pretty touchy when it comes to the law and all that.

If you learned to drive in the city, you probably wonder about people like me who use animated hand gestures to try to communicate with you on the road. I learned these hand gestures from my Pop as a way to communicate over long distances in the hayfield. I’ve never been able to see all that far anyway and once he had limited range of motion due to Parkinson’s, confusion abounded. I still get that look of bewilderment from drivers when I try to hand gesture to them that they have a blown headlight. These hand signals, like smoke signals and morse code, are mostly a dead language now. The killer: Cell phones.

I did not learn to drive in the city, I learned to drive in a town with only one red light. As a consequence, I despise sitting in traffic, and disdain red lights. I dislike red lights so much that for two years I drove ten miles out of the way on my commute just to avoid four red lights. Growing up, there were only two times that you could expect to sit in traffic in my community. First, there was the annual roadblock to check for drunk drivers.You really wouldn’t have to wait long at the road block once the police recognized you as a local and waved you on by. Then there was the  Christmas Parade. The Christmas Parade was the only time that the main road was shut down. The Parade would start at the High School, go through the red light all the way to the other side of town, about a half a mile away. Once the parade reached the outskirts of town, it circled around and went back to the High School. All the while, the poor folks who didn’t know about the parade were subjected to wait a good half hour while our community celebrated the incarnation and listened to speeches from inebriated judges. All the time there were dozens of cars just lining up to get through, what a mess of traffic!

By the time I was old enough to take drivers education in High School, I had already been driving professionally for eight years. The biggest perk to taking drivers education was that you could take the test to get your license with the same instructor that had been teaching you to drive. My teacher was Coach Livingston, and he only had a couple of rules, the driver got to pick the tunes, and no talking during the exam. We used to zip around in that modified Ford Taurus and talk about Rock’N’Roll. Coach Livingston thought that I should have gone on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, a popular show at the time. I learned a lot from Coach Livingston.

“Don’t swerve for roadkill, you could overcorrect and have an accident.”

“Don’t answer the phone while you’re driving, you could get distracted and have an accident.”

“If you have to eat and drive, don’t go to Taco Bell, tacos are too messy and you could have an accident.”

I took serious notes, because I knew how much of a hard time my parents would give me if I wrecked their car. I’d already been through that with Pop. Twice. So I was careful to follow these instructions when it was my turn to drive around the backroads of my hometown. There was hardly ever anyone behind you and if we were lucky, we might pass two cars in an hour. Mostly we had the road to ourselves and it was quite relaxing. There was one time when we didn’t have the supreme reign over the highway. It was my turn behind the wheel and we were on highway 62, headed West toward the BP, when we came upon a whole flock of chickens. I blew the horn and made some hand signals at the chickens, but they didn’t understand. In retrospect, I probably could have checked my speed and applied the brakes. There was an audible and tangible whump, whump as both tires took the life of one of Lamar Hines’ free range chickens.

Driver’s Education in rural Alabama was fun, but in no way prepared me for the rat race of traffic that I would meet in metropolitan St. Louis, Missouri, and Northern Virginia. I don’t even want to talk about trying to drive in the snow. I now have to stop at five red lights just to get to work, and in that time I’ll meet at least one moron, a couple of ignorant savages, and a stupid idiot. Maybe it’s me, I tend to drive below the speed limit on the interstate and major highways, and above the speed limit on backroads and rural areas. My driving  still makes my wife stiffen out and grab that roof handle on the passenger side whenever we make it back to where I grew up. I guess I’m just more comfortable with back roads and stop signs.

Whenever my friends find out that New York City is an easy day trip from where I currently live, and Washington DC is only about an hour and half drive, they are amazed that I have lived here for ten years and never made it to New York, and that I only go to D.C. about once a year. To be frank, I’d rather have a peg leg than have to drive in that D.C. traffic every week. Besides, there are too many red lights.

 

 

 

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Cutting Grass

“It has been my unfortunate lot in life to have cut a double portion of the usual requirement of grass.”

It has been my unfortunate lot in life to have cut a double portion of the usual requirement of grass. I’ve even cut grass for a living, that’s where I learned to say “mow lawns”, which sounds better to the rich people. I first started helping cut grass shortly after I learned to walk. That’s only partially true as my duties were limited to “picking up sticks.” The late Victorian House in which I was raised was situated on a former pecan orchard, so there was no want of limbs to pick up, as you may be well aware that these trees are prone to splitting. There was also no want of pecans to pick up, which is what our task was whenever there was no grass to cut. Dad was very interested in keeping us boys busy, “You boys fill this five gallon bucket up with pecans and I’ll let you wash the car.”

While I picked up limbs Dad would cut the grass with his ancient Snapper riding mower and Zach would push a faded red push mower around the tight places where the Snapper couldn’t reach. Once I was finished picking up the sticks I had to “roll the kudzu back.” Kudzu is an invasive vine brought over from China by the government years ago to help slow erosion. It can grow as much as a foot per day in a climate like central Alabama and if you don’t keep it in check it will soon overtake your yard. I’ve seen kudzu grow up over sidelined box cars on the railroad after they’ve sat for a couple of weeks. You roll the kudzu back by picking up as much of the vine as you can and pushing it back on top of itself. It’s also a good idea to set fire to a kudzu patch once a year or so. It helps if a responsible adult is nearby, but that’s another story.

