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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Bargain Town

Growing up in small town Alabama we enjoyed the freedom of running wild outside without worrying about murderers and kidnappers.

Growing up in small town Alabama we enjoyed the freedom of running wild outside without worrying about murderers and kidnappers. There were no murderers except for the man across the street from our house who was crazy and would shoot squirrels with a .30 06 and eventually went to prison for shooting his wife one afternoon with a .45. And of course there was the lady down the street that ended up going to prison for hiring a hitman to knock off someone, the details are a little fuzzy since that happened before my time. Maybe it wasn’t as safe as I remember, but we certainly didn’t worry about anything as children. Besides that, we only ever played with Jared and Creed, the two neighbor kids down the street. And Bargain Town, the town drunk.

Perhaps you don’t know, but Bargain Town was a chain of dollar stores in central Alabama.  I only remember the one in Childersburg, but I say chain to sound more prestigious. I don’t know who gave him the name Bargain Town, but it stuck. When my brother found out his name was Wayne Edwards and called him Mr. Edwards being respectful, Bargain Town got upset and retorted, “You ain’t gotta call me Mr. Edderds, son! Bargain Town, or just plain ole B.T. is good enough.” Bargain Town was perpetually inebriated. Zach once watched him trip over a sales receipt in the parking lot of the local grocery store where he bought his beer. I think he was about 6’3” if he ever stood up straight, but he was stooped over from the burden of a lifetime of poor decisions. He probably weighed 160 lbs even without a haircut, as his dark hair was usually a month late for an appointment with the barber. He always had a trucker hat, the kind with the foam front and mesh in the back. His eyes were beady and black and his skin looked like wrinkled leather, another testament of his hard living. He had a twitch in his face and his hands were very shaky from years of alcoholism. He was a faithful Milwaukee’s Best drinker and rolled his own cigarettes with Bugle Boy Tobacco. It was quite a scene to watch him roll a cigarette since he struggled so much with his shaky hands. He would bite his tongue to keep his face from shaking, and on a good day only spilled about half an ounce of tobacco. Bargain Town looked like a weather beaten scarecrow walking down the street always carrying a case of “Momma’s Best.” His gangling limbs were made all the more unwieldy, due to his extreme skinniness. He was a gaunt caricature to be sure, but harmless.

I first remember meeting Bargain Town in a game of hide and seek at Jared and Creed’s house. It was my turn to search for the other three boys when a voice came from across the road, “He’s over there behind ‘em bushes.” Startled, I whipped around to see who had spoken. There sat Bargain Town, Indian style drinking a can of beer. He was in Mr. Tom Bell’s pasture. We were petrified of Tom Bell, who was about 85 years old and owned half of Vincent, and was half blind with age. Legend has it that he had boasted, “Vincent is as big as I want it to be.” I’m not sure why we were so afraid of Mr. Bell, probably because we thought he was going to catch us playing on his land, which we were all to guilty of doing, it being a shortcut to the river and all. This fear was only exacerbated by the fact the Mr. Bell had nearly killed Jared with his ancient Ford truck one day when Jared burst out of the woods on a bicycle. Fortunately Jared got away with only a broken arm. The fact that Bargain Town was sitting in Mr. Tom Bell’s pasture so casually, in broad daylight made him an instant hero in my eight year old mind. Here was a man who was immune to the crippling fear of Mr. Tom Bell. Bargain Town flippantly tossed his empty beer can into Mr. Bell’s pasture, stood up, took what seemed like two steps to the fence that stood about five yards away, and throwing his leg in front of him stepped over the decrepit barbed wire fence. We went on to find all of the boys.

From then on, it seemed like just about every time we were playing, Bargain Town was with us. Whether we were fishing, walking the tracks, or just playing in the pasture. Sometimes Clemmy came too. Clemmy was Bargain Town’s girlfriend, I think. She was about the same age and looked like a raisin. She didn’t talk much. They had another friend named Peanut that had a car. I’m not sure what Peanut’s name was, but he stank to high heaven. I could smell him three aisles away at the grocery store. We didn’t hang out with Peanut.

Bargain Town talked with a peculiar idiosyncrasy in that he finished every sentence with “and evah’thang”, or “and evah gol’dang thang”, or more colorfully “and evah G.D. thang.” Oddly enough he would use the initials and the full vulgarity equally. This made for interesting conversation.

I remember one day Jared, Creed, Zach and I were walking down the railroad tracks on our way to our favorite swimming hole. We had just passed the water tower and were at the intersection where the service road crossed the railroad tracks, when we were hailed by Bargain Town to “hold up”. Looking over into the field, another of Tom Bell’s, we saw where Bargain Town had constructed a tent by draping a blue tarp over a round bale of hay. We waited for Bargain Town to come and meet us, he gathering all of his accoutrements, namely his case of beer and cigarette ingredients. He finally made it to the crossing and I guess the fifty yard trek had winded him because he said, “Hol’ on a minute boys, I got to set down and have me a col’beer, an’ evah’thang.” Bargain Town did not drink beer, he drank “col’beer.”

Bargain Town was a bit of a philosopher. It was a bit hard to follow a drunken man with a wandering dialect when you are eight or nine years old, but I did my best. He said to me that it was not good to not talk, “You keep all that in ye head, an’evah’thang, and never let it out, an’evah’thang, and then one day it all comes out and it blows up! an’ evah’G.D.’thang.” He usually saved the G.D. for the finale, and thus drove his point home. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. I guess me not talking made him nervous.

Once He finished his beer he stood up and said, “Where y’all headed?”  We told him that we were going swimming in the creek. “That creek ain’t deep enough, let me take you to the spring, an’evah’thang.” So we discussed it amongst ourselves and as our usual swimming hole was only about knee deep in most places we thought that it was a good idea and agreed to let Bargain Town lead us to deeper waters. We did not take into account that this spring was right in the middle of Tom Bell’s pasture, so we were nervous the whole trip.

We finally did arrive without Mr. Bell noticing and firing up his Old Ford to run us down ( I make him much more of a villain than he was, he was in fact a kind man who had beautiful handwriting, if that makes a difference.) The spring was in the middle of the creek that was surrounded by trees. Bargain Town flopped down and began to roll a cigarette, “There she is boys, I’ll be in after I have myself a col’beer an’evah’thang.” We began to strip down to our trunks and wade into the water. The water was freezing, even in August, and the spring was deep, but not very wide. The most amazing thing about a spring like that is how crystal clear the water is. We were having a big time ducking each other under the water and playing Marco Polo when someone pointed out that B.T. was turned away from us and taking off his shirt. It doesn’t seem odd or out of place to take your shirt off to go swimming, but in all our years hanging with B.T., he had never been swimming with us and thus we had never seen him without his shirt. We were shocked by what we saw. I’m not talking about the extreme farmer’s tan, because we all sported one of those, but the long scar on his back that ran from his left shoulder to his right hip. He had told us about being in the “Pen”. He would get upset if you didn’t use his lingo on a lot of things, I learned that “jail” or “prison” were quite offensive terms to someone who had done time in the “Pen”, or Penitentiary, although I still struggle to make out the difference. “I used to help cook in the Pen, an’evah’thang. They wouldn’t wash the beans and they’d be bugs and worms an’evah’thang in ‘um. You always ‘post to wash ye beans ‘fore you eat’em an’evah,thang.” Although we had heard this story a few times, none of us had ever dared to ask him why he had been in the “Pen”. Here we sat in the water looking at the proof of how he got in. We stared in wonder. Finally someone bucked up the courage to ask him how he got that scar. “Somebody cut me.” This is all the answer we got, but it seems that I heard the story from an adult when I told them about the scar.

We were told that Bargain Town had been in a bar fight. Someone had followed him into the bathroom and slashed his back with a jackknife. Bargain Town in turn broke the toilet tank lid over the knifeman’s head. This may have been why he ended up in the Pen.

I think it was less out of being stingy and more out of respect that Bargain Town never offered us alcohol or cigarettes. He was not evangelistic in his bad habits, but rather knew that he was a sinner and realized that we were untainted from the vices that bore down so hard on him. Bargain Town was from a generation which still believed in right and wrong and he knew that he was wrong. Even with this knowledge he could not break free from the consequences nor the grip of a life time of bad decisions. It’s pitiful to think about now that I’m an adult and this should be reason enough for anyone to avoid alcohol.

As I got older, I got a job at the local grocery store. We no longer went on long walks through the woods with Bargain Town, pausing every hundred yards or so to wait on him as he had a col’beer, but I still saw him a couple of times a week as he came in to get groceries and beer. Mostly beer. Since he didn’t have a car and was never sober enough to drive anyway, sometimes he would come to the store with Peanut, whose stench preceded him. But more often than not, he came alone. One day I was stocking the milk in the cooler, one of my only duties at the store on the evening shift, when I noticed Bargain Town walk in the front door, which could be seen from behind the milk shelf in the cooler at the back of the store. I knew that he was going to come get a case of Milwaukee’s Best so I decided to mess with him a little. As he stumbled over to the beer case and reached in to retrieve a case of beer, I held down each case that he grabbed for a few seconds as he struggled to pull it out. I put on my best ghost voice and said as spookily as I could, “Bargain Town!” He wheeled around and looked down the aisle both ways wondering who had called him. I said his name again, and he jerked around and hunkered down to look through the beer shelf. He recognized me and realized that I had been pulling his leg. “Shoowee! I thought my Momma’s Best was talking to me!” For the rest of the evening I wondered what Momma’s Best had told him over the years.

I would not recommend that you let your children roam around town with the town drunk, especially these days. I know that Mr. Edwards would have not let anyone bother us, and I don’t think he would have let us partake in his bad habits even if we had begged him, stingy would have taken up where honor left off. Through the eyes of a young child I watched first hand as Bargain Town struggled through life with the crushing weight of alcohol addiction. I watched him stumble over the lines in the road, and try catch his balance while standing still. I watched the involuntary twitching in his face and his trembling hands as he tried to roll his own cigarettes. I watched him week after week buy case upon case of the cheapest beer sold at our little grocery store. Somehow I don’t believe that this was the life he had hoped for as a young man. Maybe it was, but I doubt it. Although us boys spent far too much time romping around town with a drunken man fifty years our senior, at least none of us turned out to be alcoholics. I think Bargain Town would be glad to know that.

Floating the Creek

“One of the things that my brother and I looked forward to as boys was going fishing in the boat on the Coosa River with Dad.”