The first time Dad let me drive the Snapper I drove it straight into the kudzu patch. The vines tangled the blades and shut the mower off. After Dad freed the blades he let me try to drive it again and I almost flipped it when I turned too close to a Pecan tree. I never have had good luck with those Snapper mowers.

Eventually the faded red push mower and the Snapper died from being overworked and Dad bought Zach and me brand new, matching grey Briggs & Stratton push mowers. He was very thoughtful, knowing that we might fight over who got to cut grass. Our Pastor had asked over the pulpit for volunteers to cut the church grass, my Dad spoke up immediately, “Me and the boys will do it.” Cutting the church grass wasn’t all that bad, since the church was only about two hundred yards down the hill from our house. The biggest problem with the church grass was that for the most part it was a just a ditch about fifty yards long. This is where I learned to hate Weed-Eaters. I was grown before I realized that Weed-Eater was a brand, so it’s hard to call them anything else. Cheap trimmers always rotate the wrong way and turn your pants green with grass clippings. Once I slipped and fell while trimming the weeds on a huge pile of top soil that sat too long from a parking lot expansion. I fell on top of the still running Weed-Eater and it whipped my shins for a few seconds as I tightly gripped the handle, which maxed out the throttle. A lot goes through your mind when you’re in a tight spot like that.

When Zach got his license Dad upgraded us to a Murray riding mower. Now, in addition to mowing the church grass, we got to load the riding mower in the truck and go cut my grandmother’s grass. This wouldn’t have been an issue if we’d have had a ramp to load the mower. We learned to despise that mower because the blades would come loose. Sometimes you wouldn’t realize that until you got ready to make the next lap. When the blades came loose, the entire mowing operation came to a halt. You had to find your brother who was fighting a losing battle with a cheap Weed-Eater, because tightening the blades was a two man operation. We would lift the front end of the mower and stand it up perpendicular to the ground, one brother would hold the mower steady and the other brother would try to tighten the blades with a rusty pair of channel-locks and a crescent wrench. This whole issue could have been remedied in about two minutes if Dad would have had a socket wrench set. My brother and I thought that a socket wrench set was the most expensive tool kit made.

As a teenager I did some work for our local blacksmith doing odd jobs around the farm. While he did have a nice Weed-Eater that didn’t throw the grass clippings on you, he still had an old Snapper mower. You don’t complain much when you’re finally getting paid to mow, so I put a smile on and learned to drive the Snapper. There were fences all over the property and some of them were electric. There was one particular hill that I had to mow that had an electric fence at the bottom. Although it was a little nerve racking to mow on an incline next to the electric fence, I soon got the hang of it. The trick was never to drive down the hill toward the fence, but rather to drive alongside of it. One early morning I was mowing the grass still wet with dew. I made the first pass right up against the fence without any issues, but somehow when I was turning to make another pass the mower tires slipped on the wet grass and I was heading straight toward the electric fence. I managed to make a right turn as I slammed into the electric fence. The hill was so steep that I slipped off the mower as I was flying down the hill. When I finally stopped, my left foot was caught under the still running mower deck, my right foot was on the mower and I was pinned between the heavy mower and the electric fence. A lot goes through your mind when you’re in a tight spot like that. I couldn’t reach the ignition switch to turn off the mower that was still in gear forcing me against the electric fence. Electric fences are not like what you see in Superman cartoons. Thank God. They only send pulses of electricity. I don’t know how long I sat there getting shocked every couple of seconds and feeling the mower blade cut into my boot. Eventually the top strand of wire on the fence broke allowing me enough range of motion and presence of mind to switch off the Snapper. I never have had good luck with those Snapper mowers.

When I moved away from my hometown I had a brief stint knocking doors for a lawn care business. We were supposed to be securing leads for the field reps to come give estimates on lawn care and irrigation. When I learned that people were willing to pay money to install sprinklers for the sole purpose of making grass grow I was dumbfounded. Who in the world would want to make grass grow on purpose? I had spent a good portion of my life up until then keeping grass at bay by mowing it as low as I could. Once I started working for a professional mowing service I learned that it is “more healthy” for the grass if you don’t mow it so low. I also learned that you’re supposed to sharpen your mower blades once in a while. But my biggest revelation came when I learned that a socket wrench set was in fact quite affordable. This was a lot of information at one time. Do y0u remember how you felt after first learning that Santa Claus wasn’t real? Or that feeling when you realized that your big brother’s Bowie knife had not actually belonged to the real Jim Bowie, but in fact was made in Pakistan? Or the sinking feeling you had when you learned that the Lone Ranger was just an actor? If you remember those feelings, then you understand how I felt. I decided that it might be time to start looking for another job.

In recent years I have been fortunate enough to be in retirement from cutting grass. Now you’re probably expecting me to write about reconciling with all the mowers of my past and let this story have a happy ending. I could write something sentimental about how now I realize that I learned many life lessons behind the wheel of a Murray lawnmower. I could describe the therapeutic feeling that mowing lawns brings because you’re able to see the finished work. I could tell you that I miss the relaxation and solitude of riding a zero turn mower while listening to opera on fancy noise cancelling headphones. But I won’t, I don’t like to lie. I hate cutting grass and I don’t miss it.

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