One of the things that my brother and I looked forward to as boys was going fishing in the boat on the Coosa River with Dad. I have never been much of a fisherman, but I still enjoyed going, I was just always ready to come home a lot sooner than Zach and Dad ever were. Dad would announce that we were going fishing on Monday to build anticipation for the week. Friday night Zach and Dad would bring all of the fishing tackle into the living room and waste their time by re-spooling their reels with fresh fishing line. I’d have to hold the spool of line on a pencil as Zach reeled it onto the reel. They would carefully select a lure and piddle around in the myriad of tackle boxes.  Saturday morning after we loaded the boat with all of our fishing rods and tackle boxes, was when the real preparation started. We would swing by the BP to fuel the boat, fill a cooler with ice, and more importantly make our snack selections. I’m not sure who made the rules of what is proper fishing fare, but we sure stuck to them as if they were handed down from Mt. Sinai by the Lord himself. Vienna Sausages, potted meat, and saltine crackers are the staple diet of avid fisherman. Vienna sausages is spelled just like the capitol of Austria but pronounced “Vie-Eena”. Saying it like the capitol of Austria will make you sound like a city slicker and destroy your credibility on the river. This fishing diet is best appreciated with a canned coke and a pack of saltine crackers. You could also pack some bologna sandwiches-again, not pronounced like the Italian city, but “baloney.” Chips are permissible, but real fisherman lean toward the standard saltine. I am not a real fisherman and would usually make a more flamboyant selection like Doritos, or Pizza flavored nacho chips. Dad’s drink of choice was Pepsi, while Zach would get Dr. Pepper. I got Dr. Pepper because Zach did.

My philosophy of fishing has always been pretty simple, catch one fish, and dig into the potted meat, Vienna sausages, and cold cokes. I was usually ready to go home about four hours before anyone else was.

The first boat Dad had was an old brown fiberglass boat with stick steering. We soon graduated to an aluminum boat with a steering wheel for steering. The aluminum boat was a much needed upgrade where many fond memories were made, but I guess the most memorable boat we had was an aluminum flat bottom boat that Dad had procured from my Uncle Johnny.  After a couple of tubes of calk we used that death trap to “float the creek”. Kelly Creek flows into the Coosa river a mile or so South of the Logan Martin Dam. Kelly Creek is only a couple of yards short of being a river, rivers being measured in length.

The biggest difference in going fishing in the River and floating the Creek is the logistics. In the river, you drive yourself to the boat landing, launch the boat, and then return to the same location and the comfort of your truck and boat trailer when you’re finished fishing. When you float the creek, you have to con someone into dropping you off at the crack of dawn at point A up the creek and then picking you up at point B later in the day. Sounds simple enough these days, but you should try it without a cell phone for a more realistic effect.

The first time we floated the creek, we manhandled the boat into the back of the truck and drove down a dead end road where the frame of an old steel bridge still spanned the creek. It would take the rest of the day for us to reach the boat launch on Kelly Creek which was five or seven miles away. The landing was about a mile from the river. This dead end road was the closest access to the creek, but not at all ideal for launching a boat. How bad you want to go fishing is reciprocal to your willingness to carry a flatbed aluminum boat half a mile through the bushes and down a cliff. The manufacturers were kind enough to put handles on the boat. It probably wasn’t as bad as I remember since my job was to carry the tackle boxes and cooler, and we were too excited to complain about paltry things like briars and torn clothes.

There are a number of marked differences between fishing in the river and fishing in the creek. For starters, the Coosa River was a good five hundred feet wide, whereas Kelly Creek might be fifty feet wide at the widest point, and much narrower in general, which meant that for the most part you were in the shade for the whole day on the creek. The river was a good deal deeper too, some places up to forty feet. We had to get out and carry the boat across rocks in some places on the creek and the deepest point might have been fifteen feet. I loved how quiet it was on the creek. You hardly hear any cars or engines it’s just you and the creek. It also helps if you are with people that you love. I do not consider myself a sportsman today, but this aspect of many outdoor activities is still incredibly appealing.

Floating the creek was more memorable than fishing in the river for a few reasons, the biggest being that you were committed to it, you couldn’t crank the outboard motor and go home. Even on the river when our motor died once, there was someone to tow you home. Not having a motor wasn’t a big deal since you were floating with the current, but if you needed a helping hand from a stranger you were out of luck. You hardly saw anyone on the creek until you were about a mile from the river.

The narrower and shallower creek was also more challenging. On our maiden voyage down the creek we had just rounded a bend when we encountered one of our first challenges, a huge oak tree had fallen across the creek and there was only about eighteen inches of clearance from the water. Zach and Dad stopped fishing. I stopped eating. We all stared at the tree across the river not saying a word.  A duck with four or five ducklings paddled under the tree.

“What are we going to do boys?” Dad asked.

“Let’s do what the ducks did.” I finally piped up since Zach was not offering any ideas.

We all laid down flat of our backs and slid under the oak tree. I remember Dad having to pull us through since we got wedged under there a couple of times. It’s a wonder a water moccasin didn’t drop down into the boat with us.

Being a shallow body of water, there are a number of places on Kelly Creek where there are white water rapids, which would be fun if you were in a kayak, but is a downright nuisance in a flat bottom boat. The first time we came upon the rapids we decided to “shoot” them rather than get out and carry the boat. Everything went fine. We zipped right through the rapids without so much as a bang and by the time we got to the next set of rapids, we had thrown caution to the wind and were hoping for the same outcome. We braced ourselves as Zach tried to steer us to what seemed like the best route, but the rapids sucked us in and the boat grounded on the rocks with a thump. We rocked the boat to try to free ourselves, but the boat wouldn’t budge. We decided the boat was too heavy so I got out in order to lighten it, but the boat still held fast. Zach got out, but the boat still wouldn’t budge. As Dad was standing up to step out, the boat lunged forward and he fell flat of his back in the stern, snapping a fishing rod as water rushed into the boat. He was soaking wet, but most concerned about his waterlogged wallet. When Zach and I recovered from laughter, we decided in might be time to have lunch. We were able to sail on smoothly for the rest of the day though it was a long four hours for Dad to sit in his sopping wet clothes.

As the day wore on we could hear voices from other fishermen who were coming up the creek from the landing, it’s pretty cool how far the water will carry a voice. When we finally met up with the other boat we got to witness one of the guys set the hook and fight a humongous fish for what seemed like an eternity. When he finally got the fish netted he realized that it wasn’t what he had hoped for, “It’s a drum.” He said, one of the least desirable species in the river. He used a more colorful adjective than I feel comfortable even writing, which was unnecessary since his voice carried the most disappointing emotion that I’d heard all day.

I hope my Dad wasn’t as disappointed when one day he woke me up to go fishing on a Saturday and I told him, “I don’t want to go fishing. I don’t like fishing. I don’t even like Dr. Pepper.” I imagine that this revelation stung him a bit as he and Zach loaded up the boat without me for the first of many fishing trips. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you like and what you do just to be with the people you love. I’m going through the same thing with my boy now. Since he was about four minutes old, we could tell that he loved to be outside. He’s only been fishing about three times, but he already loves it. It looks like I’m going to have to endure a few more fishing trips just to spend time with my little outdoors man. That’ll be alright though, I’ll pack plenty of snacks.wesfish

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The Mysterious Magnetism of the Railroad

“Now you probably think I’m a bad person, but there’s not a more satisfying sound than hitting an empty boxcar with a rock.”

There is something inside every young boy that is drawn to the railroad tracks. This attraction is only made stronger by the boundaries set by Mothers and the signs that read “No Trespassing Violators Will Be Prosecuted”. Growing up about 100 yards from the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks, neither my Mother’s warnings nor the mysterious signs deterred me from exploring the railroad tracks. Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. So anything you do on posted property is sweetened by the fact that you are not supposed to be there.

Some of my earliest memories of the railroad were rushing outside to see some of the last passenger trains pass by our house. My mom even took some pictures of those sleek silver trains. I also remember being petrified of the noise of the train at my great grandmother’s house. Her house was even closer to the railroad tracks than ours and also closer to a road crossing, which meant the train had to signal. I must have been two years old when the train came barreling by in front of the house blasting the whistle.  I was sitting on the front porch swing and I remember the noise of the whistle being painful. This was the only time that I remember being scared of a train. Somehow Grandmother’s train was meaner than ours.

I don’t ever remember being scared of the train at our house.  You kind of have to get used to the noise when you live so close to the rails. Our ancient house would shake whenever the train rolled by, and the Doppler Effect would cancel out any sound in the house so that it felt simultaneously loud and quiet, you could feel the compression of the air. We learned to suspend conversation as the train went by. The shaking was especially bad in the upstairs part of the house. We never really thought about how inconvenient this was, we had just learned to live with it. However, to a guest the train was quite disconcerting, especially in the middle of the night. My brother had a friend over that was awakened in a couple of ways by the midnight train. He thought with his whole heart that the rapture of the church was taking place as the train thundered by outside, sounding it’s trumpet and shaking every house on the street with fury and terror.

The railroad was my introduction to crime. Not only did I trespass, I destroyed government property by placing pennies on the track. Sometimes Honest Abe would look like a mule after he’d been stretched a good two inches and you were lucky enough to find your penny. This being an expensive hobby and too much like gambling since the odds were clearly in the trains favor, I quickly gave it up. I did not, however, give up on one of my first ventures into crime: Throwing rocks at trains. Now you probably think I’m a bad person, but there’s not a more satisfying sound than hitting an empty boxcar with a rock. I never felt comfortable throwing rocks at moving trains or tank cars. Even criminals have some morals.

The crime that we never really got over was trespassing, or as we called it, walking the tracks. One of our favorite haunts was an abandoned railroad steam platform by the creek about a mile North-West of my house. You had to slide down the steep embankment of the tracks right before the tracks crossed an old arched brick bridge. Directly under the bridge the bed of the creek was concrete and only about shin deep. The platform was about halfway up the embankment. If you were standing on the tracks it was about thirty five feet from the creek. The platform was made of concrete and had the remnant of a crane base which would hoist water to steam engines from the concrete box in the creek situated at the base of the concrete platform.finalfort.jpg Diesel Engines replaced steam long before my time, so this platform had been neglected for forty or so years and it was a veritable paradise for boys. We had a real fort shaded from the tracks with heavy foliage, a swimming and fishing hole, and the thrill of getting caught any moment. I remember falling headfirst from the platform into the concrete box once. It was winter and we were bundled up, perhaps I was a little clumsy from all the extra clothes. I was leaning over the edge of the platform to get a good look into the box, which was a good twelve feet down. It was interesting to watching the crystal clear water roll into the four feet square box and swirl. I lost my balance and fell headfirst, I must have hit my shoulder on the box and spun around because I landed flat of my back in the freezing water. It’s a miracle that I didn’t break my neck or anything else. I learned later that week that someone had been praying for me about the same time that I fell.

My friend and I had a brilliant idea of trying to ride our bicycles on the rail road. I do not recommend this. I also do not recommend modifying a go-cart so that it would sit on the rails.

We must have walked a hundred miles on those old railroad tracks, heading down to the platform to play, or on past it to the steel bridge where the water was deeper and the fishing was better, hiding in the brush if we heard a train coming. Most of the time in the sweltering heat. I can still see the heat waves rising up off the track and blurring the track like the reflection in the water after you throw in a rock. We spent hours on the track, seeing how long you could walk a rail, looking for stray rusty rail road spikes. I still have one on my bookshelf. Once we were going to try to collect railroad spikes and sell them for scrap metal. We got one five gallon bucket full and quit. Do you know how much a five gallon bucket full of rusty steel weighs? I also found a rusty hand held counter, probably dropped by some rail worker years ago. I used it to count cars after that, I still have it somewhere.

About a mile south of my childhood home the Norfolk Southern line crossed the CSX line. If you got on the CSX line at the crossing it was only two miles North East from the Coosa River. The Norfolk Southern line continues South and doesn’t cross the river for another six miles. From time to time we would walk to the river on the CSX to go fishing. We didn’t do that very often because six miles round trip is a long way to walk in order to fish for thirty minutes without a bite. We really weren’t going to fish, we were going to be going somewhere. Your feet get tired after walking on the railroad tracks for a mile or so. And none of us ever packed enough water either.

We would sometimes follow the creek through the woods to the river and then walk home on the CSX tracks. This way we wouldn’t have to backtrack the same way and the scenery would be different for the whole trip. Plus we had the added thrill of trespassing on Mr. Tom Bell’s land and not just the CSX and Norfolk Southern railway property. We had a red-haired friend named Chip that lived close to the crossing and he went with us once. Chip’s mom had a cell phone and he had talked her into letting him take it with us in case of emergency. We weren’t really worried about emergency, but it seemed more official to have a cell phone. In the late ’90s you might as well have said Chip had an airplane, since cell phones were still a relatively new novelty and expensive to operate. On the way back from the river we happened upon the carcass of a dog long since dead. If a dog ever gets in front of a train on the tracks it will try to outrun it instead of getting off the tracks. I’ve found more than one dead dog on the railroad. Ordinarily, we would have kept on trekking, because as I remember, it was late in the afternoon and the sun was scalding us and Chip’s fair skin was already burnt to a crisp. But this particular dead dog had a collar with a phone number on the tag. And we had a cell phone. This called for a council, so we sat down on the rails and began to deliberate. Was this warrant enough for us to use the cell phone? Wouldn’t you want to know what had happened to your beloved pet? We all decided that calling was the Christian thing to do. So Chip called. We all sat with rapt attention as Chip dialed the phone.

“It’s ringing.” Chip said. We all nodded gravely.

When the lady answered the phone Chip’s face lit up. The conversation went something like this.

“This is Chip. We found your dog on the railroad tracks. It’s dead. It’s been dead a looong time.”

There was a pause and then the lady said something.

“Just thought that you’d like to know.”

A shorter pause.

“Bye.”

This was one of my first lessons in diplomacy. Perhaps we could have elected a different spokesperson, but it was Chip’s cell phone. There’s the right thing to do and then there’s the right way to do it.

The track directly in front of my house was a double track and good bit of time there were empty boxcars parked on the side track. One of the coolest sounds you will ever hear is a mile long train taking off from a dead stop. There is slack in all of the couplings and when the train takes off the slack is let out one car at a time with a tremendous bang. The bang travels from car to car down the line. It’s an impressive musical piece that played heavily in the soundtrack of my childhood. With parked trains in front of my house more days than not, my curiosity soon overcame any fear I had of rail workers early on in life, and I must say that I’ve been in quite a few boxcars. One thing that you’ll notice about a boxcar when you get up close is how high they are off the ground. You can easily hunker down and walk under a boxcar. One thing your mom will notice after you’ve been playing in an empty boxcar is how filthy your clothes are.

As often as I played on the empty boxcars, I never was really tempted to ride a moving train. My Uncle Melvin once hopped on a slow moving train to save himself from having to walk so far to his hunting grounds. He told me, “It’s easy to get on when the train ain’t moving too fast, but you’ll be a couple a miles away in just a minute when it gets up to speed and It’s a little harder to get off when you’re going that fast. You don’t stop when you jump out, you just keep rolling and rolling.” Melvin was still laying on the ground in pain when my Dad, who did not jump on the train, finally walked to where Melvin had bailed off.

My friend Jared and I were walking to the platform one day when one of the rail riding pickup trucks crept up behind us. We had been caught.

“You boys know that you’re trespassing?” The driver asked.

“No.” We lied. I say we lied, but we never really thought that what we were doing was trespassing. We’d been playing on these tracks for years and sort of thought that we owned them. I always thought those signs were for bad guys and didn’t really apply to fun loving boys.

“You see how quietly we snuck up on you in this truck. We could have run over you. Y’all go on home and don’t let me catch you on these tracks again.”

We said yes sir and high tailed it back home.

From then on we took the service road out of town a few hundred feet to where the track wasn’t so visible from the main road, the grocery store, police department, town hall, and, well basically the whole town. This was the service road that the trucks used in order get onto the rails and it ran parallel to the tracks and was heavily shaded by trees which provided us plenty of cover. The service road took us right by the water tower. This water tower was probably built in the 1930’s and was the tallest structure in the town. It was painted a silvery grey and had a roof that covered the catwalk around the tank. This roof and the ten foot chain link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire gave the water tower a decidedly severe watchtower look. From time to time the tank would overflow and water would spill out of the tower. If this happened in the winter time there would be a frozen waterfall pouring out of the water tower.WaterTowerVin.jpg

One day a friend and I chanced to walk by the water tower on our way to the fort and noticed that a tree had fallen across the chain-link fence, which was too much for our curiosity. We decided it would be best to come back after dark and climb it rather than let the whole town see us climbing it in the middle of the day. On one of the four legs of the water tower there was a ladder that followed the angle of the leg all the way up to the tank where the ladder went from slanted to straight up to the platform. Now when you’ve been climbing a ladder in the dark for about a hundred feet it starts to feel like you’re climbing straight up, no matter what the angle, and by the time you get to the part of the ladder that is straight up, you feel like you start to climb backwards. I clung to the dew wet ladder at the point where the angle changed, looking up at the rusty platform, looking down into the darkness below, and then around me for miles. The bright moon lit up the quaint little town and I could see for miles. I was waiting for the last little bit of courage I needed to climb that last ten feet straight up to the catwalk. It never came. I hope that you’re not disappointed, but I would like to remind you that this is a story about rail roads and not water towers and if you have a better water tower story I would love to hear it.

I think one of the things that drew us to the rail road so much was that it was an escape. Not that we had bad families, or terrible lives, or even hated the town, all of which would make for great fiction writing. We just wanted to go, and the railroad took us. At my boring adult job my office window faces the railroad tracks. Whenever things get a bit dull I look out at the railroad track for inspiration. I’ve always wondered how far those tracks would take you, if you wanted to go.

Ghost Stories

“The true mark of success in ghost story telling is if someone’s mom has to come pick them up from a sleepover in the middle of the night.”

I’ve heard a good many ghost stories in my life, some of which kept me up all night. If you’re interested I’ll give you the tried and true formula for telling the perfect ghost story. This works 100% of the time, if you’re in the third grade. Once you know the formula, you can take turns making up ghost stories on the spot with your friends the next time you have someone “spending the night” with you. If you’re a grown up it’s probably too late since you lost most of your imagination somewhere before you started caring about the opposite sex and after you realized that using deodorant and brushing your teeth might not just be for the weekends.

Rule number one for telling a good ghost story is establishing when the story happened. You don’t want your audience to be so worried about when the story might have taken place that they miss major plot developments.  For a solid opening, I like to use “Once upon a time.” After vaguely establishing the time, it’s good to pause for a dramatic effect before coming in more intensely with where the story might have happened. I usually go for “In the deep dark woods.” I’m getting scared just writing this right now. Now that we’ve created the perfect spooky setting your audience should be sufficiently hooked and want to hear the rest of your story, now it’s time to real them in with the details. For our next line we need to establish who or what the story is about. A ghost story is only as good as it’s villain. You might try a line like “There lived a man.” You might even throw an adjective in for good measure, “There lived an old man.” The more time you spend on describing the villain the better your villain will be, but don’t spend too time with details, you want to make them wonder. We’ll give him long bushy eyebrows, a lazy eye and bad leg that causes him to limp. Now would be a good time to practice your onomatopoeia as you describe the sound made when he walked across the dirty floor in his decaying cabin. For extra credit you can describe how he received the bad leg, “In a gunfight”, or “on the railroad”, are always good choices if you get stumped. Our next step requires action, what did the old man do? Did he collect toenails, kidnap dogs and cut off their ears, or just knock on doors and run away? Whatever he did, it needs to be something that relates to all of your audience. We’ll go with “Turned off the lights whenever you went to the bathroom.” Now you can wrap up your story with, “And if you’ve ever been in the bathroom and the lights go out, you’ll know it was the old man!” Maybe throw in a little scream at the end for good measure. It helps if later during the sleepover you can cut off the lights while someone is going to the restroom.

It seems humorous writing about it as an adult, but I remember being genuinely scared of improvised ghost stories, even if I was the one telling them. It’s good to know when to stop telling ghost stories and go to bed so you won’t be too scared to sleep. My rule of thumb is to stop whenever I start getting scared at my own story telling. The true mark of success in ghost story telling is if someone’s mom has to come pick them up from a sleepover in the middle of the night.

I remember being quite upset by a ghost story on the 5th grade field trip to a camp in North Alabama. The camp counselor told us that the cabins we were sleeping in were built on Indian Burial mounds that had to be excavated before they were able to start building the campgrounds. During this excavation they found a skeleton that was missing a hand. No one knows for sure, but they think that this hand was lost during initial excavation when they discovered the burial mounds. The counselor told us that every once in a while they saw a skeleton hand, supposedly searching for the missing body. Every time that they had seen the hand they had also heard the Chickasaw Death Whisper. The counselor had been gradually lowering his voice and we were on the edge of our seat with anticipation. He said, “This is how the Chickasaw Death Whisper goes,” and after a slight pause he yelled at the top of his lungs.

A little unconventional, I know, because he deviated from the usual ghost story formula, but I was so scared that night that I eventually got in the bunk with my friend and I didn’t care what anybody said. Perhaps my imagination was a little over active from not having a television in our home. Many of the other students laughed harder than they had screamed once they got over their initial fright. Feel free to tell this one some place I’ve never been.

I remember telling ghost stories with our neighbors, Jared and Creed numerous times. Jared and Creed had a popup camper that they would take on vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains. I know they went to the Great Smoky Mountains because while they were gone I fed their Blue Tick hounds and I still have a pack of Great Smoky Mountain playing cards that Jared brought back as a thank you gesture. I’m sure Mr. McDaniel appreciated the break from his shift work for Alabama Power at the Logan Martin Dam. There was a leak in the dam and his job was to pump concrete into the hole. He’d been pumping concrete for about 30 years. Whenever they got ready to go on vacation, they would air out the popup camper in the basement and this was the perfect place to tell ghost stories. We all four piled into the camper and began the time honored swapping of improvised ghost stories. Zach told one and we all laughed, he was always to jolly of a story teller to be all that scary. Creed told one and it must have been pretty scary, because Jared moved to the back of the camper where Creed and Zach were, leaving me in the front. Now it was Jared’s turn to tell a story. I think he was still doing character development on his villain when I decided that it would be a little safer on the other side of the camper with the other three boys. As I crossed over to the other side the trailer tipped swiftly backwards and the tongue banged against the ceiling of the basement right beneath the living room where Mr. McDaniel was trying to catch up on his sleep in the recliner. Mr. McDaniel was jarred awake by the commotion in the basement and stormed downstairs. We were more afraid of Mr. McDaniel than any ghost story villain our imaginations could drum up, mainly because Mr. McDaniel was real, and at the moment, he was “real mad”. He looked at each of us in turn as we were piling out of the camper, then he said to Zach and Me, “Boys, it might be a good time for y’all to go on home.” We quickly obliged him. I hope his vacation brought his blood pressure down.

In the rural community that I grew up in legends were still very much alive. These legends spawned grown up ghost stories that were terrifying to children. What’s even scarier than that is that many adults still whole heartedly believed that they were true. One example that comes to mind was the legend of The White Thang. I’m sure I should spell it “Thing”, but that isn’t how I heard it spoken. The White Thang was a fantastic white creature that lived on the mountain and terrorized the community. Sort of. No one ever fully saw the White Thang, they just described it as a flash of white. What people were able to describe in detail was the ear splitting noise that the creature made. Some said is sounded like a woman screaming, or a panther. It was taken so seriously by the community that I remember it making the newspaper at least three times in my life. There isn’t much to tell, maybe that’s why it was so widely believed and what makes it so scary, the fear of the unknown. All of the stories about the White Thang were pretty similar. Someone was on the mountain hunting and they heard a scream like a woman and saw a flash of white, or someone was fetching wood late at night and heard a wild screech and saw a flash of white. It may have been an albino panther or mountain lion. There was never enough moon light for anyone to get a good glimpse of the creature. More likely there was too much moonshine. Whatever it was, many people of Sterrett, Alabama swore up and down that it was real and they had heard it and seen it, or at least a credible relative you had seen it. The White Thang might be more believable than some people’s credible relatives.

I haven’t told or heard a good ghost story since the last time I went camping as a teenager. I think I finally realized that I don’t like being frightened. These days I shy away from ghost stories in general because real life is scary enough.

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Hauling Hay, My Introduction to Work

“I haven’t found many things more disconcerting than picking up a bale of hay only to feel a snake crawl down your leg.”

The first job I ever had was Hauling Hay with Pop, my paternal grandfather. We called him Pop, but everyone else called him Slim. Or Slee-um, as we were in rural Alabama. Hardly anyone knew him by his real name, Dan Theo Wells. He was tough and strong, and I never heard anyone say a bad word about him, and if they did they would have been lying. I don’t remember exactly when I started working in the hay field with Pop, but I think it was sometime around the 1st or 2nd grade. I earned $5.00 per hour driving the manual transmission truck since I was not big enough to pick up a bale of hay.

Hauling hay, for those not familiar with this worthy vocation, involves a tractor with three or four different attachments, the cutter, the rake and the baler, and a truck and trailer to gather the finished product. You usually let the hay grow about a foot and a half then wait for a dry day and you cut it with the cutter, which is similar to a lawnmower but causes the hay to lay flat instead of being strewn all over the field. Then you allow the hay to dry for about a day before you rake it into windrows. If the hay isn’t sufficiently dried, you’ll need a fourth tractor attachment called a fluffer.  The final step before you can load hay on the truck and trailer involves running the baler along the windrow where it compacts the hay into a square bundle about 18”x 36” and binds it with two strands of baling twine. Square bales of hay can weigh anywhere from 40-75 lbs depending on what type of hay, how wet, or how many fire ant beds are in it. Fire ants have a peculiar strategy of holding their fire until they have enough troops on the ground for an entire regiment to fire a volley. You learn to notice if you feel anything crawling on you before they have a chance to take aim. You also learn to kick hay over before you pick it up to carry it to the truck. Other animals can take to the refuge of a square bale in the field or barn, field mice, rabbits, and worst of all, snakes. I haven’t found many things more disconcerting than picking up a bale of hay only to feel a snake crawl down your leg.

As I got older I graduated from the air conditioned cab of the truck to the position of stacker. I would stand on the trailer or truck and stack each bale of hay in an alternating pattern five bales high, so in the end the stack would have 20 bales each. Then I would tie down each stack with a rope so they wouldn’t fall over on the high. If you’ve ever had to restack a load of hay because someone stacked it poorly in the beginning then you will know how important the job of stacker is. And if you’ve ever stood 20 feet high in a barn in an Alabama August with dust flying as your big brother throws bale after bale of hay up for you to stack you will know how uncomfortable the job of stacker is.

Once I moved up to stacker, Pop would have Henry McGloughlin drive. I don’t know how old Henry was, but I remember going to his funeral once I was in High School. Henry wore overalls, had the same glasses since 1978, and chewed tobacco. The tobacco juice ran out both sides of his mouth, which made it a little awkward if you lost your Styrofoam cup at the community water keg, you didn’t want to have to drink after Big Henry.  Henry also had an allergy to deodorant, I think, so you didn’t want to have to ride in the middle of the truck when Henry was driving either.

One of the nice things about being the stacker was you didn’t have to walk on the uneven ground.  You could just ride on the trailer as the truck pulled you across the rough hayfields. Eventually, I gained enough strength and height to walk alongside the moving truck, picking up the bales and stacking them from the ground, only getting on the trailer to straighten and firm up the loose bales. My brother was so strong that once he threw a bale clean over the loaded trailer and onto my head on the other side of the truck, knocking me down.

We not only would load the hay in the field and unload it in the barn, we also delivered hay, which meant we loaded it our barn, or chicken house, and unloaded it in someone else’s barn. Pop was not just feeding his cattle, he was running a hay business. We delivered to people with cows, people with horses, people with all manner of livestock, construction companies, and even the county for building roads. What this meant was early mornings loading the trailer while the barn was cool and then a long drive to our delivery location. Pop was not much of a talker and we hardly listened to the radio when on these long trips. It was not an awkward silence, I think Pop was enjoying spending time with his grandsons, and I cherish the memories of those long truck rides with him.

Sometimes we would spend the night with Pop so to get an early start before the sun came up, beating the Alabama heat as best as we could. This often meant eating a bowl of cereal at Pop’s or on special occasions, going to a restaurant and getting a biscuit.

We had some cousins that would occasionally work with us, but never on a consistent basis. Pop said they “was a different breed”. What I think he meant was they were lazy, and wild. They had not enough of the strong work ethic that Pop was so steadily instilling in us. I remember the last time that they worked for us, one of them hit me in the head with a rock. I told Pop and I never worked with those particular cousins again. One of them turned out just like Pop said he would, “Sorry.” He said it like it tasted bad in his mouth.

I had another cousin that was a chronic complainer and hated working in the hayfield. One day my Dad said to him, “You are Slim Wells’ grandson, this is not just what you do, it’s who you are. You don’t just haul the hay, you are in the hay business. It’s who we are, get over it.”

In all of the years of working with Pop, whether we were delivering a load of hay or planting potatoes, quitting was never an option. Even if we were doing something as uncomfortable as castrating bulls, leaving the job never crossed my mind. I’m thankful for the work ethic that I gathered from Pop. Pop also helped build my confidence.  He never made me think that I couldn’t do something, he just told me to do it. I also thought he was the strongest person I had ever met.  I believe that he got a much needed confidence boost when he was drafted into the Army.

Pop was also a champion of education and was so proud of my brother Zach and me when we graduated high school and went to college. I often wonder how different he would have been if he didn’t have to drop out of school in order to help make ends meet around the house. Pop was extremely mechanically inclined and could fix just about anything. Perhaps he would have been an engineer. One thing he was not was a patient teacher, but he “learned” me a lot of things in his own way.

The older I got the more I could anticipate what Pop was trying to say. Perhaps it was from years of trying to decipher his hand signals while backing the truck, or from his tractor across the field. He didn’t say it much but he told me I love you in a lot of different ways, from getting me jobs, to creating work so that I could have some spending money when I went to college.

The only real regret that I have from working with Pop is the one time I refused to retrieve the truck from about half a mile away. It wasn’t so much the distance, but the difficult truck. The White Truck as we called it, an ancient F-150 that had a tricky transmission. The fact that it was a standard made no difference as that was all I knew how to drive until I was about 13 and we loaded a customer’s truck in the field. I hopped in the cab to pull the truck up and didn’t know how to stop it sense there was no clutch. The deal with the White Truck was that I could never get it started, I always dumped the clutch, and it was embarrassing. On this day, we had just finished loading the trailer and needed to go get the White Truck for some reason, I don’t rightly remember. At any rate, I told Pop that I didn’t want to go get the truck, and he got up and went to get it himself.

It wasn’t very long after that event that I was riding in the middle seat of the truck with Pop driving and Zach in the passenger seat, we were delivering a load of hay. I noticed that Pop’s right hand was shaking as he had firm grip on the steering wheel. I didn’t say anything about it, but a few weeks later Pop let us know that he had been to the doctor and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. From that day on I noticed a gradual decline in Pop’s range of motion and his face became more and more grave.

After I was grown I chanced to watch some old VHS tapes of Pop leading me around on one of his mules. I must have been about two years old in the video and Pop was as fit and peppy as I ever remembered him in the hayfield. It wasn’t for nothing that they called him Slim, he was around 6’1” and lean but muscular. In this video Pop was beaming with joy, you could tell that he was showing off his grandchildren. It’s hard to believe that he is the same man since Parkinson’s has taken a toll on him.

Now that I’m grown and work a sedentary office job, I often reminisce about working with Pop. I’m glad that he taught me about work and I hope that I am able to instill a work ethic into my children, although they may not have the opportunity to work on a farm. Work is more enjoyable when you love the people that you are working with. I remember one Sunday morning around 6:00am Pop, Dad, Zach and I were about to unload around 1,000 bales of hay before church for Mr. Terry LaDuke, the local blacksmith. Zach and I were still wiping the sleep out of our eyes and quietly grumbling about having to work on the Lord’s Day, although, I don’t remember us grumbling much while hunting after church on the Lord’s Day. Mr. LaDuke said in sarcastic manner, “Boys, this is quality time.” And it was.

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